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Algeria Hostage Crisis: The Libya Connection

Hemera/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- The terrorist leader who claimed to have mounted the deadly raid on an Algerian gas plant in the name of al Qaeda is the same one-eyed jihadist who once bragged his fighters “benefit” from the loose weapons streaming out of Libya, despite U.S. and international efforts to stem the flow.

“We have been one of the main beneficiaries of the revolutions in the Arab world,” Mokhtar Belmokhtar, then a leader of the north Africa-based al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), told the Mauritanian news agency ANI in November 2011. “As for our benefitting from the [Libyan] weapons, this is a natural thing in these kinds of circumstances.”

Belmokhtar split with AQIM last year, but in addition to his public identification with al Qaeda last week during the crisis, his breakaway group, the “Signers With Blood Brigade,” reportedly remains affiliated with the terror organization.

Several major Algerian news outlets, including the state-run Numidia News, reported that the militants crossed into Algeria from the Libyan border just 50 miles to the east, drove vehicles with Libyan license plates and dressed in Libyan military uniforms to attack the BP joint venture facility outside In Amenas, Algeria. They were reportedly armed with small arms, rocket-propelled grenades and several bombs.

By the time the Algerian military forced a bloody end to the four-day terrorist operation Saturday, 29 terrorists and 37 civilian hostages were dead, including three Americans, according to Algerian and U.S. officials.

Ever since the fall of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi in February 2011, the U.S. and its allies have been scrambling to round up thousands of small arms and man-portable anti-aircraft missiles that were believed to have been looted from military stores during the revolution there. Days before Belmokhtar made his claim in 2011, the United Nations unanimously adopted a resolution calling on Libya and its neighbors to secure the weapons.

At the time, an official with the State Department, which has been at the head of the hunt for loose Libyan weapons for the U.S., told ABC News the department was aware of Belmokhtar’s claim and, while they were unable to confirm any weapons had made their way to the terror group’s hands, said it was “obviously of great concern.”

Glen Doherty, one of the three Americans killed alongside U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens in the Sept. 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, was on the front lines of the mission to stop the gunrunning. He told ABC News a month before his death that he was on one of the American teams that went out into the field to destroy loose Libyan rockets.

But despite Doherty’s efforts and the ongoing work of his colleagues, the Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), told ABC News Sunday that the U.S. didn’t react quickly enough to stop the arms from seeping through Libya’s porous borders.

“Remember when Gadhafi fell, all of those arms rooms, all of those weapons caches, while we were debating… walked out the back door, fueled the insurgency and the extremist groups, including al Qaeda affiliates to feel emboldened…” he said. “So now they’re well armed. You have battle-hardened fighters from Libya. It really is naive to believe this isn’t getting worse.”

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio

ABC News Radio