Islamist militias in Libya took control of nearly a dozen commercial jetliners last month, and western intelligence agencies recently issued a warning that the jets could be used in terrorist attacks across North Africa.
Intelligence reports of the stolen jetliners were distributed within the U.S. government over the past two weeks and included a warning that one or more of the aircraft could be used in an attack later this month on the date marking the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks against New York and Washington, said U.S. officials familiar with the reports.
“There are a number of commercial airliners in Libya that are missing,” said one official. “We found out on September 11 what can happen with hijacked planes.”
The official said the aircraft are a serious counterterrorism concern because reports of terrorist control over the Libyan airliners come three weeks before the 13th anniversary of 9/11 attacks and the second anniversary of the Libyan terrorist attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi.
Four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens, were killed in the Benghazi attack, which the Obama administration initially said was the result of a spontaneous demonstration against an anti-Muslim video.
A senior State Department counterterrorism official declined to comment on reports of the stolen jetliners.
A second State department official sought to downplay the reports. “We can’t confirm that,” he said.
Meanwhile, officials said Egyptian military forces appear to be preparing to intervene in Libya to prevent the country from becoming a failed state run by terrorists, many with ties to al Qaeda.
Libya remains an oil-rich state and if the country is taken over completely by Islamist extremists, U.S. counterterrorism officials believe it will become another terrorist safe haven in the region.
The officials said U.S. intelligence agencies have not confirmed the aircraft theft following the takeover of Tripoli International Airport in late August, and are attempting to locate all aircraft owned by two Libyan state-owned airline companies, as security in the country continued to deteriorate amid fighting between Islamists and anti-Islamist militias.
Video surfaced on Sunday showing armed fighters from the Islamist militia group Libyan Dawn partying inside a captured U.S. diplomatic compound in Tripoli. The footage showed one fighter diving into a pool from a second-story balcony at the facility.
Tripoli airport and at least seven aircraft were reported damaged during fighting that began in July. Photos of the airport in the aftermath showed a number of damaged aircraft. The airport has been closed since mid-July.
The state-owned Libyan Airlines fleet until this summer included 14 passenger and cargo jetliners, including seven Airbus 320s, one Airbus 330, two French ATR-42 turboprop aircraft, and four Bombardier CJR-900s. Libyan state-owned Afriqiyah Airways fleet is made up of 13 aircraft, including three Airbus 319s, seven Airbus 320s, two Airbus 330s, and one Airbus 340.
The aircraft were reportedly taken in late August following the takeover of Tripoli International Airport, located about 20 miles south of the capital, by Libyan Dawn.
Al Jazeera television reported in late August that western intelligence reports had warned of terror threats to the region from 11 stolen commercial jets.
In response, Tunisia stopped flights from other Libyan airports at Tripoli, Sirte, and Misrata over concerns that jets from those airports could be on suicide missions.
Egypt’s government also halted flights to and from Libya.
Military forces in North Africa, including those from Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Egypt have been placed on heightened alert as a result of intelligence warning of the stolen aircraft.
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