A leading member of an al Qaeda-affiliated terror group indicated the organization may have acquired some of the thousands of powerful weapons that went missing in the chaos of the Libyan uprising, stoking long-held fears of Western officials.
"We have been one of the main beneficiaries of the revolutions in the Arab world," Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a leader of the north Africa-based al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb [AQIM], told the Mauritanian news agency ANI Wednesday. "As for our benefiting from the [Libyan] weapons, this is a natural thing in these kinds of circumstances."
The claim comes just days after the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution calling on Libya and its neighbors to secure the loose weapons -- including some 20,000 man-portable surface-to-air missiles -- before they could fall into the hands of terrorists. The resolution specifically mentioned AQIM as a dangerous potential beneficiary.
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 AQIM's claim and, while they've been unable to confirm any weapons have made their way into the terror group's hands, the possibility is "obviously of great concern."
"We know al Qaeda has been long in pursuit of shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles," the official said. "This is a threat to which we're paying close attention."
Since the fall of Tripoli in late August, multiple weapons depots with stockpiles of heat seeking surface-to-air missiles, heavy machine guns and ammunition have been discovered unguarded by journalists and NGOs. Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch first warned about the problem after a trip to Libya earlier this year and shot a video featuring a huge cache of unguarded weapons last month.
"I myself could have removed several hundred [missiles] if I wanted to, and people can literally drive up with pickup trucks or even 18 wheelers and take away whatever they want," said Bouckaert, HRW's emergencies director. "Every time I arrive at one of these weapons facilities, the first thing we notice going missing is the surface-to-air missiles."
Assistant Secretary of State Andrew Shapiro told ABC News last month there was "obviously" a race on to secure the weapons before terrorists get their hands on them and that the U.S. planned to have 50 teams of weapons specialists on the ground in Libya to do just that. That deployment is ongoing, a State Department official said today.
"Matching up a terrorist with a shoulder-fired missile, that's our worst nightmare," Sen. Barbara Boxer, D.-California, a member of the Senate's Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said in September. The surface-to-air missiles represent a grave danger to civilian commercial aircraft, U.S. officials said.
While the U.S. may be expanding its search in Libya, there have already been reports of neighboring countries in all directions intercepting the smuggled Libyan weapons.