MADRID — Sophisticated Libyan army weapons are being trafficked and possibly sold to al-Qaida's affiliate in North Africa, giving the group the potential to increase instability in a key part of the continent, Spain's interior minister said Thursday.
Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba said al-Qaida of the Islamic Maghreb, or AQMI, is a growing menace that could conceivably spread outside its natural homeground of the Sahel region of Africa unless Western countries step up efforts to counter it.
He briefed reporters during a break in a meeting with colleagues from five other EU countries and U.S. Homeland Security Director Janet Napolitano.
The countries agreed among other things to set up a permanent coordination mechanism for their countries' liaison people in the Sahel region — the vast, bone-dry stretch of land just below sub-Saharan Africa that includes countries such as Mauritania, Niger, Mali and Chad.
They also agreed to reach out to the African Union to step up joint counterterrorism efforts, Perez Rubalcaba said.
Perez Rubalcaba said fairly sophisticated weapons from Libyan army forces fighting to keep Moammar Gadhafi in power as rebel forces try to oust him are being sold by traffickers at Libya's southern border and possibly ending up in the hands of AQMI.
"The Libyan crisis is having an influence on AQMI," he said. "One that we find particularly negative is the possible appearance of arms from the Libyan army, or what remains of it, in the hands of terrorists."
The Libyan civil war is giving AQMI potential to increase its influence in the Sahel region, where it is active after having first surfaced in Algeria.
"Organized crime would probably grow because it is clear they are linked, and risks for Europe and the United States would grow," Perez Rubalcaba said.
Besides Rubalcaba and Napolitano, the meeting was attended by representatives of Italy, Germany, France, Britain and Poland.
Napolitano stressed the need to step up security against terrorists targeting the transport of goods across the world.
"The global supply chain security issue is one of our priorities," Napolitano told The AP in an interview.
"We had been working on this before last October but when AQAP — al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula — had hidden bombs in two toner cartridges that were put in air cargo it illustrated that they were willing to try to blow up a plane, be it a passenger plane or a cargo plane. So we accelerated our efforts in this regard."
Napolitano said material confiscated at the compound where Osama bin Laden had been living in Pakistan — and killed in a U.S. raid in early May — confirmed Washington was on the right track, adding that the material mentioned surface transportation as a target for attack.
She said the U.S. government was in contact with domestic and international air, land and sea transport institutions to see how best to minimize this threat.
"There's much that can be done," she said. "The movement of cargo around the world supplies the international economy and you have got to make sure that there is security in that movement because jobs depend on it, manufacturing depends on it."
Daniel Woolls contributed to this report.