DUBAI Al Qaeda's second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahri said a Libyan Islamist group had joined the militant organization and he urged mujahideen in North Africa to topple the leaders of Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.
"Honorable members of the Fighting Islamic Group in Libya announce that they are joining the al Qaeda group to continue the march of their brothers," Zawahri said in a recording posted on the Internet on Saturday.
The Libyan group would be the second militant organization to join al Qaeda this year after Algeria's armed GSPC said in January it had won approval from Osama bin Laden to rename itself Al Qaeda Organisation in the Islamic Maghreb.
The Algerian-based network has claimed responsibility for a series of recent suicide attacks. Bombs in Morocco and gunfights in Tunisia also raised fears al Qaeda may be expanding in north African Maghreb states, potential launch pads for attacks on European targets.
"Your good sons are gathering (in the Maghreb) under Islam and jihad's banner against America, France, Spain and their people ... O nation of jihad, support your sons so that we defeat our enemies and rid our homeland of their slaves," said Zawahri, naming leaders of Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.
The Fighting Islamic Group first announced its presence in 1995, vowing to overthrow Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and launching a violent campaign in the OPEC oil exporting nation.
Security analysts say it is a loose organization that has many followers in Western countries, especially Britain. But it split last year after some members renounced violence in exchange for a government amnesty.
ENEMY OF ISLAM
Zawahri described Gaddafi as an enemy of Islam who was abandoning his "weapons and equipment to ... crusader masters".
He was referring to Libya's promise in 2003 to give up nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and accept responsibility for bombing aircraft over Scotland and Niger in 1988 and 1989. The moved ended years of Libyan isolation.
In the tape, which carried the date of the lunar month that began in mid-October, Zawahri presented another speaker whom he identified as Abu al-Laith and who resembled Abu Laith al-Libi, a Libyan al Qaeda leader believed to be in Afghanistan.
"We announce we are joining al Qaeda as loyal soldiers," Abu al-Laith said. "The tyrant of Libya is pushing the country into a new quagmire," he added. "He suddenly discovered ... that America the guardian of the cross is not an enemy."
He urged Libyans to "prepare for a new round of the battles of Islam," and to target Gaddafi's loyalists, "the Americans and their brothers, the infidel of the West".
Analysts say a hard core of the Fighting Islamic Group based around Benghazi in eastern Libya remains active, thanks partly to the protection of tribal leaders, but the government has kept the area under tight control.
Group members have also been found among insurgents fighting U.S.-led forces in Iraq and some may have already joined the Algeria-based wing of al Qaeda, said Anne Giudicelli of Paris-based consultancy Terrorisc.
"The don't seem to represent much in terms of local membership and activity but through those actions abroad they tried to reappear," she said. "To give them more allure it seems they want to do like the Algerian GSPC and get official recognition from the head of the (al Qaeda) movement."
The 28-minute recording, posted on Islamist Web sites, had still pictures of the two militant leaders and a video showing Islamist militant training on fire arms in a hilly desert area.
(Additional reporting by Tom Pfeiffer in Rabat)