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Qaddafi's Fall Could Provide Opening in Libya for Al Qaeda Affiliate

With a potential power vacuum looming in Libya, experts are watching a key Islamic terrorist group in the region for signs that its members will try to fill the void.

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb – Maghreb is the Arabic name for northwest Africa – was designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department in May 2010. A propaganda video, released last year by the group, shows its member doing weapons training.

From its base in Algeria, the group's reach now extends to the borders of Mauritania, Niger, Mali and Chad -- and Libya, where Col. Muammar Qaddafi has not only provided the U.S. with intelligence on the terrorists' operations but publicly spoken out against them.

In a video statement obtained by the Middle East Media Research Institute, Qaddafi slams the members of the group, also known as AQIM, as bad Muslims.

“The security forces found a mosque in al-Zawiya,” Qaddafi says. “In a mosque! Weapons, alcohol, and their corpses – all mixed up together.”

With Qaddafi in hiding and potentially soon be out of the picture, the question is whether southern Libya will become a magnet for jihadist groups.

Cully Stimson, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense who is now a fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said the Al Qaeda affiliate may turn out to be an adaptive enemy.

“AQIM has found their niche. They are going to exploit that to the degree they can,” Stimson said.

When the group pledged allegiance to the Al Qaeda leadership in Pakistan, the group promised to go global, by launching attacks in Spain, France and the United States. U.S. officials confirmed to Fox News in the fall of 2010 that Europe’s heightened threat level at the time was due, in part, to intelligence that the group might send female suicide bombers to France.

“They have the ability in the strategic interest in moving and being adaptable,” Stimson said. “One of the most high-profile cases was a British hostage Edwin Dyer, who was murdered after lengthy negotiations for his release stalled.”

At the State Department, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, Gene Cretz characterized Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb this way: “It’s clear that AQIM is a danger to the region,” adding that Qaddafi maybe overplaying the threat for selfish reasons.

“It's clearly a card that he thinks he might be able to get some benefit of. It's patently ridiculous,” Cretz said. “But do we have concerns about AQIM? Certainly, we do.”

This week, one of Al Qaeda's most important religious scholars, Abu Yahya Al-Liby, who is believed to be hiding in Pakistan, released a statement supporting the overthrow of Qaddafi. The question for counterterrorism experts is whether that will make it easier for Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb to get a foothold in northwest Africa.

Catherine Herridge is an award-winning Chief Intelligence correspondent for FOX News Channel (FNC) based in Washington, D.C. She covers intelligence, the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security. Herridge joined FNC in 1996 as a London-based correspondent.