N Africa could emerge as new theatre of jihad: Report

London: North Africa could emerge as a new "theatre of jihad" with the handful of remaining top al-Qaeda leaders shifting their base from Pakistan and Afghanistan to countries like Libya, top British officials have warned. "At least two relatively senior al-Qaeda figures have already made their way to Libya, with others intercepted en route, raising fears that north Africa could become a new `theatre of jihad` in coming months," The Guardian quoted senior officials as saying.

 "A group of very experienced figures from north Africa left camps in Afghanistan`s (north-eastern) Kunar province where they have been based for several years and travelled back across the Middle East," one source said. "Some got stopped but a few got through."

The move to shift the base to Africa came after killing of senior al-Qaeda members in an intense campaign of air strikes involving missiles launched from unmanned drones in Pakistan and Afghanistan, an official said.

 Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden was killed in a US Special Forces raid in May in Pakistan`s Abbottabad. Since then, many other high ranking leaders of the group have also been killed. The paper said that senior British officials believe that a "last push" in 2012 is likely to definitively destroy al-Qaeda`s remaining "handful of the key players".

"It is unclear whether the moves from west Asia to north Africa are prompted by a desire for greater security… or part of a strategic attempt to exploit the aftermath of the Arab spring," the paper said, adding the move could be an effort to shift the centre of gravity of al-Qaeda`s effort back to the homelands of the vast majority of its members.

British foreign secretary William Hague recently warned that mercenaries driven out of Libya could switch allegiance to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

In a recent communique, Zawahiri made a particular appeal to Libyan fighters not to lay down or hand in their weapons. British and US intelligence sources estimate that there are less than 100 "al-Qaeda or al-Qaeda-affiliated" militants in Afghanistan, of whom only "a handful" were seen to pose a threat to the UK or other western nations, the paper said.

Officials dealing with Afghanistan and Pakistan say they see al-Qaeda`s activity as "effectively marginal" to events there. Instead, local networks, such as that run by the Haqqani family in the semi-autonomous tribal agency of North Waziristan on the Afghan-Pakistan border, are deemed more important, the paper said.

Repeated efforts to push the Pakistani authorities to take military action against the Haqqanis have been rebuffed. "Western and international officials said senior Pakistani military officers insisted they needed the Haqqani network, which has not attacked Pakistani targets though it has repeatedly struck Nato and other western targets in Afghanistan, to keep militant groups that make up the Pakistani Taliban network `under control`," the paper said.

It quoted an official as saying that there was evidence the Haqqani family had been acting as intermediaries between the Pakistani secret services and militant groups and described the Pakistani position as "understandable". Though the hunt for new al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri, the veteran Egyptian militant strategist, is a top priority, western officials say there is equal emphasis on eliminating those immediately below him in the now somewhat chaotic hierarchy.

These include Saif al-Adel, an experienced operator who may have returned to Pakistan, and Abu Yahya al-Libi, a Libyan in his mid-40s who escaped from a US prison in Afghanistan and has featured in propaganda videos.