U.S. Ambassador: Libya a 'Crossroads' for Terrorists, Weapons

By Susan Jones | July 29, 2014 | 9:17 AM EDT

Black smoke billows over the skyline as an airport oil depot burns out of control after being struck in the crossfire of warring militias battling for control of the airfield, in Tripoli, Libya Monday, July 28, 2014. (AP Photo/Mohammed Ben Khalifa)

(CNSNews.com) - Libya has "five world heritage sites...it has amazing weather, it has fantastic fish, you know, it's got so much to offer," U.S. Ambassador Deborah Kay Jones told a gathering in Washington two months ago.

But the reason it matters so much to the United States is "its potential for becoming a hotbed or a nest" of extremist groups.

Jones said Libya's location, along with its weak government and lack of border security, makes it possible for terrorist organizations to use Libya "as a kind of crossroads."

Syria's proximity is "problematic," because of "what goes back and forth." Jones told the Stimson Center in Washington that there are a number of Libyans who have been fighting in Syria and are now returning home.

And what happens in Egypt, which shares a long border with Syria and is home to a million Libyans,  has both a political and economic impact, Jones said.

"If the elements within Egypt feel compelled to leave and join kind of a lawless environment in Libya, that's a potentially toxic mix as well." Those "elements"  include the Muslim Brotherhood.

Another concern for the United States is the fact that Libya is "so full of arms."

"We're not talking about Glocks or BB guns, we're talking about, you know, RPGs and grads and (14.5mm) anti-aircraft artillery pieces, to a lesser extent man-pads, but those things are still there."

U.S. and European efforts to create a functioning nation in post-Gaddafi Libya have collapsed for the moment, but -- speaking in May -- Jones said it's not for lack of attention:

"In the three years following the revolution, contrary to a lot of popular perceptions, people did not abandon Libya -- if anything, sometimes Libya was overwhelmed with proposals for border security...but also for civil society, for governance, for rule-of-law projects, all kinds of things, a lot of things on the security side," Jone said.

"But it can be overwhelming. We provided all of this institutional scaffolding -- you know, this high to a building that was this big -- and that tends to crush the building. And so we've been trying to moderate that and adjust that and focus on what it is the Libyans can...receive. Getting a hug from the U.S. is not always a comfortable hug."

Jones said that Libya has had "a lot of attention from Washington," maybe too much, in fact: "We're a whole lot of love on this side of the Atlantic, and when all that love comes crashing down at the same time, it can really be too much, too soon, in the wrong places -- not intentionally...."

"There are probably more people in this room today than there are empowered, capable people in the Libyan government able to absorb the support that we're giving them...and that's the reality."

More than three years after United States military intervention helped topple dictator Moammar Gaddafi, Libya is engulfed in violence as rival militias battle for control.

On Saturday, the State Department evacuated the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli because of fighting at the nearby international airport. Ambassador Jones is now working from Malta.