A 'Vacuum' In Libya: An Opening For Al-Qaida?

Counterterrorism officials are watching events in Libya with particular attention. Their concern: Al-Qaida has long-standing ties with Libyan extremists that could give the group a toehold there.

The North African wing of al-Qaida wasted little time in picking sides: It is championing the protesters. On Thursday the group released a statement saying it would "do whatever we can to help" protesters overthrow Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi.

Counterterrorism experts say they weren't surprised. They have been bracing for al-Qaida to weigh in.

"I think Libya presents to al-Qaida one of the best opportunities to reinvigorate itself and its message in the Middle East and especially in North Africa," says Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University. "Al-Qaida's got lots of raw material, as it were, as well as a historical legacy to work with in Libya. And a vacuum in Libya, I think, is something that al-Qaida is poised perhaps to take advantage of."

Gadhafi And Al-Qaida: A Tense History

That raw material and historical legacy date to the 1990s. A group known as the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group tried to topple Gadhafi, and even tried to assassinate him 20 years ago. His security forces responded with a crackdown. Some members of the group fled Libya and joined organizations like al-Qaida. When that happened, Gadhafi saw a new threat: Osama bin Laden. He called on Interpol to intervene.

"The first international arrest warrant issued by Interpol against bin Laden was requested not by the United States, not by Kenya, or any of the countries you might think," says Hoffman, "but rather by Libya and Col. Gadhafi because of the threat al-Qaida and its brand of Islamism posed to his secular revolution."

So an alliance was formed. At the end of 2007, al-Qaida made the relationship with the Libyan opposition fighters official, and members of the group who had fled Libya became members of al-Qaida.

And some Libyans became part of bin Laden's inner circle. One of al-Qaida's top propagandists today is a Libyan, Abu Yahya al-Libi.

Some of the fighting group's members who stayed in Libya have since renounced violence and been released from prison. They said they have a decidedly different view of al-Qaida and have denounced it. Counterterrorism officials are split about whether that denunciation of violence is genuine.

Hard-Core Fighters

Part of the reason experts are so concerned is that Libyan Islamists have shown themselves to be hard-core fighters. The U.S. actually has documented proof of that in something called "The Sinjar Records."

Back in 2007, American soldiers discovered a trove of papers in an insurgent headquarters in the northern Iraqi city of Sinjar. They were the insurgents' own catalog of foreign fighters, complete with the names and nationalities of foreigners who had come to Iraq to fight against U.S. forces. The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point went through those records and found that of the more than 600 insurgents listed in the ledger, almost 20 percent came from Libya.

Juan Zarate, a deputy national security adviser in the Bush administration, says: "Having Gadhafi in some ways on the ropes and having some degree of chaos in Libya raises the potential that violent extremist groups will take advantage. And we could see a reassembling of these groups in a way we haven't in the recent past."

As he sees it, al-Qaida has a constituency in Libya. "There's a real danger here that you could have those same elements radicalize other individuals and then engage in more widespread network building and attacks in North Africa as well as southern Europe," he says.

At this point, U.S. intelligence officials say, it seems unlikely that jihadists could gain control of Libya. But what the chaos there does provide is far more room to operate. And there are some indications that is already happening.

Officials say jihadis in Libya have been looting military arms depots. That means that in the past week or so they've become more heavily armed than they've been in decades. Gadhafi's security forces had been keeping these groups in check. Without him, experts fear, there could be a free-for-all.

"Any time there is chaos there is opportunity," said Rick "Ozzie" Nelson of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Al-Qaida is a very opportunistic organization, and again with a lot of their members having ties to Libya there is an opportunity for them to exploit this chaos."

One of the things analysts are watching for: whether Libya begins to become a destination for violent jihadists, a safe haven like Somalia, where terrorist groups can operate away from a functioning government.

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