Looking At The History of Al-Qaida In Libya

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Melissa Block talks to Juan Zarate, senior adviser to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, about the history of al-Qaida in Libya — and whether there is any cause for heightened fears that the terrorist group is among the coalition-backed Libyan rebels.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

If the United States, or anyone else for that matter, decides to give weapons to the Libyan rebels, just whom exactly would they be arming? Do the rebel fighters include potential terrorists? Do some have al-Qaida ties? Well, those questions were posed to NATO's military commander yesterday at a Senate hearing. Here's what he had to say.

Admiral JAMES STAVRIDIS (U.S. Navy): We have seen flickers in the intelligence of potential al-Qaida, Hezbollah. We've seen different things. But at this point, I don't have detail sufficient to say that there's a significant al-Qaida presence or any other terrorist presence in and among these folks.

BLOCK: That's Admiral James Stavridis yesterday. Flickers in the intelligence, he said. To talk a little bit more about what that might mean, we turn to Juan Zarate. He's a former deputy national security adviser for combating terrorism under President Bush. Welcome to the program.

Mr. JUAN ZARATE (Former Deputy National Security Adviser): Thanks, Melissa.

BLOCK: How strongly do you say those flickers are in talking about al-Qaida links among the Libyan rebels?

Mr. ZARATE: Well, I think that language that Admiral Stavridis used is a reflection of a lack of information. I think what he and others in the intelligence community are trying to do is to try to piece together what we know about al-Qaida's presence historically in Libya, the radicalization problems we've seen historically, particularly in the northeast of Libya, near Benghazi, with data that we may have about who's fighting with the rebels at this point.

BLOCK: What about that historical presence that you mentioned? What do we know about how active al-Qaida has been in Libya and whether Libyans became part of al-Qaida's core leadership?

Mr. ZARATE: Well, what we know about al-Qaida and its ideology in Libya, there's an organizational tie to groups that have a presence in Libya. The Libyan Islamic fighting group officially merged in 2007 with the core al-Qaida leadership.

Some of the key leaders for al-Qaida have come from the Libyan camp. Abu Faraj al-Libi, who's in Guantanamo. Abu Laith al-Libi, a key element of al-Qaeda's core leadership killed in 2008. Even folks like Abu Yahya al-Libi, who is the core al-Qaida theologian at this stage, all Libyan roots.

And I think, finally, something to recall is that at the height of the foreign fighter problem that we had where suicide bombers played such a strategically devastating role in Iraq, a disproportionate number of those came from Libya.

BLOCK: It is interesting, if we think about this, that Moammar Gadhafi himself has been alleging that the Libyan uprising in the east was fanned by al-Qaida. This is his claim.

Mr. ZARATE: Well, I don't think we should believe Gadhafi. I think what we've seen from the rebellion, this is not being driven by al-Qaida, but we shouldn't discount the fact that you have potentially al-Qaida members amidst the rebellion.

Gadhafi has no love lost for al-Qaida and, in fact, has done quite a bit to not only attack al-Qaida and to diminish its reach, but also to fracture its relations with a Libyan element to the movement. And so he has had a reconciliation program with a Libyan Islamic fighting group that has had a rehabilitation dimension to it. He's released a number of figures.

You had recantations of al-Qaida's ideology from senior LIFG members. And so the challenge for us is al-Qaida and we in some ways have the same enemy in Gadhafi, given the situation at hand.

BLOCK: You know, there is a related question here which is whether the chaos in Libya that we're seeing now turns it into a magnet for Islamists or terrorists. We heard the radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki say this week the turmoil in Libya means the jihad and the Islamic Maghreb is witnessing a new dawn. What do you think? Does this power vacuum become an opportunity for them?

Mr. ZARATE: I think one of the potentials here is that in a post-Gadhafi Libya, you have chaos ensue in which al-Qaida and its extremist allies can take advantage of not only the power vacuum, but also potentially pockets of extremist support. I think it will be incumbent on the U.S. to make sure that that doesn't happen.

BLOCK: And knowing what you know about the potential al-Qaida threat among the Libyan rebels, where do you come down, then, on the question of should the United States or other countries arm the rebels?

Mr. ZARATE: Well, I think we need to be cautious before throwing not only material but also trainers into the mix, unless we understand clearly who's leading the troops and who will be leading in a post-Gadhafi environment.

BLOCK: I've been talking with Juan Zarate, former deputy national security adviser for combating terrorism under President George W. Bush. He is now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies here in Washington. Thanks very much.

Mr. ZARATE: Thanks, Melissa.

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