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Counterterrorism officials are watching the events in Libya with special concern. They are worried because al-Qaida has long-standing ties with extremists in Libya. And U.S. intelligence officials are concerned that al-Qaida my try to gain a foothold there. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Al-Qaida's North African wing wasted little time in siding with protesters in Libya. The group released a statement this week that said it would, quote, "do whatever we can to help," unquote, with the uprising. Counterterrorism experts say they weren't surprised. They've been bracing for al-Qaida to weigh in.
Mr. BRUCE HOFFMAN (Director, Center for Peace and Security Studies, Georgetown University): I think, interestingly, 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.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Bruce Hoffman is a terrorism expert at Georgetown University.
Mr. HOFFMAN: Al-Qaida's got lots of raw material, as it were, as well as a historical legacy to work within Libya. And a vacuum in Libya, I think, is something that al-Qaida is poised perhaps to take advantage of.
TEMPLE-RASTON: That raw material and historical legacy date back to the 1990s. A group known as the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group tried to topple Gadhafi and even attempted to assassinate him 20 years ago. His security forces responded with a crackdown and the Islamists fled Libya and joined groups like al-Qaida.
According to Hoffman, Gadhafi then saw a new threat: Osama bin Laden.
Mr. HOFFMAN: This is the reason that the first 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, but rather by Libya and by Colonel Gadhafi because of the threat al-Qaida and its brand of Islamism posed to his secular revolution.
TEMPLE-RASTON: So an alliance was formed. And at the end of 2007, al-Qaida made the relationship with the Libyan fighters official and one of the Libyans became part of Osama bin Laden's inner circle.
Another concern: Libyan Islamists have shown themselves to be hardcore fighters and the U.S. has documented proof of that. Back in 2007, American soldiers discovered a trove of papers in an insurgent headquarters in northern Iraq. The papers catalogued the names and nationalities of foreigners who had come to Iraq to fight against U.S. forces. Of the more than 600 insurgents listed, almost 20 percent of them came from Libya.
Juan Zarate, a former Bush administration national security advisor, says that's one of the reasons why counterterrorism officials are concerned.
Mr. JUAN ZARATE (Senior Advisor, Center for Strategic and International Studies): Having Gadhafi in some ways on the ropes and having some degree of chaos in Libya raises the potential - the potential that violent extremist groups will take advantage and that you'll see a reassembling of some of these cells and networks in Libya in ways that you haven't seen in the recent past.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Does al-Qaida have constituency there?
Mr. ZARATE: Al-Qaida does have a constituency in Libya. And so a danger here is that you could have those same elements radicalize other individuals and then engaging in more widespread network building and attacks in North Africa as well as southern Europe.
TEMPLE-RASTON: U.S. intelligence officials say at this point it seems unlikely that jihadists could gain control of Libya. What they will have is far more room to operate. Officials say they see signs of jihadis in Libya already doing that. They've been looting military arms depots so they're more heavily armed than they have been in decades.
Rick "Ozzie" Nelson of the Center of Strategic and International Studies says that Gadhafi was able to keep these groups in check. Without him, there will be a free-for-all.
Mr. RICK "OZZIE" NELSON (Director, Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Programs, Center of Strategic and International Studies): Any time there is chaos there's opportunity and al-Qaida is a very opportunistic organization. And, again, with a lot of their members having ties to Libya, I think there's an opportunity for them to exploit this chaos.
TEMPLE-RASTON: One of the things analysts are watching for is whether Libya becomes a safe haven like Somalia - a place where terrorist groups can operate away from a functioning government.
Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.