The Obama administration says it hasn't yet made up its mind whether to arm Libyan rebels, in large part because there are still too many questions about who the rebels are and whether they have links to al-Qaida. The CIA has deployed covert teams to the country to try to find out more.
"We have seen flickers in the intelligence of potential al-Qaida," Adm. James Stavridis, the U.S. commander who oversees NATO forces, said on Capitol Hill last week. "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."
But Bruce Reidel, a former CIA official now with the Saban Center for Middle East Studies at the Brookings Institution, says the U.S. needs "more than a good hunch" about al-Qaida's presence.
He says a key part of the CIA's covert mission in Libya is understanding who the rebels are. That means gauging alliances and assessing how much real support Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi has among certain tribes. One tool the CIA uses is so-called walking-around money that the agency can use to try to persuade tribes to switch sides.
"This is one of the things we did in Afghanistan in 2001," Reidel says. "And if there's a tribal leader who's wavering between supporting Gadhafi or supporting the rebellion, we say, 'How much? How much will it cost for you to come over?' "
According to one counterterrorism official familiar with what's unfolding in Libya, the big problem is knowing whom to give the money to because the rebels who seem the most professional are the ones who may have received their training while fighting against the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan.
That brings us back to the crux of the covert mission in Libya: figuring out what role Islamic extremists have in the rebellion. For more than a decade, the CIA has been tracking a terrorist organization called the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which has deep ties to al-Qaida.
Reidel notes that there are Libyans in al-Qaida's senior hierarchy, and fighting with the group in Afghanistan against NATO forces.
"There is a longstanding pattern of Libyans being associated with al-Qaida and likeminded groups," he says.
Libya And Al-Qaida
Until a few weeks ago, Gadhafi was the CIA's ally in fighting this group. Now, CIA teams on the ground have to figure out for themselves how much influence the group may have in Libya's rebellion.
"There's no question that a call has gone out from al-Qaida and a number of other terrorist organizations that people should come report in in Libya and join the fight," says Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Feinstein says it has been impossible to determine exactly who is answering that call.
"No one knows. I can't tell you how many Islamic fundamentalists who want a jihad are in Libya today. I cannot tell you how many of them are on the frontlines," she says. "I don't know. We are working from a blind spot."
That blind spot is the reason Feinstein and other lawmakers say they don't want to arm the Libyan rebels. President Obama has said he is not ruling out that possibility — at least not until the CIA has come back with some answers.