|THERE seems to be an anxiety in some circles in the West to somehow link Al Qaeda to the anti-regime revolt in Libya despite indications that Osama Bin Laden’s associates have not really made any inroads into Muammar Qadhafi’s tightly controlled country.
While it is highly unlikely that Al Qaeda does have any significant role in the Libyan rebellion, the militant group appears to be a major beneficiary of the crisis. It is reported to have acquired weapons, including surface-to-air missiles, from Libyan military warehouses in areas overrun by the anti-Qadhafi forces. That should indeed be worrying.
In an interview appearing in an Italian publication, a man described as a leader of Libyan dissidents claims that “international jihadists” who fought the US-led coalition troops in Iraq are now fighting Qadhafi’s regime in Libya.
The Italian newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore quotes Abdul Hakim Al Hasidi, the presumed Al Qaeda leader in Libya, as saying that a small number of his people are “today in the front lines” in eastern Libya fighting Qadhafi’s forces.
Hasidi is described as a key anti-Qadhafi leader and a “jihadist” who fought against US-led “invaders” in Afghanistan and recruited Libyans to go to Iraq to fight against the allied forces there. He was captured in Pakistan in 2002, handed over to the US, then detained in Libya until he was released in 2008.
Hasidi reportedly “admitted” in the Italian newspaper interview that he had recruited “around 25” men from the Derna area in eastern Libya to fight against coalition troops in Iraq. Some of them, he said, are “today are on the front lines in Adjabiya” in Libya.
Hasidi insists that his fighters “are patriots and good Muslims, not terrorists,” and that “members of Al Qaeda are also good Muslims and are fighting against the invader.” According to US and British government sources, Hasidi was a member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), which killed dozens of Libyan troops in guerrilla attacks around Derna and Benghazi in 1995 and 1996. He subsequently joined Al Qaeda in Afghanistan.
In February, Al Qaeda issued a call for supporters to back the Libyan revolt, which it said would lead to the imposition of Islamic law in the country. The LIFG is not believed to be part of the Al Qaeda organisation. However, according to the United States military’s West Point Academy, the two groups “increasingly co-operative relationship.”
Britain’s Daily Telegraph says that in 2007, documents captured by allied forces from the town of Sinja showed LIFG members accounting for the second-largest group of foreign fighters in Iraq. Saudi were the largest contingent.
The Qadhafi regime, long known for its intolerance of dissent, kept the LIFG — and indeed all other anti-Qadhafi groups — well under check, cracking down with a harsh hand whenever the strongman felt the slightest challenge to his rule. His intelligence and informant networks were very effective in pinpointing sources of dissent, and hence Al Qaeda could not plug in any of its roots in Qadhafi’s Libya.
There is no indication whatsoever that LIFG or Al Qaeda initiated the anti-Qadhafi revolt but it is possible that they joined the rebellion after it was well under way. They do have an advantage though — they have good fighting experience in Iraq. Their number will be very limited, as admitted by Hasidi himself.
However, that did not prevent Qadhafi from claiming from day one that Al Qaeda had corrupted his youths with drugs and turned them against him. Qadhafi was seeking to project himself as the victim of Al Qaeda’s ire and wrath for Libya’s support for the US-led “war on terror.” He equated his country as any other partner in the US effort to fight groups like Al Qaeda around the world.
That was indeed a turnaround for someone who, for at least three decades, supported militant groups in the region and beyond and played them against governments he deemed to be hostile to him. But the claim of being targeted by Al Qaeda did not achieve him anything since it was rejected outright by the US and allies.
The interim National Council formed in Benghazi, the eastern town in the hands of Libyan dissidents, appears to be largely independent and free of any specific political orientation. There is no indication that hard-line Islamist tendencies in the group, which is certified to have had a good start in governance by the former US ambassador to Libya.
Obviously, Hasidi and his likes would like to claim some credit for the anti-Qadhafi revolt. They are backed by media outlets which are eager to get “something new” on crises around the world.
An (unlikely) Al Qaeda domination of a post-Qadhafi Libya would be a worst-case scenario for the Libyan people. In any event, the US-led West would not permit that to happen.
Much more alarming is an assertion by Chadian President Idriss Deby Itn that Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has taken advantage of the strife in Libya to steal military weapons, including an unspecified number of surface-to-air missiles.
In an interview with an African magazine, Deby says that the weapons were stolen from areas controlled by Libyan rebels and then smuggled into an Al Qaeda sanctuary. He is not clear on numbers of weapons but insists that he is “100 per cent sure” of his information.
“The Islamists of Al Qaeda took advantage of the pillaging of arsenals in the rebel zone to acquire arms, including surface-to-air missiles, which were then smuggled into their sanctuaries in Tenere,” he told the African weekly Jeune Afrique.
Tenere is a desert region of the Sahara that stretches from north-east Niger to western Chad. Sources in Mali and Nigeria have confirmed Deby’s account. Saddam Hussein’s (non-existent) weapons of mass destruction falling into the hands of the likes of Al Qaeda was one of the fears and reasons cited for the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. The fears appear to have come true in Libya, eight years later. Al Qaeda’s reported possession of surface-to-air missiles should indeed be a cause for great concern since they could be used to shoot down passenger aircraft, something the group would not hesitate to do if it found such action serving its sinister purposes.