The Los Angeles Times reports:
Despite fears that Islamic extremists may be playing a hidden role in the rebellion against Moammar Kadafi, the U.S. intelligence community has found no organized presence of Al Qaeda or its allies among the Libyan opposition, American officials say.
A U.S. intelligence-gathering effort that began shortly after anti-Kadafi forces started seizing towns in eastern Libya last month has not uncovered a significant presence of Islamic militants among the insurgents.
We shouldn’t have much confidence in the U.S. intelligence community’s efforts in places like Libya, which has been “closed for business” to our spooks for years. History has repeatedly proven that the community is behind the curve in such closed societies and it is doubtful that collection has improved dramatically in the last several weeks.
Chances are that, as is pointed out later in the Los Angeles Times piece, the intelligence community has poor collection inside Libya and the real answer it should be giving is: “We don’t know.”
That said, there is no reason to believe the rebels are primarily Islamists/jihadists at this point. The rebellion appears to be a conglomeration of interests, ranging from tribal leaders who have long opposed Qaddafi’s rule to former regime members who have betrayed their insane leader. Certainly, unsavory characters are playing some role, we just can’t be sure how much of one.
Libya has been an exporter of jihadists for decades, and especially since September 11, 2001. So, we know a jihadist infrastructure exists there. In particular, Derna, in eastern Libya, is a hotbed for Islamic extremism. And the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), a known al Qaeda affiliate, has a longstanding presence in the country.
For self-serving reasons, Qaddafi has attempted to play up al Qaeda’s role in the opposition, but in so doing he has made bizarre claims (e.g. Osama bin Laden and drugs are manipulating the rebels). He has also made allegations that are demonstrably false. For instance, Qaddafi and other Libyan officials have claimed that a former Guantanamo detainee named Abdul Hakim al Hasadi has set up an Islamic emirate in eastern Libya. There’s just one problem: Abdul Hakim al Hasadi was never held at Guantanamo.
This doesn’t mean that al Hasadi, who says he is in charge of defending Derna, is necessarily a benign actor. In a recent interview with the Il Sole, an Italian publication, al Hasadi explained: “I have never been to Guantanamo. I was captured in 2002 in Peshawar in Pakistan, while I was returning from Afghanistan where I fought against the foreign invasion. I was handed over to the Americans, and held for a few months in Islamabad, delivered to Libya, and released in 2008.”
So, by his own account, al Hasadi joined the jihad in Afghanistan. There’s more. Il Sole asked al Hasadi about the jihadists sent from Iraq to Libya to fight.
“I sent over about 25,” al Hasadi told Il Sole’s reporter. “Some came back, and today are on the Ajdabiya front; they are patriots and good Muslims, not terrorists. I condemn the September 11 attacks, and attacks against innocent civilians in general. But the members of al Qaeda are also good Muslims, and are fighting against the invader.”
This doesn’t inspire confidence. While dismissing his ties to al Qaeda and condemning the September 11 attacks, al Hasadi concedes that he fought in Afghanistan, sent 25 more jihadists to fight in Iraq, and calls al Qaeda members “good Muslims.” And as John Rosenthal noted at Pajamas Media a few days ago, al Hasadi praised Osama bin Laden’s “good points” during an interview with The New York Times.
There is a temptation to see Libya through the “dictator vs. al Qaeda” or “al Qaeda vs. dictator” prism. Qaddafi certainly wants the West to view the conflict that way.
It is more complicated than that, but men such as al Hasadi should concern us. Given his jihadist ties and double-speak on al Qaeda, how can the U.S. intelligence community be so sure that al Hasadi and his ilk are not part of an “organized” al Qaeda-affiliated (or like-minded jihadist) “presence…among the Libyan opposition”?
We don’t know.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.