In September 2007, U.S. soldiers raided a desert encampment outside the town of Sinjar in northwest Iraq, looking for insurgents. Amid the tents, they made a remarkable discovery: a trove of personnel files -- more than 700 in all -- detailing the origins of the foreign fighters al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) had brought into the country to fight against coalition forces.
The Sinjar records -- which we analyzed extensively in a series of reports for the U.S. Military Academy at West Point's Combating Terrorism Center -- revealed that at least 111 Libyans entered Iraq between August 2006 and August 2007. That was about 18 percent of AQI's incoming fighters during that period, a contribution second only to Saudi Arabia's (41 percent) and the highest number of fighters per capita than any other country noted in the records.
Three and a half years later, the Sinjar records have become a subject of renewed interest, for obvious reasons. Forty-four days into the uprising against Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi in Libya, and 11 days after NATO forces stepped in to enforce a no-fly zone over the country, we still have a fuzzy-at-best idea of who the rebels fighting against Qaddafi actually are; on March 29, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admitted that "we're still getting to know those who are leading the Transitional National Council" -- the rebels' putative political organization.
Qaddafi, meanwhile, insists his rebel enemies are tied to al Qaeda -- and American critics and supporters alike of the international campaign are increasingly concerned that the old dictator may have a point. In a congressional hearing in Washington on March 29, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) pointedly questioned James Stavridis, NATO's supreme allied commander for Europe, over "reports about the presence of al Qaeda among the rebels"; Stavridis replied that he believed the rebels were, in the main, "responsible men and women who are struggling against Qaddafi," but that the military had "seen flickers of al Qaeda and Hezbollah."
What should policymakers in Washington and elsewhere make of this ambiguity? First and foremost, they should proceed carefully in considering the presence of jihadi-affiliated social networks in Libya; but it's unwise to exaggerate the threat based on the relatively limited evidence in the Sinjar records. That said, as the international community pressures the Qaddafi regime, it should avoid policies that increase the likelihood that jihadi groups can capitalize on the chaos in Libya.
So what do we know about jihadists in Libya from the Sinjar records? Aside from the overall numbers, we know that the vast majority of Libyan fighters profiled in the documents hailed from northeastern Libya, where today's rebellion is centered. Half of them came from Darnah, a town of 80,000 people on the Mediterranean coast 150 miles east of Benghazi that has played an active role in the rebellion; another quarter were from Benghazi, the heart of the current uprising. The Libyan fighters also seem to have arrived in Iraq over a short period of time, between March and August 2007. That abrupt surge suggests that tribal or religious networks were suddenly spurred to send fighters abroad. And those fighters seem to have been extremely dedicated: Eighty-five percent of the Libyans in the Sinjar records registered as suicide bombers when they arrived in Iraq, a larger percentage than any other nationality other than Morocco.
That is good and bad news. On the one hand, it is disconcerting that social networks sympathetic to al Qaeda were able to mobilize a force of such size and determination in a matter of months; it suggests that they could do the same thing today. On the other hand, the fact that the surge was the work of a small number of distinct networks may indicate that support for al Qaeda is concentrated in particular tribal, religious, or social communities, rather than dispersed throughout a broader swath of Libyan society.