Getting Libya's Rebels Wrong

Don't buy Qaddafi's line: The rebels aren't al Qaeda.

The recent remarks by Adm. James Stavridis, NATO's supreme allied commander for Europe, alleging "flickers in the intelligence of potential al Qaeda, Hezbollah" among Libyan rebels are indicative of a disturbing trend in much of the discussion -- and reporting -- on Libya over the past several weeks. Ambiguous statements linking Libya and al Qaeda have repeatedly been made in the media without clarifying or providing appropriate context to such remarks. In many instances, these claims have been distorted or exaggerated; at times they have simply been false.

The admiral's comments -- and the subsequent headlines they've engendered -- represent a new level of irresponsibility, constructing false connections, through use of highly obscure and equivocal language, between al Qaeda and Libyan pro-democracy forces backed by the Transitional National Council. The latter is itself led by a group of well-known and respected Libyan professionals and technocrats. Even more far-fetched is the admiral's mention of a Hezbollah connection, or "flicker" as he put it.

Statements of this type are troubling because of their tendency to create alarmist ripple effects. Such perceptions, once created, are nearly impossible to reverse and may do serious damage to the pro-democracy cause in Libya. The fact that Stavridis qualified his comments by stating that the opposition's leadership appeared to be "responsible men and women" will almost certainly be overshadowed by the mention of al Qaeda in the same breath. One must wonder, then, what precisely was the purpose of the admiral's vague and perplexing remarks.

There is a pressing need for officials and commentators to clarify connections drawn between Libya and al Qaeda and to provide more accurate and responsible analysis. And it's not just Stavridis's reference to al Qaeda that is problematic; two similar claims making the media rounds also demand careful scrutiny. One involves an anti-Qaddafi organization called the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) that confronted and was crushed by the regime in the 1990s. The second involves disturbing reports of the recruitment of Libyan youth by al Qaeda in Iraq, some of whom left their homes to take part in suicide missions in that country. Neither is connected to the current uprising, but both are frequently mentioned when discussing it.

Let's start with the LIFG, whose activities were recounted to me by a former member of the group's leadership council now residing in London, Noman Benotman, in a lengthy interview I conducted with him in December 2009.

The exact date of the LIFG's formation is unclear, but its roots can be traced back to the 1980s. In preparation for launching attacks against the Qaddafi regime, many members of the still nascent group traveled to Afghanistan to join the U.S.-backed mujahideen in their struggle against the Soviets and to undergo military training before returning to Libya.

In the early 1990s, LIFG members, among them Benotman, Saad Furjani, and others, developed extensive plans to expand the organization and prepare it for armed struggle; these were to be executed in several phases until the group was in a position to confront the regime directly. However, in 1995, the group's activities were prematurely exposed when LIFG members led by Furjani and disguised as state security services stormed a Benghazi hospital and rescued Khaled Baksheesh, a fellow member who had been arrested and was in critical condition after being beaten by police who had discovered a concealed weapon in his possession. In response, state security services began a sweep of the region, and several LIFG cells were eventually discovered in cities throughout the country, including Benghazi, Tripoli, Darnah, Zawiyah, and Sabha. The group's leadership council, most of whose members were in Sudan at the time, elected to declare its presence as an organization in October of that year, making public its intention to topple the regime. Over the next few years, Libyan security forces crushed the would-be rebellion, arresting or killing most of the LIFG's membership.

Given that the Qaddafi regime was attempting to contain a homegrown opposition that threatened its continued survival, its decision to repair its damaged relations with the West beginning in the late 1990s was in essence a pragmatic one. This rapprochement necessitated, among other things, cooperation with Western anti-terrorism efforts: The LIFG was soon declared a terrorist organization by the U.S. government.

In 2005, Saif al-Islam Qaddafi, leader Muammar's son, proposed a dialogue between the regime and the imprisoned LIFG membership, which numbered in the hundreds. He approached Benotman, who had been out of the country when the LIFG was discovered and had since settled in London; Benotman agreed to act as a liaison between the government and the prisoners beginning in January 2007.

The result of this dialogue was the release in September 2009 of a 400-page document titled Corrective Studies in Understanding Jihad, Accountability and the Judgment of People. The study -- authored by imprisoned senior LIFG members and intellectuals Abd al-Hakim Balhaj, Abu al-Mundhir al-Saidi, Abd al-Wahab al-Qayed, Khalid al-Sharif, Miftah al-Duwdi, and Mustafa Qanaifid -- analyzes various concepts related to jihad and Islamic law in an effort to delegitimize the use of armed struggle to overthrow the regimes of Muslim states. The LIFG recantation made headlines throughout the Arab world, and several prominent Muslim clerics, including Yusuf al-Qaradawi, praised the study. Even the Western media took notice. Others doubted the sincerity of the recantation, arguing that it was coerced or done simply to secure prisoner releases.

As the West's darling in Libya -- a country that over the last decade had actively sought to burnish its image on the international stage -- Saif al-Islam was able to manipulate the story of the LIFG in order to make the claim that the Qaddafi regime had succeeded not only in thwarting al Qaeda in Libya, but in rehabilitating it to boot. In reality, this was little more than a PR stunt designed to bolster Qaddafi's image as an effective hedge against terrorism, an ironic proposition given his past involvement in terrorist activities.

Although the LIFG had advocated the use of force against the regime, its former leaders have been quick to distinguish their group from radical organizations like al Qaeda, despite having trained in some of the same camps in Afghanistan and Sudan in the 1980s and 1990s. They point out that the LIFG never advocated the use of violence against Libyan or non-Libyan civilians, never participated in al Qaeda attacks, and had no interest in waging war on either Libyan society or the West -- its target had been Qaddafi and Qaddafi alone. The LIFG never joined al Qaeda; in fact, LIFG leaders like Benotman have publicly denounced the organization's use of indiscriminate violence and have in the past actively sought to distance themselves from the group, objecting vehemently to statements by al Qaeda's No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, that the two groups had merged.

Despite the LIFG's repudiation of al Qaeda, the latter did manage to infiltrate Libyan society in other, limited ways. In 2008, Newsweek reported the discovery of documents in northern Iraq suggesting that out of 606 al Qaeda militants listed, 112 had come from Libya. More striking was the fact that nearly half of these were from Darnah, a city of 50,000 known even among Libya's neglected eastern regions for having suffered considerably under Qaddafi's tenure. Even more troubling was the fact that many of these young men appeared to have volunteered for suicide missions.

It seems that though Qaddafi was successful in crushing his own internal opposition, he made little effort to stanch the trickle of would-be militants out of the country. Not only did the regime fail to prevent al Qaeda recruiters from preying on disillusioned young men, but it also arguably contributed to the problem by fueling the discontent and hopelessness endemic to Libyan society, where unemployment hovers around 30 percent and a deceptively high GDP belies the reality that most of the country's oil wealth has not trickled down to the average citizen.

Why would young Libyans decide to abandon their homes and their families to kill and be killed in a foreign country? The reasons are complex, varied, and tragic, but there is little doubt that a deep sense of despair stemming from a lifetime of repression and lack of economic opportunity played a significant role. Although 112 individuals in a country of 6.5 million represents a negligible proportion of the population, the recruitment of young men by al Qaeda is nevertheless a source of grave concern among Libyans, just as it is for Europe, the United States, and other countries that have grappled with similar problems.

Although Libya is in some ways a traditional society, al Qaeda remains deeply unpopular among its people, many of whom have been keen to stress that this uprising is in no way connected to the terrorist organization. Indeed, they have repeatedly scoffed at Qaddafi's absurd accusations to the contrary. The Libyan revolution is a decidedly nationalist, democratic movement, two characteristics that render it fatally incompatible with al Qaeda's delusional goal of resurrecting a pan-Islamic caliphate; the Libyan people have no intention of allowing their movement to be hijacked by al Qaeda. That a handful of rebel fighters may have a history with the LIFG does not mean that the Transitional National Council or the pro-democracy fighters are connected to al Qaeda, yet this is precisely what the Qaddafi regime would have the international community believe. Indeed, the council just released a statement refuting allegations aimed at associating al Qaeda with the revolutionists in Libya, and affirming its commitment to combating terrorism and implementing Security Council resolutions on counterterrorism.

After his remark about "flickers" of al Qaeda, Stavridis admitted that he lacked "the detail sufficient to say that there's a significant al Qaeda presence or any other terrorist presence in and among these folks." But the absence of evidence cannot be passed off as the presence of information. Ambiguous and misleading statements like the admiral's do a grave disservice to the Libyan people and their cause by effectively and unfairly lumping them together with al Qaeda in the public consciousness; they also do a disservice to those who seek a better understanding of Libya and its people. Libyans have already had to contend with the Qaddafi regime's ridiculous allegations that their movement is nothing more than an al Qaeda plot fueled by widespread hallucinogenic drug use -- let's not join him in denigrating their cause.



The Enemies of Our Enemy

Libya contributed hundreds of the fiercest foreign fighters to Iraq's al Qaeda-led insurgency. Should Washington be worried that it's now backing these guys against Qaddafi?

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.

That said, analyzing a complex society primarily through the lens of its most virulent elements is a dicey business. Libyans may have been disproportionately represented among Iraq's Islamist radicals, but that doesn't mean that such radicals are disproportionately represented in the anti-Qaddafi rebellion. Reporting from the front lines of the current conflict indicates that the rebels reflect a complex cross-section of Libyan society. In short, there is little reason to believe that jihadists are poised to seize broad political control of Libya should the rebels come to power -- though it is probably true that they will operate more overtly if relieved of Qaddafi's iron-fisted rule.

The more likely scenario than a clean rebel victory, however, is also more dangerous: that either military stalemate or internal divisions among rebel groups will lead to a chaotic civil war in which a small jihadi faction can flourish amid lawless conditions. History shows us that even a small band of determined extremists, if well led, armed, and equipped, can wreak havoc and challenge efforts to bring stability and order to a weakened state. Algeria suffered a decade of terribly brutal civil war at the hands of extremists such as the Armed Islamic Group and its splinter faction the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat. Other examples include the Abu Sayyaf group in the southern Philippines, Jemaah Islamiyah in Indonesia, and Islamist extremist groups that fuel the insurgency in Chechnya. And al Qaeda in Iraq still kills on a scale that would be deemed completely unacceptable in any country where the recent past was not so tremendously violent.

Where would dangerous jihadi factions in Libya come from exactly? In our original analysis of the Sinjar records, we suggested that the Libyan rebel recruitment pattern might indicate that networks related to the largely defunct Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), a jihadi organization primarily dedicated to overthrowing the Qaddafi regime, are still functional -- a notion bolstered by recent reports that former LIFG members funneled fighters to Iraq. After all, exiled LIFG members in South Asia joined al Qaeda officially in November 2007, aligning themselves with other senior Libyan jihadists already among al Qaeda's ranks. But other scholars have questioned LIFG's role, suggesting that such recruitment patterns are more likely the result of ad hoc tribal or mosque networks. Those explanations are not mutually exclusive, but it is worth noting that many of LIFG's leaders, imprisoned in Libya by Qaddafi for years, renounced al Qaeda in 2009. Whether these individuals -- or those potentially released in the future -- will rekindle their old sympathies remains to be seen.

But though the Sinjar documents present more questions than they do answers about Libya's rebels, they do suggest some ideas for how we might best respond to the country's civil war and its aftermath. For one thing, there should be little doubt that the rebellion includes at least some jihadists sympathetic to al Qaeda -- but those networks are discrete from the broader rebellion, and they would have existed with or without a no-fly zone. The challenge now is to contain the ability of such troublemakers in the rebel coalition to capitalize on chaos -- not with platitudes, but with pragmatism.

With the facts on the ground as ambiguous as they are, this is a tall order. A key challenge now is to identify the jihadi networks inside Libya and measure their strength within the broader rebel coalition. The Sinjar records offer a strong starting point, enabling intelligence agencies to ask good questions about such networks, but they alone do not provide sufficient answers. Undervaluing knowledge of the complexity of tribal and social networks proved disastrous when the United States first entered Iraq. And though an armed intervention of that intensity would be extraordinarily counterproductive in Libya, NATO forces nevertheless ignore the imperative to understand the country's social terrain at their own peril.

In seeking to limit the threat of an Islamist insurgency, the international community can also leverage the most striking feature of its intervention in Libya: the breadth of its diplomatic support. Keeping that coalition intact -- particularly the Arab contingent --limits the resonance of al Qaeda's inevitable claim that the West is waging war on Muslims. The initial backing of the Arab League provided critical political space for the United Nations and the coalition implementing the no-fly zone; if the mission shifts toward a more aggressive effort to depose Qaddafi, getting public support from Arab states will be crucial.

A key question for the international community now is whether to arm the rebels. Doing so would offer obvious advantages, but they are outweighed by the risks -- most notably the possibility that the weapons could find their way into less-friendly hands in the future. Qaddafi's weapons caches alone pose a long-term threat not just to Libya, but to other states in North Africa, including Tunisia and Egypt. Allied forces should not contribute to the problem.

The air campaign, while unlikely to depose Qaddafi on its own, has bought time for more creative means of rebel support -- ones that do not increase the danger of unintended consequences. If improving the rebels' military capacity is necessary, the international community should provide training rather than weapons. Assisting insurgents is a classic form of unconventional warfare, and it does not necessarily mean putting Western personnel in Libya. The United States can help by facilitating rebel communications and delivering virtual instruction on such military basics as digging trenches and coordinating firepower. Training and advisory assistance to rebel leaders can be provided outside Libya's borders (in a neighboring state, ideally) with support from other countries in the region.

The enemies of our enemy in Libya may not be our friends. But the danger that they pose to U.S. interests in the future will be determined in no small part by what the United States and its allies do in Libya today. There is no doubt that the choices facing policymakers are extremely difficult -- intervention is often a lose-lose situation. But the international community better get used to that ambiguity sooner rather than later -- in Yemen, Bahrain, and Syria, the choices will not get any easier.