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Qaddafi claims Al Qaeda could overrun Libya. Could it?

While most experts say Qaddafi is grossly exaggerating the influence of Al Qaeda, new questions are being raised about its true scope as Washington debates arming the opposition.

By Staff writer / March 30, 2011

This video image taken from Turkish television Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi is seen during an interview with the TV channel TRT, in Tripoli, Libya, on March 8.

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Tripoli, Libya

The young Qaddafi loyalist wove together a grim tale that fits the official Libyan narrative perfectly. Al Qaeda fighters torched his home in the rebel-held enclave of Misratah, he claimed, and then killed his father. The crazed Islamists, he charged, were dismembering their victims.

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“May God be my witness, it is true!” shouted Osama bin Salah, pointing to the sky.

Since Libya’s popular uprising began in mid-February, Col. Muammar Qaddafi has repeatedly declared that this rebellion is different: He is not facing pro-democracy activists who want to end his four decades in power, but Al Qaeda militants determined to make Libya a base for global jihad.

“This is the Al Qaeda that the whole world is fighting,” warned the Libyan leader, who demands that the Western-led alliance help him fight a common enemy instead of decimating his military apparatus.

Yet as debate commences in Washington about arming antigovernment rebels – men who largely hail from eastern Libya, which per capita sent more Islamist fighters to Iraq in 2006-2007 than anywhere else – questions are being raised about the true scope of Al Qaeda’s influence among the Libyan opposition.

“We have seen flickers in the intelligence of potential Al Qaeda, Hezbollah,” said Admiral James Stavridis, commander of NATO forces, who testified before the Senate Tuesday. “We have seen different things. But at this point I don’t have detail sufficient to say there is a significant Al Qaeda presence or any other terrorist presence.”

Overall, he said, the opposition leaders appear to be “responsible men and women.”

And yet while the regime's true believers like Mr. Salah echo Qaddafi's Al Qaeda allegations in Tripoli, on the ground in rebel-held territory there is only marginal evidence of Al Qaeda fighters or their ideals.

Outside Ajdabiya, Abdullah ElHeneid, who helps run the pro-rebellion Libya Hurra (“Free Libya”) satellite channel, surveyed the wreckage of Qaddafi’s tanks.

“The dead? A lot of them are brainwashed and think they’re fighting Al Qaeda,” he says. “They’re Qaddafi’s victims too. But we have to fight for liberty.”

So far, the opposition has largely demonstrated that its demand for change echoes those expressed throughout the Arab world in recent months: an end of dictatorship. They codified those aims in an eight-point “vision of democratic Libya” issued Tuesday.

Libya's jihadis

While most experts agree that Qaddafi is grossly exaggerating the Al Qaeda threat to discredit his opposition, eastern Libya has had a history of Islamic militancy. Documents captured by the US military from Al Qaeda in Iraq show that eastern Libya – and especially the city of Derna – provided per capita far more foreign fighters in Iraq from August 2006 to August 2007 than anywhere else in the world.

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