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.
“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.
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.
Today, no one knows how many Libyan veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are taking up the fight against Qaddafi. And while Islamists are reported to be among the most active on the fluctuating frontline, they are a small minority among the mosaic of fighters who earlier this week made huge territorial gains, backed by US and French-led allied airstrikes, only to lose the ground in panicked retreat Tuesday.
The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) in early 2007 publicly supported the insurgency in Iraq, calling on all “Muslim peoples” to wage jihad there. The LIFG declared in November 2007 that it had joined Al Qaeda.
The documents captured in 2007 in Sinjar, Iraq, give details of 595 foreign fighters in Iraq who crossed from Syria and listed a nationality, according to a late 2007 report by the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) at West Point, which first published the Sinjar documents. Most of the fighters (41 percent) were from Saudi Arabia. Libya was second, accounting for 18.8 percent.
But when tallied on a per capita basis, the documents – known as the Sinjar Records – show that Libya accounted for virtually twice the number of insurgents as came from Saudi Arabia. And of the half of Libyans who listed their intended “work” in Iraq, more than 85 percent – the highest of any nation – said they wanted to be suicide bombers, according to the documents.
“Both Derna and Benghazi have long been associated with Islamic militancy in Libya, in particular for an uprising by Islamist organizations in the mid-1990s,” notes the CTC report. “The Libyan uprisings became extraordinarily violent,” it reads. “Qaddafi used helicopter gunships in Benghazi, cut telephone, electricity, and water supplies to Derna and famously claimed that the militants ‘deserve to die without trial, like dogs.’ ”
In recent years, Qaddafi has largely made peace with Libya’s homegrown Islamist groups, and released a number from prison after they denounced violence and any affiliation with Al Qaeda.
In a dialogue overseen by Qaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam, some 200 LIFG members were freed, including many top figures who issued recantations in 2009 and foreswore violence, according to a mid-March report by the US Congressional Research Service. A further 110 members were released at the beginning of the uprising in February.
The specter of Iraq
Despite that apparent reconciliation, Libyan officials are warning that the popular uprising against Qaddafi’s nearly 42-year rule is, in fact, the latest jihadist front.
“Today Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has raised its voice and the level of its threats,” government spokesman Musa Ibrahim said in the past week, referring to the Al Qaeda affiliate in North Africa.
“We believe they have the power; we believe they have the logistics. Their strategic depth goes from the Libyan-Algerian border to the coast of Mauritania on the Atlantic. This is not a secret,” said Mr. Ibrahim.
Militants could easily move through the Sahara Desert and “enter Libya in the thousands,” Ibrahim said. “We know how Qaeda operates … so we are expecting to see death on the ground, car explosions, bombs in the streets of Tripoli. It’s the story of Baghdad being played again in Tripoli. If the world cares about civilians … they should not allow Libya to become another Iraq.”
The specter of Iraq also worries US military planners, as they consider arming what they deem to be pro-democracy rebels to finally oust Qaddafi, versus the uncertain outcome of adding firepower to those from areas known for Islamic militancy.
“Al Qaeda in that part of the country is obviously an issue,” a senior US official told The New York Times on Tuesday.
Tripoli has fanned those concerns also, charging that the rebel-held enclave of Misratah, 125 miles east of Tripoli, is a militant hotbed.
In the city, “unfortunately we have hardcore, violent pockets of violence,” says spokesman Ibrahim. “These people – because they are Al Qaeda affiliates – they are prepared to die, they want to die, because death is for them is happiness, is paradise. So they know they are going to die, they want it and they are working hard for it.”
'We want this freedom in Libya'
Among true believers in the rule of Qaddafi, there is little doubt about the danger – and the miscalculation by the West.
“France, the US, and UK in Libya are trying to replace moderate Islam with radical Islam,” says a visibly angry man at a recent funeral ceremony in Tripoli. He would only identify himself as a “citizen.”
“There will be revenge [because] they are providing extremists and Al Qaeda with support. Libya was a moderate country; 90 percent of these people don’t have beards. Now Al Qaeda will extend its presence," he says.
Few on the ground in rebel-held territory of eastern Libya describe an Al Qaeda advance, though there clearly are fighters of an Islamist turn of mind at the front, sprinkled among the less ideologically committed rank and file. But they insist their devotion to their faith has nothing to do with Al Qaeda or international ambitions.
“I’m fighting because Qaddafi wouldn’t let people pray freely, think freely,” said Mohammed Shuwaidy, a young fighter from Derna, speaking outside Ras Lanuf earlier this month. “But we want this freedom in Libya. Qaddafi is the terrorist, with his wars outside the country and his torture of us.”
Staff writer Dan Murphy contributed to this report from Ajdabiya, Libya.