Muammar Gaddafi, Libya’s “Brother Leader and Guide of the Revolution,” has repeatedly declared that the uprising against him is the work of al Qaeda.
Warning of al Qaeda is naturally in Gaddafi’s own interest. “But if Gaddafi fell, it would be an opportunity for Libya’s jihadists,” says Scott Stewart, vice president of intelligence at crisis forecasting firm Stratfor.
“A very large number of Libyans are, or have been, involved with al Qaeda,”?Stewart explains. “Gaddafi has always been a huge supporter of radical groups, including the IRA and Italy’s Red Brigades. But he has always felt threatened by jihadists.”
Since protests against Gaddafi began last month, several army depots have been looted. “If jihadists get hold of advanced weapons like surface-to-air missiles, the situation could be come very dangerous,” Stewart predicts. “And not just for Gaddafi. They could sell the arms to fellow jihadists in other countries, including the West.”
Libya doesn’t have an Osama bin Laden; in fact, its jihadist groups are mostly dormant. But Libyan radicals are experienced. Most of them belong to the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, a loose al Qaeda affiliate.
“Islamists have been fighting Gaddafi for about two decades,” says James Forest, former director of terrorism studies at the United States Military Academy. “Several hundred have fought in Afghanistan, Iraq and other conflicts.”
Veteran jihadists typically settle in Libya’s east, the area Gaddafi has now lost to rebels. Because Gaddafi has kept his army weak, jihadists now sense an opening.
“They have unique opportunities that their counterparts in neighboring countries haven’t had,” Forest says. “Libya has a mix of political oppression, corruption, illegitimate leadership and economic deprivation amid huge oil wealth. And now the jihadists have weapons.”
According to Stewart, the West need not fear a Taliban-style regime in Libya. “But a weak government could replace Gaddafi, or there could be a civil war,” he says. “This operating space could allow jihadists to become functional in Libya once again, only to provide weapons and a safe haven for other militants in the region.”
Social media holy war?
LONDON – “I entreat you, by God, to begin registering for Facebook as soon as you [finish] reading this post.” Yes, al Qaeda has joined Facebook.
According to a recent report by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, jihadists now use Facebook to spread propaganda, recruit supporters, even share bomb recipes. But America has responded: The Pentagon is using software that allows soldiers to impersonate jihadists without being traced.