- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 29, 2011

A former leader of Libya’s al Qaeda affiliate says he thinks “freelance jihadists” have joined the rebel forces, as NATO’s commander told Congress on Tuesday that intelligence indicates some al Qaeda and Hezbollah terrorists are fighting Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s forces.

Former jihadist Noman Benotman, who renounced his al Qaeda affiliation in 2000, said in an interview that he estimates 1,000 jihadists are in Libya.

On Capitol Hill, Adm. James Stavridis, the NATO commander, when asked about the presence of al Qaeda terrorists among the rebels, said the leadership of the opposition is made up of “responsible men and women.”

“We have seen flickers in the intelligence of potential al Qaeda, Hezbollah,” the four-star admiral said. “We’ve seen different things. But at this point, I don’t have detail sufficient to say that there’s a significant al Qaeda presence, or any other terrorist presence, in and among these folks.”

The military is continuing to “look at that very closely,” he said, because “it’s part of doing due diligence as we move forward on any kind of relationship” with the opposition.

Outside observers generally estimate the number of trained Libyan fighters to be about 1,000.

Concern over the makeup of opposition forces surfaced Tuesday as representatives from 40 governments and international organizations met in London and stepped up efforts to oust the Gadhafi regime and prepared for a hoped-for transition to a democratic state.

Col. Gadhafis forces, meanwhile, launched counterattacks Tuesday against rebels advancing westward toward the capital, Tripoli.

Mr. Benotman told The Washington Times that al Qaeda’s North African affiliate, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Mahgreb, has tried without success to co-opt the leadership of Col. Gadhafi’s opposition. But Mr. Benotman said the interim council leading Libya’s opposition is seeking democratic elections, not an Islamic republic.

“We have freelance jihadists,” he said. “But everything is still under control of the interim national council. There is no other organization that says, ‘We are leaders of the revolution with this emir,’ like al Qaeda would. Everyone is afraid to do this; they would be labeled as undermining the people.”

The jihadist presence among the opposition to Col. Gadhafi is a critical question for Western governments conducting military operations aimed at protecting Libya’s citizens from their leader, who ordered attacks against them with warplanes, troops and pro-government militias.

If NATO countries end up sending ground forces to stabilize Libya at a later date, the al Qaeda presence could morph into an anti-Western insurgency as al Qaeda did in Iraq after the March 2003 invasion.

President Obama, in a televised address Monday, said he would not send ground troops to Libya. But Adm. Stavridis said during a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee that the “possibility of a stabilization regime exists” based on the history of other NATO-led humanitarian interventions.

Mr. Benotman, the former jihadist, initially said the number of unaffiliated jihadists in Libya was in the hundreds but later put the number at “around a thousand.”

Last week, Libyan rebel leader Abdel-Hakim al-Hasidi told the Italian newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore that he had recruited 25 Islamic fighters in Dernaa and gave his view that al Qaeda members were “good Muslims.”

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