Like Mr. Benotman, Mr. al-Hasidi is a former member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) that in the 1990s was affiliated with al Qaeda but moved away from Osama bin Laden’s organization a decade later.
Mr. Benotman said he knew Mr. al-Hasidi and had seen the interview.
“What I do care about is not this commander’s opinions, but his actions,” Mr. Benotman said. “If he thinks al Qaeda members are good Muslims, it’s his opinion. But we should say out loud, ‘We do not allow for al Qaeda tactics, al Qaeda agenda and al Qaeda strategy in Libya.’ These are not welcome.”
Mr. Benotman was an important spokesman for the LIFG in the 1990s. In 2000, he traveled to Afghanistan to meet with bin Laden and urged him not to attack the United States, according to Peter Bergen’s 2011 book, “The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict between America and al Qaeda.”
“I told bin Laden that our movement had failed, that the people no longer supported us,” Mr. Benotman told The Times.
Mr. Benotman was recruited by Col. Gadhafi’s son, Saif al-Islam Gadhafi, to participate in a deradicalization program in Libya aimed at rehabilitating members of the LIFG who would vow to give up the jihad against his father’s regime.
Mr. Benotman said many of these reformed radicals were released from prison.
“Since 2007, the LIFG has participated in the deradicalization program,” he said. “Many of them are free today. We cannot ask them to not fight and stay at home, even if they have been attacked,” he said. “This is the picture. You will find some extremists among these, without a doubt. But there is no way you can label the revolution itself as motivated by al Qaeda or anything like this.”
U.S. intelligence analysts, however, show that some elements of the LIFG split from the group that denounced violence.
A 2007 study by West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center found that 19 percent of some 700 foreign al Qaeda fighters captured in Iraq came from Libya, the second-highest percentage of any country after Saudi Arabia.
The admirals comments about al Qaeda in the Libyan opposition reflect those of a senior State Department official who gave a closed-door briefing to senior U.S. officials last week, according an official who was present. The State Department official said the recently formed National Transitional Council is made up of rebel groups that are pro-democratic, but questions remain about some of its members.
A defense official said that some of the opposition includes Islamists with pro-terrorism views who are masking their true positions in order to gain Western backing.