The arrival of Libyan fighters in Syria is raising questions about the motives of some of those seeking to overthrow the regime in Damascus.
If Iraq is the model, the U.S. should be worried, national security analysts say.
Al Qaeda-linked groups in Benghazi in the middle part of the past decade answered al Qaeda’s call and sent scores of Libyan terrorists into Iraq, via Syria, to kill Americans and to try to topple the elected Shiite government in Baghdad.
Now, Libyans whom the U.S. helped put into power are answering a call to bring down a government, that of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The questions facing Washington policymakers as they increase financial aid to anti-Assad forces: Are some of the Libyans actually violent Islamists and not West-favoring freedom fighters? Do they harbor sympathies for al Qaeda?
“Given its history during the Iraq War, when Syria served as the channel for Libyans to move through and into Iraq, I’m sure there are some folks there who are likely falling back on old ‘bad habits,’” said Paul Hughes, a retired Army colonel who is chief of staff at the U.S. Institute for Peace.
An estimated 50 Libyan fighters are in Syria. Analysts predict that the overall number of foreign fighters will grow. They think some are arriving at the behest of al Qaeda, which historically looks to exploit power vacuums as it has in Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia, and as it steps up operations in Libya.
“We shouldn’t be surprised,” said James Carafano, a military analyst at the Heritage Foundation. “Obviously, if they can organize an attack on the U.S. Consulate [in Benghazi], they can get some guys to pack their bags and go into Syria.
“This is the al Qaeda [modus operandi] that we’ve seen since 2005,” he said. “When there is instability in a country, you fill the vacuum, you create a pipeline and you start shuttling foreign fighters there. We saw it in Iraq. We’ve seen it in Yemen.”
The Obama administration, after describing the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi as a result of spontaneous protests, now concedes that it was a planned terrorist attack by groups linked to al Qaeda.
Mr. Carafano said the arrival of Libyans and other foreign fighters makes the situation in Syria “more problematic.”
“As soon as you topple the government, there’s going to be another war for control of the country between the surviving groups,” he said.
Journalists in Syria are starting to identify more Libyans showing up for the fight.
Reuters news agency reported in August about Libyans who are organizing and training local rebels. It interviewed a Libyan named Hussam Najjar, who said he was part of a team that last year stormed the Tripoli compound of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, who ultimately was killed by revolutionary forces.
He told Reuters that the Libyans in Syria include specialists in communications and logistics who operate training bases. Mr. Najjar said he did not want al Qaeda fighters coming to Syria, but acknowledged that Sunni Muslim fighters of all types were preparing to make the trip.