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.”
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 is based in London and has worked in recent years with the Quilliam Foundation, a Britain-based center that focuses on “deradicalizing” extremist Muslims. He was in Libya in February.
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.