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.
In 2007, the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., issued an extensive report on foreigners who heeded the call of Osama bin Laden and traveled to Iraq to fight for al Qaeda.
U.S. Central Command provided West Point nearly 600 files on captured foreign fighters. At that point in the war, the center revealed the extent to which al Qaeda-type groups operated in Libya right under the nose of Gadhafi’s government.
Libyans made up the second-highest percentage of al Qaeda recruits, 19 percent, in Iraq. Saudi Arabia, always a hotbed of radical Islamic thought, accounted for the largest share, at 41 percent.
“Libya contributed far more fighters per capita than any other nationality in the records, including Saudi Arabia,” the Combating Terrorism Center said.
Army Lt. Col. Brian Linvill spent 2008 to 2012 in Libya as a military attache at the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli. Now an Army War College fellow at the Hoover Institution, Col. Linvill recalls his contacts with Libyans who expressed respect for the U.S. and a kinship with other Arabs in the region fighting to bring down dictators.
“The Libyan people, since the start of the Arab awakening, have shared a tremendous affinity for the other countries that have been struggling to cast off their dictators,” Col. Linvill said. “Specifically in the case of Syria, while I was there, one of first things that struck me was a cross-societal understanding and empathy for the plight of the Syrians, so much so that it was common to see posters in the streets supporting the plight of the Syrians.”
Although he could not vouch for the motives of all Libyans traveling to fight in Syria, Col. Linvill said, he detected a deep-seated feeling in the streets that Libya “needed to do something to help out the Syrians to achieve the same aims.”
Col. Linvill pointed to a Gallup poll from September that showed the highest percentage of Arabs who think the Arab Spring uprisings would lead to better economic prospects were Libyans, at 87 percent.
In a Gallup poll taken in August, 54 percent of Libyans said they “approve of U.S. leadership and favor military aid from the West.”
Meanwhile, The Associated Press reported Sunday that Turkey’s military fired artillery on targets inside Syria for a fifth consecutive day, immediately responding to a lethal Syrian shell that landed on Turkish soil last week.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu warned Saturday that Ankara would respond forcefully to each errant Syrian shell that lands on Turkish soil.
Inside Syria, forces loyal to Mr. Assad clashed with rebels across the country, from the northern city of Aleppo to the southern border with Jordan, AP reported. Activists said opposition fighters were strengthening their hold over the village off Khirbet al-Jouz, in the northern province of Idlib, which borders Turkey and where violent clashes broke out a day earlier.