Mar 31, 2011

Libya: Is the West playing into al-Qaeda’s hands?

Libya: Is the West playing into al-Qaeda's hands?

Islamists have had a marginal role in these revolutions – but that could be changing, writes Peter Bergen.

Is the West playing into al-Qaeda's hands?; Libyan rebel fighters with their weapons on the road in Bin Jawad; Sipa Press / Rex Features

Libyan rebel fighters with their weapons on the road in Bin Jawad Photo: Sipa Press / Rex Features




As the fortunes of Colonel Gaddafi's forces and the Libyan rebels continue to see-saw, many commentators are calling for the West to arm the opposition forces. Yet the disclosure on Tuesday that US intelligence agencies have picked up "flickers" of an al-Qaeda presence among the rebels has set off a fierce debate within the Obama administration – and the wider coalition – about whether giving them weapons may inadvertently help the enemies of the West.

Part of the problem, according to a senior US intelligence official, is that the American government is largely flying blind when it comes to the exact make-up of rebel forces. So how legitimate are the worries about
al-Qaeda opportunistically inserting itself into the civil war?

Much of the concern centres around the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), a jihadist organisation founded in the mid-1990s that waged a low-level guerrilla war against Gaddafi. In recent years, it had publicly rejected al-Qaeda's ideology and entered into a ceasefire with the government, as a result of which 700 militants have been released from jail over the past four years.

Some of these have since joined the rebels, meaning that Islamist militants certainly make up some unknown percentage of their forces. Yet Noman Benotman, a former LIFG leader based in London, points out that the LIFG "never carried out attacks against the West nor against civilians", suggesting that its members are more interested in regime change in their own country than a global holy war.

Weighed against this, however, is the fact that al-Qaeda's overall number three is a Libyan known as Abu Yahya al-Libi, who has recently appeared on a half-hour videotape on jihadist forums claiming that the West is propping up Arab dictators and exhorting his countrymen to take up arms against Gaddafi. Also, there is the cache of al-Qaeda documents recovered in Iraq in 2007, containing information about some 700 foreign fighters, many of whom had volunteered to be suicide bombers. Around 20 per cent were from Libya – one of the smaller Arab countries in terms of population – and of these, most were from the east, the heartland of the opposition to Gaddafi.

The worry in Washington is not confined to Libya: there is concern, for example, that "al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula" could take advantage of the deteriorating situation in Yemen, as the regime continues to teeter. Senior counterterrorism officials say that this group already posed the most direct threat to the West, pointing to its botched attempt to blow up an passenger jet over Detroit and the two bombs disguised as toner cartridges that were only discovered at airports in Dubai and the East Midlands because of a last-minute tip-off by Saudi intelligence.

Certainly, al-Qaeda and its affiliates in the Muslim world have long thrived amid the chaos of civil wars. Al Shabab, the militant group that pledged allegiance to bin Laden two years ago and controls large chunks of Somalia, is a good case in point. So is al-Qaeda in Iraq, which killed thousands in the recent civil war.

Yet at the same time, a striking feature of the revolutions and protests in Cairo, Benghazi and Sana is that no one is carrying placards of bin Laden. Nor have we seen pictures of burning American flags – usually de rigueur in that part of the world. This strongly suggests that al-Qaeda is not part of the Arab Spring, which has been driven instead by a bulging youth population; grim economic prospects for many; and rage at the authoritarian kleptocracies that have ruled for decades.

Al-Qaeda's leaders are defensive about the minuscule role they have played so far. On Tuesday, Anwar al-Awlaki, a Yemeni-American cleric and leading Islamist ideologue, released a lengthy rebuttal to the idea that al-Qaeda is marginal to the Arab revolutions. On the pages of the online magazine Inspire, a slickly laid-out publication that includes features on the proper use of an AK-47, Awlaki explained, "The mujahidin around the world are going through a moment of elation and I wonder whether the West is aware of the upsurge of mujahidin activity in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, Arabia, Algeria, and Morocco?"

Awlaki also took me to task personally, challenging a story I wrote in which I said that al-Qaeda's main goal – the installation of Taliban-style theocracies from Indonesia to Morocco – was irrelevant to what is going on in the Middle East. "For a so-called 'terrorism expert' such as Peter Bergen," he fulminated, "it is interesting to see how even he doesn't get it right this time. For him to think that because a Taliban-style regime is not going to take over following the revolutions is a too short-term way of viewing the unfolding events."

Perhaps history may prove Awlaki right. Certainly, it has a way of surprising us: in 1916 in Russia, it was hardly obvious that within two years, not only would the Tsar be dead, but that Lenin would be ruling in his place.

Yet my hunch is that whatever the outcomes of these various uprisings, they will not be pleasing to bin Laden. The protesters are not clamouring for Taliban-style rule, but the same things most of us want: accountable government, the rule of law, and a better future. And when it comes to any of these matters, al-Qaeda doesn't have much in the way of real ideas.

Peter Bergen is a programme director at the New America Foundation and the author of 'The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict between America and al-Qaeda' (Free Press).