Are Libyan rebels an al-Qaeda stalking horse?

Rebels seen through a pre-Gaddafi flag outside al-Agila, Libya. 30 March 2011
Image caption Libyan rebel forces deny there are al-Qaeda fighters among their ranks

Libya's rebels are not the militant jihadists that Col Muammar Gaddafi says they are, but the growing Western military action in Libya could help al-Qaeda get a foothold in the country.

US intelligence has picked up "flickers" of al-Qaeda activity among the rebel groups in Libya, Nato operations commander Adm James Stavridis has said.

Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington on Tuesday, he admitted that there was still no detailed picture of the emerging opposition.

His statements highlight fears among Western intelligence agencies of al-Qaeda's presence - however tenuous - on the ground in Libya.

Col Gaddafi and his son Saif al-Islam have repeatedly blamed al-Qaeda for the revolt, which has been largely driven by opposition forces in the eastern part of the country.

But no Western officials take these allegations seriously.

The main question now is whether the escalating turmoil and violence in Libya will give al-Qaeda the opportunity to secure a foothold in Libya.

Jihadists crushed

The Libyan Fighting Islamic Group (LIFG) was once one of the largest Arab jihadist groups.

Image caption Col Gaddafi's supporters say the Libyan leader has kept al-Qaeda out of the country

It was founded in Afghanistan in the early 1990s by a group of Libyans who took part in the "Afghan jihad" against the Soviet Union.

But the LIFG largely rejected al-Qaeda's concept of global jihad and focused mainly on establishing an Islamic state in Libya.

The LIFG went public in October 1995, but the Libyan authorities largely crushed the movement at the beginning of the new millennium.

In late 2007, al-Qaeda announced a merger with the LIFG, but the Libyan jihadists rejected the move and started the process of revising their ideology with the Libyan authorities, which led to the dissolution of the LIFG itself in mid-2009.

Former LIFG members then formed the Libyan Islamic Movement for Change (LIMC), which has activities in London. They renounced violence and launched a political opposition campaign against the Gaddafi regime.

LIMC literature - published on their website - suggests that there is no "Libyan al-Qaeda".

Softer approach

Al-Qaeda and its affiliated jihadist groups have been notably absent from the popular uprisings in various Arab capitals.

The group's central leadership - based in the Afghanistan-Pakistan area - have few, if any, active operatives in Libya.

To overcome this, al-Qaeda has issued statements about Libya to try to inspire Libyans to create their own local branches.

The softer tone is also evident in recent speeches by its leaders, including al-Qaeda's second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) - which represents the jihadist movement in North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa - recently issued a statement of solidarity with the protesters in Tunisia and Libya.

Al-Qaeda has traditionally exploited unstable regions with little or no government control - Iraq, after the US invasion in 2003, is an obvious example.

Currently, Somalia, Yemen and the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region are similar targets for the organisation.

The jihadists claim to be the legitimate resistance against Western occupying powers, most notably the US. They also claim to be fighting against local "tyrant" regimes.

Anti-West propaganda

On 29 March, a group of jihadist web forums issued - for the first time - a joint statement warning against the "Western plot" for a post-Gaddafi age.

It claimed that the UN-backed imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya was actually an attempt to seize the country's oil resources.

The statement warned that the West was seeking to replace the Libyan government with leaders who would not threaten Western interests, such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

One al-Qaeda spokesman was Atiyyah Allah al-Libi, a Libyan member since 1989, now based in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.

Image caption Jihadists says the no-fly zone is part of a Western attempt to seize Libya's oil

He issued a statement warning that the Western military intervention in Libya would put the US on a collision course with al-Qaeda - as happened in Iraq after the 2003 US-led invasion.

He also reminded the public of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, who was killed by US forces in 2006.

Historically, eastern Libya has been a stronghold of opposition to the Gaddafi regime.

It is also the seat of the so-called "freelance jihadists" - Islamist militants who operate independently of any group.

The eastern Libyan city of Derna - now under rebel control - produced 52 of the 112 Libyans who took part in the fight against US troops in Iraq, according to US Department of Defense records.

Many who fought were reportedly arrested upon their return to Libya and later freed on condition that they renounced violence.

Atiyyah Allah al-Libi (real name Jamal Ibrahim Shteiwi al-Misrati) is one of the few Libyan leaders in al-Qaeda's central leadership.

Another prominent Libyan leader is Abu Yahya al-Libi (real name Hassan Mohammed Qaid), who is perceived by al-Qaeda sympathisers as one of the group's strategists.

So, despite the absence of a Libyan al-Qaeda at present, there are fears the group will see the instability as a chance to make inroads.