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Does al-Qaida play big role in Libya revolt? U.S. doesn't think so

In this Arabic YouTube video from an Al Jazeera report on the fighting in Libya, rebel fighters listen to al-Qaida songs and indicate that religious fervor is motivating their battle against the regime of Col. Moammar Gadhafi.


By Robert Windrem
NBC News investigative producer for special projects

It’s a short YouTube clip from the Libyan war -- a three-minute piece culled from an Al Jazeera report on a group of rebel fighters. The group, dressed in fatigues and carrying AK-47s, are listening to recordings coming from a speaker in the back of a camouflaged pickup. 

The recordings playing in the background were produced by al-Qaida and the conversations around the truck suggest that these particular Libyan rebels are driven by a radical agenda and religious fervor rather than a desire for democracy. 

How significant was this scene in the Libyan desert? Not very, the commander of NATO forces and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Tuesday. There are concerns about the makeup of the rebel forces, they acknowledged, but not significant ones so far. The problem is, very little is known about the rebels. 

U.S. Navy Adm. James Stavridis, NATO’s supreme allied commander, testified before a U.S. Senate committee about “flickers” of radical Islamic al-Qaida sympathizers in Libya.  

 “We are examining very closely the content, composition, the personalities, who are the leaders of these opposition forces," he said.

Stavridis said that while the opposition's leadership appeared to be "responsible men and women," there were "flickers in the intelligence of potential al-Qaida (and) Hezbollah (presence among the rebels). We've seen different things…But at this point I don't have detail sufficient to say there is a significant al-Qaida presence or any other terrorist presence.”

Clinton went further at a London press briefing, saying after a meeting with allies on future actions in Libya that there is no specific information that al-Qaida is involved in the opposition to Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s government.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking during a press briefing in London after a meeting with allies on future actions in Libya, says there is no specific information that al-Qaida is involved in the Libyan opposition.

Responding to a question about Stavridis’ testimony, she said, “We do not have any specific information about specific individuals from any organization who are part of this, but of course we are still getting to know those who are leading the transitional national council.”  The Interim Transitional National Council is the rebels’ umbrella group -- or at least the organization the U.S. is dealing with at this point.

Other U.S. officials told NBC News that they believe al-Qaida has a very small presence  in Libya, and that there is no indication that the rebels are being led by al-Qaida or that a majority of the rebels are affiliated with the either the terrorist group’s central command in Pakistan or its North Africa affiliate, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.

U.S. officials have long been concerned that a radical Islamic movement could develop in Libya, but have focused less on al-Qaida than a local group, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG). Some of the latter group’s top figures, including one time leader Abu Faraj al Libi, joined al-Qaida in the early 2000s. He eventually rose to No. 3 in al-Qaida before being captured in Pakistan in 2005. He is currently imprisoned at the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo, Cuba.

Another Libyan, Abu Yahya al Libi,   is currently al-Qaida’s ideological chief. He released a 30-minute video earlier this month encouraging the rebels in their battle against Gadhafi. (Both names are noms de guerre.)

But the LIFG leadership could never recruit the rank-and-file into al-Qaida and a plan to merge the two groups failed, according to U.S. intelligence. That’s because the Libyan group wanted to pursue local goals rather than worldwide jihad. It even renounced violence last year.

As tensions rose in Libya last month, the government released more than 100 members of the LIFG, some of whom had been serving life sentences.  Although the stated reason was to free the last of Libya’s political prisoners, U.S. officials believe it was actually an effort by Gadhafi to signal that radical Islamists could seize power if his regime fell, in an effort to force Western nations to back off in supporting the rebels.

Whatever the reason, U.S. officials say, Gadhafi’s regime almost instantly regretted the move, since the LIFG’s internal discipline and experience has benefited the rag-tag rebel forces.

These officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said al-Qaida will likely try to subvert the Libyan rebellion to achieve its own ends, but they don’t believe it currently has the capability to co-opt the revolt.