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‘Flickers’ of Al Qaeda in Libya Aren’t New

Libya Rebels Lookout 3-24

March 24: A Libyan rebel observes on a checkpoint the frontline near Zwitina, the outskirts of the city of Ajdabiya, south of Benghazi, eastern Libya. (AP) (AP2011)

As the Obama administration openly considers arming Libyan rebels to repel forces led by Col, Muammar al-Qaddafi, reports that "flickers" of al Qaeda may be present among the fighters has raised fears extremists could take advantage of an unwieldy situation to gain power in a new Libya.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton conceded Tuesday that the administration is not fully aware of exactly who is running the armed rebellion. She announced the Obama administration has appointed an envoy to the interim national council that comprises the ragtag rebel army.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., also shrugged off suggestions that al Qaeda may have a role to play in the rebellion.

"I am a little bit aggravated by this hype that somehow Al Qaeda is going to take over this organization. There is no evidence. I just spoke to admiral on the phone, our NATO commander, and he says he has seen some efforts and indications, but there is no evidence that they are going to take over and hijack," McCain said on PBS Tuesday night.

"And in addition to that, you know, you have got to go a long way to be worse than Qaddafi," McCain added.

Despite the forward march, however, historically al Qaeda has long maintained a strong underground presence in predominately Sunni Muslim Libya. According to the CIA World Factbook, 47 percent of the Sunni population is made up of people age 25, nearly half of whom are unemployed. 

In 2007, The West Point Terrorism Report concluded that the second largest number of foreign fighters in Iraq, traveling through Syria, came from Libya, second only to Saudi Arabia. Of those, the report concluded that the majority came from the Northeast, particularly the coastal towns of Darna and Benghazi where the rebel groups have been strongest in the current fight.

During the 1970s and 1980s, the Libyan Islamic Brotherhood, which later became known as the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood, moved underground to avoid Qaddafi's harsh tactics of oppression.

Established in 1979, the Libyan Islamic Brotherhood adopted the shared purpose and principles of the Muslim Brotherhood -- establishment of "the Islamic religion and state."

In February 2011, jihadists formed a new group, calling upon Libyan citizens to take part. The movement, deemed the "Libyan Islamic Movement for Change," claimed it would bring down the Libyan government unarmed and called on the Libyan people to join it.

But both paths to legitimacy demonstrate extremists' simultaneous approach, said Middle East and terrorism expert, Walid Phares, a Fox News contributor.

"The Libyan Muslim Brotherhood seems to be the most organized bloc inside the rebels' political structures," said Phares, adding that it is quietly piggy-backing on advances across the coast by allied-backed rebels.

On the one hand, the Muslim Brotherhood network in Libya, operating under different names, is spreading to form a vast basis for the "rebellion" by forming local communities, adhering to the defense and security committees and putting significant pressure on the former bureaucrats of the Interim National Council to abide by their arguments and policy guidance.

On the other hand, al Qaeda-linked groups are attempting to claim credibility by deploying on the front lines against Qaddafi's forces and more importantly, appearing on Arab TV as if they were the bulk of Libya's mujahideen.

"The common strategy by the Muslim Brotherhood and al Qaeda is to keep the final aim as low profile," Phares said. "They have ordered their members not to raise jihadi flags in the presence of media. But often the foot soldiers uncover their ideological identity by chanting al Qaeda and other jihadi hymns."

According to Phares, this has happened multiple times on Al-Jazeera and other networks without the Arabic messages or context being realized.

In a statement issued by a new Libyan mission to the U.N. on Wednesday, the Interim National Council stated that its goal is to rebuild Libya into a democratic state and outlined a series of aspirations, including a national constitution, open economy, free and fair elections and formation of political parties and freedom of speech in the media and through public assembly.

We have learnt from the struggles of our past during the dark days of dictatorship that there is no alternative to building a free and democratic society and ensuring the supremacy of international humanitarian law and human rights declarations," the statement reads."The lessons of our past will outline our social contract through the need to respect the interests of all groups and classes that comprise the fabric of our society and not compromise the interests of one at the expense of the other."