By Catherine Herridge, ,
Published December 22, 2015
An advance copy of the report entitled "A View to Extremist Currents In Libya" and obtained by Fox News, states that extremist views are gaining ground in the north African country and suggests a key figure emerging in Libya formerly tied to al Qaeda has not changed his stripes.
"Despite early indications that the Libyan revolution might be a largely secular undertaking ... the very extremist currents that shaped the philosophies of Libya Salafists and jihadis like (Abd al-Hakim) Belhadj appear to be coalescing to define the future of Libya," wrote Michael S. Smith II, a principal and counterterrorism adviser for Kronos LLC, the strategic advisory firm that prepared the report.
Belhadj is considered one of the most powerful militia commanders in Libya as head of the Tripoli Military Council. As Fox News reported earlier this year, Belhadj is reported to be a former emir of an al Qaeda affiliate known as the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group or LIFG. Founded in 1995 to set up an Islamic state or emirate inside Libya, it waged jihad against the regime of former Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi.
On Nov. 3, 2007, senior al Qaeda leaders announced that LIFG had officially joined Usama bin Laden's network, according to the State Department which designated LIFG as a terrorist organization.
Belhadj, who joined the group at its inception, had fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the late 1980s. He was arrested in Malaysia in February 2004, reportedly interrogated by the CIA, before he was sent home to Libya. He was released from prison in 2009 as part of a rehabilitation program.
In its report, Smith writes that a 400-page document authored by members of the LIFG in 2009 and widely depicted as a repudiation of al Qaeda and Islamic terrorism in general was largely misinterpreted by both media and policymakers in the West, and that helped foster support for the revolution in 2011.
"The resultant misapprehensions bolstered by insufficient analysis of the LIFG's 'revisions' have likely influenced decisions made in Washington and Brussels since February 17, 2011," reads the report.
This summer, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland was asked by Fox News about Belhadj, his connections to LIFG and whether he had a place within the Libyan transitional government.
"They're going to have to make their own decisions as all of these countries who have been in transition recently have had to make -- whether past action, past affiliation meets the smell test within the principles that they've laid out," Nuland replied.
Smith emphasized that traditionally Libyan operatives have been central to the al Qaeda mission.
"Libyans have been featured prominently in the history of core al Qaeda. Libyan LIFG member Abu Yahya al-Libi is regarded as core al Qaeda's top Sharia official and many analysts anticipated he would be appointed bin Laden's successor. His brother is Abd al-Wahad al-Qayid, a founding member of the LIFG who was one of the six LIFG leaders who authored the group's corrective studies while imprisoned in Libya."
The Kronos report says that "Libya is of such strategic interest" to al Qaeda that for years it was its own entity separate from its north Africa affiliate -- al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
Libya was considered important to al Qaeda because of its geographic proximity to Egypt and its perceived ability to "affect the jihadist political situation in Egypt."
For this reason, among others, al Qaeda's new leader Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri in April 2011 called on jihadis to prepare to mount an insurgency against any Western forces in Libya.
"I would like to alert my Muslim brothers in Libya, Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia and the rest of the lands of Islam that if the United States and the NATO forces interfere in Libya, it will be necessary for their neighbors ... and the rest of the Muslims to go forth to fight all of the mercenaries of (Muammar) al-Qaddafi and the crusaders of NATO," he said, according to a translation provided by Kronos.
The report, which includes lengthy translations from LIFG so law and policymakers may directly assess the group's stated intentions, also includes a series of questions for consideration. Among them: whether the transitional government in Libya is showing a willingness to cooperate with U.S. counterterrorism operations and whether the number of al Qaeda affiliated militants has grown in Libya since the death of Qaddafi.
Fox News chief intelligence correspondent Catherine Herridge's bestselling book "The Next Wave: On the Hunt for al Qaeda's American Recruits," published by Crown, draws on her reporting for Fox News into al Qaeda 2.0 – and the new generation of digital jihadists.