Qaddafi has released hundreds of jailed Islamist terrorists now poised to exploit Libya’s chaos, directly threatening the US. Some even have ties to Osama bin Laden and the Afghan Taliban. Where are they now? What are they doing? Washington must answer these questions immediately.
Despite the international community’s choice to intervene militarily and impose a no-fly zone in Libya, the rebels and forces loyal to Muammar Qaddafi appear stuck in a stalemate. This, however, is not the only concern.
As the world debates what needs to be – and can be – done in Libya, the significant threat of terrorism is going largely unnoticed. Islamist terrorists once in custody can now exploit Libya’s internal chaos and operate with impunity, directly threatening US interests.
Because of my research on terrorists and disengagement efforts in Yemen and Saudi Arabia, the Qaddafi Foundation invited me to visit Libya last year along with a group of journalists and other researchers to learn about the country’s so-called extremist rehabilitation program.
It was a relatively simple concept. Imprisoned Islamist fighters were able to gain their freedom in exchange for recognizing the government’s legitimacy and renouncing violence.
I was at Tripoli’s notorious Abu Salim prison the day more than 200 detainees were released from prison. It was a chaotic sight to see as the prisoners simply walked out of the prison to go their separate ways and rejoin their families. There was no process for preparing prisoners for release, nothing to help reintegrate them into society, and no way to monitor their future activities or ensure that they weren’t participating in terrorist activities.
This was essentially a political choice to demobilize former fighters – not rehabilitation or reintegration. The focus was solely on ending the violence against the state, and not reducing the likelihood of future militancy. There were few signs that many former detainees had truly given up their previous beliefs.
During my time in Libya, I met with the emir, spiritual guide, and military commander of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), a jihadi group that waged a violent insurgency in Libya during the late 1990s and tried to assassinate Mr. Qaddafi several times. The network had been the greatest single challenge to the Qaddafi regime up until the uprising began a few months ago.
The LIFG was largely made up of veterans of the war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, some of whom were reportedly close to Osama bin Laden. The group reportedly trained more than a thousand Libyan nationals in Afghan training camps before 9/11 and the group was often thought of as the most lethal Islamist group in North Africa. Some members were tied directly to Al Qaeda, but others chose instead to deal solely with the Islamist fight against Qaddafi in Libya.
Libyans are instrumental in international terrorist networks. Only Saudis made up a bigger segment of foreigners in Iraq fighting against the American military according to one study. And there have been several notable Libyans who have served instrumental and senior leadership positions in Al Qaeda. Since the Libyan uprising began, there has been an unprecedented flurry of messages from Al Qaeda in support of their bid to bring down the hated Qaddafi regime.