Part of the debate in Washington surrounding American involvement in Libya is whether the U.S. is actually helping terrorists take down Muammar Qaddafi’s regime. Earlier this week, U.S. NATO commander Adm. James Stavridis told the Senate Armed Services Committee that there are potentially “flickers” of al Qaeda and Hezbollah elements within the Libyan rebel movement. However, one senior counterterrorism official has said that “no one should think the opposition is being led by al Qaeda or one of its affiliates.”
Yesterday during a hearing in front of the same committee, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Adm. Mike Mullen echoed those sentiments. “We just haven’t seen anything other than what I would call aspirational from al Qaeda leadership,” he said. But outside of whether anti-American terrorists have joined the Libyan resistance, Defense Secretary Robert Gates later added that even if there are al Qaeda elements, there is “no evidence” the Libyan people would support their ideology. Mullen agreed:
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: Do either one of you believe the Libyan people would stand for an al Qaeda led Libya?
GATES: Absolutely no evidence to support that.
MULLEN: No, I don’t. [...]
GATES: Look, the real power in Libya is in the hands of the tribes and even Qaddafi realizes that. And I just don’t understand how it would be possible for these tribes to want to cede any of that authority to some outside crowd like al Qaeda.
Various reports back up Adm. Stavridis’s statement this week but there is so far no evidence to suggest that al Qaeda or any other terror group is leading the Libyan resistance. U.S. officials reportedly “haven’t seen much, if any” extremist activity in Libya. The rebels themselves say they aren’t affiliated with terrorists, and reporting from the de facto rebel capital of Benghazi this week, The New Yorker’s Jon Lee Anderson concluded of the rebels, “It seems unlikely…that they represent Al Qaeda.”
Conservatives here at home — such as Newt Gingrich and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) — have been attacking President Obama for allegedly committing the U.S. military to fight on behalf of al Qaeda in Libya. Apart from the fact that there is no evidence to support these claims, Gates addressed this argument and noted that it’s important to be mindful that Qaddafi is using it to justify his attacks on the rebels and civilians:
GATES: One of the things that Qaddafi is doing though is in his information operations, he is trying to gin up the narrative that the opposition is in fact led by al Qaeda and so one of the things that’s making it a little difficult is he broadcasts all the time that al Qaeda is involved and al Qaeda is doing this and that. So we just have to be aware that he is using this in his own propaganda.