LONDON, July 28 (UPI) — As Libya’s Transitional National Council edges toward power, the North African country’s fraught political scene is overshadowed by what Donald Rumsfeld would have called a great known unknown.
No one knows or can tell how strong the extreme Islamist or jihadist element actually is in Libya’s rebel ranks but many old Libya hands in European diplomatic circles insist the radical Islamic element in the evolving opposition — now verging toward power — isn’t to be trifled with.
There are good reasons for heeding that argument. Through the years of Moammar Gadhafi’s rule, in fact since he took power on Sept. 1 1969, radical Muslim skepticism over his Islamic credentials has taken many forms.
Throughout that period a trickle of Islamist asylum seekers who managed to escape his frequent crackdowns made Europe their home. Libyan exiles are everywhere but many are concentrated in Britain, Ireland, Italy and Germany.
Just as there are Libyan Christians and Jews spread across Europe there are Islamists of various persuasions across Europe who almost mirror the different strands of Islamist radical — and more recently — Jihadist movements in Libya.
As the revolt against Gadhafi erupted, after the movement that toppled President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in neighboring Tunisia in February, early reports suggested an upsurge of Islamist activity.
However, as overt Western support to the rebels grew and was formalized by a U.N.-led NATO intervention, the Islamists spirited away, partly out of pragmatism, as their presence would surely have jeopardized the project by striking fear into the hearts of European leaders.
The Islamists may be gone from the forefront but they aren’t forgotten. As the loosely constituted TNC nears power, having been gifted the London Embassy and near enough to securing the Washington mission as well, the key question now raised is how will the TNC leaders galvanize their ranks and persuade the Libyans to follow them?
Will they ultimately use the rallying call of Islam to glue the disparate groups together?
Will they match the charisma that Islamists and Jihadists are known to muster as short notice?
“Jihadism, long kept in check under Colonel Gadhafi’s iron rule, is now emerging as a problem in the liberated areas of the country,” exiled former Islamist leader Noman Benotman wrote in The Times newspaper. The TNC’s rebel government “is struggling to cope,” he said.
Benotman played a central part in the reconciliation program led by Gadhafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, under which hundreds of former Islamists renounced violence and won freedom from Libyan prisons. He is a senior analyst at Quilliam, a London think tank that monitors Islamism and Jihadist trends worldwide.
Jihadism has always been present in Libya, Benotman argues. During the 1990s, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, of which Benotman was a senior leader, engaged in a long, armed struggle against Gadhafi in an unsuccessful big to establish an Islamic Libya.
After the 2003 allied invasion of Iraq, hundreds of Jihadists left Libya for Iraq to fight against British and U.S. forces there.
Some of the old strands of Jihadism have become more moderate today and are focused on removing Gadhafi to establish a free and democratic country rather than on creating an Islamic state, says Benotman.
“But others who survived their adventure in Iraq have brought back with them the nihilistic, extremist mindset that characterized al-Qaida there,” Benotman wrote in The Times article.
Plus there are younger Libyans who have radicalized themselves online. Many of these have linked up with Libyan Iraqi veterans and roving foreign Jihadist volunteers to set up vigilante groups and even training camps in the liberated areas of Libya, ironically under NATO’s humanitarian air cover, says Benotman.
“Some, but not all, of these activities have been disrupted by the democrats of the rebel council,” he says.
Al-Qaida’s online propagandists are portraying the NATO intervention as the latest example of Western neo-imperialism and are depicting its Libyan allies in the rebel government as collaborators at worst, or dupes at best, says Benotman.
He called for urgent action by TNC leaders to check the jihadist tendency in their ranks.
Jihadist camps now on the frontline as part of the opposition to Gadhafi must also be disarmed and shut, argues Benotman.
‘If Jihadism goes unchecked, it will be much harder to deal with after the resolution of the conflict,” he warns.