Home inContext Who are the Libyan Rebels?

Who are the Libyan Rebels?

Samara Greenberg

Concerns over Libya’s rebels began to surface Tuesday as the U.S. considers arming the opposition and NATO moves closer to taking charge of the campaign.

In a Senate hearing Tuesday, U.S. Adm. James Stavridis, NATO’s supreme allied commander in Europe, testified that intelligence agencies had picked up “flickers” of the presence of extremists among Libyan rebel fighters. Noting that most of the opposition’s leaders are “responsible men and women who are struggling against Col. Qaddafi,” Stavridis also said that intelligence has reported the presence of al-Qaeda and Hezbollah on the ground, although he lacks sufficient detail to say that their numbers are “significant.”

A Libyan rebel holds the pre-Qaddafi Libyan flag as he walks past a burning tank.

Stavridis’ comments yesterday marked the first time a senior U.S. official publicly acknowledged an al-Qaeda presence, although the terrorist network and Libyan opposition groups are known to have long-standing ties. For years, Libya has served as a recruiting ground for al-Qaeda. Libyans have served as senior members of the terrorist group and traveled to Iraq in disproportionately large numbers to carry out attacks on U.S. forces. The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, an enemy of Qaddafi’s, formally joined al-Qaeda in 2007.

Moreover, according to a December 2009 Canadian intelligence report, the anti-Qaddafi stronghold of eastern Libya an “epicentre of Islamist extremism.” The report, written by the government’s Integrated Threat Assessment Centre, noted that “several Islamist insurgent groups” were based in eastern Libya and mosques in Benghazi were urging followers to fight in Iraq.

The United States has a long history of supporting rebel armies or opposition groups, which has backfired at times. Afghanistan is a perfect example. While American action in Libya and establishing the no-fly zone was a step in the right direction, many questions will need to be answered before deciding if arming the rebels is in America’s long-term interest.