'Flickers' of Al Qaeda in Libya?
While top U.S. officials have said the popular revolts that have swept Arab nations from Tunisia to Syria -- known as the Arab Spring -- show al Qaeda's irrelevance, the man in charge of intelligence gathering for America recently said the instability could also be an opportunity for would-be jihadists.
"The unrest potentially provides terrorists inspired by the global jihadist movement more operating space," America's Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told a Congressional committee in January. "Ongoing unrest most likely would exacerbate public frustration, erosion of state power, and economic woes -- conditions that al Qaeda would work to exploit."
Last March, NATO Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, U.S. Admiral James Stavridis, said at the time there were only "flickers in the intelligence of potential al Qaeda" links.
The same month, Osama bin Laden's replacement as head of al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, called the Libyan rebels his "brothers and sisters" in an issue of an al Qaeda English-language magazine, but did not mention any particular group.
Libyan revolutionaries who are now in power have had a complicated relationship with al Qaeda. The same man who triumphantly led Libyan rebels into Gadhafi's compound in August had years before been described by U.S. intelligence as the leader of a local terror group with links to al Qaeda. Derna, a city that was a rebel stronghold during the revolution, was known as a wellspring for al Qaeda fighters sent to attack American soldiers in Iraq.
Still, Zelin said there is little to no public evidence al Qaeda has a strong presence in Libya.
"Ultimately, while there are more than  'flickers' of al Qaeda in Libya," Zelin and coauthor Andrew Lebovich wrote in the CTC report, "there is not enough information to determine if the group has the means, or even the desire, to set up a durable presence in the country – especially when Western governments and special forces are keeping an eye on Libya, and opposing armed militias remain ready to protect their own power and influence."
Officials at the U.S. State Department and the Department of Defense did not immediately respond to requests for comment on this report.