Al Qaeda Flags Parade in Gadhafi Hometown?

Video purportedly shows convoy of trucks bearing al Qaeda flags in Sirte, Libya.

ByABC News
March 26, 2012, 1:58 PM

— -- A new video has surfaced online that purports to show a convoy of Libyan military and police vehicles -- more than two dozen in all -- rolling through the hometown of late dictator Moammar Gadhafi while bearing a flag similar to the infamous black banner of al Qaeda.

It was not immediately clear when the video was shot, but according to the accompanying caption written by a self-identified pro-Gadhafi supporter, it was taken in the coastal town of Sirte and shows 29 vehicles -- everything from SUVs labeled "police," "Sirte," and "rebels" to a couple full-sized fire trucks. A handful of heavy machine guns are mounted on some of the military-style trucks. More than a dozen of the black banners long associated with al Qaeda whip in the wind.

If the caption is accurate, it would not be the first time the flag belonging to the world's most high-profile terror group has flown in the war-torn North African nation since the popular revolt against Gadhafi began last February. In October, an al Qaeda flag was reportedly raised over a courthouse in the de facto rebel capital of Benghazi. Caravans bearing the flag, similar to the one shown in the new video, have also apparently been spotted in Tripoli, according to a new report by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.

But the Libyan ambassador to the United Nations, Ibrahim Dabbashi, told ABC News that the video is not what it seems. Libyan brigades have flown similar flags in the past and, when questioned about them, the brigade commanders always said they were simply the "flag of the Prophet Muhammad," Dabbashi said.

"These brigades have no relation whatsoever with al Qaeda," he said. "There are no al Qaeda elements in Libya."

Similar black flags with the Muslim statement of faith written in white have been used by a variety of Islamist groups in the past, according to Aaron Zelin, coauthor of the new CTC report. And though the ones in the video appear to be the altered version used specifically by al Qaeda, Zelin said it would be difficult to know if the men flying the flag were actual operatives of the terrorist group, sympathizers, other jihadists unrelated to al Qaeda, or simple tribesmen looking for attention.

"Just because they have a flag does not necessarily mean they are al Qaeda," Zelin said. "Anybody could use a flag like that."

One U.S. official told ABC News that either way, the flying of Islamist flags apparently by Libyan military forces was "troubling."

"What you may have here is simply a fundamentalist brigade parade, which is troubling, but [that] doesn't necessarily make this a column of al Qaeda fighters," the official said. "What you also may have is some militias smearing other militias with the al Qaeda-linked tag."