March 31, 2011 -- Less than four years before Libya's popular opposition movement took up arms and revolted against Moammar Gadhafi with enthusiastic U.S. backing, anti-Gadhafi fighters chose another tactic to hit back at the hated dictator: they joined al Qaeda and tried to kill American soldiers in Iraq, according to U.S. documents.
In 2007 the U.S. Department of Defense snatched more than 600 records of al Qaeda's foreign fighters in Iraq and discovered nearly a fifth of the foreigners were from Libya, according to a report by West Point's Combating Terrorism Center released later that year. Within those records, the total put Libya second only to Saudi Arabia in total fighters and "far and away" the largest provider of foreign fighters per capita to the terrorist organization.
Almost all of the Libyan fighters hailed from the east -- cities like Benghazi, effectively the current opposition headquarters; Ajdabiya, which was the site of intense fighting overnight; and Derna, a city currently held by the rebels.
"The Libyan pipeline to Iraq," the report says, "is firmly established."
The report ties the surge of Libyan recruits to a formal pledge of allegiance to al Qaeda by a major anti-Gadhafi group in 2007.
At the time of the report's release, the U.S. and Gadhafi were enjoying a relative resurgence in diplomatic relations following Gadhafi's promise in 2003 to abandon the country's weapons of mass destruction program. The newfound cordiality convinced anti-Gadhafi groups they could fire back at Gadhafi by unleashing violent attacks on U.S. soldiers in Iraq, according to a leaked 2008 State Department cable.
"It was 'well-known' that a large number of suicide bombers (invariably described as 'martyrs') and foreign fighters in Iraq hailed from Derna," the cable says, describing a conversation a U.S. embassy official had with locals in Derna. "There was a strong perception, [one local] said, that the U.S. had decided in the wake of [Gadhafi's] decision to abandon WMD aspirations and renounce terrorism to support the regime to secure counter-terrorism cooperation and ensure continued oil and natural gas production.
"Many easterners feared the U.S. would not allow [the] regime to fall and therefore viewed direct confrontation with the [Government of Libya] in the near-term as a fool's errand. At the same time, sending young Libyans to fight in Iraq was 'an embarrassment' to [Gadhafi]," says the cable, posted on the website WikiLeaks. "Fighting against U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq represented a way for frustrated young radicals to strike a blow against both [Gadhafi] and against his perceived American backers."
WikiLeaks 2008 Cable: Derna's 'Perverse Pride' in Killing Americans
Another cable from February 2008 described a dinner party in Derna attended by the family of two young men from the town who had killed themselves in suicide operations in Iraq against Americans and the "perverse sense of pride" the town had for what they'd done.
"Dinner guests offered a mix of 'condolences and congratulations' to the two young men's relatives," the cable said. One attendee told a U.S. official he was "struck by the level of sentiment against coalition forces in Iraq, and by the obvious pride the dinner guests took in the fact that two of their native sons had 'struck a blow' against 'occupying Crusader forces in Iraq.'"
U.S. Liaison to Opposition Classified al Qaeda Cables
A day before President Barack Obama authorized covert support of the rebels in Libya, NATO Supreme Allied Commander in Europe U.S. Admiral James Stavridis said officials will watch potential terrorist presence in the opposition "very closely," but had so far only seen "flickers" of it.
"The intelligence that I'm receiving at this point makes me feel that the leadership that I'm seeing are responsible men and women who are struggling against Col. Gadhafi," said Stavridis Tuesday. "At this point, I don't have detail sufficient to say that there's a significant al Qaeda presence or any other terrorist presence in and among these folks."
For its part, al Qaeda attempted to claim a piece of the Middle East rebellions, calling the latest issue of its English-language magazine "The Tsunami of Change" and openly mocking Gadhafi.
Earlier this month the Obama administration named U.S. State Department officer Chris Stevens the government's liaison to the opposition. Stevens, previously the number two man at the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, was also the U.S. official who three years ago classified the cables about the Libyan opposition's direct links to al Qaeda.
ABC News' Jake Tapper contributed to this report.