When Muammar Gaddafi first warned of al Qaeda presence among the rebels ranged against him, few believed him. A top US commander on Tuesday spoke of "flickers" of talk of Al Qaeda presence in Libya lately.
"We have seen flickers in intelligence (reports) of potential al Qaeda and
Hizbollah elements," US admiral James Stavridis, NATO supreme commander for Europe, told the senate armed services committee.
But there wasn't much to report, not yet at least. "At this point I do not have details sufficient to say there is a significant presence of al Qaeda or any other terrorist presence," he added in the same breath.
By the end of the day, the "flickers" comment had gone viral, coming as it did as the first official admission of the presence of al Qaeda elements among the rebels in Libya, which had been a subject of much speculation lately.
"There is no question that al Qaeda's Libyan franchise, Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, is a part of the opposition," Bruce Riedel, former CIA officer and a leading expert on terrorism, told Hindustan Times.
It has always been Qaddafi's biggest enemy and its stronghold is Benghazi. "What is unclear is how much of the opposition is al Qaeda/Libyan Islamic Fighting Group - 2% or 80%," Riedel added.
Administration officials are tending towards a lower percentage, as did Stavridis at the hearing. Citing intelligence reports he said the rebels leaders are "responsible men and women struggling against Gaddafi".
Questions have been raised about the rebels and their leaders - members of the Interim Transitional National Council, which is based in Benghazi - most of whom are former members of Gaddafi's administration or military.
"It is obvious now that this issue is run by al Qaeda," Gaddafi said in a phoned-in broadcast to his people on February 24. "Those armed youngsters, our children, are incited by people who are wanted by America and the Western world."
"Those inciting are very few in numbers and we have to capture them." The US agrees. And is worried as it has said arming the rebels is among the many options under consideration. Though a decision has not been taken, the possibility has been repeatedly confirmed as an "option on the table". But the US government is now facing a different kind of heat - and purely on account of suspected al Qaeda links of the rebels: couldn't it have done a some more research before getting into bed with them?
"We're still getting to know those who are leading the Transitional National Council," said secretary of state Hillary Clinton in London after an international conference on Libya. "And that will be a process that continues."
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