The death of Abu Laith al Libi, a Libyan Al Qaeda chief, has cast a spotlight on the rise of Libyan militants in a network dominated by Egyptians and Saudis, Western anti-terrorism investigators say.
Al Libi was killed last week in an American missile strike on a hide-out in Pakistan near the border with Afghanistan, officials say. In addition to overseeing a paramilitary campaign in Afghanistan, Al Libi had become a top figure in a propaganda barrage on the Internet, according to experts.
The emergence of the Libyans, traditionally a strong but low-profile group, is a result of developments on three fronts: Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Although Al Qaeda has suffered setbacks in Iraq, Libyan militants there have proved resilient and adept at moving fighters into combat, experts say. Libyans have become the second-biggest foreign insurgent contingent in Iraq after the Saudis, according to a U.S. military analysis of seized documents.
Al Qaeda’s leaders in Pakistan have rewarded the Libyans with increased power and media presence, experts say.
“There is a rising leadership cadre of Libyans in Al Qaeda,” said J. Vahid Brown, an analyst at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. “Egyptians have really dominated strategic and military operations. The Egyptians are good at keeping control of that, because many of them have military training. Now you have Libyan faces appearing in videos.”
Al Qaeda’s chief, Osama bin Laden, is a Saudi, and his deputy, Ayman Zawahiri, is Egyptian. Their dominance has made Egyptians, especially, and Gulf Arabs the organization’s most powerful players.
Western investigators say Al Qaeda’s structure is paradoxically fluid and bureaucratic at the same time. The multiethnic alliance survives by evolving on the run, but it also has a penchant for titles, budgets and paperwork.
“What is curious about Al Qaeda is the contradictory nature of the organization,” said a senior British anti- terrorism official. “It is curiously bureaucratic.”
And the network has its share of infighting.
Some rifts have been ideological, such as a debate over Bin Laden’s decision to launch the Sept. 11 attacks and the crushing retaliation it provoked. In addition, conflicts have resulted from resentment of the Egyptians as well as tensions between Arabs and Central Asians, experts said.
The network has an ethnic pecking order of sorts. In the late 1990s, Libyans were quiet but influential. They played the role of mentors for fellow North Africans, particularly Moroccans who were seen as “little foot soldiers,” according to a Spanish law enforcement chief.
The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which has waged a longtime campaign against Moammar Kadafi’s regime, ran a camp in Afghanistan that groomed the founders of the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group, according to Spanish court documents. Al Libi became a revered figure among the Moroccans.
A captured Moroccan extremist named Nourredine Nafia told interrogators about meetings in Turkey in 1998 at which Libyans provided expertise about communications and organizing cells, according to Italian court documents.
After the U.S.-led military strikes in Afghanistan in retaliation for the Sept. 11 attacks, the damaged Al Qaeda leadership scattered to refuges in northwest Pakistan and elsewhere. Mid-level chiefs moved up to replace slain or captured veterans.
They now operate mainly in tribal areas in Pakistan’s Waziristan region out of village compounds such as the one hit by the missile strike last week, investigators say.
Although the organizational lines are not always sharp, Egyptians have tended to run an “external operations” wing that targets the West. Libyans have concentrated on paramilitary combat and attacks on Western and local targets in Pakistan and Afghanistan, experts say.
A Libyan named Abu Faraj Farj who was based in the Bajaur tribal area allegedly masterminded two assassination attempts in 2003 against Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf as Al Qaeda tried to reconstitute itself, said Singapore-based terrorism expert Rohan Gunaratna, author of “Inside Al Qaeda.”
With Bin Laden and Zawahiri isolated to avoid detection, Farj was among a select few who met with the two fugitives and transmitted messages and directives to commanders in Waziristan, according to U.S. intelligence officials.
Farj was captured in 2005 in Pakistan and is being held at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. It is believed he was betrayed by a Central Asian faction competing with Arab leaders for turf and allegiances in the tribal areas, said Brown, the West Point analyst.
As they work with a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Libyans have stepped up in the Iraqi theater. Libyan strategists tried to smooth the difficult long-distance relationship with Abu Musab Zarqawi, the Jordanian whose campaign of bombings and beheadings in Iraq came to be seen as counterproductive, experts say.
After the 2006 slaying of Zarqawi in a U.S. strike, the number of foreign fighters entering Iraq declined and his group, Al Qaeda in Iraq, lost support among Iraqis.
Disillusioned by Sunni- Shiite bloodshed in Iraq, some foreign militants have headed to other combat zones such as Afghanistan and Somalia, according to European intelligence officials.
But Libyan militants have demonstrated tenacity in reaching Iraq despite increased border controls in Syria and other neighboring countries, according to a study released in December by the West Point center.
Hard numbers are elusive in war zones. But the study is based on detailed personnel records kept by Al Qaeda in Iraq of about 600 fighters who entered Iraq between August 2006 and last August. The documents were seized last October by U.S. troops near the Syrian border.
The study found that Libyans constituted 18% of the foreign fighters in Iraq, second only to Saudis at 41%. Previous studies estimated a much smaller percentage of Libyans, suggesting that the ethnic composition has shifted over time, the report says.
Most of the militants cited in the West Point study are from the Libyan towns of Darnah and Benghazi, traditional hotbeds of Islamic extremism, and made their way to Iraq through Egypt and Syria.
Zawahiri and other leaders have gone out of their way to praise the prowess of Libyan fighters, Brown said. In a video released in November by As Sahab, the media wing of Al Qaeda, Al Libi extols fellow militants as the heirs of those whose “blood was spilled in the mountains of Darnah” and “the streets of Benghazi.”
The video was significant because Al Libi used it to announce the formal incorporation of the Libyan group into Al Qaeda’s anti-Western struggle.
The merger has caused divisions because of ethnic resentment and because some militants fear the struggle against the Libyan government will be overshadowed by Al Qaeda’s global agenda, according to the senior British anti-terrorism official.
“That was a controversial move,” the official said. “As Al Qaeda expands its franchises, there is an increase in capability, but also in vulnerability. There are concerns about being subordinated to a load of Egyptians in Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
Power brings vulnerability for individuals as well. Al Libi has joined a growing list of slain or captured Al Qaeda bosses whom U.S. security forces and their allies targeted as they moved to the forefront.
Although Bin Laden and Zawahiri are the most notorious and elusive prey, the hunt has focused most urgently on Al Qaeda figures seen as top strategists and hands-on masterminds of plots against Western targets. Al Libi’s fall confirms the significance of his rise.