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Libya: Getting the Rebels Wrong (Abdurrahman)

Photo: New York TimesNajla Abdurrahman writes for Foreign Policy magazine:

The recent remarks by Adm. James Stavridis, NATO's supreme allied commander for Europe, alleging "flickers in the intelligence of potential al Qaeda, Hezbollah" among Libyan rebels are indicative of a disturbing trend in much of the discussion --- and reporting --- on Libya over the past several weeks. Ambiguous statements linking Libya and al Qaeda have repeatedly been made in the media without clarifying or providing appropriate context to such remarks. In many instances, these claims have been distorted or exaggerated; at times they have simply been false.

The admiral's comments -- and the subsequent headlines they've engendered -- represent a new level of irresponsibility, constructing false connections, through use of highly obscure and equivocallanguage, between al Qaeda and Libyan pro-democracy forces backed by the Transitional National Council. The latter is itself led by a group of well-known and respected Libyan professionals and technocrats. Even more far-fetched is the admiral's mention of a Hezbollah connection, or "flicker" as he put it.

Statements of this type are troubling because of their tendency to create alarmist ripple effects. Such perceptions, once created, are nearly impossible to reverse and may do serious damage to the pro-democracy cause in Libya. The fact that Stavridis qualified his comments by stating that the opposition's leadership appeared to be "responsible men and women" will almost certainly be overshadowed by the mention of al Qaeda in the same breath. One must wonder, then, what precisely was the purpose of the admiral's vague and perplexing remarks.

There is a pressing need for officials and commentators to clarify connections drawn between Libya and al Qaeda and to provide more accurate and responsible analysis. And it's not just Stavridis's reference to al Qaeda that is problematic; two similar claims making the media rounds also demand careful scrutiny. One involves an anti-Qaddafi organization called the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) that confronted and was crushed by the regime in the 1990s. The second involves disturbing reports of the recruitment of Libyan youth by al Qaeda in Iraq, some of whom left their homes to take part in suicide missions in that country. Neither is connected to the current uprising, but both are frequently mentioned when discussing it.

Let's start with the LIFG, whose activities were recounted to me by a former member of the group's leadership council now residing in London, Noman Benotman, in a lengthy interview I conducted with him in December 2009.

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