LONDON (Reuters) - If Libya’s war drags on, could al Qaeda find a haven there, as Muammar Gaddafi argues?
That’s unlikely, most experts say, provided Libya remains a functioning state and the West refrains from inflaming nationalist and Islamist opinion by sending in ground troops.
While al Qaeda is sure to exploit Western air strikes for propaganda in coming weeks, the group will struggle to carve out an armed role in the North African country’s conflict, let alone use the country to launch international attacks.
“If the war goes on, there may be acts of militant violence but it does not indicate a wider movement. And if anything, those attacks will antagonize the wider population,” said Maha Azzam, Associate Fellow at Britain’s Chatham House think tank.
“The people of the region have chosen a different means of protest and empowerment. For now, al Qaeda is hemmed in.”
Al Qaeda has reacted slowly and uncertainly to the uprisings against repressive rule in the Arab world, uncomfortably aware that the revolts have had nothing to do with its advocacy of suicidal bloodshed or strict Islamic rule.
Outside a tiny community of Islamist fanatics, a claim by an al Qaeda spokesman that the group was the main inspiration of the revolts has been met with ridicule in the region.
But some Western governments are worried that deepening instability and violence in Libya could give Osama bin Laden’s group growing opportunities to recruit and organize.
They point to the presence of Libyans in al Qaeda’s core leadership, in particular top ideologues Attiyah Allah and Abu Yahya al-Libi, and note that Libyans have figured prominently in the ranks of al Qaeda fighters, particularly in Iraq.
An al Qaeda presence in Libya would greatly strengthen the militant threat in north Africa, already a concern to European countries following years of bombings and kidnappings by its regional branch in countries from Algeria to Mauritania.
But analysts see that prospect as unlikely, provided the West’s involvement does not widen to deploying ground troops in Libya — a move that would stir opposition in a society still marked by the memory of Italian colonial killings in the early 20th century.
“Troops on the ground would indicate a risk that al Qaeda could get significantly greater sentiment behind it,” said Anna Murison, Head of Global Jihad Forecasting at Exclusive Analysis.
Al Qaeda and many mainstream Islamist organizations oppose the presence of Western forces in Muslim lands, saying they are propping up puppet leaders who should be overthrown and replaced with strict Islamic rule.
Gaddafi himself has raised the specter of growing al Qaeda power, arguing that if he is removed the group will entrench itself in Libya. That view is widely dismissed by security experts in the region and internationally.
Western officials say the best counter-terrorism result from the war would in fact be Gaddafi’s ousting, given his long sponsorship of foreign armed groups and Libya’s role in the 1988 downing of a U.S. airliner over the Scottish town of Lockerbie.
WESTERN-BACKED REVOLUTION “NOT WELCOME”
While it has yet to react to the start of air strikes, al Qaeda has shown insistent interest in the Libyan revolt.
Its local ally, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, has issued a string of statements expressing unambiguous support for the uprising and urging that it be followed by a push to set up strict Islamic rule.
There are signs its statements are having an effect.
In a March 18 posting on a militant Islamist chatroom, one participant argued that Libyan rebels were at fault for requesting Western intervention.
“If the rebels bring us occupation, then such a revolution is not welcome,” the unnamed participant wrote.
Western political and military support for the uprising had put local Islamists in a dilemma, noted Camile Tawil, a terrorism specialist and author.
“They are desperate to get rid of Gaddafi. But how can they justify Western intervention to their followers?” he said.
“In other words, is it okay to object to Western intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan, but at the same time to accept it at home in Libya?”
Security experts who track al Qaeda said that the intensity of the violence inflicted on civilians was a particularly important factor in its calculations.
Al Qaeda is likely to seek to use the bloodshed to argue that the opposition National Council is unable to protect ordinary people, and only suicidal violence of the type favored by radical Islamists can overthrow Gaddafi, they say.
It will say the Council’s acquiescence in Western air attacks shows that it would become a Western lackey, if it ever formed a post-Gaddafi government.
“Al Qaeda will therefore try to position itself as being the only viable choice for Libyans who oppose Gaddafi’s secularist dictatorship but who do not want to see a Western occupation’ of Libya,” said a paper by Britain’s Quilliam think tank.
“Libya is therefore important to al Qaeda both as a recruiting tool and as a chance to set up a new regional base which can act as a backdoor to Egypt and possibly Algeria as well.”
Editing by Mark Trevelyan