NYT coverage of the debate in Washington about whether or not to arm the rebels.
Right up to this point, everything I've ever come across or anyone I've ever spoken with has said there are only trace amounts of al-Qaeda affiliated elements in Libya. Now, of all a sudden, people are talking like maybe it's majority AQ, which strikes me as nonsense. Piece here quotes Mr. Terror Blurb himself, Bruce Reidel, saying it could be 2% or 80% - we don't know. Frankly, again, slapping that level of SWAG on our understanding seems silly.
We know this: plenty of Libyans showed up as fly-in jihadists in Iraq during the civil war period there, meaning they mixed it up with AQ then. Does that make them AQ forever? It certainly makes them opportunists. All it really tells me is that there's an underemployed class of young men in Libya who, in the absence of other opportunities, will go where the fight is. Nothing unique there.
There's also al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), but that group has frankly struggled to be taken seriously as a force, as it's mostly a relabeling of an existing group that was going nowhere (bigger the territory in the title, more likely, in my mind, that it's not exactly succeeding anywhere). Up to now, no one has portrayed that group as Libyan-centric. Yes, they will show up, but that's standard. The reality, as noted in the piece, is that you have to train on what you provide, so we'll have people on the ground (besides the CIA already there). If things go really sour, then we burn that bridge when we come to it. But this is not a logical showstopper. A Libyan long divided in two and suffering civil conflict will do the same - or far better - for AQIM than a concerted arms push to dethrone the guy. So, again, factor them in as the cost of doing any sort of business here, but do not elevate them into the decision-tilting bogeyman, because they're not, and speculating in the press doesn't make them so.
So telling me that there are "flickers" (ADM Stavridis' term) doesn't exactly make me hesitate all that much. And raising the specter of Bin Laden in Afghanistan in the 1980s likewise doesn't do a whole lot, because it's not like that experience changed his goals or hatreds one bit in the end (Run the counterfactual and we don't supply the mujuahideen. Is Bin Laden now our friend and non-terrorist?). What arms his early AQ people obtained from us were also not exactly used against us, and given all the other arms we sell in this world (half the world's total), citing this "into the hands of AQ" danger is likewise a bit much. AQ doesn't have a hard time buying small arms.
I'm not saying that all the usual dangers do not apply, because they most certainly do. I'm just saying that layering on this additional fear factor about "arming al-Qaeda" is a red herring and - by all accounts until suddenly this week - an uninformed one. I'm prepared to have my mind changed, but let's see the evidence of AQ running that rebel show. If Mr. Reidel wants to propose an 80% infiltration of the rebel ranks, he should back it up or stop throwing unsubstantiated fears out there.