(NEW YORK) — A new video has surfaced online that purports to show a convoy of Libyan military and police vehicles — more than two dozen in all — rolling through the hometown of late dictator Moammar Gadhafi while bearing a flag similar to the infamous black banner of al Qaeda.
It was not immediately clear when the video was shot, but according to the accompanying caption written by a self-identified pro-Gadhafi supporter, it was taken in the coastal town of Sirte and shows 29 vehicles — everything from SUVs labeled “police,” “Sirte,” and “rebels” to a couple of full-sized fire trucks. A handful of heavy machine guns are mounted on some of the military-style trucks. More than a dozen of the black banners long associated with al Qaeda whip in the wind.
If the caption is accurate, it would not be the first time the flag belonging to the world’s most high-profile terror group has flown in the war-torn North African nation since the popular revolt against Gadhafi began last February. In October, an al Qaeda flag was reportedly raised over a courthouse in the de facto rebel capital of Benghazi. Caravans bearing the flag, similar to the one shown in the new video, have also apparently been spotted in Tripoli, according to a new report by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.
But the Libyan ambassador to the United Nations, Ibrahim Dabbashi, told ABC News that the video is not what it seems. Libyan brigades have flown similar flags in the past and, when questioned about them, the brigade commanders always said they were simply the “flag of the Prophet Muhammad,” Dabbashi said.
“These brigades have no relation whatsoever with al Qaeda,” he said. “There are no al Qaeda elements in Libya.”
Similar black flags with the Muslim statement of faith written in white have been used by a variety of Islamist groups in the past, according to Aaron Zelin, coauthor of the new CTC report. And though the ones in the video appear to be the altered version used specifically by al Qaeda, Zelin said it would be difficult to know if the men flying the flag were actual operatives of the terrorist group, sympathizers, other jihadists unrelated to al Qaeda, or simple tribesmen looking for attention.
“Just because they have a flag does not necessarily mean they are al Qaeda,” Zelin said. “Anybody could use a flag like that.”
One U.S. official told ABC News that either way, the flying of Islamist flags apparently by Libyan military forces was “troubling.”
“What you may have here is simply a fundamentalist brigade parade, which is troubling, but [that] doesn’t necessarily make this a column of al Qaeda fighters,” the official said. “What you also may have is some militias smearing other militias with the al Qaeda-linked tag.”
While top U.S. officials have said the popular revolts that have swept Arab nations from Tunisia to Syria — known as the Arab Spring — show al Qaeda’s irrelevance, the man in charge of intelligence gathering for America recently said the instability could also be an opportunity for would-be jihadists.
“The unrest potentially provides terrorists inspired by the global jihadist movement more operating space,” America’s Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told a congressional committee in January. “Ongoing unrest most likely would exacerbate public frustration, erosion of state power, and economic woes — conditions that al Qaeda would work to exploit.”
Last March, NATO Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, U.S. Admiral James Stavridis, said at the time there were only “flickers in the intelligence of potential al Qaeda” links.
The same month, Osama bin Laden’s replacement as head of al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, called the Libyan rebels his “brothers and sisters” in an issue of an al Qaeda English-language magazine, but did not mention any particular group.
Libyan revolutionaries who are now in power have had a complicated relationship with al Qaeda. The same man who triumphantly led Libyan rebels into Gadhafi’s compound in August had years before been described by U.S. intelligence as the leader of a local terror group with links to al Qaeda. Derna, a city that was a rebel stronghold during the revolution, was known as a wellspring for al Qaeda fighters sent to attack American soldiers in Iraq.
Still, Zelin said there is little to no public evidence al Qaeda has a strong presence in Libya.
“Ultimately, while there are more than ‘flickers’ of al Qaeda in Libya,” Zelin and coauthor Andrew Lebovich wrote in the CTC report, “there is not enough information to determine if the group has the means, or even the desire, to set up a durable presence in the country — especially when Western governments and special forces are keeping an eye on Libya, and opposing armed militias remain ready to protect their own power and influence.”
Officials at the U.S. State Department and the Department of Defense did not immediately respond to requests for comment on this report.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Andreas Preuss, CNN
Susan Scutti, CNN