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Libyans could be turning against the West, think tank says

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Members of Libya's security forces look at a British convoy car that was attacked by a rocket-propelled grenade in Benghazi on Monday.

Libyans who overthrew dictator Moammar Gadhafi could now be turning on the West, according to a counter-extremism think tank that says militant Islamists are exploiting the country’s fragile security situation.

A recent string of attacks on Western targets – including one on United States diplomatic offices in Benghazi – has been carried out by an armed group whose “language and choice of targets reflect a Jihadist influence," according to the London-based Quilliam Foundation.


The warning echoes concerns by observers and some U.S. intelligence sources that the collapse of the Gadhafi regime could be exploited by groups seeking to turn Libya into an Islamic state.

Fourteen armed militias were killed ear Tripoli on Wednesday in the third straight day of fighting, underscoring the country's volatility ten months after Gadhafi's overthrow.

The country is preparing for a July 7 election to choose a national assembly that will write a new national constitution. Bouts of deadly violence, mostly in the southern Sahara and in the mountainous west, have highlighted old feuds between rival factions that pre-date the Gadhafi era.

“The recent events in Libya underline the fragile security situation in the country and the difficulties faced by the Libyan authorities in creating a stable environment, thus generating a security vacuum ready to be exploited by various militant groups,” Noman Benotman, a former Libyan jihadist who now works for the Quilliam Foundation, told msnbc.com.

Benotman said a group named the Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman Brigade has claimed responsibility for attacks in Benghazi in recent days -- two against the neutral International Red Cross (ICRC) headquarters and one each against the U.S. offices in the city and the British Ambassador’s motor convoy.

The brigade is named after “The Blind Sheikh” Omar Abdul Rahman who is currently serving a life sentence in the U.S. for his connections to the 1993 World Trade Center bombings.

Don Emmert / AFP, file

Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, shown here in a picture from 1993, gives his name to the Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman Brigade, which has claimed responsibility for recent attacks in Libya. The so-called Blind Sheikh is currently serving a life sentence in the U.S. for his connections to the 1993 World Trade Center bombings.

Benotman said the first attack on the ICRC mission, on May 22, was carried out after the group accused the organization of distributing Bibles and facilitating missionary lectures aiming to convert Libyan Muslims to Christianity.

Slideshow: Libya's uprising

The Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman Brigade, and similar groups, “take advantage of the accessibility to weapons, explosives and combat facilities available in the country since the Libyan revolution,” he said. “Inspired by a Jihadist ideology, the group can also increase its impact and attract dozens of Libyans who were previously involved in fighting to overthrow the Gadhafi regime.”

He said Libyan authorities “still face a serious gap in their attempt to control the security situation between the bureaucratic and the operational levels.”

In September, U.S. intelligence officials told the Washington Times that Jihadists among the Libyan rebels planned on the Internet to subvert the post-Gadhafi government and create an Islamist state.

The sources said spy agencies were stepping up surveillance of Islamist-oriented elements among Libyan rebels, and that a U.S. government report circulated Tuesday detailed how extremists were observed “strategizing” on Internet forums about how to set up an Islamist state in Libya.

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More than 600 former al-Qaida–linked militants, rounded up by the Gadhafi regime during the post-U.S. invasion Iraq insurgency, were freed from Tripoli's Abu Salim prison during last year’s political revolution.

However, Benotman’s warnings were played down by Richard Dalton, the former British Ambassador to Libya and Associate Fellow of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at British think tank, Chatham House.

He told msnbc.com: “Libya is not a fertile area for Jihadism, and not a natural recruiting ground for Islamist extremism. Apart from some eastern and southern areas, there is little evidence that Jihadists are posing a substantial threat to the country’s security any more than they would in any other country in the region."

“There is not a political vacuum in Libya. The overall picture is one that is heading more towards progress than setbacks and the ability to overcome incidences of violence.”

The former Libyan intelligence officer Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, who was convicted of taking part in the 1988 Lockerbie bombing but was released after eight years for health reasons, has died in Libya of prostate cancer. NBC's Jim Maceda reports from London.

Dr Omar Ashour, director of the Middle East Graduate Studies Program at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter, and a visiting fellow in the Brookings Doha Center, has reported that former Jihadists in Libya, such as Abd al-Hakim Belhaj, the commander of Tripoli's Military Council, have been forced to “mature politically, recalculate strategically, moderate behaviorally [and] modify their ideological beliefs”.

“The National Transitional Council, with the support of NATO has a good chance of avoiding an Iraq-like or an Algeria-like scenario in Libya,” he wrote in an article for Foreign Policy.

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