There have been a slew of recent reports that some of the Libyan rebels have al Qaeda ties. This seems not only credible, but obvious. Eastern Libya is a known jihadist hot spot. Where Arab governments are repressive and abusive, Islamism and jihad will fill the space occupied by legitimate political opposition in pluralistic systems.
So, yes, some rebels undoubtedly have ties to al Qaeda. And, yes, it is frightening to think that in a slightly tortured mechanical reading of things, this puts us indirectly on the side of al Qaeda. But there is a more important, more legitimate, and more realistic way to view this. Does America want the rebels indebted to the United States for helping them topple Muammar Qaddafi or want them aligning with al Qaeda’s local representatives after we confirm the jihadist narrative that the U.S. does not care about Muslim freedom and only wants to maintain ties with oil-funded dictators?
The answer is obvious. The surest way to turn al Qaeda from a sideline detail to a major player is to abandon the rebels and deliver the country back into Qaddafi’s hands. It’s become something of a punchline, but the “battle for hearts and minds” is still the most maddeningly important dynamic of the war on terror. That battle is not won by sitting back and letting al Qaeda make its best case to desperate Muslims. Lest we forget: for the two years that Barack Obama implemented his “who are we to judge dictators” policy, support for jihad went up among Muslims in the Middle East. We stay out of things at our own risk.
We can prevent a pro-jihad outcome in Libya, but we must be unapologetic about–and committed to–toppling the Qaddafi regime. As we scramble for an early exit al Qaeda will get stronger and Libyan rebels, like those who aided the downed American pilot last week, will be sure to put their trust elsewhere.