Similarly, Syria's embattled dictator Bashar al-Assad has been another bulwark against Islamic extremism inside his country's borders, in part, because Islamic fundamentalists despise Assad's Alawite religion, considering it a form of apostasy that must be stamped out.
As analysts Joseph Felter and Brian Fishman wrote in a report for West Point's Combating Terrorism Center, "the Syrian and Libyan governments share the United States' concerns about violent salafi-jihadi ideology and the violence perpetrated by its adherents."
In their report entitled "Al-Qaeda's Foreign Fighters in Iraq," Felter and Fishman analyzed al-Qaeda documents captured in 2007 showing personnel records of militants who flocked to Iraq for the war. The documents revealed that eastern Libya (the base of the anti-Gaddafi rebellion) was a hotbed for suicide bombers traveling to Iraq to kill American troops.
Felter and Fishman wrote that these so-called Sinjar Records disclosed that while Saudis comprised the largest number of foreign fighters in Iraq, Libyans represented the largest per-capita contingent by far. Those Libyans came overwhelmingly from towns and cities in the east.
"The vast majority of Libyan fighters that included their hometown in the Sinjar Records resided in the country's Northeast, particularly the coastal cities of Darnah 60.2% (53) and Benghazi 23.9% (21)," Felter and Fishman wrote, adding:
"Both Darnah and Benghazi have long been associated with Islamic militancy in Libya, in particular for an uprising by Islamist organizations in the mid-1990s. " One group -- the Libyan Fighting Group " -- claimed to have Afghan veterans in its ranks," a reference to mujahedeen who took part in the CIA-backed anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, as did al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden, a Saudi.
"The Libyan uprisings [in the 1990s] became extraordinarily violent," Felter and Fishman wrote. "Qadhafi used helicopter gunships in Benghazi, cut telephone, electricity, and water supplies to Darnah and famously claimed that the militants "deserve to die without trial, like dogs.'"
The authors added that Abu Layth al-Libi, Emir of Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), "reinforced Benghazi and Darnah's importance to Libyan jihadis in his announcement that LIFG had joined al-Qa'ida.
""It is with the grace of God that we were hoisting the banner of jihad against this apostate [Gaddafi] regime under the leadership of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which sacrificed the elite of its sons and commanders in combating this regime whose blood was spilled on the mountains of Darnah, the streets of Benghazi, the outskirts of Tripoli, the desert of Sabha, and the sands of the beach.'"
Libyans with al-Qaeda
Some important al-Qaeda leaders operating in Pakistan's tribal regions also are believed to have come from Libya. For instance, "Atiyah," who was guiding the anti-U.S. war strategy in Iraq (and was recently reported killed by a U.S. drone strike), was identified as a Libyan named Atiyah Abd al-Rahman.
It was Atiyah who urged a strategy of creating a quagmire for U.S. forces in Iraq, buying time for al-Qaeda headquarters to rebuild its strength in Pakistan. "Prolonging the war [in Iraq] is in our interest," Atiyah said in a letter that upbraided Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi for his hasty and reckless actions in Iraq.
As in the anti-Islamist crackdown of the 1990s, Gaddafi used harsh rhetoric in vowing to crush the Benghazi-based rebellion when it began earlier this year. Those threats were cited by President Barack Obama and other Western leaders as a key reason for securing a United Nations resolution and establishing a no-fly zone over Libya "to protect civilians" in eastern Libya.
In a personal letter to Obama, Gaddafi cited the role of terrorists in this new uprising.
"We are confronting al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, nothing more," Gaddafi wrote. "What would you do if you found them controlling American cities with the power of weapons? Tell me how would you behave so that I could follow your example?" (Obama did not respond.)
Today, however, the tables have been turned on Gaddafi. After months of U.S.-guided NATO airstrikes incinerating his troops and battering his defenses in Tripoli, he has been driven from power by the rebels. His remaining loyalists have fled to Surte and a few other Gaddafi strongholds.