By Mark Hosenball
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - As the dust settles after six months of fighting in Libya, U.S. officials are stepping up efforts to identify Islamic militants who might pose a threat in a post-Gaddafi power vacuum.
U.S. counterterrorism and intelligence agencies have recently produced classified papers examining the strength, role and activities of militant activists and factions in post-Gaddafi Libya, four U.S. officials said. Some assessments examine the backgrounds of anti-Gaddafi leaders with militant pedigrees, and explore whether these individuals, some of whom have publicly renounced Islamic militancy, will stand by their pledges against extremism.
During the half-year campaign by rebels to drive Muammar Gaddafi from power, U.S. and NATO officials downplayed fears that al Qaeda or other militants would infiltrate anti-Gaddafi forces or take advantage of disorder to establish footholds in Libya.
Since then, however, the assessment of top experts inside the U.S. government has sharpened.
"It's of concern that terrorists are going to take advantage of instability" in post-Gaddafi Libya, said a U.S. official who monitors the issue closely.
"There is a potential problem," said another U.S. official, who said both the U.S. government and Libya's National Transitional Council were watching closely. Experts around the U.S. intelligence community "are paying attention to this," a third U.S. official said.
Officials said that while the rebellion against Gaddafi continued, it was difficult to collect intelligence on the rebels. But now that Gaddafi's regime has dissolved, U.S. and allied agencies are taking a closer look.
Bruce Riedel, a former senior CIA analyst who has advised President Barack Obama on policy in the region, said there was particular worry that Islamic militants could use Libya as a base to spread their influence into neighboring countries such as Algeria or areas such as the Sinai peninsula, where Israel, Egypt and the Gaza Strip share borders.
"There is a great deal of concern that the jihadi cadre now are going to be exporting their ideas and weapons toward the east and west," Riedel said.
Riedel and current U.S. officials said one high-priority issue is whether militants can acquire, or have obtained, weapons from Gaddafi's huge arsenals, especially surface-to-air missiles that could be used against commercial airliners.
Another key issue is trying to figure out what militant individuals or factions are presently in Libya. At the moment, two officials said, U.S. and NATO experts assess that a "power vacuum" exists while the shaky transitional council tries to organize itself and set up a new government.
In late August, the Open Source Center, a U.S. intelligence unit that monitors public media including militant websites, reported that "in recent days, jihadists have been strategizing on extremist web forums how to establish an Islamic state" in the post-Gaddafi era.
"Many forum members, describing the fall of Tripoli as the initial phase of the battle for Libya, have urged Libyan mujahideen to prepare for the next stage of battle against the (National Transitional Council) and secularist rebels to establish an Islamic state," the center said.
U.S. officials said militant groups have a history of taking advantage of power vacuums to consolidate and expand. The United States and its allies want to avoid a replay of what happened when Afghanistan was governed, patchily, by the Taliban and al Qaeda was able to establish elaborate, semi-permanent training camps.
Another worry is figures with a militant background getting into the higher echelons of the new Libyan government. One new Libyan leader under close scrutiny is Abdel Hakim Belhadj, a former Islamic fighter in Libya and Afghanistan who now commands post-Gaddafi forces in Tripoli.
After allegedly forging ties in Afghanistan with the Taliban and al Qaeda in the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks, Belhadj reportedly was arrested with his wife by the CIA in Bangkok and later extradited to Libya, where he was imprisoned until 2010. He was released under a reconciliation plan promoted by Gaddafi son Saif al Islam.
In an interview this month with the Al Jazeera website, Belhadj said he was subjected to "barbaric treatment" while in CIA custody and later to "many types of physical and mental torture" in Gaddafi's notorious Abu Salim prison.
Asked about his dealings with al Qaeda, Belhadj said, "We have never been in a relationship with them or joined them in any kind of activity because we could never come to an understanding of (philosophies)."
"Libyans are generally moderate Muslims, with moderate ways of practice and understanding of religion. You can find some extreme elements that are different from the mainstream, but this does not in any way represent the majority of the Libyan people."
Secret British intelligence files recovered by anti-Gaddafi forces from the offices of Gaddafi's advisers show that the British kept a close watch on suspected militants in Britain who they believed were linked to the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, the main anti-Gaddafi Islamic militant network.
The documents, obtained by Reuters, show that during a February 2005 visit to Libya, British intelligence expressed concern the LIFG might be becoming more militant because some al Qaeda links were emerging. But in a 2008 visit, British officials reported that some UK-based Libyan militants had qualms about closer ties to al Qaeda.
A person familiar with British government investigations of militants said U.K. authorities believe that LIFG, as a group, abandoned violence in 2009, although individual Libyan militants remained active in al Qaeda's central core.
Some U.S. and British experts said today's militants may have no connection with vintage LIFG fighters. They fear that young militants who fought against Gaddafi will be angered if Libya's new government is seen as too close to the West.
(Additional reporting by William MacLean; Editing by Warren Strobel and Doina Chiacu)