By Mark Hosenball
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Al Qaeda has not so far taken advantage of the upheavals in the Middle East but the militant Islamic group may do so if the U.S.-led campaign in Libya does not end quickly, U.S. intelligence agencies say.
Public comments on the regional uprisings by al Qaeda figures like deputy leader Ayman al-Zawahiri have had little resonance in the Islamic world, intelligence and national security officials told Reuters.
There is little evidence al Qaeda or sympathizers played a direct or indirect role in protests that erupted in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen and Libya, they said.
But before the U.N.-authorized mission began against Libya, U.S. intelligence agencies were advising President Barack Obama that another attack by U.S. forces on a Muslim country could spur militants to meddle in the protests and encourage new plots against the United States.
Four days since air attacks began on Muammar Gaddafi's forces, one intelligence official said there were few signs militants had been able to exploit anti-American sentiment for propaganda purposes, let alone foment protests or plots.
General Carter Ham, the U.S. commander leading the operation, said on Monday Washington was watching whether al Qaeda might use the situation in the North African country to establish a foothold for training or attacks.
"The al Qaeda movement is opportunistic above all else," said Roger Cressey, a counter-terrorism advisor on the national security teams of Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
"The worry is that the longer this goes on, mistakes will be made. That will be played up and the narrative by al Qaeda and others will be that the U.S. is at war with Islam."
KEY U.S. ALLIES
The upheaval in the region has disrupted U.S. security and intelligence operations there, one U.S. intelligence official said. There was particular concern about violent protests in Yemen that threaten to topple President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Saleh is seen by U.S. officials as a useful if erratic ally in Washington's efforts to shut down militants who have taken root in the chaotic but strategically important country, which neighbors Saudi Arabia and lies on major shipping routes.
"We have lots of long historical relationships with countries now having problems," the senior official said.
After the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, security and intelligence agencies in Egypt gave critical help to U.S. efforts to track down militants, the official said.
With the fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in February, some of these units have been crippled or disbanded.
Gaddafi's government in Libya also traditionally cracked down on militants linked to al Qaeda.
One official said U.S. agencies tracking the al Qaeda threat were "watching with some trepidation" to see if relationships with counterparts in other troubled countries would be disrupted by spreading unrest.
(Edited by John O'Callaghan and David Storey)