Abdel-Moneim Mokhtar was ambushed and killed by Moammar Gadhafi's troops last week on a dusty road in eastern Libya _ the end of a journey that saw him fight as a jihadi in Afghanistan and then return home where he died alongside NATO-backed rebels trying to oust the longtime authoritarian leader.
In describing Mokhtar's death on Friday, Gadhafi's government said he was a member of al-Qaida _ part of an ongoing attempt to link the rebels to Osama bin Laden's group. Four years ago, al-Qaida said it had allied itself with the Libyan Islamic Fighters Group _ of which Mokhtar was a top military commander.
Two days before he was killed, Mokhtar denied any connection between his group and al-Qaida, telling The Associated Press in an interview: "We only fought to free Libya."
"We realized that Gadhafi is a killer and imprisoned people, so we had to fight him," said Mokhtar, one of a handful of rebel battalion commanders who led more than 150 rebels in eastern Libya.
The question of Islamic fundamentalists among the rebels is one of the murkier issues for Western nations who are aiding the anti-Gadhafi forces with airstrikes and must decide how deeply to get involved in the fight. Some countries, including the U.S., have been wary _ partly out of concern over possible extremists among the rebels.
NATO's top commander, U.S. Navy Adm. James Stavridis, told Congress last month that officials had seen "flickers" of possible al-Qaida and Hezbollah involvement with rebel forces. But he said there was no evidence of significant numbers within the opposition leadership.
Spokesman Mustafa Gheriani of the opposition council in Benghazi said any extremists among the fighters are exceptions and that ensuring democracy is the only way to combat them.
Mokhtar, 41, of the northwestern town of Sabratha, arrived in Afghanistan at age 20 in 1990 when the mujahedeen were fighting the puppet regime installed by the Soviets before they withdrew after a decade-long war.
He fought for three years in the fields and mountains of Khost and Kandahar provinces under Jalaluddin Haqqani _ a prominent commander who was backed by the U.S. during the Soviet war but has now become one of its fiercest enemies in Afghanistan.
At least 500 Libyans went to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets, according to The Jamestown Foundation, a U.S.-based think tank, but Mokhtar said there aren't many fighting with the rebels now. Many like Mokhtar who returned home were arrested or killed by Gadhafi when they announced the creation of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group in the mid-1990s to challenge his rule.
Mokhtar became one of the LIFG's top three military commanders, said Anes Sharif, another member of the group who has known him for almost two decades.
Mokhtar was in charge in southern Libya and planned several assassination attempts on Gadhafi, including one in 1996 when a militant threw a grenade at the ruler near the southern desert town of Brak that failed to explode, Sharif said.
"Abdel-Moneim was the man who organized, prepared and mastered all those kinds of operations," said Sharif, who is from the northeastern town of Darna, which has been a hotbed of Islamist activity.
The LIFG also waged attacks against Gadhafi's security forces. But the Libyan leader cracked down on the group, especially in Darna and what is now the rebel-held capital of Benghazi.
"The worst fight was against Gadhafi in the 1990s," Mokhtar said. "If he captured us, he would not only torture us but our families as well."
The response forced many members of the group, including Mokhtar, to flee abroad, Sharif said. Mokhtar left in the late 1990s and only returned after the current uprising began, Sharif said.
"We don't have many experienced commanders in the battlefield. That's why I'm out here," said Mokhtar, his full black beard peppered with gray as he stood outside Ajdabiya surrounded by rebel pickup trucks bristling with rocket launchers and heavy machine guns.
Al-Qaida announced in 2007 that it had allied with the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, and the group was put on the U.S. State Department's list of terrorist organizations. Both Mokhtar and Sharif denied the connection, saying it was never endorsed by the group's leadership.
The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group publicly renounced violence in 2009 following about three years of negotiations with Libyan authorities _ including with Gadhafi's son, Seif al-Islam. In a statement at the time, the group insisted it had "no link to the al-Qaida organization in the past and has none now."
The Libyan government released more than 100 members of the LIFG in recent years as part of the negotiations. Sharif said the group changed its name to the Libyan Islamic Movement for Change before the current uprising.
British authorities believe the LIFG has stood by its pledge of nonviolence, and has no ties to al-Qaida _ though acknowledge that other Libyans command senior positions in the terror group's hierarchy, including Abu Yahia al-Libi, al-Qaida's Afghanistan commander.
"They clearly are still committed to an Islamist world view, but don't subscribe to terrorist tactics any more," said Ghaffar Hussain, who works on deradicalization projects for the Quilliam Foundation, a British anti-extremism think tank.
"Some former Libyan Islamic Fighting Group figures have decided to join the rebels, mainly because they remain opposed to Gadhafi's regime _ but there is no sign of them reforming as a jihadist organization," he said.
However, Hussain said there was clear evidence that al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) _ the al-Qaida offshoot which U.S. officials believe poses the most immediate terror threat to America _ was trying to join the fighting against Gadhafi's forces.
"The rebels are being very careful to keep a distance from al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, knowing the damage that any associated with them would do to their cause," Hussain said.
Since the uprising began in February, Gadhafi has played up fears that the rebels include fighters from al-Qaida, but no evidence has surfaced to support the accusations.
Libyan government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim told reporters Sunday night that Mokhtar "has been an al-Qaida member since the '80s," although he offered no evidence. He called him by his tribal name, al-Madhouni, and said he "fought in many countries, including Afghanistan, Yemen, Algeria and Libya" and was wanted by "international authorities."
A U.S. intelligence official said that Mokhtar has been involved in extremist activities in Afghanistan and Libya since the 1990s. He may not have been in lockstep with al-Qaida at the time of his death, but he's been "a fellow traveler in the past," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss matters of intelligence.
The official concluded that it's too early to know whether Mokhtar and other members of his group have abandoned their previous extremist tendencies.
Mokhtar said in the interview that he, Sharif and other members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group still have the same passion to oust Gadhafi, but added they no longer aspire to set up an Islamic state.
Instead, they say their goal is the same as the rebels' National Transitional Council: a democratic government that respects human rights and the rule of law.
"We are here only to fight for freedom, and that is our only goal," Mokhtar said.
"We want a free Libya and a government for all Libyans _ a government that doesn't distinguish between Muslims and non-Muslims, that is run by a constitution and respects Islam," he added.
Sharif, who was part of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group's political division and has been working with the rebels as well, said years of experience have convinced them that most Libyans don't want to live under a strict Islamic regime. But he did believe that politicians with conservative Islamic views will attract the most support in Libya.
"The West needs to understand that there is a difference between Islamic culture and radicalization," Sharif said.
Another area of concern for the West has been the relatively high number of Libyans who have gone to fight against U.S.-led forces in Iraq. One study done by the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 2008 found that Libyans represented the second largest group of foreign fighters and ranked first per capita.
Sharif said a small number of radical Islamists do exist in Libya, but he said the best way to deal with them is to get rid of Gadhafi, whose repressive policies have exacerbated extremism in the country.
"In an environment where everybody is respected and is allowed to carry out their religion without fear of being tortured, arrested or killed, there is no extremism," said Sharif.
He also said that the rebels are committed to keeping foreign fighters out of Libya _ a sentiment echoed by others on the battlefield.
"The rebels are determined not to allow al-Qaida or any other non-Libyans to have a base here," Sharif said. "We don't want the country to be a battlefield for other groups to finish their wars. We don't want to see Libya as another Iraq or Afghanistan."
Associated Press writers Danica Kirka in London and Kimberly Dozier in Washington contributed to this report.