US intelligence agencies are assessing the possibility that terrorists will take advantage of the power vacuum in post-Gaddafi Libya to attempt to set up an Islamic state as well as cause trouble for neighbors like Egypt and Syria.
The assessments have been made now that the revolution is winding down and key players can be identified. While some leaders of the rebellion are known to have past ties to terrorist groups, others are being analyzed for possible connections.
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.
The leaders of the NTC are mostly lawyers and human rights activists. But as we've seen in Egypt, jihadists can hijack a revolution fairly easily as long as they are well organized and determined.
It seems at this point that the problem for the new government won't be terrorists but tribes. Rivalries and feuds among the largest tribes is going to make uniting the country a challenge. This too, might prove an opportunity for terrorists, however, and keeping a close eye on what's going on there would seem to be the prudent course.