On Monday, in calling for airstrikes on Syria, Senator John McCain reprised much the same role he played one year ago at the outset of the Libyan war. Last April, during a highly publicized visit to the cradle of the Libyan rebellion in Benghazi, Senator McCain called for increased American military support for the Libyan rebels. The senator famously described the rebels as his “heroes.” Never mind that these “heroes” had been caught on video committing horrific atrocities, nor that one of their commanders had openly acknowledged his ties to al-Qaeda. At the time, such details were of no greater interest to the mainstream American media than they were to Senator McCain or to the Obama administration.
Senator McCain, of course, got his wish. Months of NATO bombing paved the way for the rebels’ conquest of Tripoli in late August. It was only then that the broader American public got some idea of the central role that al-Qaeda had been playing in the rebellion all along. As Tripoli fell, it emerged that the commander of the rebel forces that had taken control of the capital was none other than Abdul Hakim Belhadj, the historical leader of the local al-Qaeda affiliate, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG). In fact, no fewer than three al-Qaeda-linked militants who had at one time or another been in U.S. custody played key roles in the rebellion. The NATO bombing campaign would continue for another two months, until the last bastions of the old regime had fallen and Moammar Qaddafi had been killed. Just days after Qaddafi’s death in Sirte, the distinctive black flag of al-Qaeda would be seen flying above Benghazi and all along the Benghazi waterfront.
With Senator McCain again pushing from the right, America risks yet again lending support to its old nemesis on ostensibly “humanitarian” grounds. (For perhaps the only serious attempt yet made to assess the solidity of those grounds, see Sharmine Narwani’s analysis of the Syrian casualty figures here
.) If, this time, the senator is not pushing on a fully open door, the door is clearly not shut either. Apparently in an effort to get out in front of the issue, the Obama administration has conceded al-Qaeda’s involvement in the Syrian rebellion. Last month, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper warned that al-Qaeda had “infiltrated” the opposition to Bashar Assad.
But video evidence emerging out of Syria suggests that “infiltration” is not the right word. At least three such videos depict anti-Assad forces or demonstrators posing unabashedly with al-Qaeda’s black flag — the same flag that was hoisted in Libya, but, in that case, only after the rebellion had triumphed. The flag features the shahada, or Islamic declaration of faith, “there is no god but God [Allah] and Muhammad is his messenger,” plus a circle that is said to represent Muhammad’s seal. It was first made famous by the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda in Iraq.
The below video still below comes from a 2007 al-Qaeda in Iraq video. It shows the execution of Iraqi security personnel in front of the al-Qaeda flag.