March 9, 20112
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.