NPR for Northern Colorado
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Political Unrest Worries Counterterrorism Officials

Even before the United Nations Security Council authorized military action against Moammar Gadhafi Thursday, U.S. counter-terrorism officials were looking at what would happen if the Libyan leader got desperate and decided to resort to terrorism.

The combination of Libya and terrorism hits close to home for President Obama's top terrorism adviser, John Brennan. He had a friend aboard Pan Am Flight 103, the plane that went down over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. And while it is unclear if Gadhafi personally ordered the attack, it has come out that Libyan terrorists were behind the bombing.

"Gadhafi has the penchant to do things of a very concerning nature," Brennan told NPR and a handful of media organizations Friday. "We have to anticipate and be prepared for things that he might try to do to flout the will of the international community. Terrorism is certainly a tool that a lot of individuals will opt for when they lose other options."

With the U.N. threatening military action against the Libyan leader unless he stops fighting rebels in his country, Gadhafi's options are dwindling. Among the U.S.'s major concerns is that Gadhafi is thought to have stores of mustard gas.

U.S. intelligence officials tell NPR that they have a pretty good idea where those stockpiles are, but there is still concern that Gadhafi will either use them against his own people or give them to groups that might use them for terrorism.

"It is clearly something that we are focused on," Brennan said. "There are number of things in Libya we're concerned about and we're trying to make sure we identify that we need to address — and I will leave it at that."

Libya is near the top of a long list of countries that have U.S. counter-terrorism officials concerned. The general turbulence in the Middle East and North Africa has provided political vacuums – something that al-Qaida has traditionally tried to exploit.

What's more, the U.S. has to work, in many cases, with new partners — political leaders who don't necessarily subscribe to counter-terrorism agreements the U.S. has made in the past.

For example, on Thursday, Egypt released a man who had been in prison in Cairo for the past 11 years. He is the brother of al-Qaida's second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahri. Brennan said those kinds of events worry U.S. officials.

"There can't be a revolving door for terrorists in these countries," he said.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Dina Temple-Raston is a correspondent on NPR's Investigations team focusing on breaking news stories and national security, technology and social justice.