CAIRO, Feb. 24 (UPI) -- As rebels in Libya loot the military arsenals of Moammar Gadhafi's crumbling regime and militants are freed from Egyptian prisons, there are fears that al-Qaida could exploit the turmoil sweeping the Arab world to spread jihad.
Libya is viewed as most vulnerable because, unlike Egypt and Tunisia, it faces the collapse of an entire dictatorial regime, not just the departure of the head of a regime.
Jihadists have never succeeded in overthrowing a Muslim regime but are still seen as a threat by some.
"While it seems unlikely at this point that the jihadists could somehow gain control of Libya, if Gadhafi falls and there is a period of chaos in Libya, these militants may find themselves with far more operating space inside the country than they have experienced in decades," global security consultancy Stratfor noted.
"If the regime does not fall and there is civil war between the eastern and western parts of the country, they could likewise find a great deal of operational space amid the chaos."
In recent months, Gadhafi appeared to have tamed the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which had waged a low-level insurgency against him for several years. After a severe crackdown, with hundreds dead or imprisoned, the group appeared ready to throw in the towel. But many had fled to fight on elsewhere and they remain a wild card as Gadhafi struggles to hold on to power.
The LIFG's strongholds were in Darnah and Benghazi and the towns of the Jabal al-Akhdar region -- the very areas where the Gadhafi's forces have been driven out and which are leading the battle against him.
The mercurial Gadhafi has kept his military and security forces weak and divided, in the manner of all Arab strongmen dictators, to prevent a coup against him.
These fractured forces may be no match for a jihadist-led campaign.
"Energy-rich Libya could spiral into chaos, the ideal environment for jihadists to flourish, as demonstrated by Somalia and Afghanistan," Stratfor analyst Scott Stewart noted.
Scores, if not hundreds, of Libyan jihadists fought in Afghanistan, against the Soviets in 1989-89 and against the Americans after 9/11, and in other places, most notably Iraq after the 2003 U.S. invasion.
The most active jihadist group in North Africa is the Algerian-led al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, headed by veterans of the 1991-2002 Islamist insurgency in Algeria.
It's active across the region and could provide a core for any transnational jihadist resurgence, although it's plagued by internal rivalries.
In Egypt, the jihadists were brutally crushed by Hosni Mubarak's security forces in the 1990s.
The insurgency was led by Gamaa al-Islamiya, the Islamic Group, with a cluster of smaller organizations spawned by the 1980s Afghan war. Leaders who survived joined Osama bin Laden to form al-Qaida in 1998.
Ayman al-Zawahiri of Islamic Jihad is bin Laden's deputy and eminence grise, and some say, the real brains behind al-Qaida.
In Egypt, hundreds were executed, thousands were imprisoned. But over the last decade, 15,000 have been released after denouncing jihad.
They could be reactivated if the military clique now running Egypt under Gen. Omar Suleiman, the former intelligence chief who oversaw the brutal crackdown on them, collapses.
Egypt is where the Muslim Brotherhood, the godfather of just about every militant Islamist outfit, was founded in 1928 by schoolteacher and Islamic scholar Hassan al-Banna. He was assassinated in 1948, allegedly by state agents.
The present Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, barely tolerated as an opposition party by the regime, is a pale shadow of what it was and played little part in the uprising that drove Mubarak from power earlier this month.
But the mass release of imprisoned militants from four of Mubarak's prisons after the uprising got up a head of steam put hundreds of hardened jihadists back into circulation.
"A review of Islamic militancy in Egypt reveals that although it has been crushed many times, it always bounces back, even if it takes many years," says Pakistani Islamist expert Syed Saleem Shahzad.
Now, he says, "there's an added dimension: in the war theaters of Afghanistan and Iraq, the insurgencies are led by the Egyptian camp dominated by al-Qaida, and the turmoil on the streets of the Arab world could give radicalism unprecedented popularity."