LONDON (Reuters) - Muammar Gaddafi's charge that al Qaeda is stirring Libya's revolt may be empty propaganda, but the bloodier the strife becomes, the more likely it is that Islamists sympathetic to the group take up arms against him.
And any U.S. or European military assistance to the uprising could give al Qaeda another pretext for involvement -- the group could preach the need for violence to prevent a Muslim land forging ties to the West, analysts say.
"If Gaddafi keeps on massacring Libyans...it can create the right conditions for the militants," said Omar Ashour, a lecturer on Arab politics at Britain's Exeter University.
The emergence of an active armed Islamist opposition would represent a dramatic turnabout in Libyan politics.
Libya has its share of militant Islamists, especially in the opposition bastion of the east, but years of repression have decimated their organizational capacity, making the country hostile territory for Osama bin Laden's transnational network.
Now, after three weeks of increasingly bloody turmoil, experts do not rule out a revival of armed Islamism.
"Don't underestimate them," said Camille Tawil, a UK-based terrorism specialist, referring to Libyan militant ambitions.
"The presence of militants cannot be doubted. The problem I have is when you equate them automatically with al Qaeda."
Any Western armed role on the ground -- unlikely for now, although a Western-policed no-fly zone is a possibility -- would be seen by al Qaeda's local branch, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), as an excuse to raise the banner of jihad.
ANGER AT REPRESSION
Gaddafi's allegation -- repeated by Foreign Minister Musa Kusa on Monday -- that the revolt threatening his long rule is run by al Qaeda does not square with the facts to date.
As in Tunisia and Egypt, support for the revolt against Gaddafi's 41-year-old rule crosses all parts of society, and the rebellion itself appears to be the product of anger at political repression, with a decidedly democratic hue, Libyan exiles and independent reporters on the ground say.
The al Qaeda charge also contradicts conventional wisdom about the weakness of organized Islamism in Libya. So confident had Gaddafi been of the demise of Islamist groups in recent years that he has released from prison more than 700 inmates accused of membership of Islamist groups.
However, al Qaeda is showing insistent interest in the revolt: AQIM has issued a string of statements expressing unambiguous support.
Alongside a communique dated February 23 posted on online jihadist forums condemning Libya's "despots," AQIM published a photograph of four jeeploads of weapons it said it was sending to the rebels in Libya.
"We will do whatever we can to help you," it said.
Admirers of Libya's uprising are concerned that any talk of Islamist involvement might scare off Western military help at just the moment it is needed.
If Western nations do not step in now, for fear of provoking an Islamist revival, the revolt could falter, they argue, producing a long, grinding conflict in which extremist Islamist groups would have time to organize.
"REVOLTED BY AL QAEDA"
"Libyan society as a whole is revolted by al Qaeda: The society's values are the best defense against the militants," said Saad Djebbar, a UK-based Algerian lawyer and Libya expert.
"The continuation of a dictator is the best guarantor of al Qaeda's survival."
Noman Benotman, a former Islamist who fought against Gaddafi in the 1990s, said while it was ridiculous to suggest the rebellion's leadership -- many of whom are former government officials -- were members of al Qaeda, at the same time the rebels did need to keep radical Islamic factions on their side.
One of the reasons why the Benghazi-based rebel National Libyan Council came out strongly against the presence of Western ground forces was that it was sensitive to the Islamists' reaction, said Benotman, who now works as a counter-radicalization expert at the British thinktank Quilliam.
Al Qaeda and many mainstream Islamist organisations oppose the presence of Western forces on Muslim lands, saying they are propping up puppets who should be overthrown and replaced with strict Islamic rule.
Advocating Western air support was an acceptable compromise given the military needs of the rebellion, Benotman said.
"There's a huge debate, and a huge pressure, going on to make sure everybody, including Islamists, is following the National Council strategy and policies," he said.
"Even the young jihadists are part of this push. And so far, there has not been a single (al Qaeda-style) incident."
"But the most dangerous issue is if this crisis is allowed to last for long -- then there are a lot of scenarios," he said.