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Bogged Down in Libya

Matthias Bruggman/Contact Press Images
Young men burning a portrait of Muammar Qaddafi, Benghazi, Libya, March 21, 2011


The small coastal Libyan city of Darna makes a charming break in the dreary 375-mile journey from the Egyptian border to Benghazi, the rebels’ de facto capital. On nearby bluffs nestled between the turquoise Mediterranean and the Green Mountains lie the ruins of the forums and churches Byzantium left behind, and in the city center you see the better-preserved white-domed shrines to Sheikh Zubeir ibn Qays and seventy-six other companions of the Prophet Muhammad. A plaque on the wall proudly declares that a Byzantine force slaughtered them in the year 69 according to the Islamic calendar, in the struggle between Islam and Christendom for the prized Cyrenaica, the eastern coastal region of what is now Libya.

For much of the twentieth century, the people of Darna revived this clash with the outside world. Italian Marshal Rodolfo Graziani set up camp in the town’s port as part of his pacification of an uprising led by a warrior-preacher, Omar al-Mukhtar, between 1912 and 1931. And in the 1990s and after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Darna reputedly sent more teenagers per capita on foreign jihads in Afghanistan and Iraq than any other town in the Muslim world.

So it was a surprise to find its townspeople so jubilant about American policy toward Libya. Even those with a jihadi pedigree expressed their support. In a small alleyway near the town’s main bank, Sufian bin Qumu, a former Guantánamo Bay detainee, nursed his Kalashnikov, hailed the United States as a protector of the weak, and pronounced the US-led bombardment “a gift from God.”

Solitary confinement in the prisons of Muammar Qaddafi or at Guantánamo Bay seemed to make many Libyans garrulous and extroverted, as if compensating for the years of lost human company. But bin Qumu’s six years under Guantánamo’s arc lights—he had been detained in Pakistan after the September 11 attacks—and three years in a Libyan cell the size of his cubbyhole loo in Darna have turned him into a recluse. He is convinced that Western intelligence agencies are still hunting him. His hennaed hair is combed flat, in a style uncommon in Libya, as if he were wearing a toupee. A pair of fluffy white slippers embroidered with cats lie on a rattan bookcase. Neighbors fend off intruding journalists by saying he has left for the front. “You know I know who you are,” he says a touch disconcertingly when we meet. He asks me to put away my tape recorder, saying it reminds him of his interrogators.

By his own testimony, he is an accidental jihadi. He was not religious when he left Libya; he did not go to the mosque. At the age of nineteen, he was press-ganged by one of Qaddafi’s army units trawling for teenage conscripts and sent to fight in one of the colonel’s savage border wars in Chad. After a decade he fled to Sudan, where he found work as a truck driver for a company owned by Osama bin Laden, and with it the solace that Qaddafi’s Libya had denied him. Recruited by al-Qaeda because of his military experience, he was dispatched to bin Laden’s camps in Afghanistan. He was caught by Pakistani forces after September 11, and transferred to American custody first in Kandahar and then at Guantánamo Bay; in 2007, he was transferred to Qaddafi’s torture chambers in Busalim prison in Tripoli. Every couple of months he was taken to the colonel’s external security organization headquarters in Tripoli for questioning by an American official. Bin Qumu remembers he exploded in anger when in August 2010 the official told him that Qaddafi was releasing him without charge.

The volte-face of Libya’s jihadis is no small achievement. Libyans were not minor adjuncts in al-Qaeda’s rise. At one time, Libyans ran several Afghan training camps and produced many of the group’s leading preachers. Abu Yahya al-Libi, a founding member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which waged a guerrilla campaign against Qaddafi in the late 1990s, is considered al-Qaeda’s chief ideologue and bin Laden’s likely successor. An affiliate, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the name Arabs use for northwest Africa, has carried out attacks across North Africa.

Yet Darna’s struggle is not a mission of global jihad, but rather of local liberation from the Arab world’s most psychotic tyrant. The dalliance with al-Qaeda, bin Qumu says, was the result of Qaddafi’s abuses against his own citizens: the more violent the internal repression, the more radical the efforts to escape it. “The West has saved the Libyan people. We have to say thanks,” echoes Abdul Hakim al-Hasadi, another ex–Afghan fighter from Darna who was also captured after September 11, and interrogated by American guards in Islamabad. When we had lunch, he explained that a free Libya would provide the springboard for the West and the Muslim world to rewrite their troubled history and align in a common struggle against despotism.

Bin Qumu and al-Hasadi are among Darna’s new leaders, helping the doctors, judges, and university professors who make up the town’s council set up a local security force. Al-Hasadi, a one-time preacher who took up taxi-driving after Qaddafi released him from jail, now dines in the sumptuous hotel where the local council has set up base; after lunch he runs a camp in the Green Mountains above the town that has been set up in recent weeks to train teenage schoolchildren heading to the front. Beneath Sheikh Zubeir’s shrine lie the graves of seventeen martyrs, the earth still moist from the digging, who have fallen fighting Qaddafi’s forces first in Darna, which was captured by the rebels on February 17, and then in the oil towns along the Gulf of Sidra.

Neither man claims to aspire to an Islamic state. They say they favor elections, not imposed Islamic rule. They have pledged their allegiance to the National Transitional Council, the rebels’ representative body, and say they favor maintaining an alliance with America after Qaddafi’s downfall. A fortnight before he was killed battling Qaddafi’s tanks, which were then on their way back to Benghazi, another Libyan veteran of Afghanistan’s jihad, Rafallah Saharti, who had memorized not only the Koran but its ten variant chants, asked me why Western intervention had been so slow.

The separation of, on the one hand, the struggle of Libya’s local Islamists against Qaddafi and, on the other, the pursuit by some Libyans of global jihad has had a lengthy development. It began as soon as bin Laden unveiled his vision of a global Islamic superstate in the late 1980s, escalated after he declared his war on crusaders and Jews, and culminated after September 11 when some Afghan jihadis formally dissociated themselves from bin Laden, including those from the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. I stumbled on this conflict in a Starbucks in Golders Green, a north London suburb favored by Muslims and Jews, soon after bin Laden declared war on crusaders and Jews in the late 1990s. Noman Benotman now runs a UK think tank, Quilliam, and wears a suit, but back then he was a Libyan jihadi leader traveling between London and bin Laden’s camps. He said he opposed al-Qaeda’s atrocities, culminating in September 11, because they enabled Arab autocrats like Qaddafi to crush local Islamist movements with Western approval.

The public renunciation of al-Qaeda I heard from Islamists once associated with it was even more strident among other Libyans. On the afternoon of March 31, I walked into a demonstration that young people in Benghazi had organized to denounce the colonel’s claims that their uprising was led by al-Qaeda. “If Omar al-Mukhtar [the leading opponent of Italian rule in the 1920s], Abraham Lincoln, and Charles de Gaulle are al-Qaeda, we are too,” shouted Mujdalia bin Ghor, an engineering student who had painted her fingers and forehead with the Libyan tricolor. Alongside her a woman in black gloves and black face-cover held a sign with an arrow marked “17 February Revolution” pointing right, and another marked “Qaeda and Qaddafi” pointing left, noting that both blew up airlines. “If we really had al-Qaeda, we’d have conquered Tripoli,” said a disabled schoolteacher, too paralyzed to participate, sucking apple tobacco irately through his water pipe in a nearby café.

By twilight, the protests against al-Qaeda and Qaddafi had swelled. Several thousand men and women, marching separately, chanted in rhyming couplets, loosely rendered from Arabic as:

No to Qaeda. No to Terror.
All Hail our Youth Guerrilla.

Get out from where you dwell.
Show Your Face. Rise up. Rebel.

Haya, Haya Hay-Alei,
Moussa Koussa ran away.

(The last is a reference to Qaddafi’s foreign minister, who fled to London on March 30.)

The decorum did not last long. After being drilled for four decades in the uniform mantra Allah, Libya, Muammar [Qaddafi] wa bas (alone), Benghazi has an air of exuberant chaos. A honking convoy of cars joined the rally, inching toward the protesters and drowning out the chants. A few boys in berets brandished their guns. A shopkeeper nearby set up an amplifier in his jeans outlet, competing with car stereos with his mix of Qaddafi’s hysterical speeches set to hip-hop. A motorcyclist reared his bike like a stallion beneath a colonial Italian colonnade.

After the honking cars came hundreds more protesters waving a sea of rebel Libyan flags and a smattering of Stars and Stripes and other coalition emblems. One boy had painted his face in multiple tricolors: the French on one side, the rebels’ on the other, and the Italian on his nose. A Union Jack covered his backside. “Obama saved me and my people,” explained Nassim Salim, a seventeen-year-old holding his star-spangled banner aloft. Next day at Friday prayers outside the courthouse, which served as the rebel headquarters, the preacher denounced al-Qaeda. The faithful incanted “God Is Great” and “Thanks America.” It was the first time I had seen American flags in Arab demonstrations that were not being burned.

Undoubtedly, the unlikely alignment of Islamism and America is in large part built on necessity; without Western intervention the rebel enterprise will collapse. If seen through to fruition—the colonel’s downfall—it could yet serve as the basis for deeper rapprochement, and mark the start of a healing process. But if the rebels’ enterprise fails, it could also go horribly wrong, deepening mutual mistrust and animosity.

For now the relationship stands on a knife-edge. Ten days before the demonstration, on March 21, Benghazi’s people had their first taste of failure. A convoy of Qaddafi’s tanks was moving north along the coastal road toward Benghazi’s university, sounding the call for a pre-positioned fifth column of Qaddafi supporters to act. Pro-Qaddafi paramilitaries and revolutionary committee members emerged from hiding and opened fire on people in the streets, creating mayhem.

The first civilian casualty was a thirty-one-year-old cartoonist, Qais al-Hilal, shot in the neck after finishing one of his trademark Abu Shafshufas, fuzzy-wuzzy caricatures of Qaddafi. Two journalists, one foreign and one local, were killed. A pro-regime sniper on a rooftop opened fire on several more journalists, until he was chased off by a former floor assistant from a department store in the provincial English city of Leicester who had bought his first gun two weeks earlier. A preacher, who had recounted to me his twenty-one years of torture in Busalim prison a few nights earlier, fled with his family to the Green Mountains after his name surfaced on one of Qaddafi’s hit lists. A Libyan migrant visiting from Vancouver frantically wrote a letter to President Obama pleading for him to save Benghazi and its rebellion. His request for a reply went unanswered.

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