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Vengeance in Libya

Mike King

In Tripoli there was still much post- Qaddafi euphoria when I arrived. Nearly a month after the dictator’s death, families, women’s groups, schoolchildren, and victorious fighters thronged Qaddafi’s demolished compound, buying popcorn and Libyan flags from a vendor who had set up a stall beside Qaddafi’s flattened villa. That afternoon I joined the hundreds of jubilant civilians and fighters who gathered in Tripoli’s Freedom Square after Seif’s capture. The celebrations had been commandeered by gunmen from the Misrata Brigade—led by one young man, his long hair tucked beneath a black beret, who displayed an image of Seif Qaddafi on his iPad from atop the hood of a Land Cruiser. “They are trying to steal the thunder of the Zintan Brigade,” Bargig told me. This was a running competition between the two main groups of former rebels who, along with the Zawiye Brigade, had taken part in the final assault on Tripoli.

I pushed past a preadolescent boy swiveling in the seat of an antiaircraft gun mounted on the bed of a Hilux truck, and asked two fighters from Misrata in mismatched uniforms whether they were glad that Seif had been captured alive. “We would have killed him,” one told me, laughing. Were they jealous of the Zintan fighters’ achievement? “Of course not,” he replied. “We captured [Muammar] Qaddafi himself.” I asked them how the government should deal with Qaddafi’s son. “I want him tried in Libya,” the second man said. “Even better—kill him tomorrow.”

Later, in Misrata, a city of some 350,000 people 120 miles to the east, I visited a victory museum on Tripoli Street, the former front line of the conflict. Amid apartment blocks blasted by tank shells, mortars, and Grad rockets, I joined a throng inspecting captured armaments, the documents of African mercenaries, and 1,300 small black-and-white portraits of Misrata civilian-fighters killed during the fighting. “Nobody suffered as much as the people of Misrata did,” the curator of the collection told me.

On the afternoon before Prime Minister al-Keeb was to announce Libya’s new government, I met again with Mahmoud Shammam—considered by many to be one of the most astute observers of post-Qaddafi society—in the opulent lobby of the Corinthian Hotel on the Tripoli waterfront. Shammam had just emerged from a conference with Luis Ocampo, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, who had arrived in Tripoli that morning to discuss the future trial of Seif Qaddafi. The Transitional National Council had insisted that he would be tried in Libya, and the ICC had offered logistical support.

Shammam told me that the “big question” facing Libya was how the country’s ragtag militias and professional soldiers could be knitted together into a new army. Tensions were building among the main groups competing for leadership, including hundreds of military officers who “sat out the revolution” or fled to Tunisia and are returning; some 150 former Qaddafi officers who defected to the rebels; and one-time civilians who “became powerful generals during the revolution.” The professionals view the civilian fighters as undisciplined, but Shammam warned, “If you build a professional army without those who participated in the revolution, you are making a big mistake. You need to have a formula, and nobody has figured it out.”

Adding to the tension, he pointed out, are latecomers to the fighting with powerful backers, including Abdulhakim Belhadj, the leader of the Tripoli Military Council, who has about one thousand fighters under his command at a Tripoli army base. An Islamist whose Libyan Islamic Fighting Group attacked Qaddafi in the 1990s, Belhadj became a Mujahideen in Afghanistan, was captured by the CIA in Thailand, spent time in Guantánamo, was rendered back to Libya in 2004, then was released from prison in a general amnesty six years later. After escaping from the country, Belhadj returned to Tripoli in late August, apparently with the backing of Qatar—and soon appeared on Al Jazeera in front of the gates of Bab al-Azizia, the Qaddafi family compound. “People say that he represents Qatar, and that he doesn’t represent us, and we haven’t seen him at the beginning of the revolution, and some are accusing him of even being a spy for the CIA, because he was in Guantánamo,” one former fighter told me. Shammam said that Belhadj had proven fighting credentials from the 1990s, but “he did not participate in the liberation of Tripoli…. It was liberated a few hours before he arrived.” (In late November, Belhadj was accused by his Zintan rivals, who control the Tripoli airport, of trying to fly to Istanbul on a false passport, and was briefly detained.)

Another contender for influence is Khalifa Hifter, who led the “Free Libya” forces in Benghazi, the original site of the revolutionary protest. A former commander of the Libyan army under Qaddafi, Hifter led his own Chad-based anti-Qaddafi guerrilla group in the 1990s. He was funded by the CIA, and for the last two decades lived a few miles from the agency’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia. In November, Hifter had himself elected the commander in chief of Libya’s new army by 150 former Qaddafi army officers, but rival brigades have said they will refuse to serve under his command, both because of his CIA connections and because the rebels’ advance from Benghazi was relatively feeble.

For the moment, Shammam has hopes that Qatar—which delivered weapons and some $400 million to the rebels and sent special forces and military trainers into Libya—can act as a broker in the squabbling. The emirate appeared to be seeking to expand its influence across the Middle East, both as “soft power,” in the form of Al Jazeera and development assistance, and in direct military aid.

Qatar has sent trainers to Tripoli and has taken the lead in an international effort to build a new Libyan army, though some Libyan leaders have accused the emirate of favoring Libyan Islamists, several of whom have longstanding ties to Doha and received direct Qatari support during the revolution. “The Islamists’ voices are loud, they are better equipped [than any other movement], they have better financing than anyone,” Shammam told me. Still, he says, “They are not Ennadha in Tunisia, and they are not the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt. They will never get 40 percent [of the vote].”

In the meantime, Libya must deal with more immediate problems, including getting violent gunmen off the streets and controlling the bloodlust that still runs strong across society. The desire for vengeance goes far beyond the ex-rebels cruising downtown Tripoli and Misrata in their souped-up pickup trucks. At the rally in Freedom Square that followed Seif Qaddafi’s capture, I was approached by a little girl and her mother, who wore matching armbands knitted in the colors of the new Libyan flag. The woman said that her daughter wished to practice her English, and the girl shyly stepped forward. “We are very happy because they have captured Qaddafi’s son,” she said. Then, brandishing a grainy photo of Seif, in which he holds up his bandaged hand, she added with a grin, “And we are very happy that they have cut off his fingers.”

—December 15, 2011

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