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…

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