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Shifting loyalties among Libya’s Islamists

The shifting battle lines of the anti-Gaddafi struggle have seen old Libyan Islamist fighters regroup and reconfigure their agendas to join the rebel ranks of the current uprising. But who controls yesterday’s foes, who are now today’s allies?


It was a seemingly stunning reversal that was met with large doses of scepticism. But it nevertheless exposed some little-known facts about an ally the international community has trustingly supported for the past few months.

In a rambling midnight interview with the New York Times last week, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s newly bearded son Saif al-Islam revealed that his father’s regime is allying with radical Islamists among the rebel ranks.

Gaddafi has a bloody track record with Islamists, and the Libyan leader has repeatedly blamed al Qaeda for the current uprising in invective-riddled speeches vowing to crush his Islamist opponents.

In the past, Gaddafi has lived up to his word, with brutal crackdowns against homegrown Islamists opposing his regime in eastern Libya. But that was in the 1990s and few were paying attention.

But if Saif al-Islam is to be believed, his father is now cutting deals with his longtime domestic foes.

Saif al-Islam’s midnight musings would have been summarily dismissed were it not for last month’s mysterious killing of the top Libyan rebel commander, General Abdel Fattah Younes, in the rebel capital of Benghazi.

A semi-independent Islamist brigade

General Younes’ death has produced a cascade of often conflicting explanations by the rebels’ National Transitional Council (NTC).

While some NTC officials have blamed a “fifth column” of Gaddafi loyalists, Ali Tarhouni, the NTC’s oil minister, told reporters that Younes was murdered by "renegade" members of the Abu Obeida Ibn al-Jarah brigade.

Named after one of the Prophet Mohammed's companions and most successful military commanders, the Abu Obeida Ibn al-Jarah brigade is an Islamist faction that is one of at least 30 semi-independent militias operating in rebel-held eastern Libya, according to Noman Bentoman, a senior analyst at the London-based counter-extremism think tank, the Quilliam Foundation.

“The military structure of the Libyan rebels has two elements,” Bentoman explained in a phone interview with FRANCE 24. “There are the professional soldiers under the National Liberation Army, of which General Younes was the supreme commander. The Obeida Ibn al-Jarah brigade is not part of the National Liberation Army. They’re operating as what you would call ‘independent revolutionaries’."

Bentoman said many such brigades were formed after the anti-Gaddafi uprising broke out in February when a power vacuum formed in the eastern part of the country. "Every city in eastern Libya has these brigades, made up of non-professional soldiers," he said. "They’re basically just locals who are not trained and don’t have fighting experience.”

Old Islamists under a new name

Bentoman was a former commander in the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), a jihadist group that emerged in the early 1990s among Libyans who fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan and then returned to Libya, where they waged a violent insurgency against Gaddafi’s regime.

Once close to Osama bin Laden and senior al Qaeda leaders, Bentoman quit the LIFG shortly after the 9/11 attacks and is now a prominent critic of Islamist violence.

According to Bentoman, the LIFG disbanded in August 2009, but during the current uprising it has regrouped under a new name: Al-Haraka Al-Islamiya Al Libiya Lit-Tahghir, or the Libyan Islamic Movement for Change. Many of the new group’s leaders and members, Bentoman notes, have now joined the Libyan rebels.

“We definitely know that Islamists are fighting within the rebel ranks,” said Barak Barfi, research fellow with the Washington, DC-based New America Foundation, who has been in Libya since March, researching the conflict. “It’s also been clear from the outset that the Europeans didn’t know who they were dealing with. [French President Nicolas] Sarkozy and [British Prime Minister David] Cameron didn’t know the people on the ground.”

But Barfi is careful to stress that there is no evidence that the Islamists among the Libyan rebels have al Qaeda links. “They see themselves as local and nationalist in character," he said. "They are not spearheading an internationalist jihadist line. They are not against the US, as long as there are no American troops on the ground.”

Bentoman shares Barfi’s opinion. “Are there Islamists and jihadists in Libya? Yes, of course,” he said. “But they use the term ‘jihad’ as a ‘just war’ for their homeland, not as a transnational crusade.”

Most of the members of the newly named Libyan Islamic Movement for Change, Bentoman maintains, are fighting with the Libyan rebels as part of the NTC. “They accept the idea of a new democratic Libya and have adapted to the new environment and the different challenges,” he said.

Former US foes turn friends – sort of

Circumstances can change dramatically in the life of a fighting man, posing new challenges that sometimes see old foes fighting on the same side while former allies may be found on the opposite side of the battle lines.

Over the past few months, US officials have acknowledged that at least one former detainee at Guantanamo Bay once deemed an enemy of the United States has now turned into an ally, of sorts.

Abu Sufian Ibrahim Ahmed Hamuda bin Qumu, a former LIFG militant who was captured in Pakistan after 9/11 and detained at Guantanamo until his 2007 release has joined the Libyan rebel ranks, according to US media reports.

In an April report, the New York Times revealed that Qumu – who failed to show up for an interview with the paper’s correspondent – now leads the Derna Brigade.

Another Libyan who has acknowledged being in Afghanistan and Pakistan until the 2001 US invasion is Abdul-Hakim al-Hasadi.

Like Qumu, al-Hasadi belongs to the Derna Brigade, which goes by the official name of the “Martyrs of Abu Salim Brigade”, after the infamous Abu Salim prison in Tripoli, the site of a 1996 prison massacre.

Derna, a hotbed of Islamists

A derelict town east of Benghazi, Derna has a reputation as a hotbed of Islamic resistance dating back to the anti-colonial struggle against the Italians. Following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, a number of the city’s fighting sons returned home to stage an uprising against the Gaddafi regime in the 1990s.

Gaddafi succeeded in brutally crushing the uprisings by the “Libyan Afghans” as they were called, with Derna bearing the brunt of a range of draconian measures aimed at intimidating its inhabitants into submission.

With the crackdown whittling away at the LIFG, several fighters made their way back to then Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, where a handful of Libyans – such as Abu Yahya al-Libi – climbed to al Qaeda’s top ranks.

After the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, Derna caught the attention of Western counterterror experts when an analysis of 600 suicide bombers showed that the tiny Mediterranean town of around 100,000 people had contributed the most suicide bombers, more than major Arab metropolises with populations running into the millions.

These days, Derna is acutely aware of its notoriety as an Islamist hotbed. Foreign reporters visiting the dusty town are greeted with a neatly printed banner across the town mosque that reads, in English: “We refuse to be linked with al Qaeda and other terrorist groups”.

Renouncing al Qaeda

In the past, the LIFG was viewed as an al Qaeda-linked group, a relationship that earned the organisation a spot on the US State Department's list of foreign terrorist organisations.

But a number of former LIFG members, many of them living in the United Kingdom, maintain that they have renounced al Qaeda.

While most experts concede that the LIFG is defunct and its new avatar has severed ties to al Qaeda, not much is known about the degrees to which different factions fighting under the NTC umbrella have renounced, accommodated, moderated or whitewashed their Islamist ideologies.

In the Libyan eastern coastal region of Cyrenaica, where Islam has historically provided the rallying cry against all manner of oppression – from the anti-colonial struggle to anti-Gaddafi uprisings – Islamist fighters are widely viewed as patriots among the local populace.

The NTC has been at pains to present the anti-Gaddafi rebel movement as a unified, liberal, secular movement to its Western backers. But General Younes’ murder has exposed the gap between rhetoric and reality, with US and European officials now questioning the NTC’s ability to manage the factions under its control.

“The NTC has been aware of the situation and how dangerous it might be. The assassination of General Younes has made it crystal clear,” said Bentoman. “The NTC has tried many times to bring all the fighters under their control. They have created what is called a ‘saraha al-thuwar,’ or a unified command for all the revolutionaries. But while some brigades have cooperated with the NTC, others have refused.”

This does not bode well for either the NTC or the international community supporting its cause.

Saif al-Islam’s latest assertion that his father was talking to Islamist leaders was clearly meant to sow discord and distrust among the fractious rebel ranks.

In his New York Times interview, the Libyan leader’s son claimed that he is negotiating with Ali Sallabi, a leading Islamic cleric in eastern Libya, who he called the “the real leader” of the rebels.

But while Sallabi has acknowledged talking to Saif al-Islam, he said he reiterated his call for Gaddafi to stand down during his conversations. He also told the US daily that contrary to Saif al-Islam’s claims, he welcomed Libya’s secular political figures. “Liberals are a part of Libya,” he said. “I believe in their right to present their political project and convince the people with it.”

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