FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Islamists at the Heart of the Libyan Rebellion

by PATRICK COCKBURN

Tripoli

Rebel militiamen, many of them former prisoners of Muammar Gaddafi, have an iron grip on Tripoli, but wonder who will hold long-term power in Libya. Issam, a bearded Islamist who controls a district of the revolutionary stronghold of Souq al-Jumaa, holds permits which allow him to field 70 local militiamen with arms. “We do not have that number of weapons,” he says. For the moment he does not need them because Gaddafi loyalists “have turned 180 degrees and joined us or they are staying home after we took away their guns”.

A year ago Issam was in jail because the security forces imprisoned anybody they suspected of Islamist tendencies at the time of the anniversary of Gaddafi’s 1969 coup, which was presented as a popular revolution. “They would put me in prison for a month because of my beard which they thought Islamic,” recalls Issam. “I was lucky because many of my friends got two or three months just for being bearded.”

Much of government propaganda on Libyan state TV during the six-month civil war was focused on claims that the rebellion was being led by Islamic militants linked to al-Qa’ida. The aim was to frighten the US and Nato abroad and secular Libyans at home.

But the allegations also had some credibility, since the most militant and experienced anti-Gaddafi organisation was the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG). It is Abdul Hakim Belhaj, one of the founders of this group, which fought a ferocious guerrilla campaign against the regime in the 1990s, who now commands the militia units in Tripoli.

Mr Belhaj, 45, a veteran of the Afghan war in the 1980s, is a leading jihadi who was arrested at American behest in Malaysia in 2003, tortured in Thailand and handed over to Libya in 2004. At that time US and Libyan intelligence were co-operating in eliminating Islamists and American officers allegedly took part in interrogations in Tripoli.

Released along with other militants in 2010 by an over-confident regime, Mr Belhaj was well-placed to play a leading role in planning and carrying out the assault that captured Tripoli.

The anti-Western attitudes of Libyan Islamists have been changed by the knowledge that without Nato air strikes Gaddafi would have won the war. The long term aims of the LIFG may not have changed much, but, as with Islamists in most countries convulsed by the Arab Spring, they long ago recognized that they needed to be allied to liberals and secularists to overthrow police states in Syria, Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. They also needed to distance themselves from al-Qa’ida to avoid being denigrated as  international pariahs, as Gaddafi tried to do.

The Islamists may, for the moment, look stronger than they are because they alone could provide experienced guerrilla leaders and an organized network of sympathizers in Tripoli. These cells could scarcely maintain their existence before the rebellion started on February 15, but thereafter they expanded rapidly.

Abdel Razzaq Targhuni, a Libyan currency exchange dealer with Islamist sympathies living in Dubai, recalls how he came home in late February  and started to organize against Gaddafi in the wealthy Andalus district of Tripoli. “Before that there wasn’t much contact between cells,” he says.

The loyalties and divisions of the new Libyan armed forces remain mysterious but there are signs of trouble ahead. Lt Col Khalid Bilad, an officer in Libyan Special Forces, who defected at the start of the revolution, was captured, imprisoned and tortured before escaping during a Nato raid and then helped plan an insurrection in Tripoli.

His unit, once called the “Tripoli Lions”, is now joining the main militia body and – for reasons the colonel refused to explain – is naming itself after the murdered commander-in-chief of the rebel army Abdul Fatah Younes, Gaddafi’s former Interior Minister, who was probably killed by Islamists.

Patrick Cockburn is the author of Muqtada.

Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

More articles by:
July 27, 2016
Richard Moser
The Party’s Over
M. G. Piety
Smoke and Mirrors in Philadelphia
Jeffrey St. Clair
The Humiliation Games: Notes on the Democratic Convention
Arun Gupta
Bernie Sanders’ Political Revolution Splinters Apart
John Eskow
The Loneliness of the American Leftist
Guillermo R. Gil
A Metaphoric Short Circuit: On Michelle Obama’s Speech at the DNC
Norman Pollack
Sanders, Our Tony Blair: A Defamation of Socialism
Claire Rater, Carol Spiegel and Jim Goodman
Consumers Can Stop the Overuse of Antibiotics on Factory Farms
Guy D. Nave
Make America Great Again?
Sam Husseini
Why Sarah Silverman is a Comedienne
Dave Lindorff
No Crooked Sociopaths in the White House
Dan Bacher
The Hired Gun: Jerry Brown Snags Bruce Babbitt as New Point Man For Delta Tunnels
Peter Lee
Trumputin! And the DNC Leak(s)
David Macaray
Interns Are Exploited and Discriminated Against
Brett Warnke
Storm Clouds Over Philly
Ann Garrison
Rwanda, the Clinton Dynasty, and the Case of Dr. Léopold Munyakazi
Chris Zinda
Snakes of Deseret
July 26, 2016
Andrew Levine
Pillory Hillary Now
Kshama Sawant
A Call to Action: Walk Out from the Democratic National Convention!
Russell Mokhiber
The Rabble Rise Together Against Bernie, Barney, Elizabeth and Hillary
Jeffrey St. Clair
Don’t Cry For Me, DNC: Notes From the Democratic Convention
Angie Beeman
Why Doesn’t Middle America Trust Hillary? She Thinks She’s Better Than Us and We Know It
Paul Street
An Update on the Hate…
Fran Shor
Beyond Trump vs Clinton
Ellen Brown
Japan’s “Helicopter Money” Play: Road to Hyperinflation or Cure for Debt Deflation?
Richard W. Behan
The Banana Republic of America: Democracy Be Damned
Binoy Kampmark
Undermining Bernie Sanders: the DNC Campaign, WikiLeaks and Russia
Arun Gupta
Trickledown Revenge: the Racial Politics of Donald Trump
Sen. Bernard Sanders
What This Election is About: Speech to DNC Convention
David Swanson
DNC Now Less Popular Than Atheism
Linn Washington Jr.
‘Clintonville’ Reflects True Horror of Poverty in US
Deepak Tripathi
Britain in the Doldrums After the Brexit Vote
Louisa Willcox
Grizzly Threats: Arbitrary Lines on Political Maps
Robert J. Gould
Proactive Philanthropy: Don’t Wait, Reach Out!
Victor Grossman
Horror and Sorrow in Germany
Nyla Ali Khan
Regionalism, Ethnicity, and Trifurcation: All in the Name of National Integration
Andrew Feinberg
The Good TPP
400 US Academics
Letter to US Government Officials Concerning Recent Events in Turkey
July 25, 2016
Sharmini Peries - Michael Hudson
As the Election Turns: Trump the Anti-Neocon, Hillary the New Darling of the Neocons
Ted Rall
Hillary’s Strategy: Snub Liberal Democrats, Move Right to Nab Anti-Trump Republicans
William K. Black
Doubling Down on Wall Street: Hillary and Tim Kaine
Russell Mokhiber
Bernie Delegates Take on Bernie Sanders
Quincy Saul
Resurgent Mexico
Andy Thayer
Letter to a Bernie Activist
Patrick Cockburn
Erdogan is Strengthened by the Failed Coup, But Turkey is the Loser
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail