Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Keep CounterPunch ad free. Support our annual fund drive today!

Islamists at the Heart of the Libyan Rebellion



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:

2016 Fund Drive
Smart. Fierce. Uncompromised. Support CounterPunch Now!

  • cp-store
  • donate paypal

CounterPunch Magazine


October 27, 2016
Paul Street
An Identity-Politicized Election and World Series Lakefront Liberals Can Love
Matthew Stevenson
Sex and the Presidential City
Jim Kavanagh
Tom Hayden’s Haunting
CJ Hopkins
The Pathologization of Dissent
Mike Merryman-Lotze
The Inherent Violence of Israel’s Gaza Blockade
Robert Fisk
Is Yemen Too Much for the World to Take?
Shamus Cooke
Stopping Hillary’s Coming War on Syria
Jan Oberg
Security Politics and the Closing of the Open Society
Ramzy Baroud
The War on UNESCO: Al-Aqsa Mosque is Palestinian and East Jerusalem is Illegally Occupied
Colin Todhunter
Lower Yields and Agropoisons: What is the Point of GM Mustard in India?
Norman Pollack
The Election: Does It Matter Who Wins?
Nyla Ali Khan
The Political and Cultural Richness of Kashmiriyat
Barbara Nimri Aziz
“It’s Only a Car!”
October 26, 2016
John W. Whitehead
A Deep State of Mind: America’s Shadow Government and Its Silent Coup
Eric Draitser
Dear Liberals: Trump is Right
Anthony Tarrant
On the Unbearable Lightness of Whiteness
Mark Weisbrot
The Most Dangerous Place in the World: US Pours in Money, as Blood Flows in Honduras
Chris Welzenbach
The Establishment and the Chattering Hack: a Response to Nicholas Lemann
Luke O'Brien
The Churchill Thing: Some Big Words About Trump and Some Other Chap
Sabia Rigby
In the “Jungle:” Report from the Refugee Camp in Calais, France
Linn Washington Jr.
Pot Decriminalization Yields $9-million in Savings for Philadelphia
Pepe Escobar
“America has lost” in the Philippines
Pauline Murphy
Political Feminism: the Legacy of Victoria Woodhull
Lizzie Maldonado
The Burdens of World War III
David Swanson
Slavery Was Abolished
Thomas Mountain
Preventing Cultural Genocide with the Mother Tongue Policy in Eritrea
Colin Todhunter
Agrochemicals And The Cesspool Of Corruption: Dr. Mason Writes To The US EPA
October 25, 2016
David Swanson
Halloween Is Coming, Vladimir Putin Isn’t
Hiroyuki Hamada
Fear Laundering: an Elaborate Psychological Diversion and Bid for Power
Priti Gulati Cox
President Obama: Before the Empire Falls, Free Leonard Peltier and Mumia Abu-Jamal
Kathy Deacon
Plus ça Change: Regime Change 1917-1920
Robin Goodman
Appetite for Destruction: America’s War Against Itself
Richard Moser
On Power, Privilege, and Passage: a Letter to My Nephew
Rev. William Alberts
The Epicenter of the Moral Universe is Our Common Humanity, Not Religion
Dan Bacher
Inspector General says Reclamation Wasted $32.2 Million on Klamath irrigators
David Mattson
A Recipe for Killing: the “Trust Us” Argument of State Grizzly Bear Managers
Derek Royden
The Tragedy in Yemen
Ralph Nader
Breaking Through Power: It’s Easier Than We Think
Norman Pollack
Centrist Fascism: Lurching Forward
Guillermo R. Gil
Cell to Cell Communication: On How to Become Governor of Puerto Rico
Mateo Pimentel
You, Me, and the Trolley Make Three
Cathy Breen
“Today Is One of the Heaviest Days of My Life”
October 24, 2016
John Steppling
The Unwoke: Sleepwalking into the Nightmare
Oscar Ortega
Clinton’s Troubling Silence on the Dakota Access Pipeline
Patrick Cockburn
Aleppo vs. Mosul: Media Biases