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:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

Weekend Edition
May 26, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Anthony DiMaggio
Swamp Politics, Trump Style: “Russiagate” Diverts From the Real White House Scandals
Paul Street
It’s Not Gonna Be Okay: the Nauseating Nothingness of Neoliberal Capitalist and Professional Class Politics
Jeffrey St. Clair
The ICEmen Cometh
Ron Jacobs
The Deep State is the State
Pete Dolack
Why Pence Might be Even Worse Than Trump
Patrick Cockburn
We Know What Inspired the Manchester Attack, We Just Won’t Admit It
Thomas Powell
The Dirty Secret of the Korean War
Mark Ashwill
The Fat Lady Finally Sings: Bob Kerrey Quietly Resigns from Fulbright University Vietnam Leadership Position
John Davis
Beyond Hope
Uri Avnery
The Visitation: Trump in Israel
Ralph Nader
The Left/Right Challenge to the Failed “War on Drugs”
Traci Yoder
Free Speech on Campus: a Critical Analysis
Dave Lindorff
Beware the Supporter Scorned: Upstate New York Trump Voters Hit Hard in President’s Proposed 2018 Budget
Daniel Read
“Sickening Cowardice”: Now More Than Ever, Britain’s Theresa May Must be Held to Account on the Plight of Yemen’s Children
Ana Portnoy
Before the Gates: Puerto Rico’s First Bankruptcy Trial
M. Reza Behnam
Rethinking Iran’s Terrorism Designation
Brian Cloughley
Ukraine and the NATO Military Alliance
Josh Hoxie
Pain as a Policy Choice
David Macaray
Stephen Hawking Needs to Keep His Mouth Shut
Ramzy Baroud
Fear as an Obstacle to Peace: Why Are Israelis So Afraid?
Kathleen Wallace
The Bilious Incongruity of Trump’s Toilet
Seth Sandronsky
Temping Now
Alan Barber – Dean Baker
Blue Collar Blues: Manufacturing Falls in Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania in April
Jill Richardson
Saving America’s Great Places
Richard Lawless
Are Credit Rating Agencies America’s Secret Fifth Column?
Louis Proyect
Venezuela Reconsidered
Murray Dobbin
The NDP’s Singh and Ashton: Flash Versus Vision
Ron Leighton
Endarkenment: Postmodernism, Identity Politics, and the Attack on Free Speech
Anthony Papa
Drug War Victim: Oklahoma’s Larry Yarbrough to be Freed after 23 Years in Prison
Rev. John Dear
A Call to Mobilize the Nation Over the Next 18 Months
Yves Engler
Why Anti-Zionism and Anti-Jewish Prejudice Have to Do With Each Other
Ish Mishra
Political Underworld and Adventure Journalism
Binoy Kampmark
Roger Moore in Bondage
Rob Seimetz
Measuring Manhoods
Edward Curtin
Sorry, You’re Not Invited
Vern Loomis
Winning the Lottery is a State of Mind
Charles R. Larson
Review: Mary V. Dearborn’s “Ernest Hemingway”
David Yearsley
The Ethos of Mayfest
May 25, 2017
Jennifer Matsui
The Rise of the Alt-Center
Michael Hudson
Another Housing Bubble?
Robert Fisk
Trump Meets the New Leader of the Secular World, Pope Francis
John Laforge
Draft Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapons Unveiled
Benjamin Dangl
Trump’s Budget Expands War on the Backs of America’s Poor
Alice Donovan
US-Led Air Strikes Killed Record Number of Civilians in Syria
Andrew Moss
The Meaning of Trump’s Wall
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail