Getting Libya’s Rebels Wrong

The recent remarks by Adm. James Stavridis, NATO’s supreme allied commander for Europe, alleging “flickers in the intelligence of potential al Qaeda, Hezbollah” among Libyan rebels are indicative of a disturbing trend in much of the discussion — and reporting — on Libya over the past several weeks. Ambiguous statements linking Libya and al Qaeda have repeatedly been made in the media without clarifying or providing appropriate context to such remarks. In many instances, these claims have been distorted or exaggerated; at times they have simply been false.

The admiral’s comments — and the subsequent headlines they’ve engendered — represent a new level of irresponsibility, constructing false connections, through use of highly obscure and equivocal language, between al Qaeda and Libyan pro-democracy forces backed by the Transitional National Council. The latter is itself led by a group of well-known and respected Libyan professionals and technocrats. Even more far-fetched is the admiral’s mention of a Hezbollah connection, or “flicker” as he put it.

Statements of this type are troubling because of their tendency to create alarmist ripple effects. Such perceptions, once created, are nearly impossible to reverse and may do serious damage to the pro-democracy cause in Libya. The fact that Stavridis qualified his comments by stating that the opposition’s leadership appeared to be “responsible men and women” will almost certainly be overshadowed by the mention of al Qaeda in the same breath. One must wonder, then, what precisely was the purpose of the admiral’s vague and perplexing remarks.

There is a pressing need for officials and commentators to clarify connections drawn between Libya and al Qaeda and to provide more accurate and responsible analysis. And it’s not just Stavridis’s reference to al Qaeda that is problematic; two similar claims making the media rounds also demand careful scrutiny. One involves an anti-Qaddafi organization called the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) that confronted and was crushed by the regime in the 1990s. The second involves disturbing reports of the recruitment of Libyan youth by al Qaeda in Iraq, some of whom left their homes to take part in suicide missions in that country. Neither is connected to the current uprising, but both are frequently mentioned when discussing it.

Let’s start with the LIFG, whose activities were recounted to me by a former member of the group’s leadership council now residing in London, Noman Benotman, in a lengthy interview I conducted with him in December 2009.

The exact date of the LIFG’s formation is unclear, but its roots can be traced back to the 1980s. In preparation for launching attacks against the Qaddafi regime, many members of the still nascent group traveled to Afghanistan to join the U.S.-backed mujahideen in their struggle against the Soviets and to undergo military training before returning to Libya.

In the early 1990s, LIFG members, among them Benotman, Saad Furjani, and others, developed extensive plans to expand the organization and prepare it for armed struggle; these were to be executed in several phases until the group was in a position to confront the regime directly. However, in 1995, the group’s activities were prematurely exposed when LIFG members led by Furjani and disguised as state security services stormed a Benghazi hospital and rescued Khaled Baksheesh, a fellow member who had been arrested and was in critical condition after being beaten by police who had discovered a concealed weapon in his possession. In response, state security services began a sweep of the region, and several LIFG cells were eventually discovered in cities throughout the country, including Benghazi, Tripoli, Darnah, Zawiyah, and Sabha. The group’s leadership council, most of whose members were in Sudan at the time, elected to declare its presence as an organization in October of that year, making public its intention to topple the regime. Over the next few years, Libyan security forces crushed the would-be rebellion, arresting or killing most of the LIFG’s membership.

Given that the Qaddafi regime was attempting to contain a homegrown opposition that threatened its continued survival, its decision to repair its damaged relations with the West beginning in the late 1990s was in essence a pragmatic one. This rapprochement necessitated, among other things, cooperation with Western anti-terrorism efforts: The LIFG was soon declared a terrorist organization by the U.S. government.

In 2005, Saif al-Islam Qaddafi, leader Muammar’s son, proposed a dialogue between the regime and the imprisoned LIFG membership, which numbered in the hundreds. He approached Benotman, who had been out of the country when the LIFG was discovered and had since settled in London; Benotman agreed to act as a liaison between the government and the prisoners beginning in January 2007.

The result of this dialogue was the release in September 2009 of a 400-page document titled Corrective Studies in Understanding Jihad, Accountability and the Judgment of People. The study — authored by imprisoned senior LIFG members and intellectuals Abd al-Hakim Balhaj, Abu al-Mundhir al-Saidi, Abd al-Wahab al-Qayed, Khalid al-Sharif, Miftah al-Duwdi, and Mustafa Qanaifid — analyzes various concepts related to jihad and Islamic law in an effort to delegitimize the use of armed struggle to overthrow the regimes of Muslim states. The LIFG recantation made headlines throughout the Arab world, and several prominent Muslim clerics, including Yusuf al-Qaradawi, praised the study. Even the Western media took notice. Others doubted the sincerity of the recantation, arguing that it was coerced or done simply to secure prisoner releases.

As the West’s darling in Libya — a country that over the last decade had actively sought to burnish its image on the international stage — Saif al-Islam was able to manipulate the story of the LIFG in order to make the claim that the Qaddafi regime had succeeded not only in thwarting al Qaeda in Libya, but in rehabilitating it to boot. In reality, this was little more than a PR stunt designed to bolster Qaddafi’s image as an effective hedge against terrorism, an ironic proposition given his past involvement in terrorist activities.

Although the LIFG had advocated the use of force against the regime, its former leaders have been quick to distinguish their group from radical organizations like al Qaeda, despite having trained in some of the same camps in Afghanistan and Sudan in the 1980s and 1990s. They point out that the LIFG never advocated the use of violence against Libyan or non-Libyan civilians, never participated in al Qaeda attacks, and had no interest in waging war on either Libyan society or the West — its target had been Qaddafi and Qaddafi alone. The LIFG never joined al Qaeda; in fact, LIFG leaders like Benotman have publicly denounced the organization’s use of indiscriminate violence and have in the past actively sought to distance themselves from the group, objecting vehemently to statements by al Qaeda’s No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, that the two groups had merged.

Despite the LIFG’s repudiation of al Qaeda, the latter did manage to infiltrate Libyan society in other, limited ways. In 2008, Newsweek reported the discovery of documents in northern Iraq suggesting that out of 606 al Qaeda militants listed, 112 had come from Libya. More striking was the fact that nearly half of these were from Darnah, a city of 50,000 known even among Libya’s neglected eastern regions for having suffered considerably under Qaddafi’s tenure. Even more troubling was the fact that many of these young men appeared to have volunteered for suicide missions.

It seems that though Qaddafi was successful in crushing his own internal opposition, he made little effort to stanch the trickle of would-be militants out of the country. Not only did the regime fail to prevent al Qaeda recruiters from preying on disillusioned young men, but it also arguably contributed to the problem by fueling the discontent and hopelessness endemic to Libyan society, where unemployment hovers around 30 percent and a deceptively high GDP belies the reality that most of the country’s oil wealth has not trickled down to the average citizen.

Why would young Libyans decide to abandon their homes and their families to kill and be killed in a foreign country? The reasons are complex, varied, and tragic, but there is little doubt that a deep sense of despair stemming from a lifetime of repression and lack of economic opportunity played a significant role. Although 112 individuals in a country of 6.5 million represents a negligible proportion of the population, the recruitment of young men by al Qaeda is nevertheless a source of grave concern among Libyans, just as it is for Europe, the United States, and other countries that have grappled with similar problems.

Although Libya is in some ways a traditional society, al Qaeda remains deeply unpopular among its people, many of whom have been keen to stress that this uprising is in no way connected to the terrorist organization. Indeed, they have repeatedly scoffed at Qaddafi’s absurd accusations to the contrary. The Libyan revolution is a decidedly nationalist, democratic movement, two characteristics that render it fatally incompatible with al Qaeda’s delusional goal of resurrecting a pan-Islamic caliphate; the Libyan people have no intention of allowing their movement to be hijacked by al Qaeda. That a handful of rebel fighters may have a history with the LIFG does not mean that the Transitional National Council or the pro-democracy fighters are connected to al Qaeda, yet this is precisely what the Qaddafi regime would have the international community believe. Indeed, the council just released a statement refuting allegations aimed at associating al Qaeda with the revolutionists in Libya, and affirming its commitment to combating terrorism and implementing Security Council resolutions on counterterrorism.

After his remark about “flickers” of al Qaeda, Stavridis admitted that he lacked “the detail sufficient to say that there’s a significant al Qaeda presence or any other terrorist presence in and among these folks.” But the absence of evidence cannot be passed off as the presence of information. Ambiguous and misleading statements like the admiral’s do a grave disservice to the Libyan people and their cause by effectively and unfairly lumping them together with al Qaeda in the public consciousness; they also do a disservice to those who seek a better understanding of Libya and its people. Libyans have already had to contend with the Qaddafi regime’s ridiculous allegations that their movement is nothing more than an al Qaeda plot fueled by widespread hallucinogenic drug use — let’s not join him in denigrating their cause.

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