Will Lybia Become "Libyastan" / DR. Jacques Neriah

August 29, 2011
The U.S. and the West’s military intervention in Libya finally succeeded in toppling Gaddafi’s 42- year reign in Libya and brought to power an amorphous body called the NTC (National Transitional Council) headed by Mostafa Abdel Jalil, headed by a former judge and Minister of Justice under Gaddafi, a devout Muslim educated in the best tradition of Muslim jurisprudence.

The question that immediately arises is where Libya will be sailing to now? The question is of immense interest since the last two American interventions, in Afghanistan and Iraq, did not produce stable, democratic and open regimes and Al-Qaeda elements have been reported to be offering support to the rebels from the very first days of the uprising against Gaddafi:

a. At the end of his presidency, US President Jimmy Carter offered assistance to the mujahidin (Islamic fighters) in their war against the Soviet presence in Afghanistan. Weapons and equipment were sent. The well-known result was the empowerment of forces that would in the end be inimical to the interests of the West, and ultimately led to the Taliban takeover of the country. Afghanistan became a safe haven for Osama bin Laden and the story that followed included the most lethal terrorist attacks against the West in the decades that followed.

b. The official reason for U.S. military intervention in Iraq was the presence of weapons of mass destruction, which at the end of the day were never found. As a result, Iraq as a state was restructured into what the U.S. thought it should be: Instead of a country ruled for decades by the Sunni minority, Iraq became a Shiite dominated country. Since its renewed “facelift,” Iraq has been a destabilized state living under the constant threat of terror and religious partition. Iraq lost its central role in Arab affairs and worse, stopped being a buffer against Iran and Iranian influence in the Middle East. Many of the political elites of the new Iraq have been receiving funding from the Iranians. No real gain was registered to the US.

There are plenty of reasons to fear that the military action undertaken by the West might be playing into the hands of its worst foes and ideological enemies. A statement released on February 24 on the Al-Qaeda affiliated Al-Fajr media website quoted the group known as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM): “We declare our support for the legitimate demands of the Libyan revolution. We assert to our people in Libya that we are with you and will not let you down, Allah willing. We will give everything we have to support you, with Allah’s Grace”. Support was also expressed by Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, who offered to send some of his military experts to help train the rebels. So did Hamas. There was almost a consensus amongst the extreme and fundamentalist Islamic organizations that there was a necessity to assist the rebels against Gaddafi. Those extreme organizations would have not expressed such unanimous support had they not understood the Islamic implications of a triumph against Gaddafi.

Analysts and reporters, as well as American diplomats (as reflected in the Wikileaks documents) all identified supporters of Islamist causes among the opposition to Gaddafi’s regime, in particular in the towns of Dernah and Benghazi in the eastern province of Cyrenaica. The Wikileaks cables initially revealed by the Daily Telegraph back in 2008, identified Dernah in particular as a breeding ground for fighters in a number of cases, including Afghanistan and Iraq. A field study published by the French Centre of Intelligence Research, headed by former chiefs of French intelligence who toured Libya and met with most of the belligerents, reported amazing statistics: out of the contingent of foreign fighters who came to Iraq to fight the U.S. presence, 19% were Libyans. 85% of the suicide bombers were of Libyan citizenship compared to 56% average from other nationalities. The Libyans were second after the Saudis in number of fighters. In other words, Cyrenaica, Libya’s eastern region, produced one terrorist per 1000-1500 inhabitants!

Cyrenaica has always been the cradle of extreme Islam. Unlike Tripoli, Cyrenaica is the land of the bearded Muslims. In the mid-forties of the 19th Century, the Sanussiyah order (extreme fundamentalist Islam) was born in Al-Bayda, one of its main towns. Forty-two years of Gaddafi’s regime did not succeed in uprooting customs that compel women to walk in the streets only when they are veiled and that forbids women to drive. According to the French team, Saleh Abu Muhammad, responsible for the media at AQIM, declared that his organization had created Emirates in Benghazi, Dernah, AlBayda, Al-Marj, Shihat: “We are present specially in Dernah where Sheikh Abd el-Hakim is our Emir, where the Islamic Council is located that is responsible for running the town according to Sharia law.”

According to the Daily Telegraph, Gaddafi had pinpointed the rebels in Dernah as being led by an Al-Qaeda cell that has declared the town an Islamic Emirate. The regime also cast blame on hundreds of members of the Libyan Islamist Fighting Group (LIFG). LIFG was the jihadist opposition to Gaddafi. The group was formed by Libyan fighters who joined Bin Laden in the 1980′s to oust the Soviets from Afghanistan. Upon their return to Libya they formed the organization, although it formally split from Al-Qaeda after September 11, 2001 only to declare in 2007 that the LIGF was a subsidiary of Al-Qaeda. Libyan Islamists, especially over the past two decades, have been subject to government suppression. An LIFG rebellion led by Abdelhakim Belhadj, alias Abu Abdallah Saddiq was crushed in Benghazi in 1995 and 1,800 LIFG members were imprisoned. They were only released after the group’s ideology was revised in 2008. In September 2009, the LIFG published a new jihadist “code”, a 417-page document entitled “Corrective Studies” which was published after more than two years of intense talks between incarcerated LIFG leaders and Libyan officials, including Saif al-Islam Gaddafi. In March 2011, members of the LIFG reportedly announced that they had placed themselves under the leadership of the Libyan rebel National Transitional Council, and that the group had changed its name from the LIFG to the Libyan Islamic Movement.

Abdelhakim Belhadj, today the commander of the Libyan rebel Tripoli Military Council, emerged as a leader during the Libyan rebel operation to liberate the Libyan capital from Gaddafi’s control. Belhadj, is also a former Emir of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG). He was born in 1966. In 1988, he joined the Afghan jihad against the Soviet occupation forces along with other Arab volunteers, many of whom would form the core of al-Qaeda. He is believed to have lived in a number of Islamic countries including Pakistan, Turkey and Sudan. Belhadj was arrested in Afghanistan and Malaysia in 2004, and was interrogated by the CIA in Thailand before he was extradited to Libya in the same year.

Many LIFG members fled Libya and some of them even gained notoriety: Anas El Libi participated in 1998 in the terrorist attacks against the U.S. embassies in Dar El-Salam in Tanzania and Nairobi, Kenya. He was apprehended by the British in London in 2002 only to be released later. Ibrahim Abu Faraj Farj El-Libi was yet another notorious member of Al-Qaeda arrested in Pakistan in 2005. Gaddafi’s repression was so harsh that he was named by Al-Qaeda’s Ayman El-Zawahiri as number two on Al-Qaeda’s list of targets .

Abdel Hakim Al-Hasidi, chief officer commanding the defenses of Dernah, was arrested in Afghanistan in 2002. He was later handed over to US authorities and then held in Libya before being released in 2008. In a statement to a reporter he declared that his jihadists had fought the American coalition in Iraq and “now they are fighting Gaddafi”. According to different sources (including the remarks before Congress of General Stavridis, Commander of NATO who said that some Al-Qaeda and Hezbollah terrorists were fighting against Gaddafi’s forces) there could be about 1000 such fighters. Al-Hasidi is a current member of the NTC (!). Nevertheless he declared that he did not support a Taliban-like state. Al-Hasidi insisted his fighters “are patriots and good Muslims, not terrorists”, but added that the “members of Al-Qaeda are also good Muslims and are fighting against the invader”.

Two other prominent members of Al-Qaeda of Libyan origin actively involved in the revolt against Gaddafi are Abd El-Moneim El-Madhouni, alias, Mostafa El-Zawi,Alias. Ibn El-Ward has been a member of Al-Qaeda since the mid 90′s. He was killed in the battle over Berga. Ismail Sallabi, also a veteran of Al-Qaeda, is reported to be training 200 fighters in the 7 April caserns.

In any event, Al-Hasidi’s revelations made in late March 2011 came even as Idriss Debby, President of Chad, said that Al-Qaeda had managed to pillage arsenals in the Libyan rebel zone and acquired arms,”including surface-to-air missiles, which were then smuggled into their sanctuaries”. Intelligence sources indicated that the pillaged weapons had made their way to the Sahel area. Mali Authorities said that the information in their hands indicated that weapons such as the AK-47, R.P.g-7, ZU23mm and SA-7 had been seen in their territory and showed a Libyan origin. These reports were further backed by information leaked by U.S. sources. Indeed, according to two U.S. government officials not authorized to speak on the record, there is evidence that a small number of Soviet-made SA-7 anti-aircraft missiles from Qaddafi’s arsenal have reached the black market in Mali, where al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is active.

With Gaddafi gone, the West finds it difficult to replace him in the battle against Al-Qaeda. While in power, Gaddafi had agreed to very intense cooperation against Al-Qaeda. A special relationship was established between Libyan Intelligence, counter-terrorism and security forces through the good services of the then chief of Intelligence Moussa Koussa and the CIA and MI-5 and MI-6 who even asked the Libyans to send agents to infiltrate Islamist organizations in the UK. Being aware of the dangers from the proliferation of such ground-to-air missiles the U.S. the primary worry at present is the hunt for Libya’s missiles. According to a report published by Bloomberg News on August 26 a U.S. inter-agency team met in Malta with a Libyan official in early August to reach an agreement in principle on creating a program to remove the shoulder-fired missiles. During June and July, that inter-agency team visited Libya’s neighbors to discuss weapons proliferation, coordinate responses and determine what assistance is needed.

The U.S. planned to deploy two contractors to Libya with the exclusive job of tracking down and destroying shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles before they fell into the hands of terrorists. According to the report, the State Department also will deploy an in-house specialist in controlling and destroying the portable missiles to oversee the team, which is expected to arrive in early September. State Department officials notified Congress of these plans on August 15, the day before rebels stormed the Libyan capital of Tripoli.

While the new teams will work with the rebel National Transitional Council on weapons control, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the NTC bears special responsibility to keep these weapons safe. The rebel group “has obligations to the international community,” Clinton said in a recent statement. ”We will look to them to ensure that Libya fulfills its treaty responsibilities that it ensures that its weapons stockpiles do not threaten its neighbors or fall into the wrong hands, and that it takes a firm stand against violent extremism.”

The message to the NTC was loud and clear. Clinton’s concern with the dangers of “violent extremism” was warranted. Indeed, at present Libya is ruled by a coalition of forces represented in the National Transitional Council (NTC). Judging from its composition one can see very clearly that there is no real glue between its different members: royalists, Islamists, Salafists as well as Muslim Brethren, former Gaddafi’s supporters and officers, former Gaddafi’s colleagues in the first Revolutionary Council that toppled the royalty in 1969, a tiny layer of Democrats and secular politicians and finally members of the LIFG.

The National Transitional Council (NTC) aimed to provide political and military leadership, organize basic services and represent Libyans abroad. Its leaders said the council was not a government, but aimed to “steer” Libya into a post-Gaddafi era and then “guide the country to free elections and the establishment of a constitution for Libya”. They stressed they would only serve for an interim period and would not to stand in future elections.

According to its website, the council currently has a chairman, vice-chairman, representatives with various portfolios, and 33 members representing the regions and cities of Libya. Some of their identities have been kept secret for security reasons. There is also an executive board, which functions like a cabinet.

The NTC published in August a 14-page “Draft Constitutional Charter for the Transitional Stage”, in which it set out a plan to create a multi-party democracy with Islamic law (Sharia) as the principal source of legislation ( a major change in the Libyan regime).

However, it is not yet clear if the council is ready to fill the void in a country with little civil society and no real political institutions. It says it is ready, but its meetings have been described as chaotic and its leadership as contradictory. It has not always been clear who the council represents.

The assassination in July of the rebel military commander, Gen Abdul Fattah Younis, a former close associate of Gaddafi who defected to the rebels and conducted military operations against the regime, apparently by members of an Islamist faction (the Obaida Ben Jarrah Brigade, an Islamist militia allied to the NTC) after he was taken into custody for questioning, also raised questions about unity. The assassination has raised fears that the NTC is too weak and fractured to halt a slide into bloodshed as rival factions, including Islamists, bid for power.

At present, Mostafa Abdel Jalil is the leading figure at the NTC. Born in 1952 in Al-Bayda the historic seat of the Sanussi dynasty, he studied Islamic Jurisprudence in Benghazi, became a judge in 1978 at the age of 26, a career culminating in 2007 in his appointment as Minister of Justice. He resigned his position on February 20 2011 and joined the rebel camp to be elected as the leader of the provisional government. Abdel Jalil, a conservative and devout Muslim can often been seen wearing a “shanna”, the traditional burgundy colored wool cap worn by Libyan men. In the Wikileaks documents he is described as open and cooperative but also very clearly anti-Israeli. In the Wikileaks document he is quoted as saying that Islamic terrorism emerged because many Muslims believed the U.S. and Europe were against them. His CV stresses the fact that he has been singled out because of his opposition to Gaddafi as Minister of Justice. Abdel Jalil even offered his resignation in 2010, which was refused. The less brilliant part of his career is his decision to sentence to death the Bulgarian nurses and the Palestinian physician accused of deliberately inoculating AIDS to Libyan children.

Is Mostafa Abdel Jalil made of leadership timber? Is there another unifying figure who can lead Libya after Gaddafi? Right now the resounding answer seems to be no. Gaddafi ran Libya without state institutions that would make any transition easier for the rebels who have plenty of spirit but lack a proper chain of command. The rebels are also weighed down by factionalism and ethnic and tribal divisions. Moreover, Abdel Jalil will always be viewed with suspicion by some rebels who want completely new faces with no past links to Gaddafi, a fact that will undermine efforts to choose an effective leadership. Beneath the surface, the rebels are torn apart by divisions and factionalism, Berber and Arab villages look at each other with disdain. Rebels refer to themselves as fighters from village x or village y, not the rebels of Libya.

If hardliners prevail, then Libya could make the same mistake that was made in Iraq after the 2003 U.S. military campaign that toppled Saddam Hussein. Baath party supporters and army officers were purged “en masse” creating a power vacuum that led to instability for years as everyone from his secular supporters to Al-Qaeda waged a violent campaign against Iraq’s new US-backed rulers. A hint of what could be is the increasing number of rebels growing long, thick beards, the trademark of Islamists who are likely to reject close ties with the West in a post- Gaddafi era.

About Jacques Neriah
Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah, a special analyst for the Middle East at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, was formerly Foreign Policy Advisor to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Deputy Head for Assessment of Israeli Military Intelligence.

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