Our guest blogger Christoph Reuter(*) has met a former Afghanistan fighter in the liberated city of Darnah and found that Libya’s Islamists do not need a jihadi valve anymore. They even do not attempt to hijack the Libyan revolution – which is secular in character, like the ones in Egypt and Tunisia.
When about a month ago the city of Tobruk in eastern Libya was liberated from Colonel Qaddafi’s rule after short fighting and basically the whole city taking the side of the revolution, the newly formed city committee met in the townhall. Lawyers, former government employees, businessmen and a calm, long-bearded IT expert with a prayer cap discussed how to run the city’s infrastructure. Before the foreign journalist left, the bearded man wanted to make one thing clear: You see, I am a pious man. But this is my private affair. You, the west, should not be afraid. We all want the same now: dignity, freedom, democracy. We want the same you want!“
What sounded like a surprising personal message was to be heard in all liberated cities in Libya, but also in Egypt and Tunisia: that this is an uprising for freedom and the rule of law supported equally by religious and secular people and that no militant Islamists are intending to hijack the revolt simply because they realise that the idea of the political Islam has rapidly lost its appeal. Even in the Libyan port town of Darnah, formerly known as ‚conservative‘ and, according to a WikeLeaks cable, a ‘wellspring for foreign fighters in Iraq’, clerics, secular leaders and Islamists stressed their unity. ‘Freedom, dignity and national unity“, read one banner hanging from the local Sahaba Mosque.
People here have been cheering the US attacks against Qaddafi’s forces. This included the men of Abdul Hakim al-Hasidi – who himself had fought against US troops in Afghanistan for five years until he was captured 2002 in Peshawar, turned over to the Americans, then jailed in Libya and finally released in 2008(**). Now he is organizing the defenses of Darnah and the logistics to send fighters to the frontline. He was singled out by Qaddafi’s government to claim that the Libyan rebellion „came from al-Qaeda“. When confronted by a New York Times reporter with the charge, al-Hasidi laughed. ‘We don’t need an Islamic state. If I had extremist thoughts, then people wouldn’t have sided with me.’
The idea to go to Iraq or Afghanistan to spread jihad, ‘was a reaction to oppression and the violence of the state’, another ex-prisoner stated. Jihad was a valve for the pressure and the hatred. As an Egyptian blogger wrote: ‘We hated what Mubarak permitted us to hate.’ Over the years, there had been signs of manipulation which now form a more coherent picture: In Egypt, despite the official peace treaty with Israel, the state-controlled media obviously were permitted or guided to relate events as 9/11, birdflu or even the shark attacks against tourists at the shores of Sharm el-Sheikh to Israel’s intelligence services. In Syria, Libya and elsewhere, the huge and officially spontaneous demonstrations against the Danish cartoons of the prophet Muhammad in February 2006 were all organized by the governments. As one participant of the demonstration of 17 February 2006 in Benghazi remembered, ‘this was the only chance for years to demonstrate against something. Of course we participated. Some of those who used the cover of the crowd to call slogans against Qaddafi were shot. Later the regime presented them as Islamist fanatics.’
It was the commemoration of this demonstration five years ago that the small core of human rights activists in eastern Libya choose as a day of protest earlier this year – which turned into a revolution, ironically turning the manipulated rage into real rage.
The global resonsance for the idea of jihad, attracting people from all over the Arab world to go to Iraq or Afghanistan to fight, seems to be fading rapidly. ‘I had thought about going to Iraq’, mentioned one of the young Libyan fighters at the refinery of Brega three weeks ago, ‘But now? No, we have something better to do!’
(*) Christoph Reuter is the correspondent for German magazine Stern in Kabul. He just returned from Libya from where he has reported earlier. He speaks Arabic.
(**) al-Hasidi was a member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (Al-Jama’a al-Islamiyyah al-Muqatilah fi-Libya) which emerged in the early 1990s from those Libyans (around 500) which had reportedly participated in the fight against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Some dozens of them returned to their country (partly via Sudan) to topple Libyan leader Qaddafi. Under severe repression, some LIFG cadres returned to Afghanistan, some of which collaborated with and, in 2007, declared their merger with al-Qaeda. This led to a split in the organisation. Those in jail in Libya declared their armed struggle a ‚mistake‘ in 2009 and were released in a deal with Qaddafi’s son Saif-ul-Islam. Darnah had been an area of strong LIFG acitivity in the 1990s.
While some newspapers have reported that an „Islamic Emirate‘ has been created in Darnah (see here), the New York Times discards this, reporting that this has been a narrative created by the Qaddafi government: ‚Libyan officials have singled out Mr. Hasidi as the head of a supposed emirate here, part of the government’s narrative that militant Islamists have hijacked the revolt’ (read full article here).
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020