America’s Islamist Allies in Libya

Since the advent of NATO strikes against Gaddafi, America has found itself with some unlikely allies on the ground. Babak Dehghanpisheh reports from Libya.

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Not so many years ago, Abdul Hakim Hasadi, a Libyan, trained at military camps in Afghanistan and narrowly escaped American bombs.

Today, Hasadi, a stocky man with a well-trimmed black beard, commands a group of roughly 200 rebel fighters in eastern Libya who are among the ragtag force pushing to oust Muammar Gaddafi.

Devout Islamists are only a small part of the overall rebel army but the presence of men like Hasadi, who received military training at camps in Afghanistan over a period of five years, has raised pointed questions about the background of the fighters. One of the rebel fighters who was in Afghanistan with Hasadi is Sufian Bin Qumu, a fellow Libyan who worked for one of Osama bin Laden’s trucking companies in Sudan. Bin Qumu was detained after fleeing Afghanistan and spent six years in Guantanamo. He now helps train and command rebel recruits, too. In recent congressional testimony, U.S. Admiral James Stavridis, NATO’s operations commander, said “We have seen flickers in the intelligence of potential al Qaeda,” among the opposition forces. But he also noted, “The leadership that I’m seeing are responsible men and women who are struggling against Colonel Gaddafi.”

“Would al Qaeda sit down and eat lunch with you?”

Christopher Dickey: Revolutions Off the Rails Allan Dodds Frank: Gaddafi’s Exit Strategy Hasadi is keenly aware that the time he and some of his fellow Islamists spent in Afghanistan affects how the rebels are viewed by the rest of the world. Gaddafi even singled out Hasadi in a speech last month to claim the rebels are trying to establish an Islamic emirate in the east of the country. And that’s probably why Hasadi is willing to talk about his past. Hasadi invited me to lunch at the house of his third wife in Darnah, a small town of roughly 50,000 spread out between the sparkling blue waters of the Mediterranean and rugged brown cliffs. His two other wives also live in the town along with 12 children. Hasadi wore a black sleeveless sweater over a green and white collared shirt and khaki pants, looking every bit like the geography teacher that he is trying to be now.

We sat on small brown cushions on the floor and tucked into spinach stew, grilled chicken, and spicy elbow macaroni. One of his young sons played Grand Theft Auto on a TV nearby. “Would al Qaeda sit down and eat lunch with you?” Hasadi joked, while taking a bite of the stew. “We are not al Qaeda. We just want to destroy the regime of Gaddafi.” A short while later, he leaned forward to answer a phone call and the black butt of a pistol jutted out from the back of his pants. He smiled sheepishly, pulled the pistol out and laid it on a cushion beside him.

Over the course of the next three hours, Hasadi spoke about his past in Afghanistan—he spoke about his time in Afghanistan and how he got out in 2001. As he sped down the highway toward the Pakistan border with other Arab Islamists, massive bombs pounded targets nearby. “The explosions were shaking our clothes,” said Hasadi, grabbing his sweater between his thumb and forefinger and flicking it up and down to illustrate the blasts. He had seen the aftereffects of one of these large bombs and it wasn’t pretty: far from the blast center, people had suffocated when the explosion sucked the air out of a room. But Hasadi made it out. “The tribesmen helped us cross into Pakistan,” he said, with a little smile. But he repeatedly denied any links between himself and any other rebel fighters to al Qaeda. After one question, he laughed and said, “I was interrogated by Americans in Pakistan but this is worse!” If Hasadi has any latent hostility toward the U.S., it’s hard to pin down. “The Libyan people were drowning,” he said. “And the international community saved us. It changed my view about America.”

But to get a real understanding of what Hasadi and his fellow Islamist fighters are all about, it’s important to understand the history of Darnah, which has a reputation as one of the most pious cities in the country. The city was a hub of resistance to the Italian occupation in the early 20th century and pictures of the beloved hero of the resistance, Omar Mukhtar, are plastered on buildings all over town. Perhaps it’s the history of that brutal occupation—the concentration camps, displacement, and executions—that spurred dozens of young men from the city to flock to Afghanistan to fight against the Soviets in the ‘80s. Some young men from the next generation even headed off to fight in Iraq. In 2007, the U.S. military found a trove of documents in northern Iraq that showed that 52 fighters had come from Darnah; the majority of them volunteered to be suicide bombers.

Few ordinary Libyans have heard about the fighters from Darnah who went abroad. Instead, they remember the city as the center of a violent Islamist uprising against the Gaddafi regime in the mid-1990s. The insurgency was led by the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, a militant organization formed by returning Afghan vets. Gaddafi cracked down hard. Darnah residents say that some 4,000 government troops were sent to squash the uprising. Hundreds were killed and jailed in Darnah and other cities in the east. “It was a war,” said Abdullah, a former policeman from Benghazi who asked that his real name not be used for security reasons. Abdullah rattles off the names of half a dozen colleagues who were killed in clashes with Islamists, some of whom died in suicide bomb attacks.

Allan Dodds Frank: What Will Come of Gaddafi?Full Coverage of LibyaIt was at the beginning of this uprising in 1995 that Hasadi fled Libya. “I was a wanted man,” he said. He bounced around between a number of countries in the Middle East before making his way to Afghanistan in 1997. As Hasadi explains it, he didn’t go to Afghanistan to seek out al Qaeda or any militant groups. He was trying to escape persecution at home and Afghanistan was one of the few countries that didn’t require a visa for Libyan citizens. Hasadi said he didn’t meet any of al Qaeda’s top leaders in Afghanistan, nor did he fight against any American soldiers there. Still, a few months after he fled Afghanistan in 2001, he was picked up by Pakistani security forces in Islamabad and handed over to Americans who grilled him about possible al Qaeda ties. Bin Qumu, the Libyan who Hasadi knew in Afghanistan, was also picked up in Pakistan at this time. After two months, Hasadi was released but Bin Qumu was sent to Guantanamo.

Hasadi returned to Libya in late 2002, the first time he was visiting his country in five years, unsure what kind of reception awaited him in Darnah. The security forces left him alone for nearly two years but he was arrested in 2004 and taken to the notorious Abu Salim prison in Tripoli. “I don’t even know why they arrested me,” Hasadi said, shaking his head. He spent the first seven months of his detention in a seven foot by seven foot cell with no windows. Doing hard time at the Abu Salim prison has almost become a rite of passage for the Islamists of Darnah, many of whom died during a massacre carried out by Gaddafi’s forces there in 1996 that left at least 1,200 dead. Hasadi was finally released from the prison in 2007.

When the anti-government protests started in Darnah on February 16, Hasadi eagerly joined the crowds, hoping the country could bring about the same changes that had taken place in Tunisia and Egypt. The crowds marched through the streets peacefully, chanting anti-government slogans but it didn’t take long for the security forces to react. “They started shooting at us with AK-47s and shotguns,” Hasadi said. Six people were killed. That’s when his military training kicked in. Over the course of the next two days, Hasadi helped protesters organize attacks on military facilities and other government buildings in town. When the government sent some 500 reinforcements to an airbase about 10 miles outside Darnah, Hasadi again stepped forward to help mount an organized defense of the city and the protesters-turned-fighters eventually pushed the forces into retreat.

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As other cities in the east began to push out Gaddafi’s troops, Hasadi realized the opposition would need an effective fighting force. He headed down to the frontlines near the town of Brega in late February with a fellow Afghan vet and returned to set up a military training camp in Darnah. The recruits were taught how to use AK-47s and RPGs and were eventually sent to join other rebel fighters in Benghazi. The Darnah fighters have now earned a reputation as some of the toughest fighters among the ragtag rebels.

Last week, the body of one young Darnah fighter was brought back from the frontlines for a raucous funeral in a town that has long praised its martyrs. Meftah Jezawi, 35, was killed in a shootout with pro-Gaddafi troops just outside Brega. At the martyr’s cemetery beside the Sahaba mosque in Darnah, fighters shouted “Allah Akbar” and blasted off AK-47 rounds again and again. The smell of cordite and sweat hung heavy in the air. Dried palm fronds and pink carnations had been placed on the roughly 20 fresh graves that had been dug in the uneven ground. One young fighter in a black beret and camouflage pants, looking vaguely like Che Guevara, sat in a daze at the head of Jezawi’s grave holding a Thuraya SAT phone. Small children clambered on top of an archway surrounding the cemetery to watch the proceedings.

Yet, even here, residents were concerned that outsiders might get the wrong impression about their town. One elderly man with a gray beard approached me and said, “Just because we have beards doesn’t mean we’re al Qaeda.” That’s also the message that the political representatives in Darnah stressed repeatedly, insisting that I meet a female representative on the city council. It wouldn’t be difficult to present Darnah as a base for extremists but that’s hardly an accurate picture. Many of the young rebel fighters that I met at Jezawi’s funeral weren’t raving jihadists; they were college graduates. Fekri Gassar, 31, the young Che-Guevara lookalike at the funeral, has a degree in computer science.

Even the grizzled Afghan vets can’t all be lumped together. Take Fathi Hasadi, 42, a broad shouldered man with graying hair, who’s from the same tribe as Abdul Hakim but not directly related to him. Fathi headed to Afghanistan in 1990 shortly after his father was arrested by Gaddafi’s security forces. “It was the first time I saw snow,” Fathi said with a smile. He spent time at the Farouq camp, a notorious al Qaeda training facility in southern Afghanistan, and said he even saw Bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri during one gathering, though he didn’t speak to them directly. Two years later, Fathi left. “The Afghans were fighting each other,” he said. “I didn’t want to be part of that.”

On his way back to Libya, he met a young woman in Egypt who he regaled with stories of his time in Afghanistan. “She thought it was exciting,” he said with a laugh. They soon married and she moved back with him to Darnah, where he has also married a second wife. Despite the military training he received in Afghanistan, Fathi doesn’t have any plans to head to the frontlines. “That was a different time,” he said, referring to the time he spent in Afghanistan. “I was very young.” He now owns a successful chain of restaurants called Berjam with branches in three cities in eastern Libya.

Sohaib Mahmoud, a professor of Islamic studies at Ghar Younis University in Benghazi, has studied Libya’s Islamist movements and argues that they will likely follow the path of more moderate groups in the region. “In the future, these religious people will be able to organize like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt,” he said.

For now, the beleaguered rebel fighters, who are stuck in a stalemate against Gaddafi’s forces, can use all the help they can get, including the military experience of the Afghan vets. Abdul Hakim, for his part, insists there is no goal beyond ousting Gaddafi. “After the war is finished we will give all our weapons to the government,” he said. “We want to make a constitutional, free and just government.”

Babak Dehghanpisheh is Newsweek's Beirut bureau chief. He's been covering the Middle East for Newsweek since 2001.