Libya: The Islamists’ golden ticket

Source: Reuters/Vostock-Photo

Source: Reuters/Vostock-Photo

Official Tripoli, the opposition in Benghazi and the NATO coalition are all suffering from an obvious lack of internal coordination, and that allows Libya’s Islamists to swing more weight in the struggle to carve up Libya.

The Younis Murder Mystery

The killing of 67-year-old General Abdel Fattah Younis, the rebel National Liberation Army’s chief-of-staff, has once again graphically demonstrated that confusion and desolation continue to reign among those fighting Gadhafi’s regime.

Significantly, the murder happened while he was being escorted for questioning, which tells us something about the state of order and discipline in the rebel ranks.

Two other matters are even more revealing.

One is the fear and panic that gripped Benghazi residents during the funeral for Younis and the two colonels killed with him because the night prior members of Obeidat, the tribe Younis belonged to and one of the largest in eastern Libya, staged a gunfight on the streets and threatened revenge.

The other is the behavior of the National Transitional Council’s leaders, who appear simply to have lost their heads.

Council Chairman Mustafa Abdel Jalil initially accused some mythical “Gadhafi mercenaries” of killing Younis.

But then, apparently realizing that it showed the opposition counter-intelligence to be completely unprofessional, the rebel leader gave an exactly opposite version of events.

He claims that Younis was killed by “extremist elements among the revolutionary forces.” Another NTC spokesman expanded on that idea a couple of days later when he said that a security officer belonging to the February 17 Martyrs’ Brigade—a military rebel group that includes the Islamists from the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group—had confessed to committing the crime. However, nothing was said about the security officer’s motives for his actions.

It is obvious that people in Benghazi felt the “Islamic” version is the most acceptable one.

We are getting a mixed message that, on the one hand, the National Transitional Council is actively cooperating with Islamic radicals and, on the other, not quite quarreling with them. Indeed, for several weeks there have been growing doubts about Younis’s “revolutionary commitment” and suspicions that he was secretly collaborating with the Gadhafi regime.

Interestingly, the “Islamist” theme has been cropping up more and more often in Libyan politics in recent weeks. And significantly, it has not just been happening in the eastern part of the country.

An unexpected alliance

On August 3, America’s leading publication, The New York Times, published an interview with Seif al-Islam, who is perhaps Gadhafi’s most PR-active son. In addition to the standard anti-opposition rhetoric (calling the rebels “rats” and their government a “fake”), he said Tripoli intends to forge an alliance with Islamist forces in the country and would issue a joint communiqué with them.

He said there would not be a problem if collaboration with the Islamists causes Libya to be like Iran or Saudi Arabia. He stressed that that will force the West to acknowledge the Islamists and deal with them, and the liberals will have to “escape or be killed.”

It is noteworthy that Libyan Islamist leader Ali al-Salabi confirmed that he has been talking with Gadhafi’s son. However, he hedged by saying that he supports the Libyan opposition’s calls for a “pluralistic democracy without the Gadhafis.”

Several commentators have begun recalling that although Gadhafi and his son have repeatedly said negative things about the Islamic radicals, including during the current conflict, al-Islam launched a program in 2009-2010 to “reintegrate” former Islamist militants who had been serving sentences in Libyan prisons into society. It is especially noteworthy that al-Salabi was actively involved in developing the program.

While al-Islam particularly emphasized that Gadhafi’s supporters feel more united now and the rebel forces are coming closer to defeat with each passing day, the very next day after publication of the interview Libya’s First Deputy Foreign Minister, Khaled Kaim, issued a statement stressing that al-Islam’s statements concerning cooperation with the Islamists and the possibility of building an Islamic state in Libya are not the position of the official government in Tripoli.

That indicates there is no more unity among Gadhafi’s supporters than there is in Benghazi. And if we consider that the NATO coalition forces are getting increasingly restless, a very ugly picture emerges.

Harnessing the confusion in Libya

The Libyan campaign has again shown that NATO today is an out-of-balance organization lacking unity.

Norway’s withdrawal from the operation confirms that. Norway’s Defense Minister attributed the decision to the prohibitively high cost of the operation, and he added that Norway has a small air force and cannot “maintain a large fighter jet contribution during a long time.”

Italy is also moving towards pulling out of the Libyan campaign, and that has much more serious political and military implications for NATO (Italy placed the third largest number of aircraft at NATO’s disposal).

A number of leading international news agencies have been reporting that the opposition army has no mechanism for making coordinated decisions. They have also been reporting that that is causing serious dissatisfaction in the rebel ranks, and some in the military are saying that local units could voluntarily disband or “self-mobilize” to carry out operations they deem necessary.

There have also been rumors of a serious conflict in official Tripoli regarding high-ranking officials belonging to Gadhafi’s family. And not just over the story of Seif al-Islam’s negotiations with the Islamists.

Thus, official Tripoli, the opposition in Benghazi and the NATO coalition are all exhibiting a serious lack of internal coordination; and the situation in Libya is becoming more confused and disorganized.

Meanwhile, regional news agencies are reporting that several hundred Libyans have undergone special Islamist training in Sudanese camps in preparation for joining Libyan “people’s committees.” Also, news about militants from Afghanistan and Pakistan being moved across the Tunisian border into Libya has been getting Internet play for several months.

In general, the Libyan Islamist nightmare appears to be gradually becoming a kind of golden ticket for the Islamists. And Gadhafi’s son may turn out to be right in saying that the West will be forced to recognize Libya’s Islamists and deal with them.

And if things continue on as they are, the West may find itself dealing primarily with the Islamists.

Vitaliy Nikolayevich Bilan is a Middle East expert. This article was written specially for New Eastern Outlook journal.

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