2011-02-24 Former Guantanamo Detainee Denies Islamic Emirate Has Been Set Up in Eastern Libya [UPDATE:1]

ImageLibya’s deputy foreign minister, Khaled Khaim, has reportedly told European Union ambassadors in Tripoli that al-Qaeda has set up an Islamic emirate in Derna in Eastern Libya. He allegedly said a former Guantanamo Bay detainee is heading the emirate. Residents in Derna deny this has happened.

Residents in Derna deny this has happened. Al Jazeera posted this exclusive with the "man accused by the Libyan government of leading an Islamist emirate in Derna, Libya." Abdul Hakeem Al Hasadi said reports of an "emirate" were the result of pure propaganda and said the Gaddafi  is circulating this propaganda because he is a former political prisoner:

"I am, Abdul Hakeem Al Hasadi, a Libyan citizen and a former political prisoner. I would like to read the following statement in response to lies made by Dictator Gaddafi and his propaganda machine. I tell them that I am one of the participants in the revolution of Feb 17th along with the youth and people of Derna against the corrupt regime of Gaddafi. 

"Gaddafi is trying to divide the people of the nation. He claims that there is an Islamist Emirate in Derna and that I am its Emir. He is taking advantage from the fact that I am a former political prisoner."

Despite the fact that this may not be true, prepare for this latest report from a Libyan official to become a self-perpetuating thread in the story of the Libyan revolution. As WL Central waits for more information on whether this Islamic emirate has been established or not, let's consider what Saif al-Islam Gaddafi and Leader Muammar Gaddafi have said since the uprising began (and the various WikiLeaks cables from Libya which we have available).

In Saif al-Islam Gaddafi’s address to the people of Libya on February 21, he spoke about his fear that an Islamic emirate would be established not in Derna but in Bayda. He said, “The British FM called me. Be ready for a new colonial period from American and Britain. You think they will accept an Islamic Emirate here, 30 minutes from Crete? The West will come and occupy you. Europe & the West will not agree to chaos in Libya, to export chaos and drugs so they will occupy us."

Days later, in an address that ran on Libya State TV on February 24, Leader Muammar Gaddafi claimed al-Qaeda is responsible, that Libyans are being manipulated by Osama bin Laden, and that they were under the influence of drugs.

It seems like the Gaddafi regime and those who remain loyal to the regime that is now isolated and barracked in Tripoli are seeking to paint the revolution as something al Qaeda is fueling. The Gaddafi family is likely aware of how fearful Western countries are of any unrest morphing into an Islamic revolution. During the Egypt uprising, US and European officials and Western media openly wondered whether democracy would lead to an Islamist state run by the Muslim Brotherhood or some other similar group.

The people of Libya have suffered through fighter jets shelling protesters and foreign mercenaries targeting dissidents fueling the uprising. The reaction of the international community especially in Europe and the US has been muted. Has the response from Western powers been muted because they don't want to take a chance that they might end up aiding the rise of a revolution that could be linked to the very Islamic extremism they have been fighting against for nearly a decade now?

The city of Derna, which is ninety-three and a half kilometers east of Bayda, and, more broadly, the eastern Libya region is reported on in a few Embassy Tripoli cables released over the last months. These cables show the State Department has kept tabs on Islamists in Libya, especially ones believed to be engaged in terrorism.

Derna is described in one cable as a wellspring for foreign fighters who are heading off to fight coalition forces in Iraq. Gaddafi's link to the US is alleged to be fueling the radicalization of young Libyans in the area. The cable quotes a Libyan "interlocutor," who likens the young men in Derna to "Bruce Willis' character in the action picture "Die Hard'" because, for them, "resistance against coalition forces in Iraq is an important act of 'jihad' and a last act of defiance against the Qadhafi regime." The interlocutor suggests many of them refuse to die quietly.

In comparison to Bayda and other cities like Benghazi, Derna is described as a city that has suffered greatly under the Gaddafi regime:

Benghazi and other parts of eastern Libya had benefited in the last several years from increased government patronage, Derna continued to "suffer from neglect". Citing an indeterminate grudge between Libya's former monarch, King Idriss al-Sanussi, and leading citizens of Derna, xxxxxxxxxxxx claimed that Derna had long been the victim of a deliberate government campaign to keep it poor. He compared Derna's plight to the fortunes of another conservative eastern Libyan town, Bayda. While Bayda had been the summer retreat for King Idriss and was initially shunned in the early years of Qadhafi's rule, its fortunes changed after Qadhafi married Sadia Farkhis, daughter of a prominent citizen of the town. The government subsequently established the Omar al-Mukhtar University in what had been the royal palace and sited a number of government-owned enterprises there. By contrast, Derna had not benefited from any such measures.

The neighborhood of Baab al-Shiha, a "district from which a large number of the Libyan foreign fighters identified in documents captured during September's Objective Massey operation in Iraq had hailed," is described. Of interest in the "lower-middle class neighborhood" is the "number of small, discrete mosques tucked away in side alleys," which are part of a "profusion of "popular mosques'" that has "complicated effective monitoring by security forces."

In 08TRIPOLI120, which appears to be a cable that immensely influenced the previous cable, US diplomat Chris Stevens comments, "[The] ability of radical imams to propagate messages urging support for and participation in jihad despite GOL security organizations' efforts suggests that claims by senior GOL officials that the east is under control may be overstated."

The cable describes frequent references to "martyrdom" by imams in the mosques in Benghazi and Derna:

(S/NF) xxxxxxxxxxxx partly attributed the fierce mindset in Benghazi and Derna to the message preached by imams in eastern Libyan mosques, which he said is markedly more radical than that heard in other parts of the country. xxxxxxxxxxxx makes a point of frequenting mosques whenever he visits Libya as a means to connect with neighbors and relatives and take the political pulse. Sermons in eastern mosques, particularly the Friday 'khutba', are laced with "coded phrases" urging worshippers to support jihad in Iraq and elsewhere through direct participation or financial contributions. The language is often ambiguous enough to be plausibly denied, he said, but for devout Muslims it is clear, incendiary and unambiguously supportive of jihad. Direct and indirect references to "martyrdom operations" were not uncommon. By contrast with mosques in Tripoli and elsewhere in the country, where references to jihad are extremely rare, in Benghazi and Derna they are fairly frequent subjects.

Additionally, a security environment questionnaire from February 2009 explicitly asks for information on possible terrorism threats. The cable contains many details relevant to any discussion of the possibility of an Islamic emirate forming.

First, the questionnaire asks, “Assuming there have been significant terrorist threats in recent years, have host country security services been able to score any major anti-terrorism successes?” The answer reveals in July 2007 “Libyan security forces dismantled a network in eastern Libya that was sending volunteer fighters to Algeria and Iraq and was plotting attacks against Libyan security targets using stockpiled explosives. The operation resulted in the arrest of over 100 individuals.”

Second, in November 2007, a group known as the Libya Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) merged with al Qaeda in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The cable suggests this development and the presence of fighters who fought in “the Iraq jihad and returned to Libya” might pose a threat to “US interests and personnel in Libya.” (The questionnaire also focuses on the possibility of so-called Palestinian rejectionist groups posing a threat as well.)

Finally, the questionnaire asks if the “host government” is sympathetic to the groups. The answer is, “Generally speaking, no. However, undoubtedly, there are factions within the Libyan government opposed to the reestablishment of relations between the U.S. and Libya who may be sympathetic to Palestinian rejectionist groups, but not sympathetic to Al-Qa'ida in the Maghreb (AQIM) or the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG).” The answer notes the Libya government has arrested members of al-Qaeda and “views extremists operating under a religious banner as a serious potential threat to the regime and have demonstrated resolve against Al-Qa'ida and its surrogates.”

The United Arab Emirates government-owned newspaper The National has published an article on Europe being caught in a bind after cozying up for years with Libya. It notes a key fear for Europe is “terrorism and Islamist fundamentalism that might arise in a power vacuum,” particularly the possibility of the rise of an Islamic emirate in Eastern Libya.

The article echoes many of the issues and points raised in the aforementioned cables:

Al Qa'eda's central leadership is composed of many Libyans and al Qa'eda-linked Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) has a presence in eastern Libya and the troubled Sahel region.”

Col Qaddafi has been helpful in counterterrorism operations - even the United States would agree with that at least in part - but he has also released prisoners with some connections to al Qa'eda in recent years. It is very possible that a non-aggression pact has been signed with some LIFG members who have given up the goal of an Islamic regime in Libya and are focusing on western targets. European security services have already considered the possibility of Libyan operatives pulling off an attack in Europe, in particular against Switzerland.

Bloomberg reports, “The SITE Monitoring Group, which checks the websites of Islamic militant groups, said yesterday that al-Qaeda’s North African arm, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, expressed solidarity with anti-government forces in Libya and urged Muslims everywhere to support the uprising. “We will do whatever we can to help,” SITE quoted the group as saying.”

Since these groups described have traditionally been anti-Gaddafi (probably because the Libya government has targeted its members), it is no surprise that they would side with the revolution. Let's be fair: It is not clear where this is going, who will come out as the leader, if this will build into a civil war, or if the country will split permanently into factions. The withdrawal of a part of the country from Libya would not be an anomaly for the continent as southern Sudan, another African country, just seceded. But, that would mean Gaddafi would remain in power and so we have to ask if what is really happening here is all fueled by Islamic forces desiring freedom from Gaddafi.

Whatever is going on in the country, if a Guantanamo detainee has now established an Islamic emirate, then it would appear the chickens have really come home to roost for a Western world that has been aggressively prosecuting a “war on terrorism” that utterly disregards human rights, as it may now face groups that have been radicalized by their callous disregard.

It is possible Gaddafi continues to bring up al Qaeda with the hope that he can convince Western countries to send forces to intervene on his behalf. But, especially since NATO has indicated it will not be stepping in to help mediate the growing conflict between the regime and anti-Gaddafi forces, that possibility seems to be very slim unless economic interests in Libya, like oil production, push the US and Europe to become much more involved.

Photo from Al Jazeera report on demonstrations in Derna, Libya.

Theme by Danetsoft and Danang Probo Sayekti inspired by Maksimer