Exiled Islamists Watch Rebellion Unfold at Home
By Souad Mekhennet and Eric Schmitt
The New York Times
July 18, 2011
LONDON — Abu Sohaib spends most of his time online these days, following the news from his native Libya. He is in constant contact with friends on the ground there, helping them map out strategy to fight the rule of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.
“I would like to be there myself; I tried to go,” he said, pausing to look at the car keys in front of him. “But Tunisia and Egypt wouldn’t let me in even after their revolution.”
Abu Sohaib, his nom de guerre, is on a watch list for suspected terrorists not only in Libya and its neighboring countries, but also in some European countries. He is a senior commander of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, a former militant organization that once was aligned with Al Qaeda. The New York Times is withholding his real name because he said he fears for his safety.
Today, members of the group have renounced Al Qaeda and are part of the mosaic of rebel fighters united under the umbrella of the Transitional National Council, the opposition leadership that the United States formally recognized as Libya’s legitimate government on Friday.
American, European and Arab intelligence services acknowledge that they are worried about the influence that the former group’s members might exert over Libya after Colonel Qaddafi is gone, and they are trying to assess their influence and any lingering links to Al Qaeda.
The group, whose fighters number more than 500 men, including many with combat experience in Iraq or Afghanistan, was part of the social fabric of eastern Libya, its leaders say. Its members’ relatives are in Benghazi, the wellhead of opposition to the government in Tripoli. Its fighters opposed Colonel Qaddafi in the 1990s, were captured and died in Abu Salim prison in Tripoli. They hid from Qaddafi security forces in the caves in Darnah until the Libyan revolution. In short, many Libyans say, the men are seen not as an alien, pernicious force but as patriots.
Libyans have held positions in the Qaeda ranks in the past, with the most prominent men being Abu Laith al-Libi and Abu Yahya al-Libi. “It is easy to change a name and say, ‘We are not part of Al Qaeda,’ but the question is if they have changed their ideology and I doubt it,” said a senior Arab intelligence official.
An American intelligence official who follows North Africa said that dozens of the former group’s members trained and fought alongside militants in Pakistan’s lawless tribal region.
Abu Sohaib insists that he and his brethren have severed ties to Al Qaeda and have warned the terrorist group it is not welcome in Libya. “It has been made very clear to them, that it is better for them to stay out of the country,” he said.
Here in London, Abu Sohaib and a dozen or so former commanders make up a rear-guard headquarters of sorts, with some members shuttling between London and Benghazi to strategize and share donations collected from the sizable Libyan expatriate community in Britain. “We are part of the Libyan people and we just want to help our country,” Abu Sohaib said.
The formal American recognition of the rebel leadership allows the rebel government access to $30 billion in Libyan assets held in the United States. Of that, however, only about $3.5 billion is in liquid funds, and the rest in real estate and other Libyan government investments, State Department officials say. It is unclear how and when the money will be distributed to the transitional government, and what oversight mechanism will be placed to monitor it.
In another sign that Colonel Qaddafi’s days in power may be numbered, White House and State Department officials acknowledged on Monday that Jeffrey D. Feltman, the assistant secretary of state responsible for the Middle East, met with members of the Libyan government on Saturday in Tunis.
“This was not a negotiation,” a State Department official said in an emailed statement. “It was the delivery of a message. The message was simple and unambiguous and the same message we deliver in public: Qaddafi must leave power so that a new political process can begin that reflects the will and aspirations of the Libyan people.”
The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group was formed in 1995 with the goal of ousting Colonel Qaddafi. Driven into the mountains or exile by Libyan security forces, the group’s members were among the first to join the fight against Qaddafi security forces, although the new transitional leadership has sought to distance itself from the fighters because of their past ties to Al Qaeda. “We wanted to live in a country in which we can live and promote Islam the way it should be,” said Abu Sohaib. “We are sure Islam is good for everyone.”
Abu Sohaib is a soft-spoken man in his mid-40s, well built and well trained, as his biceps show under his checkered chemise. He has lived for many years in Britain; before that he had been to Saudi Arabia and also Afghanistan and Pakistan. “There was a time when the British wanted to hand us over to Muammar el-Qaddafi , though they knew we would be tortured,” he said, staring at his hands.
That distrust of the West still gnaws at other members of the group. A 36-year-old Libyan associated with the fighting group who goes by the nom de guerre Abu Salah and who travels between Europe and Libya said: “We start to question the true intentions of the West in Libya. If they would have wanted to kill Muammar el-Qaddafi, they could have done it several times. I guess this is about making as much money with oil and weapons deals as possible.”
Officially the fighting group does not exist any longer, but the former members are fighting largely under the leadership of Abu Abdullah Sadik, who had been arrested in Bangkok in 2004, interrogated by the Central Intelligence Agency and then handed over to the Qaddafi security forces and released this year, security officials believe.
“Isn’t it interesting how they were hunting us for years and were working with Muammar el-Qaddafi?” said Abu Sohaib, referring to the United States, which after Libya disbanded its unconventional weapons program in 2003 worked closely with Libyan authorities to combat terrorism. “Now we are cooperating with NATO and the West, those who used to put us in jail.”
Souad Mekhennet reported from London and Stuttgart, Germany, and Eric Schmitt from Stuttgart. Helene Cooper contributed reporting from Washington, and Kareem Fahim reporting from Cairo.