x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Flickers of al Qa'eda could ignite in a long Libyan war

Intervention in Libya has opened up a large wound. The question is - what foreign elements will enter it now that it festers?

One of the biggest unknowns in the Libya crisis is who exactly the opposition to Colonel Muammar Qaddafi represents. The world expects a government-in-waiting to have a leader who speaks for it and can be questioned and analysed. Such a figure is lacking in the Interim Transitional National Council set up in Benghazi.

The council seems to be made up of lawyers, professors and engineers who are short on administrative experience and lack the Leninist drive for power required to topple a dictator. Many people are asking whether more ruthless figures, in the form of the jihadists whom Col Qaddafi repressed for decades, are waiting to take over. If the coalition countries supply the rebels with arms, will they be nurturing a viper at their breast that will surely bite them one day?

On Tuesday, Admiral James Stavridis, the supreme commander of Nato forces, offered a tiny insight into official thinking. The opposition leaders appeared to be responsible men and women, he said. "We have seen flickers in the intelligence of potential al Qa'eda and Hizbollah elements," he added, though he did not have enough detail to speak of a "significant terrorist presence".

Adm Stavridis's comments come as no surprise. Eastern Libya has a long, rebellious tradition. It was the focus of resistance to Italian colonisation, and suffered near genocidal depopulation as a result. At that time, it was the Senoussi religious order that mobilised the local people to arms. More recently the east provided the recruits for the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group which battled the "apostate" regime of Col Qaddafi in the 1980s.

Debate has focused on Darna, a town of 50,000 that is described in a leaked US embassy cable of 2008 as a "wellspring for foreign fighters in Iraq". Documents captured by the US in Iraq show that the Saudis were the biggest providers of jihadists to Iraq, but on a per capita basis Libya topped the league, providing 112, of whom 52 came from Darna. Local people in Darna believe that the total number who went to Iraq is closer to 300.

Darna is an extreme example of places in the Arab world where a glorious history of struggle sits uncomfortably with a dead-end present. For youths who want to escape the stifling pressure of family and the secret police, and make something of their lives, jihad is one way out.

Reporters who have visited Darna see no sign of the "Islamic emirate" that Col Qaddafi claims has taken root in this most pious of Libyan towns. A reporter for The New York Times interviewed the town's new head of security, Abdul-Hakim al Hasidi, a veteran of the Afghan jihad and of Col Qaddafi's jails. He said he was employed for his logistical skills, and disavowed any political ambition or intention of creating a Taliban state in Libya.

Some members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group have emerged into the open to speak to foreign reporters, indicating that they recognise the Transitional Council as leaders of the uprising.

What is really surprising is that US intelligence has found only "flickers" of connections with al Qa'eda. A lot is known of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. Col Qaddafi's son, Saif al Islam, in the days when he was the West's poster boy for modernisation, ran a re-education programme for imprisoned fighters.

As part of the process of ending Libya's isolation, the regime offered intelligence on al Qa'eda affiliates in Libya and North Africa. That process was conducted by Moussa Koussa, the former external intelligence chief and foreign minister, who has just defected to Britain. Presumably he has much more information to offer in exchange for potential immunity from prosecution.

For the moment, the threat of an anti-western jihadist takeover of the fight against Col Qaddafi seems slim. The battle is being fought by a people in arms, not a self-selected elite.

But dangers lie ahead if the battle for control of Libya turns into a stand-off. The rebels' current tactics of optimistic amateurism are already looking threadbare. There will be a need for covert operations. They will need people with experience in sabotage who would not shrink from shaking down local businesses for money and, if it comes to that, setting off car bombs.

The CIA operatives who have been authorised to help the rebels will find themselves working alongside hardened jihadists. The experience in other battlefields of the effect of jihadist volunteers is not promising.

In Chechnya, jihadists were welcomed by the separatists as a token of solidarity from the Muslim world in their struggle against a ruthless Russian army. They brought battlefield experience and a harsh ideology to mobilise the fighters. But this ideology, which looks upon anyone who does not share their religious beliefs as an infidel, drove a wedge between the fighters and the population.

By the time the separatists had gained control of Chechnya, the majority of the local population preferred to make peace with the Russians, the enemy they knew, than to submit to the dictatorship of the jihadists.

The same process was repeated in Anbar province of Iraq, prompting the local tribes to side with the US against the foreign fighters.

In Bosnia, the 400 or so foreign fighters made little difference to the outcome of the war, but their presence provided a rich seam of propaganda for the Serbs to energise their militias. In the post-September 11 world, their presence in Bosnia would have been a catastrophe for the Muslim cause.

History never repeats itself. One has to assume that even the most blinkered jihadist has learned lessons from Bosnia, Chechnya and Anbar province. Closer to Libya, the example of the Armed Islamic Group during Algeria's decade-long civil war is just as disastrous. Unable to remove the military regime, the group adopted a policy of massacring villagers and turning its guns on former comrades in arms.

One thing is clear. A long drawn-out conflict in Libya will be an open wound into which all kinds of infections will rush. The task before the anti-Qaddafi coalition is to reach a speedy resolution.