x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Libyan town denies terror links, sets sights on ousting Qaddafi

Some Western authorities are worried about an eastern Libyan town and its radical links as they mull whether to arm Libya¿s struggling rebel forces against Colonel Muammar Qaddafi¿s regime.

DARNA, Libya // Seated around a white plastic table in the madrassa of a mosque, members of Darna's governing council last week insisted their city was not infested with jihadis as some in the West have suggested.

Some Western authorities are worried about Darna and its radical links as they mull whether to arm Libya's struggling rebel forces against Colonel Muammar Qaddafi's regime.

The city of 85,000 inhabitants, with its vibrant market place and freshly painted houses, does not look at first glance more conservative than other towns in eastern Libya. Nevertheless, files found by United States forces in 2007 in an al Qa'eda safehouse in Iraq showed that the second highest percentage of foreign jihadis in the country were Libyans from the east, 60 per cent of them from Darna.

In 2008, US diplomatic cables made public by Wikileaks said that the city was getting more conservative under the influence of former jihadis returning from fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In Darna, no one denies the involvement of some residents in Afghanistan and Iraq. It was with a certain pride last week that 24-year-old Said al-Sheari, who had just returned from eight days on the Libyan front, said he was trained by two Darna men who had fought in Afghanistan: Abdel Hakim al-Hasidi and Abu Sufian Bin Qum.

Abdel Hakim al-Hasidi is the man now in charge of security in the city. In previous press interviews, he said he fought against coalition forces in Afghanistan. In an interview with The National, however, he admitted to being in Afghanistan in the 90s but denied fighting the Americans.

Wearing combat fatigues, Mr. al-Hasidi said last week he was detained by US forces in Pakistan and later turned over to the Libyans who imprisoned him for four years. He denied any relationship with al Qa'eda and assured that his primary aim is to topple the Qaddafi regime. He said he has trained and sent to the frontline 300 men.

Abu Sufian Bin Qumu is no stranger to Western intelligence agencies either. He is a former Guantanamo inmate who was arrested in Pakistan after coming back from Afghanistan in 2001. Guantanamo memos link him to al Qa'eda. US forces turned him over to Libyan authorities, who imprisoned him until 2010.

In the madrassa of the Sahaba mosque in Darna, which has become the uprising's hub in town, young men and women hang hand-made anti-regime posters on the walls.

Mansour al-Hasidi, a teacher wearing a corduroy jacket and a long thick beard that makes him look more like a Bakunin revolutionary than a pious Muslim, accused the Qaddafi regime of spreading rumours to undermine the rebel cause.

At the beginning of the uprising, town residents declared the birth of an "Islamic state of Darna".

"In the streets, the al Qa'eda ideology would not pass here, even if there are people who went fighting abroad," he said. Most of the jihadis were supported by Col Qaddafi's regime, according to city council members.

Tarek al Majri, 30, still has a government card that proves he went to fight in 2003 along with the anti-occupation forces of Saddam Hussein. He showed a long scar on his left calf. "I was wounded during a battle against American forces at Baghdad airport in the first days of the invasion," he recalled.

Mr. al Majri enlisted at the local university, where the regime had opened a recruting bureau for those looking to fight in Iraq.

The Islamist sentiment in Darna, said some analysts, is linked to a tradition of opposition. The town boasts that it fought an American Marine invasion in 1804, and fiercly resisted the Ottoman and the Italian rule. In the 1990s, Darna was the site of a protracted battle between the regime and the Libyan Islamic Fighiting Group, an Islamist group formed by Libyans who had fought the Soviets in Afghanistan.

Because of the delibarate attempt of the central government to disenfranchise the east of the country, "anti-Qaddafi's feelings linked up with Islamists sentiments", said Jason Pack, a Libya expert at Oxford University who believes Islamist groups were more focused on undermining the regime than fighting a global war.

"At a certain point, the only form of opposition left in the country was through the mosque," Mr Pack said. "Today, Islamists groups would not be able to really gain the support of the population and because of the long regime repression they are not organised enough to pose a serious threat in Libya."