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Derna, the sleepy town of Islamist extremism

Residents worry that Derna's proud history of resistance has created a hotbed of fundamentalism threatening Libyan security. Alice Fordham reports from Derna
Rebels governing Libya's sun-bleached town of Derna, nestled at the foot of hills overlooking the Mediterranean, are frustrated by their new-found notoriety as an alleged home of hardline Islamists.
Rebels governing Libya's sun-bleached town of Derna, nestled at the foot of hills overlooking the Mediterranean, are frustrated by their new-found notoriety as an alleged home of hardline Islamists.

DERNA, LIBYA // Nestled in the crags of eastern Libya's wild landscape, Derna is a town with a story of resistance, whose people fought Italian overlords a century ago and where its recent history of jihad is a source of great pride.

But in the sleepy town itself, where mountains sweep down to a cobalt sea, people say they crave peace and stability. But their hopes conflict with growing fears that a few extremist Islamist armed groups could create problems here and further afield, as a security vacuum that followed last year's fighting still persists.

Derna became notorious in 2007, when a trove of papers documenting about 700 foreign fighters was analysed by American terrorism experts. They discovered that the town sent to Iraq, per capita, far more men than any other.

Home to about 50,000 to 80,000 people, men from Derna also went to Afghanistan to fight against Soviet forces in the 1980s and local officials think that 200 may have gone to wage war against president Bashar Al Assad in Syria. It was a centre of resistance to the rule of Muammar Qaddafi and one of the first places to rise up against him when he was toppled last year.

But the brigades that liberated the town have become something of a mixed blessing, said Fathallah Al Awany, the head of an elected local council. "There are no police, and no army in the streets," he said. Some members of some brigades, "just act how they want".

Crime has increased, and hardline Islamists have demolished shrines to Sufi saints nearby.

Mr Al Awany's biggest concern, he said, was a group on whom attention has been focused since the storming of the US consulate in Benghazi, a three-hour drive west, causing the death of four Americans, including ambassador J Christopher Stevens.

The local brigade, called Ansar Al Sharia, consists of a few dozen people adhering to an interpretation of Islam that violently rejects secular government and refuses to acknowledge local authorities.

The group shares a name with one that has emerged as a prime suspect in the consulate attack, although it says it has no formal links. "They are extremists," said Mr Al Awany, "they do not recognise the government."

The recent events highlight Libyan and international fears that some splinters from the country's long-established Islamist fighting groups are now beyond the control of the shaky interim government and could be a threat to security in Libya and beyond.

Aaron Y Zelin, who monitors Islamist militant activity at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, noted in a report last week that the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which fought against the rule of Qaddafi for decades, moved away from armed conflict in 2006 and elements of the group stood in recent elections. But new groups, which oppose the new, democratic government, have emerged, said Mr Zelin, including Ansar Al Sharia in Derna, thought to be led by Abu Sufian Bin Qumu, a one-time inmate of Guantanamo Bay.

"Libyan radicals had every reason to be encouraged by the government's inaction against those responsible for the recent destruction of Sufi mosques and graves," he said, adding that if the attack on the consulate, "prompts little official response, vigilantism will grow and perhaps lead to anti-government violence."

A nationwide effort by Libya's nascent ministries of the interior and defence to recruit fighters to their forces have had limited effect in Derna, said Mr Al Awany.

The Supreme Security Council, an interior ministry body, which now pays thousands of members of the brigades that helped defeat Qaddafi, recruited most of the fighters in Derna during the last six months. "But they get paid for nothing," said Mr Al Awany. "They haven't been seen on the streets."

His views were echoed by local people, who held on Sunday a demonstration to call for an organised security presence in the town. "There's a big lack of security," said Fadlallah Ramadan, who runs a grocery store. "We have only the Abu Salim brigade to provide security - some are good, and some are not."

"The police are scared of the extremists," he added, "if the extremists they get stronger they might cause more trouble."

The headquarters of Ansar Al Sharia in Derna is on a wooded estate with two of the black flags used by many Islamist groups fluttering outside. Members of the group said no commanders were available for an interview, though one or two lingered outside for a chat about their goals.

"People here do not support the police, or the army," said one man, who gave his name as Abu Hamza and said he was 30, had studied mechanical engineering and spent four years in the Abu Slim prison in Tripoli. He said the group sought a strict implementation of Islamic law. Asked about the attack on the American consulate, he denied any connection with the attack but affirmed that he rejected the presence of Americans on Libyan soil, despite their support for the uprising, "because of Iraq and Afghanistan".

In fact, he said, the group was planning to disband. But he said he would continue to reject the idea that voters should choose the future of the country. "It should be the will of God," he said. "If there is no Islamic government, I won't obey the government."

afordham@thenational.ae

Updated: September 20, 2012 04:00 AM

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