From Mujahid to Activist: An Interview with a Libyan Veteran of the Afghan Jihad

Publication: Spotlight on Terror Volume: 3 Issue: 2

Noman Benotman is a veteran of the Afghan Jihad and former member of the Shura Committee of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), a group which sought to overthrow the regime of Muammar Qadhafi. Benotman was born and educated in Libya, leaving Tripoli University in 1988 for Afghanistan. He left Afghanistan in 1994 for Sudan, where he participated in further training with the LIFG, and was considered one of the group’s leaders. He eventually ended up in London, where he currently works as a writer and political activist. Benotman is also a founding member of the London-based Libya Human and Political Development Forum.

The Jamestown Foundation presents this interview as an introduction to the Terrorism Monitor special issue on Libya, which will be released on Thursday, March 24. The interview was conducted on March 15, 2005 at the London Continental Hotel by Mahan Abedin, editor of the Terrorism Monitor.

Mahan Abedin: Let us start by discussing your involvement in Al-Jama’a al-Islamiyyah al-Muqatilah fi-Libya [Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG)]. How did you become involved in this organization?

Noman Benotman: It all goes back to Afghanistan.

MA: When did you first go to Afghanistan?

NB: At the end of 1989.

MA: Why did you decide to go then? After all, the Jihad against the Soviets was over by then.

NB: I think there is a difference in how Westerners and Muslims perceive the Jihad in Afghanistan. From the Islamic perspective the communist regime was still intact after the Soviet withdrawal, whereas the Americans abandoned Afghanistan after they achieved their strategic objective.

MA: You stayed to fight the Najibullah regime?

NB: I stayed to fight communism.

MA: Did you have other motives?

NB: Up until a few years ago I was a dedicated Islamist, dedicated to my cause 24 hours a day. We also stayed because we wanted to develop our fighting skills in anticipation of the day we would return to Libya to fight the Qadhafi regime.

MA: How old were you in late 1989?

NB: I was born on March 1967.

MA: So you were 22 when you traveled to Afghanistan. You were obviously very young and must have had some purely youthful and adventurous motives for going to Afghanistan.

NB: You have to take into account the situation in Libya toward the end of the 1980’s. A lot of young people felt desperate because the regime made it very hard for people of Islamic persuasion to express their opinion.

MA: Were you involved in any violent activity against the Qadhafi regime before going to Afghanistan in 1989?

NB: No, but I was involved in underground political activities. But at that time Islamic organizations did not have the experience or the knowledge to begin serious activities against the regime.

MA: Were you born and raised in Tripoli?

NB: Yes.

MA: How much time did you spend in Afghanistan for the first time?

NB: I stayed there for several years.

MA: What weapons were you trained on? Did you train on crew-served weapons — mortars, recoilless rifles, etc.? How much “live firing” did you do in training? Was ammunition plentiful or sparse? Was any training done by current or former members of Arab/Muslim Special Forces?

NB: We trained in all types of guerrilla warfare. We trained on weapons, tactics, enemy engagement techniques and survival in hostile environments. All weapons training was with live ammunition, which was available everywhere. Indeed, there were a number of casualties during these training sessions. There were ex-military people amongst the Mujahideen, but no formal state forces participated. We were also trained by the elite units of the Afghan Mujahideen who had themselves been trained by Pakistani Special Forces, the CIA and the British SAS.

MA: Were you trained in map reading, land or celestial navigation?

NB: Of course. We relied very heavily on celestial navigation and on traditional Afghan methods of navigation due to the type of terrain we were operating in.

MA: Did you take part in the battles against the communist regime in the early 1990’s?

NB: Yes, of course. I took part in the siege and battle of Khowst. We surrounded the city for almost 6 months before seizing it in the winter of 1991.

MA: Who was your commander?

NB: The commander for the Arab Mujahideen was Sheikh Jalaledin Haqani. The Arabs had their own command structure.

MA: Were all Arabs mixed together?

NB: Yes, of course. For instance during the siege of Khowst, there were Saudis, Kuwaitis, Jordanians, Palestinians, Algerians, Tunisians, Syrians, Libyans and other nationalities in our ranks.

MA: What sort of medical supplies were issued to your unit before an operations? Were you accompanied by a person trained in first aide or by a paramedic?

NB: We always carried the basic essential supplies such as dressings, antiseptics and stitching materials. The most important supply we had all the time were Cicigone injections, an anaesthetic used to control the pain of the injured.

MA: How many of you were there in the battle of Khowst?

NB: During the siege itself there were few Arabs. You see, many of the Arab fighters were not professionals and had no idea that you had to build up a siege before going for the kill. They just wanted to move in quickly and seize cities and other targets.

MA: So how many of you were there during the different stages of the siege?

NB: At the height of the siege there were around 100 Arabs, but during the battle for the city, this number increased to at least 200.

MA: Were your commanders in the battlefield all Arabs?

NB: Yes, they were.

MA: What kind of communications gear was given to your unit? Did you have any gear that could use encryption?

NB: We used wireless equipment which were usually bought in Pakistan or captured from the enemy. The Arab Mujahideen had no encryption gear. They simply used coded language in all communications, which was under constant change and review.

MA: Was there any friction between you and the indigenous Afghan fighters.

NB: Nothing particularly serious. But there were confrontations over Islamic and ethical issues. For instance we did not like them smoking Hashish.

MA: Did you take part in other major battles?

NB: I took part in the battle of Gardez in 1991, two months after the fall of Khowst. That was a huge battle and the Mujahideen only managed to seize it in early 1992.

MA: Were you in Afghanistan when Kabul fell in April 1992?

NB: Yes, I was.

MA: Were you involved in inter-Afghan conflict post-April 1992?

NB: No, and the vast majority of Libyans in Afghanistan—perhaps 99% of them—stopped fighting in the country.

MA: How many Libyans were in Afghanistan in April 1992?

NB: There were around 800.

MA: So what were you doing in Afghanistan after April 1992?

NB: We were developing the capabilities of our organization, the Muqatilah (fighting group). Our aim was to overthrow the Qadhafi regime and establish an Islamic state in our country.

MA: The impression I am forming is that the Islamic Fighting Group was established wholly in Afghanistan.

NB: That is more or less correct. The Muqatilah was well and truly established by 1992 and we had our own separate camps and no one could gain access to these establishments without our authorization.

MA: Where were these camps?

NB: Near Nangahar. We were close to the Pakistan border.

MA: How extensive were your facilities.

NB: Very basic! Our sole objective was to train guerillas. Life was very hard in these camps, especially since we were surrounded by tribal people. I remember at one time the tribes were fighting the Pakistani government and the Pakistanis decided to launch huge attacks in the area. Although our camps were not directly hit, our supplies of food and water were dangerously low for almost four weeks.

MA: Did you have connections with Bin Laden’s people at that time?

NB: Of course we had all heard of Osama Bin Laden and his unflinching dedication to the Afghan people and the victorious Jihad against the Soviet superpower. But the Muqatilah did not have any meaningful connections to Bin Laden or the people around him. Also I would like to challenge the notion prevalent in the West that Bin Laden was the leader of the Arab Mujahideen. There were several important Arab groups and they all had their own leaders.

MA: When and why did you leave Afghanistan?

NB: The Pakistanis began to make life difficult for foreigners in the border areas from 1993 onwards. Consequently the majority of Arabs either left or were incarcerated. But I managed to stay because there was work to be done.

MA: But you were in Afghanistan, so the actions of the Pakistanis did not necessarily have a decisive impact on your presence.

NB: We were moving everywhere, including Peshawar, Lahore, Islamabad, Karachi and the Pakistani part of Kashmir.

MA: Why were you going to these places, to meet people?

NB: Yes for meetings and getting to know people.

MA: When did you leave Afghanistan?

NB: I left in the summer of 1994.

MA: Did you go back to Libya?

NB: No, I went to Sudan.

MA: Why did you go there specifically?

NB: Our people were already there.

MA: You mean there was an infrastructure in place to absorb people like you?

NB: Exactly!

MA: And I suppose the Islamic government in Sudan was receptive.

NB: The country and the Sudanese people were receptive. As far as I am aware the Sudanese government never helped us.

MA: But they allowed you to establish a base in their country, most people would say that constitutes substantial help!

NB: Yes, of course. But they did not help beyond this.

MA: Which part of Sudan were you based at?

NB: We were in Khartoum.

MA: Did you have camps?

NB: No, we were based at a Villa complex.

MA: Were you training there?

NB: No, the Sudanese government never allowed anyone to establish military facilities. But we were free to hold lectures on military theory, intelligence and tactics.

MA: Who would give these lectures, people in the Sudanese military?

NB: No, we had no relations with the Sudanese whatsoever. Our own trainers in the Islamic Fighting Group would give these lectures.

MA: What did these lectures entail?

NB: We were giving lectures on tactics, trying to deepen our fighters’ understanding of guerilla warfare and security matters.

MA: What kinds of manuals were provided during training? Were they taken from Western manuals and translated into Arabic? Or were they a blend of Western manuals with additions from the experience of the Mujahideen?

NB: We had our own specially designed manuals, but we also made extensive use of manuals from the American and British military.

MA: Were you instigating and coordinating operations in Libya at that time?

NB: No, these were being done by fighters and cadres inside the country.

MA: What kind of relationship did the Sudan-based Libyans have with the fighters inside the country?

NB: We were all part of the same group, but the people inside had their own military and organizational structure.

MA: Were you in direct communication with them?

NB: We were in regular contact.

MA: What kind of security precautions were you taking to shield your communication from Libyan intelligence?

NB: We took security very seriously and used various basic and sophisticated encryption methods.

MA: Could you give examples of this?

NB: The Islamic Fighting Group acted professionally when it came to security matters. Aside from using encrypted communication, we devised interesting methods for protecting the information and knowledge of individual cells.

MA: Were there any cases of people from Libyan intelligence defecting to your group?

NB: No, I am not aware of any.

MA: Ok, lets us develop the chronology of events further. When did you leave Sudan?

NB: I left in October 1995.

MA: Where did you go?

NB: I came here to the UK.

MA: And why did you leave Sudan?

NB: The Sudanese government started to pressure us. Libyan intelligence had given them a list of 55 people who they wanted expelled. But they did not have the real names and most of the names on that list were nicknames. The Sudanese denied the presence of these people and in fact invited Libyan intelligence to come to Sudan and investigate. But at the same time they basically conveyed a message to us that we were no longer welcome in their country.

MA: Were you on that list?

NB: I don’t know.

MA: Why did you come to the UK?

NB: There were few other suitable destinations at that time.

MA: Did you ever go back to Afghanistan?

NB: I prefer not to answer this question.

MA: Ok, let us focus on the Islamic Fighting Group. When would you say this group was formed?

NB: The exact date is very difficult to ascertain as there was no formal declaration of existence—this only came around October 1995. There were numerous attempts to establish militant Islamic organizations in the 1980’s, but in nearly all cases these efforts collapsed as a result of disagreements and rivalries.

MA: What I really want to ascertain is the relationship between Afghan vets like yourself and the Islamists who remained in the country throughout. I refer specifically to Emir Awatha al-Zuwawi and the people around him.

NB: Zuwawi is very important. Zuwawi went to Afghanistan in 1986, spent a couple of weeks there and returned to Libya.

MA: How important was Zuwawi in the evolution of radical Libyan Islam? Would you say he was a character of historical importance?

NB: As far as the Islamic Fighting Group is concerned, Zuwawi is a very important character. Most of the founding leaders and cadres of the Fighting Group were members of the secretive organization formed by Zuwawi in 1982.

MA: Ok, correct me if I am wrong, but I think we have established one of the main foundational facts about the Fighting Group.

NB: The majority of the founding leaders were loyal to Zuwawi. By 1985-1986 Zuwawi had many sophisticated and university educated people around him, in particular Abu Munder Saadi, who is the Group’s spiritual leader. He was detained by the Americans in Hong Kong in 2004 and later handed over to the Libyans.

MA: Could you provide more information on that detention?

NB: Yes, toward the end of April 2004, the Americans—in collaboration with local security forces—detained Abu Munder Saadi and Abdullah al-Sadeq, the overall leader of the Fighting Group at the time. Saadi was detained in Hong Kong, while Abdullah Sadeq was captured in Bangkok, Thailand.

MA: What were these two individuals doing in Hong Kong and Bangkok?

NB: They were both in Afghanistan prior to the fall of the Taleban. After the toppling of the Taleban they fled to Iran. But the Iranian government made it clear that they would not tolerate the presence of Mujahideen in their country and therefore everybody, including our leaders, had to leave. Abu Munder Saadi and Abdullah Sadeq left Iran for China. They were feeling increasingly unsafe in China as well and decided to settle in a different location. They were in the middle of their journey when they were detained by the Americans.

MA: What has happened to these individuals since?

NB: The Americans handed them over to Libyan authorities and currently they are in prison.

MA: When was the first important attack by the Muqatilah inside Libya?

NB: That was the amateurish and rogue operation in May 1995 to rescue a wounded member from a hospital. This operation was not planned by the group and was a rogue operation by one of the commanders inside Libya. They managed to free the wounded captive and fled from the scene. But this operation alerted Libyan intelligence to some of the plans of the organization.

MA: What I am finding difficult to understand is that the organization had been established toward the late 1980’s and yet the first operation—and a rogue and unauthorized one at that—was carried out in 1995. Why wait for so long?

NB: You see the strategic objective at the time was to topple the regime and not just launch sporadic armed attacks here and there.

MA: Are you saying that the Group was trying to launch something dramatic and decisive?

NB: Yes.

MA: What would have been this decisive action, if the plans had not been undermined by the rogue operation in 1995?

NB: The master plan was to secure certain locations, sites and institutions simultaneously. But of course the Group needed the right people and had to wait for the optimum time to attack.

MA: So the Group was planning to take over whole cities?

NB: Yes, that was the plan.

MA: Don’t you think the Group was over-estimating its capabilities?

NB: Now, looking back at it, I think those plans were a little bit naïve.

MA: And you are adamant that the rogue operation in May 1995 undermined everything?

NB: It destroyed everything that we had planned and developed over the years.

MA: But surely Libyan intelligence must have had some good insights into the nature and capabilities of the organization.

NB: No, they did not.

MA: But surely they must have had some good information on its bases in Afghanistan and its activities throughout the years.

NB: I can tell you, they had no idea that the Muqatilah had hundreds of trained and dedicated fighters inside the country. But they had some information on the organization of course. Some people–not all from our organization–returned to Libya from Afghanistan, especially in the period 1992-1993, and, under coercion and torture, a small number of them cooperated with the authorities. Also in 1992, one of the leaders of the Group was handed over to the Libyan government by the Egyptians. The point I am trying to make is that Libyan intelligence had reached the conclusion that the hardcore leadership of the Group was, in fact, outside the country and hence unable to decisively influence events inside. They never imagined that there were hundreds of people inside the country– who had never been outside Libya, let alone to Afghanistan—that had been trained by the Muqatilah and were dedicated enough to give their lives to the cause.

MA: What methods did the organization use to train people inside Libya, given that it was trying to avoid operations at all costs?

NB: We used a number of truly imaginative and innovative methods. Firstly, let me say that it was hard—if not impossible—to train people inside the country to the same standard as those who were trained in Afghanistan. In Afghanistan we were fighting against real tanks, warplanes and professional troops. Consequently, we gave priority to developing the leadership skills of the people in charge of cells and units inside the country. This is because we understood that we had to maintain the motivation and morale of our people. In terms of training we used to send our people to rough areas in the big cities—places infested with gangsters and violent criminals—and tasked them to get into fights and confrontations. We especially encouraged them to get into knife fights and other situations involving extreme and life-threatening violence. The idea was for our people to develop their courage and diminish their sense of fear. We especially used the Abousaleem quarter of Tripoli, which must be one of the roughest urban quarters in the country. Another method involved giving people a sense that they are conducting real operations. For instance at one time we tasked some people to get as close to Qadhafi as possible. They thought they were preparing for an assassination attempt, whereas in reality there was no intention of assassinating Qadhafi at that time. The idea was for them to gain valuable experience in breaching security and learning to operate as secretively and covertly as possible. The closest the Group got to real operations was attacking isolated police outposts to secure arms.

MA: And all of this patient and sophisticated preparation was fatally undermined by one rogue operation in May 1995?

NB: Yes, it was very silly.

MA: Surely that is an understatement!

NB: That operation and its immediate aftermath gave the security services important clues to the organization. Qadhafi personally ordered the security services to hunt down the perpetrators in a very short time. The security forces traced the perpetrators to a farm near Benghazi. This farm was an important training area and in there they found a former military officer who was a member of the organization. This gave the regime both the informational tools and motivation to deepen their investigations.

MA: How did the fighting evolve from May 1995 onwards?

NB: After the rogue operation of May 1995, it took four months to decide what course of action to pursue. After more than four months, in October 1995, the Islamic Fighting Group formally declared its existence. From May to October, there were significant attacks against regime targets, particularly near Benghazi and Derna. In fact there were attacks in these areas on a weekly basis. But the Group could not form a strategy for the future. There were basically two opinions. The first opinion was that since many of the people and hideouts had been discovered, it was incumbent on all the fighters and operatives belonging to and affiliated to the Fighting Group—wherever they may be—to return to Libya to fight the regime. The second opinion contended that this would constitute a suicidal move and enable the regime to destroy the entire organization. The people who wanted to send all the people to Libya even devised a plan for the Fighting Group to penetrate Libya from the south—from either the Sudanese or Chadian border–and liberate the southern city of al-Kufra. The idea was to use this city as the launching pad for the liberation of the entire country. I certainly thought this could easily be achieved, given that we had substantial resources. But the problem was how to defend this city once it had been liberated. Although the Group was capable enough, it could not fight prolonged conventional battles against the Libyan armed forces. It was decided to take a vote on it. The vote was evenly split, with 4 people voting to attack from the south. Given that the Group’s leader, Abdullah Al-Sadiq, had a casting vote, his side won the argument, and it was decided not to go ahead with the operation. Consequently, the organization remained viable and active for another three years. For the record, I was opposed to storming the country which I considered to be suicidal.

MA: What was the Group doing in these 3 years?

NB: Up to the middle of 1996 it was trying to secure the safety and survival of its members inside the country. It was clear the regime had the initiative and the Group wanted to save as many people as possible. Therefore, the order was given to the most important people to leave the country immediately. And if they refused, they would be dismissed from the Group. To the people who remained in the country, instructions went out not to instigate attacks. They were only authorized to defend themselves against the regime’s armed onslaughts.

MA: How serious was the fighting from 1996 onwards?

NB: There was plenty of serious fighting. There were at least 4 major battles near Derna, close to the mountains. These battles were led by Libyan Afghan vets. The Libyan regime had to use the air force to defeat the Mujahideen. These battles were conventional military battles, involving hundreds of fighters and many thousands of Libyan army troops and members of the security forces.

MA: How many times did the Islamic Fighting Group try to assassinate Qadhafi?

NB: Plans to assassinate Qadhafi were in response to the brutal methods of the security forces and designed to destabilize the whole regime.

MA: Was the first assassination attempt on Qadhafi in February 1996?

NB: There was an assassination attempt before that, but I don’t know the exact date.

MA: There are allegations that the assassination attempt in 1996 was partly financed and influenced by British intelligence, anxious to settle scores with Qadhafi over Lockerbie.

NB: No, that is pure disinformation. There may have been such a plan but it certainly did not involve the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group.

MA: Then when was the first assassination attempt on Qadhafi by the LIFG?

NB: There was a well publicized attempt on Qadhafi’s life in November 1996, but I believe there was one before that as well.

MA: How many other assassination attempts took place?

NB: There was one in 1997 and another one in 1998. There were altogether 4 assassination attempts.

MA: Let us discuss al-Qaeda now. Would you say the LIFG was ever sympathetic to al-Qaeda?

NB: No, I don’t think it has ever been sympathetic to al-Qaeda.

MA: What about the shared experiences and objectives in Afghanistan? Didn’t those experiences bring you together in some ways?

NB: Bring us together for what?

MA: There was no ideological affinity?

NB: There has never been a single case of a member of the LIFG being implicated in international terrorism. The LIFG has always been wholly focused on Libya. Our ultimate objective was the creation of an Islamic state in Libya.

MA: What kind of an Islamic state? An Iranian style Islamic Republic for instance?

NB: We did not have a particular model in mind. At that time we just had a vision. We were far too busy fighting the regime, to devote time to planning for post-Qadhafi Libya.

MA: Who were the leaders of your organization?

NB: The overall leader of the LIFG was Abdullah al-Sadiq and the Group’s spiritual leader was Abu Mounder Saadi.

MA: So, had the LIFG been successful in toppling Qadhafi, Saadi would have played a central role in the Islamic state of Libya?

NB: Definitely. But there were many other people with leadership qualities. The LIFG was not a one-man band. Our organization was ruled by a Shura [Consultative] committee and according to its charter the Shura committee needed a quorum of 7 people for its decisions to be legally binding. Usually there were up to 15 people in the Shura at any given point in time.

MA: You dismiss any links with al-Qaeda, but did the LIFG have any links with other North African Islamic organizations, in particular Algerian ones?

NB: We have never had any concrete and meaningful links with any non-Libyan organizations, Islamic or otherwise. In the early days, a small number of Afghan veterans were sent to help the Algerian insurgents. With the exception of two people who managed to escape, all of them were killed by the GIA. Also on the question of al-Qaeda, we never thought they had a realistic plan.

MA: But there have been al-Qaeda connected Libyans, both in the past and the present. I refer specifically to the likes of Abu Faraj al-Liby, Abu Anas al-Liby and of course there was Ibn Sheikh al-Liby, who was captured near the Tora Bora Mountains.

NB: The point is that these are Libyans who were not affiliated to, or involved with, the LIFG. They became associated with al-Qaeda in an individual capacity, and I have never said that there are no Libyans in al-Qaeda. But on the point of Abu Anas, I should tell you that he severed his links to al-Qaeda in 1995 and joined the LIFG.

MA: Have these elements undergone a “de-nationalization” process, in the sense that they lost interest in their own country a long time ago?

NB: Yes, and this is our main criticism of them.

MA: What was LIFG’s position on 9/11? Did you condemn it?

NB: Yes, several leaders of the LIFG condemned it. Many members had strong reservations. From the operational and tactical point of view, it was considered as the Achilles’ heel for the whole Jihadi tendency.

MA: What is the status of the LIFG today? By all accounts the capabilities of the organization have been hugely diminished.

NB: That is right; they have been significantly degraded. The Islamic Fighting Group stopped being a credible fighting force in 1998, but there are still remnants and pockets of resistance inside and outside Libya.

MA: Are you still involved with the LIFG?

NB: No, I resigned from the LIFG a couple of years ago.

MA: Given your experience and insights, how do you see the threat from al-Qaeda today?

NB: I think the Americans both misunderstand and exaggerate the threat. On the other hand, Bin Laden and his people will seize every opportunity to attack the United States.

MA: Do you envisage another 9/11 style attack any time soon?

NB: Not any time soon, because the security barriers are too tough to breach. Al-Qaeda took up to 2 years to plan its major attacks and currently they have neither the resources nor access to suitable environments to plan the kind of attacks that once bore their trade mark. They have lost many of their quality people and it will take many years to replace them.