Libyan Fighters Join the Iraqi Jihad

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 23

Despite Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddhafi’s uncompromising stance toward Islamist activism, a number of Libyan volunteers have traveled from Libya to join the Iraqi jihad. From the information that is beginning to emerge about some of these militants, it would seem that they are not part of any organized Islamist group, but rather have their own particular reasons and motivations for joining the jihad. The Libyan government is wary of returning fighters who could stir up the pot back at home, yet, at the same time, factions within the Libyan government and in the state-run media continue to dramatize the Iraqi “resistance.”

Libyan Volunteers

Right from the start of the Iraq war, Libyans were keen to defend Saddam Hussein. This was not surprising given that many Arabs considered Iraq to be the eastern gate of the Arab world and the protector against Persian expansionism. As such, defending Saddam against imperialist forces was as much about Arab nationalism as it was about Islam. It would seem, however, that some of the Libyans who went to defend the Baathists at the outset of the conflict were largely unaware of the complexities of the sectarian and ethnic dynamics at play in Iraq. The fact that Iraq is composed of Shiites as well as Sunnis seems to have come as a shock to some of the volunteers and many returned to Libya disillusioned by what they had discovered. One taxi driver in the eastern city of Benghazi, for example, recounted how some of his friends had gone to defend Iraq, but had been disappointed to discover that some Iraqis did not want Saddam to stay in power. They could not understand why their offer of “brotherly support” had been rejected, and they returned home puzzled [1].

In spite of this, other volunteers continue to join the jihad. Nevertheless, not just any Libyan takes up the call to arms. The vast majority of those who have gone to fight in Iraq have come from the east of the country from in and around Benghazi. These fighters include jihadis such as Khalid Buisha who was killed in Fallujah in 2004 and Muhammad Abd al-Hadi Muhammad who was arrested in Iraq around the same time [2]. The fact that most of the Libyan volunteers have come from the east is no coincidence. Benghazi has traditionally been a center of rebellion against the al-Qaddhafi regime. It is a highly conservative area that has been kept purposefully underdeveloped, and for this reason it has developed into the main center of Islamic activism in the country. It represented the core of the militant Islamist groups that appeared on the Libyan scene in the 1980s and 1990s, including the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG).

Libyans from other cities have also gone to Iraq. A number of militants from Sirte, which is in the center of the country and from the area that al-Qaddhafi originates, were reportedly killed in Iraq this summer. They included Mansour Busharada who allegedly came from al-Qaddhafi’s own tribe, although this may be pure speculation [3]. Nevertheless, it is the eastern regions, encompassing Benghazi and other smaller cities such as Derna and al-Bayda, which have made-up the Libyan contingent fighting in Iraq.

From the limited information available, it would appear that those Libyans who have gone to Iraq from Libya itself are not part of any particular group or organization and are certainly not part of al-Qaeda. Indeed, the regime has kept such a tight lid on the Islamist movement since the shock of the 1990s that there is practically no space for any organized group to operate, least of all one with international connections. As such, these jihadis appear to have gone to Iraq as individuals rather than as part of any organized militant group. That is not to say, however, that there are not informal networks operating in the region around the mosques. Indeed, Muhammad Abd al-Hadi Muhammad, for example, who had joined the jihad in Fallujah, but who was captured by Iraqi forces, explained how a number of Libyan sheikhs in the mosques of Benghazi issued fatwas telling people it was their duty to fight in Iraq (Memri TV, January 24, 2005). This was also confirmed by the same Benghazi taxi driver who explained how the local imams had encouraged people to join the jihad in Iraq [4].

This kind of support for the idea of martyrdom clearly had an impact on men, such as Ali Attia Mohamed Bujafool Zwai from Benghazi who was killed in Iraq this year during Ramadan and was 26 years old (Libya al-Youm, October 7). According to Ali’s father, as a child he was brought up on his grandmother’s stories about the heroic members of his own tribe who had become martyrs fighting against the Italian occupiers. Ali reportedly used to dream of becoming a martyr himself to defend the honor of his particular branch of the tribe. After leaving school, Ali, who had no interest in politics, went on to study electronic engineering, but soon became bored by the subject. His father suggested he study the Quran instead and Ali went first to Benghazi and then to Zliten to attend courses in Quranic studies. At some point, Ali managed to get a good job with the government, but this clearly did not satisfy his cravings for heroic adventure. A few months ago, Ali telephoned his family to say that he had made it to Baghdad and had joined the resistance. A few days later, his family received news of his death.

Perhaps more extraordinary than the story of this young man was the way his family and neighbors reacted to his killing. Ali’s father recounted how the whole family began celebrating when they heard the news and they distributed drinks and sweets among the neighbors. His father explained how he was extremely proud and particularly happy that Ali had been martyred during the holy month of Ramadan and one of Ali’s brothers, Ahmed, declared, “We all wish for martyrdom.” Family support for joining the jihad is not unique. In fact, in some instances several members of the same family have taken it upon themselves to fight in Iraq. For example, in July, news emerged about three youths from the Ishkal family from Sirte who had been killed in Iraq (Libya Focus, July). Similarly, three brothers from the eastern city of Derna—Hamza, Abdulrahman and Bilal Aqila Bin Khayal—were all killed in Iraq [5]. The eldest, Hamza, had reportedly gone to Iraq even before the war had started. He was caught and imprisoned for two years. By this time, his younger brother, Abdulrahman, who was 21 years old, traveled to join him. Shortly after Hamza left prison, Abdulrahman contacted the family back in Libya to tell them that his brother had been killed. This news convinced the youngest brother, Bilal, who was just 16 years old, that it was also his duty to go to Iraq. Both Abdulrahman and Bilal, however, met the same fate as their older brother. It was reported that the three sons had been encouraged to fight by their father who was keen for them to defend their honor in Iraq [6].

Figures such as the Aqila Bin Khayal brothers clearly came from deeply religious families who believed that it was their Islamic duty to fight in Iraq. For others, the motivation appears to have been more haphazard and mundane. The Arab media seems to have been a key motivating factor for some of the volunteers. Muhammad Abd al-Hadi Muhammad, for example, who had joined the jihad in Fallujah but was captured by Iraqi forces, explained that the “media is what brought me [to Iraq]. The pictures of Abu Ghraib…the al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya channels and other TV channels like al-Shariqa and others” (Memri TV, January 24, 2005). For such young men who have limited educational opportunities and who live in places such as Benghazi where life offers little hope, few prospects or any sense of fulfillment, it is easy to see how such images and messages could be persuasive.

Moreover, there is a degree of acceptance about the merits of jihad and martyrdom among some sections of the broader population. There have been numerous reports of martyrdom “wedding” festivities taking place in Libya for those who have been killed in Iraq. For example, in May 2005, celebrations were held to mark the deaths in Iraq of three young Benghazi inhabitants. This support, however, is not only the domain of militants. Even the tightly controlled state-run mosques are promoting the cause of martyrdom. In March, for example, the imam at the Ahmed Pasha Mosque in Tripoli told his congregation during Friday prayers, “Bravo to the martyrdom for the sake of Allah. Bravo to the martyrdom for elevating the word of Allah. Bravo to martyrdom for elevating the word of truth” [7]. This idealizing of the heroism of sacrifice arguably creates a permissive environment that encourages desperate young men to give their lives for a battle being fought many miles away from home.

Double Talk

Despite the fact that Colonel al-Qaddhafi has displayed a completely intolerant attitude toward political Islamists of any hue, the Libyan regime has proved to be as ambiguous in its attitude toward the whole Iraq crisis as others in the region. On the one hand, it has been anxious to ensure that Iraq does not become a repeat of the Afghanistan experience with returning veterans ready to wage war against the state. In a speech in March 2005, al-Qaddhafi warned about potential returnees and stated, “We cannot be more Iraqi than the Iraqis themselves” (BBC, March 4, 2005). The regime has also taken more direct measures. It was reported that Khalid al-Zayidi returned to Benghazi in October 2005 after he had fought in Iraq to undergo surgery for a wound on his leg that he sustained on the battlefield [8]. Shortly after his return, the Libyan internal security service killed him as he tried to escape arrest after he had protested the attempts by the security services to arrest his friend and fellow Islamist, Hatem Busnina [9]. The regime has also launched pre-emptive arrests, such as in November, when it was reported that a number of young men who were showing Islamist tendencies were arrested in Bani Walid after it had been discovered that some individuals from the Saadat, Jamila and Fladna tribes had gone to Iraq.

At the same time, however, the regime has not shied away from praising the Iraqi resistance. Al-Qaddhafi’s daughter Aisha, who was a member of Saddam Hussein’s legal team, has repeatedly supported those fighting in Iraq. In September 2005, she exclaimed, “We salute proudly the fighters of the Iraqi resistance who were able to break the American dream” (UPI, September 28, 2005). Al-Qaddhafi himself has been more reticent in his praise of the fighters as he has to keep an eye on his newly restored relations with the United States. The tightly controlled state media, however, continues to use the term resistance and regularly reports on the killings of U.S. troops in Iraq.

Some have gone as far as to suggest that the regime was content to allow Libyans to fight in Iraq. Indeed, at the end of 2004 the Iraqi media accused Libya of allowing the former Iraqi Embassy in Tripoli to recruit for the Iraqi jihad. These reports have not been confirmed. In October 2004, the London-based Maqreze center announced that it had received a letter from inside Libya which stated, “All these people went to Iraq with the blessing of the regime because it wanted Iraq to win, not because it liked the Iraqis, but out of fear that it may lose power. But…when some of these young people returned, the regime started liquidating them” [10].

Therefore, while the regime has been alert to the prospect of its own citizens returning to Libya with the aim of bringing down the regime, it has also maintained an ambivalent attitude toward the conflict. Al-Qaddhafi, however, should be concerned that while still relatively few in number, there are Libyans who are desperate and angry enough to die as martyrs in Iraq, and perhaps more worryingly, there is still a degree of support for such acts among sections of the population, especially in the troubled and embittered east.

Notes

1. Conversation between author and Libyan taxi driver, Benghazi, June 2005.

2. Kaima bi asma’a shuhada bilad al-rafidain min al-Muhajirine wa al-Ansar bi’ithnilah (A List of Martyrs from Mesopotamia from al-Muhajirine and al-Ansar, if Allah Permits), http://majdah.com/vb/showthread.php?t=8239; Memri TV, January 24, 2005.

3. Libi min sirte dahiyat al-Kital fi al-Iraq (A Libyan from Sirte is a Victim of the Fighting in Iraq), http://www.akhbar-libya2.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=134&Itemid=51.

4. Conversation between author and Libyan taxi driver, Benghazi, June 2005.

5. See http://majdah.com/vb/showthread.php?t=8239.

6. Ibid.

7. Excerpts from a Friday sermon at Ahmed Pasha Mosque, Tripoli, Libya, aired on Libya TV on February 3, 2006.

8. See http://www.libya-alhora.com/forum/showthread.php?t=3575.

9. Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, October 28, 2004.

10. See http://almaqreze.com/bayanat/artcl022.html.