Regime Loyalists Fight On as Opposition Prepares for a Post-Qaddafi Libya

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 9 Issue: 27

Libyan rebel fighters from the Nafusa Mountains.

After months of bombardment by NATO warplanes, Qaddafi’s military is no longer the force it was when it was on the verge of defeating the rebels by taking their “capital” of Benghazi prior to the March 27 commencement of the NATO intervention. Since then, NATO has destroyed many of Qaddafi’s tanks and armored vehicles and obliterated his air force and navy. Realizing that his soldiers are “sitting ducks” for NATO’s warplanes, Qaddafi sought to protect them by changing their tactics; they no longer behaved as a regular army, but instead replaced their armored vehicles with civilian vehicles, including pick-up trucks similar to the ones used by the rebels. NATO countered this move by introducing attack helicopters to the theater such as the British AH-64 Apaches and the French EC-665 Tiger HAD (Hélicoptère d’Appui Destruction) and older SA 342 Gazelles. The helicopters can help NATO pin-point targets that are difficult to hit with high-flying planes, especially if they are hidden within residential areas or camouflaged as civilian vehicles.

NATO attacks succeeded in reversing the situation on the ground in the rebels’ favor. In the east, opposition forces moved from Ajdabiya toward the oil port of Brega (al-Burayqah – some 80 miles to the west), but they have not yet been able to take it, despite heavy bombardment by NATO from air and sea. It has been reported that one of Qaddafi’s sons, Muatasim, is leading the defense of Brega, which, if true, indicates how important the town is to his father (al-Hayat, May 19).  The fall of Brega can open the road for the rebels to reach Sirte, Qaddafi’s birthplace and a stronghold of his tribe, the Qadadfa.

In western Libya, the rebels of Misurata have also been on the offensive, after breaking the siege laid by Qaddafi’s forces on the city since the start of the uprising in February. However, the rebels have been trying for weeks to overrun the nearby town of Zliten, which blocks their advance on Tripoli, around 100 miles to the west. The rebels claim that they have not entered Zliten yet because they are waiting for the town’s own rebels to rise against Qaddafi. Despite claims that the rebels are indeed active inside Zliten, the town is still held firmly by Qaddafi, either because the majority of its own citizens are still loyal to his regime, or because of fear of his troops stationed inside the town. Here, again, it has been reported that Qaddafi has deployed one of his sons, Khamis, the head of the 32nd Brigade, to lead the defense of Zliten (al-Khaleej [UAE], June 2).

But if the rebels in the east have failed to overrun Brega, and their colleagues in Misurata have also failed to enter Zliten, the opposition forces in Jabal Nafusa, south west of Tripoli, have managed to score an important victory against Qaddafi, whose forces were pushed out from almost the entire region, which lies 70 miles west of Tripoli. In June, the rebels of the Nafusa Mountains broke the siege which Qaddafi forces had laid against them from the start of the uprising, and they quickly advanced north towards Tripoli. In order to continue to Tripoli, they must first take Gharyan from loyalist forces, a task the rebels are confident can be achieved sometime this month. Rebel success in this region seems to have been the result not only of their patience and courage, but also due to weapons drops from French aircraft, including Milan anti-tank missiles (Le Figaro, June 28).  The rebels are also reported to be receiving weapons from Qatar and are known to have received aid smuggled in via Tunis. Even if the Nafusa rebels manage to take Gharyan, they will soon find themselves facing major populated areas still loyal to the regime.

The Looming Battle for Tripoli

Qaddafi has obviously understood that the rebels have their eyes on Tripoli, so he moved a major part of his fighting forces into the capital. The city of 1.6 million people seems firmly held by his loyalists, despite claims by the rebels that they have succeeded in smuggling weapons to active cells involved in nightly attacks against the regime forces. The two neighborhoods where Qaddafi opponents are known to be active inside Tripoli are Tajoura and Souk al-Juma, and it has been noted that NATO has been bombing Qaddafi forces specifically in Tajoura. The hope, it seems, is that citizens in this area will take the opportunity to kick the regime units out, as they clearly tried to do at the start of the revolution in February. In addition to attempting to foment another uprising in Tajoura, east of Tripoli, the rebels have been trying to encircle the Libyan capital from the west. They recently tried to regain a foothold in Zawiya, 18 miles west of Tripoli, but the regime forces managed to clear them out of this important town (BBC, June 12).

The priority in Qaddafi’s strategy seems to be to prevent the rebels from advancing toward Tripoli, in addition to trying to reach a ceasefire that includes NATO stopping its attacks. Here he seems to be playing on time, hoping to exhaust the NATO alliance, whose states are under considerable internal pressure to cut back on their military budgets. The alliance insists that its member nations, despite financial restraints, have all that is needed to finish the mission in Libya.

Qaddafi also seems to be keen on protecting himself from NATO raids which, according to his spokesmen, are intended to “assassinate him.” NATO has indeed bombed sites associated with the Libyan colonel, especially his Bab al-Aziziya compound in Tripoli. Furthermore, the Libyan regime claimed that one of NATO’s attacks resulted in the May 1 death of Qaddafi’s youngest son, Saif al-Arab, and some of his grandchildren. Although NATO insists that Qaddafi personally is not a target, it also says it continues to attack the regime’s “command and control” sites, and if Qaddafi happens to be in one of them, then his death would be justified. As a result, Qaddafi is reported to have sought protection in places he knows NATO would not hit, such as hospitals.

It is not obvious what would happen if NATO or the rebels were to succeed in killing Qaddafi. His sons appear to be united in protecting him, but this unity could evaporate if he is gone and the siblings start fighting amongst themselves over succession. Saif al-Islam is indeed a candidate, as is Muatasim and al-Saadi. Another option for the regime would be to seek direction from the Revolutionary Command Council which includes the Free Officers who, with Qaddafi, led the 1969 coup against the Libyan monarchy.
If Qaddafi is able to protect himself in Tripoli, and the rebels fail to conquer Brega, Zliten and the southern and western suburbs of Tripoli, the war in Libya could easily drag on for many more months, with the possibility of the country turning into another Somalia. Barring significant developments in the meantime, the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which starts around the end of July, may prove to be a crucial period in deciding the fate of Libya’s uprising. Libyans under Qaddafi’s control may revolt against him because of the shortages in fuel and food supplies. On the other hand, Qaddafi could also play the role of a victim who is being attacked by Christian “crusaders” who are cutting Muslims off from essentials during their holy month of fasting.

The Fate of Qaddafi’s Allies

It is worth noting that Qaddafi’s opponents have failed to take important towns, such as Brega and Zliten, despite being backed by constant bombing from NATO. What is even more puzzling is their failure to instigate major revolts in the areas inhabited by tribes Qaddafi considers loyal to his regime, such as Sabha, in the south of Libya, and the towns of Beni Walid and Trahouna, southeast of Tripoli. This clearly indicates that Qaddafi still has considerable support among members of the tribes of western Libya, especially among his own Qadadfa, the Megharha and the Warfalla.

Those who are still loyal to Qaddafi must surely know by now that they may face trial and possible punishment at the hands of the rebels if the regime is toppled. The retribution could even be handed out by opponents to the regime from within their own tribes. There may be a need for the rebels to clarify who from among Qaddafi’s loyalists will be prosecuted when he falls. Such a move could encourage those wishing to “jump off the sinking ship” to do so. However, there are questions as to whether the Benghazi-based Transitional National Council (TNC) has the authority to declare even a limited amnesty, even though delay makes reconciliation more difficult as additional blood is spilled.

Rebels and Opposition Groups Prepare for Elections

Despite the rebels’ failure to finish off Qaddafi quickly, there are still promising signs that life in Libya will be rosier after his demise. The rebel TNC has promised to work for an elected government in a new and democratic Libya. Any differences that may exist between the different factions that form the rebellion have now been put aside in order to achieve the goal of toppling Qaddafi. The Council has also promised that its members will not be candidates in the first elections that will be organized after the fall of the regime; this clearly intends to send a message that the council does not wish to cling to power (Libya TV, May 28).

While the rebel fighters have been busy on the frontlines, some opposition figures have been busy preparing the stage for a future election, though no date has been set yet. The Islamists, represented mainly by the Libyan branch of the Muslim Brotherhood and the jihadists of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), are known to be working on the ground to rebuild their networks and to appoint local leaders in different cities, in addition to supporting the fighters on the frontlines or becoming involved in the fighting themselves. On the other hand, the Nationalists, led by the National Front for the Salvation of Libya (NFSL), have also been working on the ground to reconnect with their supporters after decades in exile. Other independent players are also likely to be operating on a local level.


The participation of the different Libyan factions, including the jihadists, in the elections planned for post-Qaddafi Libya,  may prove to be an important element in countering efforts by al-Qaeda to operate in that country. Some cells may indeed have infiltrated the rebel ranks and are now active in the country. However, to have al-Qaeda’s supposed jihadist allies participate in elections and the democratic process will surely send a message to Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri’s group that it is not welcome to operate in Libya. Yet if the rebels fail to topple Qaddafi soon and the war drags on for months, then there may be an opportune chance for al-Qaeda to jump in, claiming to be defending the Libyan population. However, it is not likely that al-Qaeda would score a major success by doing so; the majority of the rebels feel an immense gratitude to NATO, al-Qaeda’s enemy, for saving their uprising when Qaddafi’s forces were approaching Benghazi in March to hunt them (according to Qaddafi) “from house to house and from alleyway to alleyway.”