Special Commentary from Inside Western Libya– On the Precipice: Libya’s Amazigh in Revolt

Amazight fighters keep vigil over Qaddafist position in the hamlet of al-Qabil seated in plains below. Credit-Derek Henry Flood

High in Libya’s scorching Jebel Nafusa mountain range in western Libya’s lies the lesser reported, perhaps least understood, of the country’s three primary battlefronts. Local people in the region began a concomitant uprising following the defining battle over Benghazi’s katiba (military garrison). Nalut, the principal city in the western Nafusa, fell without a casualty according to a member of the local media committee. Ill prepared for the spontaneous uprising, the mukhabarat assigned to the area allegedly fled in the aftermath of the initial surge of sentiment raging against Mu’ammar al-Qaddafi. The Nafusa appears to have been a lower priority for the Libyan military than the deeply dug in defenses of Tripoli, Sirte, around Misuratah, and the Saharan strongholds of Sehba and Ghadames. As the Nafusa began to come under further rebel control, the regime had to mass more forces south of Tripoli in order to bottleneck the rebellion moving up toward the city’s southern flank. Fierce battles over the town of Qwalish which has changed hands back and forth between Qaddafist and rebels along with the coming battles for other key towns, Gharyan in particular, could chart a new course in the fight for the future of Libya. As Amazigh and Arab rebels make their way closer to Tripoli, they have forced Qaddafi to reorient a degree of his remaining military capability southward. The Amazigh fighters firmly hold the high ground in the region, but the taking of long, relatively barren plains facing Tripoli in high summer on the eve of the fasting season of Ramadan will likely be a tenacious, logistically difficult undertaking.

The author met briefly with Jalal al-Digheily, the Transitional National Council’s (TNC) recently appointed Defense Minister, replacing Omar al-Hariri in Benghazi. Al-Digheily is attempting forge a unified command across Libya’s geographically disparate war fronts. The Benghazi-based TNC has been trying to coordinate militarily between the al-Buraqa (Brega), Misratah, and various Nafusa frontlines. Al-Digheily appeared unannounced in Nalut, the principal rebel stronghold in the western part of the greater Nafusa region, shuttling through the town’s main thoroughfare in heavily tinted, late model Toyota sport utility vehicles, flanked by bodyguards armed with American assault rifles, in what was aimed at showing solidarity between the Arab-led TNC and the Amazigh (Berber) opposition forces. Qaddafist forces are currently occupying a position near a strategic choke point along the Wazin, Libya-Dahiba, Tunsia border. On the night of July 19-20, Qaddafist forces mounted a sizable rocket attack on the rebel-held Wazin crossing using a Grad truck on the Ghazaya plain roughly five kilometers behind a ridge that faces the border to the south. Forces guarding Wazin told of a fraught scramble behind the area’s meager infrastructure which consists of a few portable trailers and cinder block buildings. Tunisian security forces stated that several poorly aimed rockets fell on the Tunisian side of the frontier with some claiming that one Tunisian was injured, though the author could not independently verify this account. To the outside observer, the situation looks intensely precarious with an unknown number of Qaddafist troops out of sight able to attack the rebel border force at will. When pressed on the Wazin matter, al-Digheily exuded a cool confidence that it would be impossible for the Amazigh forces to lose control of the gateway to Tunisia. When asked about the danger that loyalist forces posed to the mountain rebels principal supply line to the outside, al-Digheily replied vaguely, “We are ready to defend Wazin. Our plan is secret.” Jamestown inquired as to why the NTC and their counterparts in the local Nalut military council have not been able to have NATO warplanes pulverize the Qaddafist position which threatens, though the nearby troops threaten the most vital regional link, al-Digheily coolly replied, “We are thanking NATO very much. We have notified them [about the location of enemy forces].” Rebel communication and streamlining with NATO’s command structure seems to be a major issue although rebel leaders are apt to deny such. Nalut’s desolate town center is decorated with pro-Western graffiti with slogans such as, “Thank you NATO. You’ve saved our lives” written in English. Walls along the main strip are brightly decorated with the now ubiquitous red, black, and green Sanussi-era tri-color coupled with slogans in Arabic declaring a “Free Libya.” The significant difference is that along with this revolutionary iconography seen across anti-Qaddafi Libya is the presence of the unique Amazigh script symbolizing the resurgence, however nascent, of the region’s long oppressed indigenous mountain culture. Another key symbol is entirely different: there are no visages of Omar al-Mukhtar, the anti-colonialist Cyrenaican martyr who was hanged in 1931 by the Italians. In Nalut, the figure looming from the revolutionary signage instead is of Khalifa ben-Askar, an Amazigh hero who dueled with both the Italians and later the French colonial regime in neighboring Tunisia in the early twentieth century. Like Mukhtar, Askar was executed in 1920 by the Italians and is viewed as an inspirational hero by fighters in Nalut.

Though Nalut remains relatively quiet when compared to frontline towns, it is far from immune to attack from enemy forces on the baking plains below. The author visited a rebel position on a rocky outcropping high above the desert floor, where a team of five opposition spotters keep watch around the clock, rotating fresh teams in shifts to stay vigilant. From a Qaddafist position approximately 10 kilometers away on the desert floor, vehicle movements could be seen as a water truck trundled in bringing fresh drinking water to otherwise isolated troops who exist there to harass Nalut and environs while keeping pressure on supply route to the border. Behind a makeshift rock barricade, the Amazigh spotters listen to taunts from loyalist troops with whom they share the same frequency. “NATO dogs. You are just the dogs of NATO,” Qaddafist troops shout over the radio in Arabic. The spotters do not retort, sitting quietly on the bluff, keeping track of every enemy movement over the hamlet of al-Qabil.  They tell Jamestown that the highly mobile Russian-made Grad is hidden behind a purpose-built berm, arising only when it is being arced skyward for attack. When they appear to be mobilizing, Nalut is then to be radioed that it is in for anything from a lob to a barrage. Much of Nalut is empty aside from males ranging anywhere from 15 to 50. The entire town center is shuttered, the only activity being the rapid shuttling back and forth of rebel technicals or civilian vehicles of the rebel support structure that undergirds Nalut in an attempt to protect it from potential encroachment from forces loyal to Qaddafi. Grid-based electricity in Nalut is non-existent, with the only available power coming from cumbersome diesel-powered generators. Transport vehicles bring in bottled water and other essentials from nearby Tunisia to keep Nalut, Jadu, Yefran, Zintan and points further east hydrated, fed, and fueled.

Jamestown visited an ad hoc training camp at a small roadside mosque on the road to Tripoli on Nalut’s northern fringes. There, a grizzled Libyan Army veteran of the Aozou war in Chad named Ramadan Salu taught a group of 14 very young men, some of whom appeared below the age of 18, how to quickly disassemble, clean, and reassemble a 14.5 anti-aircraft gun and then rapidly mount it on a light-weight tripod. Salu said most of his preliminary training courses run about one week long as he teaches local recruits the very basics of drilling and armaments. Salu is teaching the boys of Nalut to defend their community and their land from a prospective of defensive posturing. Toward the end of the day’s lesson, once the practice weapon had been put back together, Salu gave a lecture on the role of spirituality in war. Listing a string of monotheism’s prophets up until Muhammed, Salu instructed the recruits that neither Islam nor any other faith condones the wanton killing of innocents though it contains provisos for self-defense to which the wider Libyan rebel movement is entitled. As the young men gathered around the mosque parking lot for an evening meal, a much more experienced fighter fired off intimidating anti-aircraft rounds into a nearby hillside as the sun sank below the horizon.

The rebellion in the Jebel Nafusa is controlled by individual military councils that rule by region. Jamestown met with a member of the Nalut military council that gave the scope of the region that is under Amazigh rebels’ control. Nalut is in control from Wazin in the west on the Tunisian frontier to the town of al-Majibirah to the east and from Sinawin in the south—about halfway to Qaddafist-controlled Ghadames—and just to the immediate outskirts of town to the north where control of the lowlands is ceded to Qaddafists who have set up camp near a South Korean construction company compound abandoned at the conflict’s outset. Zintan and other towns and cities further east on the road to Tripoli are controlled by correlating military, as well as civilian, councils that were established to manage the logistics and localized coordination of the fight. Whether or not Benghazi’s proclaimed unified military command will be successful in uniting the different war fronts, including the ethno-linguistically distinct Nafusa tracts, remains to be seen. Aside from the multi-front war in the Nafusa, there is a grave problem of the Amazigh-Arab ethnic fissure which had already shown signs of deep tension. Many Libyans talk of a future paved with national harmony, an official TNC talking point. But just as many innocent sub-Saharan African migrant workers have been mistakenly rounded up and brutalized by rebel forces in Cyrenaica in a frenzy of anti-mercenary hysteria, here in the Jebel Nafusa reports have begun to surface of Arab villages being emptied out ahead of rebel troop arrivals. At the time of this writing, the rebels are talking of launching a major offensive to seize the key, fortified towns of Gharyan and/or al-Assaba in the days and hours before Ramadan commences around August first. Whether or not such a difficult objective is achievable in the near term remains to be seen.