Special Report from Inside Libya: After Ajdabiya, Libya’s Under-Armed Rebels in Turmoil

A poster promoting the now retreating Libyan revolution adorns a car in downtown Benghazi as the city braces for a siege on Monday, March 14, 2011 (Derek Henry Flood)

On Sunday, March 13, Jamestown met with quarrelsome, nervous, mid-level Libyan rebel commanders underneath the double green arches that mark a police checkpoint on Ajdabiya’s western approach. The commanders fell into a vigorous argument that verged on fisticuffs when asked if the road to the front line town of al-Burayqa (also known as Brega) was passable for either rebel technicals – pickup trucks fitted with .50 caliber machine guns or portable anti-aircraft guns – or foreign journalists. Non-combatants were immediately ordered away from the checkpoint, told their security could no longer be guaranteed, and were urged to return to Benghazi. A man who appeared to be an imam wearing a crisp white robe and knit skull cap paced back and forth repeating instructions to young volunteer fighters in street clothes in a belated attempt to create mission cohesion. In Arabic, the imam told would-be fighters through a crackling megaphone to deny access to the international media to front line positions as well as those in Ajdabiya and Benghazi, and explained to them how to state this in English for journalists with no knowledge of Arabic. Young male volunteers practiced shouting “no media!” from a concrete median as a mortar shell plowed into a nearby sand dune while a loyalist invasion of Ajdabiya seemed imminent. The author was informed of the regime’s evolving tactic of absconding with relatives of rebels living in Tripoli and other areas under the control of Colonel Mu’ammar Qaddafi. According to several civilians in Benghazi, astute regime security service men began to regularly monitor media emanating from opposition-held regions to discover identifiable fighters. Those appearing the most defiant in the international press were now having family members kidnapped and threatened as means of blackmail and collective punishment to put further pressure on the Shabaab (the youth), as the fighters are colloquially known. The rebels abrupt Volte-face about their images being projected inside and outside of the war zone provides a window into the intense pressure they are facing militarily. An English-speaking fighter told Jamestown, “we cannot let you back in Ras Lanuf and other areas until we have completely defeated the enemy.”

Rebels insisted that they were on the cusp of implementing their jedida (new) strategy but due to their overnight distrust of previously welcomed foreign observers, they said they were not at liberty to disclose precisely what their counter-offensive and defensive plan consisted of. Rebels told Jamestown that they would make a momentous stand at Ajdabiya but as the town’s residents voted with their feet, fleeing to Benghazi and settlements further east in the remaining pocket of rebel-controlled territory, it looked very unlikely that they would be able to withstand a direct air and ground assault on Ajdabiya by loyalist troops and their alleged mercenary pilots soaring overhead.

Following a series of battlefield defeats, the rebels became overtly hostile to members of the foreign media, who until very recently had been considered a fifth column in their efforts to gain legitimacy amongst the dominant players in the international community. Rebel leaders believe that live battle field television broadcasts and real-time blogging are being exploited by the Qaddafis, particularly Seif-al Islam and Khamis Qaddafi, to pinpoint rebel positions and logistical hubs with air strikes and long range shelling in order to soften up cities and towns for the entrance of Tripoli’s ground troops. At the time of this writing, Benghazi has yet to sustain an aerial attack. However, as government forces inch closer to the city’s western perimeter, the Shabaab may have no choice but to mount an asymmetric urban guerrilla war to defend the city as they claimed to be doing in the besieged oil terminal of al-Burayqa. As Tripoli’s tanks and Multiple Rocket Launch System (MLRS) trucks moved toward Ajdabiya, small, highly mobile units of rebel hunter-killer teams remained behind in al-Burayqa to fight government troops who claimed control of the town, according to a self-appointed rebel spokesman in Ajdabiya.

Cells of fighters in dust-covered technicals adorned with spray paint denoting them as units of the February 17 revolution streamed eastward toward Benghazi with only ambulances being allowed passage to the front. Access was so limited that even crucial supply vehicles delivering bottled water – an absolute necessity in a desert war – were turned away. As Shabaab forces initially scored one victory after another in the war’s early days of late February, scores of fighters agglomerated in just a handful of positions clustered along the Gulf of Sirte bound by a uniting esprit d’escorps and inspired by the success of civil-society-led revolutions in Tunis and Cairo. Believing that an assault on and subsequent conquering of the Qaddafist stronghold of Sirte was only days away, Benghazi, in a state of mild anarchy, was left virtually defenseless. Since their loss at Ben Jawad, the military turning point in the rebellion thus far, the rebels’ military and civilian leadership, believing they would have secured the total support of NATO by this time, utterly failed to prepare their de facto capital for an onslaught by forces loyal to Africa’s longest-serving dictator. One of the aims of the opposition leadership is the proclamation that while they have set up shop in Benghazi, the city is only the seat of a very temporary, transitional government expecting Tripoli’s liberation. From the point of view of desperately staving off Libya’s bifurcation down the middle with forward, constant military victories in the uprising’s earliest days, digging in around Benghazi may not have seemed an absolute strategic necessity. Now, as Qaddafist troops bear down on rebel-held population centers with vicious abandon, it may be too late in the conflict for opposition officers to re-prioritize their men and armaments from a primarily lightly armed, highly motivated offensive force to a defensive one back on its heels facing overwhelming firepower.

Ajdabiya’s hospital evacuated all of its patients to medical centers 148 kilometers away in Benghazi in preparation for an all out aerial and ground assault surging eastward. The hospital’s administrator believed the air force of Qaddafi was not beyond striking his facility as it began to treat rebel casualties fleeing the embattled town of al-Burayqa. A quintet of doctors told the author that loyalist troops had brought in several 122 mm MLRS Soviet-era BM-21 Grad trucks and were indiscriminately firing on the town’s structures in a blitzkrieg aimed at eliminating the standing rebels physically and damaging them psychologically.

Tactically, the current fight is draining forces on both sides of the line. Pro-Qaddafi troops are now very far from their nearest uncontested power base in Sirte and their logistics lines are beginning to be tested. Misurata, the last known Shabaab-held base, though currently withstanding an attack from regime forces, still stands – for the moment – between Tripoli and Sirte as a rebel thorn in Qaddafi’s side. Beyond Benghazi to Amsaad on the Egyptian frontier, the rebels have a consistent yet lightly armed series of checkpoints to control the roads. On a survey of the Jebel al-Akhdar hinterlands, a patchwork of comparatively lush agricultural settlements and mountains leading to Tobruk, rebels had a handful of aging Soviet-built tanks settled in behind dirt berms at key intersections and sparsely distributed anti-aircraft guns to defend a fairly large portion of eastern Cyrenaica. Unlike the oil installations that lay along a bare road between Ajdabiya and Sirte, the mountainous region behind Benghazi is unlikely to be a quick route for loyalist forces. If Benghazi is to descend into an urban guerrilla war, it appears unlikely that staunch anti-Tripoli elements in the Jebel al-Akhdar region, and its principal city of al-Baida, as the historic heartland of the Sanussi monarchy toppled by Qaddafi in 1969, would be retaken by enemy forces without a substantial, if thinly prepared, defense. In a string of checkpoints stretching from the Jebel al-Akhdar to the Egyptian border, a mix of dissident soldiers and leather jacket-clad militiamen stop vehicles of Libyan civilians en route to Cairo and inquire about their support for the ebbing revolution.

The propaganda war between Tripoli and Benghazi has been a critical element in the conflict and should not be underestimated in its importance. Libya’s rebels were hugely successful in allowing visa-less international reporters to report unhindered on their battlefield victories, selling many of them on the idea that Sirte and Tripoli were subject to fall at any moment, without ever disclosing specifically how they would accomplish such feats. Qaddafi and his sons learned from the rebels’ wooing of foreign media, and to some degree, clever manipulation of journalists. Tripoli readily adapted to the situation and adopted its own version of this tactic by ‘inviting’ select journalists, though only from the largest major media outlets, and ushering them to Qaddafi’s quixotic press conferences and later, escorted tours of cities and towns ‘liberated’ from rebel troops. Residents of eastern Libya told the author of receiving phone calls from panicked relatives in the city of Zawiya, southwest of the capital, claiming that in the aftermath of massacres by pro-regime forces, hospitals were emptied of injured patients and even corpses were hastily exhumed from freshly dug graves before foreign journalists were brought to the city for a propaganda tour to demonstrate with confidence that no such alleged massacres had ever occurred.

Another significant factor in the Libyan conflict is Colonel Qaddafi’s apparent willingness to destabilize the fragile transitional governments in Tunisia and Egypt by expelling hundreds of thousands, perhaps into the millions, of migrant workers, mainly Egyptians and sub-Saharan Africans and, to a lesser degree, third-country nationals such as Bangladeshis and other Asian groups. Qaddafi has enacted vengeance on his neighbors, whom he views as being sympathetic to the revolutionaries by doing nothing to stop the waves of refugees arriving in Egypt. Jamestown spoke with Chadian migrant workers stranded in a squalid Egyptian immigration terminal near the border town of Salloum. The migrants had worked in Libya’s previously booming construction and oil industries but fled the country in large part due to the hysteria bordering on xenophobia about the participation of sub-Saharan mercenaries alongside or in front of troops loyal to the regime. Qaddafi’s closest ally in the European Union, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, fears it has much to lose should its erratic North African client be toppled. The Berlusconi government has been at pains in the last decade to coax the Qaddafi regime to contain sub-Saharan trans-migration into the EU’s southern Mediterranean tier with a series of carrot-and-stick aid initiatives. Rome’s position in regard to Qaddafi is a key spoke in the Libyan strongman’s efforts to keep both the EU and NATO in discord in view of their respective Libya policies. With Paris as the rebels’ only significant external supporter at present, they continue to hold out hope that French President Nicholas Sarkozy can sway other essential NATO members, the United States in particular, to implement as last ditch effort to save the Shabaab movement with air power. Though impossible to confirm first-hand due to the highly sensitive nature of the issue, a source in Benghazi described a shipment of French-procured arms (though apparently not of French provenance) arriving by ship in the port facility in that city on the night of March 11-12 in an act of French unilateralism in support of the rebels. However, Jamestown could not independently verify this claim. France’s outspoken support of “The Libyan Republic’s” Interim National Transitional Council and its Chairman Mustafa Mohammed Abdul Jalil has put it far out ahead of any other Western or Arab nation-state it its vociferousness for a no-fly zone.

As pro-Qaddafi forces continue to reconquer territory getting nearer to Benghazi by the hour, both the Libyan opposition and major Western powers, aside from France, remain handicapped by the legacy of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. The revolutionary Shabaab movement is trying to make demands from a position of increasing weakness, asking NATO and/or the United States to enact an immediate no-fly zone. At the same time, the rebels adamantly deny the possible admission of ground forces – including military advisors – invoking the Iraq scenario as the reasoning behind their rationale as well as three bitter decades of Italian colonialism in the early twentieth century. The West, also wary of Iraq’s lingering legacy and other unsuccessful military interventions in the Arab and Muslim world, is intensely concerned with the potential perception of any sort of military action, whether limited to air power or otherwise, and insists the Arab League, led by Lebanon, be at the forefront of the issue. Unfortunately for the people of Benghazi and other cities still in rebel hands, events on the ground are quickly outpacing diplomatic machinations abroad, giving a vindictive and resurgent Qaddafi the brutal, upper hand he has promised.

Derek Henry Flood is the editor of Jamestown’s Militant Leadership Monitor publication. Mr. Flood is also  an independent author and journalist who blogs at the-war-diaries.com.