Special Report from Inside Libya: Assessing Libyan Rebel Forces

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 9 Issue: 9

Libyan rebels mount anti-aircraft positions outside of the town of Ajdabiya in eastern Libya. Photo: Derek Henry Flood

Libyan rebel forces repulsed an advance on the Mediterranean seaport of Marsa al-Burayqah (also known as Marsa al-Brega) by Libyan government forces loyal to Colonel Mu’ammar al-Qaddafi and African mercenaries in his employ. The loyalists were attempting to regain control of a Sirte Oil Company installation on the Gulf of Sirte, which lies between Benghazi and the Libyan capital of Tripoli. Libyan rebels advanced to the March 2 battle from the nearby town of Ajdabiyah and came in convoys from as far away as Benghazi to defend al-Burayqah from encroachment by Tripoli’s forces. [1]

Libya’s very ad hoc rebel movement does not currently appear to possess a clear command and control structure. According to a frontline spokesman, it is currently known as Jaysh-e-Libi al-Hurra (The Army of Free Libyan Forces) and the movement terms itself the “February 17 Revolution,” denoting the day the uprising began in Benghazi, Libya’s second city and one-time dual capital until the 1960s. Tribes comprising the anti-Qaddafi forces include the Maghrebi, Zwaiye, Zawawi, Faqri, and Gebayli. They insist their fight in Libya is not a civil war but a revolution with the aim of overthrowing Colonel Qaddafi’s nearly 42-year reign and reunifying the country from its current state of bifurcation and fawda (anarchy). The local commander leading the surge against Tripoli’s advances is a defecting brigadier general named Mahdi al-Arabi, who is purportedly a cousin of Colonel Qaddafi. [2]

Frontline forces, far removed from the intellectual architects of the provisional government being established in Benghazi, espouse no coherent political ideology. When pressed, the fighters profess no vision for the structure of a future state and have difficulty stating goals beyond the ouster of the current regime, other than vaguely stating “we are fighting for freedom and democracy.” Libya’s anti-regime forces insist the conflict is not a civil war pitting tribe or clan against one another, but is rather a genuine, society-wide armed revolt that will not halt until it reaches the gates of the capital, over 1000 kilometers west of their Benghazi stronghold.

Reaction to any suggestion of a Western or North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) armed intervention reveals some nuance. Several rebels interviewed by Jamestown expressed a strong desire for American or European bombardment of Sirte and Tripoli in order to decapitate the Qaddafi regime and facilitate a total liberation of the nation. On the prospect of the formal entrance of foreign ground forces, one fighter named Fatah’allah proclaimed: “If NATO forces come inside Libya, we will turn it into a lake of blood. We can take care of Qaddafi ourselves. Iraq, Palestine, and Somalia will be nothing compared to Libya.” As rebels head off to battle the air is filled with cries of “Allahu Akbar!” and “Mnoureen al-Shabaab!” (“The youth are the light”). Other fighters shout “We want to kill Mu’ammar Qaddafi right here!” The symbol of the rebels is the red, black and green tri-color used in Libya before the Sanusi monarchy was overthrown by Qaddafi and other officers in the 1969 military coup, though use of this symbol does not seem to be accompanied by popular support for the return of the Sanusi family, now living in European exile. Fighters don every imaginable pattern and color of camouflage, if wearing any sort of uniform at all. The rebels were emphatic that they had no affiliation with al-Qaeda or even any sympathy for the movement. All were very keen to stress the indigenous nature of the uprising.

In the rebel-controlled town of Ajdabiya, anti-Qaddafi forces displayed a vast array of captured Soviet-era weapons including a variety of anti-aircraft DShK models and Czech M59 Pragas, howitzers, mortars, Kalashnikovs of every provenance and a token T-55 tank. Among the small arms carried by the opposition fighters were vintage double-barreled shotguns, hand grenades, surface-to-air shoulder fired rockets and RPG-7s with plenty of ammunition. Massive quantities of ammunition in olive sardine-like tins, looted from Libyan Army depots, are being ferried to the front in Mitsubishi pick-up trucks and captured government-issue Toyota Land Rovers fitted with heavy machine guns reminiscent of Somali technicals. Gunners manning swivel-mounted anti-aircraft rigs scan the skies over the northern Sahara while attempting to shoot down pro-Qaddafi warplanes and helicopters. A group of young men displayed metal shreds of a jet they claimed to have shot down preceding the author’s visit to the front.

Jets, heard but not seen, bombarded rebel positions in a fierce battle that lasted several hours in which the rebel forces claimed victory at the end of the day (March 2). Government forces appeared on the battlefront in fairly new looking white Toyota sport utility vehicles which the rebels seemed to envy.  In one captured vehicle, opposition fighters displayed a make shift cannabis pipe which appeared to have been very recently used and said that Qaddafi’s forces were becoming intoxicated before the battle.

Another group of young men in Ajdabiya came forward with what appeared to be an Israeli-made illumination mortar shell amidst a batch of Russian-made shells. They claimed the lone mortar shell bearing a graphic depicting a Star of David suspended by a parachute was proof of Qaddafi’s connivance with Israeli arms brokers and a testament to his sell-out of the Libyan people for money and power. [3] Elsewhere in Ajdabiya teenage boys were preparing crates of Molotov cocktails with petrol and Fanta bottles which they said were to be used as a last resort if they ran out of ammunition. One fighter told Jamestown: “We call Qaddafi Dracula. He sucked the blood out of the Libyan people and sucked the oil out of our soil for four decades. No more. Qaddafi, by Allah, is finished.  We will finish him.”

In what appeared to be a serious government and mercenary ground defeat, anti-Qaddafi soldiers boasted of beating back the invaders from al-Burayqah to a town called Bisher, 20 kilometers further west, and believed them to be retreating to the town of Ras Lanuf, almost 150km from the front. Both irregulars and dissident army commanders spoke of mercenaries from Francophone Sahel countries and Anglophone West Africa who they had seen fleeing al-Burayqah dressed in Libyan Army uniforms when their lines were overpowered by the rebels’ counter-offensive. Rebels claimed to have captured a Chadian national left behind by Qaddafi loyalists heading to Bisher and stated that the employ of paid (or coerced) black Africans along the front was proof of the regime’s inherent weakness and imminent defeat, in that the regime required non-nationals to defend its interests. Following the brief siege of al-Burayqah, rebel troops retook control of the Sirte Oil Company facility, the control of which many stressed was Colonel Qaddafi’s ultimate goal, as well as retaking the Marsa Brega airport. [4] At the battle’s conclusion, hundreds of Egyptian migrant workers fled the area while cheering the rebel victory.

During a celebration by thousands of fighters proclaiming the imminent demise of the regime, fighter jets suddenly soared overhead and strafed the area with inaccurate but deadly ordinance. Libya’s anti-Qaddafi fighters, having control of the roads in virtually all of Cyrenaica, are operating a highly efficient evacuation route for wounded civilians and combatants with the most serious cases being transported across sand blown highways to superior medical facilities in Benghazi.

The key rebel objective is to consolidate control along the Mediterranean coast along the way to Sirte while coordinating with defecting forces in western Libya’s Tripolitania region in order to eventually mount an assault on Tripoli itself. Many of the fighters are untrained agriculturalists and pastoralists who have volunteered in droves as the movement against Qaddafi’s rule continued to gain momentum. One of the unknown elements in the scenario remains whether Mu’ammar Qaddafi’s Qaddahfa tribe may eventually turn their guns on the regime if the rebels appear to be winning. The Qaddahfa are considered a small tribe and may have to make a pragmatic decision on their loyalty if they are to survive in a “New Libya.” Several rebel spokesmen repeated the claim that this conflict in the heart of North Africa was not a civil war between tribes resulting from any sort of festering historical favoritism or clan chauvinism, but a mass movement inspired by the fall of neighboring dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt. Unlike the revolutions in Tunis and Cairo, which involved key civil society elements and occurred in societies with massive exposure to Western tourism, the Libyan revolution quickly devolved from peaceful protests in downtown Benghazi to a violent military confrontation that is convulsing large parts of the country, potentially plunging previously isolated Libya into long-term chaos, or worse, a failed state on the European Union’s doorstep.


1. Al-Burayqah (Marsa al-Brega) is a pre-fabricated town built by a Greek firm for oil workers near a desolate corniche. Other accounts of the battle described here were carried by al-Jazeera, March 2 and The Guardian, March 2.
2. Brigadier Mahdi al-Arabi was the armed forces’ deputy chief-of-staff before his defection. There were reports in February that he had attempted to lead a coup against Qaddafi (al-Bawaba, February 21).
2. The 81mm Illum Para shell in question is similar to those used in the Israeli Soltam 81mm mortar.  A defense news service reported in 2008 that Israel’s Defense Ministry had approved arms sales to several Arab nations, including Libya, Iraq and Yemen. The deals were said to be negotiated through Arab intermediaries (Middle East Newsline, November 25, 2008).
3. The Sirte Oil company is a subsidiary of the state-owned National Oil Company and is a successor to the former Esso Standard Libya Inc.