It was here at the courthouse in Benghazi where the first spark of the Libyan revolution ignited. It’s the symbolic seat of the revolution; post-Gaddafi Libya’s equivalent of Egypt’s Tahrir Square. And it was here, in the tumultuous months of civil war, that the ragtag rebel forces established their provisional government and primitive, yet effective, media center from which to tell foreign journalists about their “fight for freedom.”
But according to multiple eyewitnesses—myself included—one can now see both the Libyan rebel flag and the flag of al Qaeda fluttering atop Benghazi’s courthouse.
According to one Benghazi resident, Islamists driving brand-new SUVs and waving the black al Qaeda flag drive the city’s streets at night shouting, “Islamiya, Islamiya! No East, nor West,” a reference to previous worries that the country would be bifurcated between Gaddafi opponents in the east and the pro-Gaddafi elements in the west.
Earlier this week, I went to the Benghazi courthouse and confirmed the rumors: an al Qaeda flag was clearly visible; its Arabic script declaring that “there is no God but Allah” and a full moon underneath. When I tried to take pictures, a Salafi-looking guard, wearing a green camouflage outfit, rushed towards me and demanded to know what I was doing. My response was straightforward: I was taking a picture of the flag. He gave me an intimidating look and hissed, “Whomever speaks ill of this flag, we will cut off his tongue. I recommend that you don’t publish these. You will bring trouble to yourself.”
He followed me inside the courthouse, but luckily my driver Khaled was close by, and interceded on my behalf. According to Khaled, the guard had angrily threatened to harm me. When I again engaged him in conversation, he told me “this flag is the true flag of Islam,” and was unresponsive when I argued with him that historically Islam has never been represented by a single flag. The guard claimed repeatedly that there is no al Qaeda in Libya, and that the flag flying atop the courthouse is “dark black,” while the al Qaeda flag is charcoal black. To many locals, it’s a distinction without a difference. One man approached me with a friendly warning: “I recommend that you leave now; [the Islamist fighters] could be watching you.”
But none of this should be surprising. In Tripoli, Abdelhakim Belhaj, a well-known al Qaeda fighter and founder of the notorious Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), is now leading the rebel “military counsel” in Tripoli. A few weeks ago, Belhaj ordered his fighters to take command of the Tripoli airport, then controlled by a group of Zintan fighters, a brigade of Berber Libyans who helped liberate the capital from Gaddafi loyalists. A few days later, Belhaj gave a speech emphasizing that his actions had the blessings of Libya’s National Transitional Counsel (NTC), who appointed him to the leadership of Tripoli’s military command.
According to a Libyan who didn’t want to be named, a special military group inside the NTC is calling on Salafi fighters with military backgrounds to join a special group fighting in the rebellion. “There will be special benefits if you join whether you die in battle, or when you return home,” including monthly salaries. (One NTC source told me that Belhaj’s fighters are the only rebel fighters who receive a monthly salary.)
It isn’t uncommon to discover rebels with radical backgrounds. In an off-the-record interview, one NTC member spoke casually of his past, explaining that the Gaddafi regime blacklisted him from the country for his ties to LIFG. He told me of his close association with Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, the infamous “blind cleric” jailed for his involvement in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, who he helped ferry across the borders of Pakistan and Afghanistan during the mujahedeen fight against the Soviet Union.
The war to rid the country of the Gaddafi dictatorship might have ended, but the battle for control of post-revolutionary Libya has only just begun. And it will surprise few that assorted radicals, jihadists, Salafists, and LIFG veterans are attempting to fill the power vacuum and replace one dictatorship with another.
Meet the guys who kicked the Gaddafi regime out of the Benghazi courthouse in our Rebels of Libya documentary.