Noman Benotman’s radical Islam CV is long. Today he is a prominent member of the Quilliam Foundation- a think tank that researches Islamic radicalisation in the U.K, but just over a decade ago he was a commander in the Libyan Fighting Group, a radical faction who waged jihad against Colonel Gaddafi. The group was banned after 9/11 for being affiliated with al-Qaeda and Noman left the group soon afterwards. Leeds Student’s Lucy Snow spoke to Noman about his days as a radical jihadist, his relationship with Osama bin Laden and the future of Libya following the Arab Spring.
I’ve been working with Noman Benotman for over a month; he cracks jokes and brings me croissants from Nero in the morning. This Noman seems far removed from the AK47 toting Mujahideen posing in Afghanistan in the photo on the previous page.
Benotman spent most of the eighties with the LIFG in Afghanistan, fighting against what he still calls ‘the evil empire’ of the occupying Soviet Union. Once the Soviets had given up – everyone eventually gives up in Afghanistan – Benotman returned to his native Libya to pursue the LIFG’s ultimate aim of establishing an Islamic State in place of the dictator’s regime.
The LIFG was banned by the UN after 9/11 for being affiliated with al-Qaeda. 9/11 was also a turning point for Benotman – he disassociated himself with al-Qaeda leaders and resigned from his own jihadist organisation, but when I ask him about the LIFG, he insists that they differ from the group that’s become synonymous with radical Islam, “the agenda was Islamist, based on Islam, but it was national, which means it focused only on Libya. There was no intention of global jihad, we just wanted to topple Gaddafi.”
Not that Benotman was against violent jihad in those early days. Much of his early life was spent promoting it and he often shared training camps with al-Qaeda. Benotman explains that the Arab world was riddled with controversy about how its enemies should be confronted and progress made. “The traditional Salafis believe that physical jihad is against Islam, that its true meaning isbuilding your own society – and they’re right of course– but at the time, as a religious radical, you take more and more extreme positions against that.”
Noman talks of his years of violent jihad almost as if it was the folly of youth, arrogant boys intent on disagreeing with their spiritual elders. “Sometimes every single day there was a conflict, people would get together in Pakistan and we’d debate who’s idea was more right, more genuinely Islamic- that’s why I think most of us got caught up with the idea of violent jihad and completely ignored any other form of jihad. In the Quran, lots of things are called jihad
that are not physical at all.”
When someone who was just a normal guy decides to pick up an AK47 and start shooting at people, there’s a lot of suffering. You need to believe that what you’re doing is right to serve God.
He’s honest about the LIFG’s manipulation of the debate, the politicisation of one of Islam’s most sacred acts – “we needed to justify the violence,” he tells me. Once upon a time Benotman was an ordinary civilian, spending his summers learning English in Ramsgate, of all places. What turned him onto a soldier? “If you have no political party or state, what is your source of legitimacy? Religion. You are not a politically recognised entity, but you still believe that you have the right to launch your own war and to establish your own state, so you use the term ‘jihad.’ When someone who was at university, just a normal guy, decides to pick up an AK47 and shoot at people, there’s a lot of suffering. You need to believe that what you’re doing is right to serve God.”
But Noman refuses to use God as an excuse. “It’s my responsibility as a human being- the strategy, tactics, victory, defeat. The acts of human beings. Most people are stuck with this idea that it’s God, it’s Islam, and this is why they end up very radical and very extremist. They essentially become anarchists, because they believe that theirs is the position of God. As soon as you decide to practice jihad, from that second, you cannot talk about God. Who pulls the trigger? That’s your decision, not God’s. There’s millions of Muslims who don’t decide to do that.”
Perhaps this is why Noman found it easy to break with the LIFG when he felt they deviated from the single aim of overthrowing the Gaddafi regime. It had never been about religion for him, it was about achieving a political goal. “After fifteen years of fighting and struggling I could see that the war had changed. It was nothing to do with my faith, Islam has nothing to do with conflict or struggle at a political level, so it’s not like I was abandoning that huge part of my life. I could see that the way we had built our ideology and our way of understanding the world was wrong. Maybe it had been right fifteen years ago, but the dynamics of the world are too fast, you can’t be right all the time.”
I ask Noman about Libya today – his family still lives in Tripoli, his friends are still fighting. Does he believe that the rebels are susceptible to radical Islam? Is there any evidence of the al-Qaeda infiltration many fear? “I know that my generation has made it clear to al-Qaeda that they don’t need any help and they should stay away. There are lots of personal relationships with al-Qaeda members from the LIFG, but you have to draw a line when there’s something really valuable at stake, the future of the country.
“Unfortunately, you hear some of AQ’s narrative, people saying ‘Oh that’s western style.’ It’s not western style, it’s good style! There will always be a huge audience for this. Use the phrase ‘anti-west’ and you can say anything you like. Even if someone is not happy with his family, he can blame the west because they started TV, it’s a simple as that. It’s very easy in the Middle East to attack the UK, the US, the UN, Nato, because its like the western system
to control the world. You accuse the west of dividing the Muslim world, al-Qaeda tout these opinions every day.”
What about his personal relationships with al-Qaeda? He vividly describes their tactics of radicalisation, he recognises their potency, so was he surprised when we saw those images on September 11th 2001? “I was surprised that they had gone ahead. I had had discussions with bin Laden and al-Zawahiri (bin Laden’s successor) about attacking the U.S- in the summer of 2000, I went to bin Laden’s place in Kandahar for a jihad summit.
I was the one chosen to speak because bin Laden knew I had spent a lot more time fighting, getting my hands dirty, than he had. I was one of the leaders, and that wasn’t just theoretical. I was very clear in my opposition to it- bin Laden told me himself that there was a big operation on the way and that he couldn’t cancel it, ‘it would demoralise my group because we’re at the final stages’ he told me.
How can they justify what they did on 9/11? I’m scared about what kind of state they want- it would be a jungle, just God and guns.
“I was mostly surprised because I know that Mullah Omar had ordered bin Laden to stop attacking the USA. So how is it that bin Laden, who was always crying for an Islamic state, who believed that Afghanistan was one, and recognised Mullah Omar the legitimate religious leader of it, disobeyed his wishes? What kind of Islamic state are they talking about here? Explain what the rules are. How can I believe in a state if some individuals still have the right to launch war against other nations, even if the legitimate leadership is against it? From a religious point of view, how can they justify what they did? I’m scared about what kind of state they want – it would be a jungle, wild, just God and guns.
“I also told them, if you attack America on a large scale, trust me, they will occupy the whole region. They laughed
, ‘who is America?’ They believed that they were cowards. I was also shocked at how little they cared about the destiny of the Afghan people. When we first went to Afghanistan twenty years ago, our aim was to help these people, fight against the Soviets with them, but it’s turned into a curse for them- some people insisted on staying and using the country, now it’s the hostage of al-Qaeda.”
Having spent time in his home, I asked Noman how he felt when bin Laden was killed. He skips over his feelings and talks about how it will affect the group – it’s all political for Noman. “I feel like we’ve entered the first stage of ending this conflict. Al-Qaeda is based on bin Laden as a legend. So he disappears, and there’s an opportunity for people to distance themselves from the group. He appealed to millions, even those that disagreed with him. Al-Zawahiri can’t be
another bin Laden.
“But, I think it’s a bit early to say that al-Qaeda have lost the battle in the Middle East because of the Arab Uprising. My concern is the behaviour of the newcomers to power – we don’t know them, we don’t know how they are going to behave. Are they really going to commit themselves to achieving the goals of the Arab Spring? Just imagine, you have all these people who believe that nobody can control them anymore, because the security and intelligence department is gone, the brutal establishment no longer, they have no fear anymore… just imagine if these guys started to believe that the revolution has been highjacked, and they get frustrated and angry- they get very vulnerable to Al-Qaeda. I follow the jihadi websites every day, and this is how it works-they’ll say ‘we told you so, don’t trust these guys, democracy is a western conspiracy.’ I think the longer people stay in this situation of uncertainly about
what will happen in the future, the more risk there is.
“People in the Middle East have seen democracy, they know it isn’t a myth, but we fail to understand one crucial question – what is the value system that is behind this democracy? If you talk to people on the street in the UK about human rights, about freedom of speech, they don’t need to pretend, it’s very natural, which is not the case in the Arab world. For example, they talk about women’s rights, but is it a real value or just a sexy concept to make the west happy? And then they go back home don’t give a shit about what’s happening to women in their country. You need to establish these ideas and values in society through the work of the intellectuals, the politicians, the media, the NGOs, civil society, education, everything. Democracy is not just building entities, it’s values. You can’t import democrats from abroad, you must grow them up.
“It’s almost a race against time. But it’s the destiny of your nation, you can’t rush it. Europe has been through so many phases to reach this point. We must be patient, give the thinkers and the philosophers, a chance to speak. That’s why I believe that the core of this process isn’t the government, its civil society and free media- democracy must be self taught.” With international recognition of the TNC growing, the goal of democracy is becoming ever more real for Libya.
By Lucy Snow
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