Libya after General Younis’s murder: Q and A with Noman Benotman
3 August 2011
The recent murder of General Abdel Fattah Younis, the Libyan rebels’ top military commander, has exposed some of the problems within the rebel’s Transitional National Council (TNC) and within the liberated areas of Libya.
This ‘Question and Answer’ paper with Noman Benotman, a senior analyst at Quilliam who is a former leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), aims to answers some of the questions arising from his murder.
Q1: What is the context of the General’s murder?
Noman Benotman: The execution of General Younis can be called an inside job. It was carried out by people who were meant to be under the command of the TNC. The TNC’s leaders such as Dr Ali Tarhouni, the rebel’s Minister of Oil and Finance, have however blamed armed Islamists for the General’s murder, and, have named the armed Islamist brigade responsible for his death as the Obeida Ibn al-Jarah Brigade.
The conflict between General Younis and some armed Islamists has been known for some months. Many Libyan jihadists saw him as being too close to the former Gaddafi regime. Since his death, some jihadi websites have even supported and applauded his execution.
At the same time, however, the tribe of General Younis sees his killing as an extension of traditional tribal rivalries and has seen non-Islamists within the TNC as behind his murder.
Q2: Younis’ murder has drawn attention to jihadists operating in TNC-controlled areas of Libya. What are the different jihadist groups operating in the rebel-controlled areas?
NB: We need to be very careful within the Libyan context about the term ‘jihadist’. We need to be very careful when using the term ‘jihadist’ within the context of Libya. Most of the Libyan rebels, including those who are not Islamists, regard their fight as a ‘jihad’ that is religiously justified. However it doesn’t follow from this that they follow a terrorist ideology or the ideology of al-Qaeda. They use ‘jihad’ as a term for a ‘just war’, regardless of any political ideology.
In Libya there are two main types of ‘armed Islamists’ (or what the international community would call ‘jihadists’). The vast majority of these are national jihadists, i.e. their fight is only against Gaddafi’s regime within the borders of Libya. This category includes former members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), which fought against Gaddafi from the early 1990s until 1998. It also includes some armed salafists and members of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The second smaller category of armed Islamists in Libya are the ‘transnational jihadists’. Since 2003, Libya has witnessed a wave of young men who went to Iraq to fight against the allied forces there and who afterwards returned to Libya.
Q3: What are these different groups doing? And what is their relationship with the TNC?
NB: Members of both these armed Islamist groups are involved with the Libyan rebel armies. Within the rebel forces there are two main combatant groups, one being the National Army formerly led by General Younis, made up of former serving soldiers and the ‘Thuwar’, which is made up of revolutionaries. Some of these units within the Thuwar are armed Islamist units containing both the national and transnational jihadists.
In addition to what is happening on the frontline, there are armed Islamist brigades acting as ‘security units’ in the liberated cities.
Some of these armed Islamist groups – in both the frontline and the cities – operate on behalf of the TNC while others are fully independent of it.
Some of these Islamist battalions are however acting in a very positive way under the leadership of the TNC. For example, the Shuhada Abu Salim brigade, formed and led by Abdul Basit Harroun, a veteran of the first Afghan jihad, has managed to tackle a lot of the more radical groups on behalf of the TNC, and it has even prevented foreign Arab jihadists from trying to join the fight in Libya.
Q4: Why has the TNC not taken action against armed radical groups?
NB: First of all, we must recognise that the TNC is not ruling in a normal context, but is in fact engaged in fighting a war against Gaddafi. Secondly, we should remember that this environment has its own dynamics and rules. For example, because of the number of young Libyans involved in the fighting, it is not that easy for the TNC to detect radical elements. Also, we should state that the Thuwar themselves are irregular and can appear extremely similar to the Islamist brigades mentioned above that operate independently of the TNC.
After the assassination of Younis, the TNC issued an order to dismantle all these armed Islamist brigades and to incorporate them within the legitimate and official units under the TNC’s control. Up until now however, the TNC has not paid enough attention to these independent Islamist groups or to Islamist so-called ‘security battalions’ that have been formed in some of the liberated cities.
But we should recognise that some of certain armed Islamist battalions understand the context of the conflict, respect the authority of the TNC and are capable of transforming themselves into official legal army units. Others need to be disbanded. I think that after the killing of General Younis the TNC will be increasing efforts to disband the units that do not recognise the TNC’s authority.
We should also remember that TNC is very weak in terms of its internal security and intelligence sector because it is focused on the war against Gaddafi. In addition, they are still in the process of organising everything and are also having to deal with a lack of funds.
Q5: Members of the TNC have said that the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group was responsible for Younis’ murder. What is the LIFG’s involvement in Libya at present?
NB: The LIFG no longer exists under the old name and structure. However, it regrouped during the revolution under a different name which is Al-Haraka Al-Islamiya Al Libiya Lit-Tahghir (‘Libyan Islamic Movement for Change’). Many of this new group’s members and leaders are fighting alongside the rebels as part of the TNC. They accept the idea of a new democratic Libya and they have made it clear they will engage in and participate in any political process in the post-Gaddafi era. Because they accept the democratic system they cannot be considered ‘jihadists’ in the international understanding of the term. They are also opposed to more extreme jihadists such as those from al-Qaeda.
Q6: What effect has General Younis’ death had on the wider war between the rebels and Gaddafi?
NB: In Benghazi his death briefly caused serious divisions between Younis’ tribe and the TNC because his tribe blamed the TNC for his murder. However, these divisions have now largely been resolved by the TNC’s appointment of another member of Younis’ tribe, General Suleiman Mahmoud, to Younis’ old position. So far it seems that the TNC has been able to handle these problems, at least in the short term. That said, his death has raised the issue of tribalism among the rebels; a factor that was previously not so visible.
Perhaps the most important effect of his death has been in Tripoli. Younis’ murder will make it much harder for the rebels to persuade Gaddafi supporters to defect, facing fair trials inside Libya if necessary, and thereby help end the fighting. I can say that I have personally experienced these difficulties, because everybody in Tripoli is starting to ask whether their security can be guaranteed by the rebels if they defect from Gaddafi.
Q7: Is there a risk that the rebel alliance will now fracture?
NB: At the first moment of the incident, there was a risk of such a fracture because of the anger between the tribes and different parts of the rebel forces but now, after a few days, it seems everything is under control. Here we should acknowledge the leadership of Mr Mustafa Abdul Jalil, head of the TNC, and the wise reaction from General Younis’ family and tribe that averted any bloodshed or divisions.
Now this moment of danger has passed, we may now see the rebel forces becoming more united. All Libyans want a free and democratic state and they are starting to feel this in their grasp. I believe this means that no-one will want to take the blame for fracturing the rebel alliance.
Q8: Should the international community still support the TNC?
NB: If the international community stops supporting the TNC the consequences will be catastrophic. After five months Libyans have proved to the whole world that they genuinely believe in freedom and democracy, even if they have to sacrifice their own lives. If the international community now abandons them, this will cause a massive loss of faith in ‘the West’ in Libya and in other parts of the Middle East.
However Senator John McCain’s letter to the TNC calling upon it to ‘fix’ the situation or risk losing support from the international community is correct. The TNC needs to address several serious problems within its ranks. The international community need to make clear that their recognition of the TNC as the sole representative of the Libyans means that the TNC needs to start acting like a proper government.
The TNC needs to start creating a civil society and a democratic structure and society in the liberated areas. It also needs to make sure that all armed groups operating in the liberated parts of Libya are fully under its control.
Q9: hat can the international community do to support genuine democrats in Libya?
NB: When we talk about a genuine democratic Libya that means the Libyan people themselves need to be democratic. The harsh reality is that due to the 42 years of Gaddafi’s dictatorship, Libya does not have real democratic values. Without these values it is very difficult to create and establish a democratic state system and government.
The international community has a major role to play regarding the establishment of a new democratic Libya, but we must try to pinpoint the most significant and urgent issues, which are creating security and stability within the liberated areas, building a very strong civil society, creating jobs for the people and creating a free liberal sphere for the media. The international community needs to also encourage the TNC to include all groups and tribes within it. If some parts of society feel excluded from government, this will upset the balance of power and de-stabilise society and security.