The assassination on Thursday, July 27, of top rebel general Abdel Fattah Younes, has caused considerable consternation about the integrity of the National Transitional Council (NTC) and the rebel movement in Libya as a whole.
Initial reports suggested that the assassination was carried out by Islamists loyal to Gaddafi, who accosted the general after he was recalled to Benghazi to discuss the situation at the front line. This rumour was denied by the NTC’s leader, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, who on August 1 issued a statement to the effect that a warrant had been issued for General Younes’ arrest by his deputy Ali Essawi, on grounds of suspicion about possible links with Gaddafi loyalists. Initially there was no mention of a warrant. It was after Younes’ release last Thursday that he and two aides were gunned down, allegedly, by two of the men assigned to escort him.
According to the account of a rebel figure who spoke anonymously to AFP, one of the men who shot Younes shouted that he was a traitor who had killed their father in Derna. He also claimed that the men were members of the February 17th Martyrs Brigade, a claim later rejected when the blame was transferred to the al-Nidaa Brigade. Despite Jalil’s assertion that the assassins were not Islamists, suspicion still hangs over a group of men from the religiously conservative town of Derna.
Gaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam recently told the New York Times that he was seeking ties with Islamists in the east to turn them against their more liberal allies amongst the rebels. Ali Sallabi, a senior rebel figure, confirmed that there had been dialogue with Gaddafi’s son, but that any claim of a split amongst the rebels was baseless. “It’s a lie that seeks to create a crack in the national accord,” Sallabi said. He went on to claim that the dialogue has always hinged on three points: “Gaddafi and his sons must leave Libya, the capital must be protected from destruction and the blood of Libyans must be spared.”
With so many military and political figures having defected from Gaddafi’s regime to the rebels, there have long been questions about the degree of dialogue between the NTC and Gaddafi’s regime. Younes himself was a very high profile defection when he joined the rebellion in February, having long been a close ally of Gaddafi’s and having served as interior minister in his government. He was initially given command of the rebel forces, yet, unable to shake the taint of his association with Gaddafi, despite a four million dollar bounty on his head, he was later moved to Chief of Staff.
Some commentators have downplayed the importance of Younes to the rebel movement, pointing out that it has never relied upon a single charismatic figure to sustain its momentum. Yet the rebels have not only lost a significant military leader, they have also turned violently inwards in an attempt to root out suspected fifth-columnists. The rebel forces and vigilante groups, particularly the February 17th Martyrs Brigade, have, from the start, been arbitrarily arresting, imprisoning and murdering suspected Gaddafi supporters, yet the ferocity has intensified in the wake of Younes’ killing.
On Sunday, July 31, several suspected Gaddafi loyalists were killed and at least 63 arrested, following a battle lasting several hours at the stronghold of the al-Nidaa brigade, in the city of Benghazi. Ismail al-Salabi, the military leader of the rebel faction, February 17 Martyrs Brigade, the de-facto internal security force in Benghazi, said the operation was “100 per cent successful”. He went on to claim that they had not only found explosives and military equipment with which they intended to carry out terrorist attacks in Benghazi, but also documents clearly linking the al-Nidaa Brigade to Gaddafi.
With so much paranoia in the rebel camp, it is difficult to confirm such claims, let alone know who to believe. The February 17th Martyrs Brigade is known to contain members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), renowned for their complete distrust of anyone linked to Gaddafi, and before the al-Nidaa Brigade were blamed for Younes’ killing, suspicion rested on them. The NTC has established an investigative committee to look into the assassination, yet just how free and objective this will be is anyone’s guess.
There are thus many legitimate concerns about the arbitrary justice being applied to suspected Gaddafi loyalists. Ultimately the rebel forces and the NTC must be held to account for their methods and practices and foreign governments must remain vigilant to human rights abuses. Just how much influence the military brigades have on the NTC’s political decisions is also a matter of significant concern.
On the 30th of July, the head of the NTC, Mustafa Jalil, announced a clampdown on these informal groups.
“The time has come to disband these brigades”, said Jalil. “Anybody who refuses to take part in this decree will be tried with the full measure of the law.”
The ultimatum includes an offer to join the rebel armed forces on the front-line or be incorporated into the Benghazi security forces, otherwise, to lay down their arms. In recent months a better trained, equipped, uniformed and hierarchical armed forces has emerged, allowing the rebels to co-ordinate their troops and materiel in a more professional manner, with effective command and communications structures. The presence of the brigades has increasingly become a liability, both militarily and politically.
This is clearly a testing time for the rebels, whose recent gains in western Libya suffered a blow with the loss of the village of Al-Jawsh at the foot of the Nafusa Mountains and whose attempts to recapture the key eastern oil town of Brega have proven slow, despite sending a considerable army of men and equipment to the purpose. Last Tuesday the rebel forces, who had advanced into the suburbs of Zlitan, a key town on the approach to Tripoli, suffered a fierce counter-attack from well equipped and heavily armed pro-Gaddafi forces. Having been given covert assurances that they would be welcomed in the town, the rebels soon suspected they had been lured into a trap. Yet, despite repeated fierce attacks from Gaddafi forces, the rebels have shored up their positions, reinforced their troops significantly, brought up more equipment and held their lines. The fighting continues daily. As Al Jazeera’s Andrew Simmons said, “would you believe this is Ramadan?”
Irrespective of these difficulties, most commentators agree that the broader strategic, tactical and political momentum is firmly on the side of the NTC. At a meeting in Turkey on July 15, the United States and Turkey joined no less than thirty other nations in recognising the NTC as Libya’s legitimate government. Last Monday, France released US $259 million dollars of frozen funds to the NTC. NATO’s continued airstrikes have been effective in degrading Gaddafi’s forces, along with his command and control infrastructure in and around the capital, Tripoli. Despite widespread and legitimate concerns about “collateral damage” from NATO’s air campaign, there seems little inclination on behalf of the nations involved to scale back the campaign until it has achieved its purpose, which, despite protestations otherwise under the guise of protecting civilians from Gaddafi’s forces, seems to be, quite unambiguously, regime change.
In the meantime, we must not forget the humanitarian crisis that has emerged. As of 14 June, the number of Libyan refugees in Egypt stood at 346,113, with a further 543,003 in Tunisia and another 30,825 in Chad. The conflict has disrupted the entire country and displaced almost a million people, causing immense economic and infrastructural damage, as well as leaving many long-term emotional scars. Casualties, both military and civilian, are now estimated at more than 12000 people.
What will happen in coming weeks is anyone’s guess. There remains the possibility of an internal coup as the pressure mounts on Gaddafi, yet for now he appears secure, if threatened and paranoid, in the capital of his shrinking fiefdom. There seems little likelihood of a political solution without Gaddafi’s removal, and hence the increasingly deadly and costly conflict is likely to continue for some time. Soon, no doubt, there will be further pressure on the rebels, particularly insofar as scrutiny of their future intentions and capabilities are concerned. If they are ultimately successful in this conflict, many further questions will be asked as to what process will emerge for the construction of a new Libya.
This article was first published in New Matilda on 08/08/11: