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Meet The Devout Islamist Heading Libya’s Rebel Forces In Benghazi

Allied with the rebel leader in Tripoli linked to Al Qaeda, Ismail Al-Salabi says he has neither a terrorist past nor political ambitions for the future. He does, however, insist that Libya’s new Constitution emphasize Islam -- and has harsh criticism for some rebel political leaders.

Article illustrative image Partner logo Rebels this spring on the front lines near Brega (David Monteleone)

BENGHAZI– With his striped polo shirt, khaki pants and trendy sneakers, Ismail Al-Salabi isn’t your typical galabeya-wearing Islamist. His beard is the only outward connection to the cliché. “But it’s not always the same length!” he insists. He welcomes us with a box of dates, but like most Islamists, will not shake the hand of this female journalist.

The 34-year-old leader of the “February 17 Katiba,” a Benghazi armed group, has just returned from the front lines. He’s one of many Islamists who fight under the leadership of the National Transitional Council (NTC).  “It’s through our blood that the NTC was created,” Al-Salabi declares.

He sees himself as autonomous, and refuses to be associated with any Islamist group. “The February 17 Katiba (named after the starting date of the Libyan insurrection) isn’t an Islamist group. Many young people joined us from different backgrounds.”

As an attempt to prove his respectability, he says he met celebrity-philosopher Bernard-Henry Levy during his first trip to Libya back in March, not long before Levy negotiated Paris’ recognition of the NTC. Al-Salabi also says one of his envoys, Mustafa Saghisli, was received at the French Presidential palace, also in March.

Among his 5,000 men are several former members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), which has been recognized by Al Qaeda. “They were thrown in jail under Gaddafi’s rule because they spoke out against poverty, corruption and the lack of institutions,” says Al-Salabi. He himself denies ever being part of the LIFG, or going to Afghanistan with radicals like Abdel Hakim Belhadj, Tripoli’s new military chief.

Jailhouse conversion?

As he’s speaking in his headquarters, a dozen young men listen carefully. Al-Salabi is widely respected for being against Gaddafi from the start. He was still a 21-year-old math student, when he was put in jail in 1997 for 6 years. The reason for his arrest: being part of an Islamic network and housing fugitives wanted by the regime. “Accusations of Islamism were just an excuse to send people to jail,” he says. “I wasn’t religious at all at the time, which didn’t sit well with my conservative family. I found God in jail.”

But the Benghazi rumor mill dates his Islamist allegiance back to before his arrest. In jail, the future military chief met two brothers of Abdel Hakim Belhadj. He says he didn’t meet Belhadj himself until March 2011. Once released, the young men started discretely opposing the regime through social actions like visiting inmates in eastern Libya, campaigning for the protection of “virtue,” or the cleanliness of the streets. “We started the revolution before it even happened,” he says. The February 2011 insurrection gave Islamists the opportunity to take up arms against a hated regime in what Al-Salabi calls “the jihad for freedom.”

He laughs off any question about his possible ties to Al Qaeda. "We are different from them and we don’t share their ideas,” he says, though he justifies the use of violence against “totalitarian regimes” in Arab countries. “If people in Libya sympathize with Al Qaeda, its their choice,” he says.

With the NTC, led by Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril, taking over Tripoli, and political transition in the works, Islamists want to make their voice heard. As a sign of the potential internal fractures ahead within rebel ranks, Al-Salabi is very critical toward the NTC leadership, notably those he says who “were sitting comfortably in their sofas during the fighting, whose agendas are set by foreigners or who make deals with corrupt members of the Gaddafi regime.”

He has several requirements before his rebels give up arms: “Bringing back stability, drafting a new Constitution that recognizes the importance of religion, creating a strong national army and putting the country in good hands.” He also wants combatants who wish to do so, to be part of “the core of the new army.” He has no political ambition: “When the revolution is secured, I will go back to my small business and my Islamic studies.”

In Benghazi, the secular youth is trying to push for a more open society after the Gaddafi era. They worry that rivalries between Islamists and liberals will get out of hand. On August 28, they gathered in a Benghazi square, by the port, where Libyans meet daily. That night, the crowd, a mix of people with very different backgrounds chanted in support of Abdel Hakim Belhadj. Secular Libyans are hoping they were celebrating the man who conquered Tripoli rather than the former LIFG leader.

Read the original article in French

Photo - Davide Monteleone/Contrasto

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