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Al-Qaeda 'Emirates' in Eastern Libya?

In a now mysterious interview published earlier this month in the London-based Arabic-language daily Al-Hayat, a spokesman for the North African branch of al-Qaeda appeared to confirm al-Qaeda involvement in the eastern Libyan rebellion. The North African branch of the terror organization is known as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The spokesman was identified as Salah Abu Muhammad.

According to the April 16th article in Al-Hayat, Salah Abu Muhammad claimed that AQIM had set up Islamic emirates in a series of eastern Libyan cities and he identified a certain “Sheikh Abdul-Hakim” as the ruling “emir” in the rebel stronghold of Darnah. The reference is presumably to rebel commander Abdul-Hakim al-Hasadi. At the outset of the rebellion in February, Libyan government sources claimed that al-Hasadi had declared an Islamic emirate in Darnah.

“Yes, we have Islamic emirates,” Salah Abu Muhammad was reported to have said, according to a translation prepared by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), “and we are not afraid [to say this], since we are not criminals. We fear Allah alone.” “We have emirates in Derna, Banghazi, Al-Bayda, Maraj and Shahat,” the quotation continues, “all of them glorious and proud, especially the emirate in Derna, whose emir is the honorable sheikh ‘Abd Al-Hakim, who founded an Islamic council in his town together with his brothers in order to rule according to Allah’s law.”

The remarks received little attention in the American or European media. (One exception was a post on the American Thinker blog by Jack Cashill, who cited them in turn from a blog post by the French Middle East correspondent Georges Malbrunot.)

As reported by MEMRI’s Jihad and Terrorism Threat Monitor, one day after the appearance of the Al-Hayat article, AQIM issued a statement on jihadist websites denying that Salah Abu Muhammad had given an interview to the paper. The AQIM communiqué suggested that the published interview was the result of a plot hatched by Algerian intelligence.

Camille Tawil, the author of the Al-Hayat article, quickly fell into line, posting a laconic English-language retraction on his blog. “It seems I was tricked into doing a false interview with Mr. Salah Abu Mohammed, the AQIM spokesman,” Tawil wrote. “Mr. Salah has issued a denial, and I apologies [sic] to him. The interview is not true.”

If Tawil did indeed interview an impostor, however, the impostor did a very plausible job of impersonating an al-Qaeda representative. He did not only refer to the establishment of Islamic emirates in eastern Libya. He also took pains to bash NATO as the “Devil’s Alliance” and to cite Ayman al-Zawahiri’s call to fight against NATO ground forces should they enter Libya. Al-Zawahiri is widely described as the “no. 2” in the al-Qaeda hierarchy and he is sometimes considered to be the organization’s de facto leader.

The real or false Salah Abu Muhammad likewise bashed the ostensible political leadership of the Libyan rebellion, the so-called Interim Transitional National Council, referring to it instead as the “Interim Council of Heresy.” Interestingly, he insisted that the actual “mujahideen” fighting against Libyan government forces “have no connection” to the council.

It should be noted, moreover, the Abdul-Hakim al-Hasadi’s ties to al-Qaeda are well-known and indeed admitted. In per capita terms, his hometown of Darnah is known to have sent more foreign fighters to fight with al-Qaeda in Iraq than any other city or town. Al-Hasadi has admitted to recruiting some of those fighters. Before that, he fought against American and coalition forces in Afghanistan.

As reported here on PJM, when a French journalist ran into al-Hasadi on a recent visit to Darnah, the rebel commander explained that he had rejoined the jihad in order to “cut Gaddafi’s throat and establish an Islamic state.”

(Photo: Salah Abu Muhammad with face obscured in a 2008 AQIM video. Source: MEMRI.)