Saving the Libyan Islamists

For weeks as international pressure built against him, Muammar al-Gaddafi insisted again and again that the rebel forces that he was fighting in eastern Libya were linked to al-Qaeda. The mere fact that Gaddafi said it was seemingly enough for virtually all commentators to dismiss the claim out of hand. And in case doubts about the source were not enough, then we had the New York Times to send a reporter to Darnah, one of the eastern Libyan towns at the heart of the supposed Islamist uprising, and to assure us that there was nothing to see there, “move along.”

But the problem is that it is not only Muammar al-Gaddafi who has identified the coastal cities of Libya’s eastern Cyrenaica region as al-Qaeda strongholds. The analysts of the Combating Terrorism Center at the United States Military Academy at West Point have as well. The findings of the latter are based on the so-called Sinjar Records: captured personnel records identifying foreign combatants who joined al-Qaeda in Iraq between August 2006 and August 2007. (The full study is available online here. The relevance of the study to the current situation in Libya was first pointed out by Andrew Exum in a blog post  here.)

The West Point analysts’ statistical study of the al-Qaeda personnel records comes to the conclusion that one country provided “far more” foreign fighters in per capita terms than any other: namely, Libya. Furthermore, the records show that the “vast majority of Libyan fighters that included their hometown in the Sinjar Records resided in the country’s Northeast.”

The contributions of two cities in particular stand out. One of these has in the last month become a household name: Benghazi. The second is precisely Darnah: the city in which, according to Libyan government sources, an Islamic emirate was declared when the unrest started in February and that thereby earned a visit from the New York Times to prove that it was not so. Darnah lies to the east of Benghazi, behind the battle lines created by the furthest advance of Libyan government forces prior to the announcement of Thursday’s UN Security Council resolution.

While in Darnah, New York Times reporter Anthony Shadid even spoke with Abdul-Hakim al-Hasadi: the man who, according to Libyan government sources, had declared the Islamic emirate. Shadid found al-Hasadi “running Darnah’s defenses.” According to Shadid’s would-be reassuring account of their conversation, al-Hasadi “praises Osama bin Laden’s ‘good points,’ but denounces the 9/11 attacks on the United States.” (One must read backwards from the introduction of al-Hasadi’s name into Shadid’s narrative to realize that these quotes come from him.)

A report from Benghazi in the French daily Le Figaro identifies the same al-Hasadi as the “voice of Libya’s Islamists” and claims that a transitional government could only be formed with his approval. The New York Times -- or the Obama administration -- might remember that the Osama bin Laden whom al-Hasadi “praises” has declared war on America.