Libya rebel leader Younes killed, Benghazi wobbles
One thing that's certain is that Abdel Fateh Younes, a longtime aide of Muammar Qaddafi who defected to Libya's rebels in February, was murdered today. But the circumstances of his death are murky and troubling.
That Abdel Fateh Younes, the longtime enforcer for Muammar Qaddafi whose stunning defection to the Libyan rebellion in February was an early indication of the depth of the challenge to Qaddafi's regime, is dead, you can take to the bank. General Younes had been head of the embryonic rebel army from practically the moment he'd switched sides.
As far as the rest of the story – who killed him, when, precisely where, and why – all remains murk and conjecture, created by cross-cutting rivalries within the rebellion and the often misleading and contradictory way that Libya's Transitional National Council (TNC) communicates with the press and the Libyan public.
This afternoon, reports began to trickle out of the de facto rebel capital Benghazi that Younes was variously under arrest or summoned for questioning by some other element of the rebellion. An early Al Jazeera English post said that "he is being held at an undisclosed military garrison in Benghazi. The reason behind the former minister of interior’s arrest on Thursday has not been made public." Al Jazeera reported that some of Younes's men had withdrawn from the frontlines at Brega and were heading to Benghazi to demand his release.
Then Mustapha Abdul Jalil, the head of the TNC, called a press conference. He said that Younes was killed along with two colonels working with him on the road from Brega to Benghazi and, oddly, that he didn't know where their bodies were. Mr. Jalil said, and other supporters of the rebellion insistently agreed, that Younes had been killed by agents of Qaddafi. That is hard to believe given the security around the men and the earlier claims that Younes was in the process of being arrested for allegedly working as a sort of double agent, still in contact with Qaddafi's people, and, in some accounts, pilfering weapons from the rebellion to send to Tripoli.
Benghazi is east of Brega, and the road east of town is largely in rebel hands. Younes typically traveled with a convoy of gunmen. Jalil urged Libyans not to listen to "rumors" and said a three-day mourning period would be observed for Younes.
Another explanation is that Younes was killed by supporters of the rebellion, either out of anger over allegations that he maintained ties to Qaddafi or as a matter of tribal or political rivalry. In March, Younes was locked in a cold war of sorts with Gen. Khalifa Hefter, who defected from the Qaddafi regime more than 20 years ago and has lived for most of the time since then in Virginia.
After Hefter returned home in March, he declared himself – with the clear backing of at least some of the rebel leadership – the new head of the rebel military. Weeks were spent jockeying for position, with whispers on one side about Younes's Qaddafi ties, and whispers on the other that Hefter was a CIA asset and not to be trusted as a longtime exile. Younes ended up winning that round and Hefter has been largely behind the scenes since.
There has been deep distrust of Younes in some quarters in Benghazi since the moment he arrived. On Feb. 20, he swung trained forces under his command to the support of civilians who with Molotov cocktails and stones were desperately trying to dislodge Qaddafi's forces from the Benghazi Barracks, or kutaiba.
His intervention proved decisive, but witnesses who fought on the civilian side that day reported that his forces also appeared to provide a security cordon to still armed Qaddafi loyalists, who retreated to the country's west. If Younes ordered this, it wouldn't necessary be evidence of perfidy – perhaps mercy for men who served along side with, or simply an expedient way to avoid bloodshed on both sides. But for some, it planted a kernel of doubt.
Shortly after Jalil's announcement, an agitated group of gunmen arrived at the hotel where he'd spoken, firing small arms and an anti-aircraft gun into the sky, escalating tension in the city. Witnesses said they appeared to hold the TNC responsible for Younes's death.
What really happened? It may be days before we have a clear picture, if then. But whatever happened here, there have been emerging splits in rebel ranks, and the likelihood that there could be a "war after the war" is looking greater (I have generally been skeptical about extensive fighting in the event Qaddafi loses, but have grown more pessimistic about my own opinion in recent weeks).
For now, the first major defector from the core of Qaddafi's security forces lies dead while Qaddafi, hounded by NATO airstrikes but untouched, remains in power in Tripoli.