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Why the West need not fear Libya's Islamic warriors

Many Libyan rebels are devout Muslims; some have even supported Al Qaeda against US troops abroad. But Western support has raised their opinion of the US.

By Staff writer / April 22, 2011

Libyans shout anti-Qaddafi slogans at a February protest in Derna. The city has been known for its Islamic devotion and resistance for centuries.

AFP/Newscom

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Derna, Libya

Clad in combat fatigues, Abdel Hakim Hasadi relaxes in the lobby of Derna’s opulent Pearl Hotel. The devout Muslim schoolteacher-turned-rebel commander is at ease with his emerging status as the leading figure in a city with a long and important history of Islamic piety.

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But the rise of men like him is making Western officials uncomfortable. NATO Adm. James Stavridis warned last month of “flickers” of Al Qaeda in the uprising against Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi, and a 2008 US diplomatic cable called the city of Derna a “wellspring” for anti-American fighters in Iraq.

Indeed, a strong current of Islamic fundamentalism runs through this Mediterranean city in Libya’s rebel-held east; many of its young men did go to Iraq and Afghanistan to fight US troops. And while Derna has a population of only 100,000, its influence extends throughout the country, giving the West pause about whether a post-Qaddafi Libya could be colored by Islamist fundamentalism.

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But many Libyans say this holy city will pose a threat only if Qaddafi is able to once again brutally suppress this uprising the way he did a smaller one in the late 1990s.

Mr. Hasadi dismisses the idea that Al Qaeda will somehow take root amid the Libyan unrest.

“I thought badly of the US before, that’s true,” says Hasadi. “But that’s changing now – they’re standing with us against Qaddafi.”

He says jitters about pious fighters from Derna seeking to impose on Libya the harsh brand of Islamist rule favored by Al Qaeda just play into Qaddafi’s hands.

“Qaddafi likes to try to make us out to be Al Qaeda, to discredit us,” says Hasadi. “What do I want? Three basic rights: a constitution, freedom, justice. No more one-man rule. Is that what Al Qaeda wants? Really, having a beard and being a Muslim doesn’t make you Al Qaeda.”

Extremists or not?

For the Libyan revolution’s rank and file, Islam is a central cultural fact of life. Fighters call themselves holy warriors and expect their reward to be heaven if they fall while fighting to oust Qaddafi. They also generally agree, when asked, that a future Libyan constitution should not violate stipulations of Islamic law.

But that doesn’t make them extremists, locals point out. In fact, it places them firmly in the mainstream of Libya and many other Arab countries.

Many in Libya do worry about Islamist militancy – but only if Qaddafi wins, not if he loses.

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