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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.

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“If Qaddafi holds power and stamps out all legitimate political opposition, then many of the young might find Al Qaeda or things like that attractive,” says Abdel Kader Kadura, a law professor at Garyounis University in the de facto rebel capital of Benghazi. “They will feel they have no choice, [other than] turning to that or giving up.”

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Indeed, many in Derna trace the city’s export of fighters to places like Iraq and Afghanistan back to Qaddafi’s repression, particularly in 1996, when tanks rolled into town to crush the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group.

“It started out with the Islamists in 1996. When you ignore people, oppress people, they turn to faith,” says Ashour bin Taher, a liberal-leaning Derna native working with the rebel council in the city. “The fighting was ugly and it lasted for months. And then Qaddafi just rounded up everyone. Islamists, liberals – it didn’t matter – you went to prison. That creates hatred.”

A 2008 US diplomatic cable put its finger on the problem: “Frustration at the inability of eastern Libyans to effectively challenge Qaddafi’s regime, together with a concerted ideological campaign by returned Libyan fighters from earlier conflicts, have played important roles” in turning locals to militancy, the US diplomat wrote. “One Libyan interlocutor likened young men in Derna to Bruce Willis’s character in the action picture ‘Die Hard,’ who stubbornly refused to die quietly. For them, resistance against coalition forces in Iraq is an important act of ‘jihad’ and a last act of defiance against the Qaddafi regime.”

City of resistance

Derna is deeply proud of its heritage of resistance – against the Phoenicians 1,400 years ago, against a US expeditionary force in 1804, against Italian colonialism in the 1920s, and later against Qaddafi.

It owes its history, in part, to its geography. About 800 miles east of Tripoli, it lies between Libya’s Green Mountains – historically a redoubt for rebels – and the Mediterranean Sea. The city’s founding myth is built around an expedition in the 7th century in which a small force of early Muslim companions of the prophet Muhammad came to wrest Derna from the hands of its Phoenician conquerors.

They were killed to the last man in the attempt, but the city’s main mosque is named for those early Muslim martyrs, and locals offer up their story freely when asked why they hate Qaddafi (though they also point out that he murdered and tortured residents more recently).

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