How a daring band of anti-Qaddafi activists helped turn the tide in Tripoli

Special report: The small anti-Qaddafi Free Generation Movement took huge risks to raise rebel flag and post video of flash protests. The insights they gained in challenging the regime may help shape a new Libya.

By , Staff writer

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    Fighters outside Bani Walid. Libya, gathered in early September to launch an offensive against one of the last holdouts of Muammar Qaddafi loyalists. The city finally fell Oct. 17, after a six-week siege.
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The few anti-Qaddafi activists working secretly in Tripoli during the war knew they were racing against time – and to stay ahead of the intelligence agents hunting them.

They were the enemy within, the "rats" Col. Muammar Qaddafi wanted pursued down every alley and inside every closet.

They didn't win the war: The rebel military assaults instead came from the east and then the west. But in Tripoli they took grave risks to raise the rebel flag, spread leaflets, and burned pictures of Qaddafi. Perhaps most important, they filmed and broadcast their actions – heartening fellow Libyans and letting the world know that opposition could exist, even here.

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This handful of bold revolutionaries – just 20 in all, most of them family or longtime friends – had a leader, whose nickname is Niz, unafraid to speak out. He was quoted by journalists, used Twitter, and posted to Facebook. His very presence inside the citadel of Tripoli undermined Qaddafi's claim that "all my people love me."

Qaddafi's 42-year rule ended ignominiously Oct. 20 when he was caught begging for mercy in a sewer pipe, then killed, in his hometown of Sirte – the last loyalist holdout after eight months of war backed by NATO airstrikes.

Those events ended an era for a generation that has known only Qaddafi's repressive, idiosyncratic authoritarianism. But for Niz and the Free Generation Movement (FGM) – who fought largely alone, unable to fully trust other small opposition cells, given ubiquitous informers in the city – the story is just beginning.

Their experience gave them uncommon insight into the capabilities and weaknesses of Qaddafi's extensive intelligence networks. But their role in challenging the regime in its bastion – using only nonviolent means – today informs their commitment to build civil society in the new Libya. "We were naive at first, but we evolved, as did the revolution," recalls Nizar Mhani – Niz – with a laugh. "This is my first uprising."

Stealing a government satellite dish

"We knew what we wanted to do, to get in touch with the media to get the real story of Tripoli out. We wanted to demonstrate an opposition presence in Tripoli ... to raise morale in the city," says Dr. Mhani, a 30-year-old surgeon who was working in Wales. He has spent half his life abroad, but for the past eight months he's been hiding in Tripoli, relying on his wits and comrades to keep safe.

"Some of [our] activities were small, physically, but they had a great effect on morale ... on the media, and it just kept the story momentum going," says Mhani.

The group's efforts took place against the backdrop of NATO bombardments and the presence of fervently pro-Qaddafi True Believers at regime rallies and funerals. Adding to the sense of crisis in Tripoli, armed opposition forces controlled eastern Libya, and later the western mountains.

But it was at some of these very funerals and rallies, where crowds vowed to sacrifice their blood and souls for Qaddafi, that Mhani would show up, give a chant or two, and then make contact with foreign journalists who were present.

As the war ground on early last summer, Mhani told the Monitor – on an encrypted Internet line connected to the world through a satellite dish stolen from the roof of a government ministry – that there was only one outcome if he were caught: execution. And that was before Qaddafi's agents broke into the inner circle of the FGM, raided their houses, interrogated family members, and imprisoned and tortured a key member for a month.

"We tried to be as careful and calculating as we could ... but there were times when we had to take risks," says Mhani. He left Wales last February for Libya as the uprising began, calling his hospital on his way to the airport. He was determined to play a role in his homeland.

'I saw people dying in front of me'

Mhani and the FGM were inspired by the success of people-power revolutions in two of Libya's neighbors, Tunisia and Egypt, and at first expected that a sit-in at Green Square would remove Qaddafi, Egypt-style. They recognized early on that Libya's path would be different.

"Very quickly, I experienced what happens when you try to go out on the street peacefully. I saw people dying in front of me, I saw security forces shooting at us," says Mhani. He went underground amid arrests, interrupted communications, and vigilant security forces.

"Every member of the Free Generation Movement was willing to die for the cause of the revolution," he says. "We were scared a lot of the time, but we didn't feel courageous. We felt like we were undertaking an obligation.... Fear was overridden by a sense a duty, a sense of passion."

What they would have died for was the outsized voice they gave to Qaddafi opponents in Tripoli. The FGM created 10 videos that came to be called "Voices of Tripoli," showing people speaking at well-known locales, to the camera, against the regime.

The videos were broadcast by Al Jazeera English, with faces disguised. The FGM also filmed a brief miniprotest that they staged on a public street. Al Jazeera English broadcast that footage, too, and its team was kicked out of Tripoli.

Such activities increasingly caught the attention of the regime and its informers.

"Trust was really difficult in Tripoli," says Mhani. "We were cautious, but we didn't fear the security apparatus. We didn't fear the [military]. We didn't fear the regime. We feared the informants."

At first, the FGM had a low assessment of the regime's security capabilities – an assessment they later revised upward. "We didn't feel the regime had the apparatus or were equipped enough and intelligent enough to track down our operations," he adds. "But we knew that at one point an informant might get the better of us, because we were on the streets; we were active."

Critical to the FGM strategy was finding an unmonitored Internet connection. For a time, they hacked into a VSAT satellite dish that sat on the roof of a land registry ministry, but their use of it was vulnerable to detection. So their target became taking the entire dish itself – which measured six feet across – for their own use.

Mukhtar Mhani, an IT specialist and an FGM founder, worked in the building on a modernization project. With Niz one day, he simply took down the dish – the two acted as if they were official repairmen – and walked out the door.

Running costs proved expensive, at $800 per month, but the dish gave a dedicated link and the chance of sharing the Tripoli resistance with the outside world.

Imagery began to be uploaded, including that of the first – and "scariest," the FGM members say – flag-raising operation in April.

The flag was huge, a banner measuring nine feet by 12 feet, sewn by the sister of a group member.

One car carried the rebel flag, while others served as lookouts, backups, and getaway vehicles. Yet another car was used for the camera. The flag didn't last in its post three minutes, hanging from a highway overpass with shocked drivers passing by. But the image was unforgettable.

"The powerful point for us was the video," says Ali Abuzayan, a 24-year-old architecture student and FGM founding member. The video, which also showed police removing the flag, was posted with the title: "A flag has been arrested."

"The biggest impact was when it comes on TV; then everybody sees it," says Honida Mhani, a sister of Niz and a human resources specialist. Videos were often picked up by Arab language and Western news channels.

A lost cellphone puts them at risk

Some parents were cheering their young activists. Others were kept in the dark. When Mukhtar Mhani, the IT specialist, told his father he had just helped burn the biggest portrait of Qaddafi in Tripoli, his father turned abruptly back to the TV, shocked.

But mistakes were made, too. While painting a rebel flag on the road, Hamza Mhani, also an architecture student and a founding member of the FGM, left his cellphone behind. It was registered in his name, had everyone's numbers on it – though listed as nicknames – and was picked up by security forces.

The activists were fortunate. There was no fallout, suggesting that the intelligence services were ineffective.

But that assessment began to change when Niz posted a photo from an FGM interview at a neutral location with Reuters journalists on his Facebook page. Identities were hidden, but someone recognized the distinctive arches in the background.

A raid on that house in mid-July – with Qaddafi agents holding up a printout of the Facebook photo – was a wake-­up call. The agents had asked: "Where's Niz?"

"We knew they were getting closer to the circle somehow, but we also knew they were clutching at straws," recalls Niz, flipping through an intelligence file on the group. "They went without knowing full names and expected to hit the jackpot. They were expecting to find weapons, communications gear, and the real HQ."

Just to be safe, FGM moved its headquarters but kept communicating. Then, 10 days later, acting on what Niz believes was a tip from an informant, Libyan security raided the home of Mukhtar Mhani and found a very old military ID of Niz.

They were looking for a "Niz" and found "Nizar" on the ID. So their next stop was Niz's family home, where his sisters sneaked into the bathroom to call their brother to warn him.

Security forces shut down the whole district. They interrogated Niz's family members. Niz's sister Mervat Mhani – a core member of the FGM and a dental graduate – was questioned for nine hours, though they were unaware of her role.

"They took her away. They were very horrible to her at first and threatened to take her children away," says Niz. "They said: 'How do you feel now that we have to take your kids away from you and raise them for you?' "

Later, they plied her with cakes and sweet drinks, Ms. Mhani recalls.

In the raids, pro-Qaddafi operatives did, in fact, take away Niz's brother Hamza. They said they knew he was not an activist – clearly unaware that he also was a founding member of the FGM – and then subjected him to five or six doses of electrical shocks, and prison for a month afterward, to try to convince Niz to reveal himself.

"They did a full-on military raid, very heavy-handed, considering we were a peaceful, nonviolent movement," says Niz. "It just shows they took any opposition very seriously."

Earning a place in Libya's history

Niz was never caught. It wasn't long before he and the others realized they were being hunted, with security forces using the triangulated coordinates of their cellphone calls to position them to within 200 yards.

They went west of Tripoli, dumped their phones in an abandoned house, and then traveled back to the east, to a second, new safe house. Except for a bold, exposed bid to recapture the VSAT dish from the original headquarters – sending out scouts to be sure it was not being watched – the FGM kept a low profile until Tripoli fell to rebel forces on Aug. 21.

The nightmare of Qaddafi's rule in the capital was over. Niz and the FGM had earned a place in the history of Libya's Arab Spring revolution.

Looking ahead

So how is the Free Generation Movement now helping Libya move out of the resistance phase? The answer lies on Mervat Mhani's living-room table, where pens, paper, and computer keyboards are the remains of yet another all-night brainstorming session.

Top priority is to establish ­mafqood.org, a DNA database whose name means "missing." FGM is putting the database together to help Libyans trace family members who were victims of the regime or were arrested and lost during the conflict. Thousands are known to be missing, with some official estimates as high as 25,000 Libyans.

"It's one of many projects that we are going to do, but with mafqood we all believe that the stabilization of families [means] the stabilization of Libya – all of it," says Ms. Mhani. "Once they have closure, and know what happened to their loved ones, then Libya can move forward."

Already FGM has mounted public awareness campaigns with videos, such as one condemning racism against dark-skinned Libyans and Africans, who are often targeted as suspected pro-Qaddafi mercenaries.

They have also mounted a campaign against celebratory shooting in the air, because of the danger of falling bullets. "For every problem I see, I see a solution," says Mhani. "We now have the freedom to fix those problems, which we did not have before."

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