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.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.