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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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).
Thanking Obama and Sarkozy
As for Hasadi, he is equal measures amused and exasperated at reports he fought alongside Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, has plans to create an Islamic emirate in eastern Libya, or is now or has ever been a member of Al Qaeda. None of it is true, he says.
He calls the 9/11 attacks a “tragedy” and says, “we completely reject attacks on civilians.” But he supported Al Qaeda attacks on US troops in Iraq and in Afghanistan because, in his view, they were defending Muslims from US aggression. Now, he says, the standing of the United States has risen substantially in his eyes.
“It feels a little funny,” he says. “We all saw the [French] planes on Al Jazeera when they started [bombing Qaddafi’s positions weeks ago]. We were cheering them. We really have to thank [French President Nicolas] Sarkozy and Obama.”
Hasadi’s reputation as a devout Muslim who sees in his faith a call to confront oppression – along with his aura of competence – is at the core of his support here. But, as he tells it, he was a reluctant exile and never fought overseas (many news reports have said he’s a “veteran of fighting in Afghanistan” without providing details).
He fled in the late 1990s, first to Sudan and Jordan, but quickly left both countries because they routinely arrested men wanted by Qaddafi and sent them back to Libya. He sought European visas, but couldn’t get one. So he ended up in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, he says, where he lived the quiet life of an Arabic teacher.
Hasadi denies training with Al Qaeda or the Taliban. “All my military training was here, when I was in the Army in 1982,” he says. “Fighting against the US in Afghanistan? There was nothing for me to fight. All there were were airstrikes; I never saw a single American soldier. Then I left.
“Before, I was a peaceful man, I spoke my mind, but that was it. Qaddafi is the one who pushed me into the position of going to Afghanistan. He’s the one who made me a fighter now.”
Today, he sees the US as standing with the Muslim community of Libya, and says he has no ambition beyond the defeat of Qaddafi. What about foreign jihad?
“No, why would I? I just want to live in my country and teach,” he says. “People say the international community is after the oil? OK, take all of it. Just protect the people in return. The killing needs to be stopped.... That’s really all I want.”