This group of isolated anti-Qaddafi rebels appears to have learned from early mistakes, fine-tuning everything from fueling procedures to battle tactics.
Battlewagons smeared with sand for camouflage need a fuel chit from the local “military council” to collect gas. Defenses designed to thwart troops loyal to Col. Muammar Qaddafi are multilayered and include well-placed antitank ditches, earthen barriers, and preplaced trailers to block roads.
Food, water, and fuel supplies enter from a critical border crossing with Tunisia captured by the rebels on April 21. The medical infrastructure is so well honed that critical battlefield casualties are often whisked to Tunisia – sometimes along smuggler routes.
Unlike the rebels in the east, those in these mountains are rarely seen to fire their weapons in the air in celebration; commanders have pointed out that every round fired in the sky is one that can't target a pro-Qaddafi soldier.
Vulnerabilities on the battlefield
Video footage of one battle last week showed rebels engaged in a multipronged strike in which they captured a village, killed several Qaddafi loyalists, and suffered few losses.
Then on the afternoon of April 28, in broad daylight, pro-Qaddafi forces rumbled up an unguarded mountain road, caught the rebels unawares, and recaptured the border post from behind.
It was a short-lived victory: Qaddafi’s forces were soon cut off and forced to flee into Tunisia, shooting as they went. They left behind three dead.
The assault was a stark reminder of the vulnerabilities – and sometimes over-confidence – of this fledgling rebel force. But it also showed how quickly they can muster to fight across this band of rebel-held territory, which stretches from the Tunisian border to south of Tripoli.
“They have competence gained through incompetence, and have made corrections,” says a British security expert who has traveled in rebel sectors in recent days.
“There is clearly a structure that may not be a normal military structure, but is a paramilitary one that is effective,” says the former British soldier. “On the downside, some command decisions are by consensus, and there is not a true command structure.”
Six days traveling with the rebels
Indeed, six days of traveling in rebel territory exposed the strength and weaknesses of the rebel effort here. Pro-Qaddafi forces regularly shell rebel-held towns like Nalut, 20 miles from the Tunisia border, and Zintan, 75 miles further east.
On Thursday NATO destroyed at least two helicopters that were being transported by pro-Qaddafi forces toward Zintan to step up the assault there.
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This reporter witnessed the rebel build-up for the April 28 recapture of the border post, with hodgepodge units gathering in towns along the east-west axis road, waiting – some with bayonets already fixed on their assault rifles – for the arrival of their comrades from other towns to join the fight.
And yet on another day, rebels at a position high on the edge of the escarpment overlooking pro-Qaddafi forces in the valley below had no communication equipment. They had to leave the post and drive a few miles to a checkpoint to report that a gathering of pro-Qaddafi vehicles was on the move toward the border.
Those signs aside, the rebels appear adept at using earth-moving equipment to shape the battle space to their advantage. They have started up a new radio station – Radio Free Nalut – to inform locals of the military situation, deliver public service announcements, and to convince towns with wavering loyalties to join the rebel side.
Where the rebels have positions for tanks they captured from pro-Qaddafi forces, they have made large rebel flag designs on the ground to alert NATO planes that they are “friendly” forces.
And a system is clearly in place to provide food and water to front-line rebel forces from the truckloads of supplies and donations that now pour across the border from Tunisia.
Besides the occasional tanker, the rebels send 10 vehicles a day across the border to Tunisia, each with a large 500-liter tank in the back of the truck, the seat behind the driver jammed with a dozen large plastic jerrycans.
“This is the only source of fuel,’ says Sifao Tentoush, a heavily bearded driver who proudly shows his rebel identity car while waiting to cross the border out of Libya. “The priority [for fuel usage] is for families [to evacuate], then for the rebels.”
Those who have worked with the rebels in the western mountains say such details set this group apart.
“I’ve been astonished by the organization and the will power,” says a rebel supporter in Nalut, called Akram. “There is a lack of good weapons. But everybody is fighting, from the old guy to the young man.”
What does it mean for Qaddafi's rule?
What that means strategically for Qaddafi and his nearly 42 years of rule in Tripoli is not clear. Libya’s vast spaces – these mountains form a partial belt separating the Sahara Desert to the south from Libya’s more hospital Mediterranean coastline to the north – mean that connecting this rebel enclave to the far larger rebel territories in the east would be extremely difficult.
The clear advantages rebels now hold across this rugged landscape – which is dominated by ethnic Berbers who have long chafed under Qaddafi’s rule – are not likely to extend beyond these mountains.
“Any battle in the open area, the casualties are too much, we can’t survive,” rebel Ali Shalbak told the Monitor last week from a high over-watch position, where every move by Qaddafi troops was clearly visible in the exposed valley below.
Still, the eastern flank of this mountain range is just 50 miles south of Tripoli, and with few of the obstacles that now block any rebel advance, such as Qaddafi’s hometown of Sirte.
But for now keeping home turf in the mountains free of pro-Qaddafi forces is easier than expanding over the escarpment.
“If they were out in open ground they would be significantly out of their depth,” says the British security expert. “If they had aspirations to link up to, say Zawiyah [a restive city west of Tripoli], they would be on ground unknown to them. It would be a step too far; Qaddafi would hunt them down with his mechanized brigades.”