LIBYA – MURDER IN DERNA
American readers my recall learning that the Battle of Derna (27th April to 13th May 1805) was the first recorded land battle the United States fought overseas and is now always associated with the heroic actions of US Marine Corps First Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon. They will know that it was this battle that gave rise to the famous line ‘From the Halls of Montezuma to the Shores of Tripoli’.
They may not know that there is a new battle being fought in Derna. Secure as they are in the power of their inspirational Constitution they may also be unaware that the effort to forge one in Libya may be sabotaged by events in Derna.
There are Salafists in Libya – and in Egypt and Tunisia – who hold that the principles and practice of early Islam should govern the social and political life of the people. They believe that the true Islam, that of the Prophet Muhammad and the first, second and third generation of his followers, has been obfuscated, contaminated and watered down by constant amendments to its fundamental principles.
The Salafists are sect of Sunni Muslims who have thus far preferred to infiltrate their doctrine into local mosques and schools without violence. They abhor the Sufi sects and destroy the tombs of revered holy men holding that no one person can reinterpret the word of Allah as revealed in Arabic to the Prophet Mohammad and written in the Holy Koran – with the exception of themselves of course, a strange paradox which is not uncommon amongst zealots of any creed.
The more extreme Salafists, some authorities have called them Salafist Jihadists, refuse to become involved in elections because they perceive politics to be anti Islamic. In their view the will of god supersedes the will of the people. In practice this faction would impose its interpretation of Sharia law at the point of a gun. For them, to borrow a phrase, the automatic rifle outranks the ballot box.
The Salafist trend has been revitalized across the Arab world since the Arab Spring and the fall of dictatorships. In its militarized manifestation it has emerged as ‘Ansar al Sharia’ which roughly translates as ‘Partisans of Sharia Law’. A number of armed Ansar al Sharia groups have emerged in Libya, Yemen, Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco. In Libya the groups trace their origin to Islamist militias formed to topple Gaddafi in the civil war of 2011.
This recently appeared on the twitter feed of the Ansar al Sharia Brigade based in Benghazi; “The goal of Ansar al-Sharia brigade is to implement the laws of Allah on the land, and reject the human implemented laws and earthly made constitutions. There will be nothing ruling in this country other than the laws of Allah.” This was clearly intended to threaten the new Libyan Constitutional Assembly formed by a national election which took place the 20th February 2014 and tasked with the job of writing a constitution for the new Libya. The election was successfully completed throughout Libya with the notable of exception Muzurk, Kufra and Obari where ethnic minority issues are unresolved and Derna where the polling stations were closed by violence or the fear of violence by armed Islamist militias. Unless these elections are complete the Constitutional Assembly is unable to function.
Fifty years ago it took me somewhat more than four hours to drive eastwards from Benghazi, up the Tochra pass and through the lush country of the Jebel Akhdar (the Green Mountains) to the little Mediterranean port of Derna. In those days it was a good place to stop for a rest on the way to or from Tobruk, even though it meant a diversion down to sea level via the notorious hairpin bends from the high plateau of the Jebel.
For a number of years I worked with a talented native of Derna whose abilities as a linguist were extraordinary. He was a near native speaker of English and was fluent, as far as I could judge, in French, Italian and Greek. I cannot imagine that he, or the other Derna residents I met in the course of my duties, could become ruthless killers or adopt a form of Islam which rejects both the democratic process and liberal education.
Today no European would hazard his life to stop for a coffee in Derna and it is hard to reconcile my memory of those talented and hospitable colleagues and their well managed town with the stories of murder now emerging there from. What has happened?
We might hark back to the Gaddafi inspired propaganda during the Libyan uprising in February 2011 when it was asserted that an ‘Islamic Emirate of Derna’ had been declared under the leadership of one Abdul-Hakim al Hasadi who was said to be a Guantanamo returnee. Al Hasadi denied having been incarcerated in Guantanamo and stated that there was no Islamic Emirate. This led some observers to assume that Gaddafi’s propagandists had raised the spectre of an al-Qaeda linkage with Derna in order to legitimise his military response to the uprising in the Eastern cities. However, a captured Al Qaeda list of foreign fighters in Iraq contained the names of more Jihadists from Derna than any other city. That, and the subsequent history of Islamist activity in Derna, led some of us to revise this view. Recent events may explain why.
Earlier this April (2014) three of Derna’s Islamist armed militia, the Army of the Islamist Sate of Libya, the Derna branch of Ansar Al-Sharia and the supporters of Sufian Ben Qumu the sometime Guantanamo detainee, formed themselves into a single unit called ‘The Shoura Council of Islamic Youth in Derna’ and paraded unopposed through the town in their ‘Technicals’ and other armed vehicles. A photograph which appeared on 6th April 2014 in Asharq Al-Awsat showed militiamen raising the flags of Al-Qaeda during this parade.
It is not surprising that the presence of Ben Qumu and the show of Al Qaeda flags in Derna leads us to wonder if there are active connections with ‘Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)’ which operates in Algeria, Mali, Mauritania and Niger and aims to replace their ‘apostate’ governments with Islamist regimes. AQIM is a militant group with great regional – and international – reach. Its criminal activities have made it al-Qaeda`s richest franchise. What is more there are those who suggest potential connections between the Derna Islamists and other like organisations such as Boko Haram in Nigeria and Al Shabaab in Somalia.
There are clear signs that disputes have arisen between Islamists in Derna. This report appeared in the Libya Herald on 8th April 2014:
‘One of the leaders of the newly formed Derna Islamist militia, the Shoura Council of Islamic Youth in Derna, has been found murdered. According to security sources, the body of Ali Abdullah Ben Tahir, known as Al-Far (the “Mouse”), was discovered very early this morning riddled with bullets at Karsa, outside the town. He was one of the leaders of the Army of the Islamic State of Libya.
It is not known who killed Ben Tahir, a member of a prominent local family other members of which are involved in the Islamist cause. However, the same security sources say there has been infighting among Derna’s Islamists both on ideological grounds and over who should lead the movement……
Three weeks ago, Mohammed Al-Douri, said to have been close to Ben Qumu was shot dead. A few days earlier four other men, also said to be Islamists, were shot dead by gunmen who attacked the farm near Derna where they were staying.’
The battle for control of post Gaddafi Libya is beginning to focus on the wording of a new constitution. Some time ago I wrote ‘There are three major currents within the Islamic world today – modernism which calls for a contemporary interpretation of Islam, secularism which calls for the separation of religion and politics and fundamentalism which is unwavering in its adherence to traditional Islam and strongly anti-western. We will see these three currents in play should the Libyan Constitutional Assembly be able to function and accommodate all the various factions now competing to get their hands on the levers of power.
I also wrote ‘Seeds of religious intolerance have germinated in the Arab Spring. Are the shoots about to bear fruit and multiply?’ It would seem that they are in Derna.
24th April 2014
For books by John Oakes see… (USA): http://www.amazon.com/John-Oakes/e/B001K86D3O/ref=ntt_athr_dp_pel_1 ….. (UK): http://www.amazon.co.uk/John-Oakes/e/B001K86D3O/ref=ntt_athr_dp_pel_pop_1
Update 27th April 2014
In the light of Libya’s efforts to form a democratic government this piece by Youssef Cherif is worth reading.
Update 7th May 2014
I am still reading this long and detailed paper on the ‘Sufi v Salafi’ struggle. It is worth the effort in the light of events in Libya and Nigeria.