Al-Qaeda, Anti-Colonialism and the Battle for Benghazi

Andrew McGregor

Terrorist Research & Analysis Consortium

July 17, 2016

Islamist resistance to the efforts of anti-extremist government troops and militia allies to expel the radicals from the Libyan city of Benghazi has entered a crucial stage in which suicide bombers and desperate gunmen engaged in urban warfare imperil the lives of troops and civilians alike. In the midst of this conflict, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has attempted to intervene on the side of the Islamists by an unusual resort to historical anti-colonial rhetoric to rally support for the besieged fighters.

Trac 1 al-AnaabiA Message from Abu Ubaydah Yusuf al-Anabi

Abu Ubaydah Yusuf al-Anabi, head of AQIM’s Council of Notables and AQIM’s second-in-command, posted an audio message on June 27 urging “the descendants of Omar al-Mukhtar” to rush to Benghazi to relieve the Islamic extremists trapped there by Libyan National Army (LNA) forces and allied militias. Abu Ubaydah called on Libyans to join the fight against the LNA and “French forces” said to be assisting the LNA campaign.[1]

The Situation in Benghazi

Most of the Islamist forces in Benghazi have joined together in the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries since June 2014. Along with Ansar al-Shari’a, the council includes the February 17 Martyrs Brigade, the Rafallah Sahati Brigade and the Libya Shield 1 militia. The Islamic State organization is also active in the remaining areas of Benghazi still held by Islamist radicals.

AQIM has never established a real presence in coastal Libya, though some members appear to have established bases in Libya’s remote south-west, intended more as refuges and jumping-off points for operations in Algeria and the Sahelian regions of Niger and Mali rather than Libya. Instead, AQIM formed ties with Ansar al-Shari’a, an al-Qaeda-inspired Islamist militant group formed in the eastern cities of Derna and Benghazi during the 2011 revolution. Leadership difficulties and military pressure in the east led some Ansar members to abandon the loosely-formed group in favor of the more focused Islamic State group centered on Sirte. AQIM tends to regard Libya’s Islamic State as a rival rather than a partner, an observation seemingly confirmed by Abu Ubaydah’s failure to use his message to call for support for the Islamic State extremists currently besieged in Sirte in the same way he called for support for the Islamist militants in Benghazi.

Trac 4 - Fighting in BenghaziLNA Operations in Benghazi, July 12, 2016 (Libyan Express)

AQIM’s leader Abd al-Malik Droukdel (a.k.a. Abu Mu’sab Abd al-Wadud) attempted to co-opt the Libyan Revolution from afar when he claimed in 2011 that the revolution was nothing more than a new phase of the Salafist-Jihadi struggle against Arab tyrants, an assertion made once more by Abu Ubaydah in 2013.[2]

Ansar al-Shari’a has battled General Khalifa Belqasim Haftar’s “Operation Dignity” forces (the so-called Libyan National Army [LNA] and its allies) for control of Benghazi since May 2014. At the time of writing, the area controlled by Ansar al-Shari’a and other Islamist groups has been reduced to roughly five square kilometers near the port area.

Who is Omar al-Mukhtar?

Libya’s most prominent national hero is without a doubt the Islamic scholar turned independence fighter Sidi Omar al-Mukhtar. Well versed in tactics learned opposing the Italian invasion of Libya in 1911 and during Sayyid Ahmad al-Sharif al-Sanusi’s failed invasion of British-occupied Egypt during World War One, al-Mukhtar began an eight-year revolt against Italian rule in 1923 using the slogan “We will win or die!” Shortly after the wounded guerrilla leader was captured in 1931, he was hung by Italian authorities in front of a crowd of 20,000 Libyans as a demonstration of Italian resolve and ruthlessness. The resistance collapsed soon afterwards, with some 50% of Libya’s population either forced into exile or dead from starvation, exposure and battle wounds.

Trac5 - al-Mukhtar hangingThe Execution of Omar al-Mukhtar

Abu Ubaydah’s invocation of Omar al-Mukhtar was not unprecedented; during the 2011 revolution al-Qaeda spokesman Abu Yahya al-Libi urged Libyans to follow the example of al-Mukhtar, “the Shaykh of the Martyrs” while claiming al-Qaeda had inspired the revolution by shattering “the barrier of fear” that preserved Muslim regimes that ruled without sole reliance on Shari’a.[3]

Al-Mukhtar’s memory was suppressed during post-WWII Sanusi rule but was enthusiastically revived by Colonel Mu’ammar al-Qaddafi after the 1969 officers’ coup as a means of giving his regime and its anti-Western policies legitimacy by drawing on Libyans’ shared experience of resistance to colonialism. Qaddafi’s first post-coup speech was given in front of al-Mukhtar’s Benghazi tomb, and soon the guerrilla leader’s image was everywhere, including on Libya’s currency. In 1981 Qaddafi financed a big-budget film biography with Anthony Quinn playing al-Mukhtar and a grim-faced Oliver Reed as his deadly enemy, Italy’s Marshal Rodolfo Graziani.

Qaddafi gradually developed a highly individualistic amalgam of Islam, socialism and anti-colonialism that, to his disappointment, failed to gain traction outside of Libya, where it became the dominant political ideology only due to the weight of the state and its enforcement agencies. Qaddafi, however, continued to claim Omar al-Mukhtar as his prime inspiration.

Al-Qaeda and Anti-Colonialism

Due to its close links to nationalism, anti-colonialism has typically been treated carefully by al-Qaeda, whose goal is the creation of a pan-Islamic Arab-led Sunni caliphate rather than the perpetuation of Muslim-majority nations whose boundaries were defined by colonial powers. Recalling the examples of earlier Islamic anti-colonial movements presents al-Qaeda’s takfiri Salafists with an undesirable minefield of ideological dangers and contradictions. To cite only a few examples; Imam Shamyl’s mid-19th century jihad in the North Caucasus was entirely Sufi-based (Sufism being rejected in its entirety by modern Salafi-Jihadists), Sufi Ahmad al-Mahdi’s 19th century jihad in Sudan was meant to overthrow rule by the Ottoman Caliph and his Egyptian Viceroy rather than a European power, while Libya’s own anti-colonial Sanusi movement evolved by the end of World War II into a British-allied monarchy of the type rejected by jihadists throughout the Middle East. Al-Qaeda’s ability to find ideological, ethnic or religious failings in every Islamic movement but its own often strangles its ability to communicate its message; when it does relax its ideological firewalls enough to make historical reference to earlier Muslim leaders outside their usual pantheon it often sounds insincere, even desperate. As might be expected, the vital role played by Western-educated anti-colonial Muslim modernists in establishing today’s post-colonial nation-states is beyond al-Qaeda’s religious frame of reference and, beyond condemnation, remains an unmentionable topic in their public statements.

The most notable exception to this approach is in AQIM’s home turf of Algeria, where the al-Qaeda affiliate has always identified its main enemy as former colonial power France, issuing repeated calls for the death of French citizens and the destruction of their assets and interests in northern Africa. The origin for this lies in both AQIM’s relative isolation from al-Qaeda-Central and in the bitter experience of French colonial rule in Algeria, culminating in the brutal 1954-62 struggle for independence (inspired to a large degree by the success of the Marxist Viet Minh’s armed rejection of French colonialism in Indo-China). The Algerian independence movement was a product of its time, and identified closely with the secular socialism promoted by China, the Soviet Union and influential anti-colonial theorists such as Franz Fanon, marginalizing more Islamic trends of resistance in the process. These trends became submerged in Algeria, where they became a type of unofficial opposition to Algeria’s growing authoritarianism and reliance on the military to preserve the post-independence regime. When a brief experiment with multi-party democracy appeared to be leading to an Islamist government in the 1991-92 elections, the regime promptly cancelled the elections, allegedly at the instigation of Paris. As a consequence, Abu Ubaydah refers to the Algerian regime as “the sons of France”. The Islamists launched a new insurgency whose vicious and callous treatment of innocent civilians (possibly with the participation of government-allied provocateurs) eventually led to a crisis within the armed Islamist movement and an eventual identification with the ideals of Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda movement that led to the creation in 2007 of an Algerian-based affiliate, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

Due to its unique history and antecedents, AQIM is more likely to incorporate more traditional strains of anti-colonial thought into its messaging than other al-Qaeda affiliates in which historical references tend to hearken back to the glorious days of the mediaeval Islamic Empire rather than the more ideologically problematic colonial era. In the fierce fighting for Benghazi, it is somewhat natural then that AQIM ideologues like Abu Ubaydah would be more likely to turn to more-recent resistance leaders like Omar al-Mukhtar for inspiration than their fellow al-Qaeda affiliates.

Notably, Abu Ubaydah singles out French support for anti-terrorist operations in Benghazi, failing to note that the vast majority of those fighting and dying to retake the city from Islamist extremists are in fact Libyan Muslims. Though progress is slow, the ultimate defeat of the extremists (who have little popular support) seems certain – al-Ubaydah’s message is therefore not entirely focused on rallying his Islamist comrades, but also on persuading Benghazi’s Libyan assailants to abandon efforts to seize those parts of the city still under IS/Ansar al-Shari’a control.

The Italian Legacy

In response to the alleged presence of a small number of Italian Special Forces operatives in Libya, Abu Ubaydah claimed in a January audio message entitled “Roman Italy has occupied Libya” that the Italians had re-occupied Libya: “To the new invaders, grandchildren of Graziani, you will bite your hands off, regretting you entered the land of Omar al-Mukhtar and you will come out of it humiliated.”[4] Abu Ubaydah consciously usurped al-Mukhtar’s famous slogan “We will win or die” in his message in an attempt to align AQIM with the Islamist forces in Libya: “We are people who never give up, you will have to walk on our dead bodies. Either we win or we die.”[5] AQIM first encouraged the Libyan thuwar (revolutionaries) to use the slogan in a 2011 message addressed to “the progeny of Omar al-Mukhtar.” [6]

In a further effort to compare the current struggle with al-Mukhtar’s anti-Italian revolt, the AQIM leader also referred to “an Italian general who now rules in Tripoli,” likely describing Italy’s General Paolo Serra, a veteran of Kosovo and Afghanistan and currently the military advisor to Martin Kobler, the UN’s special envoy to Libya.[7]

In March, Abu Ubaydah again referred to “the re-colonization of Libya, now ruled by an Italian general from Tripoli.” He went on to describe how colonialism had returned to North Africa:

After the Arab revolutions and the fall of dictatorships, the West cross saw the return of Muslims to their religion and their commitment to implement sharia, he added. He had no choice but to re-colonize their territory, get hold of their resources and the oil that continues its domination and our marginalization.[8]

Trac 3 - GrazianiNew Mausoleum of Marshall Graziani

In an entirely different approach to Italy’s colonial legacy, Graziani, a convicted war criminal who flew to Libya to interview al-Mukhtar before his execution, was recently honored with a taxpayer-funded mausoleum and memorial park south of Rome.[9] Through his enthusiastic use of poison gas, chemical warfare, civilian massacres and massive concentration camps to impose Italian rule in Africa, Graziani gained the undesirable distinction of being remembered in Libya as “the Butcher of Fezzan” and in the Horn of Africa as “the Butcher of Ethiopia.”

Operation Volcano of Rage

An Islamist relief column of thirty to forty vehicles seems to have been spurred to relieve Benghazi not by al-Qaeda’s Abu Ubaydah, but rather by Libya’s Chief Mufti, Shaykh Sadiq al-Ghariani, under whose authority they claim to be fighting. The Shaykh has been Libya’s top religious cleric since February 2012, but has since become a divisive political figure generally siding with the Tripoli-based General National Congress government, also supported by Ansar al-Shari’a and the rest of the Shura Council of Bengazhi Revolutionaries.

The self-styled Benghazi Defense Brigade (BDB) began its march on Benghazi (named “Operation Volcano Rage) in late June by warning all residents of towns between Ajdabiya and Benghazi to stay out of their way or face destruction.[10] Nonetheless, the BDB had difficulty getting past Ajdabiya, where they met resistance from the LNA. Clashes around Ajdabiya were said to be responsible for disabling pumps in the Great Man-Made River Project that supplies water to Benghazi, which is already suffering from power cuts seven to eight hours a day.[11]

trac sharkasiBDB Leader Brigadier Mustafa al-Sharkasi

The alleged leader of the BDB offensive is Misrata’s Brigadier Mustafa al-Sharkasi. Other leading Islamist militants said to be with the BDB column include al-Sa’adi al-Nawfali of the Adjdabiya Shura Council, Ziyad Balham, the commander of Benghazi’s Omar al-Mukhtar Brigade and Ismail al-Salabi, commander of the Rafallah Sahati militia and brother of prominent Libyan Muslim Brotherhood member Ali Muhammad al-Salabi.

The Grand Mufti’s intervention in the ongoing battle for Benghazi is not surprising; al-Ghariani has in the past referred to those serving under General Haftar as “infidels” and has denied Ansar al-Shari’a is a terrorist group: “There is no terror in Libya and we should not use the word terrorism when referring to Ansar al-Shari’a. They kill and they have their reasons.”[12] Al-Ghariani also declared “the real battle in Libya is the one against Haftar. Only when he is defeated will Libya find security and stability.”[13] The BDB takes a similar view of General Haftar, accusing him of hiring mercenaries and collaborating with former regime members to kill innocents, steal goods and money, destroy homes and displace thousands of Benghazi residents.[14] Both the BDB and their mentor al-Ghariani profess to be opposed to the Islamic State, with some BDB members and leaders having fought the group around Sirte as part of the GNC’s Operation Dawn.

Trac 2 - Usama JadhranUsama Jadhran (al-Jazeera)

Despite a string of victory announcements by the LNA, the BDB still appears to be active some 30 km south of Benghazi (particularly in the region between Sultan and Suluq) as it continues to try to batter its way into the city. A sensational LNA pronouncement on July 10 claimed LNA airstrikes and attacks had devastated the BNB column, with radical Islamist Usama Jadhran (brother of powerful Petroleum Facilities Guard chief Ibrahim Jadhran) being killed and BNB commander al-Sharkasi being captured and removed to General Haftar’s headquarters. To date, the LNA have yet to confirm these claims, while the BNB insists al-Sharkasi remains free and that the BNB had actually overrun an LNA camp at al-Jalidiya on July 10, capturing significant arms and munitions.[15]


Drawing on the radical inspiration of Egypt’s Sayyid Qutb, al-Qaeda rejects independent Muslim nation-states as long as they continue to adopt the forms of governance introduced by colonial regimes rather than governance drawn strictly from Shari’a in its Salafist interpretation, i.e. the sovereignty of God (al-hakimiya li’llah) over the sovereignty of man. Until this is achieved, according to Qutb, Muslim society will continue to exist in a state of jahiliya (the state of ignorance that prevailed in pre-Islamic society). Though the Grand Mufti’s appeals for anti-LNA intervention in Benghazi have had some limited success, calls from Abu Ubaydah for Muslims to flock to the aid of Benghazi’s hard-pressed Islamist militants have produced not even a noticeable trickle in comparison, suggesting that AQIM’s desire to influence Libya’s future remains largely disconnected most of the diverse political and religious approaches favored by Libya’s Muslims. Abu Ubaydah’s attempt to invoke the spirit of Omar al-Mukhtar to rally support for Benghazi’s Islamist militants is more likely to remind most Libyans of the abuse al-Mukhtar’s legacy suffered under Qaddafi than it is to launch new waves of dedicated jihadists. Unlike Abu al-Ubaydah, Omar al-Mukhtar did not need to invent an Italian occupation of Libya to rally his people against colonialism.

This article was originally published at:


[1] Libya Herald, June 27, 2016,

[2] Abu Mu`sab Abd al-Wadud, “Aid to the Noble Descendants of Umar al-Mukhtar,”, March 18, 2011. For a discussion of these efforts, see Barak Barfi: “Al-Qa’ida’s Confused Messaging on Libya,” Center for Countering Terrorism, West Point N.Y., August 1, 2011, ; Abu Ubaydah Yusuf al-Anabi: “The War on Mali,” April 25, 2013,

[3], March 12, 2011 (no longer available on the web).

[4] ANSA [Rome], January 14, 2016, .

[5] ANSA, January 14, 2016,

[6] Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, “In Defense and Support of the Revolution of Our Fellow Free Muslims, the Progeny of Omar al-Mukhtar,” al-Andalus Media Foundation, February 23, 2011; English translation available here:

[7] ANSA, January 14, 2016,

[8] Al-Akhbar [Nouakchott], March 7, 2016, .

[9] BBC, August 15, 2012, .

[10] Libya Herald, June 19, 2016,

[11] Libya Herald, June 20, 2016,

[12] Magharebia, June 12, 2014,

[13] Libyan Gazette, June 13, 2016,

[14] Libya Observer, June 22, 2016,; July 12, 2016,

[15] Libya Herald, July 17, 2016, ; July 10, 2016,; Libya Observer, July 10, 2016,


The Libyan Battle for the Heritage of Omar al-Mukhtar, the “Lion of the Desert”

Andrew McGregor

March 10, 2011

Beyond the battle for the towns and cities of Libya, there is another battle raging over the legacy of Sidi Omar al-Mukhtar, Libya’s “Lion of the Desert.” The symbol of Libyan nationalism and pride, the inheritance of this stalwart of the Islamic and anti-colonial struggle against Italian fascism has been cited as the inspiration of both the Qaddafi regime and the rebels who oppose it. Al-Mukhtar’s heritage is also cited by the foreign Islamists who would seek to influence events in Libya.

Omar al-Mukhtar 1Omar al-Mukhtar in Chains After his Arrest by Italian Officials

Omar al-Mukhtar and the Roman Riconquista

An Islamic scholar turned guerrilla fighter, Omar al-Mukhtar was a member of the Minifa, a tribe of Arabized Berbers. Educated in the schools of the powerful Sanusi Sufi order, al-Mukhtar joined the Sanusi resistance to the Italian invasion of Libya in 1911. Unable to control little more than the coastal strip, the Italians turned to a series of treaties in an effort to expand their presence in the interior. These accords were abrogated when the fascists came to power in Italy in 1922. In the following year Mussolini’s forces embarked on the riconquista, the ruthless “reconquest” of the ancient Roman colonies of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica. Drawing on his experience fighting both Italians and British under Sayyid Ahmad al-Sharif al-Sanusi, al-Mukhtar organized the armed resistance in Cyrenaica and launched an eight year campaign against Italian rule using the slogan “We will win or die!” Combining lightning raids and widespread popular support, al-Mukhtar was soon in control of what Libyans referred to as “the nocturnal government.”

Fascist forces responded with ever growing levels of brutality designed to eliminate support for the rebels. A 200-mile-long barbed wire fence was built along the Egyptian border to cut the resistance off from supporters in Egypt and Sudan. The Sanusis, already compromised by the deals they had made with the Italians, quickly folded under the pressure, leaving al-Mukhtar as the de facto leader of the anti-colonial Islamic resistance. A social transformation accompanied the desert uprising as the Murabtin (tribes of Arabized Berbers) grew more prominent through their leadership of the resistance in relation to the traditional Sa’adi Arab elite formed from the descendants of the 11th century Arab Bani Hillal conquerors of North Africa. [1] Finally, in a battle with the Italians in September 1931, al-Mukhtar was pinned beneath his fallen horse, wounded and eventually captured.

Marshal Rodolfo Graziani, the leader of the Italian military forces, came from Rome to question the resistance leader before his execution. He asked al-Mukhtar if he really believed he could win a war against the Italians, to which the unyielding al-Mukhtar replied: “War is a duty for us and victory comes from God.” [2] Al-Mukhtar was executed before an estimated 20,000 fellow Libyans and within a year Italian forces had trapped the remaining resistance leaders against the barrier with Egypt. By the time Italian rule came to an end in Libya in 1943, nearly 50% of Libya’s population had been starved, killed or forced into exile.

The little known but horrific methods used in the riconquista foreshadowed the methods of extermination practiced in the Second World War; the bombing of civilians and livestock, poisoning of wells, thousands of public hangings, the use of poison gas, prisoners thrown out of airplanes and the establishment of vast concentration camps where Libyans were sent to die of starvation and illness by the tens of thousands.  Graziani felt little remorse for his tactics, but did lament “the clamor of unpopularity and slander and disparagement which was spread everywhere against me.” [3]

Though al-Mukhtar had emerged as a national hero, his memory was suppressed by the Sanusi royalty that ruled Libya from independence in 1951 to the time of their overthrow in 1969. As Qaddafi and the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) claimed his legacy, Omar al-Mukhtar’s name and image suddenly became ubiquitous in Libya. Roads were named for him, his image appeared on Libyan currency, a center was formed for the study of the Libyan jihad and the government financed a 1981 movie, “Lion of the Desert,” in which Anthony Quinn played al-Mukhtar and Oliver Reed portrayed a menacing Marshal Graziani. While the film was shown regularly on Libyan state television, it was banned in Italy until its first broadcast on Italian TV in 2009.

A Hero to Mu’ammar Qaddafi

From the time of the 1969 military coup that brought Mu’ammar Qaddafi and the other members of the RCC to power, Libya’s “Guide” has told listeners that his childhood hero was Omar al-Mukhtar and that his father, Abu Minyar, had fought under al-Mukhtar against the Italians (though the latter claim is disputed – see Arab Times, March 4).  Like al-Mukhtar, Qaddafi was also a member of a Murabtin tribe, the Qaddadfa.

Qaddafi’s efforts to identify himself with al-Mukhtar’s legacy began almost immediately. His first public speech as Libya’s new leader came on September 16, 1969 – the anniversary of al-Mukhtar’s execution – and was delivered in front of al-Mukhtar’s tomb in Benghazi. In the address, Qaddafi emphasized the need to continue the struggle for “national liberation.” However, Qaddafi’s focus on pan-Arab unity led only three months later to the first coup attempt against his regime by factions more interested in a focus on democracy and development.

Omar al-Mukhtar 2Mu’ammar Qaddafi Wore a Photo of Omar al-Mukhtar During a State Visit to Italy

Nevertheless, Qaddafi has continued to call on al-Mukhtar’s legacy to validate his regime, frequently referring to Libyans as “followers” of Omar al-Mukhtar, reinforcing a shared heritage of anti-colonialism designed to support Qaddafi’s own anti-Western policies. [4] In recent speeches, such as the bizarre address of February 21, Qaddafi has continued to represent himself as the heir of Omar al-Mukhtar. On February 25, Qaddafi told followers in Tripoli’s Green Square: “You are the enthusiastic youth of the [Green] revolution. You see pride and dignity in the revolution. You see history and glory in revolution – it is the jihad of the heroes. It is the revolution that gave birth to Omar al-Mukhtar” (al-Jazeera, February 25).

Despite Qaddafi’s occasional efforts to channel the spirit of Omar al-Mukhtar for his own benefit, he would most probably have been opposed by the former Qu’ranic teacher al-Mukhtar when he described his own view of jihad to a 1980 gathering:

To be engaged in the battle of jihad today is better than the worship of a thousand years of egotistical litanies of praise and penitent devotion. Islam is the religion of power, of challenge, of steadfastness and of jihad. It behooves us, therefore, to scatter our prayer beads if they were to keep our hands away from arms. We should put our copies of the Qu’ran on the shelf if they were to distract us from implementing its teachings. [5]

Libyan rebels have actively challenged Qaddafi’s claims to be the inheritor of al-Mukhtar’s legacy, particularly in eastern Libya, the Cyrenaican homeland of al-Mukhtar and his Islamic resistance. Rebel fighters in Benghazi were recently observed marching through the streets shouting the slogan used by al-Mukhtar’s forces, “We will win or die!” (BBC, March 4).

The Islamists Call on Omar al-Mukhtar

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) was quick to make its own use of Omar al-Mukhtar’s legacy, releasing a statement entitled “In Defense and Support of the Revolution of Our Fellow Free Muslims, the Progeny of Omar al-Mukhtar” (al-Andalus Media Foundation, February 23).

The message praises the “honorable revolt against the taghut [an unjust ruler who relies on laws other than those revealed by Allah] of Libya, the modern Musaylimah [i.e. a false prophet], who has made the progeny of Omar al-Mukhtar taste 40 years of suppression, crime and humiliation… The continual massacres which the modern Musaylimah is committing through the use of African mercenaries and fighter jets against the Libyan people clearly exposes that these ruling tawagheet [pl. of taghut] are more than ready to kill Muslims and eradicate them to preserve their thrones.” The comparison with Musaylimah, a rival prophet to Muhammad who was killed by the forces of Caliph Abu Bakr at the Battle of Yamama (632 CE), is based on the 1975 release of Qaddafi’s al-Kitab al-Ahdar (Green Book), which was widely perceived in Islamic circles as a presumptuous rival to the holy Qu’ran.

Amidst much invective directed towards Qaddafi, whose brutal methods destroyed Libya’s own radical Islamist movement, AQIM declares it is with the rebels and will not desert them; “We will spend whatever we have to help you.” Though there are as of yet no indications that AQIM has fulfilled these pledges or intends to honor them in any way, the movement describes the revolt in Libya as a “jihad” and encourages the rebels to use the motto of “the Shaykh of the Mujahideen, Omar al-Mukhtar: ‘We will never surrender! We will either gain victory or die!’”

Fresh from a triumphant return to his native Egypt in the wake of the Lotus Revolution, influential Qatar-based Muslim Brother and TV Preacher Yusuf al-Qaradawi issued a fatwa (religious ruling) permitting Libyans to “put a bullet in Qaddafi’s head” and called on “the grandsons of Omar al-Mukhtar” to continue fighting until Libya was returned to its Arab and Islamic roots (al-Jazeera, February 21; al-Masry al-Youm, February 22).

However, the  London-based Egyptian Salafist and al-Qaeda supporter, Dr. Hani al-Siba’i, accused al-Qaradawi in his Friday sermon of having been a friend of Gaddafi until recently, describing  the rebels as the descendants of Omar al-Mukhtar, “whom we consider a martyr at the hands of the Italian criminals” (, February 25).

A member of Qaradawi’s Islam Online editorial team elaborated on the rebels’ connection to Omar al-Mukhtar, describing them as the “descendants of the freedom fighter Omar al-Mukhtar… famous for his saying, “I believe in my right to freedom, and my country’s right to life, and this belief is stronger than any weapon.” The writer made a subtle tie between Qaddafi and the Italian imperialists who hung al-Mukhtar and thousands of others, pointing to Qaddafi’s use of a public gallows, from which “the bodies of the opposition to his ‘revolution’ hung from the nooses” (Islam Online, February 23).


The record of Italian rule in Libya is the basis of today’s rejection of foreign military intervention on the ground by both the loyalist and rebel camps. After leading the first Friday prayers since dislodging the regime in Benghazi, a local imam supporting the rebels warned: “We do not want any foreign military intervention. If they try to intervene, Omar Mukhtar will come forth again” (AFP, February 24).

Perhaps the last word in the debate over Omar al-Mukhtar’s legacy should go to his 90-year-old son, Muhammad Omar, who has taken a position in favor of democracy and in opposition to the visions of both al-Qaeda and al-Qaddafi, saying his father “would have a similar position to mine for the benefit of the country.”  Asked what advice he would offer the embattled leader, Muhammad Omar replied: “He doesn’t listen to advice. A lot of people try to advise him but he still has a hard head and he doesn’t want to listen.” Al-Mukhtar’s son described Qaddafi’s killing of civilians as “appalling… nobody expected him to behave like this” (Irish Times, March 2; al-Arabiya, February 27).


1. Ali Abdullatif Ahmida, The Making of Modern Libya: State Formation, Colonization, and Resistance, 2nd ed., New York, 2009.
2. Tahir al-Zawi: ‘Umar al-Mukhtar, Tripoli, 1970, p.84.
3. David Blundy and Andrew Lycett, Qaddafi and the Libyan Revolution, London, 1987, p.37.
4. Dirk Vandewalle, Libya Since Independence, London, 1998, p.130.
5. Quoted in Mahmoud Ayoub, Islam and the Third Universal Theory: The Religious Thought of Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi, London, 1987, pp. 133-34.

French Operation in Afghanistan Aims to Open New Coalition Supply Route

Andrew McGregor

November 25, 2009

Not far from the site of a disastrous encounter with Afghan insurgents last year, French forces have now mounted an offensive to clear the strategic Tagab valley of Taliban and Hizb-i-Islami fighters. An important mission lies behind “Operation Avalon” – the construction of a new road through the valley as part of a larger effort to create secure supply routes for NATO forces in Afghanistan. The operation is being carried out by the newly created Task Force La Fayette (TF La Fayette).

French Afghanistan 13e Régiment d’Infanterie de Marine (3e RIMa) in Action in Afghanistan (Ministére de la Défense)

The French forces include roughly 700 men from the 3e Régiment d’Infanterie de Marine (3e RIMa), with smaller units from the 2e Régiment Étranger d’Infanterie (Foreign Legion). In recent years the 3e RIMa has taken part in operations in Chad, the 1991 Gulf War, Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Albania and the Central African Republic. The French troops are accompanied by 100 men of the Afghan National Army (ANA) with air support from French and American attack helicopters. The advancing troops have been met with sniper fire and rocket-propelled grenades. A November 15 Taliban rocket attack on the town of Tagab killed three people and wounded dozens more only 300 meters from a meeting between Task Force commander General Marcel Druart and a group of tribal elders (Radio France Internationale, November 15).

TF La Fayette operates from four forward bases in Kapisa and Surobi provinces, with support detachments in Kabul. Most operations are conducted jointly with ANA units. With a command post at Nijab, TF La Fayette is composed of two Groupements tactiques interarmes (GTIA); GTIA Kapisa (currently drawn largely from Foreign Legion infantry, armor and engineering units) and GTIA Surobi (currently drawn largely from Marine infantry and artillery units). The Task Force also includes a command and support battalion in Kabul and a battalion of 11 helicopters based at Kabul International Airport. Within the task force’s zone of operations, French Operational Mentoring and Liaison Teams (OMLT) are attached to units of the 3rd Brigade of the ANA’s 201st Corps.

The French Deployment in Afghanistan

French military involvement in Afghanistan began in late 2001 with the arrival of French Special Forces and the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle. The first French Special Forces unit to deploy was the 13e Régiment de Dragons Parachutistes (13e RDP), specializing in long-range reconnaissance missions. The 13e RDP was soon joined by the 1er Régiment de Parachutistes d’Infanterie de Marine (1er RPIMa), the other component of the Brigade des Forces Spéciales Terre (BFST), the French army’s Special Forces component. The 1er RPIMa began its existence as a Free French unit of the British Special Air Service (SAS) during World War II. Other French troops began to deploy in 2002 and formed the Kabul Battle Group in 2003. To date, 36 French soldiers have died in Afghanistan.

An air transport detachment is based at Dushanbe in Tajikistan. Security for French air operations in Dushanbe is provided by the Commandos Parachutistes de l’Air no.10, specially trained in assaulting or defending airfields. In October, Spain and France were forced to relocate supply aircraft and personnel from the Manas base in Kyrgyzstan when permission was withdrawn after the expiration of an earlier agreement. The French aircraft and personnel were transferred to the airbase at Dushanbe (AFP, October 25). France also operates a detachment of drones based at Bagram air base. The drones provide surveillance and reconnaissance services, mainly in northeast Afghanistan.

Six French warplanes providing support to Afghan and Coalition forces have been based in Kandahar since 2007. Further combat air support has at times been available from the Charles de Gaulle, operating in the north Indian Ocean. As part of Operation Enduring Freedom, France contributes naval forces to Task Forces 150 and 57 in the north Indian Ocean.

The French military in Afghanistan works closely with reconstruction teams in developing their area of operations. According to the commander of the 3e RIMa, Colonel Francis Chanson, “Success in Kapisa will hinge on development more than the destruction of insurgents… I’m not trying to gain their heart, but their confidence” (Stars and Stripes, October 31).

Battles in Sarubi and Alasay

Last August French troops in the Surubi district of Kabul province were hit by a massive combined Taliban/Hizb-i-Islami ambush that left ten French soldiers dead and 21 wounded. A political firestorm followed in France amidst allegations of inadequate planning, possible Taliban execution or mutilation of French prisoners and a Paris Match interview with the Taliban commander who led the ambush, complete with photos of Taliban fighters wearing the military equipment and personal effects of dead French soldiers.

French Afghanistan 2Mountain Warfare Specialists: The Chasseurs Alpins 27e Battalion in Afghanistan

In March, French troops from GTIA Kapisa and a battalion of the ANA were involved in the Battle of Alasay, a successful attempt to drive the Taliban out of the Alasay valley, which insurgents had controlled since 2006. The French troops belonged to the Chasseurs Alpins 27e Battalion, an elite mountain warfare unit. With the aid of U.S. air support in the form of F15-E fighters, A-10 Thunderbolts, AH-64 Apache helicopters and Predator drones, the operation was able to establish two new ANA bases in the valley despite the refusal of Afghan troops to advance at one point in the battle (Le Point, March 24).

Italy’s Role in Sarubi in Question

While a French intelligence report was highly critical of the August 2008 Sarubi operation that led to 10 French deaths, media investigations have indicated that an Italian policy of paying off Taliban fighters while Italian troops operated in Surubi prior to the arrival of the French may have played a major role in the disaster (RFI, September 5, 2008). An October 15 report by the Times revealed Italy’s secret service had been paying Taliban commanders and local warlords to keep the region quiet and avoid Italian casualties. The U.S. ambassador in Rome was reported to have made an unpublicized démarche (diplomatic protest) over the Italian policy after American communications intercepts of conversations between Italian intelligence agents and Taliban commanders disclosed the existence of the payoffs. The payments were not revealed to French forces when they took over from the Italians in Sarubi in July 2008. The result was an entirely inaccurate French threat assessment based on the Italian experience in the area. When hundreds of insurgents attacked the French column in Sarubi, it came as a complete surprise to the lightly armed force. [2]

Italian officials have denied the reports, saying the alleged démarche was merely a “request for information.” U.S. embassy officials would neither confirm nor deny the report. Italian Defense Minister Ignazio La Russa described the allegations as “complete rubbish,” suggesting the insurgents had failed to mount attacks because of “the behavior of our military, which is very different compared to that of other contingents” (Times, October 16).

The Times has stood by its report, citing the American intercepts. It also received confirmation of the payments from Afghan government officials, senior ANA officers and a Sarubi Taliban commander, Mohammad Ishmayel (Times, October 16). Families of French soldiers killed in the Sarubi operation are asking if the Italian payments were used to buy the arms used by insurgents in the ambush (France 24, October 16).

Sarkozy’s Balancing Act

With pressure from the U.S. to increase its deployment on one hand—but polls suggesting a majority of French voters oppose French participation in the Afghanistan conflict on the other—President Nicolas Sarkozy declared in late October that French participation was “necessary,” but “France will not send a single soldier more” (Le Parisien, August 22; Le Figaro, October 14).  Sarkozy noted it was France’s goal to see Afghan troops step up to combat the Taliban. “They will be the most effective in winning this war because it is their country. But we need to pay them more to avoid desertions that benefit the Taliban.”

Nevertheless, France has increased the number of vital combat troops engaged in Afghanistan without increasing total numbers by turning over guard duties in Kabul to a Georgian unit, allowing one company to join frontline operations. 150 sailors currently part of Operation Enduring Freedom will no longer be counted as part of the French deployment in Afghanistan, allowing an increase in the same number of combat troops. A detachment of 150 gendarmes trained and equipped as infantry will train Afghan police but will not be counted in the military deployment (Le Monde, November 18). [1] The operational reclassification of 150 sailors will allow the return of 150 members of France’s Special Forces, which have not deployed in Afghanistan since being withdrawn in 2007.

Besides public opposition, the French war in Afghanistan is also facing challenges from French courts. Under a 2005 law, French officers can now be tried in criminal proceedings before the Armed Forces Tribunal in Paris for “unintentional acts committed in the exercise of their duties” if it is established “that they failed to display normal diligence, on account of the power and resources available to them and the difficulties inherent to the missions entrusted to them by the law” (Le Monde, November 12). The latest case has been filed on behalf of two families of French soldiers killed in the Sarubi ambush of August 2008. Senior officers are naturally disturbed by the new role of civilian judges in reviewing military decisions.


French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner recently criticized the German contingent of NATO in Afghanistan, saying they “are not there to fight” (AFP, November 5). France, on the other hand, has indicated through its military reorganization in Afghanistan a commitment to a greater emphasis on combat operations. The professional soldiers of the French Marine and Foreign Legion units are no doubt determined to reverse the damage done at Sarubi and the Special Forces are eager to return to Afghanistan. Though Kouchner has acknowledged that Afghan president Hamid Karzai is “corrupt,” he has resisted setting a date for an eventual French withdrawal from Afghanistan, saying only that “Four to five years [from now] seems to me to be a reasonable prospect” (AFP, November 16).

1. La Libé
2. Jean Dominique Merchet, Mourir pour l’Afghanistan, Éditions Jacob Duvernet, Paris, 2008

This article first appeared in the November 25, 2009 Issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.