Uganda’s Complicated Relationship with Libya’s Mu’ammar Qaddafi

Andrew McGregor

March 31, 2011

In a surprise announcement, Uganda has offered refuge to Libya’s embattled leader, Mu’ammar Qaddafi (AP, March 30). The offer came at the same time as Ugandan government institutions began seizing Libyan assets and investments in Uganda. Libya has extensive investments in Uganda through its Libyan African Investment Portfolio. Among those assets seized are Uganda Telecom (69% Libyan ownership) the Tropical Bank (99.7% Libyan ownership) and the four-star Lake Victoria Hotel (99% Libyan ownership) (New Vision [Kampala], March 29; Daily Monitor [Kampala], March 1).  Total Libyan investment in Uganda is estimated at $375 million. Libya is also a major source of funds for the African Union and the Ugandan-dominated African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).

Libyans UgandaLibyan Troops being Reviewed by Idi Amin in Kampala, 1979

Qaddafi’s most controversial involvement with Uganda came in 1979, when he sent 2,500 Libyan troops together with armor, rockets, artillery and air cover to support Ugandan dictator Idi Amin from an invasion by Ugandan dissidents supported by Tanzanian regulars. Only a year after Major General Idi Amin seized power in Uganda, Qaddafi had managed to persuade him to abandon his Israeli patrons in return for substantial cash donations and investment. The deployment was a military disaster. Far from saving Amin, the arrival of the Libyan troops was interpreted by Amin’s defenders (many of whom were Sudanese) as an opportunity to flee Kampala with looted goods as the Libyans provided cover against the encroaching anti-Amin forces. Many of the Libyans appear to have been told they were going to southern Libya for military exercises. Confusion reigned and the Libyan forces were shattered. Casualties were heavy as the survivors were taken prisoner by the invaders. There were many reports of captured prisoners being executed while some luckier Libyan troops were eventually repatriated to Libya, where Idi Amin also sought refuge before moving on to permanent exile in Saudi Arabia.

Despite this military humiliation, Qaddafi continued to seek influence in Ugandan affairs, an agenda that was assisted by a 1981 encounter with future Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni,  at that point still a guerrilla leader opposing the Ugandan government of Milton Obote (possibly an even worse leader than Idi Amin). Museveni had also fought with the Ugandan dissidents against Libyan troops in Kampala in 1979, though this did not initially pose a problem in the relationship between the two men. Qaddafi began supplying Museveni’s National Resistance Army (NRA) with supplies of badly needed arms and munitions, enabling Museveni’s triumph in 1986.

Libyans Uganda 2Qaddafi National Mosque, Kampala

The skyline of Kampala is dominated by the massive Qaddafi National Mosque, an elaborate building funded by the Libyan leader, who incensed Uganda’s Christian majority at the 2008 opening by claiming the Bible was a forgery and inviting Ugandan Christians to visit Mecca.  Qaddafi was also scheduled on the same trip to unveil a plaque near the Tanzanian border honoring the Libyan soldiers who intervened on Amin’s side in 1979. However, the event was cancelled and Qaddafi made a hasty return to Tripoli after a prominent Ugandan Muslim, Shaykh Obeid Kamulegeya, allegedly informed Qaddafi that Museveni’s faction of fighters had been responsible for the slaughter of captured Libyan troops at a Roman Catholic convent outside of Kampala (Uganda Record, December 21, 2010). A year later there were reports that Ugandan intelligence had discovered Libya had sent funds to support anti-Museveni riots in September 2009 (Kampala FM, September 20, 2009).

Some light on Museveni’s views of Qaddafi was shed by U.S. embassy cables exposed by Wikileaks. In 2007, Museveni complained to Africa Bureau Assistant Secretary Jendayi Frazer that Qaddafi was using bribery and intimidation to persuade West African states to sign on to a union of African states under Qaddafi’s leadership (cable of September 14, 2007, carried by the Guardian, December 7, 2010). Frazer again met with Museveni several months after Qaddafi’s abrupt departure from Uganda. While the Ugandan leader continued to be critical of Qaddafi’s efforts to create a “United States of Africa,” Museveni now confided he was afraid Qaddafi would try to kill him by attacking his plane in international airspace (cable of June 18, 2008, carried by the Guardian, December 7, 2010).

Given Libya’s lengthy and complicated relationship with Uganda, President Museveni penned an open letter on his views of the relationship published by Ugandan dailies (New Vision, March 22). Museveni began by listing a series of “mistakes” by the Libyan leader. These included:

• Backing Idi Amin under the mistaken assessment that Uganda was a “Muslim country” where Amin and other Muslims were oppressed by Christians.

• Qaddafi’s insistence on creating a “United States of Africa” under his own leadership.

• Proclaiming himself an African “King of Kings” by bypassing legitimate African political leaders to appeal directly to traditional African leaders such as local kings or chiefs, most of whom now perform only ceremonial roles in Africa.

• Ignoring the plight of South Sudan to support the Arab leadership of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, now wanted on war crimes charges laid by the International Criminal Court.

• Failing to distance himself from terrorism and the use of indiscriminate violence.

Nevertheless, Museveni also listed a number of qualities possessed by the Libyan leader while describing the importance of Qaddafi’s provision of arms to Museveni’s fighters in 1981: “Qaddafi, whatever his faults, is a true nationalist. I prefer nationalists to puppets of foreign interests.” Describing the Libyan leader as a “moderate,” Museveni pointed to the development of Libya during Qaddafi’s time in power, his advocacy of women’s rights and his opposition to “Islamic fundamentalism.”

The Ugandan president also had harsh words for the Libyan rebel movement: “Regarding the Libyan opposition, I would feel embarrassed to be backed by Western war planes. Quislings of foreign interests have never helped Africa… If the Libyan opposition groups are patriots, they should fight their war by themselves… After all, they easily captured so much equipment from the Libyan Army, [so] why do they need foreign military support? I had only 27 rifles [when Museveni started his campaign to liberate Uganda].”

This article first appeared in the March 31, 2011 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Syrian Regime Deploys Military in Naval Port of Latakia

Andrew McGregor

March 31, 2011

For the first time in his 11 years as ruler of Syria, President Bashar al-Assad has deployed elements of the Syrian military against a domestic target – the protesters that had taken to the streets of the Syrian port of Latakia to demand political and economic reforms (Reuters, March 28). The insertion of the military on March 27 came as official sources reported the death of 12 individuals in Latakia on March 26, including demonstrators and security officials (Syrian Arab News Agency [SANA], March 27).

Latakia 1Though the region surrounding Latakia is dominated by members of the ruling Alawite faith, the city itself (350 km northwest of Damascus) is a mix of Alawites, Sunni Muslims and Christians. Since a 1966 internal coup within the Ba’ath Party, Alawites have dominated Syrian politics despite being a national minority that many orthodox Muslims believe has only superficial connections to Islam. Alawites continue to dominate the highest ranks of the Syrian military and the intelligence services.

Latakia was recently in the news as the port where two Iranian naval ships (the frigate Alvand and the supply ship Kharg) docked after passing through the Suez Canal. While in Latakia, Iranian Admiral Habibollah Sayyari and Syrian naval commander Lieutenant General Talib al-Barri signed an agreement of mutual naval cooperation (Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran Radio 1, February 26). The small Syrian Navy consists of two frigates, at least ten missile attack craft and a host of smaller craft. Latakia is one of four ports used by the Syrian Navy.

Latakia 2Iranian Frigate Alvand Docked at Latakia

Syrian officials were incensed by remarks from Muslim Brother and well-known Islamic scholar Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who told a Doha mosque congregation that Arab regimes such as Syria’s were failing to learn from each others’ mistakes, continuing repressive policies despite the “train of the Arab revolution” having arrived in Syria. Al-Qaradawi described Assad as “a prisoner of his corrupted entourage” and predicted that the Syrian army would play “a decisive role” in determining Syria’s future (Gulf Times, March 26). Assad’s media advisor responded to the shaykh’s charges by saying: “’According to all Koranic or faith logic, it is not up to a cleric to incite sedition; and this is not one of the tasks of men of religion at all” (al-Watan [Damascus], March 27).

The Assad regime has taken extraordinary lengths to pin responsibility for the disturbances on a host of foreign sources rather than acknowledge discontent within Syria. On March 11, Syrian security forces reported seizing a shipment of arms from Iraq that was crossing the border into Syria in a refrigerated truck (SANA, March 11). Iranian and Hezbollah sources have described an anti-Syrian conspiracy centered on the Tayyar al-Mustaqbal (Future Movement) led by former Lebanese Prime Minister Sa’ad Hariri. Syrian authorities tied the movement to the reported seizure of seven boats from Lebanon to Latakia with cargoes of weapons, money and narcotics.

Hariri was also connected to Prince Bandar bin Sultan of Saudi Arabia, who was accused of “guiding the complex American and [Saudi] Arabian plan for creating unrest in Syria” (Fars News Agency, March 29). A Lebanese MP denied the allegations, noting the Future Movement did not even have weapons to defend itself (LBC, March 29). Syria’s Grand Mufti, Shaykh Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun, took to national TV on March 25 to confirm that external “instigation” is seeking to undermine the anti-Israel “resistance” (Day Press [Damascus], March 26). Israel’s Foreign Ministry in turn attempted to implicate Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah in the attacks on demonstrators by saying demonstrators heard some members of the security services speaking Farsi (Hezbollah members speak Arabic rather than Farsi) (Israeli Defense Force Radio, March 27; Jerusalem Post, March 28).

Syrian officials also blamed the violence in Latakia on Palestinians from the al-Raml refugee camp outside the city. The allegations were denied by Ahmad Jibril, the leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command (PFLP-GC), which runs the camp and is known for its loyalty to the Syrian regime. The Syrian claims were strongly criticized in the Jordanian press, which asked why Palestinian refugees would volunteer to shoot demonstrators who are their “kin and neighbors” (al-Dustur, March 28; al-Ra’y, March 28). A Syrian spokesperson noted that among those arrested in Latakia were one Egyptian, one Algerian and five Lebanese and pointed to a foreign conspiracy: “The only side happy with what is happening in Syria is Israel, and some members of [U.S.] Congress who are mobilizing against Syria” (al-Watan, March 27). Damascus has been organizing pro-government marches in which the participants stress “their rejection and condemnation of the organized foreign campaigns targeting Syria’s safety, stability and national unity” (SANA, March 26).

In his first remarks on the unrest in Syria, President Assad declined on March 30 to repeal the 1963 emergency law with its wide powers for repression, a key demand of the protesters. Having identified the source of Syria’s unrest as a “foreign conspiracy,” the president’s speech was followed by hundreds of protesters taking to the streets of Latakia to chant “Freedom” (Reuters, March 30). The Syrian cabinet resigned en masse on March 29 as Facebook activists try to organize massive anti-government rallies for Friday, April 1.

This article first appeared in the March 31, 2011 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Peninsula Shield Force Intervenes in Bahrain

Andrew McGregor

March 24, 2011

Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa has announced a “foreign plot” against his country was thwarted by the military intervention of forces under the command of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) (Global Arab Network, March 21; VOA, March 21). The deployment was apparently carried out without consultation with Washington though short notice was given (AFP, March 14). A rare moment of agreement was seen in the responses of Washington and Tehran, with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggesting the “alarming” intervention was “not the answer” to Bahrain’s problems, while the Iranian Foreign Ministry described the intervention as “unacceptable” (CNN, March 17; Tehran Times, March 16). The GCC deployment indicates the Arab states of the Gulf region obviously feel more comfortable providing military support to regimes like Bahrain’s than revolutionaries such as those fighting in Libya.

PSFThe PSF Crosses into Bahrain over the King Fahd Causeway

The GCC member states, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman and the United Arab Emirates, define security as a collective responsibility and therefore reject criticism from the UN and elsewhere that the arrival of GCC forces in Bahrain was a “foreign military intervention.” This stance has been supported by the Arab League, which described the entry of GCC troops as “legitimate” (WAM – Emirates News Agency, March 22). The Peninsula Shield Force (PSF) draws on troops from GCC member states and has fluctuated in size since its creation in 1982, ranging from between 5,000 men in its early days to a current total of nearly 40,000 troops including infantry, artillery, armor and combat support units with a permanent base at Hafar al-Batin in Saudi Arabia.

The PSF was created as the military wing of the GCC in response to the threat posed by the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, which threatened the security of the entire region. Pledged to protect the security and territorial integrity of member nations, the PSF was first mobilized in 1986 during the battle between Iran and Iraq for the Faq Peninsula, which brought the fighting dangerously close to several Gulf states and threatened oil exports.  After PSF troops were deployed in Kuwait during the second Gulf War of 1990-1991, the PSF intensified its efforts to transform itself into a highly coordinated, well-armed and thoroughly trained force capable of responding quickly to security threats (al-Sharq al-Awsat, March 16). The PSF was again deployed in Kuwait in 2003 in the lead-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

A PSF detachment of 1,000 mechanized Saudi troops and 500 police from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) crossed the causeway into Bahrain on March 13 in response to a request for military support from Bahrain. Qatari Colonel Abdullah al-Hajri has confirmed Qatari troops have joined the PSF in Bahrain, but did not elaborate on the size and composition of their contribution (AFP, March 18). Kuwait has also announced it is sending a naval group to protect Bahrain’s coastal waters (Watan [Kuwait], March 18).

In Bahrain, the PSF has been tasked with protecting infrastructure such as power stations, oil facilities and government buildings as well as maintaining law and order (Saudi Gazette, March 15).  Prominent Shiite cleric Shaykh Issa Qassim, a major supporter of the protests in Bahrain, told worshippers on March 18 that the GCC troops could be put to better use defending Palestinians in Gaza from Israeli attack than patrolling the streets of Bahrain (Arab Times, March 18).An opposition statement described the PSF’s arrival as “an overt occupation of the kingdom of Bahrain and a conspiracy against the unarmed people of Bahrain” (al-Sharq al-Awsat, March 15).

The PSF is led by joint forces commander Major General Mutlaq Salem al-Azima, who told al-Arabiya the PSF has no intention of interfering in Bahrain’s politics: “The role of the troops is to protect strategic sites, whether marine or air bases, as well as military camps outside the cities and they do not take part in Bahrain’s internal affairs… The troops will stay until foreign [i.e. Iranian] threats are warded off. Till this happens, the troops will remain to serve the military leadership of the kingdom of Bahrain” (al-Arabiya, March 23).

The commander of the Bahrain Defense Forces, Marshal Shaykh Khalifa bin Ahmed al-Khalifa and National Guard Commander Lieutenant General Shaykh Muhammad bin Isa al-Khalifa, both members of the ruling family,  inspected the PSF forces on March 23, where the BDF commander praised the work of the GCC troops in deterring threats to Bahrain (Bahrain News Agency, March 23).

Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, denounced the GCC’s military intervention and accused the United States of sponsoring the action:  “Regional nations hold the U.S. government accountable for such a heinous behavior… The U.S. seeks to save the Zionist regime and suppress popular uprisings. So, it supports certain governments” (Press TV [Tehran], March 17).  In a letter to the UN, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi asked: “How could one accept a government to invite foreign military forces to suppress its own citizens?” (Arab Times, March 18). Bahrain, which blames Iran for the unrest, withdrew its ambassador to Tehran in protest (Bahrain News Agency, March 15). The Saudi embassy in Tehran and a consulate in Mashhad have since been attacked by Iranian demonstrators opposing the PSF deployment in Bahrain (al-Sharq al-Awsat, March 21).

This article first appeared in the March 24, 2011 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor


Afghan Taliban Denounce NATO Attacks on Libya But Do Not Pick Sides

Andrew McGregor

March 24, 2011

Afghanistan’s Taliban movement has responded to the Western intervention in the Libyan rebellion with predictable anger, but declined to declare their support for either the loyalist or rebel factions in the conflict (, March 20).

The statement from the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” described the intervention as a “politically-motivated and uncalled for” adventure that would harm Libya and the greater Islamic community. Without making reference to either Qaddafi or the rebels, the Taliban simply expressed “pity that the situation in Libya evolved to the extent that paved the way for anti-Islamic forces to intervene.” The Taliban believe the intervention is intended to weaken Libya through a war of attrition before seizing its oil reserves in a direct invasion.

The movement’s recommendations are somewhat ambiguous; the Taliban suggests that the Libyan people “fulfill their Islamic and national duty” so that “internal and external enemies” cannot use them as “scapegoats for their warmongering policy.” The ummah [Islamic community] and rulers of the Islamic world should not remain neutral, but should play a role “in line with the interests of Islam,” which will enable Libya to evade “the tentacles of foreign colonialism.” The statement appears to reflect the Taliban’s reluctance to issue a statement supporting either Qaddafi, whose “Green Book” ideology is abhorrent to most Islamists, or the largely secular rebel movement. Neither camp can be described as sympathetic to the Islamists, who have played a relatively insignificant role in the rebellion.

Colonialism has been a Taliban concern lately as the movement develops a response to U.S. proposals to establish permanent military bases in Afghanistan. In a statement entitled “The Afghans Can’t Tolerate the Occupation even for a Single Day, Let Alone Tolerate Permanent Bases,” the Taliban ask, “How is it possible that the proud tradition of the common Afghans and the religious obligation and the Afghan characteristics of the mujahideen will allow them to overlook the overall American presence in the country?”

A recent article in the Taliban’s al-Somood magazine entitled “The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan: Combating Colonialism, Between Yesterday and Today” compared the Russian occupation of Afghanistan to that of the United States: “To us there is no difference between the Russians and the Americans. Each of them has occupied our country and shed our blood, destroyed our civilization, corrupted our culture and our religion… If yesterday, Russia described the battalions of liberation and jihad and all the mujahideen as evil, America… likewise describes its unjust and evil occupation as fighting terrorism, its intervention in other countries’ affairs as building civilization and restoring women’s rights, its obliteration of the economy as opium eradication and the sabotage of minds and ideas as education and culture” (al-Somood 56, March 10).


This article first appeared in the March 24, 2011 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Security Implications for North Africa in the Wake of the Arab Revolution

Andrew McGregor

March 18, 2011

Speech delivered to the Jamestown Foundation Conference – “The Impact of Arab Uprisings on Regional Stability in the Middle East and North Africa,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington D.C, March 18, 2011.

Storming the Bastille – Revolution in France, 1789


Nostradamus himself could not have foretold the wave of political change that has been unleashed on the Arab world, all sparked by the self-immolation of a single Tunisian sidewalk vendor who could not find any other way of expressing his indignation at a corrupt and authoritarian system.

Revolutions are dangerous creatures that can unleash all kinds of unpredictable social forces that can take a revolution a long way from where it started.

The French Revolution of 1789, which both inspired and terrified Europe, began with the journées, days of mass action much like the “days of anger” we see today in the Arab world. Though the king and queen were led to their death, it was not long after that leading revolutionaries such as Robespierre had their own meetings with Madame Guillotine.  Liberty, Fraternity and Equality became a mere slogan as Napoleon Bonaparte, the revolution’s leading general, restored authoritarianism to France and directing the slaughter of a generation of young men in pursuit of imperial conquest.

The European Revolution of 1848 and the Arab Revolution of 2011

In its size, sudden development and transnational character, the Arab Revolution most closely resembles the revolutions that shook Europe in 1848. There were many similarities, including:

  • A rapid spread from country to country, despite each nation’s revolution having a different character and circumstances
  • The revolts crossed social boundaries, even attracting an often reluctant middle class
  • Governments appeared to cave in at first
  • Too many university graduates were pursuing too few jobs. Higher education actually left them without the skills to pursue other types of employment
  • No charismatic leader emerged along the lines of a Bolivar, Garibaldi, Castro or even Washington.

Revolution in Berlin, 1848

The Results of the 1848 Revolutions?

  • Small concessions from the governments led to dwindling interest in revolution
  • When the casual revolutionaries gave up, the revolutions were doomed
  • The revolutions came to be dominated by a single political perspective (in this case, the left)
  • By the summer of 1848, the forces of counter-revolution had time to reorganize and began clearing the barricades with the loss of thousands of lives
  • The revolts in Hungary and Italy became larger wars of national liberation, but within one year both had been solidly defeated by the Hapsburgs
  • In France, the Second Republic was soon replaced by the Second Empire of Louis-Napoleon.

In the end, all of the national revolts failed, but they laid the foundation and provided the inspiration for later revolts such as the Paris Commune of 1871 and the Russian Revolution of 1917. Most importantly, they signaled that the end of absolute monarchies was in sight.  In this sense, even failed revolutions can have an enormous impact on political developments decades later.

Arms for Africa

It has been suggested in some quarters that the military weakness of Libya’s rebels can be overcome with supplies of modern weapons. It must be noted, though, that every influx of arms into the Sahel/Sahara region in the last century has been followed by years of violence.

It was an influx of arms that contributed to the breakdown of order in Darfur that eventually resulted in tens of thousands of dead. Darfur used a centuries old inter-tribal resolution system usually involving compensation in cash or animals to deal with incidents of violence such as murder. However, this system broke down when the introduction of automatic weapons allowed the slaughter of dozens of people at a time by a single individual. Traditional methods of maintaining peace and security were simply overwhelmed by advances in killing technology.

Arms may be the solution to Qaddafi, but they will not bring stability to North Africa. Those advocating the shipment of modern arms to Libya’s rebels speak of controls over whose hands they wind up in. This, however, is wishful thinking. Once introduced, arms are sold, abandoned, lost, stolen, surrendered, or given away. Reports that anti-aircraft missiles taken from the armories of eastern Libya have already found their way to the hands of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb should give pause to those backing a military solution to the Libyan insurrection.

Libya – Key to African Security or African Chaos?

The half-hearted endorsement of a no fly zone by the Arab League was taken by NATO as a green light for attacks on Qaddafi’s forces. In reality, with the exception of wealthy but distant Qatar, most of the Arab League has kept a committed distance from the conflict. Egypt, with its own internal crisis that has largely disappeared from the news, appears unable or unwilling to exert influence on the events in Libya. To the west, there are unverified rumors that Algeria’s own military-based regime is providing arms and aid to Qaddafi. Algeria has no desire to see the Arab revolution wash up on the shores of Tripoli, and giving the Libyan rebels a bloody nose would go a long way to discouraging like-minded dissidents in Algeria.

In neighboring Chad and Sudan two other political survivors, General Idriss Deby and Field Marshal Omar al-Bashir, will not be hasty in counting out Qaddafi. Both nations have deep if turbulent ties with Libya, which has fluctuated between assisting their development and interfering in their internal affairs. In the meantime both are keeping their distance, but if Qaddafi falls it is likely that both will attempt to exert their own influence on the formation of a new regime.

Qaddafi’s Desert Alternative

The fall of Tripoli would not necessarily mean the end of Qaddafi or his regime. The Libyan leader would have the option of retiring on military bases in the desert where he enjoys solid support. With access to fighters from neighboring countries, Qaddafi or his successors could continue low-scale but debilitating attacks on Libya’s oil infrastructure that would effectively prevent any new Libyan government from getting off the ground without substantial foreign aid and assistance. It would not be difficult to raise a tribal force opposed to what would be seen as a Benghazi-based government intent on depriving the western and southern tribes of power, influence and funds. Such a conflict could go on for years, with predictable effects on oil prices. The rebels do not have the means, and possibly not even the inclination, to distribute oil revenues throughout the larger Libyan society.

Revolution in Libya, 2011

Should Qaddafi feel he is losing his grip on Libya it is possible that he could turn to asymmetrical warfare by once again sponsoring international terrorism, especially with strikes against the Western nations leading the attack on his regime. We also have no reason to suppose that a rump government in Benghazi would be a force for restoring security in the region. The rebels lack a trained security force or any kind of administration with a common goal other than the removal of Mu’ammar Qaddafi.

The al-Qaeda Question

The question here is not whether al-Qaeda will want to take advantage of instability in North Africa, but whether it can operate in any meaningful way.

Egypt is the historical crossroads of the world and as such it is an appealing theater of operations for al-Qaeda, which has ideological roots there through the works of Ibn at-Taymiyya and Sayid QutbAl-Qaeda could certainly attempt to penetrate Egypt and resume operations there, a course that would definitely appeal to Ayman al-Zawahiri and the other Egyptians in exile that form much of core al-Qaeda. However, al-Qaeda does not appear to have any active cells in Egypt, or even many sympathizers. There is little appetite for a return to the dirty backstreet war between Islamist extremists and the regime in the 1990s. More importantly, most Egyptians recognize that instability equals poverty, that terrorism isolates Egypt from the international community, depriving them of markets and important sources of foreign currency

Al-Qaeda still does not present a political alternative developed beyond slogans promising the establishment of a Caliphate and the implementation of Shari’a law. With insufficient agricultural production, a rapidly increasing population, massive unemployment and underemployment and threats to its water supply that pose dangers to cultivation and power supplies, Egypt is in need of more thoughtful strategies than those supplied by the extremists. There are many sincere Muslims in the region who desire Shari’a, but they would also be the first to question the wisdom of leaving this in the hands of the band of kidnappers, murderers and drug traffickers that make up al-Qaeda in North Africa.

Opportunities will nevertheless be presented for al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb from the conflicts that will inevitably follow revolution. Attention and resources will be diverted from their activities, while arms and alliances will become available to strengthen their position.

Sudan – Darfur

Cobbled together from scores of ethnic and tribal groups speaking hundreds of different languages, Sudan, unsurprisingly, has been a center of dissent, rebellion and outright civil war from its first day of independence. While popular revolts may be something new along the Mediterranean coast, Sudan’s people have already overthrown two dictators (Ibrahim Abboud, 1964; Ja’afar Nimeiri, 1984).

With the conflict in Darfur continuing despite a decline in foreign or media interest, and a number of unresolved issues threatening the peaceful separation of the south from the north, Sudan is now faced with the possibility of further disruptions to security arriving from its northern neighbors of Egypt and Libya. Qaddafi’s Libya has actually played a vital role in negotiating a peace settlement in Darfur and it is uncertain who would step up to fill the void. A small protest movement in Khartoum has been firmly repressed so far, but there is enormous dissatisfaction in the North with President Omar al-Bashir, who has failed to keep the country together and has lost most of its oil revenues to the new southern state. In the current situation there is the possibility of both North and South Sudan turning into failed states with enormous consequences for a large part of Africa.

The Tuareg – What Will They Do After Libya?

The collapse of the Qaddafi regime will have an enormous impact on the states of the Sahara and Sahel, including Chad, Mali and Niger. Libya is an integral part of the economies of many of these states, both through financial donations and the employment of hundreds of thousands of migrant workers from these countries. Qaddafi regards this region as the Libyan hinterland and has played in important if sometimes destabilizing role in the area, particularly through his recruitment and sponsorship of the Tuareg peoples, whose ancient homeland has been divided between half a dozen nations in the post-colonial era. Having long acted as a kind of sponsor for the activities of Tuareg fighters battling regimes that regard the Tuareg presence as inconvenient and undesirable, Qaddafi is now arming Tuareg warriors who are rallying to his cause. Regardless of whether Qaddafi wins or loses, there is immense concern in these nations that the Tuareg fighters will return to their home states to initiate a new round of rebellions in poorly secured but oil and uranium-rich regions.

What Direction for Egyptian Security?

The Egyptian Revolution is not yet history. In fact, we may only have witnessed the first phase of a process that could continue for years or even decades. It is unlikely that Egypt’s officer corps, unquestionably part of Egypt’s elite, is willing to oversee the transfer of power from that same well-entrenched elite to the masses.  Indeed, it would be unreasonable to think that this would be their first instinct.  In Egypt, political revolution is also social revolution, and these things don’t usually happen overnight. 

Egypt’s internal security services collapsed in the wake of the Egyptian Revolution and are in the difficult process of being rebuilt and restructured with a new mandate that promises to pursue genuine security threats rather than internal political opposition.

While there were many cases of government violence against demonstrators, there were remarkably few incidents of retaliatory violence against members of the security services during the revolution.  Egypt does not have a taste for violent revolution. Such matters are traditionally handled by the nation’s elite, now formed from the military leadership.

The question here is how effective will a restructured security service devoted, as promised, to foreign rather than internal threats will be in controlling extremists. Egypt managed to destroy its radical Islamist movement by deploying an Interior Ministry force three times the size of the military, aided by legions of informers, both paid and coerced. Securing Egypt from Islamist extremism has come at a considerable cost to the liberty of most Egyptians, a cost no longer considered acceptable. The question, however, is whether a lighter and less-intrusive security presence still be as effective in eliminating Islamist extremism.   

Unforeseen Consequences

Qaddafi’s Libya has always been one of the major financial backers of the African Union. These donations have stopped now with significant consequences for the African Union Mission in Somalia, which already suffers from underfunding. There is no guarantee a new Libyan regime would renew such support, nor is it likely another African state would be able to step in to fill the shortfall.

Sub-Saharan countries have been effectively excluded from partaking in the resolution of the Libyan conflict, even though they will inevitably be affected by what happens in Libya and, moreover, have close ties and influence with Libya. The African Union negotiations were treated as an unimportant sideshow by the nations busy taking out Libya’s armor and air defenses. At some point the West will have to shrug off a self-assumed “White Man’s Burden” that has become outrageously expensive and deeply destabilizing. While it is true that African Union diplomatic and peacekeeping missions have an uneven record, it is also true that African troops aren’t going to get any better at this kind of thing by sitting in their barracks. More cooperative efforts between the West and Africa that acknowledge the interests of those actually living in the continent and the limitations of external parties would do more to stabilize North Africa than a hail of bombs and rockets.


In short, revolution is not an easy thing – most fail, and it would be presumptuous to assume that revolts in Egypt or Libya or the Middle East will lead to inevitable success, regardless of how this success is interpreted. However, whether successful or not, their repercussions can rarely be tamed, making them recipes for insecurity. At best they can be managed, with a bit of luck. At worst, efforts to contain or reverse social and political transformation are only capping the volcano – if it doesn’t erupt there, it will erupt somewhere else, at a time of its own choosing.

Libyan al-Qaeda Leader Says Jihad Is the Only Solution for Libya

Andrew McGregor

March 17, 2011

A Libyan al-Qaeda spokesman has released a 31-minute video claiming al-Qaeda created the conditions that allowed for revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt and inspired the ongoing rebellion in Libya (, March 12). Produced by al-Sahab Media Productions, the video entitled “To Our People in Libya” features leading jihad ideologue Abu Yahya al-Libi (a.k.a. Muhammad Hassan Abu Bakr or Hassan Qayid).

Abu Yayha al-LibiAbu Yahya al-Libi

Al-Libi was captured by NATO forces in Afghanistan in 2002 and detained without trial at Bagram Prison until he escaped in 2005. Since then, he is believed to be living in the tribal regions of northwest Pakistan where he has become an important spokesman for al-Qaeda due to his training in Islamic scholarship, producing numerous videotaped messages. Al-Libi’s brother, Abdulwahab Muhammad Kayid, was one of 110 former members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) freed by Qaddafi’s regime on February 16 (Guardian, March 11).

Al-Libi called on Libyans to follow the example of Sidi Omar al-Mukhtar, the Libyan national hero who led the resistance against Italian occupation in the 1920s. Al-Libi used the term “Shaykh of the Martyrs” to refer to al-Mukhtar, whose legacy has been claimed by both Qaddafi and the Libyan rebels.

Al-Libi denounced the West for its support of “the Pharaoh Hosni Mubarak” and “the tyrant Ben Ali,” claiming that Western nations care only for their own interests without regard for Muslims enduring dictatorship. Citing four decades of mistreatment at the hands of the Qaddafi regime, al-Libi accused Qaddafi of using the Libyans “as a testing ground for his violent, rambling and disgusting thoughts.”

With rebel forces steadily falling back on their stronghold of Benghazi under Libyan military pressure, al-Libi warned of the price that would accompany failure: “Retreating will mean decades of harsher oppression and greater injustices than what you have endured [so far].” He also warned the rebels against surrendering their weapons to loyalist forces, suggesting instead that they build stockpiles of weapons for future use.

The Libyan militant mocked U.S. expressions of sympathy for the rebels, saying that al-Qaeda had shattered the “barrier of fear” that had restrained Muslims from rising against their governments: “There is no dignity without cost, and no dignity without sacrifice.” Though Qaddafi has claimed numerous times that the Libyan revolt is led by al-Qaeda operatives, there is no evidence so far that this is the case.

Al-Libi stated that only the rule of Shari’a can save Libyans and other Muslims living under the rule of Western-backed dictatorships: “The only solution for our country is jihad for Islam.”

This article first appeared in the March 17, 2011 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.


Turkey’s Opposition to Military Intervention in Libya

Andrew McGregor

March 17, 2011

Ankara continues to forge an independent identity for its foreign policy by rejecting calls from some NATO partners for military intervention in the Libyan rebellion. Of all the NATO nations, Turkey has the closest historical and economic ties to the North African nation, a relationship that dates back to the period of Ottoman rule in Libya (1551-1912).

Mustafa KemalMustafa Kemal (left) and Libyan Troops, 1911

Turkey has adopted what it describes as a “principled approach” to the crisis in Libya, though it is certain that political chaos and uncertainty do little to further Turkey’s economic relationship with Libya, which now includes more than $15 billion worth of projects in Libya employing 25,000 Turkish workers and bilateral trade worth $2.4 billion in 2010. Ankara’s measured response to the Libyan insurrection was described by Foreign Ministry deputy undersecretary Selim Yenel: “Turkish foreign policy is based on the rule of law, justice, human rights and universal values. At the same time, we have concerns for the large Turkish expat community in Libya. We have to be very careful in our approach and not risk any reprisals against our citizens or the harming of our interests” (Today’s Zaman, March 6). Though some 20,000 individuals (including non-Turks) were evacuated from Libya by Turkish ships and aircraft, there are believed to be several thousand Turkish nationals who have chosen to remain in the country.

While Turkey was the first country to call for Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak to step down, it has not taken this approach in Libya. Unlike other NATO countries, Turkey has maintained official and even informal contacts with the Libyan regime during the rebellion, with Prime Minister Erdogan disclosing he had called Qaddafi personally to discuss the crisis and to urge the Libyan ruler to appoint a political figure with popular support to seek a solution (al-Arabiya, March 14). Turkey did not freeze Libyan assets or make any change in its diplomatic representation. Ankara has, however, indicated that it would respect any decisions regarding sanctions or military intervention that are passed by the UN Security Council. Libyan dissident Abdul Hafiz Ghoga, the deputy leader of the rebel National Libyan Council, has demanded that Turkey give the rebel group official recognition and direct support, but without success (Journal of the Turkish Weekly, March 12).

Ankara has repeatedly expressed concerns that foreign military intervention, particularly any involving the United States or former colonial powers, would run the immediate risk of delegitimizing not only the Libyan rebellion, but any further revolts against autocratic rule in the Arab world. Said Erdogan: “”We need to give the Libyan people permission to chart their own course” (Reuters, March 14). There is also uncertainty regarding what kind of administration or regime might follow the expulsion of Qaddafi, recognizing the possibility that a rebel victory might be exploited by other forces, including the radical Islamist movement.

Turkey has pointed out that NATO’s mandate does not cover events occurring in Libya. As Prime Minister Erdogan bluntly told a gathering in Hanover, Germany: “What has NATO got to do with Libya? NATO’s intervention in Libya is out of the question. We are against such a thing” (Today’s Zaman, March 6). Turkish President Abdullah Gul later questioned whether military intervention was even desired by the rebels, who used the slogan “Libyans can do it alone!” in the early phases of the rebellion: “A direct NATO intervention in Libya is out of the question… The people, government and opposition in Libya do not want a foreign force in the country” (AFP, March 14).

Turkey has also pointed out that there are alternative means of helping Libyans. According to the Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu: “We are not abandoning Libya. We are taking a temporary measure. We will take every step necessary in the humanitarian aid of the Libyan people” (Anatolia, March 12). Turkey joined with the United Arab Emirates to provide the first humanitarian aid shipment to Libya since the crisis began, sending a Turkish naval frigate to accompany two ships carrying 388 tons of food, 32 tons of medicine, water, portable shelters, mobile ovens and a Turkish Red Crescent team (Hurriyet, March 13; Gulf News, March 13). The Turkish foreign minister noted: “This humanitarian assistance is not aimed at a specific group or region, but at the entire Libyan nation. We aim, circumstances permitting, to have our assistance continue to flow into Libya and reach regions in need throughout the country” (Today’s Zaman, March 14).

The Turkish Prime Minister has been heavily criticized in parliament and the press for accepting the Qaddafi International Prize for Human Rights in a ceremony last November (Hurriyet, February 21; AFP, November 26, 2010). Critics within Turkey have also complained the government’s response places Ankara too close to the Qaddafi regime, but there are signs that Turkey is ready to resume normal relations with Tripoli when the crisis ends. Turkish firm TAV Airports Holding has already announced it is preparing to return to Tripoli to resume work on the construction of two new terminal buildings at Tripoli Airport, part of Turkey’s substantial economic role in developing Libya (Hurriyet, March 17).

This article first appeared in the March 17, 2011 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Burundian Forces Take Heavy Losses in Successful Fight against Somalia’s al-Shabaab

Andrew McGregor

March 10, 2011Burundian Troops 1Burundian Troops in Somalia

While the world’s attention focuses on the uprisings in Arab countries, Burundian troops have made significant progress in leading an offensive against Somalia’s al-Shabaab movement, the first sign of real military progress since the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) was created in early 2007. Burundi’s contribution of four battalions represents roughly 3,000 of AMISOM’s total of 8,000 troops, with the rest drawn from Uganda’s military.

The offensive is a joint operation involving AMISOM forces and troops of Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG). The AMISOM offensive began by rolling up the elaborate system of trenches and tunnels that al-Shabaab has used to infiltrate their fighters into government-held areas of Mogadishu. Burundian troops supported by Somali TFG militias seized the old Ministry of Defense, the Milk Factory and a number of other important sites in Mogadishu that had acted as bases for al-Shabaab forces, reportedly killing 80 Islamists (Agence Burundaise de Presse, February 24; Shabelle Media Network, February 28). Al-Shabaab forces counter-attacked in an effort to retake the Defense Ministry building on March 5, but were repelled by Burundian forces in heavy fighting (Shabelle Media Network, March 5). An AMISOM spokesman claimed African Union forces now controlled 60 to 70% of Mogadishu, representing a major reversal of fortunes for the Islamist radicals (Daily Monitor [Kampala], March 7).

Though government officials claimed only light casualties in the Mogadishu offensive, military sources in Bujumbura have confirmed a total of 43 dead and 110 wounded is closer to the mark since the offensive began on February 23 (AFP, March 5). Wounded soldiers are being transported to the Bouffard French military hospital in Djibouti (Suna Times, March 2; AFP, March 2). Al-Shabaab claims to have taken a number of Burundian prisoners and says it is holding the bodies of 18 dead Burundian soldiers (BBC, March 4). The Islamists have also posted photos of burnt and mutilated Burundian soldiers on the internet.

In ritual fashion the bodies of dead Burundian soldiers were dragged through the streets of Mogadishu by al-Shabaab fighters and sympathizers. Al-Shabaab radio reported: “Many Muslim residents and top Islamist officials turned up at the stadium where the bodies of the dead soldiers were displayed and dragged. The residents expressed satisfaction over the death of the Christian forces” (Radio Andalus [Kismayo], February 24).

Burundian Troops 2General Godefroid Niyombare

Burundi’s military commanders have attempted to downplay the losses; Chief of Staff General Godefroid Niyombare responded to inquiries by saying, “Whether six, ten or 20 are dead, I don’t see what would change if I told you,” adding, “What matters is not so much the number of victims in the Somali war as the work already done by our courageous soldiers“ (AFP, March 2; PANA Online [Dakar], March 2). With questions being asked in Burundi regarding the apparently open-ended Burundian commitment to a military mission in Somalia, government authorities appear to have implemented a plan to keep awareness of Burundian casualties to a minimum. Families have complained of a lack of news about their dead or wounded and local media coverage of burial ceremonies has been banned (Radio Netherlands, March 10).

At the height of the offensive, al-Shabaab leader Shaykh Ahmad Abdi Godane “Abu Zubayr” issued an audiotape directed at “the people and government of Burundi,” calling for the withdrawal of Burundi’s military from Somalia:

It is obvious that your boys and your forces have been deceived and that they do not have a clue or understand the realities that exist in Mogadishu. You have to know that in Mogadishu, countries and alliances that are much stronger than you have been defeated. The United States failed in Mogadishu with their coalition from all around the world. Ethiopia lost after they brought a power that is much stronger than yours. Now, your beating started and the evidence is the dead bodies of your forces being dragged in the streets and your prisoners seized in the fight. If you do not take that as a warning, your loss will be even worse than that of the previous occupiers (, March 2).

The message did not mention Ugandan forces, suggesting Godane was trying to create internal divisions within Burundi even as his al-Shabaab fighters were under heavy pressure by Burundian forces.

The operations in Mogadishu are part of a larger coordinated offensive involving AMISOM, TFG and even Ethiopian forces at several vital points in southern Somalia. AMISOM forces aided by Ethiopian troops are reported to have taken the towns of Bulo Hawo and Luq near the Kenyan border from al-Shabaab elements. There are also reports of large Ethiopian troop movements in central Somalia, apparently heading to the al-Bur district to hook up with the Somali Sufi militia Ahlu Sunna wa’l-Jama’a for an offensive against al-Shabaab strongholds in the area (AFP, March 8). The controversial presence of Ethiopian troops in Somalia was confirmed by TFG president Shaykh Sharif Shaykh Ahmad, though the president, who had once led the fight against the 2006 Ethiopian invasion and occupation, qualified his remarks by stating the Ethiopians were only providing logistical support to TFG forces (Shabelle Media Network, March 6).

Though the Libyan uprising has overshadowed important developments in Somalia, the Libyan crisis may have an inadvertent effect on AMISOM operations – Qaddafi’s Libya supplies 15% of the budget for the African Union (East African [Nairobi], March 7). If the regime falls it will have a direct effect on AMISOM operations unless the United States and Europe steps in to make up the lost revenues.

Libyan Loyalists and Dissidents Vie for Tuareg Fighters

Andrew McGregor

March 10, 2011

With the fate of Libya in the balance, both sides in the struggle to determine its future are appealing to North Africa’s indigenous Tuareg warriors for military help. Libya’s own Tuareg population of roughly 50,000 has been simultaneously courted and deprived of its cultural and ethnic heritage by the Qaddafi government. The regime classes the non-Semitic Berber Tuareg as a branch of the Arab nation and describes its indigenous non-Semitic Tamasheq language as merely a dialect of Arabic. In the past, Tuareg fighters poured into northern Libya in 1912 to defend the Ottoman provinces from Italian invasion and later served in large numbers in Mu’ammar Qaddafi’s now defunct Islamic Legion.

Libya Tuareg 1Musa al-Kuni

While reports and rumors of Qaddafi’s recruitment of the Tuareg continued to circulate, the newly-resigned Libyan consul-general to Mali has issued an appeal to the Tuareg to “align themselves with the people to fight Mu’ammar Qaddafi.” The former Libyan representative, Musa al-Kuni, slipped out of Mali on March 1 and announced his resignation when he reached Paris the same day. Himself a Tuareg, Musa claimed to speak on behalf of the Libyan Tuareg dwelling in the Sabha region of the Libyan interior. Sabha is home to a Libyan military base once connected to Qaddafi’s nuclear weapons development program. Musa’s brother is Ibrahim al-Kuni, one of North Africa’s foremost Arabic-language novelists. The former diplomat said that the Libyan Tuareg were suffering “an injustice” by being portrayed as “Qaddafi’s mercenaries” (AFP, March 8).

Musa al-Kuni’s appeal appeared to have little resonance across the border in Tuareg-dominated northern Mali, where elected Tuareg representatives described him as “an imposter and an opportunist” and declared “this gentleman represents only himself” (AFP, March 9).

Libya Tuareg 2Ibrahim ag Bahanga

A Bamako daily suggested that former Tuareg rebel Ibrahim Ag Bahanga, who has close ties to the Libyan regime, plays a key role in recruiting and forwarding Tuareg fighters from across the Sahel and Sahara. The daily states Ag Bahanga has been spotted leading a convoy of 30 4×4 vehicles on their way to Libya via the Tuareg town of Djanet in Algeria from a point near the Algerian-Mauritanian border (Le Combat, Bamako, March 3; for Ibrahim Ag Bahanga, see Terrorism Focus, February 25, 2009; Terrorism Monitor Briefs, November 4, 2010; Militant Leadership Monitor, April 2, 2010). Ag Bahanga was last reported to have returned to Mali from self-exile in Libya in January to accept the Algiers Accord and accept reintegration, though it is not impossible that Ag Bahanga has since accepted a commission to raise Tuareg fighters for use in Libya (Info Matin [Bamako], January 18; L’Observateur [Bamako], January 17).

Libya has backed Tuareg rebel movements in Niger and Mali and acted as an intermediary in negotiations, a method of operation that has not impressed Algeria, which has also inserted itself as a peace negotiator in the Tuareg rebellions.

Elsewhere in Mali, representatives of the northern Seventh Region (Timbuktu) gathered to declare, “The representatives of the North Mali communities, signatory to this document, offer their unwavering support to the Guide of the Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya [i.e. Mu’ammar Qaddafi] as well as to the Libyan people” (L’Aube (Bamako), March 3).

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.