Hunt for the “Fifth Column” Could be the Beginning of the End for Libya’s Rebels

Andrew McGregor

August 4, 2011

The brutal and as yet unexplained murder of General Abd al-Fatah Yunis and two of his aides on July 28 has left Libya’s Benghazi-based rebels eyeing their comrades with suspicion as rumors circulate of deception and betrayal in the rebel ranks. The hunt is on to uncover regime loyalists operating within the rebel movement at the same time tribal rivalries threaten to shatter the rebel cause. The search for “Fifth Columnists” could have disastrous results for the unity and effectiveness of the rebel forces, whose leadership is dominated by individuals closely and recently tied to the Qaddafi regime.

Libyan Loyalist Fighters

At the time of the murders, General Yunis was mysteriously separated from his usual security detail and was accompanied only by two officers in his command. After being shot and possibly tortured, the bodies of General Yunis and his two aides were burned and dumped on the outskirts of Benghazi. Without reliable information on the killing from the Transitional National Council (TNC), rumors regarding the cause of the general’s death continue to spread in Benghazi. Some suggest General Yunis was acting as a double agent to sabotage rebel efforts, others claim he was actually murdered by “Fifth Column” Qaddafi loyalists or by rebels (possibly Islamists) seeking revenge for activities carried out while he was Qaddafi’s Interior Minister. Several days before the killing, Yunis claimed to have documents providing “conclusive evidence” Algeria was providing arms to Qaddafi’s forces (al-Sharq al-Awsat, July 25), adding another element of intrigue to the case.

Demonstrations by the late general’s Obeidi tribe followed the murder, many demanding justice, others calling for retribution against the TNC, which they blame for the killings. The Council has promised an investigation, but the slow pace and lack of information on its progress has only served to further infuriate many Obeidi tribesmen, who for now are being held in check by tribal elders.

Yunis was replaced by the former commander of the Tobruk garrison of the Libyan Army, Major General Sulayman Mahmud al-Obeidi, a member of the same tribe as Yunis. Under the command structure introduced on July 13, all armed rebel factions are to come under the command of the civilian defense minister, Dr. Jalal Muhammad Mansur al-Digheily, though some members of the rebel coalition are now demanding al-Digheily’s resignation.

Dr. Jalal Muhammad Mansur al-Digheily

On July 31, rebel troops in western Benghazi attacked the factory headquarters of a rebel militia known variously as the Yusuf Shakir Brigade or al-Nida’a. The five-hour battle left four rebels and 11 members of the Shakir Brigade dead. A rebel spokesman claimed that the roughly 40 member militia was a front for Qaddafi loyalists and included Moroccans, Algerians, Egyptians and Africans.  As well as allegedly playing a role in the murder of General Yunis, a rebel spokesman claimed the group was planning car bombings and assassinations after mounting a prison break that freed a number of high-profile prisoners at the same time as the Yunis murder (al-Jazeera, July 31; Tripoli Post, July 31; Financial Times, July 31). The fighting was said to have begun after the militia refused an order to disarm and disband (AFP, July 30). The rebels also occupied the headquarters of the Obeida ibn al-Jarah militia (named for a companion of the Prophet) on July 28, claiming the militia’s leader had confessed to killing General Yunis (Financial Times, July 31).

Rebel spokesman Mustafa al-Sagazly announced that 63 people had been arrested in security sweeps of Benghazi led by the February 17 Brigade, a rebel militia led by Isma’il al-Salabi that is emerging as the dominant power in the rebel army. Al-Salabi said his Brigade was still looking for “high-ranking prisoners of war” who escaped from two detention centers and are believed to be on the loose in Benghazi (AFP, August 1).

According to Ali Sulayman Aujali, the rebel representative in Washington, the rebel leadership has been aware for some time that there are Qaddafi loyalists active in Benghazi: “There are a few people whom the council knew have relations with the regime, but the people of Libya thought they were with the revolution” (Washington Times, August 1).

Mustafa al-Sagazly, the TNC deputy interior minister, claimed that Qaddafi loyalists in Benghazi were receiving orders from Tripoli through encoded messages broadcast on al-Jamahiriya state television (Financial Times, July 31).  It is uncertain whether these allegations had anything to do with the controversial June 30 NATO bombing of Libyan state television in Tripoli, an operation that killed three television technicians and wounded scores of civilians.

Meanwhile the loyalist forces, which are usually described as “demoralized” in Western media accounts based on rebel sources, consistently mount spirited counter-attacks to retake lost ground even though they lack any effective defense against punishing NATO airstrikes, actions not usually seen in dispirited or demoralized forces. Though the rebel line maintains that most of Qaddafi’s men are only waiting for an opportunity to defect, nearly five months have passed without any significant increase in defections from the rank-and-file, many of whom have had ample opportunity to cross the lines by now. Those eastern-based troops who defected early in the struggle continue to contribute little to the rebel effort, which is still dominated by poorly-trained amateurs who view orders as suggestions and follow only those commanders they like. Rivalries and distrust have made creating a single military leadership difficult enough – extending a centralized command and control system throughout the rebel ranks will be extremely difficult.

The violent dissension within the rebel movement has emboldened the Qaddafi regime, which has withdrawn an offer of a ceasefire if NATO stops its bombing campaign. The government is also now offering an amnesty for rebels returning to the fold, sweetened by offers of promotions and various other rewards (Reuters, August 3). The regime has also taken the opportunity of sowing further discord in the rebel ranks by announcing it is in contact with leading figures in the TNC, including former Qaddafi loyalists Mahmud Jibril and Ali Essawi, as well as Islamist leader Ali al-Salabi (AFP, July 30). In an August 3 interview with the New York Times, Sa’if al-Islam Qaddafi (son of the Libyan leader) said the government had formed an alliance with Ali al-Salabi against the rebels. Al-Salabi acknowledged having discussions with regime representatives, but denied forming a pact with them (AFP, August 4).

Psychologically at least, Qaddafi has the upper hand on the rebels, whose military leadership, cobbled together from ex-Qaddafi loyalists, CIA assets and radical Islamists, is in danger of being consumed by distrust, paranoia and internal disputes. If further rebel purges follow, the rebel movement stands at risk of complete collapse.

This article was originally published in the August 4, 2011 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor