Islamic militant group pledges support to anti-Gadafy rebels


Leaders deny links to al-Qaeda and promise to rebuild Libya so as to avoid Somalia’s fate, writes MARY FITZGERALDin Ajdabiya, eastern Libya

IN A drab villa down a rutted road in Ajdabiya, the key eastern town recaptured last weekend by rebels, sit two leading members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG).

In the past, the two men, both grizzled veterans of the 1980s jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan, would have baulked at the prospect of an interview, let alone given their names or agreed to be photographed.

“Everything has changed now,” says Abdul Monem al-Madhouni, who wears a scarf in the red, black and green colours of the rebels’ flag over a striped shirt and slacks. “This is a new era and there is no need to hide anything.”

He and his companion, who gives his name as Abdullah Mansour, sit on the governing council of Libya’s foremost militant group. Its members, one of the greatest threats to Gadafy regime since it was set up in the 1990s, run to the high hundreds. The two, both of whom recently returned to Libya after years in exile, say they have permission from the 12-member LIFG council to give the interview and what they say reflects its position.

“We are with the people and we are supporting the people,” says Mansour when asked for the LIFG stance on the revolt against Gadafy’s rule. “We have opened our hearts and our hands to all the Libyan people to work together to get rid of Gadafy.”

He reveals that last week the LIFG made contact with the rebel Libyan National Council (LNC) headquartered in Benghazi to make it clear that the group will defer to the LNC’s authority.

“We told [the LNC] that we are happy to work under you to help you. We are happy to put all our knowledge and experience under your control and we don’t have any separate strategy for our group. We are happy to fight under the [rebel] army’s command and we don’t ask to have a place in the leadership,” says Mansour.

The two men also disclosed that the LIFG had changed its name to Al Harakat al-Islamiya al Libeeya (Libyan Islamic Movement). Some 500-600 of its members have been released from jail in recent years. About 30 remain in Tripoli’s notorious Abu Salim prison. Mansour says there is full agreement within the group regarding its position on the LNC.

The Libyan National Council responded positively to the LIFG’s approach, Mansour says. “They said the first thing they wanted to be sure of is that we are not linked with any other group so we confirmed this point. They also wanted to make sure that there were not any other people coming from outside Libya to help – they said this is a red line. In the end, they said if you try to help our people, to help the army, and co-operate and work together, we will be happy.”

The LIFG was formed in the aftermath of the battle against the Soviets in Afghanistan by Libyans who had fought there with the mujahideen. Its first communiqué declared Gadafy’s government “an apostate regime that has blasphemed against the faith of God Almighty” and described its overthrow to be “the foremost duty after faith in God”. The two men claim the LIFG made four attempts on Gadafy’s life between 1994 and 1997.

Both reject claims the LIFG has been affiliated with al-Qaeda, noting that the group refused to join the global Islamic front Osama bin Laden declared against the west in 1998. Mansour has been based in the UK since the late 1990s. Al-Madhouni, who co-ordinated all LIFG activities in one area of Libya until 1996, later returned to Afghanistan but has lived in a Middle Eastern country since 2001.

They say the LIFG wants to ensure a peaceful transition after Gadafy is overthrown. “We want to help take our country from the revolutionary stage to the stage of rebuilding the nation,” says al-Madhouni. “At that point we will hand over our weapons, when the LNC demands it.”

Mansour nods in agreement. “We know what happened in Iraq and Somalia – we don’t want this to happen again in Libya. We believe it would be better for the country to stay under the Gadafy regime than become like Somalia with no control. We will work with the people to build a country with a respectable government after Gadafy goes.”

The Libyan National Council says its vision is of a democratic Libya. The LIFG men offer a qualification. “We agree with democracy in general but there are some things in the kind of democracy you have in Europe that are not acceptable from our perspective because they don’t suit our society,” says Mansour, who does not rule out the possibility of the LIFG becoming a political party.

“As long as this democracy is not against Islam, we will accept it. What we are looking for is a state that respects Islam as the religion of the people. Anything that goes against Islam, we will refuse it.

“We believe that our agenda, an Islamic agenda, is the best for the country but that doesn’t mean we can force it on the people or to try to eliminate the others,” says al-Madhouni. “The decision must come from the Libyan people who will choose the kind of regime they believe is right for them.”

Both men praise the UN decision to enforce a no-fly zone across Libya. “We respect those who have come to our country’s help,” says al-Madhouni. Both warn against any ground intervention. “No Libyan will accept that. We are even refusing any Muslim brother to come help us, even any Arab Muslim. We want this to be a Libyan struggle,” says Mansour.

Neither man is under any illusions as to the challenges that lie ahead even if Gadafy is ousted. “Our country will need to be built from scratch and this will take a very long time,” says Mansour. “I think the Libyan people have a very long road to walk together.”