One of the questions that haunts the US “intervention” in Libya is this: who are these guys? They are called “rebels” in the press. They call themselves “volunteers.” They are fighting against Muammar Qaddafi and his regime. But no one really knows who they are, what their leadership structure looks like, what skill sets they might bring to a post-Qaddafi Libya. Jon Lee Anderson describes the “vounteers” he met in Benghazi in the new issue of The New Yorker. It’s an oddball collection of people; ill-trained, under-armed and lacking even the most basic military discipline. But they fight on:
During weeks of reporting in Benghazi and along the chaotic, shifting front line, I’ve spent a great deal of time with these volunteers. The hard core of the fighters has been the shabab—the young people whose protests in mid-February sparked the uprising. They range from street toughs to university students (many in computer science, engineering, or medicine), and have been joined by unemployed hipsters and middle-aged mechanics, merchants, and storekeepers. There is a contingent of workers for foreign companies: oil and maritime engineers, construction supervisors, translators. There are former soldiers, their gunstocks painted red, green, and black—the suddenly ubiquitous colours of the pre-Qaddafi Libyan flag.
And there are a few bearded religious men, more disciplined than the others, who appear intent on fighting at the dangerous tip of the advancing lines. It seems unlikely, however, that they represent Al Qaeda. I saw prayers being held on the front line at Ras Lanuf, but most of the fighters did not attend. One zealous-looking fighter at Brega acknowledged that he was a jihadi—a veteran of the Iraq war—but said that he welcomed U.S. involvement in Libya, because Qaddafi was a kafir, an unbeliever.
Outside Ajdabiya, a man named Ibrahim, one of many émigrés who have returned, said, “Libyans have always been Muslims—good Muslims.” People here regard themselves as decent and observant; a bit old-fashioned and parochial, but not Islamist radicals. Ibrahim is 50-seven. He lives in Chicago, and turned over his auto-body shop and car wash to a friend so that he could come and fight. He had made his life in the United States, he said, but it was his duty as a Libyan to help get rid of Qaddafi––”the monster.”
In the past month, men like Ibrahim have rushed into combat as if it were an extension of the street protests, spurred by bravado and defiance but barely able to handle weapons. For many of them, the fighting consists largely of a performance—dancing and singing and firing into the air—and of racing around in improvised gunwagons. The ritual goes on until they are sent scurrying by Qaddafi’s shells. In the early days of Qaddafi’s counterattack, youthful fighters were outraged that the enemy was firing real artillery at them. Many hundreds have died.
The reality of combat has frightened the rebels, but it has also strengthened the resolve of those who have lost friends or brothers. Outside Ajdabiya, I met Muhammad Saleh, a young mechanic armed with only a bayonet. Just an hour or two earlier, he had seen his younger brother die. A few days later, he told me that he was planning to buy black-market weapons and, with a group of 10 friends, return to the battlefield. With professional training and leadership (presumably from abroad), the rebels may eventually turn into something like a proper army. But, for now, they have perhaps only a thousand trained fighters, and are woefully outgunned. Last week, a former Army officer told me, “There is no army. It’s just us—a few volunteers like me and the shabab.”
The full dispatch is here.
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