Who Are the Libyan Rebels?

Troubling questions in light of the assassination of the chief Libyan rebel commander.

The assassination of the chief Libyan rebel commander underscores the murky nature of the rebel opposition group and casts fresh doubts over its ability to overthrow the Gaddafi regime.

General Abdul Fattah Younes, who been summoned to the Libyan opposition capital of Benghazi by the ruling Transitional National Council (TNC) for supposed questioning about military operations, was murdered there last week along with two other military officials.

Younes, who had assisted Muammar Gaddafi’s rise to power in 1969, was Libya’s interior minister and commander of its powerful Lightning Brigade before he defected to the rebels in February 2011. While he quickly rose to become the chief of the rebel armed forces, his tenure was marked by claims that he was nothing more than a transplanted Gaddafi agent.

Initially, it was unclear who had actually killed Younes and speculation was rife that he had been killed for either maintaining contacts with the Gaddafi regime or by rivals within the TNC attempting to settle some personal scores. TNC leader leader Mustafa Abdul-Jalil did nothing to stifle the rumor mill when he refused to answer questions about why, where or by whom Younes had been killed.

Jalil’s stonewalling served only to fuel accusations by Younes’ allies that he had been set up and murdered by rival factions within the rebel insurgency. As Oliver Miles, former British ambassador to Libya, said of Younes, “He had a lot of enemies,” adding that his death “could be personal, it could be factional within the TNC.”

That observation was confirmed a day after the killing when TNC minister Ali Tarhouni said Younes had been killed by rebel fighters who were sent to bring him back from the front lines to Benghazi. Still, despite the apprehension of a suspect, suspicion still remained as to what militia group carried out the assassination.

Some rebel fighters claimed the killers were from the February 17 Martyrs’ Brigade, a rebel group that is part of the larger Union of Revolutionary Forces (URF). However, Tarhouni claimed the killers were from the Obaida Ibn Jarrah Brigade, an Islamist faction in the rebel command.

Despite the lack of clarity surrounding Younes’ assassination, Jalil said the TNC would replace Younes with Suleiman Mahmud al-Obeidi as well as order all militia factions to disband and come under its control. However, that latter directive may prove particularly difficult to carry out.

Specifically, the killing of Younes comes at time when the TNC -- having recently been sanctioned as Libya’s legitimate ruling government by 40 nations, including the United States, France and England -- now stands to receive over $30 billion of Gadaffi regime funds currently frozen in Western banks.

The sudden influx of such vast sums of money have, according to one Mideast expert, only served to intensify the inner divisions within the TNC, with each faction jockeying for control to “secure the status of being the only legitimate force to lead the country in the future.”

Of course, it should come as little surprise that the Libyan rebels apparently find themselves now locked in a deadly internal struggle. From the onset of the February uprising, it has been well known that the TNC is riddled with a rogue’s gallery of rival factions and alliances that are chock full of duplicitous characters, ranging from former Gaddafi loyalists to criminals to al Qaeda insurgents.

For starters, the Libyan rebel leader, Abdel-Hakim al-Hasidi, has openly said jihadists who fought against US coalition forces in Iraq are well-represented in rebel ranks. While al-Hasidi has insisted his fighters “are patriots and good Muslims, not terrorists,” he has also said, “The members of al Qaeda are also good Muslims and are fighting against the invader.”

Of course, an al Qaeda presence in the TNC shouldn’t come as a complete surprise. According to the US military, Libya, with the exception of Saudi Arabia, contributed more than any other nation to the ranks of those forces fighting against the United States in Iraq. In fact, al-Hasidi has acknowledged that he personally fought against the “foreign invasion” in Afghanistan before being captured in 2002 in Pakistan and sent back to Libya in 2008.

Moreover, the TNC, which has reportedly sold chemical weapons to both Hamas and Hezbollah, has also been linked to supplying arms to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

In addition to the notorious nature of its membership, the Libyan rebels have been repeatedly accused of committing atrocities on a par with those of Gaddafi’s forces. Those allegations include, according to Human Rights Watch, Libyan rebels in the last month “burning homes, abusing women and looting hospitals, homes and shops.”

In fact, the Human Rights Watch report led Republican Senator John McCain, a staunch rebel supporter, to write TNC leader Jalil a letter on July 20 in which he stated, “It is because the TNC holds itself to such high democratic standards that it is necessary for you and the Council to take decisive action to bring any human rights abuses to an immediate halt.”

While McCain’s belief in the TNC’s “high democratic standards” may be subject for some debate, what isn’t in question is that the killing of Younes has now created so much distrust within the rivalries, conflicting agendas and alliances of the TNC that stability will be hard to come by, even if it can successfully oust Gaddafi.

However, the prospect that the rebels can overcome Gadaffi on the battlefield looks increasingly bleak. Gaddafi’s regime controls around 20 percent more territory than it did when the uprising began in February despite the recent launching of a rebel offensive in the western mountains near the Tunisian border; more than four months of sustained air strikes by NATO; and the defection of a number of Gaddafi’s senior commanders.

As the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs’ Admiral Mike Mullen said only weeks ago, the war remains a “stalemate,” a status not too surprising when an operation is led without a clear strategy or exit route. To that end, it appears that England and France, the two leading nations in the fight against Gaddafi, may also be tiring of the game.

This was evident in a joint press conference last week when British foreign Secretary William Hague said “What happens to Gaddafi is ultimately a question for the Libyans.” Hague’s French counterpart, Alain Juppe, echoed that sentiment by saying that Gaddafi’s fate “is ultimately a question for Libyans to determine.”

So, for now, the fate of Gaddafi, his regime and the future direction of Libya remain as cloudy as ever. However, what is becoming clearer by the day is that even if Gaddafi does go away, all NATO may have done is trade one insane, brutal despot for a far larger and more deadly problem.