On October 31, NATO’s mission in Libya officially ended. The Friends of Libya, an alliance of 13 countries led by the U.S. “ally” of Qatar, is in the driver’s seat. The sheikdom is the chief backer of the Libyan Islamists, including the Muslim Brotherhood. Libya’s secularists are warning that Qatar is using its leadership position to bring its Islamist allies to power.
NATO eagerly embraced Qatar’s role in the war to topple Muammar Qaddafi. It was the first Arab country to recognize the National Transitional Council as the legitimate governing authority and sent fighter jets into Libyan skies. Now, the Qatari Chief of Staff reveals that hundreds of Qatari troops were on the ground, planning the rebels’ offensives and “running the training and communication operations.” Now, Qatar will be in charge of setting up the new Libyan military.
Qatar has helped the Libyan Islamists since the civil war began. The tiny Gulf country is home to Sheikh Yousef al-Qaradawi, the radical Muslim Brotherhood theologian who calls himself the “Mufti of martyrdom operations.” One of his close colleagues in Qatar, Sheikh Ali Sallabi, oversaw the Brotherhood’s support to the rebels and is arguably the most influential cleric in Libya today. In keeping with Brotherhood strategy, Sallabi portrays himself as a harmless moderate. A former member of the Tripoli Municipal Governing Council said, “He is just hiding his intentions. He says one thing to the BBC and another to Al-Jazeera. If you believe him, then you don’t know the Muslim Brothers.”
Sallabi is now forming his own self-described “moderate” party that he said should not worry anyone. “This is not an Islamist party but a nationalist party… But its political agenda respects the general principles of Islam and Libyan culture,” he says. In that same interview, he admits that his party would base Libya’s next constitution solely on Sharia law.
Money and arms flowed to the Islamist militias from Qatar, including that of Abdel-Hakim Belhaj, a co-founder of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group terrorist organization. He has been preaching jihad against democracy as far back as 1996. The CIA considered him enough of a threat that it took him into custody in 2004 as part of its rendition program and then transferred him to Qaddafi. He was released in 2010. Ayman al-Zawahiri anointed Belhaj as the “emir of the [Libyan] mujahideen” in 2007. He is now the leader of the Tripoli Military Council and runs the country’s most powerful militia.
The Qatari-backed Islamists acted quickly to assert authority in Libya. The Muslim Brotherhood established itself in Benghazi and is responsible for the declaration of Sharia as the “basic source” of legislation in the draft constitution. The top military commander, General Abdul Fattah Younes, was assassinated in July 2011. It is suspected that an Islamist militia carried it out.
The Islamists also made it a priority to oust the secularist Prime Minister of the National Transitional Council (NTC), Mahmoud Jibril. Sallabi and Belhaj condemned him, particularly after he established a council to bring the militias under the government’s control. On September 11, Belhaj scuttled an arrangement to unify the forces, saying “You will never do this without me.” Standing behind him was the Qatari chief of staff. Sallabi essentially declared Jibril an apostate, saying he is part of a group of “extreme secularists” seeking to reinstitute a dictatorship that would be worse than Qaddafi’s.
After Qaddafi was killed, Prime Minister Jibril resigned. He denies that this was due to Islamist pressure, but shortly before he stepped down, he admitted that he could not stand up to his rivals. “The political struggle requires finances, organization, arms and ideologies. I am afraid I don’t have any of this,” he said. He is accusing Qatar of picking sides in Libya, referring to its support for his Islamist rivals. Abdurrahman Shalgham, who used to be the NTC’s Foreign Minister and is the Libyan ambassador to the U.N., criticized the NTC leadership for being “dictated” by Qatar and echoed Jibril’s complaints.
The chairman of the National Transitional Council is expressing his gratitude to Qatar, calling the country a “major partner.” This is the same chairman who has already begun revising some laws to bring Libya in accordance with Sharia Law. The Islamists are winning in Libya and they have Qatar, a so-called ally of the U.S., to thank.
An ally of the Qatari-backed Islamists, Sheikh Hamza Abu Fas, has become the Religious Affairs Minister. He immediately ruled that thieves should have their hands cut off, there should be only Islamic banking and a husband’s first wife should not be able to stop him from marrying a second wife. Sheikh Fas has participated in conferences run by the Muslim Brotherhood and its Qatar-based extremist senior cleric, Sheikh Yousef al-Qaradawi. At least one of them was also attended by Sallabi.
Luckily, the secularists are not giving up. The top military commanders are looking to secularists for an interim Defense Minister and for leaders of the new army. The deputy head of Misrata’s military council unabashedly said they don’t want someone similar to the Taliban or Hezbollah. They are not interested in “someone who counts how many times he prays each day.” The new interim Prime Minister, Abdel-Rahim El-Keib, won a narrow vote over his Islamist rival when secularists in the NTC united behind him.
Qatar’s behavior should have been expected. It allows Sheikh Qaradawi to spread his poison through his show on Al-Jazeera. A leaked State Department cable from 2009 says Qatar’s counter-terrorism cooperation with the U.S. is “considered the worst in the region.” Qatar has a long history of supporting Islamists, including Al-Qaeda. In 1996, a member of the Royal Family helped Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the future mastermind of the 9⁄11 attacks, escape arrest by the FBI. There is evidence that three Qataris were in the U.S. helping carry out the 9⁄11 attacks and then fled back to their home country.
It has been reported that the Qatari government began giving millions of dollars to Al-Qaeda shortly before the 2003 invasion of Iraq to avoid being targeted. In 2009, the U.S. accused Qatar of sending support to Eritrea for Al-Shabaab, the Al-Qaeda affiliate in Somalia. At least two members of Al-Qaeda are currently in Qatar, managing the group’s pipeline of money and personnel through Iran.
And now, Qatar is embracing the Syrian opposition. Talal Atrissi, a Lebanese political analyst, says Qatar is trying to use the Arab Spring to become a regional powerhouse.
“They know that the Islamists are the new power in the Arab world. This alliance will lay the foundation for a base of influence across the region,” Atrissi told the New York Times.
When it comes to the outcome of the Arab Spring, Qatar is an adversary of the West, not an ally. And the sooner this is realized, the better chance our secularist democratic allies will have of saving the region from the Muslim Brotherhood.
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