Death of young fighters congeals Libyan resolve vs. ISIS

This story originally appeared

Lined up next to each other in front of the central mosque in the city of Misrata, ten coffins, two of them covered by the flag of the new Libya, marked the end of a long negotiation. “ISIS [The Islamic State] is on our doorstep and we will fight it with all means we have,” the imam screamed into the microphone in an anger-broken voice, looking at the wooden boxes holding the remains of the young fighters, all between the ages of 19 and 26. They were killed a few hours earlier in the village of Ben Jawad, outpost of Sharooq forces from Misrata, who were assigned to conquer the largest national oil terminal in Sidra.

“It was an ambush,” says Saddiq Ezzoid from Misrata. “Two terrorists from ISIS quartered in the village of Noufliya carrying a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) on their shoulders opened fire on the boys at the checkpoint.” Misrata forces have been literally trapped in Ben Jawad for the last month, pinned down between the rival forces led by General Khalifa Haftar on one side and ISIS on the other.

Last December, Misrata, allied with the Tripoli-based National Congress which was reinstated after the Supreme Court invalidated the parliamentary elections held in June as illegitimate, launched the Sharooq operation, “English sunset,” to take control over the oil terminals controlled by federalist forces and General Haftar, lined up with the rival parliament sheltered in the far eastern town of Tubruq, which considers the Supreme court’s verdict invalid because it was allegedly handed down under duress.

“ISIS took advantage,” said a journalist from Misrata who declined to give his name for security reasons, “whereas our forces have been focused on the front Sidra terminal fight.”  In mid-February, hundreds of armed men marched into the city of Sirte, 150 miles east of Misrata, pledging loyalty to Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi’s Islamic State.

“ISIS men have been grouping there for months, but that day they openly came out,” a member of Misrata intelligence told The Media Line. The followers of the caliphate had slowly infiltrated the hometown of former Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi from the beginning of 2014, when the head of the Salafi group Ansar Al Sharia, Attir Ahmed, was killed in battle.

During the last three years Misrata turned a blind eye to the expansion of Ansar Al Sharia in Sirte, despite its popular hatred of its fundamentalist ideology. “The Salafi interpretation of the Holy Quran is absolutely against the use of force, except in cases of self-defense,” Mohamed, one of the young Misrati fighters on the front line, explained while pointing his gun toward Sirte. He said, “ISIS in Sirte has been supported by previous regime’s members. Foreign fighters from Tunisia, Algeria and Afghanistan are few, while hundreds of ISIS members from Sirte are Qaddafi followers acting as Islamic fundamentalists just to regain power.”

Sirte, the site of the last stand of the Qaddafi regime in 2011 and scene of the capture and his bloody death of the colonel, was completely destroyed in heavy fighting between loyalist forces and rebels, then by NATO bombings.

“We did not want Sirte go through what they suffered in 2011, and we first tried to negotiate with terrorists their way out,” said a Misrati businessman. His eyes became moist when he recalled the days of Revolution against Qaddafi forces, his gaze darkening as he stressed that, “I'm disgusted by politics and I stayed out of the following struggle for power, bleeding Libya for the last three years.”  Then, the man who boasts of his import-export company’s branches in several countries of Europe continued, “But ISIS is the red line, and today I go back to camp.”

While Brigade 166 from Misrata, assigned by the Tripoli-based chief-of-staff, took positions on the outskirts of Sirte to contain ISIS expansion in the area in February, a delegation from Misrata engaged a dialogue with the terrorists holed up in Sirte. “We asked them to lay down their arms and hand over foreign fighters”, one of the delegation’s members told The Media Line. “We offered the protection of the Libyan fighters and also a safe return to their hometowns like Derna.”

But in mid-March, the Islamic State’s fighters came out of buildings they had occupied and set up checkpoints in downtown Sirte and on the outskirts of the city, forcing the Misrata fighters to retreat to 10 miles west of the city.  In the first exchange of fire between rival forces 19 men were killed – 17 ISIS fighters and two men of Misrata.

The Brigade 166 then announced the start of the military operation against ISIS, urging civilians to leave the city. Only a few dozen families riding in overloaded cars passed by the Misrati checkpoint west of Sirte, where dozens of young fighters rushed to support of Misrata Brigade 166. “The time for dialogue is over,” said a member of the delegation. “Now the problem will be solved by force.”

The tension remains very high and the authorities have declared a night curfew. First, a car bomb exploded last week in the compound of Brigade 166 in Misrata, killing two men. Although the city boasts eighty-thousand fighters according to the local security sources, Misrata is engaged on several front lines across the country and its resources are diluted. In the west, a number of Misrati fighters participating the coalition Fajr Libya are deployed near the military airbase of Watiya against the forces of Zintan and their ally Haftar.  In the south, some belonging to the Third Force assigned to protect the oil fields are in the desert to oversee them.

East of Misrata, the situation for Sharooq forces is even worse as they count three frontlines in less than 120 miles.

Misrati fighters deployed in Ben Jawad are under threat of the federalists led by Ibrahim Jathran on the eastern side and ISIS combatants scattered between Noufliya and Sirte, while General Haftar’s aerial bombardments intimidate from above.

However, the killing of the ten boys in Ben Jawad has suddenly exhausted the patience of Misrata. “They might be ISIS fighters or Qaddafi regime followers, [but] they all slaughter people so they are terrorists. And we will kill them all,” declared a member of the security operation room in Misrata.

U.S. calls on Hezbollah to pull fighters out of Syria

The U.S. State Department called on Lebanon's Hezbollah militia on Wednesday to withdraw its fighters from Syria immediately, saying their involvement on the side of President Bashar al-Assad signaled a dangerous broadening of the war.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki condemned the declaration last weekend by the leader of the Lebanese guerrilla movement, Hasran Nasrallah. He confirmed his combatants were in Syria and vowed they would stay in the war “to the end of the road.”

“This is an unacceptable and extremely dangerous escalation. We demand that Hezbollah withdraw its fighters from Syria immediately,” Psaki said at a daily news briefing.

Violence from the Syrian conflict, which began as a peaceful protest movement but descended into civil war, has increasingly spilled over into Lebanon, particularly in the northern city of Tripoli.

[Related: France says 3,000-4,000 Hezbollah are fighting in Syria]

Hezbollah's participation in a battle at the town of Qusair on the Syrian-Lebanese border risks dragging Lebanon into a conflict that has increasingly become overshadowed by Sunni-Shi'ite sectarian violence.

Nasrallah said Saturday that Syria and Lebanon were facing a threat from radical Sunni Islamists, which he argued was a plot devised by the United States and its allies to serve Israel's interests in the region. Hezbollah is a Shi'ite Muslim group.

Psaki also condemned the killing of three Lebanese soldiers at an army checkpoint in the eastern Bekaa Valley on Tuesday. The gunmen fled toward the Syrian border, but it was not clear who carried out the attack.

“We remain deeply concerned about reports of multiple cross-border security incidents in recent days,” she said.

Asked what the United States would do if Hezbollah did not withdraw, Psaki said Washington was pursuing diplomatic solutions but was also “continuing to increase and escalate our aid and support for the (Syrian) opposition.”

She said Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman and Acting Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs, Beth Jones, would travel to Geneva in the coming week to meet Russian and U.N. diplomats and work on bringing together an international conference on Syria.

President Barack Obama has repeatedly shied from U.S. involvement in the conflict, which has claimed 80,000 lives, although he has kept all options on the table.

Reporting By Susan Cornwell; Editing by Sandra Maler

Egyptian admits involvement with anti-Islam film, Jewish connection seems unlikely

He’s not a Jew.

At least, that’s the latest on the man behind the anti-Islam film, “Innocence of Muslims,” that has fueled attacks on U.S. diplomatic installations in Libya, Egypt and Yemen, leaving the U.S. ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens, dead. 

The filmmaker appears to be an Egyptian Christian rather than an Israeli Jew, as he had claimed in interviews.

The Associated Press tracked down an Egyptian Coptic Christian living in Southern California who admitted to involvement with the film’s logistics, and whose middle name and a known alias closely resemble the apparently fake name – Sam Bacile – used by the filmmaker.

A 14-minute trailer for the crudely produced film ridiculing the Muslim Prophet Mohammed and posted to YouTube with an Arabic translation has been cited as the reason for the outbreak of violence at U.S. diplomatic posts in the Middle East.

[Related: Cast of anti-Muslim movie claims it was misled by script]

On Tuesday night, heavily armed Islamists stormed the U.S. consulate in the Libyan city of Benghazi, killing Stevens and and three members of his staff. Fighters claimed that their actions were driven by anger at the film, though U.S. officials believe the assault may have been pre-planned.

The deadly attack followed angry protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, where rioters breached the compound’s walls and destroyed its American flag.

On Thursday, protesters stormed the grounds of the U.S. Embassy in Yemen’s capital city of Sanaa. There were also more anti-American demonstrations in Cairo and other capitals of Muslim countries.

In the wake of the initial violence, several media outlets interviewed a California man who gave his name as Sam Bacile who reportedly had produced, directed and written “Innocence of Muslims.” The man said that he was an Israeli-American real estate developer hoping to help Israel with the film, which he said was financed with $5 million by 100 Jewish donors.

While his claims were initially widely repeated, including by JTA, they quickly came under scrutiny. There appears to have been no such person by that name involved in film or real estate, now was that name known in California’s Jewish and Israeli communities. A high-ranking Israeli official in Los Angeles told JTA on Wednesday that extensive inquiries among Hollywood insiders and members of the local Israeli community failed to turn up a single person who knew a Sam Bacile.

A self-described Christian activist from Southern California who was a consultant to the film told The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg that Bacile was a pseudonym and was not Israeli, and likely not Jewish. The consultant, Steve Klein, who has a history of anti-Islam activism, said that those behind the film were largely Evangelical Christians and included some Copts.

A member of the film’s cast, who said she and others involved with the film were misled about its true message, said that the film’s director was Egyptian.

The Associated Press located an Egyptian man by the name of Nakoula Basseley Nakoula who said that he had handled logistics for the company that produced the film.

While Nakoula denied being Sam Bacile, the AP traced the cell phone it had used to contact the filmmaker to Nakoula’s address. The wire service said that when Nakoula showed a reporter his driver’s license, he had kept his thumb over his middle name, which resembles the filmmaker’s alias.

In 2010, Nakoula had pleaded no-contest to federal bank fraud charges and had been ordered to pay more than $790,000 in restitution, the AP reported. The report cited federal court papers saying that Nakoula had used the name Nicola Bacily, among other aliases.

Nakoula said that he supported the concerns of his fellow Coptic Christians regarding their treatment by Egypt’s Muslim majority.

A host of Jewish organizations have issued statements condemning the attacks on U.S. installations.

The Atlantic's Goldberg noted that the erroneous reports about the filmmaker's alleged Jewish background have spread across the Middle East and as a consequence endanger Jews. As of Thursday, Iran’s Press TV was still reporting that the film was produced by an Israeli American and financed by Jews. 

Libyan exile says he was driven from synagogue site

A Libyan Jewish exile attempting to restore Tripoli’s main synagogue said he was forced to leave the site.

David Gerbi, who arrived in Libya from Italy this summer when Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi was ousted in a rebellion, was warned Monday to leave the Dar al-Bishi synagogue site by area residents who said that men with guns were coming to kill him, Reuters reported. He had discovered the site to be locked.

A local military official told Reuters that Gerbi was being protected and that he left the site of his own free will.

Gerbi the previous day had started the work of surveying the damage to the Dar al-Bishi synagogue, The Associated Press reported. He had spent weeks getting permission from the country’s new leaders.

Gerbi, a representative of the World Organization of Libyan Jews, told Reuters that he is applying to become a member of Libya’s National Transitional Council as a full member to represent the Jewish community. He also plans to reclaim Jewish properties confiscated by the state.

Most Tripoli synagogues have been destroyed or converted to mosques. Jewish cemeteries also have been torn down to make room for office buildings.

Gerbi fled Libya with his family in 1967 when he was 12 years old.

Libyan exile launches effort to restore Tripoli synagogue

Libyan Jewish exile David Gerbi began digging out Tripoli’s main synagogue in an attempt to restore the building.

Gerbi, who arrived in Libya from Italy this summer when Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi was ousted in a rebellion, on Sunday began the work of surveying the damage to the Dar al-Bishi synagogue, The Associated Press reported. He had spent weeks getting permission from the country’s new leaders.

Gerbi, a representative of the World Organization of Libyan Jews, told Reuters that he is applying to become a member of Libya’s National Transitional Council as a full member to represent the Jewish community. He also plans to reclaim Jewish properties confiscated by the state.

Most Tripoli synagogues have been destroyed or converted to mosques. Jewish cemeteries also have been torn down to make room for office buildings.

Gerbi fled Libya with his family in 1967 when he was 12 years old.

Gadhafi on the run as rebels fight in Tripoli

Remnants of forces still loyal to Muammar Gadhafi staged a desperate stand in Tripoli on Tuesday as rebels fought their way into the capital, but the whereabouts of the veteran leader was a mystery.

World leaders urged Gadhafi, 69, to surrender to prevent more bloodshed and appealed for an orderly transition of power, as the six-month-old battle for control of the oil-producing North African nation appeared to enter its final stages.

Rebels say they are now in control of most of Tripoli, a sprawling coastal city of two million people on the Mediterranean Sea, but it was not clear whether Gadhafi was still in the Libyan capital.

Rebels swept into Tripoli two days ago in tandem with an uprising within the city. Reuters reporters saw firefights and clashes with heavy weapons, including anti-aircraft guns, as rebels tried to flush out snipers and pockets of resistance.

Hundreds seem to have been killed or wounded since Saturday. But Gadhafi tanks and sharpshooters appeared to hold only small areas, mainly around Gadhafi’s heavily fortified Bab al-Aziziyah compound in central Tripoli.

Civilians, who had mobbed the streets on Sunday to cheer the end of dictatorship, stayed indoors as machinegun fire and explosions punctuated some of the heaviest fighting of the Arab Spring uprisings that have been reshaping the Middle East.

U.S. President Barack Obama, saying the conflict was not over yet, cautioned rebels against exacting revenge for Gadhafi’s brutal rule. “True justice will not come from reprisals and violence,” he said.

The president also made plain that the United States would oppose any group within the loose coalition of rebels from imposing its power over other parts of Libyan society.

“Above all we will call for an inclusive transition that leads to a democratic Libya,” Obama said.

In an audio broadcast on Sunday before state TV went off the air, Gaddafi said he would stay in Tripoli “until the end”. There has been speculation, however, he might seek refuge in his home region around Sirte, or abroad.

In a sign Gadhafi allies were still determined to fight, NATO said government forces fired three Scud-type missiles from the area of Sirte towards the rebel-held city of Misrata.

Bab al-Aziziyah, a huge complex where some believe Gaddafi might be hiding, was the focal point of fighting in Tripoli.

NATO warplanes bombed the compound in the early hours of Tuesday, al-Arabiya television reported citing rebel sources.

“I don’t imagine the Bab al-Aziziyah compound will fall easily and I imagine there will be a fierce fight,” Abdel Hafiz Ghoga, spokesman for the rebel National Transitional Council, said in an interview aired by Al-Jazeera.

Al-Jazeera television, quoting its correspondent, said violent clashes were also reported near the oil town of Brega.

Rebels said they held three of Gadhafi’s sons, including his heir apparent Seif al-Islam. Al-Jazeera TV said that one of them, Mohammed, had escaped, adding that the body of another son, military commander Khamis, might have been found along with that of powerful intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi.

New round of coalition strikes in Tripoli, Libya state TV says

Libya state TV said a new round of strikes had begun in the capital, Tripoli, marking the third night of bombardment by the Western coalition.

Libya’s rebels scrambled to try to exploit international strikes on Muammar Gadhafi’s forces and go on the offensive, as some of the opposition’s ragtag citizen-fighters charged ahead to fight troops besieging a rebel city Monday. But the rebellion’s more organized military units were still not ready, and the opposition disarray underscored U.S. warnings that a long stalemate could emerge.

The air campaign by U.S. and European militaries has unquestionably rearranged the map in Libya and rescued rebels from the immediate threat they faced only days ago of being crushed under a powerful advance by Gadhafi’s forces. The first round of airstrikes smashed a column of regime tanks that had been moving on the rebel capital of Benghazi in the east.


Libya security forces on guard as anti-government protests break out in Tripoli

Several hundred opponents of Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi spilled out of a mosque in the capital after prayers on Friday and started chanting: “Gadhafi is the enemy of God!”

Initially there was no sign of any security presence at the protest but pro-Gadhafi militias armed with Kalashnikov rifles had set up checkpoints around the neighborhood, reinforced by armored personnel carriers.

However, later in the day 14 sports utility vehicles carrying Libyan security forces sped through a checkpoint heading into an area of the capital where the anti-government protest had broken out.


Gadhafi vows to triumph over his enemies

Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi on Friday vowed defiantly to triumph over his enemies, urging his supporters in Tripoli’s Green Square to protect Libya and its petroleum interests.

In a show of strength that he still had control over the capital Gadhafi addressed cheering supporters from the old city ramparts looking over Green Square, Gadhafi, wearing a winter jacket and a hunter’s cap that covered his ears, and said “Get ready to fight for Libya, get ready to fight for dignity, get ready to fight for petroleum.”

The Libyan leader, who has lost swathes of his country to rebels, said: “Respond to them, put them to shame” and “we can triumph over the enemies.”