In slain fighter’s past, questions of Libyan rebels’ links with terror
AJDABIYA, Libya — Abdel-Moneim Mokhtar was ambushed and killed by Moammar Khadafy’s troops last week on a dusty road in eastern Libya — the end of a journey that saw him fight as a jihadi in Afghanistan in the early 1990s and then return home where he died alongside NATO-backed rebels trying to oust the longtime authoritarian leader.
In describing Mokhtar’s death, Khadafy’s government said he was a member of Al Qaeda — part of an ongoing attempt to link the rebels to Osama bin Laden’s group. Four years ago, Al Qaeda said it had allied itself with the Libyan Islamic Fighters Group — of which Mokhtar was a top military commander.
Two days before he was killed, Mokhtar denied any connection between his group and Al Qaeda, saying in an interview: “We only fought to free Libya.’’
“We realized that Khadafy is a killer and imprisoned people, so we had to fight him,’’ said Mokhtar, one of a handful of rebel battalion commanders who led more than 150 rebels in eastern Libya.
The question of Islamic fundamentalists among the rebels is one of the murkier issues for Western nations who are aiding the anti-Khadafy forces with airstrikes and must decide how deeply to get involved in the fight. Some countries, including the United States, have been wary — partly out of concern over possible extremists among the rebels.
NATO’s top commander, US Navy Admiral James Stavridis, told Congress last month that officials had seen “flickers’’ of possible Al Qaeda and Hezbollah involvement with rebel forces. But he said there was no evidence of significant numbers within the opposition leadership.
Spokesman Mustafa Gheriani of the opposition council in Benghazi said any extremists among the fighters are exceptions and that ensuring democracy is the only way to combat them.
Mokhtar, 41, of the northwestern town of Sabratha, arrived in Afghanistan at age 20 in 1990 when the mujahideen were fighting the puppet regime installed by the Soviets before they withdrew after a decade-long war.
He fought for three years in the fields and mountains of Khost and Kandahar provinces under Jalaluddin Haqqani — a prominent commander who was backed by the United States during the Soviet war but has now become one of its fiercest enemies in Afghanistan.
At least 500 Libyans went to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets, according to the Jamestown Foundation, a US-based think tank, but Mokhtar said there are not many fighting with the rebels now. Many like Mokhtar who returned home were arrested or killed by Khadafy when they announced the creation of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group in the mid-1990s to challenge his rule.
Mokhtar became one of the group’s top three military commanders, said Anes Sharif, another member of the group who has known him for almost two decades.
Mokhtar was in charge in southern Libya and planned several assassination attempts on Khadafy, including one in the southern desert town of Brak in 1996 when a militant threw a grenade that failed to explode, Sharif said.
“Abdel-Moneim was the man who organized, prepared, and mastered all those kinds of operations,’’ said Sharif, who is from the northeastern town of Darna, which has been a hotbed of Islamist activity.
The militant group also waged attacks against Khadafy’s security forces. But the Libyan leader cracked down on the group, especially in Darna and what is now the rebel-held capital of Benghazi.
The response forced many members of the group, including Mokhtar, to flee abroad, Sharif said. Mokhtar left in the late 1990s and only returned after the current uprising began, Sharif said.
The group publicly renounced violence in 2009 following negotiations with Libyan authorities. In a statement at the time, the group insisted it had “no link to the Al Qaeda organization in the past and has none now.’’