DERNA, Libya – From the mountains of Afghanistan and the streets of Baghdad to the iron cages of Guantanamo Bay, Libyans from Derna have made their small city a big name in global jihad.
Now, with their nemesis Muammar Gaddafi gone, many are home – but say their battle for an Islamic state has only just begun.
The death of the US ambassador last month in the sack of Washington’s consulate in Benghazi – an assault Washington says may have involved al Qaeda-allied militants – has shone a global spotlight on armed Islamists across eastern Libya.
One effect of hostile reactions at home and abroad has been that some Islamist groups, part of a patchwork of militias which fill a vacuum left by Gaddafi, have made a tactical retreat from view, in some declaring their brigades to have disbanded.
But Islamist fighters in Derna make clear they will seek redress for grievances, many with little to do with religion, some dating to colonial times, others rooted in a sense that victory in the fight against Gaddafi they began years ago has been “stolen” by his former henchmen and stooges of the West.
Though their numbers, arms and alliances are hard to gauge, there is little doubt that Derna, a down-at-heel harbour town of 100,000 five hours drive east of Benghazi, is home to hundreds of battle-hardened men who want a Islamic state – and a share of the oil wealth they believe was denied the east while Gaddafi was crushing their aspirations during decades of bloodshed.
Salem Dirbi, a veteran Islamist fighter, thinks his revolution has been hijacked by former Gaddafi loyalists now back in power while those who “sacrificed their blood” to overthrow the dictator have been elbowed aside.
“How do you expect us to have confidence in the state?” asked the 40-something Dirbi, now trying to establish himself in the electrical appliances business. “They are putting in the same old people and just changing their titles to fool people.”
Dirbi waged a long war against Gaddafi. Like many of the commanders of the Islamist units who helped topple the “brother leader” last year, Dirbi had spent years in the mountains during a bloody guerrilla struggle against him in the 1990s.
His home town boasts that it has sent more Islamist militants to fight in more holy wars – from Iraq, to Afghanistan to Syria – than any other town in the Arab world.
Today’s Islamist fighters in the town say they are the victims of a conspiracy, made plain when they were accused of being behind the attack on the US consulate. (Reuters)