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Libyan rebel's story shows links to Taliban, Al Qaeda, NATO

'We are Libyans fighting for Libya,' said the rebel fighter, whose life led him to all sides so he could continue his battle against Kadafi.

April 17, 2011|By Ned Parker, Los Angeles Times
  • Abdul Monem Muktar Mohammed, left, seen with some of his men, was leading a convoy of 200 cars west of Ajdabiya, Libya, when a bullet struck him in the chest, his aides say.
Abdul Monem Muktar Mohammed, left, seen with some of his men, was leading… (Ned Parker, Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Ajdabiya, Libya — He once lived under the Taliban's protection, met with Osama bin Laden and helped found a group the U.S. has listed as a terrorist organization. He died in a secondhand U.S. military uniform, ambushed by Moammar Kadafi's men as he cleared a road after an airstrike by his new NATO allies.

Aides to Abdul Monem Muktar Mohammed say the Libyan rebel fighter was leading a convoy of 200 cars west of this hotly contested strategic city Friday when a bullet struck him on the right side of the chest. He opened his passenger door and jumped out. A rocket-propelled grenade exploded nearby.

"Don't wait, go," he yelled to his men. Then he got to his feet, staggered a few steps and fell.

Mohammed's final days were a mirror of his past, of a life that saw contradictions and intersections with U.S. policy, ones that could return to haunt the United States.

He arrived in Afghanistan in 1990 at the conclusion of the mujahedin's silent partnership with the United States against the Soviet-backed Afghan regime. The following decades saw him become an international pariah, operating in an underground world of armed training camps and safe houses.

But with the revolt against Kadafi that started in February, he once again found himself in an uneasy alliance with the United States.

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Five days before he died, with gray in his hair and bags under his eyes, Mohammed climbed a concrete tower on the outskirts of Ajdabiya and phoned in positions to the rebel government so NATO could drop bombs on Kadafi's forces.

Putting down his Thuraya satellite phone, Mohammed waved a shiny black 9-millimeter pistol on a road filled with empty bullet casings and waited for the explosions.

A few hours later, Mohammed and his Omar Mukhtar brigade, one of the new military units officially sanctioned by the opposition government, rejoiced as blasts shook the city. A few started dancing and singing "God is great."

"I have never been Al Qaeda now or in the future," Mohammed said as he watched his men clap. "We are religious and ordinary people. We are Libyans fighting for Libya."

The onetime holy warrior boasted that he even wanted a close battlefield relationship with NATO. But he also bristled at Western double standards. Why, he grumbled, does NATO so readily bomb the Taliban in Afghanistan but hesitates against Kadafi? Still, he would take any firepower he could get. He wished he had his own direct line to NATO rather than communicating through middlemen.

He laughed and said, "Give me their number."

Rebel leaders are sensitive to criticism by some in the West that Al Qaeda "fellow travelers" are deeply involved in the fight against Kadafi. With some defensiveness, they say Afghan veterans such as Mohammed, 41, were pushed to extremes by Kadafi's authoritarian rule, and that with freedom, the danger of a homegrown militant extremist threat has faded.

But there are many unanswered questions about Libya's anti-Kadafi forces, with at least 20 former Islamic militant leaders in battlefield roles, according to the rebel army, and hundreds of Islamists participating or watching from the sidelines. All speak of unity and brotherhood, but in the new state, will they be tempted by a once-in-a-lifetime chance to overpower Libya with a conservative Islamist vision?

The fighters themselves might not even know their answer, caught up in the moment's revolutionary fervor and vacillating between a longing for peace and their dreams of achieving an Islamic state.

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Mohammed's journey started at age 20, when he left his home in western Libya and traveled across the border to Algeria, flew to Frankfurt, Germany, then to Pakistan, and made his way with four Libyan friends to Afghanistan in early 1990. The year before, more than a 1,000 Islamists had been jailed in Libya, and Mohammed decided it was better to leave and try to follow a righteous path.

He fell in love with the mountains and the Afghans' fighting prowess. With the fall of the old Soviet-backed Afghan regime in 1992, he and a group of other Libyan fighters decided to return home.

They slipped across the borders. The veteran mujahedin called themselves the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, or LIFG, and vowed to kill Kadafi, declaring their ambition to form an Islamic state. Mohammed lived in the southern city of Sabha under an assumed name. He didn't dare contact his family. He hated Kadafi for detaining hundreds of Islamists and remembered the yearly public executions of political detainees and students.

"Hitler was a good man compared to Kadafi," he said.

A first assassination plot, in 1994, involved planting bombs at a celebration for Kadafi, but the explosives failed to go off. Two years later, he was involved in another botched plot when a man hurled a dud grenade at Kadafi. Mohammed acknowledged without a hint of embarrassment that he picked the bomber and the weapon.

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