The brother of a top Al Qaeda commander killed in an American drone strike in Pakistan last summer is emerging as a strong candidate to become Libya’s top elected official.
Abd Al-Wahhab Muhammad Qaid is a former member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), jihadists who struggled for more than two decades to overthrow Muammar Qaddafi and mounted an insurgency in eastern Libya before seeking sanctuary in Afghanistan. He was nominated for the presidency of the country’s parliament, the General National Congress (GNC).
The killing last year of Qaid's brother, Abu Yahya al-Libi, is thought to have been one of the motives for Libyan jihadists to attack the U.S. consulate in Benghazi last September, an assault that led to the deaths of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. Al Qaeda’s spiritual leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, focused his annual 9/11 message on America’s drone war just days before the consulate attack, eulogized al-Libi and called on “Libyan brothers” to avenge the loss.
A soft-spoken bear of a man who resembles his late brother, Qaid, 45, is currently chairman of the parliament’s National Security Committee, and thought to be the frontrunner among the three politicians so far nominated for a post elected by lawmakers.
A date has not been set yet for the vote, which could come as early as next week.
Qaid’s election could complicate already uneasy relations between an increasingly Islamist post-Qaddafi Libya and the American and British governments. His prospects hinge on whether his candidacy will be backed by the Muslim Brotherhood, which controls the largest number of Islamist votes in the GNC.
Qaid describes himself as a moderate Islamist and insists he bears no ill will towards the West. Libya has much need for American help and expertise as it rebuilds the country, he believes.
He was critical of the attack on the U.S. consulate and mourned Stevens’ death, arguing the ambassador was crucial for the success of the uprising.
But Qaid disapproves of the U.S. using drones and special forces in Libya employed to hunt down Stephens' killers. He warns any action on the ground by the U.S in the future to capture those behind the attack would “prompt a reaction not just from the extremists but from all Libyans, who are sensitive to territorial sovereignty.”
Qaid’s nomination has added to the worries of Libyan moderates and progressives, who argue that the country is undergoing an Islamist-engineered legal coup. “This is horrible news,” says Ayat Mneina, an activist with the Libyan Youth Forum. “I'm thoroughly appalled.”
Islamists dismiss the claim they are stealing the revolution – they say they are correcting it and that most Libyans support them.
Qaid has the backing of the smaller Islamist parties and has the support of the Martyrs Wafa (Loyalty to the Martyrs) bloc in the legislature made up of members of militia brigades that fought in the NATO-backed uprising that toppled Qaddafi 18 months ago.
The Martyrs Wafa coordinated last month’s militia sieges of key government ministries in a successful effort to force the GNC to approve a sweeping political exclusion law purging the legislature and government of former Qaddafi officials, even those who contributed to Qaddafi’s downfall or broke with the late dictator years before.
It was that law that forced the recent resignation of Mohammed Magarief, who was an ambassador during the Qaddafi regime before becoming a leader of the rebellion that ousted the late dictator.
Announcing his resignation last week, Magarief said he was going in order to comply with the exclusion law, but he warned revolutionary militias who have refused to disband since Qaddafi’s ouster and their political allies were undermining democracy by using intimidation and the threat of force. He said the sweeping political isolation law was only passed because of intimidation.
He said: “I cannot understand or accept that a number of members of the National Congress, who were among the ranks of the true revolutionaries who chose to join the political process, and entered the general national elections and presumably accepted the democratic process, to use their affiliation with revolutionary brigades and regional loyalties to intimidate their colleagues in the Congress and pressure them to vote.”
The law will hit moderates the hardest – up to 40 lawmakers in the 200-strong congress will have to resign as well.
The beneficiaries of the political isolation law are not only the major militias who besieged the ministries and threatened to storm the GNC unless the law was passed, but also their allies in the Muslim Brotherhood and smaller Islamist parties. Together they will command an overwhelming majority of seats in the GNC.
The coordination between Islamist politicians and militias was exposed during the standoff. Two days before the GNC passed the political isolation law, Sami al Saadi, another LIFG leader, spoke at a rally in Tripoli’s Martyrs’ Square urging support for the law.
Qaid and other LIFG leaders say they fought with the mujahedin in Afghanistan against the Soviet-installed government of Mohammed Najibullah and remained in Taliban-governed Afghanistan after because it was a haven where they could train and plot to oust Gaddafi.
They say they had cordial relations with bin Laden but kept him at arm’s length, arguing with him that they were not global jihadists and were only interested in overthrowing Gaddafi.
Many of them fled after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, suspecting the U.S. would not distinguish between them and Al Qaeda, they say.
According to Qaid, that’s what happened to his brother, al-Libi, who was captured by U.S. forces and held at Bagram Air Base. “He was tortured very aggressively and humiliated,” said Qaid. He blames the U.S. and the torture his brother suffered for his sibling’s decision to join Al Qaeda and embrace global jihad after managing to pull off, along with other detainees, an escape from Bagram.
Qaddafi insisted the LIFG had ties with Al Qaeda, although members insist they “shunned Osama bin Laden when he sought to recruit us,” Qaid told this reporter three months ago in a rare interview with an American journalist.