Mysterious Assassination Of Libyan Rebel Commander Threatens Further Division Of Anti-Gaddafi Forces

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General Abdul Fattah Younes speaks to the press on March 13, 2011. (Photo: Ginluigi Guercia / AFP / Getty Images)

Details surrounding Thursday’s assassination of the commander of Libyan rebel forces remained confused on Friday, though one thing does seem clear amid the uncertainty: the killing isn’t good news for insurgents battling Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, or the Western nations backing their effort. Indeed, initial reaction to the death of the commander, General Abdul Fattah Younes, illustrate the division, distrust, and suspicion that already plague the opposition in Libya’s civil war. Worse still, the killing raises the risk insurgents may break down into openly conflicting factions battling one another rather than their common foe, Gaddafi.

Precious few elements of Younes’ death are solid enough to be stated as fact—something that could also be said about the allegiances and long-term intentions of many leaders in Libya’s opposition. The rebel military commander was apparently killed with two fellow military officials Thursday in the opposition capital of Benghazi after being summoned there by the ruling National Transition Council (NTC). According to the BBC, Younes is said to have been ordered to appear to defend his direction of the armed rebellion, and explain its stalled progress. He never got that chance. On late Thursday, NTC leader Mustafa Abdul-Jalil announced Younes had been assassinated, but refused to say how, where nor by whom.

“With all sadness, I inform you of the passing of Abdel Fattah Younes, the commander-in-chief of our rebel forces,” Jalil said during a press conference where he refused to answer any questions about the killing. “The person who carried out the assassination was captured.”

Jalil’s evasiveness about the hit sparked accusations from Younes’ backers—and belligerent response from members of his Obeidi tribe—that the general was set up and murdered by rival factions in the insurgency. Counter claims swarmed alleging Younes had been killed by Gaddafi supporters seeking to decapitate the rebels’ military command—or fan conflict within the fractious opposition by unleashing suspicions the general’s murder had been an inside job. There’s a good reason why that latter theory is being taken seriously. Younes, a military figure who assisted Gaddafi’s revolutionary seizure of power– and long served as his interior minister–defected to rebel forces relatively late in the game. Because of that hesitation, many opposition officials and fighters suspected Younes’ motive was duplicity: to serve as a Gaddafi agent at the very top of the insurgency. Those suspicions fueled rumors that his assassination was carried out by avenging rebels, while still other allegations held the treason-and-revenge logic served as a diversion for enemy opposition leaders who simply wanted Younes removed as a rival.

Why so much distrust? Because Younes isn’t the only opposition figure whose motives, background, and hunger for power raise questions. Another rebel military figure, Khalifa Heftar, has long challenged Younes’ status as supreme army commander, with both he and his backers openly engaging in unseemly disputes with Younes that have left Western powers aghast. A former general who lived in exile for years in the U.S., Heftar himself is suspected by many rebels and foreign observers of maintaining close ties to the CIA, and advancing American interests in the Libyan conflict. Meanwhile, in addition to the many NTC figures who spent most of their lives serving Gaddafi before turning on him when popular revolt spread, the opposition leadership features people whose loyalties otherwise seem as questionable as their claims of collective unity.

“Younes was suspected of working for Gaddafi, Heftar is supposedly tied to the CIA, several figures are linked to intelligence interests of other nations in the region, tribal leaders have their own agenda, and you also have the significantly growing influence of the Muslim Brotherhood within the NTC,” says Karim Emile Bitar, a specialist on the Middle East and Arab world at the Institute of International and Strategic Relations in Paris. “There are some respected personalities within that structure, too–lawyers, intellectuals, and idealists–but they’ve been gradually marginalized by the exiles, the people with 30 or 40 years of faithful service to Gaddafi behind them, and the Islamists. It’s little wonder divisions between them have created conflict over time.”

Thus far, the only significant reaction to Younes’ killing came from members of his Obeidi tribe. Several of those fighters stormed Benghazi hotels and fired weapons in anger to the assassination news, but apparently inflicted no injury or death. Still, the coming days and weeks should reveal whether Younes’ assassination represents a severe blow to the management and efficiency of the armed rebellion–or perhaps more importantly, cause existing divisions within the opposition to surge into frontal conflict.

“This comes at an important time for the NTC, which has not only been recognized by an increasing number of nations recently, but as part of that is now set to start getting some of the $30 billion in frozen Libyan assets abroad,” notes Bitar.” The influx of all the money will set off a scramble within the NTC likely to cause the other divisions to widen. Up till now, the common hatred of Gaddafi kept the various factions together, but I doubt that will suffice to keep them cemented as they all seek to secure the status of being the only legitimate force to lead the country in the future.”

Barring the nightmare scenario of the rebels melting down into full factional warfare—leaving Gaddafi a free hand to reclaim lost territory and control—Bitar says he believes the opposition and its NATO-led air allies will eventually succeed in toppling the Tripoli regime. But he warns that the rivalries, conflicting agendas and alliances, and mutual distrust within the NTC that have created so much suspicion and accusation over Younes’ killing will make stability hard to come by even if the opposition can successfully oust Gaddafi.

“As we’ve seen again and again during the unbroken string of fiascos produced by Western intervention in the Middle East–starting with Napoleon going to Egypt in 1798, and right up to the Bush invasion of Iraq–military domination is one matter, while creating stable and trustworthy regimes local populations will accept as credible is quite another,” says Bitar, who notes the NTC has already come under fire from Human Rights Watch for widespread abuses in the parts of Libya under its control. “The sinister characters now dominating the NTC don’t view one another as legitimate leaders of Libya, and neither does most of the public. Removing Gaddafi from power is a worthwhile and laudable goal that will nevertheless create a new and urgent challenge of finding leadership that can forge unity and stability for the entire country. That’s never been easy in Libya, and I don’t see much hope for that from opposition leaders that have emerged as the main forces of the NTC–meaning the problems the West faces in Libya will be far from over once the intervention ends.”

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