It didn’t take the prescient gifts of Nostradamus to foresee that Thursday’s killing of Abdel Fattah Younes –commander of Libya’s anti-Gaddafi rebel forces–would exacerbate the tensions and divisions already rife within the opposition’s leadership. But it is a little surprising just how swiftly the suspicions of treason and double-dealing unleashed by the Younes assassination have spurred the Benghazi-based rebel government into action threatening to split the opposition into warring rival factions focused more on battling one another than Gaddafi.
Details about Younes’ killing are still rather hazy—something certain members of the National Transition Council (NTC) now seem to be using to justify offensives on rivals. Late Friday, NTC finance and oil minister Ali Tarhouni indicated Islamist militants allied with rebel forces had assassinated Younes as he was returning from the front to answer questions about the military campaign against Gaddafi’s army. Though Tarhouni used elusive wording in making the allegation, he suggested Younes had been killed by extremists within the rebel-allied Obaida Ibn Jarrah Brigade. The thesis is those militants hated Younes for having served Gaddafi so faithfully—including as the interior minister who implemented Gaddafi’s ruthless repression of Libyan Islamists he considered a threat. Tarhouni also indicated the fighters strongly suspected Younes was secretly still working for Gaddafi as a double-agent at the heart of the opposition—an oft-aired concern among the many opposition leaders who viewed Younes as a rival for power.Tarhouni’s Islamist theory appeared to take deeper root Sunday when UK Defense Secretary George Fox said that while he wasn’t sure who killed Younes, it seemed quite evident Islamists had become part of the Libyan opposition. While that’s doubtless true, it’s probably rather beside the point–especially in the context of a Younes hit that many other actors in the opposition make good suspects for. Despite prevailing perceptions in the West, Islamists aren’t necessarily more fundamentalist in religious conviction or extreme in political outlook than many faith-based conservative movements beyond the Muslim world. No one gets sweaty about the origin of Christian Democrats in Europe, for example, and many Islamist groups are considered less militant than evangelical conservatives in America whose policies and platforms are overtly shaped and justified by personal faith. But in light of the somewhat bigoted Western perceptions, Tarhouni’s dark gaze towards Islamists as the probable forces behind the still enigmatic Younes killing seems rather convenient and self-service just now: an attempt, perhaps, to direct attention to a usual suspect of no good useful to better hide the growing gaps and increasing sparring between the other not-always-savory members of the West-backed NTC coalition.
Indeed, there seems to be a lot of that “don’t look here; look there” diversion afoot in Libya just now. In Benghazi early Sunday, rebel forces staged a deadly offensive against a nominal ally known as the al-Nidaa Brigade. The five hour battle—during which four people were killed and six wounded—was described by NTC officials as designed to cull a pro-Tripoli “fifth column” that had recently staged two jail raids freeing hundreds of imprisoned Gaddafi supporters, and which was allegedly preparing a spate of terror bombings within Benghazi . NTC members also said the operation was part of an effort to bring unruly and potentially rebellious autonomous militias under greater control of the opposition government, and not in direct response to the Younes killing. That initiative to impose increased organization and unity, however, seemed to produce the exact opposite as the dust of the al-Nidaa offensive settled.
The spiral of accusation and violence since Younes’ death Thursday has heightened the impression that rebel forces—and the NTC at their head—now risk breaking down into increasingly deadly jockeying between rival factions, and leaving Gaddafi with a relatively free hand to reclaim control of Libya. Hopefully, the common hated of Gaddafi that brought the opposition together will suffice in keeping the NTC sufficiently unified to surmount the current period of instability and focus on the goal of taking Tripoli. That may be very wishful thinking. History suggests that when power-hungry rivals band together in the mutually exclusive desire to step up and claim leadership as victory looms, the conflicting nature of their intentions tends to surge out of control the closer their objective approaches–and leave the most ruthless and unprincipled contestants best place to seize power when it does.