Sabratha, Libya—“Girls were going to school under the Taliban! I know, because I was living in Kabul in 1999.” Youssef, 45, is as insistent on this untruth as this cheerful, equable man gets. A barrel-chested Libyan who spent ten years in Afghanistan under unclear circumstances, followed by eleven years in Qaddafi’s notorious Abu Saleem prison, he was released on February 16 and hasn’t strayed far from his modest Sabratha home since. He seems happy and relaxed, and invites me to stay with his family, even after I make it clear that I hate the Taliban. He is part of another side of Sabratha, a seaside town of about 50,000 where I spent five days in August.
Best known for its Roman ruins, Sabratha also boasts about fifteen men who fought in Afghanistan: The commander of the town’s rebel brigade, Omar Muktar al Madhoury, is one of them. When I meet him in his headquarters in Zintan in late July, before Sabratha was freed, he also admits to having fought in Algeria. Now, he says, he is a “peaceful Salafi,” or religious conservative, and turns away volunteers interested in jihad. But there is a rumor now in Sabratha that he intends to take some of the Sabratha fighters to Algeria soon, to support a planned September uprising inspired by the Arab Spring.
Al Madhoury is not the only Libyan revolutionary commander with a jihadist past. Most notoriously, the new supreme military commander of Tripoli, Abdelhakim Belhaj, 45, who fought in Afghanistan, was a founder of the Islamic Fighting Front of Libya. He insists that he refused to join bin Laden’s struggle against Jews and Christians but admits to having been in Turkey and Sudan after leaving Afghanistan in 1992. He was detained by the CIA in Kuala Lumpur in March 2004. What he was doing there is unclear.
Youssef is one of two Sabrathan men who stayed long enough in Afghanistan to acquire Afghan wives. Two months ago, his 29-year-old wife Fauzia (not her real name), the mother of his two daughters, 13 and 12 years old, gave birth to twin daughters. (Abu Saleem prisoners were allowed a 4-day conjugal visit three times a year.)
I press him on his Afghan experiences as he relaxes at his Sabratha home the day before Eid. The couple’s tightly veiled daughters looked on. We speak in a mixture of English, Arabic, and Farsi—his Tajik wife's native tongue, and one he learned fluently in ten years in Afghanistan.
Youssef says he went to Afghanistan in 1989, when he was 23, to do humanitarian work supporting the jihad against the Soviet occupation. Youssef had completed two years toward a BA in public health at Tripoli's Al Fatah University before falling afoul of Qaddafi. When the Afghan war ended, he entered the honey and dried food business, exporting Afghan products to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. In 1997, he married Fauzia and the next year their first daughter was born. In 1999, he was arrested by Pakistan’s ISI and, in 2000, he and four other Libyans were sold by the ISI to Libya. They were blindfolded, handcuffed, beaten, and taken in a Libyan plane to Tripoli. There, Youssef entered the netherworld of Abu Saleem prison for 11 years.
Conditions had improved when he entered—previously the prisoners had only received one loaf of bread daily. But for his first two years in Abu Saleem, Youssef says, “The door to my cell never opened.”
“Then he must have done many bad things,” remarks Senussi Mohamed Mahrez, a former general in the Libyan National Army who defected to the rebel cause in April and led revolutionaries from his nearby hometown of Zwara. “He was Qaeda.”
The people of Sabratha, he elaborates, are "zunduqi wa funduqi"—hypocritical religious zealots, “zunduqa,” and licentious types who do the things Libyans associate with funduq, or hotels, drinking and whoring.
Sabratha has more than its share of women wearing the niqab, or face veil, and men in Salafi beards and gowns. There are affinities with equally stern Zintan, the Nafusa Mountains town where the Sabratha revolutionary fighters were based for months as they waited to take their city. But there didn’t seem much sin on offer at the Gamar (Moon) Hotel, where I and anyone else who wanted stayed for free in rooms whose windows were shattered by shelling on August 14. (There was no food, towels, toilet paper, or many of the other usual elements of hotel life.)
Youssef is no stereotype. He’s quick to tell me that his wife drives the family car, and the couple has Internet at home. Fauzia, who is confident and personable, tells me that she talks to her family on Skype regularly, but misses them terribly; she hopes to be able to visit them soon. And Youssef seems to bear little rancor from his years in jail. The new Libyan government, he thinks, may compensate him and other prisoners for their lost years. He intends to finish his long-interrupted degree in public health and perhaps go into business.
Youssef seems immersed in his family and I would be very surprised if he went anywhere to fight in the future. But the question still arises, what effect will the returned jihadists have on the new Libya? The official TNC take seems to be inclusivity at almost any cost. I wrote to Mustafa Sagezly, deputy interior minister and deputy commander of the 17th of February Brigade, about al Madhoury and Tripoli commander Belhaj. I ask: Wouldn’t it be better to steer clear of men with such antecedents? The American-educated computer entrepreneur replied,
Libya is for all Libyans.
Having a beautiful rainbow of views is what we want, we are sick of the 1 color, 1 man show!
Let the Libyan people choose!
I know that people will choose moderates.
Don’t worry we will be fine.
Dialogue is better than steering clear of ...
To an American, this sounds dangerously naïve. This is a common viewpoint in Libya, a face-to-face society that considers itself more like one big family than like a pluralistic nation. Libya is small and an individual’s hometown can be pinpointed by his last name. A wayward son is always given the benefit of the doubt. The U.S. can only hope that Sagezli’s optimism is well founded, that Libyan social cohesion trumps ideology—and try to use its influence to promote Libya’s moderates.