DERNA, Libya (Reuters) - From the mountains of Afghanistan and the streets of Baghdad to the iron cages of Guantanamo Bay, Libyans from Derna have made their small city a big name in global jihad.
Now, with their nemesis Muammar Gaddafi gone, many are home - but say their battle for an Islamic state has only just begun.
The death of the U.S. ambassador last month in the sack of Washington’s consulate in Benghazi - an assault Washington says may have involved al Qaeda-allied militants - has shone a global spotlight on armed Islamists across eastern Libya.
One effect of hostile reactions at home and abroad has been that some Islamist groups, part of a patchwork of militias which fill a vacuum left by Gaddafi, have made a tactical retreat from view, in some declaring their brigades to have disbanded.
But Islamist fighters in Derna make clear they will seek redress for grievances, many with little to do with religion, some dating to colonial times, others rooted in a sense that victory in the fight against Gaddafi they began years ago has been “stolen” by his former henchmen and stooges of the West.
Though their numbers, arms and alliances are hard to gauge, there is little doubt that Derna, a down-at-heel harbor town of 100,000 five hours drive east of Benghazi, is home to hundreds of battle-hardened men who want a Islamic state - and a share of the oil wealth they believe was denied the east while Gaddafi was crushing their aspirations during decades of bloodshed.
Salem Dirbi, a veteran Islamist fighter, thinks his revolution has been hijacked by former Gaddafi loyalists now back in power while those who “sacrificed their blood” to overthrow the dictator have been elbowed aside.
“How do you expect us to have confidence in the state?” asked the forty-something Dirbi, now trying to establish himself in the electrical appliances business. “They are putting in the same old people and just changing their titles to fool people.”
Dirbi waged a long war against Gaddafi. Like many of the commanders of the Islamist units who helped topple the “brother leader” last year, Dirbi had spent years in the mountains during a bloody guerrilla struggle against him in the 1990s.
His home town boasts that it has sent more Islamist militants to fight in more holy wars - from Iraq, to Afghanistan to Syria - than any other town in the Arab world.
Today’s Islamist fighters in the town say they are the victims of a conspiracy, made plain when they were accused of being behind the attack on the U.S. consulate.
“The state is making up this conspiracy. The state deliberately ignores the fact that there is an Islamic renaissance,” said Dirbi, whose brother was among more that 1,200 Islamist inmates machine-gunned by guards in a Tripoli prison in 1996.
“I want to see Gaddafi’s men on trial, not being rewarded and honored,” Dirbi said in his newly furnished office near the Ateeq mosque, one of 70 mosques and tombs that have earned Derna a name for religious piety.
The uprising that toppled Gaddafi was ignited by protests linked to the Abu Salim prison massacre, when the families of those killed there demonstrated in Benghazi in February last year to demand the release of their lawyer.
Many of Derna’s jihadists, drawn from the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group that led the insurgency in the 1990s, joined groups such as al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, Iraq and Chechnya. Gaddafi turned a blind eye to this exodus, happy to see the Islamists go somewhere else.
The town’s radical reputation has lately been burnished by the presence of several former Guantanamo prisoners, including Sufyan bin Qumo, who heads the Ansar al-Shariah Islamist group blamed by the American for the U.S. embassy attack.
Abdul Qader Azouz, 42, a survivor of the Abu Salim massacre who spent almost a decade in Gaddafi’s prisons, says the attempt to impose Western-style democracy on his conservative Muslim country is what most angers him and his followers.
“In Libya it’s only been a year and the idea of democracy and political parties is difficult for people to absorb. The people have not responded to this imported, packaged democracy. We don’t accept it. We have a religion that needs to be taken into account,” said Azouz, an English teacher who belongs to one of Derna’s most prominent families.
Libya’s new leaders, backed by their Western allies, are gambling they can forge a political consensus which will allow them to sideline the heavily armed revolutionaries in the streets before security collapses.
For the Islamist groups, which are part of a Salafi movement whose members try to model their lives on the early followers of the Prophet Mohammad, the legitimacy of the newborn Libyan state is highly questionable.
“It’s the revolution that made the state and some of the opportunists who did not participate in the revolution or shed any blood for the revolution are the ones who are forcing their orders on us,” Azouz said.
High on the Islamists’ list of demands is drafting a constitution that enshrines Islamic laws.
“The solution is to draft an Islamic constitution ... and set up Sharia courts so that people can trust that this state is a true Islamic state,” said Azouz.
To reinforce that message, a big banner hanging in the street reads: “God’s law is the basis of rule. Islam is both a religion and a state.”
Azouz and Dirbi and other Islamists say the country’s new rulers are beginning to sound like Gaddafi, who cast Derna as an al-Qaeda stronghold in order to win support from the West.
“This is not new, the city has long been victimized and for years they would say it is a base for al-Qaeda and extremists. The new rulers of Libya are now saying the same thing,” Azouz said.
Some jihadists are already preparing for what they see is an inevitable showdown with those who seek to turn Libya into an “apostate” nation. They can see no compromise with an infidel West bent on changing Libya’s Islamic identity.
Islamist fighters who have tasted real power in the uprising’s aftermath - backed up by weapons believed to be hidden in the picturesque green mountains outside the city - insist they will not cede authority to the central government until their demands for an Islamic state are met.
The deep streak of radicalism in eastern Libya that fed on the neglect of towns such as Derna during the Gaddafi era is still strong these days. Many jihadists say the country’s new rulers are favoring Tripoli just as the former dictator did.
“In the east we paid in blood,” Azouz said. “We were the ones who created the revolution and we went and fought and after that handed it to them on a platter of gold,” Azouz said.
“There is now real fear in the east that it will suffer the same fate as under Muammar. I wish they could convince us of their vision and plan before they insist on asking us to hand over our weapons,” he said.
Others take a harder line. “These people are not fit to govern. We reject anyone who sits on the seat of power and follows a foreign agenda,” said Yousef Jehani, a supporter of the Ansar al-Sharia Islamist group.
Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Alastair Macdonald and Giles Elgood