LONDON (Reuters) - Jailed Libyan Islamist guerrillas who reject indiscriminate violence should be freed to promote their views in person to dangerous young “grassroots jihadists”, a former associate of Osama bin Laden has said.
Worries about radicalization over the Internet have grown rapidly following a failed December 25 attack on a U.S. airliner by a Nigerian and the November 5 killing of 13 people at a U.S. army base in Texas by a gunman linked to a Yemen-based preacher.
The imprisoned leaders of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) wrote a 400-page refutation of militant thinking in 2009 in the latest in a series of rebuttals of Web-based al Qaeda propaganda by former apologists for bin Laden’s group.
Published online, the document was the result of two years of reconciliation efforts between the government and top LIFG men in prison spearheaded by Saif al Islam, a reformist son of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, and mediated by former LIFG member Noman Benotman.
But the LIFG paper, like revisions by other veteran al Qaeda allies, may struggle to impress a new generation of radicals for whom their authors are old-timers far from the battlefield.
In a talk in London on January 11, Benotman said that while the commentary had been widely read by Arab intellectuals it would have a telling effect only when its authors argued their case in person with young people drawn to al Qaeda propaganda.
“Grassroots jihadists are the most dangerous group. There are hundreds of them in Libya,” he told an audience at the Quilliam Foundation, a UK think tank studying radical Islamism.
He said newcomers to militant Islamism in Libya in recent years had included some of these “very extreme young men, motivated by Iraq, very difficult to talk to.”
He said some young men shown the LIFG book had responded by saying: “We don’t understand it. It’s too sophisticated.”
This showed a problem of “marketing” that could be solved only by freeing the six main authors, who include LIFG leader Abdullah al-Sadeq and spiritual leader Abu Munther al-Saidi.
The six are among about 40 LIFG members believed to be still in prison following a series of releases of dozens of Islamists including LIFG members in recent years. In the most recent in October 2009, 45 LIFG members were among 88 Islamists freed.
“The book itself can do nothing. They need to go out and start to preach and challenge the jihadis,” Benotman said. “A lot of people want the leaders to be freed so they can debate.”
“The will is there” among authorities to free the men, Benotman said, but officials had said there were still some “security problems” that remained to be sorted out.
LIFG staged bloody battles in city streets and the mountains of Libya in the 1990s, killing dozens of soldiers and policemen, in a failed attempt to topple Gaddafi that was gradually crushed in the later years of that decade.
Benotman fought in Afghanistan in 1989-1992 where he befriended bin Laden, his Egyptian number two Ayman al-Zawahri, and al Qaeda ideologues Abu Musab al-Suri and Abu Yahya al-Libi.
He later returned to Libya to work with the LIFG and spent time with bin Laden in Sudan. In a 2000 meeting with bin Laden in Afghanistan he failed to persuade the al Qaeda leader to end his global jihad and focus instead on fighting Arab governments.
The paper does not mention al Qaeda but says Muslims should not use violence against their rulers or “kill women, children, the elderly, priests, messengers, traders and the like”.
However the paper defends armed struggle against resistance to foreign occupation in Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine.
Some scholars have questioned its credibility, saying jailed LIFG leaders were not free to express genuine thoughts.
Benotman said the LIFG’s sincerity was hard to doubt, since “some were jailed since 1992 and rejected repeated offers of freedom if they quit the struggle. People in Libya know that.”
The full text of the document is available at www.mediafire.com/?uiqiuyiqjzy/www.akhbar-libyaonline.com
English-language excerpts, with analytical commentary, by the Quilliam Foundation counter-radicalization think tank are available here
Editing by Giles Elgood