Libya's Freedom Fighters: How They Won

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Now that Tripoli is more or less secure, more stories are coming out that help us understand how the Libyan freedom fighters were able to achieve such a rapid victory over Mummar Qaddafi in his capital of 42 years. I want to use today's diary to share with you some of the more enlightening material I have found.

Nicolas Pelham has a very good piece in the New York Review of Books, August 29 2011, that gives us a good overview of the planning and perpetration that went into the assault:

Hatched in capitals across Europe and the Arab world, as well as in rebel operation rooms secretly organized in Libya itself, the military campaign took four months of planning. In May, exiled opposition leaders abandoned their jobs as lecturers in American colleges and established an intelligence-gathering bureau on Djerba, the Tunisian island across the border from Libya. Led by Abdel Majid Biuk, an urbane mathematics teacher from Tampa, Florida, the team interviewed four hundred Qaddafi security officers who defected following the loyalist defeat in Misrata; using Google Earth, they analyzed the colonel’s defenses. “We went through the whole city building by building to ascertain its fortifications,” Biuk told me on his arrival in Tripoli.

He passed the data on to a military operations room elsewhere on Djerba whose staff included representatives of NATO and Gulf allies as well as Libyan army veterans who had defected to the US and formed the National Front for the Salvation of Libya (NFSL), an opposition group that led a series of aborted coups in the 1980s and 1990s, before branching into website campaigns. Under the eyes of Tunisian customs officials, they smuggled satellite phones, which are banned in Tunisia, in ambulances across the border into Libya, and set about supplying the rebels. Chevrons were daubed on a straight stretch of road at Rahebat in the Nafusa Mountains, turning it into a landing strip. Military supplies began arriving by the planeload, including 23-caliber tank-piercing bullets.

Tunisia provided a conduit for fighters as well as arms. With Qaddafi’s continued control of the center of the country blocking access over land, Benghazi volunteers took a circuitous route, flying from Egypt to Tunis, before crossing the border at the Tunisian town of Dehiba into the Nafusa Mountains. By mid-August they had established five brigades each with its own mountain training base, and together formed a two-thousand-man battalion under Hisham Buhajiar’s command as well as that of Abdel Karim Bel Haj, a Libyan veteran of the Afghan jihad. Trainers included NFSL veterans. Younger Libyans raised in the US, including the son of a Muslim Brotherhood activist from a US-based company, provided close protection. As they prepared the final stages of their assault, a host of Berber irregulars drawn from towns across the mountains jumped on board. Meanwhile, a collection of local traders, engineers, students, and the jobless from Misrata, battle-hardened by their seventy-day defense of their city, reassembled their brigades and prepared to join the attack on Tripoli from the east, by both road and sea.

Finally, the planners on Djerba divided Tripoli into thirty-seven sectors, and appointed local security coordinators to recruit, train, and arm local cells, using Muslim Brotherhood leaders to bless an armed uprising. “Our first slogan was ‘no’ to the militarization of the intifada,” says Ali al-Salabi, a Muslim Brotherhood politician in exile who worked with the planners, and who was among the first to arrive in Tripoli after Qaddafi’s inner sanctum fell. “But after protesters were gunned down, we realized armed revolution was the only way.”

Among the gunrunners was Salima Abu Zuada, a twenty-six-year-old legal adviser at Qaddafi’s Transport Ministry, who had learned to drive tanks as part of her high school military training. After fleeing to Tunisia in April, she made eight trips by road and tugboat, smuggling hundreds of guns and rocket-propelled grenades back to Tripoli. “Qaddafi didn’t suspect us,” she says. “He thought all women loved him.” Qaddafi’s intelligence chief, Abdullah Senussi, was more wary, however. On two occasions his spooks in Tunisia, she says, tried to run her off the road.

On Saturday, August 20, as dusk descended and the mosques sounded the prayer call for breakfast, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, Qaddafi’s meek-seeming former justice minister who now heads the NTC, went on television to deliver an address. Before he had finished, the rebel flag was flying over Suq al-Juma and other Tripoli neighborhoods. Meanwhile, NATO forces intensified their bombardment of loyalist positions on the western outskirts of Tripoli, stretching to its limits their UN mandate to protect civilians. As the colonel’s forces abandoned their bases, they found themselves sandwiched between rebels sweeping in from the mountains and Tripolitans carving out their own enclaves. Challenged on multiple fronts, Qaddafi’s forces melted away.

The speed of the conquest may yet contain the seeds of its disintegration. Without a common enemy, the diverse opposition could quickly unravel once its composite parts start jostling over the spoils. Already each of the participating groups is leveraging the instrumental role it played in the victory to promote its own interests. Despite earlier protestations that they had no troops on the ground, NATO officials have begun leaking laudatory details of the part played by their special forces in supporting the rebel army. So too have Arab states such as Qatar; and not to be outdone, Turkey has released details of its hundreds of millions in cash handouts to the rebels in the hope that the NTC might both honor the huge contracts Qaddafi gave Turkish construction companies and include Turkey in postwar reconstruction.

While Nicolas Pelham gives us the big picture Al Jazeera's Evan Hill gave us a window into one Tripoli families experiences:

On the night of August 20, after six months of bloody revolution, the rebels were tightening their grip on Tripoli. Fighters allied with the NTC had seized Zawiya, 50km to the west, and were pushing closer to Gaddafi's last stronghold.

In central Tripoli, the Shtawi family watched the news on television. Mustafa Abdul Jalil, chairman of the NTC, appeared on TV late in the evening.

"We have always called Tripoli the capital of a free Libya … [and] we are depending on you to protect your wealth, your ports and your national institutions," said Jalil. "We have contacts with people from the inner circle of Gaddafi. All evidence [shows] that the end is very near, with God's grace."

Jalil's remarks echoed through Tripoli homes like a battle cry.

"That was zero hour," said Nuri Shtawi, business development manager for the Sahara Petroleum Services Company and one of the Tripoli uprising's many informal organisers.

Shtawi's nephew, Anis, a 21-year-old economics major at Tripoli University, took up an AK-47 he had kept hidden. Months earlier, he and his brother, Esam, had been taken to a farm outside Tripoli where a family friend who once served as a military bodyguard for a regime official taught the brothers how to shoot.

"Just pray for me, that I die as a martyr," Anis told his father, Mohammed, a legal adviser for the Libya African Investment Company and another organiser.

Then he left, heading several kilometres east through the winding, darkened streets of the city centre, to a prearranged point near the al-Mahary Radisson Hotel. He would meet dozens of other armed men, most of them dressed in black.

Outside, the city's mosques sang "God is great, God is great". Amina, one of Mohammed's daughters, described this as the night's "beautiful moment". Tripoli's underground organisers, spread across neighbourhoods and connected in a web of ad-hoc committees, had asked the mosques to do so.

The family recounted February 21st - Tripoli's Long Night

The fight for Tripoli began in February, when thousands of residents took to the streets in solidarity with Benghazi, the eastern center of resistance. Protesters there had overthrown the city's military garrison and won the defection of Jalil, Gaddafi's former justice minister, and Abdul Fattah Younis, former interior minister. In Tripoli, things would not go so quickly.

Esam, a 21-year-old dental school, went to the central Green Square on February 20. The plaza, traditionally a rallying site for Gaddafi and supportive crowds, was for a brief moment flooded with shocked protesters.

"People went because they thought Gaddafi was gone," he said. "We heard that he went to Venezuela. We were so happy."

But as Esam looked on, Gaddafi's security forces entered the square. They brought anti-aircraft guns and turned them on the unarmed protesters.

"There was a big stage, and there were lots of people on [it]. The brigades came from the side streets and started shooting people. All the people on the stage were killed," he said.

There is evidence to suggest that the rumor that Qaddafi had fled to Venezuela was actually state sponsored and a setup designed to flush out the activists in Tripoli and set them up to be murdered en mass.

Some people had an response to NATO bombing that Cynthia McKinney never mentioned.

Beginning in March, when NATO air strikes began targeting regime bunkers, offices and military camps in and around the capital, the family rejoiced. Neighbourhood boys could be heard whistling, a way of cheering the jets, and some families wrote "Thank you, NATO" on their rooftops.

The family believed intervention was necessary and did not fear the disastrous invasion that Saif al-Islam and other regime officials had warned would follow.

"If NATO didn't come, Benghazi, Misrata, Zawiya, even some places here in Tripoli were going to be destroyed," Nada said. "We were very worried. Misrata people had suffered through so much, and Brega was hard to get because it was important."

Mohammed tells of the months of preparation.

Mohammed propped a scrapbook on his knees that contained dozens of stiff red pages; a piece of white paper had been carefully clipped to each one. The pages bore the eagle stamp of the Gaddafi regime, and those that Mohammed showed bore marks indicating they had come from the Internal Security agency.

Each one was a transcript of a recorded phone conversation, Mohammed said. Most of the conversations took place during the past six months of fighting. They had been leaked to Tripoli's rebel organisers by friends inside the regime. Mohammed declined to allow the transcripts to be photographed or copied, but he read out the contents of some.

In one conversation, two men named Abdelfattah and Abdelbaset, speak by phone about "small ships coming by sea".

"How are the sheep?" Abdelbaset asked.

"They're fine, thanks be to God," Abdelfattah responded. "But listen: One of the female sheep has a toothache."

The sheep referred to weapons, Mohammed said, and the toothache indicated the men believed they had a spy in their ranks.

In another conversation, dated July 17, a man phoned his friend to say he had spotted 70 cars with mounted Grad rockets and 106mm recoilless rifles leaving the southern town of Gatroun on the way to a place called Om al-Aranub.

"We have 600 cars," the man said, suggesting he is a rebel field commander. "We're a big force, but the men are not well trained. We need help from NATO."

The regime convoy came from the direction of al-Wigh, a nearby town with an airbase, he said. "If you need the coordinates, I'll send them to you in a message."

Nuri and Mohammed said rebel organisers in Tripoli had hundreds of contacts in various offices within the regime willing to help. The evidence of leaked files, access to weapons and the speed and scope of the uprising in the capital suggest they told the truth.

Many of the insiders wanted to abandon the government but were convinced to stay, Nuri said. Those who remained with Gaddafi proved invaluable, tipping off organisers when they heard of plans to arrest a member of the opposition leadership.

Nuri and Mohammed stayed out of military affairs. Instead, they spread news to Libyans and foreign media, sent money to Misrata and medical camps in Tunisia, and prepared their neighourhoods.

They produced pamphlets, handed out in secret, that gave instructions on how women might combat rape attempts. One pamphlet advised, "Tell him, 'Imagine this is your sister, or your mother.' Look him in the face".

They argued with friends and neighbours to convince them that NATO's intervention was good.

"We wanted people to be patient, pray. [We told] them why we want to get rid of Gaddafi, not get him necessarily, but his philosophy," Nuri said.

Victory at last

As the mosques chanted "God is great" on August 20, Anis and his companions fired their guns in the air to draw out Gaddafi's forces. In the streets, alleys and midans of a seaside neighbourhood called Zawiyat al-Dahmani, they waited.

Soon, four cars bearing anti-aircraft guns and around 25 men came down Anis's street. His men opened fire with their assault rifles, and the heavy regime weapons blasted back. From cover, some of the young fighters hurled petrol bombs and joulateen, cans packed with TNT that traditionally have been used for fishing.

Some of the regime troops went down, and two fighters with Anis were injured. The retreating loyalist forces left the bodies of their fighters behind and fired a rocket-propelled grenade in an attempt to destroy a remaining anti-aircraft gun the rebels were trying to seize.

The fighting lasted from sunset until the next morning. Eventually, the rebels surrounded the remaining government troops. They took 11 prisoners, including two women.

At 1 pm, they lifted the rebel flag over the Supreme Court building.

France24 Reporter Mathieu Mabin went into Tripoli on August 20th with the Tripoli brigade and provides this excellent 35 minute report in two parts that gets you close up and personal in this fight as few others have done. In the interview at the end of part 2, he says that he saw no British SAS or other nation's special forces on the ground for the assault on Tripoli and he is certain that the Tripoli brigade wasn't being ordered about or trained by any. Of course, you are invited to watch his report, judge his creditability, and look for them yourselves.

FRANCE 24 Reporters: The Tripoli Brigade (part 1)

FRANCE 24 Reporters: The Tripoli Brigade (part 2)

For more background on the Libyan Revolution and links to lots of information see my other writings at the DailyKos and WikiLeaks Central:
Racism in Libya
Abdul Rahman Gave his Eyes to See the End of Qaddafi
BREAKING: Secret files reveal Dennis Kucinich talks with Qaddafi Regime
BREAKING: Libyan TNC won't extradite Lockerbie bomber
Who really beat Qaddafi?
#Feb17: @NATO Please help MEDEVAC wounded from #Libya
What should those that opposed NATO's intervention in Libya demand now?
BREAKING: Qaddafi's Tripoli Compound Falls!
Does PDA Support Qaddafi?
BREAKING: Operation Mermaid Dawn, the Battle to Liberate Tripoli is Joined
Helter Skelter: Qaddafi's African Adventure
Qaddafi's Long Arm
SCOOP: My Lai or Qaddafi Lie? More on the 85 Civilians presumed killed by NATO
Did NATO kill 85 Libyan Villagers As Qaddafi Regime Contends?
CCDS Statement on Libya - a Critique
The Assassination of General Abdul Fattah Younis
NATO over Tripoli - Air Strikes in the Age of Twitter
How Many Libyans has NATO Killed?
Qaddafi Terror Files Start to Trickle Out!
Have Libyan Rebels Committed Human Rights Abuses?
Tripoli Green Square Reality Check
Behind the Green Curtain: Libya Today
Gilbert Achcar on the Libyan situation and the Left
NATO slammed for Libya civilian deaths NOT!
2011-07-01 Qaddafi's Million Man March
NATO's Game Plan in Libya
February 21st - Tripoli's Long Night
Did Qaddafi Bomb Peaceful Protesters?
Tripoli Burn Notice
Libyans, Palestinians & Israelis
'Brother' Qaddafi Indicted plus Libya & Syria: Dueling Rally Photofinishs
An Open Letter to ANSWER
ANSWER answers me
2011-06-22 No Libyans allowed at ANSWER Libya Forum
Are they throwing babies out of incubators yet?
Continuing Discussion with a Gaddafi Supporter
Boston Globe oped supports Gaddafi with fraudulent journalism
2011-04-13 Doha summit supports Libyan rebels
Current Events in Libya
Amonpour Plays Softball with Gaddafi
Arming Gaddfi
North African Revolution Continues
Is Libya Next? Anonymous Debates New Operation