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FACTDROP: Tiny Kingdom's Huge Role in Libya Draws Concern
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10/17/2011

Tiny Kingdom's Huge Role in Libya Draws Concern

Πηγή: WSJ
By SAM DAGHERCHARLES LEVINSON and MARGARET COKER
Oct 17 2011

Three weeks after rebel fighters drove Libyan strongman Col. Moammar Gadhafi from power in Tripoli, military leaders gathered on the leafy grounds of an Islamic institute to hash out a way to unite the capital's disparate fighting groups. The Tripoli chiefs were nearing a deal on a unified command when two visitors stepped in.


NTC Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril, in blue tie, in Doha in August. He has sought to have supplies from Qatar sent through NTC-approved channels.

One was Abdel Hakim Belhaj—a former Islamic fighter briefly held in 2004 by the Central Intelligence Agency, who had led one of the militias that marched triumphantly into Tripoli. Now the city's most visible military commander, he accused the local militia leaders of sidelining him, say people briefed on the Sept. 11 meeting.

"You will never do this without me," he said.

Standing wordlessly behind him, these people say, was Maj. Gen. Hamad Ben Ali al-Attiyah—the chief of staff of the tiny Arab Gulf nation of Qatar. Mr. Belhaj won a tactical victory: The meeting broke up without a deal, and efforts to unite disparate Tripoli militias, including Belhaj's Tripoli Military Council, remain stalled to this day.

The foreign military commander's appearance in Tripoli, which one person familiar with the visit said caught Libya's interim leaders by surprise, is testament to Qatar's key role in helping to bring down Libya's strongman. Qatar provided anti-Gadhafi rebels with what Libyan officials now estimate are tens of millions of dollars in aid, military training and more than 20,000 tons of weapons. Qatar's involvement in the battle to oust Col. Gadhafi was supported by U.S. and Western allies, as well as many Libyans themselves.




Qatar flew at least 18 weapons shipments to anti-Gadhafi rebel forces this spring and summer.

But now, as this North African nation attempts to build a new government from scratch, some of these same figures worry that Qatar's new influence is putting stability in peril.

At issue, say Libyan officials and Western observers, are Qatar's deep ties to a clique of Libyan Islamists, whose backgrounds variously include fighting in Afghanistan in the 1980s and spending years in jail under Col. Gadhafi. They later published a theological treatise condemning violent jihad. With Qatar's support, they have become central players in Libyan politics. As they face off with a transitional authority largely led by secular former regime officials and expatriate technocrats, their political rivals accuse Qatar of stacking the deck in the Islamists' favor.

With the blessing of Western intelligence agencies, Qatar flew at least 18 weapons shipments in all to anti-Gadhafi rebel forces this spring and summer, according to people familiar with the shipments. The majority of these National Transition shipments went not through the rebels' governing body, the National Transitional Council, but directly to militias run by Islamist leaders including Mr. Belhaj, say Libyan officials.

Separately, approximately a dozen other Qatari-funded shipments, mostly containing ammunition, came to Libyan rebels via Sudan, according to previously undisclosed Libyan intelligence documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal as well as officials.

Qatar Connection





Abdel Hakim Belhaj

Leader of Tripoli Military Council

After fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, he from 1995 led the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, whose members say it is disbanded but remains on U.S. list of terrorist organizations. Captured in a CIA operation in Malaysia in 2004 and eventually handed over to Col. Gadhafi's regime after being interrogated in Thailand and Hong Kong.



Role in Uprising:His troops, trained by Qatari special forces in Libya's Western Mountains, marched on Tripoli.




Ali al-Sallabi

Cleric

Born in 1963 in Benghazi to a family with Islamist ties, he was jailed in Tripoli's Abu Salim prison among other Islamists for most of the 1980s. After studying theology in Saudi Arabia and Sudan, he joined fellow clerics hosted by Qatar.

Role in Uprising:Key conduit for Qatari humanitarian aid, money and arms.




Ismail al-Sallabi

Deputy commander, Tajamuu Saraya al-Thuwar

Born in 1976, he was accused in 1997 of working with Islamists to topple Col. Gadhafi's regime. Not religious at the time, he said he began memorizing the Koran in prison. Released in 2004 as part of his brother's Qatari-encouraged détente with regime.

Role in Uprising:Deputy commander of an umbrella group of militias in eastern Libya; received Qatari aid and arms.




Jalal al-Dugheily

NTC Defense Minister

A Libyan army veteran, he grew up in the same Benghazi neighborhood as the Sallabis. Became rebel defense minister in May with backing from the Sallabis, says a militia leader.

Role in Uprising:His support among former army officers in the rebel ranks decreased because they felt he favored Islamist militia leaders.


Some Tripoli officials allege Qatari arms have continued to flow straight to these Islamist groups in September, after Tripoli's fall, to the open frustration of interim leaders.

"To any country, I repeat, please do not give any funds or weapons to any Libyan faction without the approval of the NTC," said Libyan Oil and Finance Minister Ali al-Tarhouni, when asked last week about reports that Qatar had sent weapons directly to Tripoli-based militias.

Qatari military and diplomatic officials deny they have played favorites or armed any rebel faction at the expense of any other. They declined to address whether they had made weapons shipments to the rebels. They say they support a democratic Libya in which all factions are represented.

Islamist leader Mr. Belhaj, in an interview, disputed the account of the Sept. 11 meeting. He said he had merely escorted Mr. Attiyah to provide security and wasn't present during the closed-door discussions. He and other Islamist leaders say they seek only their fair share of power and support a broad-based government.

Qatar's defense ministry didn't return calls seeking comment. Mr. Attiyah couldn't be reached.

Qatar's role in the Libyan uprising has been a heady diplomatic coming-out party for the emirate, located on a tiny thumb of land jutting off the Arabian Peninsula into the Persian Gulf. Fewer than 300,000 native Qataris control some of the world's largest natural-gas reserves. The country is the world's richest, per capita.

Qatar's ruler, Sheik Hamad Bin Khalifa al-Thani, has dismissed some Libyans' fears that Qatar is angling for influence over Libya's gas reserves, Africa's fourth-largest.

Instead, one of Qatar's main goals in supporting popular uprisings in the region, say people familiar with its leaders' thinking, is to promote its political vision—that in a Muslim-majority region, Islamic political figures can help build modern, vibrant Arab nations by being included in new democracies.

Qatar sees itself as a showcase for marrying Islamic ideals with modernity—a counterpoint to the more unyielding doctrine of neighboring Saudi Arabia.

Qatar, though an absolute monarchy, has helped promote a freer media in the region through the al-Jazeera satellite network, which the ruling family funded and founded in 1996 in the capital, Doha. The al-Thanis have opened branches of U.S. political think tanks, liberal-arts universities and biotech research foundations.

Politically, Qatar maintains a seemingly contradictory set of alliances. U.S. officials consider Doha a close ally. Qatar hosts U.S. Central Command and has the Gulf's only Israeli Interests Section.

But for years, Doha has also openly fostered ties with some of the region's most controversial Islamic militant groups, such as Hamas and Hezbollah.

Sheikh Hamad, in a Sept. 7 interview with al-Jazeera, said he believed radical Islamists whose views were forged under tyrannical governments could embrace participatory politics if the promise of real democracy and justice of this year's Arab revolts is fulfilled.

If so, the Qatari ruler said, "I believe you will see this extremism transform into civilian life and civil society."

Libya presents the biggest test for the Qatar model. Whether Islamist political groups can be the guarantors of democracy in the Muslim world—and whether Qatar has hitched its fortunes to individuals who will make that happen—is being closely watched in Libya and beyond.

Qatar has played "a very influential role in helping this [Libyan] rebellion succeed," U.S. Ambassador to Libya Gene A. Cretz said in an interview. Asked later about the Islamists Qatar has endorsed, he was more cautious: "We are going to have to take it step by step."

Much of Qatar's aid to the Libyan revolt has been guided by an influential Libyan cleric named Ali al-Sallabi.

Mr. al-Sallabi, the son of an eastern Libyan banker with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, was jailed at the age of 18 for nearly eight years on charges of knowing about an alleged plot to assassinate Col. Gadhafi. He left Libya in 1988 to study in Saudi Arabia and Sudan. His younger brother Ismail, who now commands a division of rebel fighters, was also arrested and imprisoned by the Gadhafi regime.

In 1999, already something of a spiritual leader for a segment of Libyans, Mr. al-Sallabi moved to Doha to join the roster of politically active Islamic theologians hosted by Qataris.

When international sanctions were lifted on Col. Gadhafi's regime in 2003, Qatar encouraged Ali al-Sallabi to accept a reconciliation offer guaranteed by the Gadhafi regime, Ismail al-Sallabi said in an interview.

Ali al-Sallabi returned to Libya and spearheaded a "de-radicalization program" for imprisoned Libyan militants and those on the run abroad. The effort, which used theological arguments to attempt to delegitimize armed opposition to the regime, culminated in a book co-authored by Mr. Sallabi, "Corrective Studies in Understanding Jihad, Enforcement of Morality and Judgment of People," which was published with Qatari funding and promoted on al-Jazeera.

Another author was Mr. Belhaj, who had fought the Soviets in Afghanistan alongside Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. From 1995, Mr. Belhaj became the emir of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which waged a bloody insurgency against Col. Gadhafi until it was defeated by the regime in 1998.

This spring, the Sallabis were among the first to take up the fight against Col. Gadhafi's regime, followed by Mr. Belhaj.

Qatar was the first Arab country to recognize the National Transitional Council. It backed a United Nations resolution imposing a no-fly zone to protect Libyan civilians and, later, North Atlantic Treaty Organization air strikes on Gadhafi regime military targets.

As violence escalated in Libya, Western diplomats said it soon became clear that without an armed ground effort by the rebels, the NATO strikes would only enforce a stalemate. But U.S. and European governments thought it too risky to directly arm a rebellion against a sitting leader.

Qatar volunteered to fill that role, according to people familiar with the situation, who say Doha sent weapons to rebel factions in Libya as far back as April with the consent of the U.S., U.K., France and the United Arab Emirates.

Throughout the conflict, representatives of the four nations met regularly with Qatari officials, who kept them apprised of Doha's aid, these people said. "Everyone was quite happy" with the Qatari arms shipments, said a Western observer in Libya with direct knowledge of the diplomacy. "It's what everyone wanted to do but wasn't allowed to."

A team of about 60 Qataris helped set up rebel command centers in Benghazi, the mountain city of Zintan and later in Tripoli, according to Qatari Staff Colonel Hamad Abdullah al-Marri, who later accompanied Mr. Belhaj on the march into Tripoli on Aug. 22, broadcast live on al-Jazeera. Mr. Marri said that during the rebel training, he interacted with about 30 Western liaison officers, including Britons, French and several Americans.

Between April and the fall of Tripoli, at least 18 cargo planes left Qatar for Libya, filled with assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and other small arms, as well as military uniforms and vehicles, say people familiar with the situation.

Qatar funneled much of its aid through Ali al-Sallabi, say NTC-allied officials. They say the cleric's aid network, manned with his associates, allowed affiliated militias to receive the lion's share of both guns and money.

Ali al-Sallabi helped to orchestrate more than a dozen of the shipments from Qatar, including 10 through Benghazi, these people say. At least three others went to the Western Mountains, where Mr. Belhaj was a top leader of rebels being trained by Qatari and Western advisers.

Ali al-Sallabi couldn't be reached for comment but has said he and his religious colleagues are working to give all Libyans fair representation. Last Wednesday, he agreed to join an organization working under NTC auspices to build bridges between political factions.

Ismail al-Sallabi said Qatari shipments came through the brothers not out of any ideological solidarity with Doha but because these militias were the most organized and effective forces on the ground.

People close to Mr. Belhaj emphasize they operated under the auspices of the NTC's Defense Ministry and that any weapons shipments were blessed by transitional Defense Minister Jalal al-Dugheily.

Qatari aid shipments soon appeared to be having unanticipated repercussions within the rebel ranks.

By May, rebel commanders outside of Mr. Sallabi's circle were openly complaining they lacked weapons and medical supplies. Defected army officers in particular said they felt they have been squeezed out of the rebel fight.

That month, an envoy from NTC Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril set up residence in Doha to lobby for weapons supplies to be sent through him. But of the 18 planeloads from Qatar, only five were sent through this NTC-approved channel, say people familiar with the situation.

By late summer, NTC and Western officials began raising concerns to the Qataris that their aid seemed to be empowering primarily Islamist leaders at the possible expense of the embryonic rebel government.

After Col. Gadhafi's fall, Libyans renamed a square in Tripoli in Qatar's honor. In Misrata's Baraka Hotel, framed portraits of Qatar's emir and crown prince are displayed where Col. Gadhafi's portrait once hung.

But some Libyans are souring. "Our Qatari brothers helped us liberate Libya," said Muktar al-Akhdar, a military leader from Zintan. "But it's now interfering in our internal affairs."


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