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Hanging Out with the Rebels Who Have Seized Control of Libya's Oil Fields

My driver was the personal chauffeur of the leader of Libya’s federalist rebels, Ibrahim al-Jathran. As a reward for his good work in the uprising against Gaddafi, Jathran was put in charge of protecting the country's oil facilities. Instead of...
October 11, 2013, 11:00am

Federalist rebels guarding one of the oil facilities they've shut down in Libya's eastern Cyrenaica region.

We raced through the desert at 130 miles per hour, with the shrill, reedy whine, and relentless drumming of Benghazi-style mirskawi music howling from the Kia’s huge speakers. My driver was a man known as Crazy Gadri, the personal chauffeur of the leader of Libya’s federalist rebels, Ibrahim al-Jathran. As a reward for his good work in the uprising against Gaddafi, Jathran was put in charge of protecting the country's oil facilities, located in the eastern region of Cyrenaica. Instead of protecting them, he ordered his militia to take over and shut down two of the main oil export terminals. They now want to use the oil to help them set up their very own government administration.

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As we sped toward the Benghazi airport, Crazy Gadri told me about how the militia refused to give the terminals back to the central Libyan government until they have autonomous power over Cyrenaica. "We’ve had enough of those thieves in Tripoli stealing our money," he said, and you can sort of see where he's coming from. The shutdown had already cost the government more than $5 billion in lost revenue, and because they have no active army or National Guard, they've been powerless to force Jathran to switch the oil back on. By wresting the facilities away from the state, Jathran believes the government will finally relent and grant him control of Cyrenaica.

Ibrahim al-Jathran, leader of Libya’s federalist rebels.

Outside the oilfields of Cyrenaica, the country is currently going through its biggest crisis since the civil war. Vigilante justice is rife, assassinations and bombings are a weekly occurrence, children are attacking their teachers with cheap Turkish handguns, and earlier that morning, Libya's Prime Minister Ali Zeidan was kidnapped by gunmen in Tripoli. The country is on the brink of all-out chaos, essentially, and Jathran and his men aren't doing much to help.

Unlike most of the federalist rebels in Jathran’s inner circle, Gadri dressed in a baggy T-shirt and baseball cap. It seemed like he was constantly buzzing on some kind of chemical, but he insisted that the only drug he uses is mirskawi music.

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Nearly all the military checkpoints on our way to the airport waved the flag of Cyrenaica, a black banner with a white star and crescent in its center. But that wasn't the only unusual flag being flown on this desert highway. Fifteen minutes away from Benghazi, we ran into another kind of checkpoint. Here, Gadri didn't get out and high five the fighters. And instead of the Cyrenaican flag, flying above this checkpoint was the Islamist Black Standard flag, a favorite of al-Qaeda.

I tried to sink deep into my seat and look as Libyan as possible.

The armed men patrolling the checkpoint were members of Ansar al-Sharia, an Islamist brigade that openly approve of al-Qaeda, want to see strict implementation of Sharia law across Libya, and have been linked to the raid on the US embassy that killed Governor Chris Stephens.

After a cursory look at the car—while I stared intently at the seat in front of me—the militiamen waved us through. As the Kia accelerated, Crazy Gadri joked, "I could have just sold you for 3,000 dinars." Then bursted out into semi-hysterical laughter.

Federalist rebels holding the flag of Cyrenaica at one of the oil facilities they are controlling.

As the chaos increases and the government's power is eroded, Ansar al-Sharia are one of a number of groups that are seeing their reach expand. The 2012 raid on the US consulate in Benghazi somewhat knocked the group back; the public rose up and there were huge anti-militia demonstrations where thousands of citizens confronted the Islamist brigade, kicking them out of their bases and banishing them from the city.

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But since then, they've crept back with a re-branding campaign that Max Clifford would be proud of, filling the gaps left by Libya’s failing state by guarding hospitals, fighting crime, helping the poor, and sweeping the streets. When you talk to people in Benghazi, more often than not they’ve got nothing but praise for the group.

And as the Islamist militia have gained in popularity, they've also spread to new towns. One year ago, there were hardly any Ansar al-Sharia branches found further west than Benghazi, but over recent months the group have opened new bases in a number of other locations, including Sirte and Ajdabiya.

"There are two kinds of Ansar al-Sharia," said Gadri, looking me in the eye and completely ignoring the road as we hurtle down the highway. "One is jihadi and the other isn’t. The one that controls the checkpoint we just went through is the good kind."

I asked Gadri if there’s any way to tell which is the jihadi kind and which is the good kind, but he just shrugged his shoulders and turned his attention back to the road.

Federalist rebels in Cyrenaica.

When it comes to the organization’s leaders, they certainly seem to fall into the former category. In a rare 2012 interview, the leader of Benghazi’s Ansar al-Sharia, Mohammad Ali al-Zahawi, said he approved of al-Qaeda’s strategy when it came to taking on the United States. He also said that recent statements from the current leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, are "a wake-up call for Muslims," claiming that, "they help galvanize the Muslim nation, maintain its dignity and pride".

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While the free food tastes good and no one is complaining when Ansar al-Sharia comes round and unblocks their drains, it's this kind of pro-al-Qaeda rhetoric that's making a few Libyans a little uneasy about the group’s return.

"Ansar al-Sharia have cleared out a lot of drug dealers and have made areas of the city much safer," said Emad Salem Bkkar, a Benghazi-based bank worker. "And I know for a fact that a lot of their regular members are good people who just want to do charity work. But with the leaders, it's less clear."

In August, CNN reported that federal authorities had charged Ahmed Abu Khattala, a prominent militia leader associated with Ansar al-Sharia, with playing a significant role in last year's attack on the US diplomatic compound in Benghazi. Prior to the report, Khattala admitted in an interview that he was on the scene during the attack, but said he wasn’t involved in the raid.

Emad said that while there is no concrete evidence that Ansar al-Sharia’s leaders have done anything wrong, they are surrounded by secrecy, which creates concerns among Benghazi residents that they could be using the group's charity work as a smokescreen to hide their crimes.

Rebels manning one of the checkpoints on the way to the airport.

As we closed in on the airport, every checkpoint we passed seemed to be run by a different brigade or militia, and each one was more invasive than the last. At the final checkpoint before the airport, Gadri was asked if he had any guns in the car.

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He shook his head solemnly.

A quick search by the men revealed a handgun under his seat and another tucked into his trousers.

Satisfied, the men placed the two weapons into a plastic shopping bag and told Gadri that, if he showed some ID, he could pick them up on his way back. Instead, Gadri just shrugged his shoulders and kept driving.

While a few Libyans are worried about the return of Ansar al-Sharia to the streets of Benghazi, the vast majority think there are much more pressing things to worry about. Things like who all these other guys running checkpoints are and how many guns you can secretly stash in your car on the way into an airport. And why the electricity keeps cutting out. And how to not get carjacked.

"We tolerate Ansar al-Sharia," said Gadri. "Really—they’re the least of our worries."

Follow Wil on Twitter: @bilgribs

More stories from Libya:

Libyans Are Living On the Absolute Cusp of All-Out Anarchy

Libya Is Getting Better and Better for Teenage Arms Dealers

The Rebels of Libya - Part 1