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In Derna, Rumors of Jihadist Training Camps Abound

Peace Has Returned to Eastern Libyan Town, but Al Qaida-Linked Group Still Seen as Threat


Fadil gazed out at the fields surrounding his farm. “It’s a lot different here than in the deserts of Iraq. There we had nothing to do but fight Americans, but here we can grow something,” he says.

Fadil was one of hundreds of Libyans from the eastern city of Derna to travel to Iraq during the American occupation. Though he has not put down his rifle, today he uses it for more noble endeavors – to enforce the peace. Fadil and many other former jihadists have joined the Libyan security services that sprang up after the 2011 revolution, cooperating with the NATO forces that toppled Muammar Gaddafi. But though most of the former fighters now admire America and its European allies for their contribution, a small fringe group continues to spew venom against the West and may be training in the nearby Libyan desert, preparing for an attack.

Though Fadil frowns on such extremism today, it wasn’t long ago that the United States was his main enemy. After watching Arab news channels like Al Jazeera beaming a constant stream of American attacks in Iraq, Fadil decided he had to defend Muslim honor. “I couldn’t just watch as Arabs were being slaughtered,” he recalls.

He was not alone. Records discovered by the U.S. military at an al-Qaida safe house revealed that more foreign suicide bombers came from Derna than any other town in the region. 

As Fadil spoke outside a downtown mosque, a group of men in their 20s entered the courtyard. After exchanging short pleasantries, Fadil pointed in their direction. “You see him,” he said, motioning to one with a short beard that hugged his face. “He went to Iraq too. They are everywhere.”

The Iraqi veterans are still here, but their views have changed. Today they no longer want to fight American forces but instead want to build their country with American aid and technical expertise. “We did our share of killing,” says Faris, another Iraq veteran. “We need to move on now. Our country needs us more than the Muslim world does.”

Around Derna the former jihadists are admired by youths just coming into their own, who respect both their willingness to take on a superpower and the contributions they made to the Libyan revolution. “I want to be a thuwwar, just like you,” a boy not much older than 10 says, using the Arabic term for rebel fighter as Fadil’s gang passes him.

“This is our home and we need to make it a better place for them,” Fadil says later that night in a pickup truck during his patrol round. 

When the revolution broke out in February 2011, Fadil threw stones at government buildings. Later he helped raid weapons storehouses and drove west with thousands of others to fight Gaddafi’s forces. Today he has returned to Derna as a member of the local security service. “We can’t move from battle to battle and fight forever,” he says.

But a small group of Derna jihadis is doing just that. They have coalesced around Sufyan Ben Qumu, a former Guantanamo Bay inmate who was once Osama Bin Laden’s chauffeur. Locals like Fadil prefer not to talk about Ben Qumu, who they consider to be an embarrassment. But Libyan security officials in Benghazi are more than willing to share their opinions. They believe he may have played a role in the September 11 attack that killed American Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others. Ben Qumu’s disappearance from Derna in the days following the attack only added to the mystery surrounding his activities. 

“He has links to extremists,” says a Libyan intelligence official. “There have been signs they were plotting something, but we were not able to figure out what they were up to exactly.”

American intelligence officials believe jihadists have been running a camp outside Derna where they have been training a new generation of fighters in combat skills and indoctrinating them with extremist ideas. But when a Libyan working for an international media organization visited a camp outside the city several months ago, all he found was some teenagers playing in the sand. “They didn’t look like the bad jihadists we were told about,” he said.

But with Libya rife with rumors that foreign extremists are pouring into the country, all eyes are on the country’s jihadist capital of Derna. And that is what troubles fighters like Fadil, who have buried their hate and radicalism.