Anxious in Benghazi: Watching Out for Gaddafi's Saboteurs

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Gianluigi Guercia / AFP / Getty

Libyan rebels control the crowd after an explosion in a parking lot at the Tibesti hotel in Benghazi on June 1, 2011

"I have to close my restaurant when it gets dark," complains Ahmad al-Dursi, 43, the owner of a small hamburger joint in Benghazi, the capital of what is called Free Libya. But it is not completely free yet. "It is not safe here with the revolutionary committees still active," says al-Dursi, referring to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's loyalists who have terrorized the population for most of Gaddafi's 42 years in power.

Though Gaddafi's troops withdrew from eastern Libya in the days following the Feb. 17 uprising, his agents are still active in the rebel capital, prolonging the climate of fear and preventing the celebration of a dictator's departure. Residents whisper of a fifth column waiting to pounce and of spies working for Gaddafi who send reports back to Tripoli about rebel activity. A series of arrests, killings and bombings has reinforced these worries.

With Gaddafi's forces hunkered down in Brega, just 143 miles (230 km) west of Benghazi, and the rebels unable to dislodge them, the war in Libya has reached an impasse. Today, many in the East believe the Libyan strongman is focused on sapping the rebels' morale even as their coffers run dry because they cannot pump the oil that accounts for 95% of the country's foreign-currency earnings. One aspect of this is fostering a sense of danger; another is encouraging the impression that his return is imminent. "People are afraid," explains Garyounis University political-science professor Salah Senoussi. "With every attack, their fears increase, and they no longer feel safe. And that helps Gaddafi."

And what helps Gaddafi weakens the rebels' political body known as the National Transitional Council (NTC). A climate of instability risks eroding support for the NTC, which is largely disorganized and has been unable to articulate a political program beyond calling for Gaddafi's ouster.

Many incidents have contributed to the nervousness. In April, in the coastal city of Tobruk, which lies farther east of Benghazi and less than 100 miles (160 km) from the Egyptian border, the rebels discovered that local Gaddafi operatives were relaying rebel troop movements to the dictator's security forces in the capital, Tripoli. Weeks later, the rebels arrested a group of French security specialists who allegedly spied for Gaddafi by visiting rebel training camps, ostensibly to assess their combat effectiveness. According to rebel sources, the group's leader was killed when a rebel accidentally discharged his weapon.

Gaddafi's agents have not limited themselves to gathering intelligence. In March, they allegedly killed a cameraman from the Arab news channel al-Jazeera after carefully monitoring his movements. Just last week they allegedly assassinated an army colonel who defected to the rebels, as he exited a mosque with his children. Both murders took place in the Benghazi area.

In the most brazen attack, the loyalists are believed to have orchestrated a car bombing last Wednesday, June 1, outside a hotel frequented by foreign diplomats and international aid organizations. The rebel government acknowledges that Gaddafi continues to have influence in eastern Libya. Following the blast, Benghazi's Minister of Information, Mahmud Shammam, told journalists that small sleeper cells exist in Benghazi, allegedly receiving coded messages delivered by Gaddafi's media spokesmen in the capital.

These attacks and arrests have sparked fear that the people of eastern Libya are still within reach of the long arm of Gaddafi's security services. It is difficult for many to fathom that the "Brother Leader" who towered over the country for more than four decades is no longer in charge. "Gaddafi's forces were everywhere before the revolution and knew everything we were doing," explains Mustafa al-Awjali, 46, an engineer, following the bombing last week.

Minister of Information Shammam scoffs at the idea that the citizens of Free Libya are yielding to Gaddafi's scare tactics. "People are going about things as usual ... and drinking coffee," he says. But the only places Benghazi residents are drinking coffee after nightfall is in their homes, because restaurants like al-Dursi's are closed pending an improvement in the security situation.