With Libya's Ascendant Islamists: 'Don't Get the Wrong Idea'

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Yuri Kozyrev / Noor for TIME

Abdel Hakim al-Hassadi, once an Islamist exile from Gaddafi's Libya who spent years fighting on the side of the Taliban in Afghanistan, greets guests in his living room in the eastern Libyan city of Darna

Abdel Hakim al-Hassadi seems unperturbed by the fact that someone blew up his car last night. "I was at evening prayer in the mosque when it happened," he says. An unknown assailant threw a grenade under the car, sending it into flames. "I believe it was a message," he adds. "If they wanted to kill me — they would do it in an open place." Then he offers his guests tea.

In post-Gaddafi Libya, where a weak, fledgling government means little security and a lot of uncertainty, life is still a little dicey. But to al-Hassadi, perhaps the most powerful man in the eastern Libyan city of Darnah, it's all part and parcel of moving forward, past the era of dictatorship and into something freer, and hopefully better. "After decades of destruction, it's impossible to change in a few hours or even a few years," he says. "But now we are free. Even the land has changed — it's growing new grass again."

Al-Hassadi, 46, was the commander of the Abu Slim Martyrs Brigade, which fought on the eastern front line against forces loyal to the late Muammar Gaddafi during Libya's war last year. It was Darnah's biggest brigade, and al-Hassadi says that most of the local fighters still view him as their leader.

But al-Hassadi also gets a significant chunk of his street credit from the fact that he fought in Afghanistan, on the side of the Taliban, from 1997 to 2002. "I was fighting against the Northern Alliance and Karzai," he says, before adding quickly: "I didn't fight the Americans."

In the new Libya, new types of characters are emerging from the ashes of Gaddafi's decades-long repression to take the reins in a new, yet-to-be-determined kind of society. And in some cases, old stereotypes and predictions seem to be holding true. Liberal elites from the country's larger cities of Tripoli and Benghazi have long cracked jokes about Darnah's repute as a hotbed of extremism. And Salem el-Naas, a manager at the town's only luxury hotel, the Darna Pearl Hotel, laughs heartily when asked whether any tourists ever come to the sun-drenched city on the sea. "Tourists or terrorists?" he chuckles before regaining his composure. "Not yet," he adds more seriously. "But we hope."

Suffice it to say that despite its rolling hillsides of tamarind trees and sleepy, whitewashed apartments, Darnah has a bad rep — one that al-Hassadi embodies perfectly. When Gaddafi's heir apparent, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, warned at the start of the uprising last year that the east wanted to break off and form an Islamic emirate, most people assumed he was talking about Darnah. The town's residents boast that they sent more men to fight in the insurgency during the Iraq war than any other city in Libya. (Recently, several dozen people held a protest to demand that their captured relatives in Iraq be returned.) And a wall along the azure Mediterranean coast has been graffitied with warm and tolerant slogans like "Yes to Pluralism. No to Extremism" and "No to Qaeda" — but the words "No to" have been crossed out.

The fact that Darnah's most powerful man in the post-Gaddafi era happens to be a former associate of Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaeda, and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the assassinated leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, doesn't do a whole lot to void the stereotype. And it makes some of the country's liberals downright nervous. "I met Zawahiri and Zarqawi. But Sheik Osama [bin Laden] — well, I was in the same house, but I never met him," al-Hassadi recalls as one of his young sons plays nearby in an Afghan-style pakul hat.

Indeed, al-Hassadi is the kind of community leader and fighter who, in unluckier circumstances 10 years ago, might have wound up at the U.S. prison camp at Guantánamo Bay. But these are different times. The Islamists whom Gaddafi worked hard to keep under lock or underground are among the key architects of a new Libya — another, Abdel Hakim Belhaj, whom al-Hassadi says he admires and whom the CIA and MI6 allegedly helped extradite to Libya for torture by Gaddafi's regime, is one of the most powerful military leaders in Tripoli. And al-Hassadi will tell you that's not as bad as it might sound. "The West thinks that everyone who has gone to Afghanistan is a terrorist," he says, looking sharply at me: "Have you ever been to Afghanistan?"

What matters now, he says, is that he and the other prominent religious and revolutionary leaders of Darnah are trying to restore stability. "We're trying to build a police service here," he says. And indeed, the residents there say their town is one of the safest in eastern Libya. And after decades of neglect under Gaddafi, they're seeing a revolving procession of top government figures. "In the last two weeks, all the government ministers were here — even [head of the NTC] Mustafa Abdel-Jalil," says el-Naas at the Darna Pearl Hotel. "They have to visit Darnah because Gaddafi and his family didn't like it, so the new government has to come here to have a better view of the city. They have to correct the old governmental view."

In streets lined by palms, school is back in session and uniformed boys and girls flock from sidewalks into courtyards. Teachers say they're following a new curriculum. But for all of Darnah's religiosity, the religious-studies portion hasn't changed, only the subject of history, which used to include Gaddafi's propaganda-rich study of the Jamahiriya (his contortion of the Arabic word for republic), says Ruqaya al-Azraiq, an administrator at a girls' secondary school in the town.

To some extent, al-Hassadi concedes, it's true what the outsiders say, that Darnah is a religious place. "People here are very concerned with religion and the Arab world," he says — that's what drove many of its young men to join the insurgency in Iraq to fight the "injustice" wrought by the Americans, he says. Those who have returned home do want a Libya that is governed by Islamic law, he says. But he argues that some people misunderstand what that means. "Islam is built on values like public service, mercy, freedom of expression and human rights. There is no law in the world that can protect the rights of women and human beings like Islam," he says. "But there have been some mistakes that have given the West the wrong idea."

Darnah marked the heartland of Libya's first armed uprising against Gaddafi in the 1980s and '90s, says Mansour Kikhia, a population geographer at Benghazi University. And Gaddafi's neglect of the area had only served to feed the flames of extremism and revolt, he adds, which in turn spurred a harsher crackdown. "That's what made some of Darnah's youth grow sympathetic towards [the Islamists]," he says. In the end, fear of Darnah's reputation for extremism became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Al-Hassadi says he went to Afghanistan initially because he, like many other Islamists living under North Africa's dictatorships at the time, was fleeing state repression. "We went to Sudan, to Syria, to Egypt. But they followed us everywhere. Europe was impossible to get into. So you had to go to Afghanistan. It was controlled by the Taliban, so it was the safest place for us."

Al-Hassadi won't say whether he wants to see a Taliban-styled regime in Libya — exactly what liberals in Tripoli and Benghazi say they fear as they watch the rise of figures like him. But he also says it's too soon to know what Libya's future government will look like. "I'm not for or against the Taliban. Our religion is one of forgiveness and one that gives people their rights. Anyone who steals is punished, and he who kills gets killed — this is what Islam teaches, and even that [value] is something they teach in America." He smiles.

It's almost time for the noon prayer, and as we are to leave a living room adorned with vases of fake flowers and silver tea trays, al-Hassadi apologizes for not shaking my hand (it's not appropriate). Then he jokes: if we lose his phone number and need to contact him in the future, we can always get it from the CIA. "Italian intelligence, the CIA — everyone is still watching us," he says with a grin and then shrugs indifferently. They probably are.