The defection of General Abdel Fattah Younes from the Gaddafi regime to the rebel forces in February was a hugely significant moment in the Libyan civil war, confirming beyond doubt their standing as a genuine threat to the military authority of the state.
For more than four decades Younes had been a close friend and loyal supporter of Colonel Gaddafi. As a young officer he participated in the 1969 coup which toppled the monarchy and established Libya as a Soviet-aligned socialist republic, with Gaddafi at its head. Within the space of a few years he had risen to the rank of Major General in the Libyan army, later helping to suppress the uprisings which broke out intermittently over the course of Gaddafi’s rule.
In addition to his martial role, Younes also performed a key diplomatic function for the regime. At a meeting with British officials in 1992, he made a formal apology on behalf of his government for the shooting of PC Yvonne Fletcher and offered compensation to victims of the IRA - a recipient of Libyan arms and aid during the 70s and 80s. This laid the groundwork for Libya’s future reconciliation with the UK, culminating in a summit between Gaddafi and Tony Blair in 2007, and made possible its eventual, though short-lived, reintegration into the international community.
Six months ago Younes was sent by Gaddafi to Benghazi. Charged with the task of crushing the burgeoning revolt there, he abruptly deserted the regime in favour of what he described as “the legitimate demands of the people”. Tripoli wasted no time in denouncing Younes as a traitor and issuing a number of explicit and direct threats to his life. From that point on, it seems, his days were numbered.
The circumstances of Younes’ death on July 28 remain vague. It is thought he had been recalled to Benghazi by the NTC from the western front to answer accusations of duplicity. He was accompanied by two other military commanders. At some stage in the journey the vehicle they were travelling in was high-jacked and its three passengers executed. A day later Younes’ burned and bullet-ridden body was found dumped on the outskirts of the rebel city. His family say he had also had his throat slit.
The identities of the perpetrators are yet to be determined. Gaddafi’s chief spokesman, Ibrahim Moussa, claims Younes died at the hands of radical Islamists. The National Transitional Council (NTC) initially blamed Gaddafi but soon shifted its focus to the Obaida Ibn Jarrah Brigade (OIJB), an Al Qaeda affiliated militia. Some commentators suspect the NTC, believing Younes to be a double agent, was responsible. Other opposition groups point the finger at members of Younes’ own tribe, the Obeidi, for the same reason.
It seems unlikely that the NTC was behind the killing. Coming just days after a coalition of foreign powers conferred formal recognition on the Council as Libya‘s sole governmental authority, it cast doubt over the capacity of the rebels to fulfil the basic functions of a state, not to mention making them look exposed and amateurish. It is equally unlikely that Younes was murdered by his fellow tribesman, thousands of whom turned out for his funeral. Rather, blame almost certainly lies with the OIJB, which never forgave Younes for the part he played in a massacre of 1,200 prisoners, including many Islamists, during a riot in a Benghazi jail in 1996.
At any rate, Younes had been living on borrowed time since his defection. According to the New York Times, the Gaddafi regime, lacking any clear opportunity to carry out the assassination itself, planted the rumour that the General was passing information to Tripoli, presumably with the aim of sowing distrust among opposition ranks. The OIJB needed only the slightest pretence to act - and this was it.
A fractured opposition
Younes’ murder highlights the divisions between the various factions which make up the rebel forces, particularly its secular and Islamist contingents. Although Gaddafi’s insistence that the NTC is a front for Al-Qaeda is hardly credible, there is evidently a powerful Islamist element within the opposition operating with a relatively high degree of freedom. The Daily Telegraph quotes one rebel commander as saying the NTC “don’t dare touch the Islamists” because it knows any attempted reproach will be met with aggressive reprisal.
Of course, since it first emerged the anti-Gaddafi movement has been defined by its lack of cohesion. The absence of a clear strategy to achieve the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime is the chief obstacle to the success of the revolution, exacerbating sectional bickering and allowing for its most retrograde components, including the OIJB, to gain traction. Had a measure of discipline been imposed at the start of the campaign perhaps the conflict would not have reached its current stalemate.
However, the mounting disorder of the rebels will not necessarily change the overall direction of events. Despite the elevated rhetoric of recent weeks the Gaddafi regime maintains only a fragile grip on power, with its support limited to its Tripoli and Sirte strongholds.
Neither is there any sign of NATO’s resolve weakening. The response of the French Foreign Minister to the death of Younes was to call for the intensification of the bombing campaign and, indeed, over the last few days NATO aircraft have successfully targeted a number of key Gaddafi propaganda hubs in the capital.
Without question, the loss of Younes represents a serious blow to rebel unity and morale. Yet it is possible his death will spur the opposition, who for too long seemed to assume victory was inevitable. There are already signs of progress. On Monday, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, head of the NTC, began a comprehensive overhaul of the executive committee. This represents the first step in a long journey toward re-establishing the authority and credibility of the rebel leadership.
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