One family against Gaddafi

Five brothers held in Libya’s most notorious prison describe how they hope to overthrow the regime, or die trying.

The Jidran brothers
The Jidran brothers (from left to right): Salem, Ibrahim, Khalid – who was not imprisoned – Jamal, Osama and Muftah[Evan Hill]

Ajdabiya, LIBYA — Amid a bleak scene at the roundabout in central Ajdabiya, a conservative town near the Mediterranean coast in rebel-held east Libya, 34-year-old Salem Jidran stands in a neatly pressed, gray galabiyya. Over it, he wears a light brown vest, knitted with raised thread in a flowing pattern that shines in the sunlight. His curly hair is newly cut, buzzed on the sides and trimmed on top. He smiles broadly. Jidran is celebrating – he and four of his brothers just returned home from Abu Slim, the country’s most notorious prison.

It is a week into the uprising against Muammar Gaddafi’s 41-year rule, and untrained rebels have swept west with ease, snatching up key oil refineries and naively predicting a push on Tripoli, the heavily defended capital.

Spirits are high in Ajdabiya. In the centre of the roundabout, a fluttering, tri-color flag – the symbol of the revolution – protrudes from the top of a waterless fountain. Beneath it, children play near the broken wing of a downed Gaddafi jet. Men speak openly of the regime’s coming downfall.

In this atmosphere, it is tempting to think Libyans have outrun their past, erasing four decades of oppression in an instant. But they have not. Salem and his brothers carry the past with them.

The fighting family

The Jidran family home sits behind a brown, concrete wall on a shady corner where two unpaved, rocky streets intersect a few blocks from Ajdabiya’s main square. As in many other cities across east Libya, Ajdabiya’s urban infrastructure seems to have benefited little from the country’s vast oil wealth.

Since the uprising began, visitors come and go frequently, offering congratulations and sharing stories. Every day, the brothers drive 200km west to deliver supplies to the ever-shifting rebel front lines – then somewhere in the desert near the major oil refinery at Ras Lanuf. The brothers spend half their time in camouflage. AK-47 assault rifles lean against a wall in the pink-painted first-floor reception room, where children peer over the arm of a couch to listen to the adults talk.

Salem and his 11 brothers and 11 sisters are all children of Colonel Sayyid Jidran, a well-known local civil defence officer who married four times. Just a few weeks ago, the family considered five of the brothers lost forever. Implicated in an armed opposition group, Jamal, Osama, Muftah, Ibrahim and Salem had been detained for six years inside Gaddafi’s terrifying security apparatus. They spent most of their time in Abu Slim prison, where security forces allegedly massacred more than 1,000 inmates in 1996. The family had no hope for their release.

But in early February, there came rumblings of an uprising. Envoys from the regime phoned Ajdabiya and made entreaties to the Jidrans: We will give your sons back, you stay quiet. The brothers were released, as was the entire Ajdabiya inmate population, along with a handful of men from nearby towns.

But the gesture rang hollow. Local families refused to negotiate unless the regime completely emptied the prison. Days later, on February 17, three men died in Ajdabiya when protests against Gaddafi broke out across the east. Residents drove the security forces out of town, and Ajdabiya fell to the opposition.

For the first time, the Jidran brothers were able to describe their ordeal freely to a visiting reporter. The story they told offered a glimpse inside the ongoing struggle against one of the world’s most secretive and oppressive regimes.

The detention begins

Ibrahim was the most closely involved in the armed opposition group’s activities [Evan Hill]

Libya’s internal security forces came for Ibrahim and Osama in February 2005. They caught Ibrahim in a town called Abyar, 15km east of Benghazi – Libya’s second-largest city and the seat of the revolt.

Outside the workshop where Ibrahim had come to have his car repaired, dozens of men arrived in vehicles and swarmed around him. They beat him with metal bars. When he tried to fight back, some fired their guns into the air. The attack forced him to the ground. One of the men picked up a spare tire and brought it down on his head, knocking him out.

When Ibrahim woke, he had not been moved, but he was blindfolded and naked, his legs and hands bound with rope. He could hear men celebrating nearby, shooting guns and shouting praises for Gaddafi.

They put him into the back of a covered pick-up truck and drove him to a building used by the security forces. There, despite the rainy and cold winter conditions, the men threw him naked into the building’s courtyard and beat him into unconsciousness again. He would spend the next three days naked.

For years, Ibrahim and Osama had been involved in a loosely-knit network of religiously minded men intent on overthrowing Gaddafi’s regime. The group had no name. Though the members were pious, they were not extremists and identified closely with the politics-friendly philosophy of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, the Jidrans told me.

They claimed their group had been open to negotiations with Gaddafi’s ostensibly reform-minded son Saif al-Islam, but that Saif had proven a hypocrite. The 38-year-old PhD graduate of the London School of Economics had served Libya ably as a palatable intermediary with the West, but he had done little to open political space at home. Armed resistance was the only path to change, the brothers said.

The Jidran’s group sprang from a long and storied history of rebellion in Libya’s east, where the current uprising has been strongest, and locals trace their proud resilience from the Ottoman era through the end of the modern Italian colonial occupation.

In the 1990s, Libyan mujahideen returned from battling the Soviets in Afghanistan and began a guerrilla campaign against the Gaddafi regime, based out of cities such as Derna and Baida along the north-east coast, in an area known as the Green Mountain. 

Calling themselves the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), the guerrillas struck at the regime’s military and police posts in rural eastern land and in 1996 reportedly attempted to assassinate Gaddafi in his hometown of Sirte – though the rocket-propelled grenade they shot struck the wrong car.

Gaddafi cracked down on the LIFG after the attempt on his life, and the group was blacklisted by the United Nations and the United Kingdom in 2001 for allegedly maintaining ties with al-Qaeda. Many fighters fled, while others were thrown in jail. At least 90 imprisoned members were released in 2008, reportedly after negotiating with Saif al-Islam’s Gaddafi International Foundation for Charity Associations.

“What appears to have happened is that those that fled Libya diverged from those that remained behind in jail,” said Henry Wilkinson, an associate director of the UK-based Janusian security consultancy.

Some Libyan fighters who left the country have been “ascendant” in al-Qaeda’s leadership, he said, but those that remained renounced violence.

Osama was arrested with Ibrahim; catching them was apparently a coup for the security forces [Evan Hill]

The LIFG was only one slice of a broad opposition movement that has been plotting to bring down the regime for more than a decade, and its dismantling did not mean the end of armed clashes with security forces, which continued throughout the past decade.

The Jidrans’ group of around 60 men were “well-behaved” Muslims, Ibrahim said, not radicals. Two or three once belonged to the LIFG, but more had been pushed toward armed resistance after spending years in Libya’s prisons, he said.

They consider themselves aligned with the uprising, which has so far evinced only secular aims. They too want political freedom and democratic reform, Ibrahim said, and in their view, it is an obligation of observant Muslims to bring those freedoms to the people.

“All the responsibility lay on our shoulders,” he said.

Breaking the opposition

It was one of the inmates-turned-militants who, through an accident, caused the group’s unravelling.

Hatim, a police detective from Benghazi, had been a drinker before he was arrested and taken to Abu Slim for the crime of giving 50 Libyan dinars ($40) to a wanted man, Ibrahim said. After five years, he emerged from prison a more observant Muslim and an anti-government campaigner.

Ibrahim often hosted wanted activists and men like Hatim at his home, where they planned and prepared for strikes against symbolic government institutions like administration buildings and police barracks. Hatim was in Ibrahim’s home one day making joulateen – cans packed with TNT that are often used to kill fish, but have been used as weapons in the revolt – when one exploded in his face. His friends took him to a private clinic in Benghazi, where doctors referred him to Egypt for more intensive treatment.

News about Hatim’s injuries evidently spread; when he returned to Libya, internal security officers arrested him in Baida. In his weakened state, he divulged everything, Ibrahim said.

A day after security forces took Ibrahim, they arrested Osama. Soon after, they asked the entire family in Ajdabiya to come in for questioning. Salem was visiting the southern town of Sabha when the call came. A relative told him the family was being investigated.

“We knew what that meant exactly,” Salem said.

He knew he would be implicated in the group, since he was Ibrahim’s brother and had once arranged to provide him with a car and money.

Lacking his Libyan passport, Salem fled illegally into Niger, assuming he could never return. For a year, he travelled through neighbouring countries, looking for a place to settle. While he was gone, in August 2005, his brothers Jamal and Muftah were also arrested.

Rounding up the family

Jamal was known to encourage and offer support to other young men who wanted to travel to Iraq to fight US troops, and Muftah had once visited the United Kingdom for a year-long enrichment course provided by his employer, the Arabian Gulf Oil Company. Both would be red flags for Libya’s internal security apparatus, the brothers said.

Just 19 years old and unmarried, Jamal still lived at the family home. Security forces arrived late on a Friday night that August and took him away. They drove him to their headquarters in Ajdabiya, where Jamal found two young acquaintances who had planned to go to Iraq. More were brought in later that night.

Jamal’s interrogation began without a blindfold, but once higher-ranking officers arrived from Tripoli some hours later, they ordered one to be put on. Ibrahim and Osama’s arrest had been well-known in the local community, and the security forces apparently considered the break-up of their group a significant success. The officers from Tripoli criticised their Ajdabiya colleagues for taking six months to arrest the other Jidran brothers.

On Jamal’s second day in detention, the men tied a hood around his head, making it difficult for him to breathe. They hung him upside down by cuffs around his ankles and beat him with electrical cables and hard plastic plumbing tubes and ordered him to implicate his father, the colonel, in the opposition.

For the first eight days, security forces held Jamal and eight other men in a dark basement room, where interrogators repeatedly asked the same questions: What is your ideology? How do you view the Gaddafi regime? What do you want to do to this country?

In one-on-one sessions, officers specifically asked Jamal about his interest in Iraq: Why do you give these people money? Why do you want to go to Iraq? Do you support al-Qaeda?

On a Friday afternoon, they loaded Jamal and the others onto a bus, blindfolded and handcuffed, and drove them to Tripoli. They arrived at dawn the next day and were taken first to al-Sika, an internal security building in the capital. Al-Sika was full, so they transferred the group to a wing for political inmates at a prison called Ain Zara, Jamal said.

For a week, he underwent interrogations before a judge, who then handed down a ten-year sentence for plotting to overthrow the regime. He was transferred to Abu Slim more than a year later.

During his time in Ain Zara, Jamal was kept in one room with three other men. They were not allowed outside and received food through a slot in the door. After the first 17 months of his incarceration, he was allowed to leave his cell and walk outside for 15 minutes each week. Eventually, the guards gave him one, then two hours outside. For two years, he was forbidden to use a phone, even to call his family.

Muftah’s training in the United Kingdom was probably a red flag for the regime, the brothers said [Evan Hill]

Muftah, arrested two days after Jamal, tried to escape the headquarters building in Ajdabiya. On a trip to the bathroom, he bolted through the front door. He was barefoot, having left his slippers in the hallway inside. He climbed atop a shack and jumped the compound’s walls, but as he landed, his ankle slammed against a car axle propped against the wall and broke.

He was taken to Ajdabiya Hospital, where doctors said he needed surgery. His guards refused and ordered the staff to put his ankle in a plaster cast. Muftah still walks with a slight limp.

In 2006, Salem was arrested in Niger near the border with Chad. Police drove him to Niamey, the capital, where Libyan external security officers were waiting to take him on an Afriqiyah passenger flight to Tripoli.

When Salem arrived, he was taken to an external security building and held in solitary confinement for two weeks. For the first three days, he was blindfolded. His only human interaction came when a fellow prisoner delivered food to his cell door.

He was interrogated, but his questioners focused on his activities outside Libya and did not seem interested in his brothers’ group. During the interrogations, they brought dogs into the room and removed his blindfold so that Salem could see them snarling inches from his face. They brandished an electrical cord, one end plugged into a wall socket, the other stripped to the wires, and threatened to electrocute him.

They told Salem the worst was yet to come.

“We will take you to a place where you will confess everything,” they said.

After four weeks, he was handcuffed, blindfolded and stuffed upside down into the back seat of a car, his head on the floor. He was taken to an internal security building and brought into a small room. His blindfold was removed. Eight men sat around him.

“You don’t deserve life,” one said. “You’re an enemy of Gaddafi.”

Salem said he would do whatever they wanted. They told him he would need to implicate others. It cost them a lot to get him, they said, and he needed to make it worth their while.

Salem visited the rebel front lines every day after being released from prison in late February [Evan Hill]

Violent interrogations followed. During one session, Salem remembered, he was blindfolded and made to stand against a wall. Security officers slapped him repeatedly in the face. One blow knocked him to the ground. The blindfold slipped from his eyes, and he saw four large men holding weapons: an aluminum bar, an iron pipe wrapped in rubber and wooden sticks.

They beat Salem as he lay on the floor. A man tipped a large wardrobe on top of him, and he tried to hide beneath it. They beat him where his body was exposed, so he scrambled to his feet and ran to the other side of the room, grabbing an air conditioner’s power cord to hold onto in his panic. They dragged him away and continued the beating. The abuse ended when the men cuffed Salem’s hands behind his back, raised his arms painfully behind him and hung him from a door by his wrists. His feet dangled half a metre from the ground.

Resisting Gaddafi, at home and in Iraq

In Abu Slim, the brothers witnessed more violence perpetrated by a regime that refused to abide the slightest opposition. In October 2006, during Ramadan, a group of men who had been imprisoned for years without seeing a judge staged a sit-in outside an administration building, demanding to speak with a responsible official. 

The protest began at around 2pm, and within hours a force of around 30 blue-camouflaged central security forces arrived under the command of a colonel named Abdelhamid al-Sayeh, Ibrahim said.

The troops beat the protesters, who fought back. Al-Sayeh made a call, then ordered the troops to open fire. Other guards stationed atop the walls shot down at the prisoners. One man died, and others were wounded, the brothers said.

Their account was impossible to confirm. Alison Baddawy, a researcher writing for the Washington DC-based democracy watchdog Freedom House in 2007, described the Ramadan protest as a “riot … sparked by a number of prisoners who are members of militant Islamist groups.” But she too wrote that one man had died, while “a number” of others were injured.

Many of those held in Abu Slim were Libyans who had been caught on their way to Iraq. On just one day in 2007, at least 100 men who had been apprehended in Syria were brought into Abu Slim, the brothers said.

Libyans, especially those from the east, were known to be ready volunteers for the fight against US troops. A cache of biographical documents kept by “al-Qaeda affiliates” and seized in a 2007 US raid in the Iraqi town of Sinjar, near the Syrian border, showed that Libya was second only to Saudi Arabia in the overall number of men who had left for Iraq. Libya far outpaced every other Arab country in the per capita rate of volunteers.

Of the 595 men in the Sinjar files who listed their nationality, 112 came from Libya, and of the 88 Libyans who gave their hometown, 84 per cent came from Derna or Benghazi in the east.

US diplomatic cables sent from the Tripoli embassy in 2008 – released by WikiLeaks earlier this year – described eastern Libya as an impoverished region and a breeding ground for Islamic extremism.

One cable said Libyans from the east believed they had “nothing to lose” by sacrificing themselves in Iraq and were proud to carry on the east’s history of fighting occupations, considering themselves heirs of the lionised Omar Mukhtar, the hero of the anti-Italian resistance.

In another cable, a US embassy officer described having lunch with a Derna resident who said that volunteering for “jihad” in Iraq was a way of striking a blow at Gaddafi when attacking the regime at home was considered a lost cause.

“There was a strong perception, he said, that the US had decided … to support the regime to secure counter-terrorism cooperation and ensure continued oil and natural gas production,” the embassy officer wrote.

One Libyan who spoke to a US embassy official in Derna in 2008 said it would be a “fool’s errand” to confront Gaddafi, since “many easterners feared the US would not allow [the] regime to fall.”

“Fighting against US and coalition forces in Iraq represented a way for frustrated young radicals to strike a blow against both Gaddafi and against his perceived American backers,” the embassy official wrote.

A chance for a ‘friend’ in America

Ibrahim and Jamal agreed. Sending men to fight in Iraq showed Gaddafi that eastern youth “don’t differentiate between life and death,” Ibrahim said. If they can sacrifice themselves in Iraq, they are ready to sacrifice themselves in Libya.

Jamal was wanted by the regime for supporting young men who went to fight US troops in Iraq [Evan Hill]

Though Jamal never intended to travel to Iraq himself, he viewed the US presence there as an “injustice” and felt obligated to support other young men who wanted to go by giving them money and encouragement and offering his family home as an occasional place to stay in Ajdabiya.

Even so, he said, the US is not the Libyan people’s enemy; in fact, it could be an ally against Gaddafi. Though he warned that Libyans would never tolerate a foreign military presence in their country, the people would consider the US “a friend” if it interceded to protect the uprising by launching air strikes against Gaddafi’s troops and military buildings, Jamal said.

After Thursday’s UN Security Council vote in favour of a no-fly zone and military action to defend Libya’s populace, such strikes became much more likely. Though they carry the risk of civilian casualties, Libyans in the opposition have called for them for weeks. Some have even specifically suggested that US planes should bomb Gaddafi’s residence and command centre in Tripoli, the Bab al-Azizia.     

The relationship between the US and the opposition in the long term remains cloudy. Despite the national opposition council’s completely secular face, some US officials and commentators have expressed concerns about the forces behind the uprising, fearing it may be controlled or “hijacked” by the persistent US bogeyman in the Middle East: Islamic extremists.

The Jidrans may represent a real-life answer to those concerns. They are blunt about their religion: Islam guides their worldview, and they would like to achieve the democracy and freedom they desire for Libya in an Islamic context. But the brothers have not shut themselves off from the outside world. They are not cave-dwelling radicals in the mold of Osama bin Laden, waiting for the return of an Islamic golden age and worldwide dominion.

“Yes we are Muslim, but we can be modern too,” Ibrahim said. “We need Islam, but in reality it’s very difficult to achieve a caliphate. Now we have parliaments, and different movements of people.”

“The Taliban and Algeria show it can’t be done,” Jamal said.

And for the moment, there are more pressing concerns than Libya’s future political system: The Jidran brothers say their struggle must end in victory, because the alternative is death.

“Gaddafi’s regime gave us two choices: To rule us as a dictator, or to kill us,” Muftah said. “The Libyan people have a message for Gaddafi: We are ready, we are six million people, we are ready for five million of us to die, so the other million will live in dignity.”

Follow Evan Hill on Twitter: @evanchill

Source: Al Jazeera