Libyan rebels get organised

Recently, the rebels’ tactics and organisation have improved, and they now resemble a trained militia, if not an army.

Libyan rebel fighters
Muhamed Makram, a member of the Omar Mukhtar brigade, displays his new rebel army ID card [Evan Hill, Al Jazeera]

A hundred yards inside the bombed-out western gate to Ajdabiya, Husain Ahmed Bukatwa stands around a smoldering fire smoking a cigarette and waiting for a tea kettle to boil.

His blue keffiyeh matches his beret, on which he’s pinned a revolutionary button bearing the image of the adopted opposition flag and Omar Mukhtar, the hero of Libya’s anti-colonial resistance.

Before the uprising against Muammar Gaddafi, Bukatwa studied computer science at Omar Mukhtar University in Derna, around 450 kilometres to the east.

Now he chats with his plain clothes rebel comrades next to a gun-mounted pick-up truck, hoisting a Belgian-made FN light automatic rifle that’s half his height.

Bukatwa is 18 years old. After a week of the most basic military training, he’s now on the front line.

In recent days, the rebels’ tactics and organisation have improved, and they have begun to resemble something like a trained militia, if not an army.

But months into the fight to overthrow Gaddafi’s regime, their forces remain a hodgepodge of civilians like Bukatwa, pressed into service and made to rely on scavenged weapons and an aging fleet of captured armoured vehicles they are barely able to repair.

“We know each other, we know who’s bad and who’s good, we know who wants to fight for freedom,” Colonel Ahmed Bani, a rebel military spokesman, told Al Jazeera recently.

“The view is so different now. Now there are leaders, there is organisation, it’s not like at the beginning.”

Fading chaos

In the first days of the revolt, rebel fighters in the east were a truly all-volunteer force: Men who had kept personal weapons for years joined those who had taken guns from Gaddafi’s abandoned and destroyed military garrisons and set off west down the coastal highway, confident they’d reach Tripoli in days.

Those who came from the same neighbourhood or city organised themselves into squads, but hierarchies appeared and disappeared day by day and broke down completely during lightning advances and massive retreats prompted by heavy government artillery fire.

Recently, that chaos has begun to fade as rebels organise themselves. At the front, fighters now carry paper badges in plastic slips that list their name, number, and “brigade”. Newer identification cards are smaller, made of plastic, list blood type and feature a barcode.

Weapons carry individual numbers – Bukatwa’s rifle had “309” painted on the wooden stock. These are recorded and linked to the fighter’s ID number when a brigade supply centre distributes arms.

Rebel commanders have begun confiscating guns from those who don’t belong to the military force or who are deemed unreliable. Poor or trigger-happy fighters are sometimes “retired”, either sent home or given a menial task, such as sweeping floors.

Those with prior military experience, on the other hand, are often placed in “lightning” or “sa’iqa” units, the so-called special forces who probe forward ahead of the main rebel body and secure frontline areas.

“We know who is able to have weapons, and even the leaders of the tribes, we are calling the sheikh,” Bani said.

“One comes in and says, ‘I think it’s better to take the guns from them,’ and we send military police, and they take guns from them. We ask about his tribe, who is responsible from his family. Old people, they cannot lie. He has nothing more than five or ten years [left] of life. He will lie for what, and for who?”

This effort to control the flow of weapons is due in part to the realisation that supplies are finite.

Musa al-Shawafi, a 55-year-old bakery owner who was volunteering at a military technical college in Benghazi that had been converted into a weapons-repair shop, said he was made to sign for an AK-47 every time he wanted to take one to the front and had to return it when he came back.

“There’s not a lot of guns here; maybe someone else will use it,” he said. “If they have a lot, then they’d give us one, everyone would have one.”

‘Command and control’

Despite the opposition’s pleas for advanced, foreign weaponry, none have been seen on the front in recent days, and rebel commanders in Ajdabiya on Monday said they had not received any.

Fathi al-Sherif, a former major in the Libyan army who was directing troops at the town’s western gate, said rebels needed heavy, long-range missiles to counter the government’s frequent Grad rocket attacks, as well as anti-tank rockets to take out Gaddafi’s armour.

Boys in Ajdabiya wearing new, Qatar-provided camouflage [Evan Hill/Al Jazeera]

He said he had heard of Qatar’s promise to supply such weapons but none had come.

“Everything we get, we use right away, nothing is in storage,” he said.

But other foreign supplies have arrived. Around a dozen rebels at the western gate could be seen wearing new, black body armour supplied by Qatar and made by well-known Colombian manufacturer Miguel Caballero.

Rebel trucks carried new communications equipment, including tall, roof-mounted radio antennas.

Sherif said the new radios had been effective, allowing rebels for the first time to coordinate their movements and quickly call for reinforcements or redeployments.

They also help the rebels communicate swiftly with NATO: At around 1:30pm on Monday, around two dozen rebel vehicles pulled back to the western gate, saying they had received word from the Transitional National Council in Benghazi, who are in direct contact with international forces, that NATO wanted the rebels to clear the roughly 40 kilometres of desert between themselves and government forces to allow room for air strikes.

But even the new equipment was limited. All the radios were being used by front-line troops, Sherif said, so he was employing the old method in use since the uprising began – sending trucks tens of kilometres back and forth down the road to deliver messages in person.

Perhaps more important than guns and armour, many experts argue, is “command and control”, the ability to direct troops efficiently on the battlefield, with a clear chain of command. The rebels’ lack of such control has made it easy for Gaddafi’s troops to force them into wild retreats through flanking maneuvers, and Grad rocket and mortar barrages.

On Monday, there was evidence that rebel command was improving. Fighters described how they have been organised into brigades sanctioned by the Transitional Nation Council.

At the Ajdabiya front was the Omar Mukhtar Brigade, composed primarily of men from Derna, Benghazi and Ajdabiya. The brigade is made up of about 200 men and 10 trucks, the fighters said.

Another brigade, based in Baida, has been named after slain Al Jazeera Arabic cameraman Ali Hassan al-Jaber.

The Omar Mukhtar brigade commander, until he was killed on Friday in an attack on Brega, was Abdelmonem Mukhtar Mohammed, a man with long experience in the armed opposition movement known as the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group who had also spent time in Afghanistan and had met Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, according to the Los Angeles Times.

At one of the brigade’s bases, a primary school in Ajdabiya, Mohammed’s deputy, Abduljawad al-Bedin, said he was waiting for the council to decide who would become the new commander. Mohammed al-Rajili, the council’s liaison with the brigade, was due to arrive any minute to discuss the issue with Bedin.

Like most of the rebel fighters, Bedin lacked much prior military experience. Military service is mandstory in Libya, and he had spent some time in the army, but before the uprising broke out, he was a student in Arabic literature at Gar Younis University in Benghazi.

Bedin’s troops didn’t lack fuel or food – both were being provided by wealthy donors, he said – but they needed heavier artillery and anti-tank weapons.

The current state of affairs, with Gaddafi recruiting foreign fighters and reportedly continuing to buy arms from outside the country, made it hard for the rebels to keep pace, he said.

Bedin hesitated when asked whether a military victory against Gaddafi was impossible unless things change.

“It’s hard, but it’s not impossible,” he said. 

‘We are what we are’

The rebels’ armoured force is also limited. Personnel carriers have not been seen on the front lines, and rebels seem wary of using tanks for fear of provoking an accidental NATO air strike. Earlier this month, twelve rebel tanks were knocked out of commission after being hit by a NATO attack outside Brega, said Awad Brayiq, an engineer at a vehicle-repair base outside Benghazi.

At the base, at least 10 Russian-made BMP armoured personnel carriers and 15 T-55 tanks in various states of disrepair sat inside and outside a large warehouse, empty of any workers. At least three or four of the tanks worked, the rest were out of commission.

A slightly more advanced BTR personnel carrier, also made in Russia, sat near one entrance, covered in camouflage and red, green and black opposition spray paint.

The BMPs and tanks that sat in repair bays appeared to have had no serious work done on them. A layer of reddish-brown dust still covered most of the interior surfaces, and engines that had been removed from two of the tanks and set on mounts were receiving no attention.

Engineers at the base needed supplies and spare parts, and vehicles lacked the necessary batteries and gas, Brayiq said. Hopping on top of one tank, he pointed to a piece of paper taped to its turret – a long list of everything the base lacked, including small arms and ammunition.

At the weapons-repair base, men with little engineering experience had come to volunteer.

Standing next to a helicopter rocket pod jury-rigged to the back of a pick-up truck, Mohamed Bashir Mohamed, a medical student, explained how he had come with his neighbour Muftah to help weld and do simple electrical work.

In another garage, 37-year-old Atim Muhammed, an ex-army officer who had fought in the war against Chad and for Idi Amin in Uganda, helped teenage boys fix machine guns.

Out on the tarmac, Shawafi, the bakery owner, squinted through his glasses in the bright sunlight and quoted Bob Marley, one of his favourite musicians: “We are what we are, that’s the way it’s going to be.”

Source: Al Jazeera