Like the rest of the Middle East-enthusiast world, I’m glued to CNN as rebel action has broken out in Tripoli. It’s a good day for free people–more than thirty students at my university were killed in the Gaddafi-backed Pan Am 103 bombing, and that pales in comparison to the horrors Gaddafi has inflicted on his own people. Gaddafi’s faux-liberal son, noted plagiarist Saif al Islam Gaddafi, is reportedly in rebel custody, and we have to wonder how long it will be before the Mad Dog himself is captured, betrayed, or kills himself. It’s good to see that Gaddafi has had the rug pulled out from under him–I was very worried that there would be massacres by Gaddafi’s falling armies (some of the Second World War’s worst massacres occurred as German troops withdrew from occupied territory).
Anyway, CNN has changed their video loop, so I can’t get a picture, but for a while they kept showing a group of rebel fighters celebrating, and I noticed one of them wearing a pakul hat, like this:
Thing is, I’ve never heard of people wearing the pakul in North Africa. It’s traditional in tribal areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan, thousands of miles and a vast cultural gulf away from Tripoli. It’s a woolen cap that would be, I think, uncomfortable during a summer on the Mediterranean coast. There’s really no reason that someone would be wearing one in Tripoli, unless they had odd fashion taste. There is, however, one other possibility for our pakul-wearing man.
The man could have been a Libyan who traveled to Afghanistan or Pakistan. There’s been one noted movement of young men like him into those areas–radicals looking to fight Western forces. Al Qaeda is full of Libyans–the kunya al Libi (the Libyan) is very common in the senior ranks. Libya also has its own terror group, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, that has had an on-again, off-again relationship with bin Laden and al Zawahiri’s organization. LIFG fighters have reportedly been in leadership roles within the rebel forces–a “brigade-level” commander that was killed had reportedly been a senior LIFG member. It makes sense that LIFG would be involved in the rebel movement–they’ve acquired some relevant skills that would be too valuable for the rebels to pass up even though their presence angers the West, and they’ve been the militant wing of the opposition to Gaddafi for years. You have to think that LIFG, like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, attracted plenty of non-Islamists who saw Islamist dialogue and action as the most realistic means of overthrowing the regime. There’s really no telling what role it will play in the post-Gaddafi world.
Some of the fighters of the Afghan and Iraqi conflicts have likely returned to Libya to fight Gaddafi, and our pakul-wearing man may very well be one of them. The presence of mujahidin alumni of the Afghan conflict in Libya is a very troubling sign. Places like Saudi Arabia have seen worrying increases in terrorist activity as young radicals returned from Iraq and Afghanistan with a new set of dangerous skills. The alumni of the earlier Soviet war in Afghanistan were also troublesome. Libya’s new government will have to deal with LIFG and other radical forces as they try to build a future without Gaddafi.