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Jihad in Libya: A matter of economic uncertainty, some say

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Sunday, Dec. 9, 2012, 10:06 a.m.
 

With no jobs, mounting sexual frustration and nothing but anti-Western shows on TV, young men in eastern Libya turned into trained fighters with an angry bent against the world, a once-classified State Department memo warns.

J. Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya who was killed Sept. 11 along with three other Americans in an attack on the Benghazi consulate, wrote the memo in 2008. A secret government source, he said, compared these “bearded ones” with the main character in the “Die Hard” movies played by actor Bruce Willis, “who stubbornly refused to die.”

The young men had gone off to fight jihad and receive religious and ideological “training” in Afghanistan, Lebanon and the West Bank. They returned to a lawless area east of Benghazi, where Stevens later was killed.

“These returned former fighters deliberately targeted towns and areas known to be less heavily surveilled and controlled by government security officials,” Stevens wrote. “Many of those were located in eastern Libya, where authorities have since Ottoman times experienced difficulty extending the writ of the central government.”

Fast-forward four years — past the 2011 assassination of Libya's brutal dictator, Moammar Gadhafi — and these same young men are blamed for killing Stevens in the attack on the U.S. compound.

Their region in Libya remains a breeding ground for young radicals whom experts said are angry largely because they want the same things as people all over the world: jobs, security and the chance to start families.

Though these men have rebuffed efforts by the country's new democratic leaders to bring them into a national dialogue, Libya's long-term prospects hinge on persuading them to hand over their weapons, experts said.

Without that, in the absence of a strong Libyan government or any level of American involvement, young men from this region again will seek out Western targets, said Rep. Thomas Rooney, R-Fla., who serves on the House Armed Services Committee and the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

“There's no doubt that when you look at where the number of terror cells come from, Libya is kind of at the top of the list,” Rooney told the Tribune-Review. “We knew there was a good chance that if we liberated Libya, the bad guys would fill the void — and they did, or at least they're trying to.”

Not everyone agrees that the United States should rush into Libya or any other lands across the Middle East where the Arab Spring toppled dictators but left behind instability. Libyans are wary of outsiders who even appear to have imperial intentions, and war-weary Americans are reluctant to get involved overseas.

“The Libyans have to be left to do it themselves,” said Roger Owen, a Harvard University Middle East history professor. “The last thing they need is people telling them how to do democracy.”

It's not as if anyone has a magic wand that would turn new democracies into stable ones, said Barry Posen, a political science professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The costs of U.S. intervention in the Middle East have been high, in money and lives lost.

But experts said the United States has a responsibility under the so-called Pottery Barn rule — you break it, you bought it — for what happens in countries such as Libya that it helps to liberate.

“If you wanted Libya to hold together,” Posen said, “we should have either left Gadhafi in power or negotiated a more graceful exit for him. We didn't do that.”

Left instead with broken pieces, experts said, the United States and its allies could best help Libya by encouraging economic growth, quietly training a police force and army and — behind the scenes — monitoring radical groups on the ground.

When he visited Pittsburgh in October, Mahmoud Jibril, president of the National Forces Alliance, Libya's leading political party, called for help on the ground providing security. Before the country can experience economic growth, it must ensure the safety of its citizens, said Jibril, a University of Pittsburgh graduate.

Others argue the reverse: that opportunities for jobs and new businesses are the only way to build security. Democratic leaders in Libya have tried to start a national dialogue among every group that fought for freedom but, Jibril said, Islamic radicals will not come to the table.

They need a reason to put down weapons and talk, said Chuck Dittrich, executive director of the pro-growth U.S.-Libya Business Association in Washington. These young men would stop fighting if they had jobs and could provide for their families.

“They need to begin to take the economic and commercial steps to bring in investment at the same time as they work on their comprehensive security,” Dittrich said. “There are many in Libya who say the security cannot be imposed.”

Unlike other lawless places, Libya has a lot of assets, said Frederic Wehrey, senior associate in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

The country has tribal rivalries but not stark ethnic or sectarian divides. It sits geographically close to Europe, and although a large country, most of its population lives in city centers along the Mediterranean. Libya has rich oil resources that, once freed up, could jump-start the economy.

“You have to develop economic incentives for these young men to leave the militias — ‘Yes, you fought in the revolution, but it's time to put down your arms,' ” Wehrey said.

Even in 2008 as he traveled through the city of Derna, a four-hour car ride east of Benghazi, Stevens saw the peril in leaving swaths of Libya beyond the rule of law and far from opportunity.

Islamic radicals had little problem recruiting suicide bombers in an area where 60 percent to 70 percent of the men lacked jobs and could not afford to marry. A local tipster only half-jokingly mentioned then that the “cumulative level of sexual frustration among Derna's young men was ‘a big problem,' ” Stevens wrote. His memo was released with other WikiLeaks documents and published online by The Telegraph newspaper in London.

Then the deputy chief of mission and the charge d'affairs to the Libyan embassy, Stevens foreshadowed the security difficulties of traveling through the country's eastern reaches: “An apparent lapse in coordination between security officials in Tripoli and Benghazi led to what appeared to be a rare gap in surveillance by security organizations.”

But he noted, too, something even more ominous that still portends trouble for Libya's central government.

The government had limited control of the east with its lack of social outlets or economic prospects, Stevens wrote. Young men in Derna had become dissatisfied with their government and the perceived U.S. support of it.

“Observations of the town ... strongly suggest that comments by senior (Libyan) officials to the effect that the east is under control are exaggerated,” he wrote.

Andrew Conte is a staff writer for Total Trib Media. He can be reached at andrewconte@tribweb.com or 412-320-7835.

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