Libyan held in uprising denies Al Qaeda link
It was to be a face-to-face encounter with one of the captured Al Qaeda militants accused by Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi and his associates of being behind the uprising in this North African nation.
But Salah Mohammad Ali Abou Obah, born in 1967, denied being either a militant or a member of Al Qaeda. Rather, he told a group of reporters taken Tuesday to the criminal investigations headquarters in Tripoli, the capital, on Tuesday that he was a low-ranking member of an exiled Islamic opposition group.
The prisoner said he had spent much of the last 14 years in Britain. He joined up with fellow Libyans, both secular and Islamist, to take over the main square in the city of Zawiya as part of a quest to overthrow Kadafi’s regime and establish a pluralistic government.
“The goal was to change the regime,” he told reporters. “We had a feeling that most of the people weren’t with [the Islamists]. But at least we could have a role to play in the future of Libya.”
The meeting with the prisoner, dressed in street clothes, was supposed to show a skeptical world that Islamic extremists were behind the unrest that has torn Libya in two. It instead underscored the government’s inability to recast a popular uprising as a fight against Al Qaeda gangs.
“When we were in the square we didn’t have time to be divided between secular and Islamic currents,” he told reporters. “We were faced with a fight against one enemy.”
There was no way to independently verify Obah’s tale. Parts of his story sounded as though they could have been tailored to fit the preferred narrative of his captors. For example, he told reporters that he came to oppose the uprising a couple of weeks after joining it and now believed all Libyans should unite against armed foreign intervention.
Also unclear were the circumstances under which Obah agreed to be grilled on camera by a group of foreign journalists. He told reporters that his wife and four children continue to live in Manchester, England. Obah said he was appearing of his own volition and had not been physically harmed or threatened. He said he was being charged in part with being a member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, or LIFG, a radical Islamic organization.
But huge swaths of his narrative openly contradicted the constant refrain by the Kadafi regime and its loyalists that the uprising is being steered by Islamists, many of them allegedly foreign, with ties to the same international terrorist groups the West has been fighting.
“They are a mixed bag,” Obah said of the opposition in Benghazi. “But for sure Islamists play a big role.”
Opposition leaders in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi have gone out of their way to convince reporters that they are nationalists dedicated to replacing Kadafi with a democratic government, not with Islamic fundamentalists.
“If there’s one thing you should remember, it’s that this is a people’s revolution, a secular revolution,” said Khaled Ben Ali, a spokesman for the 13-member rebel national council. Iman Bugaighis, a college professor who often speaks on behalf of the council, called allegations of an Al Qaeda connection “useless propaganda” designed to create conflict among tribes in rebellious eastern Libya.
Obah said he joined the LIFG in 1997, serving as a fundraiser for the group in Yemen before heading to Britain, where he was granted political asylum.
The Libyan regime over the last two years had begun granting amnesty to LIFG members who renounced violence. Obah said he took advantage of the offer and returned to his homeland last year.
Obah said he helped get rebels into the country, including smuggling four members of the LIFG across the Tunisian border. He acknowledged knowing of only one foreign rebel, an Egyptian, in Zawiya.
“I don’t know if he was an Islamist,” he said.
He said the rebels who had taken control of the city were coordinating closely with their counterparts in Benghazi.
Obah said he was picked up by plainclothes security officials March 6 in a residential neighborhood of Zawiya, which government forces retook last week under a hail of artillery fire and airstrikes.
Obah lost his composure only once, when asked whether he had a message for his wife, three sons and daughter in Manchester.
“I do miss them,” he said as he choked up and squirmed uncomfortably. “And I would like to go back to them.”
Times staff writer David Zucchino in Benghazi contributed to this report.
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