Rebels concede Tripoli may be out of reach after 100-mile retreat

Regime beats back advance and tries to exploit West's fears of al-Qa'ida gaining power

After reaching so close to their goal – the city of Sirte, the birthplace of Muammar Gaddafi and a key staging post to Tripoli – the rebels of Libya retreated 100 miles yesterday. Some commanders, bitterly disappointed, were becoming resigned to accepting that victory may not be possible after all; and the time may have come to consider a ceasefire.

But one group of fighters, calling themselves the Mujahedin, were vocal in their condemnation of such pessimism. To cries of "Allah hu Akbar" they charged forward towards enemy fire, exhorting others to follow. The men from Darnah were once again in the lead, as they have been in so many of the recent battles.

Darnah, which has the reputation of being the most devoutly Muslim city in Libya, has been singled out by Gaddafi as playing a central part in the "al-Qa'ida-orchestrated plot against his rule". It is a place, the regime has repeatedly claimed, that has as its revolutionary leader someone who has met and praised Osama Bin Laden and trained in Afghan "terror camps".

The regime's attempt to exploit the fear in the US and Europe of Islamist terrorism has failed. But, as the London conference to map out the future of Libya opened yesterday, there was confusion about who exactly the West is supporting in this civil war. The commander of Nato forces told the Senate in Washington yesterday that while "hundreds of millions of dollars" have been spent by America alone on this mission, no detailed picture has emerged of the people who are supposed to be replacing Muammar Gaddafi.

While the opposition's leadership appeared to be "responsible men and women" said the US Admiral James Stavridis, "we have seen flickers in the intelligence potential of al-Qa'ida, Hezbollah. We have seen different things. But at this point I don't have detail sufficient to say there is a significant al-Qa'ida presence or any other terrorist presence."

The reality on the ground is that the protest movement is a complex and composite body. While the intelligentsia in Benghazi talk passionately about the craving for democracy, civil rights and pluralism, a strong motivation for many on the front line is unwavering faith in Islam and the belief that Gaddafi and his henchmen are apostates. It is also the case that as the numbers of former military personnel in the rebel ranks have declined, there has been a visible increase in the number of those espousing fundamentalist doctrine.

Yet the main militant group, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, formally ended its armed struggle in 2009, leading to a number of its members being freed from jail. The compromise was partly engineered by Colonel Gaddafi's son, Saif al-Islam, who had begun a two-year process of dialogue.

In place of an obvious indigenous militant group, and scant evidence of organised al-Qa'ida activity, the regime has focused on Darnah. The city has a tradition of sending volunteers for jihad. In 2007, US forces in Iraq found a list of foreign fighters: of the 112 from Libya, Darnah, with its population of 48,000, supplied 52.

Abdul Hakim al-Hasidi, who took over as "chief of security" at Darnah at the start of the uprising on 17 February, spent five years in Afghanistan where he supposedly met Bin Laden and frequented, according to US intelligence briefings at the time, a training camp used by both the Taliban and al-Qa'ida. Mr Hasidi claims he has 1,200 fighters, which would make his group one of the largest contingents among the revolutionaries, known as the Shabaab. He has personally led units into battles in Bin Jawad and Ras Lanuf where the action has been fierce.

It is, however, not easy to ascertain details of Mr Hasidi's links with Islamic militancy. During a recent meeting in Darnah, he was reticent to talk about his Afghan sojourn and his alleged meetings with Bin Laden. He was not a member of al-Qa'ida, he stated, and did not follow its ethos. Mr Hasidi refused to elaborate on a previous observation that Bin Laden "had his good points" and described claims of his links with the head of al-Qa'ida as "just tales".

He was keen to point out he was a member of the Benghazi regional council, which liaised with the administration now being recognised by a number of states as Libya's de facto government and whose members are attending the summit in London.

The 45-year-old teacher insisted he does not want the Talibanisation of Libya. "Afghanistan is a different country," he said. "We have got our own situation in Libya and I am a member of the council which has all kinds of people in it. If I wanted to have a state like the Taliban, would I belong to the council? We are already a Muslim country and we shall follow the path of Islam. We do not need to bring in foreign ideas on how to be Muslims. I am not even teaching religion in my job, I teach geography. I am not teaching 'terrorist geography'."

While refusing to discuss who gave him lessons in arms in Afghanistan, Mr Hasidi acknowledged: "Yes I was there. I did not like the attack by America [in 2001] because it was unjust. A lot of civilians, women and children, were killed by bombs dropped from the sky. We hated the US for what they did. We shall accept their help now against Gaddafi, but we cannot forget what happened." The Tripoli regime, he continued, was simply trying to demonise its opponents. "I was a political prisoner in Libya and all I want is justice for our community. The people here support the 17 February revolution and that is why we from Darnah are now fighting everywhere."

The provisional administration in Benghazi also warns against being swayed by regime propaganda. Abdel Hafez Ghoga, the organisation's deputy head, said: "Talking about al-Qa'ida and Islamists is just something Gaddafi is using to try to save himself. These are just words which no one believes any more."

A band of fighters from Darnah at the town of Ras Lanuf were also eager to deny any dealings with terrorism. "We are not al-Qa'ida," were the first words of Khalid Arshad Ali as he dusted the triggering mechanism of an anti-aircraft artillery gun. "We are Mujahedin. We are here to fight for Libya and no one else. We are Muslims in this country and we are all Sunnis. We know that Gaddafi is getting paid by the Jews. We know that Israel is supplying him with special guns. He is not a proper Muslim and it is our duty to fight him."

The Darnah contingent has built up a fearsome reputation in this conflict. In Ajdabiya, the Shabaab had captured three men who they say were fighting for the regime. Two of them, from Chad, under the eyes of their captors "admitted" they were promised money, a flat and Libyan citizenship in return for "fighting terrorists" by officials in Tripoli. The third, who the rebels claimed was a Tunisian, begged to be believed that he was in fact Libyan.

All three were united in their fear of the men from Darnah. One of the Chadians, Asil Hussein Baqua, whispered: "We do not want to be here when they come from Darnah, the men with the beards. We were told even when we were in Tripoli that these people were fanatics and we must not fall into their hands."

In Darnah, people who stress that they are not militant point out that suppression in Darnah had driven some to extremism. More than a 100 from the city were among the 1,200 killed during the suppression of a rebellion in Abu Salim prison in 1996. The photographs of the "martyrs" have been put up on the walls of mosques and public buildings.

"This was our Abu Ghraib, only worse," said Amer Bashti, an architect. "So many families lost someone. There has been a sense of anger which has never gone away and now it has found a channel."

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