The strange, unexplained death of the Libyan rebels’ military chief
A tumultuous day for the Libyan rebels culminated with the announcement that Gen. Abdel Fateh Younis, the chief of staff of the Libyan Transitional Council’s (TNC) armed forces, has been assassinated. Rumors had been swirling on Thursday, July 28, that Younis — once a high-ranking military officer and Libya’s interior minister — had been arrested ...
A tumultuous day for the Libyan rebels culminated with the announcement that Gen. Abdel Fateh Younis, the chief of staff of the Libyan Transitional Council's (TNC) armed forces, has been assassinated.
A tumultuous day for the Libyan rebels culminated with the announcement that Gen. Abdel Fateh Younis, the chief of staff of the Libyan Transitional Council’s (TNC) armed forces, has been assassinated.
Rumors had been swirling on Thursday, July 28, that Younis — once a high-ranking military officer and Libya’s interior minister — had been arrested by the rebel leadership for colluding with Muammar al-Qaddafi, and was being held in a military installation in the rebel capital of Benghazi. Mustafa Abdul Jalil, the head of the TNC, told a different story today, saying that he had been called back from Brega for questioning by the rebel leadership but was shot dead, along with two aides, while en route. He said that one of the killers had been captured, but did not explicitly claim that the assassins were pro-Qaddafi infiltrators. Instead, he issued a vague warning about "armed groups" operating in rebel-held cities.
The military chief’s loyalty to the rebel cause is still front and center in questions about the events surrounding his death. Before defecting to the rebels, Younis had served for 40 years as one of Qaddafi’s most trusted lieutenants, and had often been described as his second in command. He resigned his post as interior minister and fled to Benghazi on Feb. 22, when the rebels’ strength was swelling and it appeared that they may quickly topple the Qaddafi regime.
It is no secret that the rebels’ military hierarchy has long been in turmoil. Younis himself feuded for months with Gen. Khalifa Heftir, who is said to enjoy a long relationship with the CIA, over control of the rebel forces. The New Yorker‘s Jon Lee Anderson wrote that, even after defecting, Younis was still "distrusted by the shabab [Libyan youth] and by many council members." To this day, the TNC’s military hierarchy remains largely a mystery.
"The Libyan military part [of the TNC] is in disarray," said Dirk Vandewalle, a professor at Dartmouth University who specializes in Libya. "It has never been able to really define a clear command strategy and my hunch is that it probably never will, despite all of the aid it is getting."
Abdul Jalil’s press conference on Thursday raised more questions than it answered about the circumstances surrounding Younis’s killing. He did not offer any specifics regarding the killing, such as where the attack took place or how the assassins were able to gain access to Younis. Perhaps most importantly, he did not explain the particulars of what Younis had been summoned to discuss with the TNC.
Vandewalle said that this incident provides a glimpse of the hazards faced by the nature of the rebels’ essentially ad hoc leadership. "You’re seeing in a sense a proto-state that has no reference at all, has no institutions to go by, [with] self-appointed representatives in the TNC," he said. "So there remains an enormous amount of chaos."
The rebels have enjoyed no small amount of help from the United States and Europe in their fight against Qaddafi. NATO airstrikes have, of course, been vital to sustaining the rebels and enabling their advance toward Tripoli. But the support is also diplomatic: The Obama administration recognized the TNC two weeks ago, in a move that could pave the way for the rebels to get their hands on over $30 billion in frozen assets. The major European powers have all extended diplomatic recognition to the TNC; Britain became the latest to do so on Wednesday, expelling Qaddafi’s top diplomats from the country.
This support has been based on a fairly widespread consensus about who constitutes the TNC leadership: that the rebels are well-meaning though ill-equipped freedom fighters waging a war against a lunatic ruler ensconced in Tripoli.
The rosy view of the Libyan rebels is endangered by Younis’s death. It may well emerge that he was killed by a pro-Qaddafi hit squad, but even if it does, observers are still left to grapple with why Abdul Jalil was unable or unwilling to answer basic questions about the incident, and how such a significant security lapse could occur in rebel-controlled territory. And if it appears that someone within the rebel ranks killed Younis, Western officials and reporters are going to find themselves asking hard questions about signs of factionalism within the TNC and the murky nature of its military structure. Whatever the case may be, the honeymoon with the rebels is over; bring on the politics.
David Kenner was Middle East editor at Foreign Policy from 2013-2018.
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