By Asmaa Elourfi
In the wake of the Libyan revolution, radical Islamist figures are setting up shop in the eastern town of Derna. With reports of car bombs, assassinations and looting, Magharebia travelled to the city to interview residents to hear the state of the situation.
“Car bomb blasts have increased in Derna at night, including Abdul Hakim al-Hasadi’s car,” said Essam Abdul Hamid. “Just a few minutes after he left his car and went inside his house he heard the sound of car blast. When he went outside, he exchanged fire with unknown people, wounding a passer-by in his leg.”
A former Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) member, al-Hasadi was forced into exile and eventually ended up in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He later denounced al-Qaeda and participated in the Libyan revolution.
“Citizens have taken to streets in demonstrations to express their rejection of extremist ideology because we’re a moderate society,” Abdul Hamid added. “Others have been staging a sit-in for more than five days. Fourteen blasts took place in town. There is an external agenda, represented by Ansar al-Sharia group, which has spread in areas across Libya.”
“Derna is not without al-Qaeda presence,” he noted. “Al-Qaeda even has a presence in several areas in Libya, and this could be very dangerous if the National Transitional Council (NTC) doesn’t pay attention and put an end to it.”
The residents of Derna, who have been staging a sit-in at al-Sahabi Mosque since March 29th, demand the government’s intervention, the departure of Sufian al-Quma and all battalions from Derna, and the return of army and policemen.
Sufian al-Quma is known for his affiliation with al-Qaeda, having been Osama Bin Laden’s private chauffeur.
However, when asked by Magharebia about the situation in Derna, interim Interior Minister Fawzi Abdul Aal claimed that authorities were “in full control of the city and the situation there is secure.”
“There is a battalion that has recently appeared known as Ansar al-Sharia,” said Feras Muftah. “It is led by Sufian al-Quma. Those people don’t appear in public; rather, they work in secrecy. There are a lot of blasts, but perpetrators are never known. It is said that this battalion is the entity carrying out these blasts because they target people who used to work for the state under the former regime.”
He added that there was no local council and the city was controlled by six different armed factions. “Ansar al-Sharia group is based in Bou Mesafer Forest at the gate of Derna opposite the Turkish company buildings,” Muftah said.
“This group doesn’t want any army; rather, they want to apply God’s Sharia as if we weren’t Muslims,” Muftah added. “For the time being, they are attracting adolescents and pay them money.”
Derna resident Fathallah Mahmoud said that “three days ago, a man called Mohamed al-Hassi, who was nominated for a certain post, was killed while standing opposite a car at a gas station. A Chinese car carrying unknown people passed by and opened fire on him. Before him, a man from internal security forces was killed.”
Asmaa Abdul Razzaq said that the situation was “extremely bad; anyone who utters a single word that doesn’t appeal to that group will be killed right away without any discussion.”
“My husband is afraid for me and the kids,” she continued. “Last week, someone entered a higher education institute and threw a hand grenade inside. Before that, Sufian al-Quma and his group decided to turn Derna into an emirate. When asked why they blew up the institute, they said that they don’t want the institute or university to offer mixed education.”
“One day, a citizen spoke on the radio about Sufian al-Quma and said that he should come out… and acquit himself if he had nothing to do with these events,” she added. “Do you know what happened to him? While he was still at the radio station building, a strange number called him and said that if he ever mentioned Sufian’s name again he wouldn’t see the sun and that his head would be separated from his body!”
In her turn, Fariha Younis, a resident of al-Marj, said she visited Derna and witnessed the radicalism first-hand. “I was shocked with the scary features of extremism I saw there, starting with the checkpoints where you can see those manning them had scary looks and wearing Afghan clothes, as if Derna has become like an Afghan city,” she said.
“There are long beards reaching down to their chests, with looks of hatred and rancour against all those who pass through there, especially if the woman is wearing a moderate veil, as she would attract angry looks from their eyes,” she continued.
“Our Islam is not like this,” she concluded. “A really religious person would show a look of kindness and reassurance, and when you look at him, you would feel comfortable, unlike these scary, sulky faces. The situation in Derna is really frightening.”