I asked a Libyan scholar about the silly urban legend going around that an “al-Qaeda” flag flew from a government building in Benghazi recently.
Here is what he said:
” I looked up the mentioned flag, it appears to be a black flag with the shahada [Muslim profession of faith] in it. A black flag goes back all the way to the prophet, and the addition of the shahada makes it a Jihadist flag. There have been Jihadists in Libya from day one, and they fought against Qaddafi. But is Al-Qaeda, as in the global network taking over? No.
Between Tripoli and Benghazi, Benghazi has been the center of Islamist activities, and since the beginning of the revolution they’ve had more time to organize. But they’ve not overwhelmed Benghazi and the more radical of them have limited support despite their vocal presence.
The struggle among the big coalitions is mainly between 1) the “Muslim Brotherhood Lite,” 2) Libyan nationalist conservatives (as represented by Abdel Rahim Al-Keeb– though he’s not the leader of this current); and 3) the “Muslim Brotherhood Heavy” represented by Sheikh Ali Al-Salabi and Abdul Hakim Belhaj.
Smaller but still important are the liberals. Mahmoud Jibril, Ali Tarhouni, and Mahmoud Shammam represent the liberals. There are also some leftist liberals.
And of course, there is the tiny faction of Jihadis, who raised the flag in Benghazi.
Salabi and Belhaj, formerly more radical, now want to exit the Jihadi tent. And the end of the revolution has made it less necessary to talk Jihad per se. The square facing the court house in Benghazi is no longer the site of the Friday prayers, so that in itself is causing some diffusion, and represents an attempt to temper the religious rhetoric that dominated the period when the fighting was still going on.
In essence the percentages, as to people’s political alignments, have not changed. But everyone is more demonstrative now (including showing the ability to cause havoc) as ideological and regional jostling begins in earnest.”
Most journalists and Western pundits don’t know much about the actual currents of Libyan Islam now becoming vocal in Libyan politics, and as they used to say in the baseball stadiums, you can’t tell one player from another without a program. This indigenous scholar’s program should be taken seriously.
Moreover, the black flag as a symbol is not a monopoly of al-Qaeda. Revolutionaries raised a black flag in the medieval Abbasid Revolution of 750 AD.
As for jihadis equalling “al-Qaeda,” that is also ridiculous. The Mujahidin who fought the Soviets in the 1980s were jihadis. Ronald Reagan called them “Freedom Fighters” and the “equivalent of America’s Founding Fathers.”
We knew all along that a small group of jihadis fought Qaddafi brigades in the revolution. But there is no evidence that they were a core group or that you can just write off the Libyan revolution as “al-Qaeda,” as Muammar and Saif Qaddafi said.
What this informed observer is saying is that a miniscule group of jihadists put up that flag, in the chaos of the post-revolutionary period, but that they are highly unrepresentative of politics in Benghazi.
It would be as though the small group of Tea Party members who support Occupy Wall Street raised a “Don’t Tread on Me” flag over Zucotti Park. It would not indicate that the Tea Party was taking over the OWS movement, only that they are one small vocal faction within it.