Even before he vanished, Abd Al-Salam Bin-Ali was an easy young man to miss. Pale, lanky and blind in one eye, the unobtrusive 20-year-old didn't leave much of an impression in Darnah, his hometown in eastern Libya. In school he had studied to become a veterinarian, but after graduation he couldn't find a job. "The economic situation was terrible," recalls his older brother, Abd al-Hamid. "He was looking for work every day." Sometimes Abd al-Salam would set up a folding table in Darnah's Old City and hawk cheap perfumes.
Unmarried, with few prospects, he still lived with his mother. At home, for distraction, he would sprawl in front of the family television and watch "Lion of the Desert," the 1981 epic of Libyan resistance fighters starring Anthony Quinn. Abd al-Salam had seen it over and over. As the war in Iraq dragged on, he also tuned in to Al-Jazeera. Nobody in the family had supported the American invasion, but Abd al-Salam was particularly affected by the bloody images he saw on the Arabic cable news channel. He sometimes teased his mother that he wanted to run away to fight the Americans. Before she could protest too much, he always backed down. "No, no, no—don't worry, Mom," he would say with a laugh. "I'll get married instead." His older brother wasn't so confident. "I was sure he would go," Abd al-Hamid recalls. "He was always talking about it." Abd al-Salam was also growing more devout. According to his brother, he spent most of his time at the mosque.
Then one day in late September 2006, Abd al-Salam simply disappeared. "Where is he?" his anxious mother asked when he didn't show up for dinner. His brother reassured her that Abd al-Salam had gone to Benghazi, perhaps to buy perfumes, but Abd al-Hamid didn't believe his own story. The younger boy had probably hitched a ride to Cairo, and then flown on to Damascus. He later crossed the border into Iraq with $100 cash in his pocket, and joined a cadre of insurgents led by a coordinator he knew as "Hamad." Shortly after Abd al-Salam disappeared, the telephone rang in Darnah. "I'm in Ramadi," the voice on the other end said. "I'm in Iraq."
Late last year American soldiers raided an insurgent headquarters in the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar. Inside they found a document—perhaps an application form that Abd al-Salam had filled out on his way into the country—on the letterhead of the "Mujahedin Shura Council." The document listed little beyond Abd al-Salam's birthday, his brother's phone number and his hometown. Yet as they analyzed the papers, American investigators were struck by one thing. Of the 606 militants cataloged in the Sinjar records, almost 19 percent had come to Iraq from Libya. Previous intelligence estimates had always held that the bulk of Iraq's foreign fighters come from Saudi Arabia. Indeed, the largest number of militants in the Sinjar records—244 of them—were Saudi nationals. But in per capita terms, Libyans represented a much higher percentage. Perhaps the most startling detail: of 112 Libyan fighters named in the papers, an astoundingly large number—52—had come from a single town of 50,000 people along the Mediterranean coast, called Darnah.
Earlier this month I traveled to Darnah to try to figure out why it was contributing such a large portion of its young men to fight the Americans in Iraq. A stunning natural landscape surrounds the town, nestled in the shadow of rust-colored limestone bluffs that overlook the sparkling Mediterranean. Yet the city's corniche is lined with a dreary procession of crumbling concrete tenements coated in a patina of chipped pastel paint. Libya's economy is dominated by the oil and gas sector, which accounts for 90 percent of the country's revenues, but little of that wealth has ever trickled down to Libya's eastern province. Government officials in Tripoli acknowledge in private conversations that the east has long been neglected. The discrepancy is a truth too obvious for Darnah residents to deny, even given the hazards of speaking openly in Muammar Kaddafi's police state. "What have we gotten from this government?" asks Abd al-Hamid bin-Ali. One telling detail in the Sinjar documents: of the Libyans who listed their "work" in Iraq, more than 85 percent volunteered for suicide missions—a significantly larger fraction than any other country but Morocco.
Still, economic desperation alone doesn't fully explain the readiness of Darnah's young men to join the insurgents in Iraq. There are tens of millions of impoverished Muslims in the world, but only a handful—perhaps a few hundred at any given time—travel to Iraq to fight. There is little consensus about what ultimately motivates them, what changes someone from a disgruntled viewer of cable news into a suicide killer. "That's the big mystery," says Brian Fishman, a West Point counterterrorism expert who has extensively analyzed the Sinjar records. "The dynamics are very, very local." There are some common denominators. In their interviews with NEWSWEEK, family members of the local recruits spoke of young men with bleak lives in search of redemption. Far from being universally motivated by one global ideology, the jihadist recruits often seem to have been driven by personal factors like psychological trauma, sibling rivalry and sexual longing.
Darnah's militants do have one other thing in common: an almost obsessive devotion to their town's place in history. Greek and Roman ruins, the detritus of occupations in the ancient past, dot the wheat and barley fields along Libya's coastal plain. The United States left its own lasting mark on the town's collective memory during the Barbary Wars of the early 1800s. Darnah became a key battlefield in America's first overseas military expedition, when 500 American Marines and local mercenaries marched across the desert from Egypt to assault the town. (The ensuing Battle of Darnah inspired the "shores of Tripoli" line in the current Marine Hymn.)
But it was another country a century later that seared the ideal of armed resistance into the town's psyche. In 1911, Italy landed warships in Darnah's port, the beginning of a ruthless colonial presence that would last through the Mussolini era until the Axis powers were defeated in World War II. Local resistance to the occupation was strongest in the rocky hills near Darnah, but even there it was ultimately crushed. From its dust, a homegrown tradition of Islamic martyrdom emerged.
The local mythology is so pervasive that it guides even the town's most senior officials. On my second day in Darnah, I stopped by the office of Saddik Afdel, the co-chairman of the town's People's Committee—the Libyan equivalent of a mayor. A gentle sea breeze wafted in from an open window behind Afdel's desk. At first he denied that his town was sending a significant number of its young men to Iraq. "We don't know exactly the number," he told me. "Here in Darnah, not more than 10." I showed him the stack of documents, some of which include small photos of the fighters, and the chairman grew quiet. "We have no idea about that," he began, speaking through an interpreter. "They have no reason to go." He took a drag on his cigarette. "Look, this is a huge number," he eventually conceded. "If this number is true, it's very bad. It's bad for politics. But it's not bad for Muslims to do their duty. America said that this war is for freedom. And it's not. What we see on Al-Jazeera is not what we've been told by the Americans. I can't stop them from going. What we've been taught by the Qur'an is jihad." When I asked about the town's history of rebellious militants, Afdel couldn't suppress a grin. "Those are the people who used to stand up and fight for their land," he told me. "We have to remember them."
II. To the Shores of Tripoli
most Americans today think of the Barbary Pirates only as a stray detail from a long-ago history exam. But to the Founding Fathers they were the scourge of the seas. The former North American colonies, newly liberated, needed the Mediterranean's shipping lanes to export their tobacco, sugar and other commodities to the Middle East. Having given up the protection of the British Empire's powerful fleet, American ships were falling victim to pirates from modern-day Morocco, Algeria and Libya. Kidnappings were frequent. Fair-skinned women were particularly prized captives, and were added to North African harems. The cycle of kidnappings and ransoms took a harsh toll on the young American nation.
The politicians argued about whether to confront or appease the enemy until President Thomas Jefferson finally ordered American warships into battle in 1801. Things began badly: the USS Philadelphia and its crew were captured; the frigate was anchored in Tripoli's harbor as a trophy, and Jefferson intensified American attacks. Stephen Decatur, in 1804 a relatively unknown U.S. naval officer, led a now legendary nighttime mission to assault the Philadelphia in the harbor, burning it into the sea. From the east, Gen. William Eaton marched his forces overland across the desert from Alexandria, Egypt, to Darnah in 1805. As described in Michael Oren's history "Power, Faith, and Fantasy," Eaton rode to the gate of Darnah's Old City and demanded the town's surrender. The local governor replied: "My head or yours." Eaton took the city.
Today there are relics and reminders of the battle all over town. One of the first things a visitor sees on the road into Darnah is a set of four giant yellow concrete numerals advertising the 1805 Resort. One popular eatery on the corniche is the Philadelphia Fast Food restaurant. Libyan schools teach the capture of the Philadelphia as a great national victory, although there was no independent nation of Libya at the time; it was a semiautonomous regency of the Ottoman Empire. Fathi Abd al-Moula, who teaches history to 10-year-olds in a small town outside Darnah, says he draws simple pictures of the Philadelphia for his classes. His students are too young to remember names like Eaton and Decatur, he explains, but they are old enough to see the battles as a source of national pride. "Libya was the first country to take on America," says Essam al-Hamal, who works at another Philadelphia Fast Food restaurant in Tripoli, where a mast said to be from the American ship is displayed to this day atop the Red Fortress. Libyans refer to the conflict as "the First Libyan-American War."
Nowhere is Darnah's past more present than in the basement headquarters of a local club known as the Hyena Society. It was my first stop upon arrival in Darnah. The group's 200-or-so members include a slightly incongruous collection of aging history buffs, along with a number of younger adventure seekers. The clubhouse is filled with historical artifacts and curios, including stuffed cobras, Ottoman-era carbines and Bedouin tents. The society's president, Muhammad al-Hinid, a wiry and eccentric 76-year-old who wears aviator sunglasses indoors, walked me past an enormous model of the USS Argus, one of the supply ships that met and resupplied Eaton's Army on the march to Darnah. The Barbary Wars are important to Darnah's history, Hinid told me. Still, he added, the Italian occupation left deeper scars on the town. "The Italian war is much more important," Hinid said.
Even by the ugly standards of early-20th-century colonial powers, Italy's domination of its southern neighbor was mind-numbingly brutal. According to one Libyan census, the native population dropped from 1.2 million in 1912 to 825,000 in 1933. "The bulk of the population drop was the direct result of Italian policy," says Ronald Bruce St. John, a widely respected scholar of Libya who says Italy's tools of oppression included concentration camps, deliberate starvation and "mass execution that bordered on genocide." Reading exercises for children in Libyan schools included phrases like "I am happy to be subject to the Italian government" and "The Duce loves children very much, even Arab children."
A strong local resistance emerged, primarily in the rocky hills of eastern Libya. The hero of the insurgency was a charismatic, white-robed Muslim holy warrior named Omar al-Mukhtar. The Lion of the Desert was a disciple of the Senussis, a secretive and deeply conservative order of Islamic ascetics. The order's founder had traveled extensively in Saudi Arabia, where he mingled with members of the puritanical Wahhabi sect in the mid-1880s. By Omar al-Mukhtar's day, the Senussis had honed a strict, yet almost evangelical, variety of Islam that spread quickly through eastern Libya, gaining adherents partly by offering social services like schools and access to wells. For 20 years, Mukhtar harassed the Italian forces with his small band of guerrillas, but the Italians finally captured him in 1931, as they infiltrated and destroyed the Senussi networks.
Today the cult of Omar al-Mukhtar is visible everywhere in Darnah: on posters, billboards, stickers on car windshields. His face may be more ubiquitous even than Kaddafi's. Bootleg copies of "Lion of the Desert" are brisk sellers in local souks. At the Hyena Society, Hinid showed me a portrait of Mukhtar. He said he painted it on the night of Saddam Hussein's execution. Hinid had watched the hanging on Al-Jazeera. The sad eyes in his painting of Mukhtar, Hinid explained, are actually Saddam's. It isn't difficult to see how the Iraqi dictator might provide Darnah residents with a modern-day stand-in for their martyred hero. "We all love [Saddam] here," Hinid told me.
III. 'Everything But The Girl'
Both Saddam and Mukhtar are revered figures at the Hassan Mosque, a spare, white- washed structure with green pastel trim in the center of Darnah's Old City. A poster of Omar al-Mukhtar, faded and tattered, is affixed to the front door. Anuri al-Hasadi, the mosque's muezzin, was just arriving for afternoon prayers when I stopped by. Dressed in a gray pin-striped dishdasha and sporting a walrus mustache, the 60-year-old had the air of a Dickens character. We sat down on folding chairs in the mosque's lobby, and I asked the muezzin what he thought of the Iraq War. He tried to brush off the question, reluctant to wade into politics—but then he erupted. "Oil! Oil!" he cried. "America needs oil. It's America's fault. You think they came here to buy fruit? They came for the oil!" He declined to say at first whether he thought it was OK for Libyans to travel to Iraq to fight. At last he said he did not approve. The assertion was a little hard to believe after his "oil" outburst. I asked about one of his relatives, an 18-year-old named Ashraf al-Hasadi. According to the Sinjar documents, the young man left Darnah last year for Iraq. The muezzin denied knowing the boy. Then somewhat under his breath, he said softly in Arabic: "He was just a kid."
Ashraf al-Hasadi worked just around the corner from the Hassan Mosque, at his family's spice shop on the Old City's bustling main artery. Tall and clean-shaven, but a little chubby, the youngest of four brothers was also "the quietest of the family," said his brother Bakr, who was working the cash register at the shop when I stopped by. Big sacks of candy, dates and a spice known as baharat were stacked on shelves behind him. Bakr looked a little wary when I first arrived, but he invited me inside and offered a cup of tea. I asked him to tell me what he could about Ashraf.
Bakr explained that he had lately been urging his brother to get married. At 18 years old, Ashraf was still a bachelor, and young to wed. Because a wedding ceremony is expensive and Darnah is relatively poor, most men in town don't end up marrying until at least their late 20s. Still, the spice shop provided the Hasadis with a steady income, and Ashraf was considerably better positioned than most of his friends. After his mother died in 2006, it was up to his brothers to set him up. Ashraf already had a job, a car and an apartment—all the prerequisites. Even so, his brothers worried that the young man was a little tightly wound, sensitive and severe at the same time. He recoiled at the images of Iraq that he saw on Al-Jazeera. "He never watched movies," Bakr recalled. "It was only the news." After work, Ashraf liked to whip his black Hyundai around the tight warrens of Darnah's Old City. To his brothers' dismay, he showed little interest in marriage. "He had everything," his brother Abdelkhader said with a laugh, "except for the girl."
Instead, Ashraf was spending more and more time at the mosque. Darnah is a religious town; several times a day, the shops in the Old City's main street roll down and lock their front doors as the mosques fill for prayers. Even so, Ashraf became "too religious," says his brother Sufian—"seriously religious. He lived at the mosque." One day in the summer of 2007, Ashraf went to see his brothers and told them he was leaving on a trip with a friend. The others didn't make much of the conversation, they said. Then, about a week later, the phone rang. Ashraf got quickly to the point: he was in Iraq. "And that was the last phone call he made to his family," brother Sufian says. The Hasadis fear the worst, but say they don't know for sure whether their brother is dead or alive. I asked them whether they thought Ashraf would ever come home. "God knows," Bakr said. "A lot of them go and come back. Some stay six months, some two years." Then there are the ones who volunteer for suicide missions.
The Hasadi family's flourishing businesses—they own a chain of the spice and candy shops on the same street—make them something of an oddity in run-down Darnah. Their story is just one example of how difficult it is to generalize about the motivations of foreign fighters. Still, there is no doubt that economic misery and its social consequences have scarred Darnah's young people. Many of Tripoli's prostitutes have come to the city from eastern Libya; in some cases they are their families' sole breadwinners. Tripolitan men joke—crudely but revealingly—that they patronize prostitutes from the eastern half of the country as a form of wealth redistribution. For young men in Darnah, unemployment means almost certain bachelorhood—a dismal state in a society as sexually conservative as Darnah's. In a male-dominated community, the predicament of prolonged celibacy also carries an acute social stigma.
That fate may be just what 28-year-old Abdelhakim Okaly feared when he slipped out of Darnah to Iraq last spring. When I called Abdelhakim's father, Mustafa, earlier this month, the elder Okaly at first refused to talk, and then quietly asked if I could tell him where Abdelhakim was. We made an appointment to meet in a parking lot behind a nearby mosque. When Mustafa pulled up, he looped his beat-up station wagon in a wide circle around my car, and then invited me to his house. The Okaly residence, a hardscrabble concrete apartment block abutting the seashore, was significantly more modest than others I had visited in Darnah. As Mustafa's wiry 20-year-old son Awad brought in a tray of cookies and guava juice, the father's eyes began to fill with tears. Later he told me that when he had first spotted me—an obvious outsider—he thought perhaps I had brought back his son.
Mustafa explained he had long feared that Abdelhakim would try to leave for Iraq. Like nearly everyone I talked to in Darnah, his son was deeply affected by the carnage he saw on Al-Jazeera and CNN. The Abu Ghraib scandal angered Abdelhakim, but "what broke his heart was Fallujah," Mustafa said, referring to the crackdown on the restive, mostly Sunni city in the fall of 2004. "Do you agree with this?" Abdelhakim asked his father. "I'm going." Mustafa went so far as to drive down to the local emigration office and ask it to withhold Abdelhakim's permission to travel. But the young man, who had once worked as a cabdriver in Darnah, somehow managed to sneak out of town.
When I asked whether Abdelhakim was married, everyone in the room laughed. "The older one's not even married yet," a brother said with a chuckle. Then their father chimed in. "Well, Abdelhakim's still getting no salary," he grumbled, in something of a scolding manner. "How will he get married now?" And then, almost as if he was trying to convince himself: "He's a grown-up, he'll do what he wants to do." As we talked, the father almost seemed to be trying to teach his other sons a lesson. He said he was particularly concerned about the younger boy, Awad, the one who had brought in the juice. "This one's got no passport," the father said, throwing a glance at Awad. "But he'd like to go." Then he widened his eyes. "One's enough," he concluded.
Awad, who was sitting on the floor in a corner of the room, insisted that he wasn't going anywhere. But then he went on: "If you did want to go, you would keep it a secret. If I was planning to go, I wouldn't tell anybody." It was easy to see why Awad's father was keeping an eye on his youngest son, who displayed a mischievous wit. When I asked whether his brother Abdelhakim had any previous military training, Awad replied, "No training at all. He didn't even have muscles." When I asked Awad what his brother looked like, Mustafa Okaly's youngest child stared at me and then shot back: "He looked like you."
The Okalys said they haven't heard from Abdelhakim for more than a year, nor have they received a call telling them that he has been killed. Before I left, Mustafa made me an offer. He must have seen me as something of a conduit to a distant American world he had little access to. The desperate father leaned in close and insisted, a little conspiratorially, that he would give me a camel if I could find some way to bring his son home.
IV. 'It's Only Me Now'
The answer to "Why Darnah?" is found, then, in an explosive mix of desperation, pride and religious fervor. These factors, present individually in many parts of the Islamic world, are found collectively here, on the shores of northern Libya. The town's crisis is a serious headache for Libya's diplomats. Libya was supposed to be one of the few triumphs in the Bush administration's War on Terror. In the 1980s and '90s, Muammar Kaddafi was the face of state-sponsored terrorism, denounced by Ronald Reagan as the "Mad Dog of the Middle East." His regime was accused of involvement in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, which killed 270 people, as well as the 1986 bombing in a Berlin discothèque that killed two American servicemen. America retaliated by bombing Tripoli. Yet in 2003, desperate to free Libya from economic sanctions, Kaddafi's government agreed to halt its WMD programs. Three years later the State Department finally removed Libya from its list of terrorist states. The White House trumpeted the news as proof that the invasion of Iraq was scaring America's enemies all over the Mideast.
Despite the Sinjar revelations, few U.S. officials believe that Kaddafi is sending fighters to Iraq. A wave of jihadists returning to Libya from Iraq with new skills would be at least as big a nightmare for him as it is for Americans. The territory around Darnah has long been a locus of Islamist opposition to Kaddafi's regime. In the mid-1990s his security services cracked down hard on militants in Darnah, calling in helicopter gunships to suppress local rebels calling themselves the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG). The town seems calm enough now, but there are still plenty of checkpoints manned by uniformed police. When asked about the LIFG, most residents fall silent—even those who are happy to endorse sending local recruits to Iraq.
The Sinjar documents indicate that the Iraq insurgents had several local coordinators working in Darnah. There are few clues to how the young men were recruited, but after they signed up they were often sent to Iraq in small groups rather than singly. The Darnah pipeline passed through Egypt and Syria, where local coordinators arranged to have the enlistees smuggled across the border into Iraq. But the most recent records date only to last August, and it's an open question whether the pipeline is still flowing. Some analysts say the local Islamists disagree among themselves about whether the real jihad is in Iraq or at home in Libya.
But the old network may be renewing its strength. Late last month a prominent member of the regime's domestic spy agency was assassinated in Darnah, according to a Western diplomat in Tripoli. The diplomat says the murdered Libyan was a notoriously cruel interrogator and had made many enemies, so he wasn't necessarily killed by Islamists. "He was widely known and disliked because he was such an a––hole," says the diplomat.
Kaddafi seems to recognize that he has problems in Darnah. As oil prices have risen, the regime has tried to improve life in eastern Libya. On the main road into Darnah, the government has begun constructing some 2,000 apartments intended to house roughly 13,000 local residents by the end of 2009. The units, known as the Valley Apartments, are so far largely unoccupied, but the plan is to provide free housing to young families and singles. But earlier this year Kaddafi announced that he wanted to experiment with privatizing social services, a sharp departure from his socialist roots. "What he's advocating is something akin to radical libertarianism," says a Western diplomat in Tripoli, asking not to be identified discussing the regime's plans. The short-term result is likely to be hard times for many Libyans, even with oil above $100 a barrel.
In the wake of the Sinjar revelations, U.S. officials have put gentle pressure on Libya. In November a delegation led by Gen. Dell Daily, a senior counterterrorism specialist currently assigned to the State Department, traveled to Tripoli to meet with senior Libyan officials. Told of the documents, the Libyans at first denied the phenomenon, but eventually acknowledged the problem after the Americans presented the evidence. American officials say they're mostly pleased with the cooperation they've gotten from Libyan authorities, and are encouraged by more recent figures out of Iraq that seem to indicate that the flow of fighters may have slowed in recent months. In the meantime, other American analysts are searching for innovative ways to stem the flow, regardless of what the Libyans choose to do. Fishman says the insurgents often hire common smugglers who care only about profit to move fighters into Iraq. The West Point specialist says it would be smart to try co-opting those smugglers rather than fighting them. "Frankly, we should be trying to buy some of them," says Fishman.
At home in Darnah, Abd al-Hamid bin-Ali says he doesn't know exactly how his brother managed to join up with the insurgents. Abd al-Salam rarely used the Internet, he says, and didn't have any connections with LIFG militants. Shortly after Abd al-Salam's first call home, the young recruit called again from Ramadi to say he was on his way to an "operation." When the phone rang four days later, Abd al-Hamid didn't recognize the voice on the other end of the line. "Abd al-Salam is a martyr," the caller said.
Abd al-Hamid says he has come to terms with the loss of his brother. "When he was killed, I was really very happy," he says, frowning and wringing his hands. "In my opinion he was right to go. He was right to go. We see people getting killed for nothing. I used to think about going myself." Now Abd al-Hamid is the family's sole support. "I can't go now," he says quietly. "It's only me now." He glances up at an oversize portrait of his younger brother the martyr, hanging in the living room. Abd al-Salam's one blind eye stares back. The awkward younger brother has finally found his own place in his drab hometown: in a gold frame, behind a pane of glass, nailed to the wall.