Democracy Lab

Zintan Versus the World

Why a small town in Libya refuses to give up custody of the revolution’s most high-profile prisoner.

ZINTAN, Libya — The Nafusa Mountains rise dramatically from the rocky wastes of the northern Sahara. The road, hitherto arrow-straight, begins to twist as it gains altitude, and you find yourself looking down from the window of your car into canyons dotted with tamarisk and date palms. Finally you reach the edge of the plateau, and from there it's just a few minutes into the center of Zintan, pop. 40,000.

Zintan, with its whitewashed farmhouses and quiet mosques, is not the kind of the place that usually stands at the center of global controversies. But Libya's revolution has changed all that. When the 2011 uprising against Colonel Qaddafi began, Zintanis quickly joined in. The town's men formed a powerful militia that proved its mettle in many a far-flung battle with government soldiers. "We love the Sahara," Alajmi Ali Ahmed al-Atiri told me. "We are desert people."

I had come to Zintan to hear Atiri's take on the issue that has placed his town in an unlikely international spotlight. Atiri still vividly remembers the day when he and his men made their mark on the history of their country. It was the fall of 2011, a month after the ignominious death of Muammar al-Qaddafi, and Atiri was commanding a Zintani militia unit patrolling a remote region along the country's southern border with Niger. When his unit received a tip that a high-ranking member of the old regime was trying to escape across the border, Atiri set up a nighttime ambush on a smuggler's road. Sure enough, his fighters soon surprised two cars that quickly became mired in the dunes. They captured the occupants, one of whom, Atiri noticed, was trying to hide his face.

The reason soon became apparent: He was Saif al-Islam Qaddafi, the best-known of the Libyan dictator's seven sons. As soon as he realized that the jig was up, Saif made an odd request: "The first thing he asked was, ‘Kill me. Please kill me,'" Atiri recalls. "I told him that because we caught him unarmed, we weren't going to kill him." Islamic law, Atiri says, didn't allow his men to take vengeance on a defenseless captive.

Before the revolution, Saif, who liked to boast about his degree from the London School of Economics, served as the regime's open-minded face to the outside world, negotiating with the Americans about compensation to victims of terrorism and talking of the need for reform. But as soon as the uprising began, the cosmopolitan veneer quickly fell away, and the dictator's son distinguished himself with a number of notably bloodthirsty speeches aimed at the opponents of his father's regime.

Since his capture in that moonlit ambush in the Sahara, Saif has remained in the custody of the Zintanis, who are now holding him in a jail at an undisclosed location in the city. The Zintanis have refused to hand him over to anyone else, including the central government in Tripoli -- and it is their insistence on this point that has sparked their feud with the International Criminal Court (ICC), the Hague-based international tribunal created in 2002 to try war crimes and crimes against humanity. The ICC is designed to exercise jurisdiction in situations where countries are unable to ensure proper judicial procedures on their own. Libya would certainly seem to fit the bill, given the continuing weakness of its central government, the lack of security, and the problems faced by the country's post-revolutionary judicial system. So the court has ruled that Libya should hand Saif over to ensure that he can face a fair trial. (The ICC reiterated its views in a finding issued in May.)

But the Zintanis aren't buying it -- and they've shown little willingness to compromise. Last year, when Saif's ICC-appointed Australian defense lawyer, Melinda Taylor, showed up to consult with her client, the Zintanis ended up detaining her and three of her colleagues for almost a month. Taylor shared the details of her ordeal with the Australian press and other media. The Zintanis had a somewhat harder time getting their version of events out to the world.

But if you want it, Atiri is the man to ask. Today, his militia is in charge of the prison where Saif is being held, effectively making him Saif's jailer-in-chief. Atiri says that the position of the Zintanis is simple: They want to see Saif get a fair trial, but they don't think that can happen in Tripoli. They're convinced that it's possible in Zintan (though they don't have much to say about the details of how it would take place).

The problem, the Zintanis argue, is that the central government in the capital is paralyzed, corrupt, and riven by faction. In Atiri's telling, the post-revolutionary government still contains many veterans of the old regime who have an interest in preventing full disclosure: "When you give Saif al-Islam a trial, there are many people in the Libyan government and the GNC [the General National Council, the interim legislature] who would be incriminated by the things he says," says Atiri. "Saif will get a fair trial in Zintan. There are no political parties fighting over policy here." Atiri also notes that his town will be happy to allow Saif to be tried under the auspices of the Ministry of Justice -- just not in Tripoli. And since the ministry hasn't shown any indication to move ahead with a trial in their town, the Zintanis are fully prepared to do it themselves.

Moreover, he argues, Zintan's security situation is strictly under control. The local government and its security force enjoy the full support of the close-knit community, and the city has been almost entirely free of violent incidents since the end of the revolution. Tripoli, by contrast, remains under the sway of dozens of competing militias, each of which sees its presence in the capital as guaranteeing its interests at the national level.

Politicians in Tripoli predictably reject the insinuation that they aren't in a position to bring Saif to justice. "I think these are completely outrageous excuses," says Mohamed Ali Abdullah, head of National Front Party and a leading member of the GNC, responding to the claims made by the Zintanis. He cites the recent verdicts in the case of two top Qaddafi-era officials issued by a government court in the city of Misrata as "a good step in the right direction." (It should be noted that the death sentences issued by the court were criticized by Amnesty International, which objects to executions of members of the old regime as a form of revenge for their past crimes.) 

As for the International Criminal Court, the Zintanis told me that Libyans should be the ones to try those who committed the crimes of the Qaddafi regime. "In Qaddafi's time there was no free justice," says Mohamed Al-Wakwak, the head of Zintan's municipal government. "That's why we had the revolution -- to ensure justice for Libya. It's not a personal thing [in the case of Saif]. It's about what he did, not who he was." As for Melinda Taylor, the ICC-appointed defense lawyer, the Zintanis told me that they imprisoned her because she attempted to help Saif communicate with Qaddafi sympathizers outside of the country -- behavior they deem "unprofessional" for a lawyer of the ICC. The ICC ultimately apologized for the incident, promising to investigate any allegations of wrongdoing by Taylor or the others. (The Zintanis brought Saif into court earlier this year to charge him with attempted escape, an accusation based on the Taylor incident. The photo above shows Saif in the Zintan courtroom in May.)

The Zintanis are quick to insist that they're happy to provide access to Saif's defense lawyers (or, at least, the public defenders appointed to his case in Tripoli). They also say that they're taking care to ensure humane living conditions for their illustrious prisoner -- including TV, plenty of reading material, and air conditioning. They do note, however, that he is being held in isolation from other prisoners, though they refuse to elaborate on the details for security reasons. (The precise location or nature of his jail in Zintan remains a secret.)

And so the stalemate continues. For the time being, Saif remains the only Qaddafi-era notable who is not in the custody of the central government, making his case not only a test of Libya's ability to deal with its complicated past, but also an illustration of the tortured relations between Libya's fractious regions and its beleaguered capital. (Saif is also the only one of his siblings to have been detained. Three of them were killed during the revolution, while the other four managed to escape the country and are now living in exile.) "The big issue is that he's not under the control of the government," says Alex Whiting, a former ICC official now teaching at Harvard Law School. "That's the thing that's so odd about the Saif case. If that could be solved, it would be a big win-win for everybody -- the Libyan government, Libyan people, the ICC, international community, and the international criminal justice project. If the government gets its hands on the guy and does a reasonably fair trial of him, that would be an incredible victory. Nobody loses."

The problem, as Whiting and many others acknowledge, is that the government in Tripoli probably doesn't have the will (or the troops) to go in and take Saif away from his captors. Men who've spent their lives eking a living from the Sahara are not the kind to give up easily.

AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

In Libya, They Really Are Out to Get You

Why paranoia is the key to Libyan politics.

TRIPOLI — This is an interesting time to be in Libya. I arrived just a few days ago, but my brief stay has already been checkered by assassinations, bombings, angry political protests, and at least one mass jailbreak. None of these things happened in my immediate vicinity, though, so it's all felt rather far away. 

Until yesterday, that is. That's when I learned that the police had defused a car bomb parked in front of my hotel (presumably a message from one of the sundry groups in Libya who regard foreigners as an evil influence). It's always an odd experience to discover that your own life has become part of the news, however indirectly. And yet, perhaps irrationally, I still feel secure. Our hotel is guarded by one of those heavily armed groups of men that are an inescapable fact of life in today's Libya, and they seem to be taking their job pretty seriously. My room is also pretty high up, and far back from the street, so I should be fairly safe in an emergency. 

But the incident serves as a useful reminder. If you're in Libya, there's probably a reason for that nagging sense of paranoia: Somebody may very well be out to get you. Grasp this essential dynamic, and you're already well on your way to making sense of the country's politics. 

The great English political theorist Thomas Hobbes once theorized about the "state of nature" that characterized human societies before the evolution of modern government. He imagined this condition as a bellum omnium contra omnes, a "war of all against all," and he saw government, based on a "social contract" between itself and the governed, as the natural antidote. 

Post-revolution Libya feels like a proving ground for Hobbes's ideas. When Muammar al-Qaddafi still reigned, he made sure that everything revolved around him, and Libya's state institutions atrophied accordingly. The demise of the dictator confronted his compatriots with the task of building up a modern state where none had really existed before. Meanwhile, the turmoil and trauma of an extraordinarily violent revolution filled the vacuum with the militias and armed political clans that dominate Libyan politics today. It's not literally a Hobbesian "war of all against all," since there's little actual shooting involved, but there are times when it sure feels that way. One of my friends here told me about a next-door neighbor who still keeps a tank, "liberated" from government forces during the revolution, in his garage. When asked why he still hangs on to it, the neighbor replies: "For emergencies." You never know when a tank might come in handy. 

In this sense, Libya is a great case study in what the German sociologist Max Weber would have described as the loss of the "state's legitimate monopoly on violence." In this country, that monopoly has become a polyopoly -- everyone's got their own little piece of it. Commentator Hisham Matar put it extremely well in a recent article: "Libyans used to be afraid of a brutal state; now they are afraid of the absence of the state." 

Now, I don't doubt that many Libyans still cling to the idea of a national polity to which they all belong. (I've heard many of them say as much.) The problem is that the state still isn't in a position to offer the most basic thing that most people expect: security. So Libyans are seeking refuge in the institutions that can provide it, which are often shaped by membership in a faction, tribe, or community.

People here are sharply aware of the invisible lines that now divide them from each other. Someone from the city of Misrata would never think of setting foot in the town of Bani Walid (or vice versa). That's because Bani Walid people accuse the Misratans of committing a massacre in their town after the war, while Misratans see the Bani Walid folk as unrepentant Qaddafi loyalists of precisely the kind who reduced their own city to rubble during the fighting. Such vendettas permeate Libyan society -- yet there is so far not even the outline of a mechanism to deal with them in any systematic way. There is much talk of a "national dialogue" that would enable a wide range of interest groups to air their problems, and there's no question that that's urgently needed. But can it be done?

The sense of vulnerability is compounded by an intense feeling of victimization. Virtually everyone you meet has some tale of suffering under the Qaddafi regime or the war that put an end to it. Most of these stories are undoubtedly true. (The number of those injured or traumatized during the revolution adds yet another burden to Libyan society -- contributing, among other things, to a rising drug problem that the country is singularly ill-equipped to deal with.) 

But so far there's been no serious effort to arrive at an objective account of who committed those crimes. The interim government has made a few halting steps towards establishing a law on transitional justice that would address these problems, but the draft has little chance of passing in its present form -- precisely because it isn't robust enough for many legislators. The lack of any public discussion is fostering a corrosive sense of complacency. "Some of the countries around Libya don't want to see Libya be strong again," one young Misratan told me. "Most of Libya's problems are of outside origin."  

Needless to say, that happens to be a great excuse for not confronting the problems that can only be solved by Libyans themselves. To be sure, all revolutions have a tendency to spawn conspiracy theories and xenophobia; that's a function of the uncertainty, confusion, and fear that emerge during periods of dramatic transformation. But in Libya's case there's an even more nefarious problem: the current militia-based system is just stable enough to make dislodging or reforming it a major challenge.

That's because the militias who emerged from the revolution are, in most cases, genuine grassroots organizations that still have strong and organic ties to the communities that gave birth to them. For the young men who belong to them, they serve as something like surrogate extended families (some, indeed, even have recreation centers where their members hang out together after hours -- a major plus in a country where there aren't many options for late-night entertainment). And in some communities, the militias are now closely intertwined with local governments. (In cities like Misrata or Zintan, it's a bit hard to determine where the militias end and local administrations begin.) Disentangling the two is likely to prove a formidable task -- and perhaps ultimately counter-productive, if it means confronting groups that embody someone's hometown pride. 

Tripoli, in this respect, is something of an exception. The city is filled with militias from other parts of the country, who are loath to give up their positions here for fear that will rob them of any chance to make themselves heard. Having an armed presence in the capital is a great way of ensuring that you still have leverage over the government (as Islamist militias demonstrated a few months ago, when they successfully pressured the government into passing a controversial law by invading the ministries). 

Yet actual armed clashes among the myriad groups here are strikingly rare -- perhaps because the militias have achieved something like a "balance of terror" among themselves, as one Libyan put it to me. "People are rational with their weapons," Fadel Lamen, a Libyan-American legal consultant in Tripoli, told me. "They use them to negotiate, not to kill." He argues that trying to persuade the militias to give up their gun s is a non-starter, and that a far more practical approach would involve a consistent policy on prosecuting acts of violence rather than the mere possession of weapons. 

One thing is for sure: Libya is unique. And anyone who wants to help it solve its problems has to take that into account. As for me, I'm looking forward to exploring this place some more. Just no bombs, please.