What makes someone join Al Qaeda? In the case of Abu Yahya al-Libi, the Al Qaeda luminary killed in an American drone strike in Pakistan last June, his older brother has no doubt. Americans are culpable for his sibling’s embrace of terrorism. He draws a direct line between al-Libi’s recruitment by al Qaeda and the suffering he endured at the hands of American interrogators using techniques similar to those portrayed in the movie Zero Dark Thirty.
Al-Libi’s slaying may have been one of the reasons Libyan jihadists attacked the U.S. consulate in Benghazi last September, an assault that led to the death of ambassador Christopher Stevens. In the days leading up to the attack, Al Qaeda’s amir, Ayman al-Zawahiri, focused his annual 9/11 message on the drone war, eulogized al-Libi and called on “Libyan brothers” to avenge the loss.
Lamenting American missteps in the war on terror, Abd Al-Wahhab Muhammad Qaid says his brother had been in Afghanistan for 15 years, as a member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, but that he, “like all of us shunned Al Qaeda.” That is, until his mistreatment at Bagram Air Base. “He was tortured very aggressively and humiliated. Naturally, for each action there’s a reaction,” he sighs.
Now the chairman of the national security committee in the General National Congress, Libya’s parliament, Qaid hopes America will rethink how it combats Muslim extremists and base its actions on reason not emotions; on investigation and not supposition.
Sitting in the grand lobby of Tripoli’s Rixos hotel for a rare interview with an American journalist, Qaid disclosed for the first time that, when he was jailed by the then-dictator Muammar Gaddafi, Americans seeking to understand his brother’s psychology visited him in prison to explore whether his brother could be coaxed to break with Al Qaeda.
The American visits were made before his brother became second in command of Al Qaeda, suggesting the CIA had spotted quickly that he was a rising terrorist star. He told them that it might be possible to persuade his brother to leave Al Qaeda and return to Libya, if Gaddafi would guarantee no torture and no jail time.
The 45-year-old Qaid is an imposing man and favors traditional Libyan dress. When I met him he was wearing a black galabeya and white prayer cap. He is the third senior member of the now defunct Libyan Islamic Fighting Group I have interviewed in recent months. There are similarities between him and his former comrades-in-arms Abdelhakim Belhadj and Sami Mostefa al-Saadi. All three are highly thoughtful and they all exhibit a calm dignity I’ve seen in other long-serving political prisoners.
And surprisingly none of them appear to bear any ill will to the West or Americans. All of them have tempered their beliefs and describe themselves as Islamist modernizers.
Belhadj and Saadi were among the 15 Libyan Islamists opposed to Gaddafi that the Americans and British delivered to Libya’s spy chief, Musa Kusa. The Americans tortured several of them before rendering them illegally to Libya, where they were tortured again. When Gaddafi’s intelligence boss interrogated al-Saadi he bragged: “Before 9/11, you went to countries where we couldn’t reach you. But now, after 9/11, I can just pick up the phone and call MI6 or the CIA.”
The renditions constitute one of the darkest chapters in the war on terror and they highlight a point Qaid is eager to convey: the failure of the West to distinguish between different Islamists and to view them all as being Al Qaeda.