Aided by Air Strikes, Libyan Rebels Prep Counteroffensive

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After losing several oil towns, the fighters are attempting to build a real military organization

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Rebels gather in a staging area outside Brega. By Youssef Boudlal/Reuters.


Editor's note: Clare Morgana Gillis filed this story on Monday evening. On Tuesday, at 1 p.m. local time, she was detained by Libyan troops outside of Brega, where she was doing further reporting for TheAtlantic.com and other outlets. At the time of this posting, she is believed to be in Libyan government custody.

BENGHAZI, Libya -- After eating, Adel Al-Hassi and his crew of fellow rebels headed east down the highway in the direction of Al-Uqayla. Called "Hajj" as a term of respect, Al-Hassi wore binoculars and acted as a guide, instructing his five men on the best routes to take at the front lines. Their Toyota Highlander carried a massive 106-millimeter anti-tank artillery cannon bolted to the floor and roof of the cab. Its driver wore pilot goggles to protect from the sand that flew through the hole where there had once been a windshield, likely shot out in some earlier skirmish. Muntasser, a bearded Egyptian with a kind smile, and Salah, a newly married 38-year-old who has taken the new surname El-Libi ("the Libyan"), described themselves as "mujahideen."

Salam El-Awkly, 42, normally works as a driver but seemed to tend to the cannon now. El-Awkly explained "me too I am a mujahid -- for freedom." Another quiet young man wore Italian designer shoes and a flak helmet with distinctive earflaps -- from Qaddafi's military. He never explained how he'd gotten it, but others report taking them from captured troops or from the military buildings seized by rebels in the east.

General Ahmed Al-Ketrani is one of five rebel generals who coordinated Friday's military deployment. On Saturday, he sat in his office in one of Benghazi's military organizational headquarters and drew thoughtfully on a cigarette in a gold-tipped holder. A large and detailed map of Surte and its environs (in Russian) adorned the wall. He had been on the front lines all day Thursday and Friday.

A smiling Egyptian and a newly married 38-year-old described themselves as "mujahideen."

He wouldn't discuss numbers or weapons of the army, but Al-Ketrani explained the overall situation and how it had changed. "Qaddafi has tanks and Grad missiles with a 40 kilometer range. His rockets only have a 3-kilometer range. The [NATO-led] airstrikes were the number-one factor in our success, because they allowed us to approach Qaddafi troops close enough so that our weapons were in range. Now we are in full attack mode."

The special forces units (Saiqa, or "Thunder"), among the best trained of the remnants of Qaddafi's eastern army, were deployed on Friday along with regular army: the 36th regiment from Benghazi and the 21st from Tobruk were in attendance.

Al-Ketrani said of his army, "The rebel shebaab are not trained or experienced. Some of them drink alcohol, or smoke hashish. We lose the maximum number when people race to the front in civilian cars with no training. Now the regular army is working to secure Brega, and our orders to the shebaab are to stay at least five, in some places as many as 30 kilometers back from where the army units are." When asked about the NATO airstrikes that had killed a number of rebel youths, Al-Ketrani shrugged. "This is a war, accidents happen," he said. He affirmed that the cause of the accident was most likely to be the celebratory fire that so many untrained young men engage in.

Though the war is first on his agenda at the moment, Al-Ketrani's says he has bigger goals for Libya. "Qaddafi gave the West the image that we [the revolutionaries] are all Hezbollah, Al-Qaeda, Muslim Brothers -- why not make friendship with the whole world? We want to give the West the real image of ourselves: We want three things: freedom, love, and peace in the whole world." He added. "We have all kinds of people in Libya, the good and the bad, the pious and the others: It is our right to reach out to the U.S. and shake hands with them, as they do with us."

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Clare Morgana Gillis is a freelance journalist based in the Middle East. She recently completed her PhD in history at Harvard University.

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