Our Kind Of Suicide Bomber


If you need proof of how truly confusing the situation is in Libya, look no further than last Saturday's coverage of the conflict on CNN where one of their reporters, Reza Sayah presented the story of a Benghazi man identified as Al Mehdi Zeu who died fighting against the troops of Moammar Gadhafi. Al Mehdi's story was framed in a heroic manner, with the 49-year old oil company worker described as a man who sacrificed himself so that Libya's rebels might score a key victory. In short, a month ago the rebels in Benghazi were fighting a pitched battle against Gadhafi's troops who had holed themselves up inside their heavily-fortified barracks near the center of town. Without heavy weaponry, the rebels had little chance of dislodging Gadhafi's troops, whose presence would all but ensure that the city remained under the control of the central government in Tripoli.

Here is where Al Mehdi stepped in. Seeing that the battle was at this point futile, Al Mehdi opted for drastic action – he reportedly loaded his car with plastic gas cans and cooking fuel canisters before speeding into the main gate of the barracks and detonating his improvised bomb. The blast created the breach in the government troops' defenses that the rebels needed to turn the tide of the battle; the barracks were captured and control of Benghazi wrested from Gadhafi's forces. In the laudatory CNN piece, Al Mehdi's daughters said they were proud of his sacrifice for their city and country while his best friend, who recovered Al Mehdi's remains from the wreckage of his car, called him a “hero”.

Another term for Mr. Al Mehdi though would be “suicide bomber”. Let's for a moment imagine that Al Mehdi wasn't a Libyan, but rather an Iraqi who drove his explosives-laden car into the main gate of an American outpost in an attempt to liberate his country from the “foreign occupiers”; or imagine him as a Palestinian speeding into an Israeli settlement checkpoint to drive the “Zionist oppressors” from his ancestral homeland – would CNN still fete him in the same heroic terms? Of course not, yet the hypothetical Iraqi/Palestinian Al Mehdis would view their sacrifice as being every bit noble in service of a greater cause as did the Libyan version.  And that gets to the heart of the matter, for years – certainly since 9/11 – we have viewed suicide bombing as an irredeemable terrorist act pure and simple, an action that can have no mitigating or justifiable qualities. In terms of moral clarity then, we cannot view Mr. Al Mehdi's own suicide bombing as a praiseworthy act simply because it was directed against someone we now perceive as an enemy. Perhaps if Gadhafi's own media machine was a little more savvy it is a point that they could exploit with the world press, a way of recasting the rebel movement not as democracy-aspiring individuals, but rather as terrorists seeking the overthrow of the legitimate government of the state (luckily for the rebels, Gadhafi's media machine seems to take their cues from the old Flip Wilson line: “who are you going to believe, me or your lyin' eyes?”)

This isn't meant to be an attack on the journalistic integrity of CNN, but rather as an admission of how complex, and confusing, the Libyan situation has become. I have to admit to conflicted feelings myself, frankly it is hard not to be inspired by the Libyan rebellion - the bravery of people in a brutally oppressive regime finally willing to stand up and say “enough”, for the common man to take up arms and hop into the back of a battered pickup truck and ride off into a battle that they have never trained for and never expected to engage in. Perhaps we Americans, given our own revolutionary history, are simply hardwired to feel such stirrings for the citizen-soldier who, against impossible odds, stands up to tyranny. Certainly three decades ago former Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson was similarly inspired by the struggle of another group of ragtag rebels, in his case the Afghani Mujaheddin battling against the occupying Red Army of the Soviet Union. Like their Libyan compatriots, the Afghanis where hopelessly outgunned and, like the Benghazis before the intervention of Al Mehdi, stood little chance of victory. But from his perch on the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, Charlie Wilson saw an opportunity to tip the balance in the Afghanis favor by funneling them (via intermediaries in Pakistan) money and advanced weaponry that eventually included Stinger anti-aircraft missiles. The Stingers took away the Soviets one tactical advantage, the use of helicopters for transport and close-in aerial fire support and swung the tide of battle in favor of the Afghans.

But as we would come to learn in the years that followed the departure of the Red Army, some of Charlie Wilson's Mujaheddin continued their holy war against the Afghan government, eventually becoming the core of the Taliban and hosts to Osama bin Laden. Perhaps it is a cautionary tale in dealing with today's Libyan rebels. Published reports have indicated that the region around Benghazi has also been one of the prime feeder locations of foreign fighters bound for Iraq. It would be wrong to brand all the Benghazis as potential terrorists (as some commentators have suggested) for the actions of a few, but it is a fact worth noting, especially among a rebel movement which is particularly noteworthy for its decided lack of any central command structure or organizing ideology.

Ultimately, the decision by the international community to impose the “no-fly-zone-plus” over Libya was the right one: while we may have misgivings about some of the members of the rebel movement, we know for sure that Gadhafi has engaged in state terrorism abroad and maintains a brutal police state at home, it is not an unreasonable supposition to make to assume that had his forces gained the upper hand in Benghazi, a wholesale slaughter in the city would have ensued, both as a way of crushing the rebellion and as a message to anyone else who would consider standing up to his regime. But it is possible in this situation to protect civilians without offering wholesale tactical support to the rebel military drive against Gadhafi. Perhaps here it is useful to remember the lessons learned from Charlie Wilson's War: that simply being the enemy or my enemy alone isn't a good enough reason to support an insurgent movement, especially one that we ultimately know so little about. This isn't to say that we should wholly withhold support from the rebels; perhaps the other lesson to learn from Charlie Wilson is the danger of cutting ties with an insurgent movement once the fighting is done.  In fact, building a relationship with the governing council in Benghazi – the closest thing the rebels have to a government – is the best way to ensure that this nascent state develops as a democracy and that the influence of more radical elements are blunted. In moving forward with the Libyan rebel movement, pragmatism, not emotion, should be our guide.

Iraq, Libya, Palestine, Terrorism, US Foreign Policy, Afghanistan