Mother of anti-Gadhafi militant finally talks about her family's fight

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 19, 2011 

BENGHAZI, Libya — This is the price Zeinab Suleiman paid for her family's fight against Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi: five dead sons, two more in an Iraqi prison, a slain brother, three fatherless granddaughters, and too many arrests and raids to count.

Suleiman, 64, is the mother of Mohamed al Hami, a legendary Islamist fighter whose covert group, the Libya Islamic Martyrs Movement, launched a string of deadly attacks against Gadhafi's regime in the 1990s. He was killed in 1996 in Benghazi, the eastern city where the family — what's left of it — still lives in a sparsely furnished house that was a surveillance target for intelligence agents.

Only now, with the collapse of Gadhafi's regime, is Suleiman willing to talk openly about her family's two decades of armed struggle, a long fight that was silently cheered on by many Benghazi residents who supported the family's militancy, if not its methods.

Theirs is an intricate and harrowing tale that stretches from the Islamist underground of Libya to the bloody battlefields of Iraq, where four of Suleiman's sons fought U.S. forces. That kind of involvement in the wider jihadist network is what makes many analysts nervous about the future of a rebel movement that's relied heavily on Islamist fighters for its victory.

Counting those in prison, Suleiman has lost seven of her 14 children. But on a recent afternoon, she sipped hibiscus tea in her living room and declared her mourning days over.

"We won, and we're so happy," Suleiman said. "This dictator was a cancer who destroyed our family and so many others. I'm really so proud of all my sons. They fought for principles, they stood for something."

Where to place Hami's Martyrs Movement in the constellation of shadowy jihadist groups that arose at around the same time is still debated. Some of those groups moved closer to the extremist ideology of al Qaida and fought in Afghanistan, but Hami refused to join with them. In Benghazi, secularists and Islamists alike recognize him as an important figure in the history of the city's resistance to Gadhafi's regime.

After Hami was killed, Gadhafi's forces paraded his mutilated corpse through the streets as a warning to other would-be militants. The family home was torched and, 15 years later, his widow, Fariha Ebrayek, and their three daughters still have no identification documents because the regime refused to replace those lost in the fire.

"Do you know how old I was then? Twenty-six. And look at me," said Ebrayek, now 40, gesturing to her black garments. "Gadhafi destroyed my life and the lives of everyone around me."

Throughout the years, the regime punished them at every chance, the family said. All the brothers served time in prison, including one who was 16 when he was first detained. Their six sisters found it difficult to marry because officials barred any suitors who held military or government posts. Homes and businesses were seized, they said, and even the Sudanese employees of the family's iron workshop were subjected to frequent interrogations.

"Not one of us was spared. One time, they took five of our cars and gave them to intelligence agents," recalled Faraj al Hawaz, a pilot and Ebrayek's brother. "After driving them around for a year, they brought them back to us as a final insult."

When rebels seized control of Benghazi in late February, the city's revolutionary committee invited the family to a stage in the city's main square to honor its sacrifices, which were remarkable even to other Libyans who'd lost sons and brothers. A new rebel newspaper devoted half a page to the family, describing in detail each brother's story. Hami, especially, the paper said, "was well known for his strong resistance to the dictator's gangs."

"We're finally free, but at what cost?" Suleiman asked, stopping herself as her voice cracked and tears welled. "No, no, no. We have to accept what God decides."

The rebellion came a few years too late for four of Suleiman's sons — Enas, Abdel Latif, Ahmed and Akram. In 2005, she said, they saw no escape from the never-ending cycle of persecution, prison and killing in Libya, so the four brothers joined the pipeline of foreign fighters that ran through Egypt and Syria into Iraq, where Sunni Muslim extremists formed an insurgency that killed thousands of U.S. soldiers and even more Iraqis, both military and civilian.

"Like any mother, of course I didn't want them to go, but they had their convictions and there was nothing I could do to stop them," Suleiman said.

"Besides, we all know the sad story of Abu Ghraib," she said, referring to the Iraqi prison where U.S. troops abused prisoners, "and they felt they couldn't sit here while fellow Muslims in Iraq were suffering. But I think it was a substitute for the jihad they really wanted, here in Libya."

Abdel Latif was killed in 2005, followed by Enas in 2007. The family believes they died around Fallujah in Iraq's notorious Anbar province, though Suleiman said she received no details and no bodies. She knows of their deaths through two quick phone calls from her sons' comrades in Iraq, who told the family to rejoice because the brothers had been "martyred" in battle.

The other two sons in Iraq — Ahmed and Akram — were transferred from U.S. to Iraqi custody, relatives said, and have languished in a southern Iraqi prison for so long that they now speak Iraqi-accented Arabic in their rare phone calls to Benghazi.

Suleiman and other relatives said the men apparently have been cleared for release but had insisted they not be repatriated to Libya under Gadhafi, whose regime was sure to keep them behind bars.

Now, Suleiman said, the family is reaching out to international aid agencies with conduits to the Iraqi government in hopes of freeing Ahmed and Akram. She said she trusts that the U.S.-backed National Transitional Council, Libya's interim ruling authority, would accept their release and ensure they're treated fairly in the repatriation process.

Suleiman and other family members said they see no contradiction in their pride over the brothers' fight against the U.S. military in Iraq and their gratitude toward American and other NATO forces for intervening when Gadhafi was poised to crush Benghazi's revolutionaries.

"My sons fought oppression and persecution, whether here or there. That's the meaning of jihad," Suleiman said. "This is not an occupation like Iraq. We knew NATO was here to help us, in accordance with an international agreement. In this case, the Americans stood behind us, and we must appreciate that and thank them."

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