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Why Are Qaddafi’s Backers Refusing To Surrender? An Exclusive Look at the Career of a Top Lieutenant

Tripoli—Just outside the Libyan capital of Tripoli among the palm trees and sand dunes of the town of Tajura, rebels are still actively searching for the chief aides of former dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi. Along the way, they are discovering more about why Libya's remaining pro-Qaddafi networks have proven so resilient.

A few days ago, they stormed the house of Colonel Shu’ayb al-Firjani, a key Qaddafi lieutenant. The treasure trove of documents, family albums and bank statements provide insight not only into Qaddafi’s reliance on paramilitary units to buttress his rule, but also the extent of corruption and nepotism that his regime indulged in.

Al-Firjani’s career was forged on a path parallel to Libya’s official state institutions. Qaddafi had distrusted his official armed forces ever since their dismal performance in Libya’s war with Chad between 1978 and 1987. He announced their dissolution in 1993, and again in 1995, in favor of popular militias. When eastern Libyan Islamists mounted an uprising in the late 1990s, Qaddafi depended on paramilitary units like the Republican Guard and Revolutionary Committees to quell the rebellion, rather than entrust the mission to army brigades whose loyalty he doubted. His misgivings about their fealty were so deep that it was rumored that he imported Serbian pilots to bomb the mountainous area south of Darna.

But following a series of coup attempts in the 1990’s, Qaddafi increasingly relied on members of his own tribe to protect his regime from internal threats. One of those men was al-Firjani—a member not only of Qaddafi’s own Qaddadfa tribe, he also belongs to the former leader’s subclan, al-Qahus. This close kinship with Qaddafi explains his ascent to such a senior position.

Al-Firjani led the Ahmad al-Muqaryaf Brigade. According to a document obtained from his home, Defense Minister Abu Bakr Yunis Jabr asked another colonel in 2008 “to choose not less than 400 individuals to recruit for the Ahmad al-Muqaryaf Brigade,” and asked that they be given a year’s training. During the revolution, rebels reported that the unit led by al-Firjani fought them in Zintan, west of Tripoli.

Other records reveal how Qaddafi completely bypassed his military in favor of popular militias. An eight-page list details weapons distributed to members of security forces, such as the Military Police and Internal Security Organization. But the file also notes that al-Firjani was responsible for arms provided to civilians and non-military personnel who worked for the Committee to Combat Heresy and Drugs and the General Authority of Youth and Sports. These men received weapons ranging from common Kalashnikovs to specialized Heckler and Koch MP 5 submachine guns.

Documents such as these explain why Qaddafi was able to withstand a devastating five-month NATO bombing campaign, in which nearly the entire world sided against him. He created a parallel security apparatus to the institutional one he so distrusted. Relying on people like al-Firjani, who were related to him by blood and whose fate was tied directly to his, Qaddafi was able to repel continuous rebel advances, even when his military capabilities and economic resources were depleted.

Al-Firjani was rewarded handsomely for his loyalty. In a country where average salaries are a few hundred dollars per month, al-Firjani spent more than ten times that on an afternoon European shopping spree. His wife’s bank records from July 2009 show luxury purchases in France and Germany at stores such as Louis Vuitton for approximately $3,446 and the clothing designer Marciano for around $2,225.

Al-Firjani could afford to enjoy plenty of time abroad, it seems. His family album included pictures of trips to Paris in the 1980s or 1990s with what appears to be his wife and son. In one photo, the woman and child are standing in front of the Eiffel Tower with a golden brown Pomeranian. In another, she is wearing a dark fur coat in an airport.

Qaddafi ruled over a people who detested him in a state that existed in name only. But relatives like al-Firjani, and the other men whose loyalty they bought, helped preserve his regime. It remains to be seen if Qaddafi’s political successors can create a state that reflects its citizenry rather than one that mirrors their own narrow power base.

Barak Barfi is a research fellow with the New America Foundation.