Libya is in chaos and ripe for a takeover by extremists, argues VICE News correspondent Sherif Elhelwa in his new documentary "Waiting for al-Qaeda." Traveling into the heart of the pro-al-Qaeda faction in Libya's east, Elhelwa shows the real life of Libya's Islamist movement.
"As an oil-rich country packed with rebels who were wary of authority, Libya had left the door open to extremist groups hungry for power. The question wasn't if al-Qaeda would spread into Libya, but when," Elhelwa states. His quest to bring the story to light began when he saw the black flag of al-Qaeda flying over the rebel central headquarters in Benghazi. When he confronted a local guard over the symbolism, he was told, "whomever speaks ill of this flag, we will cut off his tongue."
Elhelwa illustrates how the fractious nature of the rebellion means trouble for controlling arms and religious zealots. When he arrives at Tripoli's airport to travel to Benghazi, he finds it still in charge of the heavily armed rebel faction, the Zintan Martyrs Brigade. That group took control of Muammar Gaddafi's stockpile of MANPADS, portable anti-aircraft weapons used by the Taliban to halt Soviet airpower in the 80s. According to Elhelwa, the ragtag group is "babysitting enough firepower to arm every extremist group in North Africa."
Al-Qaeda is the "restaurant brand" of Islamic extremism in the Islamic world, Elhelwa states, as he journeys through Benghazi to the well-known city of Derna. Some local residents claim that supposed al-Qaeda sympathizers are just local Muslims, but others are more open.
"I support them because they are Muslims like us. We are all Muslims, and they are protecting Islam," one local says. "They helped us fight during the revolution. They helped families with food when they needed it. They did a lot of humanitarian work."
When asked if he is a sympathizers or participant in the group's activities, he says, "No. But I would love to be a member of al-Qaeda."
An interview with unofficial leader of Derna and the local al-Qaeda head yields more information about the local group's aims and views. Abdel Hakim Al-Hasadi claims that killing isn't enough for the forces that committed crimes at Abu Ghraib. Rather, "I'd wipe them out," he says with a wave of his hand. He says he isn't an al-Qaeda follower, although he previously called them "good Muslims" who "are fighting against the invader."
"It's all normal here," Al-Hasadi says, before laying out a bottom line for Islamists like him. "If you establish the Sharia, we're with you. We're your soldiers. We're ready to die alongside you if you establish Sharia law."
Elhelwa describes the fighters as "armed rebels without a cause" rather than "a nest of armed al-Qaeda operatives." They toppled a tyrant, but today's Libya is factionalized and tense. "All of the elements of extremism, strife, and conflict were in place."
Ultimately, Elhelwa asks, when the dust settles will the new Libyan rulers be at odds with the West?