America is now at war to protect a Libyan province that's been an epicenter of anti-American jihad.
In recent years, at mosques throughout eastern Libya, radical imams have been "urging worshippers to support jihad in Iraq and elsewhere," according to WikiLeaked cables. More troubling: The city of Derna, east of Benghazi, was a "wellspring" of suicide bombers that targeted U.S. troops in Iraq.
By imposing a no-fly zone over Eastern Libya, the U.S. and its coalition partners have effectively embraced the breakaway republic of Cyrenaica. As you can see on the map above, Libya is a mashup of three historically distinct provinces. As recently as the 1940s, Cyrenaica was an independent emirate, with its capital in Benghazi.
The emnity between Cyrenaica and Tripolitania runs deep. The Emir of Cyrenaica awkwardly cobbled together modern Libya and ruled as its monarch. This is the same king that Qaddafi deposed in his coup of 1969. And the Qaddafi regime has seen the former king's homeland as a threat ever since, as this Wikileaked cable from our Tripoli embassy explains:
Eastern Libya had suffered ... from a lack of investment and government resources, part of a campaign by the al-Qadhafi regime to keep the area poor and, theoretically, less likely to develop as a viable alternative locus of power to Tripoli.
Another cable reports that the disrespect is mutual:
Residents of eastern Libya ... view the al-Qadhafa clan [Qaddafi's tribe] as uneducated, uncouth interlopers from an inconsequential part of the country who have "stolen" the right to rule in Libya.
That's the background. Flash forward to 2008: A West Point analysis of a cache of al Qaeda records discovered that nearly 20 percent of foreign fighters in Iraq were Libyans, and that on a per-capita basis Libya nearly doubled Saudi Arabia as the top source of foreign fighters.
The word "fighter" here is misleading. For the most part, Libyans didn't go to Iraq to fight; they went to blow themselves up — along with American G.I.'s. (Among those whose "work" was detailed in the al Qaeda records, 85 percent of the Libyans were listed as suicide bombers.) Overwhelmingly, these militants came "from cities in North‐East Libya, an area long known for Jihadi‐linked militancy." [UPDATE: West Point's Combatting Terrorism Center refused to comment on its own report.]
A WikiLeaked cable from 2008 explained that Cyrenaicans were waging jihad against U.S. troops as "a last act of defiance against the Qadhafi regime." After the U.S. normalized relations with Qaddaffi in 2006, Cyrenacians believed they no longer had any shot at toppling him:
Many easterners feared the U.S. would not allow Qadhafi's regime to fall and therefore viewed direct confrontation with the GOL [Government of Libya] in the near-term as a fool's errand.... Fighting against U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq represented a way for frustrated young radicals to strike a blow against both Qadhafi and against his perceived American backers.
The epicenter of Libyan jihadism is the city of Derna — the hometown of more than half of Libya's foreign fighters, according the West Point analysis. The city of 80,000 has a history of violent resistance to occupying powers — including Americans, who captured the city in the First Barbary War.
A surprisingly readable cable titled "Die Hard in Derna" makes clear that the city "takes great pride" in having sent so many of its sons to kill American soldiers in Iraq, quoting one resident as saying: "It's jihad — it's our duty, and you're talking about people who don't have much else to be proud of."