The Gun Smuggler’s Lament

In Longreads

Perched in a seaside villa in 
eastern Tunisia, Osama Kubbar had anxiously waited for days for the final news about his guns. It was May 2011, five months into the Arab Spring, and Kubbar, a Libyan smuggler, was remotely tracking the slow movements across the southern Mediterranean of a fishing vessel he’d arranged to transport 600 Belgian FN rifles, 10 machine guns, 200 grenades, 100 bulletproof vests, and 200 kegs for packing explosives. The boat was bound from Benghazi for his hometown, the coastal city of Zawiya, some 370 nautical miles away, where beleaguered rebels were battling the mightier forces of longtime Libyan strongman Muammar al-Qaddafi. Guns, Kubbar hoped, might help shift the tide in the fighters’ favor.

The voyage, now in its third week, had been arduous. Through frequent satellite-
phone calls, Kubbar learned from the crew when the boat’s engine broke down in the Gulf of Sidra, necessitating a several-day maintenance detour to Misrata two-thirds of the way through the trip. Once waterborne again, the vessel avoided lurking catastrophe. Not only can spring weather on the Mediterranean be fierce, but Qaddafi’s henchmen were scanning the sea for rebel aid and threatening to sink any ship that approached land.

The moment of reckoning had finally arrived: After several days hovering near Zawiya’s shore, waiting for an opportune time, the crew on board told Kubbar that docking wasn’t an option. “The boat came close, about five kilometers from shore,” Kubbar recalls, “and the guys said, ‘We cannot go further.’”

Kubbar didn’t waste any time. He called rebel contacts in Zawiya and told them where the boat was floating; they would have to try to get the guns themselves. So under the cover of darkness, fighters in small rubber boats pushed off from the sand, navigated rough waves, and met up with Kubbar’s crew. Then, box by box, they carried the arms ashore.

“I swear to God,” Kubbar says, “you can do a movie about this.”

Three months and four more arms shipments later, Kubbar’s short career as a gunrunner ended when the invigorated opposition officially seized Zawiya. Shortly afterward, Qaddafi was forced from power and killed. “The military was organized. The revolutionaries, it was chaos,” Kubbar remembers. “And it worked to our advantage: If you cannot predict the rebels’ moves, you cannot really counter them.”

Kubbar cuts an unlikely figure for a former smuggler. Muscular and trim, with graying hair and thin-rimmed glasses, he was trained as an electrical engineer. A devout Muslim and vocal opponent of the Qaddafi government, he had been living in exile for more than 15 years when the Arab Spring began. Kubbar halted his day job and started moving weapons to help Libya’s resistance movement—which included his own brother—finally break the yoke of dictatorship. And he was able to do it thanks to a formidable backer: Qatar, his adopted home.

 

The Persian Gulf emirate, eager to flex its muscles in the Middle East, was the first regional state to turn on the Qaddafi regime in 2011. Through the United Nations, the Arab League, and other channels, it 
publicly urged international action against the dictatorship—a stance that earned it plaudits from humanitarians and foreign-
policy hawks alike. Using its two Boeing C-17 cargo jets, among other means, to illicitly ship aid and arms to Libya, Qatar’s operation nurtured an ecosystem of clerics, businessmen, ex-jihadis, and other middlemen—
figures like Kubbar who quietly fed pockets of the revolution with money, guns, and other support. Once Qaddafi was gone, members of that network—many of them Islamists, long-preferred partners of Qatar across the Middle East—used their positions to jockey for power and influence. Kubbar, for one, says he rode his renown as Zawiya’s weapons smuggler to seize property and build a small political career that lasted nearly two years.

Yet the promise of revolution was fleeting. By 2013, Libya had all but collapsed—not despite Doha’s efforts and those of its opportunistic middlemen, but partly because of them. Supporting certain allies, at the expense of national reconciliation, helped drive dangerous political wedges. To be sure, Qatar was not alone. Other countries, most notably the United Arab Emirates, contributed to Libya’s instability by building their own networks on the ground. But where Abu Dhabi also offered material and logistical assistance, Qatar was exceptional in the scale of its provision during the uprising. And while this investment might have paid off at the time, the question now is, to what end? Mieczyslaw Boduszynski, a former U.S. foreign service officer and current professor at Pomona College who has spent time in Libya, wrote in 2014, “[I]t is clear that Qatari engagement has contributed, at least indirectly, to further polarization within the Libyan political scene and to overall state weakness.” (A spokesman for the Qatari government declined to answer questions or comment for this article.)

Today, nearly five years since demonstrators began to agitate for Qaddafi’s removal, Libya suffers from unpredictable violence. It is riven by lawless militias and two rival 
governments. The humanitarian toll of the conflict is dire. More than 200,000 Libyans are in need of food assistance, according to the World Food Programme. And “scores of those displaced during the 2011 Libyan revolution have been unable to return to their homes,” the Brookings Institution reported in April, “while over a million more have been uprooted in the subsequent violence.”

Some of Qatar’s proxies have stayed in the chaos, still hoping to find fame, fortune, and power. Others have given up or been forced out, including Kubbar. He’s back where he started: living in Doha, watching at a painful remove as the country of his birth splinters. Blending into a crowd of well-to-do expats while sipping a cappuccino one evening at the capital city’s Ritz-Carlton, he boasts about his smuggling, calling it “the most courageous operation to my name.” But his brow wrinkles when he talks about the present: Libya, Kubbar says in his ever-measured voice, “is really messed up.”

The ability of outside actors like Qatar, much less a dissident-turned-
smuggler-turned-bureaucrat, to shape Libya’s trajectory is rapidly diminishing. For 51-year-old Kubbar, however, the dream remains steadfast. “The path to the solution is still a long way away, but we should not be negative,” he insists. “I have a strong belief that … the right people will be in charge.”

 

In 1969, when Kubbar was just 5 years old, a charismatic young military colonel unseated Libya’s monarch, King Idris, in a coup. Promising sweeping political and economic reforms, Qaddafi’s rule blended populist rhetoric with domineering authoritarianism. He used the country’s massive oil revenues to fund free education and health care, but also to buy the loyalty of security forces, expand the army with recruits from sub-Saharan African allies, and increase his personal wealth. He was pitiless toward perceived opponents, imprisoning and torturing thousands in a network of detention facilities. Islamists who offered an alternative ideology to Qaddafi’s socialist state were targeted as heretics.

Growing up in Zawiya, Kubbar knew of Qaddafi’s tyrannical politics, but it was only after moving to the capital to attend university in 1981 that he saw them firsthand. There, he witnessed one of Qaddafi’s so-called revolutionary committees—informal surveillance networks that monitored dissent—execute students who opposed the regime by hanging them on campus.

Although he was horrified, turning political was too dangerous an option. 
That changed when he left Libya in 1986 to study for advanced engineering 
degrees at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada. Safely abroad, Kubbar 
became fascinated with the Muslim Brotherhood opposition so demonized by Qaddafi. He devoured any literature he could find about the organization—he says he later joined the Libyan chapter, banned at home but operating in exile—and participated in his university’s Muslim Students Association. Sometimes, 
he delivered speeches at weekly prayer gatherings on campus, decrying 
Qaddafi’s rule.

A few years after he moved to Canada, Kubbar says he learned that officials in Libya’s intelligence service had visited his father in Zawiya, inquiring about Kubbar’s activities. (Kubbar suspects that one of his classmates alerted the government to his dissent.) Then, in 1995, Kubbar’s uncle was denied an exit visa to visit the United Kingdom. “He was rejected because of my name,” Kubbar guesses. Estimating that he had landed on a blacklist, Kubbar decided he couldn’t safely return to Libya.

For more than a decade, he worked for telecom companies in North America, before moving to Doha in 2009 for a job at Qatar University. He says the Libyans living in the city avoided one another—certainly in public—because they feared the Libyan Embassy was monitoring them. Yet a handful of Qaddafi dissidents knew one other, and when the Arab Spring erupted in Tunisia in December 2010, they disregarded potential dangers and started meeting in cafes. They shared videos of protests in Tunis and later Cairo, and they swapped stories about nascent demonstration attempts relayed by family members back home. “Egypt is the center of the Arab world. [That meant] the revolutions were starting to catch on,” Kubbar says of that heady time. “We thought that we should start warming up for Libya.”

On Feb. 17, 2011, protesters in dozens of Libyan cities heeded social media calls for a Day of Rage. In Benghazi, Tobruk, and even parts of Tripoli, demonstrators—led by youths and students—marched, destroyed regime icons, and burned garbage bins. Soldiers fired live ammunition at them. The uprising had begun.

Kubbar spent hours on Facebook and YouTube, following events. He says one video clip particularly seized his emotions. In it, a woman filming herself in Benghazi hysterically screams that the regime is coming to massacre her family. It “really pumped the blood in my veins,” Kubbar says . He rang his brother, Ihab, who was still living in Zawiya. “Go to the streets and tell [the regime], ‘It’s never going to be peaceful until that lady who screamed in Benghazi sits quiet,’” Kubbar recalls beseeching.

In another conversation, Kubbar says Ihab held up the phone so that, even in Doha, Kubbar could hear the noise of crowds in Zawiya chanting, “The people want the fall of the regime.” On Feb. 24, 2011, Qaddafi’s forces killed at least 17 people and wounded another 150 in an attack on the restive city. Afterward, Ihab, then 36, joined neighborhood men who were taking up arms against the government.

Kubbar considered himself just as much a freedom fighter as his brother. “We were just standing up to Qaddafi, and we were naked,” he says of the rebels, who had very few arms and little ammunition at that point. (Ihab carried a hunting rifle that could fire two bullets.) “We had no support.”

That was soon to change.

 

In late February, one of Kubbar’s Libyan acquaintances in Doha, a newspaper editor named Mahmoud Shammam, gathered together local dissidents. (In the interest of disclosure, Shammam previously edited a now-defunct Arabic edition of Foreign Policy.) A close friend of the ruling emir, Shammam had convinced the Qatari royal family to back supporters of the revolution: The family would pay for a new TV channel, Al Ahrar, devoted to the Libyan uprising and a makeshift office for opposition expats. “He [told us], ‘OK, I can get some support; let us rent a place where we can have an operations room,’” Kubbar says. The group secured an apartment in the 
Kempinski, a luxury high-rise building in Doha’s chic West Bay. Upstairs from one of the city’s best pastry shops, the Libyans set up computers and phone lines and brainstormed how they could abet the revolution. (The Kempinski’s management declined to comment, saying it does not “disclose any information about tenants or guests.”)

It was no coincidence that Qatar had agreed to help. Over the previous two decades, the small, gas-rich country had been expanding its global leverage aggressively. Qatar had built alliances with Western countries, including the United States, and had funded the world’s most watched Arabic-language network, Al Jazeera. But it had also thrown financial and material support behind Islamic resistance 
movements across the Middle East, including Hamas, Hezbollah, and branches of the Muslim Brotherhood; the groups’ organization, discipline, and geographic spread made them excellent conduits for Qatari influence. “Qatar was not identifying with the Muslim Brotherhood for any ideological reasons,” says Salah Eddin Elzein, head of the Al Jazeera Center for Studies, a think-tank arm of the network; rather, he said, Qatar chose to align itself with rising forces. Lina Khatib, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, has written that Qatar savvily pursued an “open-door” foreign policy, “creating friends and avoiding enmities by appealing to all sides at once.” Khalid bin Mohammed al-Attiyah, Qatar’s foreign minister, told an audience at Princeton University in 2014 that during the uprisings, his country also felt a “moral duty” to help Arab brethren topple dictators.

Kubbar appreciated Doha’s early patronage, but he wanted to be closer to the front lines. “I’m not going to be sitting here when my people die,” he recalls thinking. So no sooner had the office at the Kempinski opened than Kubbar picked up and moved to Tunisia, from where he believed he could help deliver humanitarian aid—already much needed—to western Libya.

Leaving his wife and two children behind in Doha, Kubbar set out for Ben Gardane, a Tunisian city about 20 miles from the Libyan border. There, he says, he rented a villa with his own money and began to liaise with aid organizations, including a British Islamic charity called Wafa Relief, providing it with lists of goods that Libyan activists and rebels, with whom he was in contact, needed. “It was things like painkillers, and sometimes drugs for chronic conditions.”

On March 7, after Kubbar had been in Tunisia for less than two weeks, he received a dreadful call from his sisters: Ihab had been shot in a firefight with government forces. Fellow rebels found him wounded and crumpled on a slope leading away from Zawiya’s central square; the fighters managed to get him home, but he died soon after.

Kubbar’s father told him not to come home. It was too dangerous, and he couldn’t bear to lose another son. But the revolution was now more personal than ever. On a visit to Doha at the end of March, Kubbar spilled his frustrations to his friends. “There are lots of people doing humanitarian aid,” he remembers complaining. What he needed to do, he said, was run weapons.

 

Just as Kubbar was losing patience, Qatar was also looking for more direct ways to back Libya’s rebels. Qaddafi was using his air force to target civilians, a galling sight for regional leaders. So Doha launched a whirlwind diplomatic campaign to convince the Arab League and the U.N. Security Council to impose a no-fly zone. Other backers of the plan included the United States, the United Kingdom, and France. On March 17, the council approved Resolution 1973, authorizing the safe area and “all necessary measures” to protect civilians. A week later, Qatar became the first Arab state to agree to patrol the zone.

Doha’s leaders didn’t stop there. They began to supply the rebellion with weapons, despite an arms embargo that the United Nations had also just placed on Libya. “For small states like Qatar,” says Sergio Finardi, head of the consultancy TransArms, which has tracked several illicit Qatari-linked weapons shipments to Libya, its contribution could be “something covert in order to have a foot and play a role in this situation.” (Other countries provided arms too, including the United Arab Emirates and France.) A U.N. panel of experts later found Qatar to be in violation of the embargo, but Doha stated in 2012 that its actions “were in full coordination with NATO and under its umbrella.” In a statement provided to Foreign Policy, a spokesperson for NATO said “no country notified or coordinated national weapons deliveries with” the organization.

Qatar channeled many of its arms deliveries through two brothers: Ali and Ismael al-Sallabi, both Libyan Islamists with extensive connections inside the country. Ali al-Sallabi, an exiled cleric who had served time in Qaddafi’s notorious Abu Salim prison, was a longtime resident of Doha and close with Qatar’s political elite. Soon after rebels won their first significant victory, routing regime forces in Benghazi on March 20, 2011, Qatari jets began moving weapons and ammunition to Benina’s airport, just outside the city. The Sallabis’ network then parceled out materiel to rebels. (Despite widespread coverage of their involvement in gunrunning, Ali declined in an interview for this article to confirm that he directly received weapons shipments from Qatar.)

In Kubbar’s telling, fighters were having difficulty shipping weapons to western Libya, which was still firmly in Qaddafi’s hands. Qatar’s weapons handlers had no point person in Zawiya, Kubbar says, “no contact.” Thus, in early April 2011, Kubbar reached out to Ali al-Sallabi. As Libyan expats in Doha, they were neither strangers nor friends, but Kubbar says, “People from the same movement trust each other.” Once they were in touch, “everything moved so fast.” Kubbar, still in Tunisia, says Sallabi connected him with men in Benghazi who could provide the arms; Kubbar identified a boat and crew; and the first arms were shipped by late April.

Not long after the weapons were unloaded in Zawiya, thanks to the rebels in rubber boats, hostilities there escalated. On the morning of June 11, opposition fighters, some of whom had been trained clandestinely by Qatari, French, and British forces in the nearby Nafusa Mountains, swarmed the city, but it took only 24 hours for Qaddafi’s men to push back the advance. Fighting, bolstered by NATO airstrikes, continued throughout the summer, as did deliveries of Kubbar’s arms—in all, there were three by sea and two by land, he says.

On a Saturday in early August 2011, during one of only three visits he made to his family in Doha during the uprising, a rebel in Zawiya called him to say that the opposition was preparing for the final assault on Kubbar’s birthplace—and then moving on to Tripoli. “You have to come,” Kubbar recalls the man saying. So Kubbar flew to Tunisia, and by Aug. 12, he had crossed by land to his hometown. He wanted to witness freedom firsthand. Videos from the time that he has since posted online show that he traded his Western clothing for Libya’s traditional robe-like Bedouin dress and visited the families of martyrs. In one clip, with a sense of authority and religiosity he still exudes, Kubbar says, “May Allah grant victory for the rebels, repay them, hold and unite them, and win over this dictator.”

Rebels finally took full control of Zawiya on Aug. 20. Three days later, Kubbar claims that his last batch of arms arrived in the city. According to his personal tally, it included 120 cases, each containing 1,500 Kalashnikov bullets; 15 rocket-
propelled grenades and 200 munitions for them; and 10 machine guns with 60 boxes of ammunition. This time, his boat was able to dock, and Kubbar says he personally witnessed the distribution of arms to fighters.

Rebels took Tripoli within a matter of days. Transitional leaders didn’t proclaim the country free until Oct. 23, 2011, when Qaddafi was found hiding in a drainpipe and was bludgeoned to death. By then, through the likes of men like the Sallabis and Kubbar, Qatar had poured at least 20,000 tons of weapons into Libya.

 

In the newly liberated Libya, power vacuums existed everywhere, as did self-proclaimed heroes of the revolution. Regime property was up for grabs, and Kubbar says he claimed an office in Zawiya for himself: a palatial hall once used by Qaddafi’s army deputy chief of staff. “I was the only one who channeled weapons [to Zawiya],” he recalls with bravado, “so even the warlords, they were respecting me big time.” Kubbar says he helped start and lead an NGO, the Revolutionary Youth Coalition of February 17, with the goal of restricting the political power of regime defectors. The group issued public statements and organized political meetings. Kubbar imagined his religious allies would be in power in Tripoli in no time; his mission complete, he’d then head home to Doha.

Qatar, meanwhile, also sought to maintain influence in Libya. An October 2011 Wall Street Journal article reported that Qatar’s military chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Hamad bin Ali al-Attiyah, attended a meeting in Tripoli aimed at organizing Libya’s militias. Doha also likely kept money flowing through various political proxies, such as Abdel Hakim Belhaj, a hardened rebel commander who had trained fighters during the uprising. “Qatar’s strategy is sort of to keep these guys on retainer,” explains Frederic Wehrey, of the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “It’s not massive support, but you keep the channels open.”

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Cracks quickly ran through Libya’s political facade, however. During the uprising, Qatar’s allies repeatedly clashed with the more secular defectors who dominated the National Transitional Council (NTC), the formal opposition body. The two camps had managed their tensions thanks to a common enemy. With Qaddafi gone, these factions began to attack one another in the media and in public statements. “We saw this explosion of the differences between the Islamists and the non-Islamists start to emerge,” remembers Shammam, a secular NTC member. (Despite his early appreciation of Qatar’s help, Shammam says he repeatedly warned Doha against sticking around after Qaddafi was gone.) Many religiously oriented freedom fighters, including some who had Qatar’s backing, believed Libya should look something like Turkey, a democracy run by religious moderates. Ali al-Sallabi was a key architect of this vision. Regime defectors also saw a democracy, but one that wasn’t so colored by religion.

With the political battleground firmly drawn, many of Libya’s new government officials grew intolerant of Doha’s ongoing aid to their rivals. “Qatar was among countries which have provided us with the greatest military, financial, and political support” in ousting Qaddafi, Libya’s U.N. envoy, Mohammed Abdel Rahman Shalgam, told Reuters in November 2011. “We don’t want them to spoil this great feat through meaningless acts of meddling.”

As tensions heated up, Kubbar’s NGO called for former regime figures to resign. In March 2012, Kubbar moved to Tripoli to run for Libya’s new national legislature. According to his platform, posted on Facebook, Libya should be a “moderate Muslim state” with the Quran as “our constitution and the only source of legislation.” He frequently appeared on Al Ahrar and Al Jazeera to promote his candidacy.

But disappointment followed. That July, in Libya’s first democratic election since 1964, Kubbar lost his bid. Broadly speaking, Islamists fared worse than expected. The Muslim Brotherhood-aligned Justice and Construction Party won just 10 percent of the vote. (That said, the fact that the legislature included many seats reserved for “independents” meant that, by not standing as affiliates, other members were able to get into the body; a German think-tank analysis later determined that more than half of independents in the legislature actually had ties to a political party.) Most embarrassing for Qatar was the dismal performance of al-Watan (Homeland), a party formed by rebel commander 
Belhaj: It failed to win a single seat.

Kubbar was stunned—and bitter. “Leave, and take your council with you,” he wrote in a Facebook diatribe against interim leader Mustafa Abdul Jalil, a former justice minister under Qaddafi. “I feel nauseous whenever I see your face or read a story about you. I swear to you that the country will not be worse than it is in your presence.”

 

Excluded from office, Kubbar joined the self-proclaimed High Council of Libyan Revolutionaries, a national organization that, similar to his Zawiya NGO, promised to advocate on behalf of freedom fighters. (By this time, Kubbar had largely abandoned his work with the Revolutionary Youth Coalition of February 17; the organization foundered less than a year after it was created.) As the High Council’s first deputy, Kubbar fixated on the need to pass a proposed political-isolation law that would ban former regime figures from holding public office, including many former NTC leaders and two former prime ministers. The law was widely supported by the groups persecuted under Qaddafi, including tribal and Islamist figures, who hoped to secure further power in the new Libya. “I, Osama Kubbar, support all kinds of escalations,” Kubbar shouted to a crowd gathered outside the legislature in December 2012. “We don’t want this government.”

As the vote over the bill approached the following May, several militias, including ones allied with the High Council, blockaded the Foreign Affairs and Justice ministries as a not-subtle threat to anyone who might consider voting against the bill. Under duress, just four legislators out of 200 dared to do so. Kubbar was thrilled: “It was a step forward,” he said.

The morning after the law passed, Kubbar says he got a call from one of Zawiya’s rebel leaders, a man named Mohammed, who had benefited from his weapons deliveries. Mohammed asked whether Kubbar, whom he called “Dr. Osama,” could meet him at Tripoli’s harbor just a few miles from the headquarters of the High Council of Libyan Revolutionaries. Kubbar went alone and found Mohammed standing near the water.

But just as Kubbar approached on foot, a Land Cruiser drove up and Mohammed pulled a gun. “Come here,” he said, gesturing to the vehicle, where a handful of passengers revealed their own weapons. “Who sent you to kidnap me?” Kubbar remembers asking. The men stayed silent, driving Kubbar to a cell in Tripoli where he says he was kept for two days.

Kubbar won’t discuss the specifics of his captivity, including why he was eventually let go. He believes, however, he was taken in retaliation for his stance on the political-isolation law.

The kidnapping was a wake-up call. Before then, there had been few consequences for Kubbar as he openly ridiculed political opponents and encouraged takedowns of many of Libya’s new leaders. Now, he realized, Libya had changed; new rivalries were emerging, even between onetime friends, and violence was a daily risk.

So Kubbar returned to Doha, where he began working as an advisor on regional strategy for the Qatari armed forces’ Strategic Studies Centre. (He still holds the post today.) Then, alongside others in the capital city who’d once hoped revolution would bring stability, he watched as conflict sank its teeth firmly into Libya.

 

In May 2014, forces loyal to former army general Khalifa Haftar launched Operation Dignity, a coordinated assault against Islamist and jihadi militias in Benghazi and Tripoli. The following month, Islamists lost in national polls marred by violence and low turnout. They refused to recognize the new government, however, and instead joined several local armed groups in a loose alliance called Libya Dawn. The body declared itself in charge of the country and, by August, had retaken Tripoli from Haftar’s men. Over the following months, the two sides raced toward civil war: In the last half of 2014, between 1,000 and 2,500 people, including many noncombatants, died as a result of aerial bombardments, ground attacks, and other violence.

Today, grim circumstances persist. Militia members have ballooned into the hundreds of thousands, up from just 17,000 at the height of the 2011 uprising, according to NATO figures. No political faction can hope to control them. And new extremists have begun to stake claims. In early 2015, the Islamic State announced its arrival in the coastal city of Derna. By March, the U.S. State Department estimated the group had between 1,000 and 3,000 fighters in Libya, enough to give it a dangerous springboard into the rest of North Africa.

Foreign powers have remained enmeshed in the conflict. Haftar’s forces, for instance, have reportedly enjoyed air and material support from Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. Qatar, for its part, continued to support proxies until at least 2014, which likely included funneling weapons to Libya Dawn fighters, according to allegations in a 2015 U.N. report. Yet despite these efforts, Qatar has seen its clout shrink mightily as bedlam has descended on Libya. “Qatar is a curse word in Libya,” says Jason Pack, president of the consultancy Libya-
Analysis. “Even in Tripoli, they don’t like the Qatari hand. [Qatar is] not somewhere you want to be associated with.”

Many of Qatar’s early beneficiaries are now only marginal players in the post-revolutionary game. Ali al-Sallabi moves between Istanbul and Doha, hosting conferences and meetings, but he says he has stepped back from politics. “There were mistakes,” he says of the revolution, including a failure to prioritize reconciliation between defectors and Islamists. Meanwhile, Shammam has returned to his former life as a journalist, opening an independent online newspaper in Cairo. His regrets echo Sallabi’s: “We could not really understand the difficulty of a transformation.”

For his part, Kubbar says he traveled to Tripoli last December and January to meet with friends in Libya Dawn—“the guys,” he calls them. The effect of the trip was deflating. “The freedom fighters,” Kubbar says, a look of disgust crossing his face, “don’t really have a vision and project for the country.”

Kubbar’s life in Doha is now built around offering commentary on Libya. He writes reports for the Qatari military, joins panel discussions, and still regularly speaks on Al Jazeera. He isn’t fond of U.N.-brokered peace talks underway to end the crisis in his home country—they leave too many doors open for regime defectors—but he also acknowledges that a bad deal may be better than no deal at all. “So many people just want a solution,” he says. “They have had enough of this chaos and need to build a country.”

In another breath, however, he speaks of returning to Libya one day and rekindling the snuffed flame of revolution. “If you have never lived under oppression, you can’t understand,” Kubbar says. “It’s loyalty to this huge investment of bloodshed and martyrs and dignity.

“You cannot really turn your back on this and say, ‘I’m going to walk away.’”

First published in Foreign Policy.

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Elizabeth Dickinson

Elizabeth Dickinson is a Gulf-based American journalist whose writing has appeared in The New Yorker, Foreign Policy, The Economist, The Christian Science Monitor, and The National, among other publications. She is the author of the Kindle Single Who Shot Ahmed, an account of a young videographer shot in cold blood at the height of Bahrain’s Arab Spring. She is also co-editor of the recent book The Southern Tiger, a narrative memoir by Chilean President Ricardo Lagos. She has reported from five continents and speaks French, Spanish, and Krio (Sierra Leone), as well as basic Yoruba and Arabic.