5:00pm

Tue March 15, 2011
Africa

Libya Puts 'Al-Qaida Affiliate' On Stage

Libya's government has been insisting it's not at war with its own people. The enemy, they say, is al-Qaida. And Tuesday, they set out to prove it.

In the capital, Tripoli, journalists were taken to meet a man the government said was captured on the battlefield.

For reporters based in the capital, the trip to the prison was the latest in a series of government-arranged field trips.

At the National Department for Criminal Investigation, officials seemed stunned to see people wandering around with cameras, and they began yelling. Finally, the journalists were brought into a conference room, and an official named Ibrahim Moussa introduced the man of the hour.

"I can't believe I'm sitting next to al-Qaida affiliate. I'm just talking as if this is just a daily thing. This is the person. His name is Saleh Abu Oba," Moussa said.

Oba's Story

Oba, who looked tired, was dressed in a black sweatshirt and gulping from a bottle of water. As Moussa went on with the introduction, the prisoner's al-Qaida connection seemed open to interpretation.

"When we talk about al-Qaida, it does not have to mean affiliating yourself directly to the caves in Afghanistan," Moussa said. "It's a concept; it's a theory; it's an ideology; it's a method of working and fighting."

Oba cleared things up. He said he was a member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group — well-known Islamist radicals in Libya who have long opposed Gadhafi. As he went on, Moussa, the government official, was more than happy to serve as the event's translator, highlighting points in the story he liked the most.

The bottom line, Moussa said, was that Oba expected to be part of a peaceful uprising, but he got disillusioned when things became violent.

"And then he heard European countries, foreign countries, had their warships, and he believed that foreign military intervention was to happen," Moussa said. "And he said, 'I said to myself, "I don't care how much I have difference with the government, I will not allow foreign armies to come in to Libya."'"

Fitting The Profile

Oba's story neatly fits the profile the government has been highlighting. They claim Islamist radicals from outside Libya are behind the uprising. The journalists were told Oba was arrested in Zawiya, a city west of Tripoli that Gadhafi forces retook last week.

Until recently, Oba said, he was living in Manchester, England, where his wife and children remain. Skeptical British reporters pounced — could he recite his ZIP code, a phone number?

Oba rattled off a phone number.

The man insisted he came to the press conference of his own free will and that there was no agreement he'd made with the government.

A lot of days go like this for reporters in Tripoli. Journalists venturing out on their own are often stopped by police. A handful have been detained, even beaten. Often a government-sponsored trip is all they get. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.