DERNA, Libya — "I hate America," the rebel fighter, Mohammed, 28, blurted out as he headed to the latest rebel front line.
He hates America, even as he and his fellow rebel fighters depend on American jets to protect Libyan air space and keep them in the fight to end Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's regime.
He hates America, even as the council that runs the rebel movement is asking the U.S. military for weapons to arm fighters such as Mohammed.
Mohammed even traveled to Iraq to try to kill Americans, though in this city in eastern Libya, that apparently wasn't a rarity.
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The U.S. has long known that Derna was a major source of Libyans fighting in Iraq, producing more fighters than any other Libyan city as a percentage of its population. In U.S. State Department cables made available to McClatchy by the WikiLeaks website, the role of Derna is a frequent topic, as is U.S. gratitude that Gadhafi eventually began working with Syria to stop Libyans from reaching Iraq.
In 2007, U.S. forces in Iraq found a list of 440 foreign fighters; of those, 52 were from Derna, which has 100,000 residents. For comparison, 50 came from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, which has a population of more than 4 million.
Locals say they're proud that they sent so many fighters to Iraq and Afghanistan.
"I am proud because there was a injustice happening in Iraq," said Abdel Kader Azzuz, 43, an English professor now in charge of organizing fighters from Derna for the battle against Gadhafi. "We are Muslims. When America does bad things to Arab countries, we have to retaliate."
As U.S. officials strive to figure out who the rebels are and what, if any, radical Islamist influence there might be in the east, onetime fighters such as Mohammed are wrestling with their feelings toward the U.S.
Mohammed wouldn't agree to be interviewed face-to-face and he asked that his full name not be used because he feared retribution from fellow Libyans for being so open about his feelings at such a sensitive time. He was contacted on his cellphone — internal cellphone calls still can be made in much of eastern Libya — after a family member provided the number. He said he was on his way to Ajdabiya, the furthest rebel outpost in the stalemated war in the east.
When Mohammed went to Iraq in 2004, he said, he was fighting America in the name of Islam; today, with the rebels unable to break Gadhafi's hold on the capital, Tripoli, Mohammed finds himself dependent on the U.S. military for any promise of a democratic Libyan state.
Perhaps because of that, Mohammed quickly modified his declaration: "Actually, we need America."
Gadhafi always has accused eastern Libya of having al Qaida ties, more so since the rebel effort began 10 weeks ago. Yet Gadhafi encouraged fighters to go to war in Iraq, giving young men here — many who were members of the main militant group, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group — the papers they needed to cross the border in an effort to export a domestic problem.
Some argue that the economic deprivation and isolation under Gadhafi contributed to this city producing so many fighters willing to die for Islam. Regardless, fighters such as Mohammed insist they're not members of al Qaida, but proud defenders of their faith, forced by U.S. actions to go to war. At worst, Islamic fighters became indoctrinated once they arrived in places such as Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq, they said.
"If al Qaida came here, I would fight them. I swear I would kill Osama bin Laden," Mohammed said. "We don't want any more dictators. We spent 42 years fighting Gadhafi. We just want to live in peace."
Unlocking the mystery of Derna has plagued U.S. officials in Libya for years, particularly as fighters poured into Iraq, according to the WikiLeaks cables. In some cables, Gadhafi presented himself as allied with the U.S. in its effort to rid eastern Libya of extremists, calling them a threat to his regime.
In one April 2008 cable, the U.S. embassy concludes that the Libyan government plan for reducing the spread of extremism in the east is a "strategy that appears to combine reliance on traditional efforts by security organizations to monitor and disrupt extremists' activities while engaging in significant development programs to improve socioeconomic conditions enough to blunt the appeal of the extremist message."
In a February 2008 cable, U.S. officials interviewed a dual Libyan-U.S. citizen from Derna who'd returned from a trip to his hometown. Asked why fighters were going to Iraq, the dual citizen quoted his relatives as saying a lack of economic opportunity left them with "nothing to lose." Some hoped that by dying they could earn compensation for their families. The dual citizen said that local Arab news channels were a contributing factor.
The citizen, whose name McClatchy is withholding for his own protection, "noted that for many young eastern men, jihad in Iraq was perceived to be a local issue," the cable recounted.
"Among the factors fueling that perception," the cable said, "he pointed to the proselytizing influence of Libyan fighters who had fought in Afghanistan and now recruited young eastern Libyans for operations in Iraq, the influence of Arabic-language satellite television broadcasts, use of the Internet to exchange information and coordinate logistics, and the comparative ease of travel to/from Iraq." The cable was signed by Chris Stevens, who's currently the U.S. envoy in Benghazi, the rebel capital.
In recently released intelligence summaries about detainees at Guantanamo, Derna's most famous suspected al Qaida operative, Abu Sufian Ahmed Hamuda bin Qumu, was described as a "probable member of al Qaida," likely to pose a threat to the U.S.
The onetime tank driver, who was captured in Pakistan in 2001 and released from Guantanamo in 2007, is now fighting on the rebel front line, residents said.
Whether any particular fighter currently in Derna joined al Qaida is difficult to confirm here.
Officially, the new local rebel council says that while Derna once may have produced a few fighters and suicide bombers, those days are past. Toppling Gadhafi and building a pluralistic state are the only goals.
Abdul-Hakim al Hasadi, the city's security chief, who once traveled to Afghanistan, has given multiple interviews scoffing at the suggestion that he's a member of al Qaida.
Around town, officials have painted signs in English that read "No to Qaida" and "Yes to Plurality." In Arabic, signs offer slogans such as "We are thirsty for democracy, not blood."
The private struggle of fighters such as Mohammed reflects the challenge in this city, considered one Libya's most religious, to find a place among its more secular neighboring cities. What emerges is a marriage of Western concepts and Islamic values.
For example, a group of women hosts thrice-weekly discussions on important topics as it thinks about life after Gadhafi. Last week the group, Erisa, held a discussion about the history of constitutions in Libya and what they should ask for. Hundreds came out for the lecture, with half the room's seats filled with women donning colorful headscarves.
A few days earlier, the group invited women only to a discussion about what Islam teaches about patience so they can better handle the absence of their men and sons fighting on the front lines for days at a time.
Mohammed said his interest in going to Iraq was piqued by signs at the university here, where he was studying engineering, that promised students passports if they went to Iraq. He signed up, and by the end of 2004, was bound for Egypt. From there he traveled to Syria, where he found someone on the border who let him sneak across.
He went to Baghdad and fought for nearly three months. When he realized they had no chance of winning, he left, he said and returned to Derna.
"We had no experience fighting, he said. "We couldn't win."
He insists he never killed an American soldier.
These days, Mohammed believes that through fighting he will find peace.
"What can I do now? I support our council, even though (rebel council president) Mustafa Abduljalil is sleeping while we are fighting and losing our arms and legs out here," Mohammed said. "After this is over, I want to get married and lead a peaceful life."
His hopes for loving the American government remain dim, however.
"I don't hate the American people, but I will never accept America until they change their whole approach to Muslims, starting in Gaza," he said, referring to the Gaza Strip, which is controlled by the militant group Hamas, which the U.S. has labeled a terrorist organization.
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