People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 44

November 04, 2012


Libyan Blowback


Yohannan Chemarapally


IN one of his last interviews to the international media, former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi warned that many in the armed opposition were fighters owing allegiance to Al Qaeda. But his assertions were dismissed as the ranting of a delusional man fighting with his back to the wall. Now the Obama administration itself has, however, confirmed that the killing of the US ambassador, Christopher Stevens and three other Americans was the handiwork of an Islamist militia—the Ansar al Sharia Brigade, known to have close links with the Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. The group, however, was quick to distance itself from the attack on the American consulate. The last time an American ambassador was killed on duty was in Kabul in 1979. The Americans should have known that they were playing with fire. One of the main fighting forces aligned with the West in the capital Tripoli was led by a former Al Qaeda fighter, Abdel Hakim Belhaj.





The current Al Qaeda leader, Ayman al Zawahiri, was quick to claim credit for the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi and the killing of the American ambassador. A few days before the attack he had called for revenge attacks against America to avenge the killing of Abu Yahya al Libi, the Al Qaeda second in command, in June this year. Al Libi, who hailed from Libya, was killed in an American drone attack in June along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. “His blood is calling, urging and inciting you to kill the crusaders,” Zawahiri had said in his message. Libyan government officials say that the killings of the American diplomat and his security guards were a well planned affair. They claim that the attack took place in two waves. The first attack forced the evacuation of the ambassador and his staff to a “safe house.” They were followed to this allegedly secure residence and targeted by a group of around 20 heavily armed men with mortars and rockets.


The militia that is being blamed for the attack on the American consulate had earlier claimed credit for exploding a bomb outside its premises in June, immediately after the US military had announced the killing of Al Libi. The Brigades said that the June attack was also timed to coincide with the arrival of a senior US State Department official in Benghazi. The US State Department had issued an advisory at the end of August urging all American citizens against all but essential travel to Libya. Reports in the American media in late September talk about the large numbers of US intelligence agents in Benghazi who asked to be evacuated after the storming of the American embassy. The Libyan government was apparently unaware of such a large presence of American officials in the city.


The Libyan deputy prime minister, Mustafa Abushagour, said that while his government had no issues about sharing intelligence with the Americans, the “sovereignty of the country” was also important. The Libyan government, installed by the NATO, is loath to admit that it has given a free run to intelligence and security agents from the West and Gulf monarchies. It has also been reported that “top secret” documents containing names of Libyans collaborating with the CIA have gone missing after the consulate was looted.


According to American media reports, US intelligence is now clueless on what is going on in Benghazi and Eastern Libya. Much of the unaccounted shoulder fired missiles looted during the conflict is said to be in the hands of the “Salafist” brigades operating in the area. It was Benghazi which provided the springboard for the so called revolution in Libya. The Gaddafi government was caught napping as American, French and British intelligence agents working in tandem with rebel groups in the city, including rabidly Salafist militias, set up a “liberated zone” in the port city. Ambassador Stevens himself had played a key role in the covert operations, centred on Benghazi, that were crucial to the decision to authorise a “no fly zone” over Libya. A State Department official had said in March 2011 that Stevens was the US’s “liaison to the opposition.” His main job was to “open funding spigots for an opposition movement.”




Wikileaks documents, however, show the late diplomat describing Muammar Gaddafi as “an engaging and charming interlocutor.” All the same, he was tracked down by the Americans in his home city of Sirte and killed. The former head of state was even denied a decent burial. After September 2001, Gaddafi had started cooperating with the US. American oil companies and US diplomats were back in Libya in full force by the middle of the last decade. But Gaddafi had not calculated that the Americans were waiting for an opportune moment to execute their plans for regime change and in the process hijack the Arab Spring.


The Arab Spring provided the perfect scenario for the execution of the plan and Benghazi was the perfect setting. The residents of the city, which was the capital when the country was ruled by a monarch, were known to be unsympathetic to Gaddafi. They resented that the capital was in the far-away Tripoli and much of the country’s oil wealth was being spent on development projects in the poor sub-Saharan countries. Many leading politicians from Benghazi are now talking of seceding from the country and have already demanded a “special status” from the weak central government.


Foreign fighters, including Special Forces from the British, Qatari and French armies along with arms and ammunition, were routed through Benghazi. The Americans were lulled into believing that the city which they liberated ostensibly on behalf of a people yearning for democracy would never turn against them. Benghazi was known to be a stronghold of the militant Islamists. Gaddafi had dealt with them ruthlessly. 1270 Islamist prisoners were killed after a riot at the Abu Salim prison in 1996.


“How can this happen in a country which we helped liberate and in a city we helped save from destruction,” the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, plaintively asked. The toppling of a government which had provided security for Libyans for over four decades led to chaos and anarchy. Though an election of sorts was held in the middle of this year, warring militias wearing tribal loyalties on their sleeves and “jihadi” groups loosely affiliated to the AQIM are running loose, playing havoc with the daily lives of Libyans. Sufi shrines have been targeted. The desecration has been going on for several months. The security forces have stood aside. Not a single arrest has been made so far. A Saudi based Islamic scholar, Sheikh Mohammad al Malkali has issued a “fatwa” calling on Libyans to erase all traces of “Sufism” in their country.


One militia based in the capital, Tripoli, even had the audacity to briefly take over the international airport. In a country with a population of six millions, there are around 200,000 heavily armed men running loose. Around 60 militias are said to be the real movers and shakers of the Libyan politics today. The Libyan government and its closest ally --- the US --- continue to back many of the militias they consider friendly. The Libyan armed forces, never a great fighting force, have now virtually disappeared. For preserving the basic security, the government has to take the help of friendly militias. A report in June, published by the Small Arms Survey, suggested that the influence of the armed groups challenging the government was increasing rapidly.


Earlier in the year, a fight between two militias led to the deaths of more than 147 people in southern Libya. Government buildings including the prime minister’s office have come under fire from militias for non-payment of dues. The militia leaders wanted payment for their role in the ouster of Gaddafi. A total of 1.4 billion dollars has already been doled out by the government. In the last couple of months there have been reports of violent incident involving militias on a daily basis. The report said that around 85 per cent of the weapons not under state control were mainly in the hands of religiously motivated militant groups and criminal gangs.


In the Libyan province of Misrata, which has virtually become a state within a state, armed militias have under their control more than 800 tanks, 2,300 vehicles mounted with machine guns and anti-aircraft weapons and dozens of heavy artillery pieces. The militias are mainly fighting for a cut from the lucrative oil revenue. Under Gaddafi, oil production was regulated and the profits went to the state. In the wake of the September 11 Benghazi incident, citizens in the city took out protest marches demanding the disbanding of militias. Two protestors were killed and many injured when they clashed with a counter-demonstration organised by the Ansar al Sharia militia.




Much of these sophisticated arms were supplied by the West and the two allies in the Gulf --- Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The ham-handed military intervention of the West has had reverberations beyond Libya. Heavy weaponry looted from Libyan armouries has reached the Sinai Peninsula where Salafist groups have taken up arms against the Egyptian government. In Mali, Tuareg separatists, once aligned with Gaddafi, achieved their goal of partitioning the country, earlier in the year --- with the help of the newly acquired weaponry. It is another matter that they have now lost control and that important cities of Timbuktu and Gao are now under the influence of the Ansar-i-Din, an extremist Islamist group.


“It is no secret that Libya’s current authorities, in fact, have very little control over the country. The old army exists no more, and a new one has not been formed yet. Every chief of a small tribe is now trying to arm his supporters. It is very easy to get nearly any kind of weapon in Libya because during the revolution, large arsenals were pillaged. Now weapons from these arsenals may emerge in any place --- for example, in Sudan or Mali, which are also gripped with internal conflict.” Thus observed Vladimir Isaev of the Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow.


Most observers predict that the instability in Libya will last a long time. Even American officials finally seem to have drawn a lesson from the havoc wrought by military intervention in Libya. They may now think twice before trying a similar experiment in Syria.