Archive for September 2012
There has been some success with the planned weapons amnesty in Benghazi. On Saturday and today Tahir Square has been the venue for citizens to hand over arms and ammunition to the Libyan National Army. At a similar event in Tripoli’s Martyrs Square two tanks were handed in by the Triq Asour militia brigade.
The hope is that the amnesty will be expanded to other parts of the country. It may not be as readily accepted in Libya’s third city, Misurata, where a large number of militia brigades have become deeply entrenched. The Misuratans are wary of their neighbours, the Warfella tribal confederation based in Beni Walid, and may be reluctant to believe that the National Army will be capable of keeping the peace. Many members of the Warfella federation held out for Gaddafi until the last days of the civil war. They are suspected by many of being pro-Gadaffi still. The Misuratans may feel that the Libyan National Army is still tainted by ‘Gadaffism’ and will favour the Warfella.
In the eastern sea port of Derna, Salafist militias are in power at the moment but may not be popular. The prominent families in Derna are unlikely to live with the situation for too long but may still feel powerless. The Libyan Navy has recently stationed a warship there. It may help to tilt the balance of power in favour of ordinary citizens. In the meantime there are known to be a number of radical Islamists in town.
In the Jebel Nefusa, the mountain range south west of Tripoli, there were serious clashes in June between a Zintan militia and the Mashasha tribe. More than 100 people were killed and several thousand displaced. This area will remain tense for some time.
In Kufra in the south east the long standing differences between the Sway tribe and the Tebu minority is still simmering and neither party is likely to hand in its weapons. This is a region troubled by arms, drug and people smuggling.
The successes in Tripoli and Benghazi must be heartening for ordinary Libyans. Many are stating openly that the killing of the US ambassador in Benghazi was the catalyst which started a reaction against heavy handed militias. If that is so, Ambassador Stevens will not have died in vain.
LIBYA’S POROUS SOUTHERN BORDERS AND THE ILLICIT TRADE IN WEAPONS, DRUGS AND PEOPLE (UPDATED 20th FEBRUARY MARCH 2017)
Abdul Wahab Hassain Qaid, a sometime senior member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, is now commander of border security in the southern part of the country. He is the brother of Abou Yahya al-Libi, Bin Laden’s second in command, who was killed in Pakistan in early June by an American drone. Quaid is believed to have received 170 million dinars ($120 million) and a fleet of four-wheel drive vehicles from Qatar, presumably to carry out his duties. This is an interesting appointment in the light the relationship between Libya and the US following the killing of the US ambassador in Benghazi on 11th September this year. The border is of interest to the USA and the al Qaida franchises operating in the region.
Abdul Wahab Hassain Qaid is now responsible for Libya’s volatile south which borders Algeria, Niger, Chad and the Darfur region of Sudan. Smuggling routes from sub-Saharan Africa to the Mediterranean coast run through the Libyan oasis cities of Murzuq, its neighbouring city Sabha, and Kufra to the east.
A massive illicit trade in weapons, petrol and food goods moves south across porous desert borders in return for drugs, alcohol and people moving north. On 16th September the Libya Herald reported that Algerian police had intercepted a group of gun runners from Libya. They were attempting to smuggle 8 machine guns, 24 automatic rifles and 14,000 rounds of ammunition stolen from Libyan military arms dumps.
The cities are also staging posts for migrants who mainly come from Chad, Niger, Mali, Nigeria, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia. Some choose Libya as a final work destination but most hope to embark on the final journey north to the coast and across the Mediterranean to Europe.
A recent eyewitness report from Sabah gives us a glimpse of the modern trans-Saharan migrant route; “More than 1,300 illegal immigrants are detained here, some 100 kilometres outside the city of Sabha, along the road between the sand dunes to the south and the border with Niger. They have no shelter, not even makeshift tents, forced to sleep on the sandy, pebble-studded ground. Only the lucky few among them have a blanket to protect them from the gusts of scorching wind. The others curl up so they can shield their faces in their keffiyehs or T-shirts. It is early evening, and the temperature in this southern Libyan desert known for its scorpions and vipers is 35° Celsius (95° Fahrenheit)”. (Lucy Matieu in Le Temps dated 2012-07-06 22)
The most dangerous leg of the migrant’s journey is by boat across the Mediterranean from Libya. Malta is a preferred entry point to Europe for these latterday boat people. According to FRONTEX WATCH MALTA, known Illegal migrant landings in 2012 (up to 16th August) were 1621, of which 1162 were male, 412 female,25 were children, 8 were babies. There were 13 deaths. Malta covers just over 316 km2 in land area. It is one of the world’s smallest states and also one of the most densely populated. (1036.8/km2)
The Times of Malta dated 27th May 2012 carried this report; “A group of 52 migrants arrived at Xrobb l-Ghagin this afternoon, raising the number of arrivals today to 188. The latest arrivals include thee women. They arrived on a dinghy which managed to reach the shore. This morning, a group of 136 illegal immigrants was brought to Malta on a patrol boat. The 86 men, 43 women and 7 children were picked up from a drifting dinghy some 72 miles south of Malta after their boat was deemed to be in distress. Among the migrants was a new-born, while another baby was born as a patrol boat was bringing the migrants to Malta.”
It is worth making one final point. A recent report by Al Jazeera contained this disturbing remark; “The European Union and United States should be concerned, warned Ibrahim Ali Abu Sharia, a Sabha University professor. There is a massive illegal trade – including slaves. I saw a Sabha farmer sell 20 Somali women recently. You can buy one African man for 500 Libyan Dinar [$394].” (Rebecca Murray Al Jazeera 22nd July 2102).
We learn little from history. The British explorer G.F. Lyon made these observations about trans-Saharan salve trafficking whilst in Muzurq in the early 19th Century. “Many of the [slave] children were carried [on camels] in leather bags, which the Tibboo [Tebu] make use of to keep their corn in; and in one instance I saw a nest of children on one side of a camel, and its young one in a bag, hanging on the other………. Five Wajunga men, fierce, well made, handsome people, about 25 years of age, were linked together. The right hand is fastened to the neck, round which is an iron collar, having two rings in the back; through this the heavy chain is passed and locked at each end on the unhappy slaves. The owner sleeps with this chain tied to his wrist, when in fear of their escaping. I was informed by their masters, that these men had been so confined during three months.”
Updated 7th October 2012
On Saturday 6th October a meeting in Malta of the ‘5+5 Group’ which comprises Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Mauretania, Portugal, Spain, France, Italy and Malta concluded with an agreement to set up a humanitarian task-force to combat illegal immigration across the Mediterranean from sub-Saharan Africa and the Maghreb states to Europe. (Libya Herald and Times of Malta)
Update 11th October 2012
The following is part of a new report issued by the ‘International Federation for Human Rights, Migreurop’ and ‘Justice without borders for migrants (JWBM)’, based on an investigation in Libya in June 2012, during which the delegation interviewed hundreds of migrants held in 8 detention centres in Tripoli, Benghazi and the Nafusa Mountain region.
……………Yet in today’s Libya, migrants, asylum seekers and refugees find themselves hounded by groups of former rebels (Qatibas), acting outside any legal framework in a context of deep-rooted racism, who have assigned themselves the task of “ridding the country of migrants who bring crime and disease”. Migrants are arrested at checkpoints and in their homes and taken to improvised detention centres, run by Katibas, where they are held for indefinite periods in airless and insalubrious cells, suffering physical and psychological abuse at the hands of the guards. They have no idea whether and when they may regain their freedom………..
……….as the situation in Libya stabilises, the country will once again rely on migrant workers to rebuild and develop its economy. Foreign companies, many of them European, will resume their investments in Libya and the country will become a hub of intra-African migration. The EU must contribute to this mobility with ambition and responsibility, including by developing a more flexible visa policy and by not forcing Libya to readmit non-nationals…………
Read the full letter in Libya Herald http://www.libyaherald.com/?p=15892
Update 25th October 2012
More migrants rescued…………read http://www.libyaherald.com/2012/10/24/16807/
and more arms smuggled……readhttp://www.libyaherald.com/2012/10/24/smuggled-libyan-arms-seized-in-mersa-matruh/
Update 5th November 2012.
More migrants rescued – some dead:
Update 18th December 2012
The Libyan Herald carried this report datelined 17th December 2012. The appointment of a military governor and the declaration of a military zone in the south is a hopeful sign.
“Tripoli, 17 December: The General National Congress (GNC) declared the south a closed military zone on Sunday evening and announced that it would temporarily close the borders with Niger, Chad, Sudan and Algeria, state news agency LANA reported.
GNC members passed the exceptional legislation with a majority of 136, designating the areas around Ghadamis, Ghat, Awbari, Al-Shati, Sebha, Murzuq and Kufra as closed zones of military operations.
Members also voted to close Libya’s southern borders, but said that they would reopen them at an undesignated time in coordination with their neighbouring states.
According to the legislation, the Ministry of Defence must appoint a military governor for the south, who will be given full powers to arrest those currently wanted for crimes in the area.”
Also read this:
Update 28th December 2912
This is an excellent survey in the Libya Herald:
Updated 3rd February 2013
The illegal immigrant centre in Benghazi attacked. Some details of the treatment of inmates who test HIV positive;
Update 24th June 2013
There has been some talk of floods of migrants moving across Libya’s Sothern borders attempting to reach the Mediterranean coast and eventually Europe. The Libyan PM and a group of ministers have returned from Kufra in the south east and Ghat in the south west. They argue that there is a trickle of migrants – tens not thousands -and they have put measures in place to stem the flow.
However, it seems that some migrants are getting through and that there are still people traffickers operating in Kufra:
Update 9th July 2013
It seems that there are still desperate people making the hazardous crossing from Libya to Malta and Italy. Some who die on route are thrown overboard!
Update 13th July 2013
The statement made by the Libyan Prime Minister that there were but 10s not 1,000s of migrants crossing into Libya seems to be refuted by this report about Malta’s attempt to fly boat people back to Libya.
Update 8th August 2013
More illegal migrants are drowned as the tragedy of people trafficking across the Mediterranean from Libya continues:
Update 27th August 2013
This report that foreign troops have crossed Libya’s southern border somewhere may prove interesting;
Update 30 November 2013
This report and video from Al Jazeera brings the story up to date dramatically:
Updated 2nd February 2014
Update 21st March 2014
The dreadful sea journey from Libya to Malta and Italy is still taking its toll;
Update 20th February 2017
It is clear from this piece in Britain’s Guardian newspaper that people trafficking is brutal and cruel.
Muammar Gaddafi did not like Benghazi much. The city was ruled for some time by his henchwoman Huda Ben Amer. She had first come to his attention as he sat in his Tripoli bunker watching a TV relay of a public hanging in Benghazi. The victim was slow to die and thrashed about on the end of the rope, so she hurried his demise by hanging onto his legs. Gadaffi was impressed and appointed her mayor of Benghazi where seh was called Huda the Executioner. She fled to Tripoli soon after the events that followed 17th February 2011 uprising and her villa in Benghazi has been razed to the ground.
This helps to explain, but does not excuse, the recent killing of 14 high ranking officers who served in Gadaffi’s military but changed sides and were deployed to Benghazi by the new Transitional Government. No one has been arrested for these assassinations. The view that the Libyan military should purge itself of the remnants of Gadaffi’s regime is not without adherents in Benghazi.
The most pressing of the many problems facing Libya’s new government is the large number of ant-Gaddafi militias which are still bearing arms. They have been particularly active in Benghazi which has been badly hit by violence. Amongst the organisations which have been attacked are the United Nations, the Red Cross, a convoy carrying the British Ambassador and the Tunisian Consulate.
Global attention has been focused on Benghazi since 11th September when the U.S. consulate was stormed. U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens died of smoke inhalation while trapped alone inside the villa, and three other Americans were killed in the attack and during a rescue attempt that followed. The US has responded. US drones have been conducting reconnaissance missions over Benghazi, and a counter-terrorist unit has also been sent to Libya. Two American warships, Arleigh Burke-class destroyers the USS Laboon and the USS McFaul, have also been deployed off the Libyan coast. FBI agents are waiting to go to Benghazi to find out who killed Ambassador Stevens but appear to be stuck in Tripoli.
On 12th September, just hours after Ambassador Stevens was killed, the Libyan cabinet dismissed Wanis Sharif as Deputy Interior Minister with responsibility for the Eastern region. Also dismissed was Hussein Abu Humaida, the head of the Security Directorate in Benghazi. On 16th September Interior Minister, Fawzi Abdulal, appointed in their place veteran police chief Colonel Salah Al-Din Awad Doghman with the title of Assistant Undersecretary at the Interior Ministry with responsibility for eastern Libya. Libyan police in Benghazi have so far refused to serve under Colonel Doghman. He told Reuters “When you go to police headquarters, you will find there are no police. The people in charge are not at their desks. They have refused to let me take up my job.”
There has been a predicable response to the US reaction by the Libyan Salafist militia, Ansar al Sharia, which is thought to have been responsible for the deadly assault on the American consulate in Benghazi. An Ansar al Sharia spokesman has said that “If one U.S. soldier arrives, not for the purpose of defending the embassy, but to repeat what happened in Iraq or Afghanistan, be sure that all battalions in Libya and all Libyans will put aside all their differences and rally behind one goal of hitting America and Americans,”
At least Colonel Doghman seems determined to sort things out – when he gets some police officers to work for him. He told Reuters that ‘America, Libya, the world, should know that in this situation they should have the right person in place. Libyans should know that there is firm leadership. If there had been wise leadership, this attack could not have happened.’ We will see.
Added Friday 21st September …see ‘Save Benghazi’ http://www.facebook.com/BenghaziFriday
Later Friday 21st September… AP reports –(AP)- Around 30,000 Libyans marched through the eastern city of Benghazi on Friday in an unprecedented protest to demand the disbanding of powerful militias in the wake of last week’s attack that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans……..
Update – Saturday 22nd September…….a summary of Libya Herald, The Telegraph and Time reports;
Following the ‘Save Benghazi’ rally on Friday 21st September hundreds of demonstrators arrived at the Salafist ‘Ansar Al-Sharia’ Militia headquarters on Nasr square demanding the brigade leave immediately. Members of Ansar Al-Sharia who were acting as guards at Al-Jalaa hospital were also removed by protesters.
Around 80 or so protesters also took control of the headquarters of the Rafallah Al-Sahati brigade, located at a farm in Hawari district, some 15 kilometres from Benghazi’s city centre. The Ukba bin Nafi’a brigade stronghold was also cleared of militiamen. Reports of injuries and probable fatalities during these clashes are yet to be verified. The Libyan police moved in quickly to occupy the bases.
The army Chief of Staff Yousef Mangoush, Prime Minister-elect Mustafa Abushagur and Interior Minister Fawzi Abdelal urged the protesters to remain calm. “I call for restraint on all sides, and I also call on the chief of staff to take all necessary measures to control the situation and secure the lives and safety of our citizens” said National Congress Speaker Mohammed Magarief.
Update 24rd September.
The Libyan National Army’s First Infantry brigade’s commander, Colonel Hamid Buheir has confirmed in Benghazi that the Ansar al Sharia militia has been disbanded. There are clearly militiamen still at large. The colonel was kidnapped by masked men from outside his house on Saturday morning. The Salafist kidnappers accused him of being a Kuffer and threatened his life. His kidnappers received a phone call from someone instructing them not to kill him. He was released by being thrown from a car on to a roundabout. It would be interesting to find out who made the telephone call. Five soldiers from Colonel Buheir’s First Infantry Brigade were found dead. They had been shot through the head with their arms tied behind their backs in the Hawiya district of Benghazi.
There are other significant questions which remain unanswered. How did the group who killed the US ambassador on 11th September know his travel plans? He was on a brief visit to Benghazi and his travel plans were said to be secret as was the location of the safe house in which he was to stay.
The Benghazi militias which are to brought under formal military control appear to be the Rafallah Al-Sahati brigade, the Sidi Hussein Martyrs brigade, and the Abu Salim brigade. The Ansar Al-Sharia brigade has apparently agreed to disband. The Rafallah Al-Sahati brigade is to be merged with the 17 February brigade which has for some time submitted to government control as has the Libya Shield brigade.
Updated 27th September 2012
According to the Libya Herald today the Human Rights Watch has called for a change to Libyan Law 38 of 2012 which grants immunity for any acts “made necessary by the 17 February revolution”. It also calls for the abolition of Article 2 of Law 38, which, it argues, legalises interrogations by armed militias and other bodies.
Update 27th September
An interesting time line from the Washington Post…..
Update 28th September
Posts on my Facebook and reports from the Libya Herald are suggesting that the Congress for Benghazi has noted the progress made since last Friday in bringing the militias into the government fold and re-establishing the role of the National Army and police. The Congress has called for all revolutionaries to join the organs of the state or otherwise disband. Facebook posts, as far as I am able to translate them, suggest that ordinary citizens of Benghazi want a peaceful future without interference from militant militias or from the US or Europe. They clearly want to order their own lives and are aware that they fought for, and voted for, a democracy. However, a bomb exploded early yesterday outside the Security Directorate. There are rumours of another ‘Save Benghazi’ street demonstration today. There were 11 deaths after the clashes with militias last Friday.
Later from my Facebook;The statement issued by the organizers of Juma Save Benghazi 2012.09.21…..” we publish this statement …
To assure you that we have decided to postpone our demonstration … After the National Conference resolution. And members of the National Congress of Benghazi…. they promoted our demands … They pledged to implement them …”
Update 30th Seprember
This interesting background piece from the New York Times suggests that the CIA had a listening post in Bengahzi…
Update 5th November 2012
I missed this about the tribal leaders meeting in Benghazi in September 2012. It is hard to read but important.
Update 10th November 2012.
The Boston Herald carries an ATP reporrt about the US response to the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi. It makes a number of things clear and is worth reading;
Update 18th November 2012
The David Petraeus story becomes very intersting for Libyans. He has given evidence before a US Congressional Committe and the LIbyan Herald carried this yestarady.
Update 21st November 2012
This is the 18th assassination of high level security officials in Benghazi since the revolution. They were all sometime senior officials of the Gadaffi regime.
Update 23rd November 2012
More on Benhgazi’s top policeman.
Update 10th December 2012
The long delay in finding the killers of Ambassador Stevens is making the US restive. See this in the Libya Herald:
Update 19th December 3012
This from Al Jazeera today sheds more light on the killing of Ambassador Stevens.
and Libya’s new Minister of the Interior and Defence set out their priorities, putting the security situation in Benghazi first.
Update 9th January 2012
An interesting piece – worth following up;
Update 19th January 2013
The continued killings in Benghazi has led to speculation that it might be declared a military zone;
Update 23rd January 2013
In which Mrs Clinton expresses her views before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about the killing of Ambassador Stevens:
Update 25th January 2013
UK citizens are told to leave Benghazi immediately:
….and the killing continues
Update 29th June 2016
This in the British newspaper The Guardian tells us much about the response in the USA to the killing of Ambassador Stevens in Benghazi.
Yesterday was the anniversary of the execution of Libyan hero Omar Mukhtar. This is a short note in memoriam.
The Italian occupation of Libya, which commenced in 1911, entered an aggressive phase during Mussolini’s Fascist regime. Then Italians colonists launched a campaign of ‘re-conquest’. They began to pacify the defiant tribes with no little brutality.
Organised resistance by the tribes was impossible so they pursued a classical guerrilla war where Italian sentries were shot, supply columns ambushed, and communications interrupted. There was a succession of small actions and acts of sabotage in different parts of the country.
At first the Italians responded by courting the favour of those tribes, or parts of tribes, near the towns. By offering employment, subsidies and arms, they hoped to turn them against the rebels. In their minds there were two types of tribe, the sottomessi, that is the submitted, and the rebelli,
They thought they had gained the loyalty of the sottomessi to support them against the rebelli. They were to be constantly disappointed. The sottomessi supplied arms, ammunition, food, intelligence, shelter and funds to the rebelli. Sometimes the tribal sheiks would arrange amongst themselves who would submit and who would take the field.
To their consternation, the Italians had overlooked or misinterpreted, as many do, the powerful Bedouin law. The nine Sa’adi tribes of East Libya and their clients were all Bedouin, jealous of each other and hostile to tribes other than their own. The males of each tribe were duty-bound to avenge a slain kinsman. The group of males within the tribe who shoulder this collective responsibility is called the amara dam. The other side of this coin is the duty to protect and aid a living kinsman. This is at the root of Bedouin values. The common ancestry and the kinship of the Sa’adi tribes overrode the lesser demands. The tribes were united by blood, Islam and a common way of life against the Italians.
As the Italian proconsul Graziani wrote of the Second Senussi War. “The entire population thus took part directly or indirectly in the rebellion.” However the guerrilla war was led by some notable families who have received less attention than they deserve. They were the Abbar and the Kizzih of the Awaquir, the Saif al Nasr of the Aulad Suliman, the Bu Baker bu Hadduth of the Bara’asa, the Lataiwish of the Magharba, the Abdalla of the Abaidat, the Asbali of the Arafa, the Suwaikir and the Ilwani of the Abid and the Bu Khatara bu Halaiqua of the Hasa. The homelands of the tribes which these families led stretched from the desert south of the present city of Sirte to the Marmarica in the east around the city of Tobruk. All of this territory was ideal for guerrilla warfare.
The tribal leaders were formidable but they needed the coordinating hand of a leader. They found it in the person of Omar Mukhtar who brought not only his considerable energy and talents into the field but also the network of Senussi lodges and intelligent personnel stretched throughout the tribal homelands. The Islamic Senussi order had for a long time planted seminaries amongst the Bedouin tribes of Eastern Libya. They were staffed by a leader or sheik and a band of the Ikwan (brothers) who educated the young and gave religious and practical leadership.
In the Senussi sheik, Omar Mukhtar, they had a leader who, though he was more than sixty, was an experienced soldier, a talented tactician with an almost unique ability to keep the peace between the fractious tribal detachments which he commanded, perhaps because of his Bedouin birth. His parents were members of a Minifa (Marabtin al-sadqan) tribe from the Marmarica. Between 1912 and 1931 he planned all the gruella operations, gathered and evaluated the intelligence, organised the logistics and finance and led a band of his own.
The Italians response grew more heavy handed as the war progressed. They found that the sottomessi were supplying the rebellei, so they commenced by disarming the non-combatant tribesmen. They went on to harsher methods to stop the flow of rebel volunteers, ammunition and weapons, money and food from the sottomessi. They used the well tried methods of arrests, restricting civilian movements, deportations, aerial bombardment and strafing of recalcitrant tribes. They blocked and poisoned desert wells, confiscated precious livestock and barbed wire was liberally strewn around to restrict the seasonal migrations. The rate of executions was alarming but it was in concentration camps that the sottomessi who were much depleted in health, morale and numbers.
They went after the Senussi lodges, destroying them and deporting their leaders. They captured Omar Mukhtar in September 1931 when he was ambushed near Baida. He was wounded in an arm. His horse was shot and pinned him to the ground. He was taken prisoner and tried in a hurry. The Italians made a spectacle of his final moments. He was hanged at a place called Suluq before an audience of 20,000 Libyans assembled there by their colonial masters. The rebellion was ended. A number of tribal leaders attempted to escape to Egypt.
The work of British WWI leader of the Arab Revolt against Turkish rule, T.E. Lawrence, is now studied by military personnel as the consummate strategist of guerrilla warfare. He was, first and foremost, an intellectual soldier. He wrote this in his ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’.‘Suppose we were an influence (as we might be), an idea, a thing invulnerable, intangible, without front or back, drifting about like a gas? Armies were like plants, immobile as a whole, firm-rooted, and nourished through long stems to the head, we might be a vapour, blowing where we listed. Our kingdoms lay in each man’s mind, as we wanted nothing material to live on, so perhaps we offered nothing material to the killing. It seemed a regular soldier might be helpless without a target. He would own the ground he sat on, and what he could poke his rifle at.’
Omar Mukhtar’s most formidable enemy the Italian proconsul Graziani wrote this: ‘[the situation was] like a poisoned organism which sets up at one point of the body, a poisoned bube. The bube in this case was the fighting band of Omar al Mukhtar, resulting from the entire infection,.. the entire population took part in the rebellion.’ Guerrilla warfare is most successful when these conditions prevail but in the end the Italians intimidated, decimated and bribed the population into submission. Omar Mukhtar was an octogenarian and still fighting when others of that age are hors de combat! There is a lesson in this for soldiers and geriatrics!
So was Omar Muhktar or T.E. Lawrence the best guerrilla leader?
Omar Mukhtar coordinated and led the Cyrenaican tribes in a guerrilla war against the Christian Italian occupiers of their homelands. The Italians had displaced the tribes from the more fertile regions in the Gebel Akhdar and replaced them with Italian colonists who were given plots of land on which on which to farm.
Whilst giving proper weight to the tribal leaders already mentioned above, it is clear that the overall strategy and coordination of the long and brutal battle to regain their land was exercised by one charismatic and talented man in the person of Omar Mukhtar. He was able to use the extensive network of Senussi Ikwan who were trusted by the tribal leaders.
It is clear that the Senussi leadership brought the tribes together in a battle against a common enemy but it must not be forgotten that the sense of kinship amongst the nine Sa’adi tribes of Cyrenaica was a major factor in keeping the revolt going. Nor should we forget that Omar Mukhtar was able lead a legitimate jihad against the Christian colonists. His rebellion was crushed and he was hanged before a crowd of 20,000 Libyans assembled by the Italians in September 1931.
To criticise T.E. Lawrence is unpopular, especially in Britain. He was elevated to hero status after the Great War for his role in the Arab Revolt against the Turks which supported the British and Commonwealth armies in the capture of Damascus in October 1917. Lawrence was, in fact, a British Liaison Officer attached to the Sherifan leader, Emir Feisal.
Lawrence was not the only British officer involved in the affair but he was notably influential, not least because he was the conduit through which the large British subsides reached the key players in the Arab Revolt. He was able to persuade the British to wager huge amounts of money on the Sherifan leadership of whom they knew very little.
After the war he gained what we now call ‘celebrity status’ as the ‘Uncrowned King of Arabia’ through the person of an American showman called Lowell Thomas who toured around the UK and USA with a slide show in which he portrayed Lawrence as a romantic hero. After World War One there was a deep need amongst the British to find an individual war hero to offset mass slaughter of trench warfare in which individuality was destroyed.
John Oakes (with thanks to the historian and anthropologist E.E. Evans-Pritchard)
Update 22nd January 2013
An Omar Mukhtar museum is planned for Benghazi according to the Libya Herald
Update 12th November 2014
It is reported that the statue of Omar Mukhtar has disappeared from Tripoli.
Janet Daley, writing in the British ‘Sunday Telegraph’ today, appears to argue that the anti-American violence in the Islamic world is a by-product of President Obama’s Middle East policy. She states that: ‘He [Obama] retreated dramatically from confrontation in the Middle East: so much so that when the opportunity arose to remove the tyrant Gaddafi from power, he would offer only belated back-up to an Anglo-French initiative. (This did not, of course, prevent him taking credit, after the fact, for liberating the people of Libya from their oppression.)’
It is likely that he was wary of intervention for a number of reasons. As the events in Libya were unfolding I was writing my book ‘Libya – The History of Gadaffi’s Pariah State’ and said this therein: ‘The French and British governments had been working hard to construct a consensus in favour of military intervention on the good and clear evidence that Gaddafi was murdering civilians. President Sarkozy of France was taking the lead, perhaps to boost his popularity ratings which had slipped alarmingly. The Arab League was in favour of intervention since a number of its members were less than happy with Gaddafi, though their contribution was unlikely to extend further than diplomatic manoeuvring.
The USA was wary. The CIA had been concerned for some time about the uncomfortable presence of Libyan jihadists in Derna and Benghazi, who had been involved in the Afghan war. Libya watchers, and there must have been some in the CIA, MI6 and elsewhere, will not have forgotten the Islamic fundamentalist violence in the Gebel Akhdar (Green Highlands) of Cyrenaica – now called East Libya – between 1995 and 1998. The violence was fomented and largely controlled by ‘The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group’. It was ruthlessly suppressed by Gaddafi using the Libya Air Force, though the aircraft that did the strafing and bombing were flown by Cubans and Serbs.’
In my blog of 13th September 2012 (LIBYA – HOW THE LIBYAN INTERIM NATIONAL COUNCIL ASKED FOR NATO’S HELP IN MARCH 2011) I explained how President Sarkozy opened a ‘back channel’ with the anti-Gadaffi leadership in Benghazi and recognised it as the legitimate government of Libya thus pre-empting others. I also showed that Hilary Clinton was sufficiently impressed by the arguments raised by Sarkozy and Jebril [see my 13th September blog] that she saw to it that UN security Council Resolution 1973 was approved, permitting intervention against Gaddafi. I also noted the Sarkozy’s foreign minister was excluded from the consultations and that German Chancellor, Angela Merkel. was not in favour of intervention. It might be said that Sarkozy’s actions were partly motivated by a need to improve his popularity ratings.
Despite the lack of unity amongst Europeans and the anxiety about al Qaida franchises in Libya Obama authorised his forces to act. On 19th March 2011, Tomahawk missiles fired from US and UK navy vessels hit air defences around Tripoli and Misurata and French jets attacked Gaddafi’s armour near Benghazi. The city was saved but just in time. Tanks were in its western approaches and Gaddafi’s snipers were firing from buildings very close to the rebel headquarters in the court house. It would be as well to remember that President Obama, for a number of reasons no doubt, offered crucial but limited assistance and required NATO to assume command of the No Fly Zone.’
So Janet Daley is nearly right but her neat change of emphasis makes Obama sound weak. She states that Obama offered belated back-up. I argue that he offered timely back-up but he had good reason to be cautious. An al Qaida franchise may have been embedded in Libya.
This appeared in the Libya Herald online toady: ‘Questions are being asked both in the US and in Libya whether there is an Al-Qaida link [to the killing of the US ambassador to Libya and some of his colleagues]. It is being suggested that the Omar Abdul Rahman Brigade, which supports al-Qaida, was behind the attack. National Congress Speaker Mohamed Magarief himself has already indicated that it is not coincidental that that attack took place on the anniversary of al-Qaida’s 9/11 attacks on the US.’
Some observers are beginning to express their anxiety about the future of the Arab Spring. Pragmatists are pointing out that the present unrest in Egypt, The Yemen, Tunisia and Libya was predictable.
The rise in religious fervour throughout Islam has been obvious and Libya may well be the focus of the religious discord for some time to come. The Salafist movements, such as Ansar al Sharia in Benghazi, are determined to see the strict application of Sharia law and the Islamiseation of government. The Salafists are seriously anti- western and, for them, jihad as inevitable.
The failure to understand the Arab concept of power and the fateful notion that Westminster or Washington democracies are readily exportable have combined to raise false hopes in the West. However, Libya still has time to forge a civil society and a representative democracy.
If it comes, it will be Libyan in character. To be successful it will have to take account minority rights such as those of the Berbers in general and the Tebu and Tuareg in particular. It will also have to balance the aspirations of tribes and clans and make some attempt to satisfy regional loyalties which still linger in the old provinces of Cyreniaca, Tripolitania and the Fezzan.
The virtual destruction of the standing army, the police force and the intelligence services has left a power vacuum which has been temporarily filled by armed militias. They have cohered to form very powerful power broking groups and this is probably the greatest challenge to the will of the Libyan people as expressed in recent elections.
The lack of towering figures, such as Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu in South Africa, has made reconciliation difficult between the ex Gadaffi supporters and the new militias. Gadaffi’s use of foreign mercenaries from sub-Saharan Africa has resulted in serious racial attacks on black people and the incarceration and alleged torture of a large number of foreign workers.
Control the oilfields is still not secure in government hands and tribes, such as the fierce al Zawya in southeast Libya, have threatened to interrupt production in their territories.
The late King Idris, who reigned in Libya between 1951 and 1969, made sure that he controlled the army and the police force and he constantly adjusted the balance of power between them. Gadaffi pursued a similar policy but he often shot or exiled those commanders who threatened him – and they were often the most competent. It may be cynical to suggest that he who controls the army, the police and the intelligence service controls Libya. It would be a sad outcome were this to be proved correct and a new dictator emerged.
It will take time to forge a new Libya. In the meantime those who express impatience with the progress towards democracy might remember that the French revolution resulted in the Reign of Terror. The Spanish have yet to settle the Basque separatist problem. The United Kingdom’s unity is threatened by the Scottish Nationalist Party and sectarian violence broke out in Northern Ireland but a few days ago. Last summer’s riots in Britain were violent reminders that Westminster democracy is not always effective.
A report in the Libya Herald tells us that the man from Benghazi, Mustafa Abushagur, was yesterday elected by the General National Congress as Libya’s Prime Minster. Let us hope that he has the courage to face the reckless killers of the US ambassador, Chris Stevens, and his colleagues on the anniversary of the outrage on 11th September 2011. Perhaps the story of how the Interim National Council asked for US, French and British help when Gaddafi’s forces were about to take Benghazi will stiffen his resolve
When Benghazi was in peril the newly formed Interim National Council needed outside help. One of France’s controversial and colourful personalities arrived in a greengrocer’s van to rescue them. The romance, for that it certainly was, has gained credence in Benghazi and may become the accepted version of events.
Bernard-Henry Lévy was the hero. Lévy, or BHL as he is known in France, was a friend of Nicholas Sarkozy. The friendship was complicated by differing political views and by a connection with Carla Bruni, the current Mrs Sarkozy.
The story may be challenged in detail but it is corroborated by a number of sources. BHL had been in Egypt to cover the events following the Arab Spring uprising. He got wind of events in Libya but was called back to Paris on business. On 27th February he contacted President Sarkozy and suggested that he was travelling to Benghazi and might contact the rebels. He appears to have obtained Sarkozy’s blessing, though what passed between them is unlikely to emerge. Lévy suggests, and he is probably right, that Sarkozy was looking for a way to contact the rebels but had no idea who to talk to.
BHL chartered an aircraft and flew to Mersah Matruh, the nearest Egyptian airport to Sollum on the Libyan border. He was accompanied by Gilles Hertzog and the photographer, Marc Rousell. They found the border crowded with refugees but managed to gain entry to Libya early on 1st March. They found a van loaded with vegetables on its way to Tobruk, in which they bought or begged a ride. From Tobruk they went to al Baida and were said to have met the Chairman of the Transitional Council, with whom they travelled to Benghazi.
Lévy, Hertzog and Rousell reached the Tebesti Hotel in Benghazi, where they heard that there was to be a meeting in a private villa of the National Transition Council on 3rd March. Lévy, who implied that he was the personal representative of the French President, managed to insinuate himself into the meeting. This was, perhaps, his finest moment.
BHL addressed the meeting with a short speech and then asked if he might contact President Sarkozy. There was nothing to lose and the Council agreed. Apparently using an old cell phone, he contacted President Sarkozy personally. On 5th March Sarkozy issued a press release, in which he welcomed the formation of the Interim National Council. This was the Council’s first sign of legitimacy. The news brought hope and a number of French flags sprouted around Benghazi.
By the following Monday Lévy was in Paris and in contact with Mr Sarkozy. By Thursday National Transition Councillor Mohammed Jebril was in Sarkozy’s office in the Elysee Palace and an agreement of considerable importance was reached. Sarkozy agreed to recognise the National Transitional Council as the legitimate government of Libya. Lévy, who was present, implied that the Council was certainly not asking for troops on the ground but for the imposition of a No Fly Zone. Sarkozy agreed to bomb three key airfields in Libya, notably the one in the south used for receiving mercenaries from Chad and elsewhere.
The diplomatic agreement was announced by Sarkozy without the knowledge of the French Foreign Minister who heard it when getting off a train in Brussels on his way to a conference. David Cameron had, however, been forewarned.
Sarkozy now needed a UN Security Council Resolution in favour of intervention. For this he needed the USA to approve. He believed he had the UK on his side and he could persuade the EU, the Arab League and the Africa Union.
Good fortune played another card. Hilary Clinton was due in Paris for a G8 meeting on 14th March. She agreed to meet Jebril then. He travelled to Paris on that day and was met by Lévy at Le Bourget.
Jebril found his meeting disappointing and was very upset. He was sure he had failed to convince Mrs Clinton. He had a nervous and depressing wait in BHL’s apartment until 4 pm, when Sarkozy called to say that the USA was minded to cast a vote in the UN in favour of intervention.
On Thursday 17th March, resolution 1973 was put before the UN Security Council in New York, when France, Britain and the USA were among the ten who voted in favour of the use of all necessary means to protect civilian lives in Libya. Russia and China were amongst five nations which abstained.
On 19th March, Tomahawk missiles fired from US and UK navy vessels hit air defences around Tripoli and Misurata and French jets attacked Gaddafi’s armour near Benghazi. The city was saved but just in time. Tanks were in its western approaches and Gaddafi’s snipers were firing from buildings very close to the rebel headquarters in the court house.
Paraphrased from The History of Gaddafi’s Pariah State by John Oakes and published by the History Press in 2011
John Oakes 13th September 2012