Archive for October 2012
The Battle of Misurata between Gaddafi’s forces and the ‘17th February Rebels’ was bloody and brutal and lasted from 18th February to 15th May 2011. It is sometimes known as the Siege of Misurata during which the bombardment of the city with Grad missiles and artillery by the Gaddafi loyalist army left at least 2,000 rebels and civilians dead and 900 injuries resulting in loss of limbs. For much of the time Khamis Gadaffi conducted the siege on behalf of his father. The anti-Gaddafi rebel forces broke the siege with the aid of air and naval assistance from NATO and considerable support from Qatar.
The siege of Bani Walid by militia forces, mainly from Misurata but also including the Libya Shield Brigade, has been underway during October 2012. As I write it appears to be drawing to a close. Bani Walid is the desert stronghold of the Warfella tribe and was the last foothold of Gadaffi loyalists. It capitulated to the anti-Gaddafi forces 17th October 2011. Since that time the Bani Walid leadership has been at odds with the Misuratans who believe that Gaddafists have been given shelter in the town. It was these Gaddafists, they say, who captured and tortured a number of Misuratans, one of whom was Omran Shaban who died of wounds in their custody after a deal had been struck for his release. Omran Shaban was the Misuratan militiaman who found Col Gaddafi hiding from a NATO air strike in a storm drainage pipe in Sirte a year ago. The death of Omran Shaban was the flash point which launched the Misuratan militias on Bani Walid. They were supported by the new Libyan government and some militias from elsewhere. It is likely that 22 people were killed and 200 wounded in the fighting. The refugee problem was, and remains, acute. On 22nd October the International Committee of the Red Cross estimated that 25,000 people had fled the urban area.
News of the siege of Bani Walid reached the wider world and the USA and Russia exchanged diplomatic views in the United Nations Security Council and there are reports to the effect that the United States has blocked a draft statement, proposed by Russia, on the resolution of violence in Bani Walid.
There has been some speculation amongst international observers about the real reason for the Siege of Bani Walid. Many have missed a significant clue. When the Misuratan militiamen entered Bani Walid in October 2012 they fly posted walls with leaflets in memory of the historic Misuratan hero, Ramadan al Shtaiwi. This suggests that long standing enmity between the Misurata and the Warfella tribes is a prime factor.
Muammar Gaddafi’s policy of divide and rule amongst the tribes created a great deal of bottled up enmity. He showered cash and other inducements on the Warfella tribe to purchase its loyalty during the rebellion. The resentment of the Misuatans who were so brutally besieged is a not, therefore, unexpected. A statement made on 30th October by the currant Libyan Defence Minister, Osama Juwaili, to the effect that the head of the Libyan armed forces, General Yousef Mangoush, has no control over Bani Walid and refugees are being prevented from returning adds to the uneasy confusion felt by international observers.
A small excursion into Libya’s history and geography is necessary to understand the background to the siege and the significance of Ramadan Shtaiwi to the Misuratans. The modern road from Misurata to Ajadabia is built around the shores of the Gulf of Sirte which thrusts its way into the desert. If you look at the map, you can see that there are really two Gulfs of Site, the lesser and the greater. The map makes them look like two successive mouthfuls taken out of the north coast of Libya. The arid and remote hinterland of the Gulf of Sirte, the Sirtica, is the homeland of some notable tribes such as the Warfella, the Aulad Bu Saif, the Al Gaddadfa, the Aulad Suleiman and the Al Magharba.
Almost exactly a century ago the Italians decided to seize the Ottoman province of Libya and colonise it themselves. They captured Tripoli with relative ease but found it much harder to quell the Libyan tribes of the interior. One of the great obstacles to their advance was the tribes of the Sirtica. In order to reach this inhospitable place it was, and still is, necessary to pass through Misurata which is at the eastern end of the coastal oasis surrounding Tripoli.
The Italians attempted to take the Sirtica but the tribes, notably the Aulad bu Sief, soundly defeated them. As part of an Italian counter attack in April 1915 Colonel Miani entered the Sirtica from Misurata with a 4,000 strong Italian battle group. He was accompanied by 3,500 Libyans led by Ramadan al Shtaiwi, the wily war lord of Misurata.
Arab resistance to his advance, commanded by the Senussi leader Sayyid Saif al Din, was concentrated in the Sirtica. Sayyid Saif al Din had with him some of the Tripolitanian tribes, notably the Aulad bu Saif. The resident Sirtica tribes were also in arms against the Italians.
Col. Miani had seriously misjudged his so called ally, Ramadan al Shtaiwi and his 3,500 Libyans, who turned against him and helped Safi al Din’s tribal warriors to defeat the Italians at Qasr bu Hadi on 29th April 1915. As a result of this notable defeat, the Italians lost their own rifles and ammunition, plus a reserve of 5,000 rifles and millions of rounds of ammunition, several machine guns, and artillery with plenty of shells, the entire convoy of food supplies and even their bank. The Arab victory at Qasr bu Hadi has passed into Libyan tribal folk lore and is repeated from generation to generation.
The ancient feud between the Bedouin tribes of the Sirtica and the urban and coastal party in Tripoli and Misurata is probably reasserting itself. Ramadan al Shtaiwi emerges into history again. He defeated a group of Bedouin tribes led by the Senussis of Eastern Libya in a battle for power in the Sirtica on the outskirts of Bani Walid early in 1916. In the Siege of Bani Walid we may be witnessing a resurgence of an ancient feud. History has much to tell us but is too often forgotten.
LIBYAN TRIBES – DO THEY STILL MATTER? (The first of an occasional series about the tribes of Libya) Updated 10th April 2013
Anyone observing the British House of Commons in action in the weekly ritual called Prime Minister’s Question Time during the closing days of October 2012 will be hard pressed to believe that the ‘class war’ is unimportant in the UK. At the same time observers of the deadly clashes around Bani Walid in Libya will be driven to the view that tribal loyalties are still influential in that war torn country. In both countries it is still possible to arouse old enmities and tribal affiliations.
The Bani Walid clashes, though ostensibly to eradicate the last Gaddafists, are largely between two traditional tribal rivals – the Warfella confederation based on Bani Walid and the Misurata confederation based in the city of Misurata.
I argue that Muammar Gaddafi re-tribalised Libya by promoting members of his own tribe and that of his second wife into key positions in his regime.
I also argue that tribal loyalties are reasserting themselves in the volatile and dangerous conditions prevailing in Libya as the country struggles to form a democratic government and a civic society.
There are few authoritative studies of the Libyan tribes available. Gaddafi discouraged research by anthropologists and we are thus largely stuck with out of date information. In attempting to write about the Libya tribes I am taking a considerable risk. I know that and I hope Libyans will rush to correct my errors and fill in the gaps in my knowledge.
There follows in this blog-site a series of notes on the Libyan tribes. As background reading I hope you will bear with me and read this extract from the second draft of my book – ‘Libya – The History of Gadaffi’s Pariah State’. It is based largely on the work of E.E. Evans-Pritchard and the Italian scholar di Agostini both of whom may well be out of date but remain the best sources I can find. NB English spelling of Arabic names evolves over time.
THE TRUE ARABS ARRIVE IN LIBYA
1050 and 1051 came the Hilalian migration [into Libya]. Two Arab tribes which came from the Najd, the Beni Sulaym and the Beni Hilal, had been driven into Egypt as a result of a thwarted attempt to enter Arabia. They had settled in Upper Egypt but were true Bedouin with a way of life which was not appreciated by a population amongst whom they failed to co-exist.
The Fatimid Caliph of Egypt encouraged the two tribes to move westward into Cyrenaica (East Libya), Tripolitania (West Libya) and Tunis to squeeze out the indigenous Berbers who were attempting to assert their independence. The new invaders occupied much of Libya with notable savagery. There was a difference, however. It was a belligerent migration, rather than a military conquest.
There are no records of the number of Beni Sulaym or Beni Hilal who took part in this migration. The tribes moved lock, stock and barrel, though in this case it would be better to say tent, stock and camel. The Bedouin are adapted to migrant pastoralism. The Beni Hilal and the Beni Sulaym were capable of moving, slowly over great distances with their adaptable sheep, goats and camels. The camel provided transport and was useful militarily. Their tents are readily erected or struck by females with long experience of transhumance. In this way, the Hilalian migration bought not only intact families but also an intact and conservative culture into Libya.
The Benin Sulaym, the senior tribe, found Cyrenaica congenial and many of them settled there. The Beni Hilal drove on westwards. Five of the Tripolitanian tribes are said to descend from them. The historian, Peter Wright, has suggested that the Beni Sulaym had finally completed their settlement of the northern part of Cyrenaica in the 1060s.
The descendants of the Beni Sulaym are still spread over a large area in Egypt and Tunisia. There are two tribes which claim descent from them in Tripolitania. However, those occupying modern Cyrenaica founded nine famous aristocratic Bedouin tribes. These nine, the so called Sa’adi tribes, are divided into two branches, the Jibarna and the Harabi.
The Jibarna tribes are the ‘Awaquir, the Magharba, the Abid and the Arafa. The Harabi are the Abaidat, the Hasa, the Fayid, the Bara’asa and the Darsa. These nine tribes have pushed out a number of other Beni Sulaym, such as the Aulad Ali who now occupy much of the Western Desert of Egypt……….
Whilst the ancient history of the Beni Sulaym is unknown to the great majority of people of the nine tribes, they are fanatical genealogists and will recount their perceived line of descent from the so called mother of the nine tribes, the eponymous Sa’adi. That they all claim descent for one mother is important because, when faced with a common enemy, the Saadi tribes make common cause……..
The nine tribes own their own homelands by right of conquest. They are, in this regard, freemen and are referred to as Hurr (free or noble). Anyone who can successfully claim descent from the founding mother Sa’ad is a nobleman or Hurr by birth and has the right to the natural resources of his homeland. Each of the nine tribes are divided and subdivided with each section having the right to its homeland (its watan).
There are other tribes which are not descended from the founding ancestress, Sa’ad. They are known as the Marabtin which roughly translated means ‘tied’ and they are sometimes referred to as client tribes.
These are tribes which do not own land. They use it by permission of the Sa’adi tribes and pay dues in kind.
It is time to ask how relevant the Hilalian invasion of Libya is today. As E.E Evans-Pritchard wrote of their descendants when he encountered them in 1943; “[they are] as Arab as any people in the world, proud Tammim and Quarash not excepted”. The tribes that claim descent from the Hilal and Beni Suliem had, until recently: “the same tented, pastoral, way of life, the same social organisation, the same laws and customs and manners, and the same values”. [E.E. Evans-Pritchard, The Sanusi of Cyrenaica, Oxford University Press, 1973, p 46,47.]
John Oakes (26th October 2012)
For books by John Oakes see… (USA): http://www.amazon.com/John-Oakes/e/B001K86D3O/ref=ntt_athr_dp_pel_1 ….. (UK): http://www.amazon.co.uk/John-Oakes/e/B001K86D3O/ref=ntt_athr_dp_pel_pop_1
Update 5th November 2012 ….. The tribal leaders of Eastern Libya met in Benghazi after the untimely death of US Ambassador Stevens. This piece is rather long but worth reading because it shows that the tribes are still relevant: http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/7514/libyan-eastern-tribal-chiefs-population-and-govern
Update 10th April 2013…..The tribal leaders met to call for action to disband the militias which are still dominting life in Benghazi;
LIBYA – KHAMIS GADDAFI IS REPORTED DEAD AGAIN. HOW MANY TIMES CAN HE DIE AND ARE THERE MORE GADDAFI LOYALISTS AT LARGE?
The Libya Herald’s George Grant has been reporting brilliantly from the vicinity of the desert stronghold of the Warfella tribe, Bani Walid, where a number of militia forces from Misurata and others have mounted an attack. The militias have been shelling the hilltop town of 70,000 people for several days. It is likely that 22 people had been killed and 200 wounded in the fighting. The refugee problem is becoming acute. The Bani Walid Crisis Management Centre has claimed that almost 10,000 families have fled the fighting in total.
There are four main reasons for the attack. The Warfella tribe was highly favoured by Muammar Gaddafi and has long been at odds with the Misurata tribe,though both are part of the Berber Hawwara confederacy. Bani Walid was the last town to submit to anti Gadaffi forces during the late civil war (It submitted unwillingly on 17th October 2011). There have been indications that Gaddafists have been hiding in Bani Walid. The Misuratan hero, Omran Shaban, who found the fugitive Colonel Muammar Gadaffi sheltering from a NATO air strike in a storm drain in Sirte on 20th October 2011 has been incarcerated and later killed in Bani Walid without trial. Libya’s congress gave Bani Walid a deadline to hand his killers over. They were unable to do so.
Gaddafi’s youngest son, Khamis, was the ruthless, Russian trained commander of the formidable 32nd (Khamis) Brigade. This was a fanatically loyal, heavily armed, highly mobile and elite force maintained by the Gadaffi family independently of the National Army Command Structure. It was used extensively and unscrupulously in the battle for Misurata. It lost the battle and Khamis Gaddafi was said to have been killed on 29 August 2011 during a NATO airstrike. This was never confirmed.
Rumours have long been circulating that he was still alive and had gone to ground, probably in Bani Walid or possibly in neighbouring Tarhuna where Gaddafist sympathisers may also lurk. The rumours may have been proved correct. On 20th October 2012 it was reported that Khamis Gaddafi was wounded in a fire fight in Bani Walid and captured by Misuratan militiamen. He was, it was announced, being transported to Misurata when he died en route. News that he was dead spread quickly and was received with jubilation in Misurata and Tripoli.
Update 24th Octover 2012 -The fall of Bani Walid to Libyan government troops was announced today, 24th October 2012, along with the capture of a number of Khamis Brigade fighters who had been hiding in the town. A Libyan government spokesman apologised for the premature announcement of Khamis Gaddafi’s death. The Khamis Gaddafi legend lives on it seems.
The striking coincidence is that on 20th October 2011 the dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, was caught by a NATO air strike attempting to leave Sirte and subsequently executed in a summery fashion after being captured by Misuratan militiamen. Whilst his capture and his last living minutes were recorded his execution was not.
There has been plenty of speculation about Muammar Gadaffi’s death. One extreme view is that he was killed by NATO Special Forces to ensure that he would not reveal damaging information to try to save his skin. I suspect that he was shot in anger and in the heat of the moment but there are questions to be answered about how he was spotted and targeted.
As Michel Cousins, the editor of the Libya Herald wrote; ‘Khamis’s death occurred exactly a year after that of his father, the dictator who was captured, then killed, in Sirte. Given the mystery and conspiracy theories that have arisen about Gaddafi’s death, the fact that, like him, Khamis was captured by Misuratan forces and then died will certainly trigger a mass of allegations about his demise.’ Michel Cousins is right. Rumours arouse dangerous emotions. For example, even now Gadaafist sources are suggesting that the Misuratans are preparing to ‘fake’ Khamis Gaddaf’s death.
About 500 protesters broke into the grounds of Libya’s parliament building in Tripoli on Sunday to demand an end to violence in Bani Walid. They were said to be Tripoli residents with roots on Bani Walid. They were prevented from entering the building where the General National Congress was in session.The former Khamis Brigade base to the west of Tripoli was attacked last Saturday. It was later retaken by government forces from the Thunderbolt Battalion. The attackers may have been from the Wirshefana tribe seeking weapons or attempting to divert the armed forces from the attack on Bani Walid. Also on Saturday around 400 protesters stormed the offices of the Al Hurra television station in Benghazi after it announced the arrest of Gaddafi’s spokesman Moussa Ibrahim and the capture and death of Khamis Gaddafi.
Two of Gadaffi’s other sons are still the focus attention. Saif al Islam Gaddafi is incarnated about 85 miles south west of Tripoli in the Berber town of Zintan. The Libyan government has not been able to have him transported to Tripoli and nor is it yet able to bring him to trial. His brother, the ‘play boy’ Saadi Gadaffi, is under nominal house arrest in Niger. He has been seen with a coterie of ex Gaddafist army officers enjoying the high life in Niamey. The government of Niger appears to be reluctant to extradite him to Libya.
The killings in Benghazi of senior military officers and policemen who defected from the Gadaffi regime are still unsolved. Around 15 have been killed so far. Are the killers attempting to purge the army and police force of Gaddafists? There is another hypothesis which gains strength in the light of Khamis Gadaffi’s sojourn in Bani Walid. Are the Benghazi ‘hit list’ killers undercover Gaddafists who are attemting to eliminate those they consider traitors?
To lose and ambassador is not a good thing to do and the Obama administration must be held to account for allowing a popular one to be killed in Benghazi on 11th September 2012. It seems that the Governor Romney’s campaign people have focused their spotlight on Obama’s apparent parsimony in the matter of the diplomatic security budget and suggested that was the prime cause of Ambassador Stevens’ untimely death in Benghazi. However, I argue that this manufactured furore is a white elephant – if the GOP stalwarts will excuse the pun.
I suggest that the question Secretary Clinton should be required to answer is not, primarily, about the funding of security arrangements at the US Consulate in Benghazi. It is about a failure in old fashioned management and local knowledge which allowed Ambassador Stevens to visit Benghazi at such a sensitive time; made all the more dangerous by the violent feelings resulting from the publication in the US of an ill-conceived anti-Islamic video.
Firstly Benghazi is a volatile and, right now, a lawless city. Its citizens have often taken their grievances to the streets, sometimes violently. It was the seat of the 17th February uprising against the Gaddafi regime. It was the provincial capital of Cyrenaica, now called Eastern Libya. The oil fields are mostly within Eastern Libya, as is the source of water for the Great Man Made River which supplies Libya’s major cities. Benghazi’s people feel that they ‘own’ the oil and the water and that they were the first to risk their lives to rid the country of Gaddafi. There is an air of paranoia and Tripoli envy in the city.
There are a number of independent and heavily armed militias in Benghazi. They have developed a taste for summery justice. They were first raised in February and March 2011 to fight against Gadaffi and have neither been disbanded nor absorbed into the National Army or police force. They are employed by the Libya’s embryo government as de facto army units and police forces. One of them was called Ansar Sharia, the most likely perpetrator of the well organised attack on the US consulate during which Ambassador Stevens died of smoke inhalation and the later attack on the CIA annex. The ambassadors’ death seems to have been a deplorable but secondary outcome of the planned attack. There were connections between the Ansar Sharia militia in Benghazi and Derna and the Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. This must have been clear before 11th September 2012.
There was no US Consul in Benghazi. Ambassador Stevens appears to have covered the duties himself, mostly from his embassy in Tripoli. The consulate is housed in a rented villa and appears to have been guarded by a five man security team from the US diplomatic protection service and a rota of Libyan guards employed by a small British security company called Blue Mountain. This company had a Libya partner and other security contracts in Benghazi. The Blue Mountain guards were armed with Tasers and were thus not employed or equipped to defend the consulate against a heavily armed attack. Their British manager appears to have left Benghazi following a difference of views with the company’s Libyan partner. Two of his sometime employees had earlier blown a substantial hole in the consulates perimeter wall with an IED in revenge for their dismissal. The vetting and oversight of Blue Mountain may have been less than rigorous. The consulate was also guarded by members of a local armed militia.
The US consulate in Benghazi was the last to fly a foreign flag. The British had evacuated their diplomatic personnel from their Benghazi consulate after an attempt on their ambassador’s life in broad daylight in a well-guarded part of the city. This incident must surely have focused the attention of Secretary Clinton’s Libya watchers in Washington. The British have been useful allies of the US with whom they exchanged intelligence in the past. They have long and well-earned experience of diplomacy in Benghazi. The Red Cross had also left the city after its premises were attacked. They are usually the last to leave in such circumstances.
The Ansar al Sharia militia brigade is, therefore, the most likely perpetrator of the well organised attack on the US consulate and the CIA annex during which Ambassador Stevens died of smoke inhalation. His death seems to have been a deplorable but secondary outcome of the planned attack. There are said to have been connections between Ansar Sharia and the Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Its rhetoric had been aimed at the US for some time. This must have been well known before 11th September 2012.
There were other pointers which must have alerted the US diplomats in Libya to potential dangers. The 11th September was the anniversary of the killing by the US in Pakistan of Abou Yahya al-Libi the al Qaeda second in command. He was a Libyan and revenge taken in Libya for his killing would have been gruesome publicity for the reach and power of al Qaeda.
There is now some speculation about Ambassador Stevens’ dairy in which he is supposed to have expressed his suspicion that he was in an Al Qaeda ‘hit list’. Perhaps he was. There is a hit list in Benghazi. He would not have been on it. It is aimed at killing senior police and military officers who had served in the Gaddafi regime. So far fifteen or so have been murdered but the killers have not yet been identified.
Ambassador Stevens was popular in Benghazi. He had been posted there very soon after the 17th February uprising and helped those who are attempting to form the new government in Libya immeasurably. He had earned the thanks of the people of Benghazi and, tragically, may have felt safe amongst them. Perhaps he was overconfident. His advisers and superiors in the State Department should have taken more care of him. So the real questions are these. Was the management of the US consulate in Benghazi effective? Was the ambassador’s visit to Benghazi necessary when the conditions there were so volatile? Was the CIA not aware of potential al Qaeda connections in Benghazi? Their expertise and effectiveness in Libya must surely be examined.
US citizens will be heartened to know that a 30,000 strong street protest in Benghazi led to the disbandment of ‘Ansar al Sharia’. However, there have since been a series armed attacks in Benghazi which indicate that many militiamen have gone to ground, taking their arms and ammunition with them.
Update 16th October 2012
Republican senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Kelly Ayotte in a joint
“We must remember that the events of Sept. 11 were preceded by an escalating
pattern of attacks this year in Benghazi, including a bomb that was thrown into
our consulate in April, another explosive device that was detonated outside of
our consulate in June and an assassination attempt on the British ambassador. If the President was truly not aware of this rising threat level in
Benghazi, then we have lost confidence in his national-security team, whose
responsibility it is to keep the President informed. But if the President was
aware of these earlier attacks in Benghazi prior to the events of Sept. 11,
2012, then he bears full responsibility for any security failures that occurred.
The security of Americans serving our nation everywhere in the world is
ultimately the job of the Commander in Chief. The buck stops there.”
Update 26th October 2012
There are a number of commentators who have never been to Libya who seem ready to write about the killing of the US ambassador in Benghazi. The tragedy has become embroiled in the US Presidential election campaign. The possibility of a premature reaction by the US must alarm us all.
The Libyan Prime Minster elect, Ali Zidan, is likely to appoint a cabinet member responsible for finding the killers. There is evidence that two of the possible culprits have been apprehended, one in Egypt and the other in Tunisia.
The flowing two pieces are, therefore, interesting. Let us hope that the US government is capable of sober judgment and measured responses;
Updated 3rd October 2012
Further to the story of a suspect held in Tunis;
Update 4th October
More on Libyan Al Qaeda suspect in Egypt
Update 12th November 2012.
The plot thickens as we await the Congressional hearing on Thursday.
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 yesterday.
Update 21st Novemver 2012
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.
On 1st November 2011 the readers of the ‘Sydney Morning Herald’ may have been interested in Nick Meo’s piece headlined ‘Treasure of Benghazi…… theft may be one of biggest in history’. Nick told them; ‘A priceless collection of nearly 8000 ancient gold, silver and bronze coins has been stolen from a bank vault in the Libyan city of Benghazi’.
Since then the story of the ‘Treasure of Benghazi’ has reflected the unforeseen consequences of the Arab Spring and the damaging effects of the illicit trade in antiquities, said to be the third most lucrative crime after drug running and arms smuggling.
It may be useful to add something about the history of East Libya as a background to the Benghazi Treasure story. In 631 BC the fertile land east of Benghazi, known as the Jebel al Akhdar, received a colony from the Greek island of Thera, now Santorini, which had become overpopulated and was in the throes of a famine. The Therans were soon joined by other colonists from Aegean islands. The colony was successful and gave rise to four daughter colonies, Euhesperides (later Berenice and now Benghazi), Appolonia (the port of Cyrene on the coast below the great city itself), Taucheira (now called Tochra, the ruins of which guard the Tochra pass up into the Jebel al Akhdar) and Ptolemais. These five communities together were sometimes known as Libya Pentapolis.
The level of civilisation in Cyrene was notably high as the great ruins, still seen in the Jebel al Akhdar, amply testify. The fertile region, which surrounds it, was brilliantly cultivated and supplied the Greek city states with livestock, wine, apples and olive oil. In 96 BC the Greek influence in Cyrene began to dwindle, and the last Greek ruler, Ptolemy XII Apion, left it to the Romans in his will. It remained a Roman province for around 300 years.
The best inventory of the lost Benghazi Treasure is given by Martin Bailey in his piece entitled; ‘Interpol confirms Libyan treasure was looted’ in ‘The Art Newspaper’, Issue 229 dated November 2011. He states that it consists of three collections of archaeologically excavated material and is thought to comprise ’364 gold coins, 2,433 silver coins, 4,484 bronze coins, 306 pieces of jewellery and 43 other antiquities’. The coins come from the Mieleu collection.
The Benghazi Treasure contained the most important antiquities to be excavated in Eastern Libya during the Italian occupation which lasted from 1911 until 1942. The finest of the items were found in 1917 at the Temple of Artemis in Cyrene. Dating from the fifth and sixth centuries BC, they included gold earrings, embossed heads and a plaque depicting a battle. Other treasures were excavated in 1937 from the Palace of Columns in Ptolemais.
In 1942, when the British 8th Army was advancing on Libya, Italian archaeologists packed up the treasure and sent it to Rome. In 1961, during the reign of King Idris, the collection was returned to Benghazi were a museum to house it was planned. It failed to materialise. In the meantime the sealed boxes containing the treasure were placed in a vault in the National Commercial Bank on Omar al-Mukhtar Street where they remained until the February 2011 revolution when Gaddafi’s forces were removed from the city.
The bulk of the treasure has vanished, though who took it remains a mystery. Details of the robbery are slowly emerging. The Treasure was largely in sealed boxes placed in metal storage cupboards in a strong room at the National Commercial Bank of Benghazi. On 25th May 2011 thieves drilled a narrow hole through the concrete ceiling and entered the strong room. They broke open the metal storage cupboards and the red wax seals on the wooden trunks housing the collection. The thieves made away with all but ten per cent of the objects originally housed in the vault.
The story now takes a sinister turn. The bank officials did not report the theft until October 2011, over six months later. Fadel al-Hasi, Libya’s acting minister for antiquities, told the BBC there were suspicions that the robbery was an inside job. The robbers clearly knew where the boxes were and what was in them. They left other valuable items in the vault untouched. Suspicion falls on employees of the Libyan Department of Antiquities or the bank’s employees. The later have been questioned several times. Mr al-Hasi has, belatedly, alerted Interpol and international antiquities markets are being monitored.
There were a number of possibilities for the disposal of the treasure. If it was an inside job it might have been stolen to order. Looted and illegal antiquities pass from plunderers to dealers who value them and arrange for them to be moved on to the markets. The enormous increase in the volume of this trade over the past twenty years has caused the large-scale plundering of archaeological sites and museums around the world.
There are those, like Paul Bennett of ‘The Society for Libyan Studies’, who are certain that there are organized bands of antiquity thieves going across the Libya border into Egypt. A number of Roman antiquities was recovered last year when a convoy of forces loyal to Qaddafi were intercepted on the road to Tripoli airport. The loot included 17 stone heads and some terracotta fragments.
Rumours are beginning to emerge. Some early reports indicated that 500 coins from the Benghazi Treasure turned up in Egypt and others have appeared on the black market in Libya. Nick Meo (see above) has reported that an Egyptian farmer was caught with over 500 coins and a gold figurine that may to have come from the Benghazi Treasure.
We have a fair idea of what the ‘treasure’ was but not of who took it or where it has gone.
As President Obama strives for re-election, pressures may be mounting on him to strike at those who killed the US ambassador and his colleagues in Benghazi on 11th September. The process of identifying and selecting the possible assassins in Libya is well advanced. The President’s reactions in this matter will be guided by public opinion at home as well as by strategic imperatives. To allow the killer of one of his ambassadors to go unpunished will have both domestic and international repercussions. Whatever the outcome, the killing of Ambassador Stevens will change the way US diplomats conduct their business abroad and security considerations will limit their effectiveness.
There is no shortage of those who suggest that the USA has lost influence in Africa as a result of President Obama’s weakness. There are indications, for example, that the Egyptian army is ‘retiring’ many officers suspected of being too close to the USA. The al Qaeda led destabilisation of Mali is likely to affect Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso and Mauritania. The tension between the Muslim north and the Christian south of Nigeria will open up many opportunities for the promoters of violence, notably the al Qaeda franchise Boko Haram.
The US policy in Libya must be seen in the wider context. ‘Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’, now in de facto control of much of Mali, has been seeking a foothold in Libya and has found friends in the Salafist ‘Ansar al Sharia’ militia brigade in Benghazi and Derna. The US has long been interested in Derna, the seaport some miles to the east of Benghazi, where a number of young men were recruited to fight with the Taliban in Afghanistan and some have been returned to Libya by way of Guantanamo.
One Derna resident in particular has a most interesting profile according to Wikileaks. He is Abu Sufian Ibrahim Ahmed Hamuda Bin Qumu who was a prisoner in Guantanamo Bay for six years. He was a member of the ‘Libyan Islamic Fighting Group’ and later trained in an al Qaeda camp in Afghanistan and fought there as a commander of Arab volunteers. When in 2007 the Guantanamo Bay issue became and embarrassment to the Obama administration Bin Qumu was released and returned to Libya where the Gadaffi regime agreed to keep him in prison. However, in 2010 he was released from the notorious Abu Salim jail as part of an amnesty for anti-regime prisoners. He is one of founders of the ‘Ansar al Sharia’ militia in Derna and Benghazi and it is this group which is suspected of the attack on the US embassy on 11th September. A 30,000 strong street protest in Benghazi led to the disbandment of ‘Ansar al Sharia’ but there have recently been a series armed attacks in Benghazi which indicate that many militiamen have gone to ground, taking their arms and ammunition with them.
The investigation which followed the killings on 11th September is not yet complete but an interesting hypothesis is developing along the following lines. Soon after the civil war in Libya got underway the US established a CIA post in an annex near the US embassy in Benghazi. From here signals traffic between Libyan suspects and al Qaeda units were monitored. It is probable that the location and function of this annex became known to the Ansar al Sharia militia. It is also supposed, on good grounds, that this militia was recruited by ‘Al Qaeda in the Arab Maghreb’.
It is argued that ‘Ansar al Sharia’ made a plan to attack the embassy and the annex which were surrounded by high walls and guarded by some US security specialists and some locally employed contract personnel. The plan was left ‘on the vine’ to await an opportune moment for its execution.
That came on 11th September when angry crowds demonstrated outside the US embassy against a now notorious and ill-conceived anti-Islamic video. Ambassador Stevens was also visiting the embassy on 11th September, apparently to interview a Lebanese contractor. Did Ansar al Sharia have foreknowledge of the ambassador’s presence in Benghazi?
When the protest started outside the embassy ‘Ansar al Sharia’ militiamen launched their attack. They were appropriately armed and used mortars to lob bombs over the high walls. The nature of the attack in which weapons were used skilfully means that experienced fighters were involved. It was well planned operation which took the form of two assaults, the first on the embassy and the second on the so called annex situated about half a mile distant.
US drones launched above Benghazi and Derna soon after the attack picked up telecoms between ‘Ansar al Sharia’ operatives in Benghazi and known al Qaeda units. It is, therefore, likely that the attackers were linked with ‘Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’. Among the American personnel evacuated from Benghazi after the attack were about a dozen C.I.A. operatives and contractors whose presence may have been betrayed to ‘Ansar al Sharia’. There are few foreigners in Benghazi at the moment and the presence of so many Americans must have been obvious. It is has always been a city where news spreads rapidly by word of mouth. Unless the US personnel lived without locally employed domestic servants their lives would have been subject to the closest scrutiny.
President Obama will have a number of options to consider. He has, however, made it clear that the US will punish the killer of Ambassador Stevens and his colleagues. What will he do?
There are Salafists in Libya – and in Egypt and Tunisia – who hold that the principles and practice of early Islam should govern the social and political life of the people. The more extreme Salafists refuse to become involved in elections and see Jihad as the sole means of achieving their ends. In practice this faction would impose their interpretation of Sharia law at the point of a gun. In their view the will of god supersedes the will of the people. For them, to borrow a phrase, the automatic rifle outranks the ballot box.
Contrast this with a statement made recently by the President of the Libyan General National Council Mohamed Magarief. He told a reporter from Al-Hayat; ‘(In Libya) We want to build a constitutional, democratic, civilian, secular state, but this absolutely does not mean that the constitution or any laws and legislation will be passed that contradict or conflict with Islamic Sharia or its interpretations…….. in the sense that parliament and the government and the authorities, in light of the constitution, are the ones that specify the laws, legislation and decisions and not a religious body’.
This seems to oppose the views of Libya’s Grand Mufti Sheikh Sadiq Al-Ghariani who has called for a Libyan constitution based on Islamic Sharia in which the will of God supersedes that of the public. The drafting of a new constitution is an onerous task and no doubt those charged with the work will consult widely. The Grand Mufti’s views are clearly important as are those of others such as Dr. Umar Mawloud Abdul Hamid and The League of Libyan Ulema.
In this context it is interesting to recall the main points of the Libyan Interim Constitutional Declaration which was drawn up by the Transitional Government after the fall of Gaddafi. It is still in force and appears to give precedence to the ballot box. I believe this to be an acceptable rendering:-
‘Libya is a democracy, wherein the people act as the source of political authorities.
Tripoli is the state capital.
Islam is the state religion.
The Islamic Sharia is its principal source of legislation
The state grants the right of freedom of religion for non-Muslim minorities.
Arabic is the official language.
The state protects the linguistic and cultural rights of all components of Libyan society.’
Update 1st November 2012
The Libyan National Congress voted on 31st October 2012 to approve the government of Prime Minister Dr. Ali Zeidan. However on 30th October a previous meeting of Congress to vote on the government was postponed because a group of protesters, some of whom may have been armed, stormed the building in an attempt to influence Dr. Zeidan’s choice of ministers.
Amongst the protesters were a few Islamic hard-liners (Salafists) objecting to the appointment of Religious Affairs Minister Abdulsalam Mohammed Abusaad. Abusaad is a controversial figure who is said to be a Sufi and thought by some likely to enhance his personal power through the mosques. According to the UK business risk and intelligence company ‘The Inkerman Group’ he is also suspected of dealings with the notorious Mussa Kussa, sometime Foreign Minister and intelligence chief in the Gaddafi regime. Abusaad’s nomination has still to be ratified by the Integrity Commission.
One further controversial figure, again according to the ‘Inkerman Group’, is the new Minster of the Interior, Ashur Suleiman Shwayel. He is a senior police officer and lawyer who has escaped two assassination attempts so far and is unpopular with the Salafists.
Dr. Zeidan, a human rights specialist who was a long-time opponent of the Gaddafi regime, is himself thought by Salafists to be too secular.
Update 2nd November 2012
A report in the Libya Herald today makes it clear how difficult it is to form a governmet in Libya today…Read this:
Update 3rd November 2012
Dr. Zeidan backs down to militias
Update 5th November 2012. A thought provoking piece about the Muslim Brotherhood:
Update 19th January 2013
This is an interesting piece about the Salafist tendency in Tripoli which is worth noting.
Update 30th March 2013
Salafists are doing great damage to Sufi shrines throughout Libya still as this short reports shows: