Berenice Stories

Short Stories by John Oakes

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Libya and the law of unforeseen consequences (Update 31st January 2013)

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When President Sarkozy and Prime Minister Cameron gave their support to the ‘17th February’ rebellion in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi they may not have paused to think of the consequences, at least in regard to the effect on a number of African states supported by Gaddafi’s largess. What is more the French and British intelligence agencies will now be turning their attention to the changes the Arab Spring has wrought in countries south of the Sahara.
Whilst the fall of Gaddafi was received with wide approval there are some in Africa who may now be lamenting his demise. Amongst them are the residents of the cities of Timbuktu and Gao where the river Niger bends northwards to meet the Sahara. These were the ancient entrepots of the trans-Saharan slave and gold trade in the now troubled West African state of Mali.
Mali is a big, landlocked country much of which is the homeland of the Tuareg, the famous ‘blue men of the desert’ who live their unique nomadic life in the Sahara and whose origin is a mystery and customs warlike.
The Tuareg had been conducting a rebellion against the Mali government of President Amadou Toumani Toure. The Tuareg had also supplied Gaddafi with mercenaries which he armed lavishly with modern weapons. When his regime fell his Tuareg units fled back to Mali with their considerable weaponry and military training. The iron law of unforeseen consequences now made itself felt.
Two events led to further discord. On 22nd March 2012 a military coup by the western trained Mali army deposed President Toure because he was not dealing effectively with the Tuareg rebellion. The military handed over power to a civilian government but were destabilise at a crucial time leaving a power vacuum. The Tuareg rebellion, now stiffened and heavily armed by Gaddafi’s old mercenaries, took advantage and grabbed control of the province of Anzawad, their old homeland, an area in the north of Mali nearly as large as France.
There were others lurking in the background ready to piggyback on the Tuareg rebellion. Amongst them were men of an al Qaeda franchise called Ansar Dine. Its name means “Defenders of the Faith” and its followers embrace a puritanical form of Islam known as Salafism.
Ansar Dine muscled in on the Tuareg separatists and together they declared an independent Islamic state in Northern Mali. However they were uneasy bedfellows. At first Ansar Dine’s turbaned fighters gained a reputation for keeping order after outbreaks of looting. When they started enforcing strict sharia law they earned hostility from locals in Timbuktu and Gao who practised a more tolerant style of Islam.
In June 2012, the Movement for Jihad and Unity in West Africa (MUJAO), another al-Qaeda linked group with Algerian connections, took control of the headquarters of the Tuareg separatists in northern Mali. The Mali government has so far been powerless to act against them and are currently seeking outside assistance.
In a chilling excess of religious fervour not unlike the Taliban who demolished the ancient statue of Buddha on the old Silk Route in Afghanistan, members of Ansar Dine have begun to destroy the holy shrines of Sufi saints in Timbuktu.
Apart from its historic role in the trans-Saharan trade, Timbuktu was a centre for the propagation of Islam throughout Africa in the 15th and 16th centuries. There are disturbing reports that the Ansar Dine fanatics are destroying, amongst other historical shrines, the 17 metre high Tomb of Askia which was built by the Emperor of Songhai in 1495. The International Criminal Court is calling the attacks on Timbuktu’s holy sites a war crime.
The wider context is important. The conflict in Somalia has been a magnet for British jihadists. They join al Shabaab, Somalia’s principle al Qaeda franchise led by Ahmed Abdi Godane. It is estimated that fifty or so Britain’s have joined them recently. Should they return they will pose a disproportionate threat to the home security services.
The developments in Mali offer jihadists a new home. Its long borders with Algeria make it a threat to France in particular but it will also focus our own intelligence services on a new region in the future.
Update 28th January 2013
As French forces liberate Timbuktu rebels destroy the precious library.
Update 31st January 2013
Prime Minister Cameron visits Tripoli.

Written by johnoakes

July 8, 2012 at 9:47 am

Lockerbie and Abdelbaset Ali Mohammad al Megrahi

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Just after 7 pm on Wednesday 21st December 1988 Pan American World Airways flight 103 exploded over Lockerbie in Scotland, killing 259 passengers and crew and 11 people on the ground. There is a great deal of information in the public domain about this event and the victims’ relatives must hope that much of the speculation it has generated is soon resolved. Abdelbaset al Megrahi, who died yesterday in Libya, was the only person convicted of causing the explosion.

British and US air accident investigators concluded that the Pan American flight 103Boeing 747-121 had been destroyed by a Semtex bomb enclosed in a Toshiba Bombeat cassette recorder packed in a brown Samsonite type suitcase which had been loaded in a container in the forward hold. The timing device which triggered the explosion was said to have been traced back to Libya.

 Al Megrahi was convicted of inserting this bag into the airline baggage carrying system at Luqa airport in Malta from whence it found its way to Heathrow via Frankfurt and thence into the forward hold of the Boeing 747. I remain surprised that this was the method used to get the bomb onto PA103 as there were too many opportunities for the bag in which it was contained to have gone astray or to be delayed on rout from Malta to Heathrow. However, it is interesting to compare – and few commentators seem to be doing so – the story of Pan Am 103 with the case of Union des Transports Aériens flight number 772 which was blown up in 1989. This has been called the forgotten flight.

 On 19th September 1989 a DC 10 of the French airline UTA, flight number 772, was flying from N’Djamena International Airport in Congo Brazzaville to Paris. It exploded over the Sahara desert in southern Niger, killing 170 people. The wreckage was sent to France where air accident investigators found traces of an explosive called pentrite in the forward hold. Pentrite is mixed with other compounds to form Semtex. A dark grey Samsonite suitcase was found covered with a layer of pentrite. The suitcase had been loaded at Brazzaville. Part of a timing device was found. It was traced back to Libya. A court in Paris tried and convicted six Libyans in absentia of causing the explosion.

 There is a great deal we have yet to learn about these two atrocities.


Written by johnoakes

May 21, 2012 at 1:52 pm


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They were so proud of their act of vandalism that they broadcast their mobile phone images around the world last Monday. They desecrated the graves of the British and Commonwealth Second World War dead in the Beloun Farm Cemetery in Benghazi and symbolically attacked its monumental cross with a sledge hammer. This was no spontaneous vandalism. The group was armed, well prepared and clearly felt that it was both right and righteous.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission had maintained this and other cemeteries in Libya throughout the reign of King Idris and the dictatorship of Gaddafi. The soldiers buried there had given their lives to free Libya from the Italian colonists whose rule was often brutal. The vandals were obviously ignorant of this crucial fact. The British role in freeing their forebears was written out of Libyan history by Gaddafi.
The Transitional Government in Libya was embarrassed by the distressing images, not least because British serviceman had once again risked their lives, this time to release ordinary Libyans from Gaddafi’s oppressive regime. However, the act of vandalism by an armed group, one of many such still active in Libya, is one aspect of a difficult problem that needs urgent attention. The inability of the Libyans to deal with these armed groups, called Thwars, is troubling friendly foreign governments as well as peaceful Libyans.
The armed group which attacked the Commonwealth war graves is of a different ilk. It calls attention another problem which should excite the interest of all observers of the Arab Spring and its aftermath. The group belongs to an Islamic equivalent of the Puritans who cleared English churches of paintings, statues, and who smashed precious stained-glass windows long ago. They are the fundamentalists who would take Islam back to its earliest roots and they have recently smashed the shrines of Libyan ‘saints’ and holy men in a similar acts of puritan violence.
One estimate is that there are around 2,000 of them in Libya. That is not many. They are, however, significant because they are ruthless and they practice what the old Militant Tendency was so good at in Britain – the process of entryism. They hijack groups of well-meaning local activists – and have done so with notable success in Egypt.
In Tunis, Egypt and Libya there is a struggle between three schools of Islamic thought. There are the ‘Modernists’ who call for a modernisation of Islam, the ‘Secularists’ who call for the separation of religion and politics and the ‘Fundamentalists’ who are unwavering in cleaving to traditional Islam and who are fervently anti-Western.
We will see the battle between these three for the hearts and minds of Libyans, Egyptians and Tunisians fought out in the ballot boxes and mosques and the outcome will have profound importance for the West.

Written by johnoakes

March 7, 2012 at 11:04 am


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In the 1960s I was running an airline handling agency at Benina, Benghazi’s airport in Cyrenaica. I had been posted there to replace an Englishman who, though excellent at his job, lacked the flexibility and diplomatic skills to operate in the volatile environment then prevailing in the province. He had been so incensed by a policeman’s tendency to offer gratuitous advice that he punched him and quickly found he had outstayed his welcome. Perhaps there was a connection. There had been some unrest caused by his original appointment which had led to the sacking of a young Greek who was thereafter vengeful and dangerous. My own appointment to replace the Englishman was said to have incensed the Greek even further. He had assumed that he would get the job for which he believed himself better qualified.
My main customer was East African Airways which operated a small fleet of de Havilland Comets between Nairobi and London. Benghazi was a convenient and cheap staging post with a hotel, the Berenice, in which the ‘slip crews’ were accommodated.
The East African aircraft staged through Benina during the night. The airport was usually sleepy at this time, except during Ramadan when people became nocturnal and generally sought an outlet for the frustrations caused by fasting in a difficult climate. That is why I was not surprised to be called on such a night to the airport where a troublesome incident was afoot.
I found that an East African aircraft had completed its refuelling, crew changes, cleaning and so on. The passengers had been returned to their seats and the engines were starting up when the Greek appeared, accompanied by his friend, a major in the Libyan Federal Police. The Greeks’ wife was said to be the glue which cemented this useful friendship. The Federal Police were very powerful indeed.
The major had peremptorily ordered the aircraft’s engines shut down and the passengers taken off so that he might inspect its ‘log book’ to see if it had ever been to Israel. There was no log book of course, a point which will not have escaped his Greek friend. When I reached the airport I found everyone in some distress, the Greek out of sight and the major sitting alone in the aircraft cockpit refusing to move. I joined him there, aware that his aim was to provoke me to do something which might allow him to deport me and create a job vacancy.
There is a technique for dealing with this sort of incident. It amounts to taking the problem seriously, behaving calmly and differentially and talking persistently and quietly until some way of solving it emerges. The solution was found when it became clear that the major wanted a parrot. We both assumed that East African Airways would send us one from Nairobi. There are, however, no wild parrots in East Africa; a fact which did not matter at the time since neither of us knew that.
Dawn began to threaten our tedious negotiations. With his Ramadan fast due to start the major traded my assurance that the aircraft had never been to Israel against the promise of a parrot and left the aircraft. He had demonstrated the Greek’s power over me sufficiently for his purposes. The passengers, deprived of sleep and somewhat bemused, were ‘reloaded’ and the aircraft allowed to depart. Sadly, I never found a parrot for the major. He may have been rewarded elsewhere.

Written by johnoakes

October 26, 2011 at 8:37 am


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Down by Tripoli harbour, opposite the Arch of Marcus Aurelius, you could watch little donkey carts loaded with newly dyed wool arrive. The dyers plunged the skeins in the sea water and the surplus dyes washed off the wool and spread out across the harbour. They dyers wrung the skeins out, piled them back on the carts and trotted them away to dry.

Written by johnoakes

October 20, 2011 at 10:00 am


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A military commander from Misurata, Salem Juha, has just been appointed Defence Minister by the Libyan Interim National Council. However, reports coming from Tripoli in the last few days suggest that he has a difficult job on his hands, despite the suggestion that he is acceptable to the Islamists amongst the many Libyan militia commanders.
Abdul Hakim Belhadj, who heads the Tripoli Military Council, is warning of potential conflict amongst armed groups which have stayed in Tripoli. Belhadj, a sometime member of the Libyan Islamist Fighting Group which Gaddafi suppressed in the 1990s, is widely quoted as saying: ‘We need to end the presence of heavy weapons and keep them from proliferating, except among authorized parties’ – by which he means his own Tripoli Military Council. He may have a problem.
At a recent news conference in Tripoli a militia commander, Abdullah Ahmed Naker, claimed to have 22,000 armed men at its disposal as he announced the formation of a Tripoli Revolutionist Council. He asserted that his forces are already in control of 75 per cent of the capital and that Belhadj can only call on 2,000 armed supporters. Clearly Salem Juha, and the Interim National Council, needs to assert control in Tripoli.

John Oakes
5th October 2011

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October 5, 2011 at 8:02 am

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I am trying to recall when I first met him. My impression is that he came to see the new offices which I had opened near the dock gates in Benghazi. I remember his appearance well. He was unshaven and his lugubrious eyes were bloodshot. He wore traditional Libyan dress. On his head was the little white tarbush worn below the maroon one, as was common in Libya. For the rest, a white loose shirt with a waistcoat over it, blue cotton trousers which gave plenty of air to the crutch and were tight about the calves and leather sandals out of which his toes with long nails emerged. Most unimpressive of all was the old British army greatcoat he wore against the cold. I had been in Libya long enough not to discriminate on the grounds of apparel and greeted him with the same deference my Libyan colleagues were showing him.

The next time I saw him he had come to visit us in his new western clothes and to receive our admiration for his conversion into a modern man of substance. He wore a smart suit, shirt and tie, pointed leather shoes – with socks – and no tarbush on his head. Most impressive of all was his shave and coiffure, which had been administered by a barber along with strong perfume. I was strangely disappointed but followed my colleagues with fulsome praise for his westernisation and with cups of Turkish coffee proffered in celebration thereof.

He honoured June and I with a feast and a day on his private beach. His home was distant from the town and reached by striking out into country. There was no road and no features to aid navigation. Simmering pools, caused by hot air refracting the light, filled hollows in the ground; mirages I suppose. After an anxious drive his guests were met by retainers and directed to the shore from whence the metallic sea reflected furious sunlight.

His hospitality was dispensed in his simple tent, pitched on the sea shore and shielded by dunes amongst which his sons and retainers lay discreetly hidden. Their purpose was to protect June against prying eyes and to communicate the progress of the feast to Abbar, who remained in his modest house up on the rise. It was a very small house, flat roofed, stone built and protected by a reef of rocks and cacti.

Abba’s flock of sheep was driven down to the sea to bathe. Caiques passed on the horizon on their way to fish for sponges in the Gulf of Sirte. The feast was Bedouin in style and not suitable for western digestive systems. Nor was it in accord with western customs, though simple chairs and a small table were provided for guests unable to squat.

First came individual tins of a powerful fish for which tin-openers were provided. These were followed by plates of raw egg roughly mixed with chopped red meat. Then, from the house, the big cuscus bowel was carried down along with many legs of lamb, charcoal cooked, though not thoroughly. Afterwards came grapes and water melons. It took many painful, helpless, shameful days to recover from Abbar’s hospitality.

Who was Abbar? He was Mohamed al Abbar, of the House of Abbar, of the Awaquir tribe. The house of Abbar reflected the glory of the great patriot and guerrilla fighter, Abd al Hamid al Abbar, hero of the Senussi wars against the Italians and one of Sidi Omar al Mukhtar’s lieutenants; the only one to escape the murderous clutches of the butcher Graziani after Omar al Mukhtar had been hanged on 16th September 1931.

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August 12, 2011 at 7:27 am