Berenice Stories

Short Stories by John Oakes

Posts Tagged ‘Arab Spring

LIBYA – MURDER IN DERNA

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American readers my recall learning that the Battle of Derna (27th April to 13th May 1805) was the first recorded land battle the United States fought overseas and is now always associated with the heroic actions of US Marine Corps First Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon. They will know that it was this battle that gave rise to the famous line ‘From the Halls of Montezuma to the Shores of Tripoli’.
They may not know that there is a new battle being fought in Derna. Secure as they are in the power of their inspirational Constitution they may also be unaware that the effort to forge one in Libya may be sabotaged by events in Derna.

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. They believe that the true Islam, that of the Prophet Muhammad and the first, second and third generation of his followers, has been obfuscated, contaminated and watered down by constant amendments to its fundamental principles.
The Salafists are sect of Sunni Muslims who have thus far preferred to infiltrate their doctrine into local mosques and schools without violence. They abhor the Sufi sects and destroy the tombs of revered holy men holding that no one person can reinterpret the word of Allah as revealed in Arabic to the Prophet Mohammad and written in the Holy Koran – with the exception of themselves of course, a strange paradox which is not uncommon amongst zealots of any creed.
The more extreme Salafists, some authorities have called them Salafist Jihadists, refuse to become involved in elections because they perceive politics to be anti Islamic. In their view the will of god supersedes the will of the people. In practice this faction would impose its interpretation of Sharia law at the point of a gun. For them, to borrow a phrase, the automatic rifle outranks the ballot box.
The Salafist trend has been revitalized across the Arab world since the Arab Spring and the fall of dictatorships. In its militarized manifestation it has emerged as ‘Ansar al Sharia’ which roughly translates as ‘Partisans of Sharia Law’. A number of armed Ansar al Sharia groups have emerged in Libya, Yemen, Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco. In Libya the groups trace their origin to Islamist militias formed to topple Gaddafi in the civil war of 2011.
This recently appeared on the twitter feed of the Ansar al Sharia Brigade based in Benghazi; “The goal of Ansar al-Sharia brigade is to implement the laws of Allah on the land, and reject the human implemented laws and earthly made constitutions. There will be nothing ruling in this country other than the laws of Allah.” This was clearly intended to threaten the new Libyan Constitutional Assembly formed by a national election which took place the 20th February 2014 and tasked with the job of writing a constitution for the new Libya. The election was successfully completed throughout Libya with the notable of exception Muzurk, Kufra and Obari where ethnic minority issues are unresolved and Derna where the polling stations were closed by violence or the fear of violence by armed Islamist militias. Unless these elections are complete the Constitutional Assembly is unable to function.
Fifty years ago it took me somewhat more than four hours to drive eastwards from Benghazi, up the Tochra pass and through the lush country of the Jebel Akhdar (the Green Mountains) to the little Mediterranean port of Derna. In those days it was a good place to stop for a rest on the way to or from Tobruk, even though it meant a diversion down to sea level via the notorious hairpin bends from the high plateau of the Jebel.
For a number of years I worked with a talented native of Derna whose abilities as a linguist were extraordinary. He was a near native speaker of English and was fluent, as far as I could judge, in French, Italian and Greek. I cannot imagine that he, or the other Derna residents I met in the course of my duties, could become ruthless killers or adopt a form of Islam which rejects both the democratic process and liberal education.
Today no European would hazard his life to stop for a coffee in Derna and it is hard to reconcile my memory of those talented and hospitable colleagues and their well managed town with the stories of murder now emerging there from. What has happened?
We might hark back to the Gaddafi inspired propaganda during the Libyan uprising in February 2011 when it was asserted that an ‘Islamic Emirate of Derna’ had been declared under the leadership of one Abdul-Hakim al Hasadi who was said to be a Guantanamo returnee. Al Hasadi denied having been incarcerated in Guantanamo and stated that there was no Islamic Emirate. This led some observers to assume that Gaddafi’s propagandists had raised the spectre of an al-Qaeda linkage with Derna in order to legitimise his military response to the uprising in the Eastern cities. However, a captured Al Qaeda list of foreign fighters in Iraq contained the names of more Jihadists from Derna than any other city. That, and the subsequent history of Islamist activity in Derna, led some of us to revise this view. Recent events may explain why.
Earlier this April (2014) three of Derna’s Islamist armed militia, the Army of the Islamist Sate of Libya, the Derna branch of Ansar Al-Sharia and the supporters of Sufian Ben Qumu the sometime Guantanamo detainee, formed themselves into a single unit called ‘The Shoura Council of Islamic Youth in Derna’ and paraded unopposed through the town in their ‘Technicals’ and other armed vehicles. A photograph which appeared on 6th April 2014 in Asharq Al-Awsat showed militiamen raising the flags of Al-Qaeda during this parade.
It is not surprising that the presence of Ben Qumu and the show of Al Qaeda flags in Derna leads us to wonder if there are active connections with ‘Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)’ which operates in Algeria, Mali, Mauritania and Niger and aims to replace their ‘apostate’ governments with Islamist regimes. AQIM is a militant group with great regional – and international – reach. Its criminal activities have made it al-Qaeda`s richest franchise. What is more there are those who suggest potential connections between the Derna Islamists and other like organisations such as Boko Haram in Nigeria and Al Shabaab in Somalia.
There are clear signs that disputes have arisen between Islamists in Derna. This report appeared in the Libya Herald on 8th April 2014:
‘One of the leaders of the newly formed Derna Islamist militia, the Shoura Council of Islamic Youth in Derna, has been found murdered. According to security sources, the body of Ali Abdullah Ben Tahir, known as Al-Far (the “Mouse”), was discovered very early this morning riddled with bullets at Karsa, outside the town. He was one of the leaders of the Army of the Islamic State of Libya.
It is not known who killed Ben Tahir, a member of a prominent local family other members of which are involved in the Islamist cause. However, the same security sources say there has been infighting among Derna’s Islamists both on ideological grounds and over who should lead the movement……
Three weeks ago, Mohammed Al-Douri, said to have been close to Ben Qumu was shot dead. A few days earlier four other men, also said to be Islamists, were shot dead by gunmen who attacked the farm near Derna where they were staying.’

The battle for control of post Gaddafi Libya is beginning to focus on the wording of a new constitution. Some time ago I wrote ‘There are three major currents within the Islamic world today – modernism which calls for a contemporary interpretation of Islam, secularism which calls for the separation of religion and politics and fundamentalism which is unwavering in its adherence to traditional Islam and strongly anti-western. We will see these three currents in play should the Libyan Constitutional Assembly be able to function and accommodate all the various factions now competing to get their hands on the levers of power.

I also wrote ‘Seeds of religious intolerance have germinated in the Arab Spring. Are the shoots about to bear fruit and multiply?’ It would seem that they are in Derna.
John Oakes
24th April 2014
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 27th April 2014

In the light of Libya’s efforts to form a democratic government this piece by Youssef Cherif is worth reading.
http://www.majalla.com/eng/2014/04/article55249680

Update 7th May 2014

I am still reading this long and detailed paper on the ‘Sufi v Salafi’ struggle. It is worth the effort in the light of events in Libya and Nigeria.

https://muslimsinafrica.wordpress.com/2013/04/11/sufis-v-salafis-winning-friends-and-interdicting-enemies-in-islamic-africa-dr-timothy-r-furnish/

LIBYA – THE BENGHAZI TREASURE – WHAT WAS IT AND WHO TOOK IT?

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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.
John Oakes

LIBYA – THE ARAB SPRING AND UNREASONABLE EXPECTATIONS

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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.

LIBYA – DEMOCRACY OR THEOCRACY?

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Democracy tends to give sovereignty to the people. Muslim countries prefer to emphasize the sovereignty of Islamic legislation.
There are three major currents within Islam – modernism which calls for a contemporary interpretation of Islam, secularism which calls for the separation of religion and politics and fundamentalism which is unwavering in its adherence to traditional Islam and strongly anti-western.
A new Libyan interim government takes the reins of power on 8th September and has the unenviable task of shepherding that war weary country towards a form of Islamic democracy. It will be a difficult and protracted task.
For the friends of Libya the news of the violent destruction of ancient shrines, mausoleums and libraries has been disturbing. The Sufi shrine of Sidi Abdul-Salam Al-Asmar Al-Fituri in Zliten has recently been badly damaged following clashes that left at least three people dead. In Tripoli one of the most important Sufi mosques, the resting place of the holy man Sidi Al-Sha’ab, was attacked by Islamic fundamentalists. A mechanical digger moved in to finish the demolition, overseen by personnel from the Supreme Security Committee.
Libya’s Interior Minister, Fawzi Abdel A’al, resigned on 26th August after being censured by the prime minister for failing to stop the destruction of the Al Sha’ab mosque. He returned to work two days later leaving observers to wonder about a power struggle behind the scenes.
Much of the problem lies in the number of armed militias which fought in the late civil war and have not yet been disarmed or absorbed into the army. Many of them are led by Islamic fundamentalists of the Salafist tendency. They reject as idolatrous the building of, and worshiping at, shrines which venerate Sufi notables. The possibility that Salafists now wield undue influence in the Interior Ministry via the Supreme Security Committee cannot be overlooked.
The list of attacks is escalating. In Tripoli the Othman Pasha Madrassa, named after its Ottoman Turkish founder, was attacked by a group of armed men at 3 a.m. on 29th August. They used automatic drills to dig up graves and also looted several historic texts from the school’s library.
There are reports from Al-Tag near Kufra in southeast Libya that Salafists removed the human remains from the mausoleum of Sidi Muhammad Al-Mahdi As-Senussi (1844-1902), the son of the founder of the Sufi Senussi Order. On 9th July the historic Sahaba Mosque in the eastern Libyan port of Derna was attacked and the shrine of Zuhayr Ibn Qais Al-Balawi, companion of Prophet Muhammad and Muslim military leader, was demolished.
The Human Rights Watch made this statement on 28th August; ‘We are shocked at the attacks on Sufi shrines in the past few days and more so, at the failure of law enforcement agencies to step in and protect these national heritage sites’.
There are striking parallels to be found in English history. When Henry VIII broke with Rome it released a wave of destruction at the hands of religious extremists. When his son, Edward VI, ascended the throne in 1547 religious reformers of an iconoclastic bent became influential at court. A royal injunction was issued which mandated those who wished to obliterate the symbols of the ‘old religion’ and ‘destroy all shrines. pictures, paintings and all other monuments of feigned miracles…..so that there remains no memory of the same on walls, glass windows, or elsewhere within their church or houses.’ Further waves of destruction occurred, notably during the English civil war and afterwards during the reign of Oliver Cromwell.
There are signs that the Tunisian government is giving tacit approval to Salafists some of whom have caused disturbances recently and a growing number of attacks on Coptic Christians in Egypt are being watched by concerned observers. To the south, Mali has already been destabilised by the al Qaeda franchise Ansar Dine which has destroyed ancient Sufi sites in Timbuktu.
Seeds of religious intolerance have germinated in the Arab Spring. Are the shoots about to bear fruit and multiply? Which way will the new Libyan government turn?

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.
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/africaandindianocean/mali/9832061/Mali-French-troops-encircle-Timbuktu-as-fleeing-Islamists-burn-ancient-scrolls.html
Update 31st January 2013
Prime Minister Cameron visits Tripoli.
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/defence/9840355/David-Cameron-ducks-question-of-defence-cuts-during-Tripoli-visit.html

Written by johnoakes

July 8, 2012 at 9:47 am