Posts Tagged ‘Sirte’
LIBYA – THE ISLAMIC STATE IS MEETING RESISTANCE AND REACTING BRUTALLY. WILL IT MOVE SOUTH? (Update 22nd April 2016)
There are reports emanating from Derna, the port on the north east coast of Libya, that the gang calling itself the ‘Islamic State’ is murdering members of prominent families in a bid to retain control of the town with a show of ruthless brutality. There is a horrific photograph currently circulating on the internet showing the dead and brutalised bodies of three man hung by their wrists in a simulated crucifixion. The victims are said to be members of the Harir Al-Mansouri family. There are reports of armed clashes between ‘IS’ and the Harir family which have lasted for 12 hours or more. It seems that the leaders of local families and tribes have met to plan a way of eliminating the IS gang. The Islamic Sate leadership in the town are clearly rattled. Despite its alarming reputation for the ruthless and rapid exploitation of much of Iraq and Syria, ‘IS’ has experienced some unexpected barriers to its expansion in Libya. There are for four main reasons for this. Firstly, as a late comer, it has not made much progress against the numerous powerful Libyan militias which have their own powerbases and ambitions. In particular Islamic State in Derna and Sirte is in competition with the militant Islamist group called Ansar Sharia currently under attack by the Libyan National Army in nearby Benghazi. Secondly there is no Sunni-Shia sectarian divide which it can exploit in Libya as has with success in Iraq and Syria. Thirdly, the ancient and powerful Libyan tribes have proved resistant to its blandishments. Fourthly, and perhaps crucially, it has not been able get its hands on some of the oil revenue. It has thus only been able to make a lodgement in Derna and in Sirte which is somewhat remote from the military powers centred in Tripoli and Tobruk. It is notable that both of the IS lodgements have so far avoided a major confrontation from either of Libya’s rival governments. That it is meeting resistance to its expansion in Libya may be the reason for its notable brutality in Derna and also for the publication of a video of the execution of 30 Ethiopian Christians in two locations in eastern and southern Libya, two months after it beheaded 21 Egyptian Copts. The video is clearly meant to imply that the Islamic State has managed to expand in Libya from its limited presence in the eastern towns of Derna and Sirte. The west has much to fear from Islamic State attempting to infiltrate the throngs of migrants crossing the Mediterranean from Libya in order to export ruthless terrorists to Europe’s vulnerable cities. However, there is another threat which needs attention. It is the purpose of this blog to warn against ‘Islamic State’ exploitation of the lawless southern regions of Libya (by which I mean the old province known as the Fezzan). These regions, which border on the Sudan, Chad, Niger, Mali and Algeria, would offer a haven for IS and allow it to exercise a perceived influence far in excess of its real power. Should they fetch up there they would find a source of revenue in the trafficking of drugs, arms and people. They would also make formidable ally for Nigerian based Boko Haram which is currently attempting to expand into Mali. It could also exploit the unrest amongst the Tuaregs and to this end has begun to post propaganda in Tamahaq. Once established in southern Libya the ‘Islamic State’ could threaten to mount attacks on the Algerian natural gas complex, Libyan oil installations and the Nigerian yellow cake Uranium mines. Perhaps a lodgement of Islamic State in southern Libya would prompt an intervention by the Sahel states and would, no doubt, disturb the Algerians and bring the French, who have troops stationed in the Sahara, into play. Possibly one of the reasons IS has not so far appeared in southern Libya is that it is within the bailiwick of Mokhtar Belmokhtar also known as Khaled Abou El Abbas or Laaouar, Algerian terrorist of the Chaamba tribe, leader of the group Al-Murabitoun, sometime Al-Qaeda Amir and kidnapper, smuggler and weapons dealer. Mokhtar Belmokhtar has gone suspiciously quiet recently. John Oakes 26th April 2015
BOOKS BY JOHN OAKES 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 17th June 2015 Mokhtar Belmokhtar has escaped death so many times. Perhaps he has escaped again? Read these:- http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/06/15/us-usa-libya-idUSKBN0OU0ZJ20150615 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-33146555
Update 25th July 2015
The Islamic State (IS) in Derna has outlived its welcome. Sometime in early July an IS preacher at the Derna mosque stated the Islamic State supporters were the only true Muslims. He declared all other Islamist militias in Derna ‘murtad’ or, in English, apostate. In this he revealed the true Takfiri nature of IS and its franchises.
The rival Islamist grouping in Derna, the Shoura Council of Mujahideen in Derna immediately issued an ultimatum telling IS to renounce Takfiri extremism and to stop its brutal murders or face the consequences.
The Shoura Council of Mujahideedn in Derna was formed in May 2015 to oppose General Khalifa Hafetr’s Operation Dignity. It then consisted of four Islamic militias; Ansar al-Sharia in Derna headed by Sufian Ben Qumu, the Abu Sleem Martyrs brigade headed by Salem Derbi, Islamic Army headed by Amin Kalfa and the Islamic Fighting group headed by Nasser Akkar. All of these militias have Al Qaeda links and strongly opposes General Hafter. There are reports that Ansar Sharia has since left the group.
It is now clear that IS has been expelled from Derna by the Mujahideen. It was reported to have taken refuge in Ras Hilal in the Jebel Akhdar and to have clashed with units on the Libyan National Army. The Shoura Council of Mujahideen is now in control in Derna.
According to recent reports the Libyan Air Force has made a number of precision bombing raids on Islamist Militia bases in Derna.
These two links are pertinent:
Update 21st April 2016
This in the Libya Herald yesterday tells us that a long and bitter period for Derna may have ended:
LNA claims victory as IS abandons Derna
The Libya National Army (LNA) says it has driven the remaining fighters from the so-called Islamic State (IS) out of the Derna area.
Abdulkarim Sabra, spokesman for the LNA’s Omar Mukhtar Operations Room which covers Derna and the surrounding region, told the Libya Herald that the army had taken control of Derna’s south eastern suburb of Fataieh and the area known as District 400 at the far east end of the town following a new ground and air offensive today. IS forces had, however, managed to escape, he said, claiming that they had pulled out of the town on the express orders of IS’s “caliph” himself, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi.
The terrorists, he stated, had retreated towards the desert road to Ajdabiya, heading for Sirte, taking 32 vehicles with them. They had, Sabra added, refuelled their vehicles at a petrol station on the way before wrecking it.
However, this later report in the Libya Herald shows us that there are still some problems to overcome in Derna:
‘The spokesman from the Libyan National Army (LNA) chief of staff, Colonel Ahmed Mismari, says that LNA planes hit the convoy of Islamic State vehicles as it retreated from Derna yesterday and had killed “many” IS fighters.
The attack supposedly happened after the IS convoy, put at 32 vehicles, had arrived at Al-Mekhili, some 100 kilometres south west of Derna. There, he said, IS had found the petrol station closed and, desperate for fuel, had started shooting at it. They then continued further south. At this point, however, LNA aircraft were mobilised and bombed the vehicles.
Mismari did not say how many had been hit or how many casualties there had been other than “many”.
Following the IS pullout, the commander of the LNA’s 102 Brigade, Colonel Idris Eljali, was now in charge of Derna’s Fatiaeh area and District 400, Mismari added.
Asked whether the LNA was now going to try and take over the whole town, he said that Derna was not an immediate strategic objective. The objective now was Sirte.
However, there were negotiations by mediators with the Derna Revolutionaries Shoura Council (DRSC), he disclosed. It was being given a deadline by the army to hand over the town. He did not, however, disclose when the deadline was.
The DRSC is dominated by the local Abu Sleem Martyrs Brigade. This, Mismari claimed, was divided over dealing with the army. One part, he said, was totally opposed to the LNA. It regarded the army as “kuffar” (infidels). It and IS were, he stated, two sides of the same coin.
However, others in the brigade were more amenable, he said. They wanted to work with the army, but they were still extremists and were making demands about the army – for example, that it must contain no one deemed to be a Qaddafist.
Such demands were unacceptable, he said.
For his part, Abdulkarim Sabra, spokesman for the LNA’s Omar Mukhtar Operations Room which covers Derna and the surrounding region, is reported to have said that LNA aircraft had attacked DRSC positions at the town’s prison and its Sayida Khadija district on Wednesday evening.’
On 2nd August 2014 I wrote this in a post called ‘Can Libya’s neighbours remain on the sidelines much longer? ‘Libya is in a parlous state and her neighbours and allies are deeply concerned for the stability of the region. The insipient civil war is leading to fears that a connection between Libyan Islamists and ISIS in Iraq, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Al Shabaab in Somalia and Kenya and Boko Haram in Nigeria is a likely and undesirable outcome.
Awful events in Sirte have tested the patience of Libya’s neighbour, Egypt, beyond braking point and should evoke a wider international response. The 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians held by supporters of the Islamic State in Sirte are believed to have been murdered by their captors. A video has been released which shows a number of men wearing orange execution suits being killed on a beach and their heads cut off. Sirte, the city close to which Muammar Ghaddafi was born, is situated in central Libya where the Gulf of Sirte meets the desert. It is now said to be dominated by ISIS.
Reuters reports today [16th February 2015] that Egypt’s air force bombed Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) targets inside Libya [in Derna] on Monday, a day after the group released a video showed the beheading of 21 Egyptians there, marking an escalation in Cairo’s battle against militants. It was the first time Egypt confirmed launching air strikes against the group in neighbouring Libya, showing President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi is ready to expand his fight against Islamist militancy beyond Egypt’s borders. Egypt said the dawn strike, in which Libya’s air force also participated, hit ISIS camps, training sites and weapons storage areas in Libya, where civil conflict has plunged the country into near anarchy and created havens for militia.
A Libyan air force commander said between 40 to 50 militants were killed in the attack. “There are casualties among individuals, ammunition and the [ISIS] communication centres,” Saqer Al-Joroushi told Egyptian state television. “More air strikes will be carried out today and tomorrow in coordination with Egypt,” he said. The 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians, who had gone to Libya in search of work, were marched to a beach, forced to kneel and then beheaded on video, which was broadcast via a website that supports ISIS. Before the killings, one of the militants stood with a knife in his hand and said: “Safety for you crusaders is something you can only wish for.”
Reuters also reports; ‘Egypt is worried about the rise of Islamic State, especially in areas near its border. It called on Monday for the U.S.-led coalition that has been bombing Islamic State in Syria and Iraq to confront the group in Libya as well.’
The Libya Herald, in a report dated 16th February, states; ‘This morning’s Egyptian airstrikes against the Islamic State (IS) in Derna hit targets mainly outside the town, the Libya Herald has been told. These included military camps to the south and southeast set up during the Qaddafi regime but now used by IS. Other targets are reported as Ansar al-Sharia’s headquarters in the Bomsafr forest between Derna and Ain Mara, the Abu Salim brigade headquarters and the Jebel Company buildings serving as the IS headquarters and ammunitions store. The one exception appears to have the targeting of the home in central Derna’s Bab Al-Shiha area of Bashar Al-Drissi, one of the IS leaders. There were reports he had been killed two months ago but it is now said that he was injured in today’s action and taken to hospital.’
On 4th November 2014 I wrote this in a post entitled ‘The Islamic Caliphate of Eastern Libya and its Implications’ ; Those who advocate dialogue with the Islamic extremists may find little enthusiasm for their position in Libya’s eastern neighbour, Egypt, which is fighting a bloody war in Siani. According to Egyptian government figures, more than 500 people, most of them military and security forces personnel, have been killed across Egypt in militant attacks in the past year. The extreme Islamist group Ansar Bayt al Maqdes has claimed responsibility for many of these attacks. Ansar Bayt al Maqdes may hope to establish a Provence of the Islamic State in the Sinai Peninsula. Should this happen Egypt would be threatened by IS/ISIS on its eastern and western flanks.
In a particularly bloody attack Bayt al Maqdes militants detonated a truck bomb in Sinai at the Karm al-Qawadees military checkpoint Oct. 24, killing 30 military personnel and wounding 27. Karm al Qawadees is near northern Sinai’s biggest town, el-Arish, and not far from Egypt’s border with the Gaza Strip. Another three soldiers were killed in a fire-fight hours after the initial explosion. Egyptian sources have said that initial investigations of the Sinai massacre have thrown up the unwelcome news that a number of the terrorists are undergoing training in eastern Libya. It is also being claimed that the weapons and munitions used in the attack bore Libyan serial numbers. It would not be too difficult to see these attacks in the Sinai as an attempt to destabilise Egypt.’
Reports from Libya today [16th February] suggest that a growing number of Egyptian nationals have been kidnaped in some sort of reprisal for the air strikes
Libya’s hopes of a democratic future may have been beheaded along with 21 Coptic Christians by ISIS in Sirte.
16th February 2015
Some further thoughts on the implications of the Sirte massacre:-
Speaking at Kings College London on 16th February 2015, Sir John Sawers, sometime head of MI6, suggested Britain should consider putting troops on the ground in the wake of the beheading of 21 Coptic Christians by ISIL. He said that Britain needs to hold a debate on whether it is better to intervene, as in Iraq and Afghanistan, or to “pull back” from international intervention. Both approaches, he said, carry “huge risks”.
Another view is expressed by Deborah K. Jones, US ambassador to Libya when she says in her ’17th February address:-‘It is time for Libyans to realize that only they can build a new Libya; only they can save their country. Those who continue to fight, those who refuse to engage in dialogue, must be sanctioned by the international community – and we are prepared to do that.’
It is clear that the UK and the US have no appetite, at the moment anyway, for committing ground troops to deal with the ISIS crisis. However, there appears to be a full blown ‘four front’ war in prospect in which Boko Haram threatens to destabilize Nigeria and is encroaching on Chad, the Houthis crisis in the Yemen is escalating and is hardly noticed outside the Middle East, the Libyan debacle adds a foothold for ISIS on the Mediterranean shore and ISIS in the Levant threatens Lebanon. Egypt is at the focal point of all these conflicts and the recent reduction in US aid for its military is significant.
17th February 2015
Update 18th February 2013
A warning of the threat to Europe posed by IS in Libya
Update 20th February 2015
Was Egypt too quick to respond? This is a thoughtful opinion piece by a notable writer on Middle East affairs.
The Zawiya tribe wields considerable clout in modern Libya because of the vast size and strategic importance of its homeland in the old eastern province of Cyrenaica. From Ajadabia its members are spread out across vast interior regions around major oil deposits and water sources. They also command the trade, legal and illegal, that passes through the Kufra oasis archipelago and along the only tarmac road from thence to Jalo in the north.
Desert traders and nomadic pastoralists the Zawiya conquered Kufra in 1840 subduing the indigenous Tebu which, at some time in antiquity, maintained a notable presence there. The remnants of their dwellings and forts are still visible. Since that time the Zawiya tribe has owned most of the date palm groves of the Kufra oases, employing the Tebu as labourers and extending its trading route into the Wadai, now part of Chad. It is said that Kufra under their rule was the most noted centre of brigandage in the Sahara. Plus ça change – plus c’est la même chose.
The Zawiya leadership promised the Grand Senussi, Mohamed Ben Ali as-Senussi, a liberal donation of dates and water if he would establish a religious community there. This he did and the Senussi order eventually moved its headquarters to Kufra from whence it exercised its moral and temporal suasion and commercial competence over the hitherto predatory Zawiya, establishing a profitable trade in slaves and arms between the south and the north until the Italians drove it out in 1931.
A minority of the inhabitants of modern Kufra are the descendents of the Senussi religious community known as the Ekwan who align themselves with the Zawiya. The Tebu have long been marginalised and since the fall of Gaddafi have acquired arms and become belligerent. Kufra is now a problem for the new Libyan government which has recently declared the south of Libya a military zone.
Libya is a huge country. The very size of it alone would make it difficult to govern but the nature of the terrain adds immeasurably to the problem. The remoteness of Kufra, one of a number of oases deep in Libya, is profound. It is largely protected by the Ribiana Sand Sea to its north-west and the Kalansho Sand Sea to its north-east. The road from Benghazi, the old slave trade route, passes the oases of Tazerbo and Zighen and then the gap in the sand seas to Kufra proper.
In 1941, the famous desert explorer and soldier, Colonel R.A. Bagnold, described the oasis complex thus: “Imagine northern Europe as a rainless desert of sand and rock, with London as Tag (the site of the fort in Kufra), a little area a few miles across, with shallow artesian well water, palm groves, villages and salt lakes, and with a population of 4,000. The suburb of Tazerbo with another 1,000 inhabitants is north-west where Liverpool is. Zighen would be near Derby, and Rebiana near Bristol cut off by a sea of dunes. Cairo would be at Copenhagen, across a sand sea. Wadi Halfar (on the Nile) would be near Munich, with waterless desert in between.”
The dilution of traditional tribal ties, caused by urbanisation in the coastal towns of Benghazi and Ajadabia, has not occurred in the proudly isolated Kurfa. There, the hostility between the black Tebu people and the white Zawiya tribe has long been endemic. Recently it has escalated into open warfare, largely because Tebu migrants have flocked to Kufra from their homeland in the Tebesti mountain region of Chad. They are seen as inferiors and foreigners by the Zawiya majority who’s social, political and economic dominance they threaten.
On the 23rd of February 2012, the Jamestown Foundation published its report entitled “The Battle for Kufra Oasis and the On-going War in Libya”. It states, in part: “An escalating tribal conflict in the strategic Kufra Oasis has revealed once more that Libya’s Transitional National Council (TNC) is incapable of restoring order in a nation where political and tribal violence flares up on a regular basis, fuelled by a wave of weapons liberated from Qaddafi’s armoires. Though this is hardly the first clash between the African Tebu and the Arab Zawiya tribe that took control of the oasis from the Tebu in 1840, it is certainly the first to be fought with heavy weapons such as RPGs and anti-aircraft guns, an innovation that is reflected in the various estimates of heavy casualties in the fighting. Fighting began on February 12 and has continued to the present [22nd February]. Well over 100 people have been killed in less than two weeks; with many hundreds more wounded.”
OIL AND WATER
There are two other reasons why the Zawiya is important in Libya today. The first has to do with water. From 1,116 wells which tap into the ancient Nubian Sandstone Aquifer system below the Sahara a network of pre-stressed concrete pipes, known as the ‘Great Man Made River’, brings the pure ‘fossil’ water to the Libyan coastal cities of Tripoli, Misurata, Sirte and Benghazi for irrigation, industry and domestic use. Much of the water comes from the 126 wells in the Sarir field, 108 wells in the Tazerbo field and the 300 wells in the Kufra field, all in the homeland of the Zawiya tribe. The potential threat to the government of Libya should the Zawaya tribe sabotage the power supply to the wells and pumping stations is patiently obvious.
The second reason for taking note of the Zawiya tribe is oil. The Sarir oilfield, which falls squarely within Zawaya tribal land, is one of the biggest in Libya and produces around 11% of its total output of crude oil. It flows through a 400 km pipeline to an oil terminal at Marsa Hariga near Tobruk on the Mediterranean coast of Libya. The Zawiya tribal leader, Sheik Faraj al Zwai, has been known to threaten to interrupt oil exports from the Sarir field and some believe he may have threatened the other major Arabian Gulf Company fields of Messla and Nafoora-Aquila. Taken together the capacity of these three fields is believed to amount to over 1 million barrels per day or around two thirds of Libya’s output.
At the time of writing sectarian violence has broken out yet again in Belfast, a part of the United Kingdom. The lesson is that tribal values that are seen as anachronistic are still unresolved in Belfast, as they are in Kufra.
A few words about the Zawiya might be helpful. Its tribal homeland coincides in the northwest with that of the al Magharba tribe which occupies a swath of the shore and hinterland of the Gulf of Sidra, including some of the important oil ports such as Marsa Brega. The Magharba also has holdings in the oasis town of Jalo which it shares with the Awajila tribe and the Zawiya. The al Magharba is one of nine Sa’adi tribes of Eastern Libya which trace their ancestry to the true Arab Bedouin tribes from the Nejd which migrated belligerently into Libya in 1050, pushing the indigenous Berbers into the Jebel Nefusa. The Sa’adi tribes, therefore, own their homeland by right of conquest. Their people are ‘Hurr’ or free.
The Zawiay’s neighbours to the north east are the Fawaqiur, a landlocked client tribe with ties to the Awaqiur tribe around Benghazi. Like the Zawiya the Fawaqiur is a client tribe or ‘Marabtin al sadqan’. Theoretically both these tribes occupy their homeland in return for ‘sadaqa’. Sadaqa is a fee payable to a free tribe for using its earth and water and for its protection. In effect the Zawiya no longer pay the fee but the relationship between it and the Magharba still retains remnants of class distinction.
The Libyan civil war left the Sothern borders with Egypt, Darfur and Chad undefended. Arms from Gaddafi’s looted armoires have been smuggled across the boarder and have done much to destabilise regimes in the Sahel. The new Libyan government has declared Sothern Libya a military zone and intends to restore a semblance of order there. Its relations with the Zawiya will be of some importance.
Update 8th January 2013
The trial of a member of the Zawiya tribe has recently commenced in Tripoli and will be worthy of attention in the future.
Update 9th January 2013
Inter-tribal killing still!
Update 11th January 2013
A member of the Zawiya appointed Deputy Minister of the Interior:
Update 14th February 2013
News of efforts to reconcile the Zawiya and the Tebu in Kufra. The mutual attachment to the Senussi sect is invoked:
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.
LIBYA –The trial of Saif al Islam al Gaddafi and New Labour – Dining with the Devil without long spoons (Update 2nd May 2013)
It is hard for us to remember Tony Blair’s brief sojourn with Muammar Gaddafi in a posh Bedouin tent pitched in the desert near Sirte. In hindsight it was not the wisest of things for Mr Blair to have done. He was on a tour designed to demonstrate the success of his interventionist foreign policy and the love-in in the tent was vaunted as bringing Gaddafi in from the cold and opening channels between MI6 and Gaddafi’s personal intelligence service. When dining with the devil one needs to use a very long spoon and Tony Blair left his behind when he posed in the tent with the ‘Brother Leader’ that day.
It should be noted that a spokesman for Mr Blair said: “As we have made clear many times before, Tony Blair has never had any role, either formal or informal, paid or unpaid, with the Libyan Investment Authority or the government of Libya and he has no commercial relationship with any Libyan company or entity. The subjects of the conversations during Mr Blair’s occasional visits was primarily Africa, as Libya was for a time head of the African Union; but also the Middle East and how Libya should reform and open up.”‘
The MI6 connection has landed sometime Foreign Secretary Jack Straw with the unwanted problem of a potential court case brought by one Abdul Hakim Belhadj, recently Chair of Tripoli’s Military Council and hero of the attack on Gaddafi’s bunker at Bab Azzizia. Abdul Hakim Belhadj, who fought the Russians with the Taliban in Afghanistan, is asserting that MI6 was complicit in his imprisonment and torture by the Gaddafi regime. Because MI6 will never disclose secret information it is a good ploy to try to get Jack Straw into court where he may be forced to tell what he knows. The subsequent bad odour would probably drive a wedge between the CIA and MI6 or at least put serous pressure on the intelligence services which they could well do without.
The other founder of New Labour, Peter Madelson was apparently unwise enough to meet Muammar Gaddafi’s son Saif al Islam al Gaddafi. Mr Madelson’s Achilles heel was always his pretentious social life and Saif al Gadaffi was often seen about in those doubtful circles that the powerful and carless are fond of inhabiting. It will be recalled that the London School of Economics was induced by Saif al Gaddafi to approve his PhD thesis and to accept his cheque for a considerable amount of money. They were lulled, no doubt, by Muammar Gaddafi’s Judas kiss for Blair during the fateful meeting in the desert.
Saif al Gaddafi may soon go on trial in Zintan, an impoverished and remote town some four hours drive from Tripoli. There are no hotels there and the international press corps will be less than sympathetic if it finds itself short of accommodation, restaurants and the communications facilities it has come to expect when covering great show trials. Let us hope that the Libyan government will ship in some temporary facilities in time for the trial. (It is interesting to note that the Libya Herald is reporting today – 21st August – that Libya’s deputy prime minister is denying that the trial will take place in Zintan).
Saif al Gadaffi is charged with war crimes and more but Libya’s new government is said to be threatening to carry out a further investigation into his corrupt dealings with ‘western figures’. According to the Sunday Telegraph and the Tripoli Post, Blair and Mandleson are included in the list. That these two are implicated by the Telegraph, which may be wrong, is not surprising on two counts. The first is that the Telegraph would do that anyway and the second is that Blair and Mandelson have a gained a reputation which allows speculation of this nature to sound plausible. Both of them seem to have dined at doubtful tables without their long spoons.
Update 2nd May 2013
Saif al Gaddafi is still in prison in Zintan. This short piece in the Libya Herald seems to indicate that his state of mind is disconcerting.
Update 31st July 2013
Trails of Gaddafi’s relatives and ministers have begun.