Berenice Stories

Short Stories by John Oakes

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THE ISLAMIC CALIPHATE IN EASTERN LIBYA AND ITS IMPLICATIONS

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“The (ISIS) jihadists are already here (in Libya). If a real political dialogue does not start in Libya soon, there is only one thing that will be certain: the country will be an open field for Isis”. Bernardino Leon, the head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya……..‘There are a number of lessons to learn from the events in Libya, which apply to other countries in the region. The world cannot afford to ignore the fate of Libya and it hangs in the balance.’ Admiral Lord Alan West – former UK Chief of Defence Intelligence.

It is likely that the Libyan National Army General, Sulaiman Mahmoud Al-Obeidi, will have to fight yet one more battle to save his country from danger. By all accounts he has been chosen to lead the fight to restore democracy to the eastern Libyan city Derna which the armed Ansar Al Sharia militia and its allies have declared to be the Whilaya Barca fil ad-Dawlah al-Islām – that is the ‘Provence of Cyrenaica within the Islamic State’. For them this means that Derna is no longer a part of Libya but owes it allegiance to the brutal Caliphate led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and based in Iraq and Syria. According to sources in Cairo this move follows a visit by fifteen members of Islamic State, led by an Egyptian and a Saudi national, who travelled to Derna from Syria in September.In the Spring of last year, hundreds of Isil veterans, known as the Battar Group or Brigade, who had been fighting in Deir Ezzour in eastern Syria and Mosul in northern Iraq decamped to Derna, aligning themselves to another group. A Yemeni militant later arrived from Syria, in September, to become their leader.
Put simply Sulaiman Mahmoud Al Obeidi, the man who conducted the battle to free Tripoli from Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, has been chosen to lead the new Libyan National Army to fight the difficult battle to root out the ‘Islamic State’ (IS) from its Libyan stronghold. Some Derna residents believe that his forward units are now only 40 kilometres or so east of Derna, awaiting orders to attack.
The magnitude of General Sulaiman Mahmoud’s task should not be underestimated. The Islamic State fights dirty. Its ruthless soldiers embed themselves and their armouries amongst the civilian population so that an invading force must proceed with great caution and implacable discipline. This ‘human shield’ tactic was employed by Hezbollah in Gaza to great effect and resulted in the dreadful civilian causalities caused by the Israelis.
It should be clear that Ansar Al-Sharia has not achieved power in Derna democratically. When Libya elected a House of Representatives this year, Ansar Al-Sharia would not allow the citizens of Derna to vote. They eliminated their opposition by shooting some and terrifying others. They argue that “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 (Libya) other than the laws of Allah.” The Libya Herald reports, they have ‘banned the teaching of foreign languages, mathematics and science and closed both the local Higher Education Institute and the law department at the town’s Omar Mukhtar University, the later because it was not teaching Sharia law, the former because of gender mixing among staff and students’.
The Derna Caliphate has imported foreign judges, one of whom is from the Yemen, said to be versed in Sharia law to preside over new courts. They have already sentenced some youths to a public flogging for drinking alcohol. The sentence for this crime, which in this case was carried out in the courtyard of an old mosque, is 40 to 80 lashes with palm branches stripped of their leaves.
The Libyan government of Abdulla Al-Thini recognises that dialogue with the newly declared Islamic Caliphate of Derna is likely to lead nowhere. The Libyan National Army has already embarked on a battle to free neighbouring Benghazi of Islamic militias. It is clear that Al-Thinni thinks that Derna must be liberated next. In this context his statements in a recent press conference are important; “There are (IS/ISIL) groups located in the city of Derna and other Libyan cities …..Also, even the group Boko Haram from Nigeria is present……Terrorism has no specific place and we have to recognize the seriousness of the existence of these groups to destabilize the security of the country….They will destabilize the country until the state breaks down and Libya becomes divided into a diaspora”.

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 Sinai. 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 Ansar 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.

These heartfelt words of despair written by Osman Mirghani in Ciaro’s Asharq Al-Awsat dated 1st November 2014 are worth noting by all who care for the future of the Arab world; ‘Over the past few decades we have witnessed the systematic destruction of the region and its states—by terrorism, conflict or civil wars—to the point that many people in the region have completely forgotten the very taste of stability and security. Iraq was destroyed and is now facing the likelihood of partition and division. Syria today more closely resembles Berlin after the Second World War in terms of the extent of the destruction and displacement that has been visited on its population. Libya is drowning in destructive wars following the proliferation of arms and militias on the ground. Yemen is reeling from the advance of the Houthis and their control of key state institutes. Lebanon has suffered one setback after another and is beset by fears of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) advancement. The list goes on.’
Libya is indeed ‘drowning in destructive wars.’ Reports from the eastern city of Benghazi, where the Libyan National Army is fighting to remove Islamist militias, indicate that 283 people have been killed since the operation began on Wednesday 15th October. Fighting there is still fierce and centred around the dock area.
John Oakes 4th November 2014

Update 5th November 2014

France, the UK and the US have just petitioned the UN Security Council to add Ansar Sharia in Benghazi and Derna to the UN terror list. According to the Libya Herald they do so because, amongst other reasoms; there is evidence that the Benghazi branch operates several training camps whose recruits feed mainly into Syria and Iraq, with some going to Mali.
Twelve of the 24 jihadists who attacked the In Amenas gas complex in Algeria in 2013 trained in the Ansar Al-Sharia camps in Benghazi…..The Derna branch also played a role in the 2012 attack on the US mission in Benghazi and is known to operate camps in Derna and Jebel Akhdar for training jihadists bound for Syria and Iraq.

Update 14th November 2014

The dreadful brutality shown by the ‘Islamic State’ has not, so far, deterred numerous recruits to their colours from Europe, the US and Australia. It is hard to see how they can rationalise this appalling news. During the past week four young men have been beheaded by ‘IS’ in Derna and their executions filmed and posted on social media. Three of them were killed for blogging criticism of the Islamic State in Derna and the fourth appears to be a soldier from the army of Khalifa Hafter’s Operation Dignity which is poised to retake Derna on behalf of the internationally recognised government.

Update 26th November 2014

This appeared in the Libya Herald on 20th November 2014 and I take the liberty of quoting it in its entirety here. It needs some further thought.

‘General Sulaiman Mahmoud Al-Obeidi, was in charge of the revolutionary army forces in Tobruk during the revolution, has again said that he is ready to lead a force to wrest Derna from the control of Ansar Al-Sharia. He says he is awaiting authorisation from the Chief of Staff, the House of Representatives and the government. He also says that he has been asked by tribes in the Jebel Akhdar (the Green Mountains) to head an attack and was on a reconnaissance visit to the area yesterday.
Last month, he announced that he was ready to surround Derna and was awaiting final instructions from the Chief of Staff
It appears, however, that the authorities are not particularly keen for him to take on the task, especially after he reportedly said that he would “clear Derna without damaging it” – a claim seen as a deliberate criticism of Khaled Hafter, whose Operation Dignity to remove Ansar Al-Sharia and associated Islamist forces from Benghazi has lasted six months, with hundreds dead and considerable damage to the city
According to Saqr Adam Geroushi, the commander of Operation Dignity air forces fighting as part of the Libyan National Army, Obeidi has been given no green light to launch an offensive against Derna – and is unlikely to be given it.
The current military and political leadership are said to be nervous about Obeidi’s relationship with the Qaddafi regime before the revolution. Additionally, he is accused of retaining links with the sacked Chief of Staff, Major-General Abdussalam Jadallah Obeidi, as well as with another military leader the Tobruk-based authorities regard with some suspicion, Colonel Mohamed Bughafir. The latter, who leads the Beida-based Ali Hassan Al-Jabber Brigade, is regarded with some considerable hostility by Ibrahim Jadhran who is now an ally of the House of Representatives and the Thinni government. The two fought each other in Ajdabiya earlier this year
As a result, Geroushi said, the Obeidi tribe had stated that it would not support any action unless the general had prior approval from the Chief of Staff.
If Obeidi tried to undertake any military action against Derna by himself, Geroushi added, there would certainly be no air support from him.
For the time being, remains blockaded to the east, west and south. Its only free access is by boat. Local families, however, are still managing to flee the town. Many have been accommodated in Marj, Beida and Tobruk. Some have gone to the safer parts of Benghazi’.

Update 7th December 2014
(Reuters 19th November 2014) – The U.N. Security Council on Wednesday blacklisted two branches of the Islamist extremist group Ansar al-Sharia in Libya, which Washington says was behind the 2012 Benghazi attack that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.

(Derna should be well known to US citizens. It was defended briefly by the US Navy and US Marines in 1805 during the Barbary wars when the sailors from the USS Philadelphia were incarcerated in the dungeons of Tripoli castle. They, and any others with an interest in Libya or US history, will find this source fascinating; http://www.history.navy.mil/library/online/barbary_derna.htm )

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LIBYA – The recent destruction in Tripoli of the Karamanli tomb and with it some of Libya’s history.

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News that Salafists have recently destroyed the Karamanli graves in Tripoli came as something of a surprise. To many this event may pass without the comment it deserves. Libya has a rich history and the Libyan people have for too long suffered under the yolk of foreign governments. The Ottomans, for example, ruled Libya from the arrival of the corsair Dragut in 1551 until the Italians superseded them in 1911.
The long course of Ottoman rule in Triopli was interrupted by an extraordinary interlude when a local dynasty seized power and exercised it, nominally on behalf of the Ottoman Sultan, for a century and a quarter. The dynasty was in power when the first war between the USA and Libya occurred.
The first native of Libya to rule Triopli was Ahmed Karamanli. He emerges into history in 1711. Tradition has it that the Karamanli family was founded by a corsair from Caramania, who came to Tripoli with Dragut, married locally and settled in the menshia, that is the cultivated oasis which surrounded the walled city. The tradition, as ever, may be a dramatized version of the truth.
The first Karamanli to seize power in Tripoli was the commanding officer of the Tripoli version of the famous Ottoman ‘feudal’ cavalry, known as the Khuloghlis. The name, incidentally, is derived from the Turkish ‘kul-oghli’, meaning son of slaves. Kuloghli service bore some similarities to feudal knighthood.
In 1711 the official Ottman governor of Tripoli was Khalil Pasha. His rule was shaky and he was opposed by the commanders of his Janissary troops. Eventually one of them, Mahmoud Dey, unseated him and turned his attention to the subjugation of the Kuloghlis commanded by the popular Ahmed Karamanli. It was an error. Ahmed Karamanli, leading a horde of Berbers and the local Kuloghlis, marched into the city and became the Bashaw of Tripoli, Misurata, Benghazi, Derna and Muzurk and nominal overlord of the tribes in the interior. He and his descendants ruled their regency from 1711 to 1835.
The city state of Tripoli was for many years a nest of corsairs. By maintaining a small navy of shallow draft vessels, often manned by Christian renegades, the rulers of Tripoli were able to pursue a lucrative trade in state sponsored piracy. Tripoli, Tunis and Algiers were together known as the Barbary States. History is not without complaints about the Barbary pirates and their depredations around the Mediterranean shores and their preying on merchant vessels. Tripoli was the lesser of the three Barbary States, with the smallest corsair fleet
The state sponsored piracy led to a war with the USA. When the thirteen colonies in America made their famous declaration of independence, they lost the protection of the British Royal Navy. American merchants sent their ships out into the oceans to find as much trade as they could. Those of their ships which ventured into the Mediterranean were harassed by the Barbary Pirates from the pariah states of Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli. So bad were the depredations that in 1794 the US Congress authorised the construction of a navy to defend American trade.
An American consul, Cathcart, was stationed in Tripoli and, via him, the US offered the Bashaw an annual payment of 18.000 dollars, plus a present of 4,000 dollars, to buy off the corsairs. The Bashaw, Yusuf Karamanli who ruled from 1795 to 1832, was sure that the fledgling US Navy was too weak to attack Tripoli and therefore decided to provoke the US Congress into making a more generous settlement. He demanded a yearly subsidy of 250,000 dollars and an immediate present of 25,000 dollars. As Cathcart was unable to pay, Karamanli chopped down the flagpole at the American Consulate. This amounted to a declaration of war, so Cathcart left Tripoli. Karamanli’s confidence that the Americans would avoid war and offer him a larger bribe was misplaced.
The US President, Thomas Jefferson, was under some pressure to deal with the Barbary corsairs. He despatched a small navy squadron commanded by Commodore Richard Dale with limiting rules of engagement. There followed a protracted period when the fledgling US Navy patrolled the Mediterranean in an ineffective effort to limit the attacks on its merchant shipping by the corsairs.
In 1803, the US sent a third squadron to the Barbary Coast. It was commanded by Commodore Edward Preble, who had the frigates Constitution and Philadelphia, the brigs Siren and Argus and the schooners Enterprise, Vixen and Nautilus at his disposal.
Preble ordered the frigate Philadelphia, commanded by Captain Bainbridge, to take up station off Tripoli and maintain a blockade. The Philadelphia was accompanied by the schooner Vixen for inshore action. The gales made it impossible for Vixen to maintain her station, so Bainbridge sent her off to patrol around Cape Bon.
Toward the end of October, Bainbridge spotted a number of Tripoli corsairs running for shelter from the gales. On 31st October, he engaged a corsair in the approaches to Tripoli harbour. He had men taking soundings and lookouts posted but he was caught out by the treacherous Kaliusa reef which rises abruptly from the sea bed. The 44 gun Philadelphia hit it at speed with a following wind, and she was stuck fast.
Karamanli’s renegade Scottish admiral, Peter Lyle, saw his chance and sent his corsair fleet out to pound away at the Philadelphia’s rigging. With his guns unable to reply, Bainbridge called a meeting of his officers and decided to surrender. For this, he has been roundly criticised.
The Tripolitanian boats ran alongside and the Philadelphia was boarded and her crew captured. They were landed below the castle at 10 o’clock at night, and were paraded through the city in their undergarments. The officers were imprisoned in the town, but the crewmen were thrown into the notorious dungeons below Tripoli’s castle. The 308 crew members of the Philadelphia were to remain in captivity for a long time.
When the tide turned, the Philadelphia was freed from the Kaliusa reef by the renegade Peter Lyle with a salvage crew. She was towed into Tripoli harbour and remained there as an embarrassment to the US Navy. She also posed a threat to the balance of sea power in the Mediterranean, should she be restored and manned by Karamanli’s navy. This and the incarceration of 308 of her sailors ensured that the USA would have to attempt to destroy the Philadelphia and free the sailors.
In the events which followed, there were legendry feats of heroism performed by American sailors and marines. The great courage shown here was, thus, more important to the history and fighting spirit of the US Navy and US Marine Corps than to the eventual release of the 308 prisoners.
Commodore Preble decided to destroy the Philadelphia. To do this he had to get a crew into Karamanli’s well-defended inner harbour, destroy the ship and escape. He needed good information about the harbour defences, the disposition of the Tripolitanian navy and the winds and tides in the harbour. Much of this he obtained from the prisoner Bainbridge and his officers who, strangely, were permitted to correspond with friends in the US fleet.
Lieutenant Stephen Decatur, USN, volunteered to lead the raid. For this purpose he was given a captured Tripolitania ketch, the Mastico, renamed the Intrepid, and the brig Siren. Decatur and his crew trained rigorously and on the 16th January 1805, after many difficulties, they began their attack. They disguised their ships as merchant vessels from Malta, but the Intrepid was loaded with explosives and fire making material.
At night they brought the Intrepid alongside the Philadelphia, which they boarded, and quickly overcame the watch crew, laid their explosives and combustibles and lit the fuses. They re-joined the Intrepid, but the alarm had been raised. They made their escape through a heavy artillery bombardment, but reached the harbour entrance.
As they left the harbour, the Philadelphia exploded and burst into flames which lit up the castle and the ships in the harbour. Decatur and his crew escaped aboard the Intrepid and the Siren to Syracuse in Sicily, and the admiration of their countrymen.
The sailors remained incarcerated in Tripoli despite a brilliant but unsuccessful amphibious assault on the eastern city of Derna by the fledgling US Marine Corps led by Consul William Eton and Lt Lieutenant Presley N. O’Bannon. USMC. This assault, aimed at what is nowadays know as a regime change, has since been commemorated in the famous line …from the Halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli…..’ which inspires the US Marine Corps to this day. The sailors were eventually repatriated when the US Government paid a substantial sum of money to Yusuf Karamanli.
When I had the privilege of living in Tripoli friends pointed out a white flag pole on the castle. They told me that it was made from one of the masts salvaged from the USS Philadelphia. Perhaps it was. Is it still there?
John Oakes
4th August 2012
(Paraphrased from Libya – The History of Gaddafi’s Pariah State by John Oakes and published by The History Press in 2011)