One evening last month, I joined a group of anti-Haftar militiamen on the outskirts of Tripoli. On the roof of a ruined villa, lanky young men scanned the front with a night vision scope. The air was heavy with the smell of sweat and rotten fruit. The LNA were three hundred metres away, on the other side of an olive grove hemmed by junipers. To our left, there were flashes of tracer-fire, the growl of heavy machine-guns and the crash of mortars. Hunkered behind a breezeblock wall, the commander on the roof was listening intently to a walkie-talkie he’d stolen from Haftar’s forces.
On 15 April, President Trump made an unexpected phone call to Khalifa Haftar, a Libyan military officer and former CIA asset who has launched an attack on Tripoli with the aim of overthrowing Libya’s nominal ruling authority, the UN-backed Government of National Accord. According to a White House statement, Trump ‘recognised Field Marshal Haftar’s significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources’, and the two men discussed their ‘shared vision for Libya’s transition’.
Two weeks out from the election, and soldiers are patrolling Britain's streets. The securitisation response, with the usual bovine complicity across the media, has sidelined politics. Spooks who advised May in the Cobra meeting after Monday's atrocity in Manchester will have presented their best guess about national security, as well as what their political masters want to hear, in cranking the 'threat level' up to 'critical'. Now the election campaign is overshadowed by what is in effect a state of emergency.
In a crowded room at a detention centre in Zawiya in western Libya, women from Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Eretria, Benin, Liberia, Chad and Niger told me they wanted to go back home. The men who weren’t locked up were gathered separately in a few rooms, or outside cooking on a small fire and listening to rap.
Riad Sattouf’s father travelled from a small Syrian village to Paris in the 1970s. He met Sattouf’s French mother at university there. After they graduated and their son was born, the family went first to Libya under Gaddafi and then to Syria under Assad. L’Arabe du futur, Sattouf’s autobiographical graphic novel, tells of his strange childhood spent in the shadow of Arab dictators and his father’s delusions. Two more volumes are forthcoming, and an English translation is under way.
The port of As Sidr is on the Gulf of Sidra, the enormous bay biting through at the junction of Libya’s three major geographical regions: to the east, the lush agricultural land of Cyrenaica; to the west, the drier urban coastal strip of Tripolitania; to the south, the Saharan Fezzan. This has always been frontier territory, and often in dispute.
The Libyan government has appealed against the International Criminal Court’s order to hand over Gaddafi’s longtime intelligence and security chief (and brother-in-law) Abdullah al-Sanusi for trial in The Hague. His lawyer, Ben Emmerson QC, said last week: ‘Libya's rebel authorities need to understand that the days of show trials and summary executions are over.’ Sanusi is regarded in Libya as bearing the prime responsibility after Gaddafi for such crimes as the 1996 Abu Salim prison massacre, in which 1200 people died, as well as Lockerbie, the bombing of a French airliner, the murder of Yvonne Fletcher, the disappearance of the Lebanese Shia leader Imam Musa Sadr and the supply of arms to the IRA. Were Sanusi handed over to the ICC, he could never be tried for these crimes.
Edwin Wilson, the CIA veteran jailed for carrying out the biggest illegal arms deal in US history, died in Seattle on 10 September aged 84. Born in Idaho, he joined the CIA in the 1950s after serving in the Korean War. He retired from the Company in 1971 but continued to work for them freelance and built up a fortune of over $20 million as an arms dealer, claiming to have arranged clandestine CIA arms shipments to Angola, Laos, Indonesia and Congo.
Libya no longer has – or is – a state. The political field throughout most of the Middle East and North Africa is dominated by the various fiercely competing brands of Islamism. The religious field has been in a state of profound disorder since the abolition of the Caliphate following the destruction of the Ottoman Empire in the First World War. A degree of order was effectively restored to it by intelligent nationalist movements which, once in power, promoted a ‘national Islam’ the better to subject religion to raison d’état and curb its more dangerous and sectarian enthusiasms. But Western policy since the end of the Cold War has been relentlessly opposed to the nationalist tradition and its exponents throughout the region.
Militias of the Libyan Revolution have arrested Saif al-Islam Gaddafi and Abdullah Sanusi, Muammar Gaddafi’s two most prominent associates remaining at large.
Libyans celebrated their liberation with mass demonstrations in Benghazi yesterday, the 28th anniversary of another landmark event in Middle East history. On Sunday, 23 October 1983, at 6.22 a.m., a suicide bomber rammed a truck into the US Marine Corps barracks at Beirut Airport and detonated what FBI forensics specialists would later describe as the largest conventional explosion in history. Two hundred and forty-one American service personnel died. A similar assault in Beirut that morning killed 58 French troops. The perpetrators were undoubtedly members of the nascent Hizbullah movement.
In the old days of party conferences, the nomenklatura would wash up for oysters or jellied eels at some windswept seaside resort, with predictably farcical results, such as the spectacle of Neil Kinnock falling into the sea. Anno 2011, times are soberer. Kinnock has been towelled down and ennobled, and the parties’ annual beanos now go on not in Brighton’s decaying stucco gulches, but megalopolises like Manchester and Birmingham. Front benchers, and especially the leaders, fall over themselves to shmooze up to the party’s rank and vile – invariably referred to by hacks as ‘the party faithful’, though ‘the boundlessly credulous and opinionated’ seems nearer the mark – while also appealing over their heads to those at home who haven’t forsaken the telecast for Celebrity Poodle Parlour or a hump on the sofa. This need to triangulate his audiences explains, charitably, David Cameron’s turn at the Tory rally this week, where the prime minister chose to adopt the mien of a Butlin’s redcoat jollying along passengers on the Titanic.
Rory Stewart may have been the first Tory MP into Libya after Gaddafi’s ousting from Tripoli (though let’s not forget the battle for Sirte is still going on), but he certainly wasn’t the last. David Cameron and William Hague were hard on his heels. The prime minister had a tricky line to walk as he addressed the crowds in Benghazi’s Tahrir Square (he and Nicolas Sarkozy were ‘greeted as heroes’, according to British state television): how to take credit for the regime change but at the same time downplay the level of foreign intervention? The former (former?) PR man handled it with his trademark plummy aplomb.
The Libyans are lucky that Muammar Gaddafi did not hold out longer. If he had, there might not be much of the country left. Nato long since ran out of military targets, and it had to hit something to get the ragtag rebels into the royal palace before they ended up shooting one another. ‘At present Nato is not attacking infrastructure targets in Libya,’ General Sir David Richards told the Sunday Telegraph in May. ‘But if we want to increase the pressure on Gaddafi's regime then we need to give serious consideration to increasing the range of targets we can hit.’ (UN Security Resolution 1973 grants no authority to increase the range of targets, its stated intent being to protect Libyan civilians from an onslaught on Benghazi.) The running total for Nato air strikes is 7459. At about 2000 bombing runs a month, another six months would have added 12,000 sorties. As bad as Libya looked when the rebels at last forced the gates of Tripoli, it would have looked a lot worse by next February. Diminishing military targets had to be replaced by something.
The decisions about Libya that William Hague announced this week brought back memories. I was involved in the expulsion of the Libyan ambassador Musa Kusa and half his staff from London in 1980, and I was myself expelled from Libya in 1984 with my family, my staff and their families following our decision to break off diplomatic relations because of the murder of Yvonne Fletcher. I was a little shocked to hear that the diplomats remaining in the Libyan Embassy have been told to leave within three days. Diplomats are people too, and sorting out your children's schools, selling your car, packing or disposing of your other property and so on takes longer than that.
If anyone should have been able to put human rights at the centre of US foreign policy, it was Harold Hongju Koh. The dean of Yale Law School and a prominent critic of Bush-Cheney lawlessness, his reputation was clinched by a chorus of crackpot accusations that he wanted to smuggle Sharia law into the US courts. Surely this was a man to undo the previous administration’s damage to American moral prestige; as legal adviser to the State Department, Koh would restore decency and goodness to US foreign policy. Instead, he has been busily justifying Bush-era national security policies.
In distant, inhospitable climates, military forces often struggle to provide Close Air Support to dispersed detachments of troops on the ground. CAS involves aircraft hanging around at low altitude, close to the action, for a long period of time, to protect ground troops from such threats as enemy tanks and artillery by blowing them up. Cutting-edge fighter planes are no good for it as they quickly run out of fuel, can’t loiter long at lower altitudes and aren’t well enough armoured. The problem, which Nato is experiencing in Libya, isn’t new: the US faced it in Vietnam.
Many aspects of the Libyan situation remain unclear: the scope of the mandate given to UN member states by Security Council Resolution 1973, the broader aims of the intervention, how many civilians have been killed and by whom, and who the rebels represent. One thing, however, seems clear: the international intervention is considered to be legal. International lawyers have agreed with the UK government’s advice that Security Council Resolution 1973 ‘provides a clear and unequivocal legal basis for the deployment of UK forces and military assets to achieve the resolution’s objectives’. Legal experts have been quick to suggest that Resolution 1973 gives authority for any action thought necessary not only to protect civilians, but to protect areas inhabited by civilians. The constraints imposed on Libyan forces are similarly radical and far-reaching, going well beyond the obligations imposed by general international law on governments responding to insurgencies. The resolution demands ‘the immediate establishment of a ceasefire and a complete end to violence’, and bans all flights in Libyan airspace unless their sole purpose is ‘humanitarian’. If the expansive authority granted to international forces and the novel obligations imposed on Libya by Resolution 1973 are sanctioned by international law, what kind of law is this? And does it deserve our fidelity?
The world’s first aerial bombing mission took place 100 years ago, over Libya. It was an attack on Turkish positions in Tripoli. On 1 November 1911, Lieutenant Cavotti of the Italian Air Fleet dropped four two-kilogramme bombs, by hand, over the side of his aeroplane. In the days that followed, several more attacks took place on nearby Arab bases. Some of them, inaugurating a pattern all too familiar in the century since then, fell on a field hospital, at Ain Zara, provoking heated argument in the international press about the ethics of dropping bombs from the air, and what is now known as 'collateral damage'. (In those days it was called 'frightfulness'.)
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the intervention in Libya, the BBC could do with toning down the gung-ho jingoism of their coverage, not least in the photographs illustrating the story on their website. Explosions! Fireworks!! Planes!!! BRITISH planes!!!! When did they make Tony Scott director general?
The Libyan dictator is resisting the popular forces ranged against him in ways that his counterparts in Tunisia and Egypt did not. In Tunis and Cairo, Zine Abedine Ben-Ali and Hosni Mubarak were the faces of military regimes. Colonel Muammar Gaddafi is not the face: he is the regime. The Egyptian and Tunisian army chiefs calculated that sacrificing their nominal commanders-in-chief would preserve their own positions without jeopardising the interests of their American benefactors. Playing the role of saviours of the nation, after years in which the officer class enriched itself and ordinary soldiers were made to repress dissent, the armies in Tunisia and Egypt emerged as arbiters of whatever order will follow the post-dictator era.
Information is patchy as communication networks are down, but reports from Libya all indicate that after 42 years in power, Colonel Gaddafi’s time is up. The tribes are heading to the capital en masse, soldiers still answering to the regime are trying to stop them, and the violence is escalating. According to the latest reports the regime has deployed helicopters and jets to crush the uprising, allegedly flown by mercenaries from Eastern Europe, Cuba and elsewhere. Meanwhile, former regime stalwarts have been defecting in growing numbers. The head of Afriqiya Airways, the head of the Libyan Chamber of Commerce and several ambassadors are among those who have resigned or relocated. Many of them are reportedly now in Dubai. Islamic scholars in Libya spoke up today for the first time to rule that fighting Gaddafi was legitimate jihad. The demonstrators are calling for a million people to march tomorrow on Bab al-Aziziya, the fortified military compound where Gaddafi lives in Tripoli. But no one knows where he is now.
Demonstrations by hundreds of people in Libya’s second city of Benghazi yesterday were met with rubber bullets and water cannon: at least one person died and around 14 were injured, including 10 police officers, according to media reports. Yesterday also saw the first mass demonstrations by Libyan women against the regime. 'No one is clear what is going to happen or what is being planned,' a Libyan opposition figure told me. 'There are no opposition movements inside Libya but many young people have had enough of the regime.'
The US ambassador to Libya, Gene Cretz, may be the first senior diplomat to fall victim to the release of confidential embassy cables on WikiLeaks. ‘Ambassador (Gene A.) Cretz is in Washington for consultations... The question of when Ambassador Cretz returns to Libya will be one of the many subjects of his consultations,’ a spokesman said last week. Appointed in 2007, Cretz was the first US ambassador to Libya since 1972. Last month Colonel Qadhafi praised WikiLeaks for exposing US hypocrisy. ‘The true face of US diplomacy has been revealed through the confidential documents,’ he said. This ‘proved that America is not what it has led allies and friends to believe it to be’. Most of the stories from Tripoli that were picked up in the western media were old news in Libya, where few are unaware, for example, that Qadhafi suffers from phobias about flying, travelling over water and staying on upper floors. Many elderly desert bedouin feel the same way and no one thinks that Qadhafi travelled 7000 miles around Africa by land because of his love for African unity.
The CIA announced yesterday that it has set up a task force with a rude acronym to assess the damage caused by WikiLeaks. So far, more trouble seems to have been caused by the bare fact of the leak, and the sheer scale of it, than by the content of any of the published cables.
For the most part we see able, professional diplomats doing their best to understand and report on the places where they’re stationed, as anyone familiar with the State Department would expect. Those I have looked at (mostly from or concerning the Middle East) are classified up to ‘secret’, which is supposed to mean the information in them would cause ‘grave damage’ to national security if made public. One lesson is that over-classification, which is a form of bad security, is even more prevalent in the State Department today than it was in the British diplomatic service when I served in it.
The British mercenary Simon Mann isn't the only would-be assassin who has been making apologies for trying to overthrow an oil-rich country’s government. The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, established in Afghanistan in the 1990s, has killed dozens of Libyan soldiers and policemen over the years. But the LIFG recently apologised to Colonel Gaddafi for trying to kill him, and agreed to lay down its arms for good. Six members of the LIFG’s leadership, held inside Libya’s Abu Sleem prison, released a 420-page document disavowing their old ways and explaining why fighting Gaddafi no longer constituted legitimate jihad.
On 18 September Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi's legal team published online a 300-page dossier of evidence protesting the convicted Lockerbie bomber's innocence. The dossier would have formed part of the basis of al-Megrahi's appeal had he not given it up so he could return to Libya to die in the bosom of his family. As Gareth Peirce argues in the latest LRB, there never was any convincing evidence against al-Megrahi in the first place. (In a response to Peirce, former FBI agent Richard Marquise doesn't substantively address either her main points or those in the dossier.) One reason for this is that, when Libya was first fingered for the bombing in 1990, those responsible never expected their case would ever have to stand up to scrutiny in a court of law.
In politics, the quality of mercy is usually strained through several layers of dirty washing. The Westminster and Edinburgh governments now boast a ‘justice secretary’ each (Jack Straw and Kenny MacAskill respectively). In the old days, it was left to judges to ensure that justice was dispensed without fear or favour. Now it has to be entrusted to politicians. The release of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi has kicked up a sandstorm in the dank and lawyerly chambers of Holyrood. Commentators have deplored the ‘sickening’ spectacle of the saltire being waved at Tripoli airport by Gaddafi’s claque, and Secretary MacAskill’s politically inept audience with al-Megrahi in HMP Greenock. But bad politics is sometimes good politics. We now like the Libyans, emeritus members of the Axis of Evil.
More than two years after the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission ruled that Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi may have suffered a miscarriage of justice, it was announced that the convicted Lockerbie bomber would be released on humanitarian grounds. A few days later he dropped his appeal. Then today the Times reports that Hilary Clinton has warned of an international backlash if Megrahi is released early. It’s no secret the Libyans didn't want their man to die in prison.
A Libyan opposition group – calling itself the National Council of the Libyan Opposition – has published confidential documents online in an attempt to embarrass the Gaddafi regime. The documents, which are in English, were produced by two US consultancy firms, the Livingston Group and Monitor Group, and lay out strategies for securing the Libyan leader’s ‘reintroduction on Capitol Hill’. They also include invoices for millions of dollars in fees. Among the more lucrative schemes the Monitor Group proposes is to produce a book about Libya based on a series of conversations between Muammar Gaddafi and ‘renowned expert visitors', including Richard Perle and ‘Lord Anthony Giddens’ [sic].