Libya 2011: The Decisive Year

By J. Millard Burr
Monday, March 30th, 2015 @ 3:32AM

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Left: US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton learned about the death of Muammar Gaddafi via an SMS message. Clinton was staying in Kabul when she learned the news. The moment, when she was given a cell phone, was filmed by CBS NEWS as Clinton was getting ready for an interview. Clinton received her BlackBerry from an assistant. Having read the message about Gaddafi’s capture, she exclaimed: “Wow!” (Click here to see the video)…She and the CBS reporter laughed about the death of the Libyan dictator. She paraphrased a well-known phrase by Julius Caesar and said: “We came, we saw, he died!” Pic CBS News screenshot

On February 11, 2015, violent clashes between demonstrators and security forces in Egypt led to President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation and transfer of his powers to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Next in what was then dubbed the ‘Arab Spring,’ protests erupted in Benghazi, Libya. These were the first major Libyan protests in years against Gaddafi rule.

Gaddafi’s days were then numbered when on 25 February the U.S. flew its diplomats out of Libya.  Within minutes of their departure the Obama administration, citing numerous human rights violations, announced it had imposed sanctions on the Gaddafi family and the Libyan regime. President Obama stated, “We will stand steadfastly with the Libyan people in their demand for universal rights, and a government that is responsive to their aspirations. Their human dignity cannot be denied.”

The next day the United Nations Security Council voted unanimously to impose sanctions on Libya. And with events moving rapidly, on 27 February the rebels announced the formation of Interim National Council.  The INC, later termed the Transitional National Council had its base in eastern Libya.  It survived because it was protected by the West and its ranks were fed by Islamists, some freed from jails in Egypt.

As he tried to retain power in Tripoli, Muamar Gaddafi could do little more than to rail at the Western powers, Osama Bin Laden and his Al Qaeda, and his historic bête noire, the Muslim Brotherhood. For months, Gadhafi and his followers struggled to hold off rebel forces, which were surprisingly well armed and received the direct support of NATO air and sea power. Gaddafi’s loyalists had some initial success; on 15 March the rebels were driven from Brega, and Gaddafi’s units initiated an offensive designed to drive the rebels from their positions east and west of Tripoli.

In Washington, during a Senate committee hearing held on March 2nd, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned, “the U.S. should not let Libya slide into Somalia-like chaos and possibly create fertile ground for extremist ideologies to spread.”  It was not clear what drove Secretary Clinton’s interest in Libya, or what her intentions were.  Some observers wondered (this author included) if perhaps she was seeking an excuse to replicate her husband’s Balkans venture.

Mahmoud Jibril

Regarding the rebel leadership, a long article appeared in CBC News on 30 March 2011 that spotlighted the role of one Mahmoud Jibril (1952-), reportedly the leading member of the Libyan rebels’ 31-member Interim National Council (INC).  Jibril himself was a former official in the Gaddafi government and had chaired both its National Council for Economic Development and the National Planning council.  With the rebels Jibril served as an ex-oficio director of both foreign affairs and military affairs. (Daniel Schwartz, “Mahmoud Jibril: the international face of Libya’s rebels,” CBC News, March 30, 2011, update.)

Jibril knew how to use propaganda and less than a month following the attack on the Gaddafi regime the INC was actively selling itself to the West.  Jibril began with a visit to Paris and President Nicolas Sarkozy on March 10; his task was to convince the West that the battle for Libya was not a tribal affair, i.e., west versus east or Tripoli versus Cyrenaica (Benghazi).  Instead, it was a war of all Libyans against Gaddafi.  Jibril succeeded quite well because France became the first nation to recognize the INC.  Jibril returned to Libya just as Gaddafi’s forces had massed to move on Benghazi.  He immediately returned to Paris where on 13 March he met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who was in Paris for a meeting of the G8. As the New York Times reported, she met with the leader of “Libya’s increasingly beleaguered opposition but did so privately and without a public statement.” (S. Meyers, “Clinton Meets in Paris with Libyan Rebel Leader,” The New York Times, March 14, 2011.)

Also present at the meeting was Christopher Stevens, and literally within hours he was sent to Libya as the US Special Representative to the INC.  Secretary Clinton seemingly reached the decision, as the INC was two weeks old.  Stevens would continue in that position until November 2011.  (He was later named U.S. Ambassador to Libya and as such arrived in Tripoli in May 2012.)

As the NY Times put it, the Paris meeting had “reflected the Obama administration’s struggle over how much support it would, or could, provide to the rebels seeking to overthrow Libya’s leader, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.”  The Secretary of State met Jibril at her hotel after “attending a dinner with foreign ministers of the countries of the Group of 8, who discussed ways to increase pressure on Colonel Qaddafi’s government, including imposing a no-flight zone over Libyan territory.”  The article added the curious aside: “Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Jibril met for 45 minutes but did not appear publicly out of concern for his security, an aide said.”

Meanwhile, in Washington President Obama again said it was time for Colonel Qaddafi to depart, but he had stopped short of initiating action until urged to it by Secretary Clinton.

On To LONDON

Following his diplomatic triumph in Paris, Jibril travelled to London to plead his case.  During his visit the INC would release its political manifesto, “Vision of a Democratic Libya,” which offered the West all it could ask for: democracy, civil society, pluralism and a Libyan constitution that embodied those values. There was also mention of “a green environment,” “a free private sector,” eradication of poverty and unemployment, guarantees for “the rights and empowerment of women” and respect for “the sanctity of religious doctrine.”  It was all pie-in-the-sky of course, but the thesis sounded good to Western ears.

In London, Jibril attended a meeting sponsored by the UK Prime Minister David Cameron and which included his Foreign Secretary William Hague and, again, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. (Clinton reportedly postponed for the moment a planned trip to Tunisia and Egypt.)  Jibril also met with John Kerry, then chairman of the U.S. Senate foreign relations committee. Jibril’s task was once again to define the activity of the relatively unknown INC, and it came at a time when the Libyan rebels were retreating and Gaddafi appeared capable of a carrying-off a counter-attack that would quash the rebellion.

The news report admitted that the INC did not represent “the entire opposition to Gaddafi, but is its best-known face on the international stage.”  And after meeting with Jibril, “Hague described the council as, ‘an important and legitimate political interlocutor’ but added, ‘the U.K. is committed to strengthening our contacts with a wide range of members of the Libyan opposition.'”  In contrast, the U.S. State Department and Hillary Clinton seemed committed to Jibril and the INC.  That, although Jibril carried substantial baggage, including a 1984 Ph.D. dissertation from the University of Pittsburgh that was entitled “Imagery and Ideology in U.S. Policy Toward Libya, 1969-1982,” a very critical evaluation of U.S. foreign policy.

After obtaining his doctorate Jibril had returned to Libya were he taught at Benghazi and opened the Jirbil for Training and Consultancy company.  In 2005 Jibril met with Seif Gaddafi, heir to the Libyan leadership, who persuaded him to join an incipient effort to restructure the Libyan economy.  Shortly after President Obama’s election, in 2009 U.S. Ambassador to Libya Gene Gretz cabled (and Wikileaks reported) the opinion that Jibril “‘gets’ the U.S. perspective.”  Cretz, a professional diplomat, was the first US ambassador to Libya in 35 years.  It was reported that he was present when the American flag was raised “near a humble two-story building” in the Ben Ashur area of Tripoli.  Gretz was a Bush appointee, having been confirmed in November 2008.  Without explanation, he would leave in December 2010, before the end of his term.

In a discussion given over to economic development Jibril reportedly told the ambassador that Libya, “has a stable regime and is ‘virgin country’ for investors.” (D. Schwartz, Ibid.)  Jibril’s effort to attract foreign investment was blocked by opponents within the Gaddafi regime and a year later the frustrated bureaucrat/businessman resigned from government.

Support for the INC

Although the revolution in Libya was barely a month old in March 2011 certain Western elements were wondering if al-Qaeda was actively supporting the rebels in Libya.  Gaddafi himself had opposed the Muslim Brotherhood from the moment he seized power in 1959.  And inclusion in al Qaeda could bring a long prison sentence, or even death.  Nonetheless, on February 24, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb announced its support for the “Libyan rebels.”  Gaddafi had reason for concern because he had his problems controlling Libya’s east, and in particular the city of Benghazi. Thus, he was convinced that his enemies were behind the revolution and so informed western intelligence agencies.

Despite Gaddafi’s concern, in his testimony before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee on March 29, 2011, NATO Supreme Allied Commander U.S. Admiral James Stavridis claimed that he did not “have detail sufficient to say there is a significant al-Qaeda presence or any other terrorist presence” in Libya.”  There were only “flickers” of an Islamist presence.  That despite the fact that in February, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in North Africa issued a statement promising to do whatever it could to help the Libyan rebels.  As for Stavridis, he was a fixture of the Obama administration serving as head of U.S. European Command, (May 2009 – May 2013), and NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe (June 2009 – May 2013).  (In November 2012 he was finally cleared of misconduct after a lengthy Pentagon investigation into his travel expenses.  As a result, his career was truncated.)

While Stavridis was observing flickers, the Los Angeles Times was in contact with Libyan journalist Milad Hassani; reporting from Derna, Libya.  He claimed he personally had observed, and other reporters as well, were “seeing foreign fighters, Islamists, from the Gulf and other Arab countries.”  In stark contrast, the same newspaper also reported that a “U.S. intelligence-gathering effort that began shortly after anti-Gaddafi forces started seizing towns in eastern Libya last month has not uncovered a significant presence of Islamic militants among the insurgents.” (Ken Dilanian reporting, Los Angeles Times, March 23, 2011.) Another report quoted Robert Pape, a terrorism expert at the University of Chicago who has traveled to Libya; he claimed, “There’s no evidence that any of the leaders are extremists, and to the extent that we know anything, they seem to be secular professionals.”

Charles Faddis issued a warning; a recently retired CIA agent with extensive experience questioned whether the U.S. intelligence community had a handle on the rebel community.  “Everyone wants to believe the opposition consists of individuals dedicated to a democratic revolution,” Faddis said. “Is that true?  Is this a political movement or a tribal one? What we need is solid intelligence on the nature of the opposition, who the key figures are, who is going to emerge on top. I suspect we do not have that, because our collection inside Libya, a denied area, has probably been very weak for a very long time.” (Ibid.)

Despite having reopened a United States embassy to Libya in may 2006, after a hiatus of 34 years, the intelligence agencies that settled in Tripoli apparently did not have an appreciation of the strength of Islamist forces at play. The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, designated an Al Qaeda affiliate by the UN Security Council shortly after the 9/11 attack, had not been obliterated by Gaddafi in the following decade.  In what would prove to be a mistake that would haunt the Gaddafi clan, thanks to the effort of Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, son of the Libyan leader, in 2008 some 90 LIFG were released from jail. Next, some 200 prisoners were released in March 2010, including the leader Abdelhakim Belhadj. In 2011, LIFG leaders including Belhadj (trained by Bin Laden in Afghanistan), Hasidi, Kumu (Bin Laden’s former chauffeur released from Guantanamo), Barrani, et.al, were working behind the scenes, mostly at Derna, during the early months of the revolt against Qaddafi rule.

Gaddafi’s Opponents  Coalesce

In late March a meeting chaired by the UK Foreign Secretary brought a number of interested parties including Secretary of State Clinton to a discussion on Libya. At the meeting it was agreed that:

It is not for any of the participants here today to choose the government of Libya: only the Libyan people can do that. Participants agreed that Qadhafi and his regime have completely lost legitimacy and will be held accountable for their actions. The Libyan people must be free to determine their own future. Participants recognized the need for all Libyans, including the Interim Transitional National Council, tribal leaders and others, to come together to begin an inclusive political process, consistent with the relevant UNSCRs, through which they can choose their own future.”

In April 2011, Special Representative Christopher Stevens was on the ground in Benghazi.  In the United States it was reported that he was among a group of people urging a more robust US commitment, including the expanded use of airpower and Special Forces. Also in April, following the urging of the London Conference on March 29, 2011, the first meeting of the broad-spectrum Contact Group on Libya was held in Doha, Qatar.  Twenty-one nations participated plus the UN, the Arab League, NATO, OIC, and the European Union.

Jibril, now with the NATO military in support, appeared in Washington where on May 11 he was photographed with Senator John Kerry and other members of congress.  To cement a relationship that promised him victory in Libya Jibril met with administration officials and gave the obligatory speech required of political unknowns at the Brookings Institution.

Next, at a meeting of the Libya Contact Group held at Abu Dhabi on 9 June Secretary Clinton announced publicly that the US recognized Libya’s Transitional National Council (TNC) as “the legitimate interlocutor for the Libyan people.” The US would thus help ensure “an inclusive process” as Libya transitions from Muammar Gaddafi’s regime. Clinton added that the TNC “is the institution through which we are engaging the Libyan people alongside our work with civil society.”  In sum, it was the US intention that, “Libyans [come] together to plan their own future and a permanent inclusive constitutional system that will protect the rights of all Libyans.” (S. Kaufman, “TNC Is Legitimate Representative of Libyan People, Secretary Clinton Says,” (iipdigital. usembassy.gov, June 2011.)

During the meeting Clinton once again met with Mahmoud Jibril, who then carried the title, TNC Executive Bureau Chairman.  She had already announced that the US would add $26.5 million to the $81 million already provided for humanitarian assistance for people affected by the conflict.

By late September Gaddafi had fled Tripoli, his Libyan stronghold.  Then on October 17 there was a meeting of the Islamist chieftains, many of whom had fought Gaddafi for years.  Their task was to unite the various groups in a single command.  When the meeting was over it was clear that the Jibril element supported by the West would have a competitor for the “hearts and minds” of the Libyan people.  Abdel Hakim Belhaj, the associate of Osama Bin Laden and leader of one of the militias that had marched into Tripoli, took charge of the Islamist forces and a war within a war would soon result.  As a result, the Western plans for the post-Gaddafi era were ruined.

Optimism In Washington

By October the Western forces had broken the back of Gaddafi’s counter-attack.  Benghazi was in rebel hands, and Secretary of State Clinton became the first administration official to visit Libya since NATO airstrikes were initiated in March.  (Her visit followed only days after that of British Foreign Secretary William Hague.)  By then, Gaddafi’s forces were outgunned and melting away, and the Libyan leader himself was trying to avoid capture.  As news reports on her visit to Libya had it, Clinton had long been “an advocate for military action in Libya, [and] the NATO mission has not yet officially ended.”

According to a “senior State Department official” the visit was made to, “congratulate the Libyan people on the ouster of Gaddafi from power, help with transition issues like unifying the rebel fighters and forge a deeper partnership with Libya.”  While there she met with Jibril, still president of Libya’s Transitional National Council.  Inter alia, Clinton noted the US would provide medical aid and fund education programs. However, in Washington the administration acknowledged its real concern; it feared some 20,000 shoulder-launched missiles “could fall into terrorist hands.”  How many were in the hands of the rebels, or had been destroyed in the fighting, and how many were missing was unknown.  But there were reports that some had already been transported to the Sinai Peninsula and were on their way to Gaza.

Aside from the $30 million the US had already committed to the search for the weapons. Clinton was offering an additional $10 million.  In addition, the United States planned to increase the number of State Department contractors, “beyond the 14 who are now already helping to destroy the missiles.” (Martha Radatz, “Hillary Clinton Visits Libya to Meet Rebel Leaders, Good Morning America, October 18, 2011.)

Enter 2012

On March 8, 2012, at a meeting with Libyan Prime Minister Abdurrahim ElKeib at the State Department, Secretary Clinton put a false front on a crumbling facade as Libya descended into chaos:  ”We’ve seen progress in each of the three key areas of democratic society: building an accountable, effective government; promoting a strong private sector; and developing a vibrant civil society. And we will stand with the people of Libya as it continues this important work.”

An unnamed senior Obama administration official then told reporters:

“life in Libya is not only normal after many months of conflict, but that the country has already improved in many ways from the normalcy that existed under Gaddafi.  ‘Libyans are exercising their newfound freedoms in ways previously unimaginable. The sense of a people breathing freedom for the first time is palpable. They are holding peaceful protests. They are forming political parties,’ and ‘neighborhood cafes are bristling with passionate discussions about every topic under the sun,’ the official said.'” 

The Libyan government continues to struggle with some difficult issues, but ‘given where they have come [from], I think they have achieved quite a lot in the last four months, and the United States intends to be a firm partner with them, just as we supported them during the revolution.'” (S. Kaufman reporting iipdigital.usembassy.gov, March 8, 2012.)

 Afterward

For events following the overthrow of Gaddafi see J. Millard Burr, “Libya – Ali al-Salabi and the Re-Emerging Muslim Brotherhood,” American Center for Democracy, October 13, 2014.

 

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