Overthrowing Qadafi in Libya: Britain’s Islamist Boots on the Ground
An extract from Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam, by Mark Curtis
Britain’s willingness to work with Islamist forces has been evident in Libya, where it took a brutal civil war between armed opposition forces and remnants of the regime to overthrow Libyan ruler, Muammar Qadafi, who was killed in October 2011. Massive NATO air strikes, mainly by Britain and France, were conducted during March-October in support of the rebel forces and significantly contributed to the rebel victory. What concerns the story here is not a review of the whole intervention but the extent to which it involved an Islamist element being supported by Britain in furtherance of its objectives in the Middle East.
The Islamist forces were only part of the military opposition that overthrew Qadafi, but were an important element, especially in the east of the country which was where the uprising began and which provided the centre of opposition to Qadafi. The episode, to some extent, echoes past British interventions where Islamist actors have acted as among the foot-soldiers in British policy to secure energy interests. That the British military intervention to overthrow Qadafi was primarily motivated by such interests seems clear – in the absence of access to government files – to which we briefly turn later. Such oil and gas interests in Libya, however, has been downplayed by ministers and largely ignored by the media, in favour of notions of Britain being motivated by the need to support the human rights of the Libyan people and promote democracy: concerns completely absent when it came to defending the rights of other Middle Easterners being abused at precisely the same time, notably Bahrainis.
Britain provided a range of support to the rebel Libyan leadership, which was grouped in the National Transitional Council (NTC), an initially 33-member self-selected body of mainly former Qadafi ministers and other opposition forces, formed in Benghazi in February 2011 to provide an alternative government. UN Security Council Resolution 1973 was passed on 17 March, imposing a no fly zone over Libya and authorizing ‘all necessary measures…to protect civilians’ under threat of attack. In an echo of Kosovo in 1999, it was certainly questionable whether civilians in Libya were under the extent of attack described by British ministers as justification for their military intervention, such as David Cameron’s claim that ‘we averted a massacre’.
Subsequently, British policy went well beyond the narrow strictures of the UN resolution, clearly seeking to target Qadafi personally and overthrow the regime. British air strikes and cruise missile attacks began on 19 March and within the first month of what became a seven-month bombing campaign NATO had flown 2,800 sorties, destroying a third of Qadafi’s military assets, according to NATO. The RAF eventually flew over 3,000 sorties over Libya, damaging or destroying 1,000 targets, while Britain also sent teams of regular army, SAS and MI6 officers to advise the NTC on ‘military organizational structures, communications and logistics’. Britain also assisted NATO airstrikes by deploying SAS troops to act as ground spotters and supplied military communications equipment and body armour. Whitehall also aided the NTC’s ‘media and broadcasting operations’ and invited the NTC to establish an office in London.
Military operations were coordinated with France while the US, which played no overt part in the military intervention, authorised $25 million in covert aid to the rebels in April. British ministers denied that they provided arms and military training to the NTC (given that an international arms embargo was applied to Libya) but media reports suggested that the US gave a green light for the new Egyptian regime to supply arms and also asked Saudi Arabia to covertly do so.
The NTC’s military forces were led by various former Libyan army officers, such as Colonel Khalifa Haftar who had set up the ‘Libyan National Army’ in 1988 with support from the CIA and Saudis and who had been living for the past 20 years near Langley, Virginia, home of the CIA, which also provided him with a training camp. But Islamist elements were also prominent. Two former mujahideen who had fought in Afghanistan led the military campaign against Qadafi’s forces in Darnah, to the east of Benghazi, for example. Abdel Hakim al-Hasady, an influential Islamic preacher who spent five years at a jihadist training camp in eastern Afghanistan, oversaw the recruitment, training and deployment in the conflict of around 300 rebel fighters from Darnah. Both al-Hasady and his field commander on the front lines, Salah al-Barrani, were former members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), the Islamist force that had long targeted Qadafi, and which Britain covertly funded to kill Qadafi in 1996.
It was also reported that Sufyan Ben Qumu, a Libyan army veteran who worked for Osama bin Laden’s holding company in Sudan and later for an al-Qaida-linked charity in Afghanistan, ran the training of many of Darnah’s rebel recruits. Qumu spent six years at Guantanamo Bay before he was turned over to Libyan custody in 2007; he was released, along with al-Hasady, from a Libyan prison in 2008 as part of Libya’s reconciliation with the LIFG. Al-Hasady, who had fought against the US in Afghanistan in 2001, had been arrested in Pakistan in 2002 and turned over to the US, imprisoned probably at the US base at Bagram, Afghanistan, and then mysteriously released. The US Deputy Secretary of State, James Steinberg, told Congressmen he would speak of al-Hasady’s career only in a closed session.
In an interview with an Italian newspaper in late March 2011, al-Hasady said he had previously recruited ‘around 25’ men from the Darnah area to fight against coalition troops in Iraq. Some of them, he said, were ‘today are on the front lines in Adjabiya’, a coastal city in north-central Libya which saw some of the heaviest fighting against Qadafi’s forces. Wikileaks cables obtained by the British media revealed US files highlighting supporters of Islamist causes among the opposition to Qadafi’s regime, particularly in the towns of Benghazi and Darnah, and that the latter area was a breeding ground for fighters destined for Afghanistan and Iraq.
Captured al-Qaida documents that fell into American hands in 2007 showed that Libya provided more foreign fighters to Iraq in per capita terms than any other country and that most of the volunteers were from the country’s northeast, notably Benghazi and Darnah. Former CIA operations officer Brian Fairchild wrote that since ‘the epicentre of the revolt [in Libya] is rife with anti-American and pro-jihad sentiment, and with al-Qaida’s explicit support for the revolt, it is appropriate to ask our policy makers how American military intervention in support of this revolt in any way serves vital US strategic interests’.
Other commentators recognised the Islamist nature of some of the rebels. Noman Benotman, a former member of the LIFG who had fought the Soviets in Afghanistan, estimated that there were 1,000 jihadists fighting in Libya. Former Director of MI6, Sir Richard Dearlove observed that the rebel stronghold of Benghazi was ‘rather fundamentalist in character’ and Admiral James Stavridis, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, said that US intelligence had picked up ‘flickers’ of terrorist activity among the rebel groups; this was described by senior British government figures as ‘very alarming’.
Shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander said in parliament that since there was evidence of the presence of al-Qaida-linked forces among the rebels, Britain should ‘proceed with very real caution’ in arming them. In response, William Hague downplayed the concern, saying that ‘of course we want to know about any links with al-Qaida, as we do about links with any organisations anywhere in the world, but given what we have seen of the interim transitional national council in Libya, I think it would be right to put the emphasis on the positive side’. Following a Freedom of Information request by the author to the Ministry of Defence, asking for the latter’s assessment of the presence of al-Qaida forces or their sympathisers in the Libyan rebel forces, the MoD replied that it did not even want to disclose whether it held such information because this would be contrary to the ‘public interest’.
The extent to which these Islamist and al-Qaida-linked elements may have received weapons or military support from the British, French, Egyptians or Saudi Arabians is not yet known, but officials in Chad and Algeria repeatedly expressed concerns that the al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb organisation might have acquired heavy weapons, thanks to the arms supply. What is known is that the state of Qatar was a major financial backer of the Libyan rebels, providing them with a massive $400 million worth of support, much of which was provided to the Islamist radicals. Moreover, Qatar also sent hundreds of troops to fight on the frontline and to provide infantry training to Libyan fighters in the western Nafusa mountains and in eastern Libya. Much of Qatar’s support went to the so-called 17 February Martyrs Brigade, one of the most influential rebel formations led by Abdel-Hakim Belhaj, a leading member of the LIFG who became the rebel military commander in Tripoli.
Qatar’s support for the Islamists in Libya was surely known to British ministers, as they consistently supported Qatar’s prominent role in the campaign against Qadafi, alongside deepening military and commercial cooperation, as we see in the next section. Indeed, Qatar’s chief-of-staff, Major-General Hamad bin Ali al-Atiya, later said: ‘We acted as the link between the rebels and Nato forces’. Qatar also played a key role alongside Britain in the ‘Libya contact group’ that coordinated policy against the Qadafi regime; the first meeting of the group, in April 2011, for example, was convened by Qatar and co-chaired by Britain in Doha. After Qadafi was overthrown, Libya’s new oil minister, Ali Tarhouni, issued a rebuke to Qatar saying that ‘anyone who wishes to come to our house should knock on the front door first’; this was described by the Economist as ‘a thinly-veiled warning to Qatar to stop favouring ambitious Islamists at the expense of the shaky central government’.
What is especially intriguing about this episode relates to the past British support for the LIFG to overthrow Qadafi and whether the British still saw LIFG fighters and other Libyan Islamists as, in effect, their boots on the ground, similar to the way the British saw the Kosovo Liberation Army, then working alongside al-Qaida, in the Kosovo war of 1999. This is surely likely but again the details are murky. Certainly, there were plenty of LIFG fighters available to challenge Qadafi both in Britain and Libya, helped by a reconciliation process between the regime and the LIFG begun in 2007 and presided over by Saif al-Islam al-Qadafi, the son of the ruler. This process resulted in 2009 in dozens of LIFG members being freed from jail in Libya in return for giving up their war against the regime. In July 2009, 30 LIFG members living in Britain, some of them senior figures in the group, signed on to the reconciliation process. British Home Office Control Orders imposed on them, having been regarded as posing a danger to UK national security, were, in some cases at least, dropped. Many of the released LIFG fighters are likely to have taken part in the uprising against Qadafi alongside those who had never been captured by the regime. A series of documentaries shown on the al-Jazeera news channel followed a group of Libyan exiles in London return to Libya to take part in the overthrow of Qadafi.
In mid-March 2011, when the Qadafi regime was still clinging to power in Tripoli, Libyan authorities paraded in front of the world’s media a British citizen captured in Libya and branded an Islamic terrorist. Salah Mohammed Ali Aboaoba said he was a member of the LIFG and had moved from Yemen to Britain in 2005, where he stayed until 2010, having been granted asylum, living with his family in Manchester and raising funds for the LIFG. There is no evidence that the British authorities facilitated the despatch of LIFG fighters from Britain to Libya, which may have been a re-run of the Kosovo conflict. Yet there is the suspicion that the Libyan reconciliation process could have enabled the British, and US, to maintain contacts with the LIFG and to regard them as potential future collaborators to remove Qadafi.
At the very least, Britain in 2011 once again found that its interests – mainly concerning oil – coincided with those of Islamist forces in Libya. By now, however, the British relationship with the LIFG was clearly quite complex. Blair’s government had been so keen to curry favour with Qadafi that in 2004 MI6 was involved in the seizure of LIFG leader Abdel-Hakim Belhaj and his deputy Sami al-Saadi. Belhaj was captured at Bangkok airport and claims he was handed over to the CIA, who he alleges tortured him and injected him with truth serum before flying him back to Tripoli for interrogation. Belhaj subsequently spent six years in solitary confinement at Tripoli’s notorious Abu Selim jail, and claims that he was questioned by three British agents, who ignored his complaints about mistreatment.
MI5 sent a delegation to Tripoli in 2005, apparently to cement relations with the Qadafi regime at a time when the British were concerned with the potential threat posed to British security by other dissident members of LIFG living in the UK, whom they believed were increasingly inspired by al-Qaida. MI5 also gave the Libyan regime the names, personal details and addresses of 50 LIFG members living in the UK. Once again, the episode highlights how expedient British policy towards the LIFG was – covertly supporting the organisation in the mid-1990s and acquiescing in its presence in London as a counter to the Libyan regime, then taking action against it at the behest of Qadafi, while later finding itself on the same side again and working alongside those, such as Qatar, providing significant military and financial support to it.
Filed under: Libya, Middle East, UK foreign policy | 1 Comment