Category Archives: Al Qaeda

Libya and the West: Deja Vu All Over Again

By grotesque happenstance I had just finished re-reading Ruth First’s groundbreaking account of the Libya that was inherited and refashioned by Gaddafi – “Libya – The Elusive Revolution” – as news came through that NATO airstrikes, possibly the work of one of Barack Obama’s predator drones, had killed Gaddafi’s youngest son, Seif al-Arab and three of his grandchildren, all reportedly under twelve years of age.

Seif al-Arab Gaddafi, the youngest son of the Libyan leader and a victim of a NATO missile strike

And then I had just completed the first edit of this post when the news broke that Obama had killed Osama bin Laden at a compound not far from the Pakistan capital Islamabad, apparently with no foreknowledge on the part of the Pakistanis and with a degree of contempt for Pakistani sovereignty that can only serve to destabilise the government there and vindicate those who followed the al Qaeda leader’s violently anti-American gospel.

Imagine how Americans would react if Mexican special forces landed outside Los Angeles, invaded a compound to kill a cocaine king hiding out there, didn’t tell the FBI a word about their plans and afterwards, as jubilant Mexican crowds waved flags and cheered in downtown Mexico City, the country’s president went on TV to boast of the deed and house-trained Mexican journalists went on air to bad mouth American co-operation in the war against drug cartels. How long would the US government survive?

So my first thought was really a question: and they wonder why people hate them enough to fly planes into their skyscrapers? My second thought was, I confess, on the conspiratorial side. Was it possible, I wondered, that American military planners had hoped for a double whammy here, wipe out Gaddafi on Saturday and Osama on Sunday to send a message of US military hegemony throughout the Middle East and Muslim world? Who knows.

The effort to remove the Al Qaeda leader was clearly a spectacular success that will strengthen Obama’s chances of re-election in 2012 and weaken domestic opposition to his plans to cut back government spending on the poor and sick. The bid to kill Gaddafi didn’t however go at all as well.

If confirmation was needed that Western intervention in Libya is really about regime change, installing a more reliable pro-Western government in Tripoli and exacting revenge on Gaddafi for his years of troublemaking and much less about protecting rebellious civilians from the Libyan leader’s vengeful retribution this effort to liquidate him was surely it.

NATO has now denied that its forces deliberately singled out the Libyan leader and claimed instead that their target was a military one, a command and control centre housed in the same building. Gaddafi’s family was an incidental target according to this version, but there’s a distinct flavor of the Mandy Rice-Davies in that response: “They would say that, wouldn’t they?”

The UN resolution authorizing military action limits NATO to protecting civilians and does not permit regime change or assassination bids on the Libyan leader or his family. If NATO had admitted Gaddafi was the target the mission in Libya would have been rendered illegal, hence the need for what many will see as the plausible but unprovable lie.

But the leadership rhetoric and military thinking emanating from Washington, London and Paris has been increasingly focussed on the goal of killing Gaddafi or coming so close to doing so it would scare him out of office. Take as an example this quote from Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, given to Reuters just after the use of predators was authorized: “Ultimately, he said, ‘Gaddafi’s gotta go’, and coalition actions ‘are going to continue to put the squeeze on him until he’s gone.’”

This weekend’s assassination bid on Gaddafi is the second strike against the Libyan leader in a week. His compound in Tripoli was targeted in late April and an office where he and his aides sometimes worked was destroyed. Western determination to remove Gaddafi seems absolute and in sharp contrast to the mild response to the murderous repression of protesters in Syria, whose brutal government’s survival is in the interests of America’s ally, Israel, or in Bahrain, where Saudi concerns dictate almost complete American passivity in the face of that regime’s murderous crushing of its citizens.

Hardly surprising then that many will see that self-interest and hypocrisy more than consideration for her citizens’ democratic wellbeing characterize the West’s disposition to the Arab Awakening in Libya. But then as far as this North African State is concerned it was ever thus. Which brings me back to Ruth First and her examination of the Libya that Gaddafi and his fellow ‘Free Officers’ took over in September 1969.

I first came across “Libya – The Elusive Revolution” in 1975, just after I had spent two years living and teaching at the University of Tripoli. The country had a great effect upon me and intrigued by the little history and politics I had learned, I wanted to know more. But we were expatriates in a country whose people and media were, for language reasons, virtually inaccessible. Our view of Libya was, to say the least, opaque.

Ruth First and a young Nelson Mandela

Understandably the locals who did speak English, whether at the college or out at the farm where I lived, were very careful about what they said to foreigners and sometimes, as I learned on one occasion, with good reason. Consequently we had to rely on fellow expats for most of our information about Libya, Gaddafi and the politics of the place and a lot of that came filtered through ignorance, prejudice and plain stupidity.

So when I came across Ruth First’s account, which was published the year before I departed Libya, it was really an eye-opener. Much of what I had seen, heard or experienced while living there now made more sense and when I finally put her book down it was with a feeling of disappointment that I hadn’t known all this when I was living there, when it counted. The experience of life in Libya would have been richer.

But first a few words about Ruth First. Her parents were Latvian Jews who had emigrated to South Africa at the turn of the last century and they were founder members of the South African Communist Party. Ruth also joined the Party and at university in Witwatersrand she shared classes with a young Nelson Mandela and Eduardo Mondlane, a founder member of FRELIMO, the Mozambique liberation movement.

The South African Communist Party and the African National Congress went on to make an alliance against apartheid and together created the ANC’s military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, the Spear of the Nation. In 1949 Ruth First married a fellow Party member, the legendary Joe Slovo, the son of Jewish emigres from Lithuania who went on to become a leading light in the ANC (their union is a reminder of the progressive and radical tradition, pre-Israel, pre-1967, pre-neocons, pre-Bibi of so many Jewish political activists).

Joe Slovo and Nelson Mandela give a clenched fist salute under the hammer and sickle

Ruth First was immersed in anti-apartheid agitation and in 1963, when the South African authorities moved against and imprisoned ANC leaders such as Mandela, she was interned. After release she sought sanctuary abroad, mostly in Britain where she became an academic and latterly in Mozambique where she combined academic work with activism against apartheid.

In 1982 the South African police decided she was so much a thorn in their flesh that she had to die. A parcel bomb was sent to her office at the university in Maputo and she was killed instantly when she opened it. Her life story was made into a film, A World Apart which was written by her daughter Shawn Slovo. Another daughter, Gillian Slovo is a celebrated novelist.

Her study of Libya then is strongly influenced by her politics. Not in a propagandist way but by setting the country’s history and development against a background of the burgeoning Cold War, of Western colonial interests, both economic and strategic, which sometimes clashed and competed but often merged for mutually beneficial gain.

Not everyone will find this sort of approach readable or even acceptable. But in the case of Libya there really is very little choice because the place has been a plaything for foreign powers and interests for most of its existence and no attempt to understand Gaddafi or his present predicament is possible without knowing what is was that brought him to power.

The conditions that led to the coup that he and his fellow “Free” officers engineered have their direct roots in the politics of the Middle East and Cold War Europe in the aftermath of the Second World War.

Italy had succeeded the Ottoman Empire as Libya’s occupying power in 1911 and held the country until 1943 when the British defeated Rommel’s Afrika Corps at El Alamein. After the final German surrender the victorious allies, principally Britain, the US and France, with Italy accorded a bit player role, carved up the country in accordance with their Cold War and late colonial interests.

The Italian occupation of Libya was, as First described it, “the most severe….experienced by an Arab country in modern times” and this was especially so when Mussolini’s fascists came to power. Libya was deemed to be part of mainland Italy, as it virtually had been in the days of the Roman Empire, and ambitious plans were laid to resettle the country. Two hundred thousand hectares of land on arable coastal strip were confiscated and made available to some 90,000 Italian settlers who would, the plans envisaged, make up 10% of the population by 1938.

There was Libyan resistance to all this led by Omar Mukhtar, a Bedouin leader from the east of Libya, who fought a guerrilla war from desert oasis bases (and whose struggle was immortalized in the movie ‘Lion of the Desert’ starring Anthony Quinn). Italian reprisals were savage. Estimates of the number of Libyans killed

Omar Mukhtar, the Bedouin guerrilla leader was hanged by the Italians in 1931

by the Italians during the occupation range from 250,000 to 300,000 and this out of a population of no more than one million. Tens of thousands were imprisoned in concentration camps where they died of hunger and disease and between 1930 and 1931 alone, the Italians executed by hanging or firing squad 12,000 in the eastern province of Cyrenaica where, coincidentally, the current rebellion has its genesis.

It was really left to Britain and to a lesser extent France to shape Libya’s postwar fate. The Americans were players as well, but later in the game. Britain’s hold on Suez and therefore Egypt was weakening as the 1940’s came to an end. Egypt had gained nominal independence from Britain in 1922 and even though Egypt’s freedom to determine her own foreign policy was secured in 1936, Britain retained control of the Suez canal and therefore the flow of oil and commerce to and from the far east.

In the post-war years Egypt struck an even more assertive pose over Suez and growing but frustrated demands that it be returned entirely to Egyptian control helped fuel Nasser’s army officer-led revolution and overthrow of the monarchy in 1952. So having bases and influence in Libya, within striking distance of Suez at a time when Soviet influence in Nasser’s Egypt was on the rise was imperative to Britain.

Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Egyptian leader and role model for Gaddafi

France had its North and Central African colonies to worry about: Algeria, which shares a south-western border with Libya; Tunisia, to Libya’s immediate west and Chad and Niger (the latter subsequently found to be a rich source of uranium), both with borders in the deep south of Libya. France sought influence and a presence in the deep south of Libya, in the province known as Fezzan in large part to stem any possibility of rebellion or foreign challenge to her control of, or influence over these colonies or soon-to-be former colonies.

The immediate post-war years were the age of ‘The Big Four’ in global diplomacy. The Soviet Union, the United States, Britain and France each demanded a say in the shaping of the new world although in practice it was usually the Soviets versus the rest, as the Cold War imposed the new reality. Post-Nazi Germany had been carved up into zones of influence, one for each of the victorious allies, and the same approach was tried in Libya, the former colony of another Axis power, but with less success.

The Western allies were determined to deny the Soviet Union a foothold in North Africa and this sometimes led to comical about-turns. All the powers agreed that at some point Libya would have to be given independence; what was at issue is who would have the ear of Libya’s rulers when that day dawned.

At first the Americans, eager to gain friends and influence in post war Italy, suggested that Libya be returned to her former imperial master for a decade under United Nations trusteeship, after which she would be granted independence. But when the Italian Communist Party began to grow in strength and popularity and the Soviets, seeing a perfect chance to gain influence in Libya through a proxy, seconded that proposal the Americans quickly went into reverse gear.

After the Korean War erupted in 1950, the Pentagon began to realise that Libya had strategic value. As First put it: “United States military planners resolved that the bases in Libya were not only useful but indispensable….(and) would keep the Soviet Union out of the Mediterranean”. In the immediate post-war years the US had spent $100 million dollars on the airbase at Wheelus near Tripoli but then decided to run it down. When the Korean War began she again reversed gear and poured more money and men into the base, then America’s first airbase in Africa.

King Idris, in the years before Gaddafi's coup

But what to do with Libya? The nearest Libya had to a monarch was Muhammed Idris bin Muhammad al-Mahdi as-Senussi, better known as King Idris, although his influence really did not extend much beyond his capital in Benghazi. He was also the head of an Islamic religious sect known as the Sanusi. Both the British and the Italians recognized him as the Emir of Cyrenaica in 1920 and later as the Emir of Tripolitania but when the Italians launched a military offensive in 1922 he fled Libya and sought refuge in Egypt as Omar Mukhtar’s guerrilla war intensified. When the Second World War came to North Africa, Idris made an alliance with the British against the Axis and after Germany’s defeat their partnership survived and prospered as Idris sought London’s favors and protection, giving the British in return the greatest influence over Libya’s putative new ruler of all the Western allies.

In the context of contemporary events it is important to note that Idris was essentially the leader of a sect and tribe which had its base in Cyrenaica with its capital in Benghazi. His ties to the western part of Libya were weak. Even when Libya was made independent and Idris elevated to the throne he chose to live in a palace in Tobruk, close to the border with Egypt and almost as far away from Tripoli as it was possible to get. Over the years resistance to Gaddafi’s hold on Libya has often been financed or led by members or supporters of the Idris clan, the rebellion against Gaddafi that began last February had its genesis in Idris’

The flag of King Idris' Libya has been adopted by the antiGaddafi rebels

capital, Benghazi and the rebels have chosen as their flag, the standard of Idris’ Libya. They have also made alliance with the same Western powers who put and kept Idris on the throne. Coincidence perhaps, but interesting nonetheless.

It was the British in close alliance with the French who decided that independence for Libya was the best way to keep “the Russian camel’s nose out of the Libyan tent”, as Ruth First put it. To do that Libya’s future was handed nominally to the United Nations to decide and in 1949 a resolution was passed at the General Assembly granting independence which would come into effect as early as possible in 1952.

It was not anti-imperial fervor or concern that the Libyan people should enjoy the fruits of national self-determination which persuaded the United States to back Britain and France in this project but cold, hard self-interest in the ideological and political-cum-military war against the Soviet Union.

The State Department official in charge of the Libyan desk, and America’s first ambassador in Tripoli, Henry Serrano Villard, writing post facto, set out the rationale, quoted at length in First’s book:

It may be worth noting that if Libya has passed under any form of United Nations trusteeship, it would have been impossible for the Territory to play a part in the defence arrangements of the free world. Under the UN trusteeship system the administrator of a trust territory cannot establish military bases; only in the case of a strategic trusteeship as in the former Japanese islands of the Pacific are fortifications allowed; and a ‘strategic trusteeship’ is subject to veto in the Security Council.

(But) as an independent entity Libya could freely enter into treaties and arrangements with the Western powers looking towards the defence of the Mediterranean and North Africa. This is exactly what the Soviet Union feared and what Libya did. The strategic sector of African seacoast which had proved so important in the mechanized war of the desert was coming into its own as a place of equal importance in the air age.

So the British with American support chose the route to Libyan independence via the United Nations. The French, worried about Algeria and her other colonies, put up some resistance and preferred a plan to give the three provinces, Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and Fezzan independence at some unstated date far off in the future. First wrote: “(France) was still fearful of the chain reaction in North Africa to the establishment of a new independent state….” But the British and Americans got their way.

To the untutored eye it looked as if the victorious Western powers had, as those who had fought a war to defeat fascist tyranny were expected to do, agreed to bestow a generous measure of self-determination, a democratic form of government and even a constitutional monarchy based on the British model to this most sadly abused Arab state. But that was for public consumption and anti-Soviet propaganda. The reality was that Libyan independence was to be a sham and Idris would be a puppet of the British and, through them, the Americans.

The game was given away, much to the horror of the newly appointed UN Commissioner in Libya, Adrian Pelt, when it was discovered that the British had negotiated the terms of a defence treaty with Idris long before independence was a reality, a treaty that was technically illegal and likely to scandalize world opinion and hobble Idris’ government before it took office should it become public knowledge.

So Pelt secured the agreement of the British that they should defer formal agreement of the treaty and even pretend to start negotiations only after independence arrived, although a separate deal with Idris that was confined to Cyrenaica was already in place and served as a model for the wider treaty.

As Ruth First wrote: “Anglo-American policy saw Libya as less a country or state than a strategic position for a series of military bases.” Britain got unlimited, exclusive and uninterrupted use of Libyan territory for military aircraft, was allowed to base its Tenth Armoured Division in the country, had an air base south of Tobruk and an RAF detachment was stationed at Idris airport in Tripoli to facilitate the strategic air corridor to East Africa, the Indian Ocean and the Far East.

The agreement was to last, initially, for twenty years and could be renegotiated when it expired. In return Britain made a contribution to Idris’ budget. This was the crux of the arrangement. In the 1940’s and early 1950’s Libya was one of the poorest nations on earth, eighty per cent of its population were nomads and its largest industry was the recycling of scrap metal from tanks and artillery pieces abandoned by the Axis and allies in the desert during the Second World War. As the Chinese would say the deal between Idris and the British was “an unequal treaty”, a document the King had little choice but to sign.

The Americans negotiated a similar arrangement for the use of the former Italian airbase at Wheelus outside Tripoli. Wheelus was integrated into Strategic Air Command and John Foster Dulles, Eisenhower’s fiercely anti-Communist

John Foster Dulles with Ike - flew to Libya to inspect America's new airbase

Secretary of State personally inspected the new acquisition which became a primary training base for NATO forces as well as providing American B-52 nuclear bombers access to southern Russia via Turkey and to key parts of Africa. In 1956 Wheelus became the headquarters of the Seventeenth Air Force.

Western interest in Libya was born out of a strategic necessity to confront the Soviet Union in the Mediterranean and the Middle East. With the development of intercontinental ballistic missile capacity, Libya’s value as a base for bombers diminished with the passage of time but in 1955 oil was discovered and quickly replaced defence as the focus of Western interests in this part of North Africa.

Nonetheless, Britain, America, France and in a minor way Italy all  had reason to regard Libya as a legitimate battleground in the historic conflict, ‘the great game’ against the Soviet Union and international Communism. But as the Western powers staked out their ground in Benghazi, Tripoli and Fezzan, the rest of the Arab world was throwing off the shackles of colonialism or embracing pan-nationalism in the struggle against Israel and her American ally and by so doing helped write King Idris’ death sentence.

The young Gaddafi led the coup of 'Free' army officers against the pro-Western Idris regime

As Ruth First noted: “The price (of Libyan independence) was a state heavily committed to the West. This was to be the fundamental cause of the coup d’etat which overturned the monarchy” in 1969, a coup led by Muammar Gaddafi and his fellow “free” officers in the Libyan army. It is surely no accident that the same foreign forces, America, Britain, France and Italy have returned to extract their payback.

Gaddafi and the CIA – a short history

The disclosure this week that Barack Obama had authorized the deployment of CIA agents in Libya comes at a bad moment for the US and its allies in their efforts to depose the country’s leader, Muammar Gaddafi.

Obama authorizes deployment of CIA

For the second time in as many weeks the rag-tag army of Libyan rebels is fleeing eastwards in the face of Gaddafi’s more numerous and better trained soldiers, highlighting some uncomfortable realities for NATO’s commanders. The rebels are by themselves incapable of dislodging Gaddafi. The allies’ no-fly zone, cruise missile strikes and bombing missions may be sufficient to deny Gaddafi a victory over his rebel opponents but it cannot assure success for the rebels.

Libyan rebels flee once more

Slowly but surely Obama and his French and British allies are being sucked into direct involvement in yet another project to secure regime change in a Muslim country. The next stage will be to give the rebels sophisticated weapons in the hope this can reverse their decline. The rebels will have to be trained of course, the training must take place in Libya and the trainers will have to be protected, in Libya, by NATO soldiers. Slowly but surely the prohibition against “boots on the ground” will be erased. If, as seems very possible, the acquisition of modern weaponry fails to transform the rebels’ fortunes the only remaining option will be to send NATO troops in against Gaddafi. Failure to remove Gaddafi means a humiliating defeat for Obama and his allies and in the end NATO may have little alternative but to fight on Libyan soil.

But the rebels cannot be armed until the Americans and Europeans know exactly who they are dealing with. Who leads them and do the rebels, as some reports suggest, have al Qaeda or other jihadist sympathizers in their ranks? Does Obama risk arming America’s most committed enemies in the rush to overthrow Gaddafi?

Although the rebels’ capital Benghazi has been swarming with foreign media and press for weeks, it is only recently that journalists began looking for answers to those vital questions.

While names and faces of a few top figures are now known, the identities of much of the leadership of the rebel Transitional National Council, as well as who chose them, how they were chosen and why, remain shrouded in mystery. As a Guardian report put it: “Most of their names are kept secret. They often meet in hiding – at times in a church in Benghazi, on other occasions as far away as Tobruk. Some members of what amounts to the government of revolutionary Libya are not seen at all. They are just voices down a phone line.”

There is though one singular exception. We now know the name of the rebels’ military commander although the significance of his presence and his lengthy history in the annals of covert US opposition to Gaddafi has so far escaped the

Khalifa Heftir - the CIA's man in Benghazi

mainstream media. In the middle of March, Khalifa Heftir arrived in Benghazi from his home near Washington DC to a hero’s welcome from rebel supporters but it is likely that his safe arrival was greeted with as much joy and relief in Washington. The CIA’s man in the Libyan opposition was now in the saddle.

Heftir’s history as a former officer in Gaddafi’s military turned CIA-backed opponent of the Libyan regime goes back nearly twenty-five years and while a number of media outlets noted his return to Libya none, so far, have mentioned his CIA backstory. The Daily Mail in Britain, for instance, reported Heftir’s return on March 19th, saying that the former Libyan army officer had “recently returned from exile in America” to give the rebel force some “tactical coherence” without mentioning the background that had provided him with these talents.

A McClatchy Newspapers’ report on March 27th said that the new military leader of the Libyan opposition had spent the last two decades living in suburban Virginia and that he was the third military leader of the chaos-plagued rebel force in a month. The bureau quoted a friend as saying he “was unsure exactly what Heftir did to support himself” in America but that he had been motivated by his hatred of Gaddafi and sense of responsibility to Libya to return to lead the rebellion.

The New Yorker’s John Lee Anderson, writing in the magazine’s April 4th issue, refers to Heftir, whose name is sometimes spelled Haftar, Hefter or Huftur, as living, until recently, as an exile in the US, and that he was one of two competing military chiefs vying for control of the rebel force. Unlike his rival, General Abdel Fateh Younis, wrote Anderson, Heftir, “elicits widespread admiration in Benghazi, but he, too, has kept out of sight, evidently at a secret Army camp where he is preparing elite troops for battle”.

Khalifa Heftir is mobbed by supporters in Benghazi

President Obama’s motives in ordering the bombing of Gaddafi’s forces may well have been driven by humanitarian concerns but the appointment of Khalifa Heftir to lead the armed uprising in the oil-rich North African republic, is a reminder that there is a long and tangled history of secret American efforts to oust the Libyan ruler.

Heftir’s elevation also signals that Obama’s intervention in Libya is now not just about saving civilian lives but is aimed at removing Gaddafi from power, a mission begun a quarter of a century before by a President regarded as an American Conservative icon and supposedly the polar opposite, politically, of the White House’s current resident.

The story of Khalifa Heftir’s entanglement with the CIA begins with the election to the White House of Ronald Reagan in 1980 amid gradually worsening relations with Gaddafi’s Libya and a growing obsession on the part of Reagan and his allies with removing the Libyan leader.

Reagan was obsessed with overthrowing Gaddafi - will Obama fulfill his dream?

A year before Reagan’s election a Libyan mob, imitating Iranian revolutionaries, burned down the US embassy in Tripoli and diplomatic relations were suspended. Two years later the Libyan embassy in Washington was closed down while US and Libyan jets skirmished over the Gulf of Sidra, which Gaddafi claimed to be part of Libya’s territorial waters.

Later in 1981 American press reports claimed that Libyan hit squads had been sent to the US to assassinate Reagan, shots were fired at the US ambassador to France while the ambassador to Italy was withdrawn after a plot to kidnap him was uncovered. After explosives were found in musical equipment at a US embassy sponsored dance in Khartoum, Sudan, Reagan ordered a travel ban and ordered all Americans out of Libya.

In 1983 there were more air skirmishes off the Libyan coast; two years later five US citizens were killed by bombs planted at Rome and Vienna airports and US officials blamed Libya. The worst clashes came in 1986, beginning with more air skirmishes over the Gulf of Sidra and the destruction of Libyan SAM sites by American missiles. In April a bomb exploded at the LaBelle nightclub in Berlin, a bar frequented by off-duty American servicemen. Three people were killed, two of whom were US soldiers and of the 200 wounded, sixty were American citizens. President Reagan blamed Libya and on April 15th, some 100 US aircraft, many flying out of bases in the UK, bombed Libyan bases and military complexes. The Libyans said that 70 people were killed in the attacks which also targeted Gaddafi’s compound in Tripoli, killing his adopted infant daughter, Hana. One account claimed that nine of the jets had been directed to blast Gaddafi’s compound in a clear attempt to kill him.

By the mid-1980’s, the Reagan administration and the CIA believed that Gaddafi was supporting terrorist groups or helping fellow radical states throughout the globe. In a November 3rd, 1985 article for the Washington Post, Bob Woodward listed the countries where Gaddafi was said by the White House to be active. They included Chad, Tunisia, Sudan, Iran, Syria, Ethiopia, Nicaragua, the Philippines, Guatemala, El Salvador, Chile, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Lebanon and Iraq. Gaddafi was also supporting the IRA in Northern Ireland and significantly stepped up supplies of arms and cash to the group after a British policewoman was shot dead and diplomats expelled following a confrontation and lengthy siege at the Libyan embassy in London in 1984.

In May 1984, less than a month after the London embassy siege, gunmen launched rocket and gun attacks against the Tripoli army barracks where Gaddafi’s family compound was located. The initial assault was repulsed and most of the insurgents killed when Libyan tanks shelled the building overlooking the barracks where the gunmen had taken refuge. It was though the most serious challenge to Gaddafi’s hold on power in Libya, made all the more threatening by the fact that it had happened on his doorstep.

The attack was claimed by a group calling itself the National Front for the Salvation of Libya (NFSL), composed of anti-Gaddafi exiles, some of them supporters of the Idris monarchy overthrown in the 1969 revolution. Claims that the NFSL was at that time supported by US intelligence derive some support from a leak to American newspapers a few days before the attack in Tripoli that President Reagan had recently signed a new directive authorizing US agencies to “take the offensive” against international terrorism by mounting retaliatory or pre-emptive attacks. But the Americans were, at this stage, not directly involved in supporting the exile group’s activities.

The NFSL was getting aid mostly from Saudi Arabia whose ruling family despised Gaddafi after he had accused them of defiling holy Islamic sites in their country but also from Egypt and Tunisia in whose internal affairs Gaddafi had meddled. Sudan was another sponsor. Gaddafi had tried to foment an uprising against its pro-Western leadership and in response Sudan supplied the NFSL with bases from which the May 1984 attack was planned.

The Sudanese, according to one account, kept the CIA informed of the plot. CIA Director, William Casey, was heartened by the attack even though it had failed and renewed his efforts to persuade Reagan to authorize specific covert action against the Libyan leader. Casey is said to have remarked: “It proves for the first time that Libyans are willing to die to get rid of that bastard” (p. 85). From thereon the NFSL was put on the CIA’s payroll.

It was after the unsuccessful effort to kill Gaddafi in his Tripoli compound that Reagan took the intelligence offensive. Bob Woodward revealed Reagan’s move, first in the Washington Post (November 3rd, 1985) and then in his account of Reagan’s secret wars in his book Veil, published in 1987. A secret presidential directive, which Woodward was able to quote, signaled that the exile groups like NFSL would be an important weapon wielded in this campaign against the Libyan leader: “…the exile groups, if supported to a substantial degree, could soon begin an intermittent campaign of sabotage and violence which could prompt further challenges to Qaddafi’s authority.”

The Reagan directive had listed ten options for action against Gaddafi, which ranged from regime change to economic sanctions, although it was obvious that the operation could only be judged a success if Gaddafi was dislodged: “…no course of action short of stimulating Qaddafi’s fall will bring any significant and enduring change in Libyan policies”, the document read.

The former French colony of Chad on Libya’s southern border had already been a major battleground in the war between Reagan and Gaddafi and after the 1984 bid to kill the Libyan dictator it assumed even greater importance. Chad had gained independence from France in 1960 but its history for many years thereafter has been one of coups and civil wars, often sponsored by foreign powers using Chad as an arena for their rivalry.

Libyan interest and activity in Chad pre-dated Gaddafi’s 1969 revolution and centered on a piece of land in Northern Chad called the Aouzou Strip which is rich in uranium and other rare minerals. Gaddafi formed an alliance with the government of Goukouni Wedeye who allowed the Libyans to occupy the strip but in 1982 Wedeye was overthrown by Hissene Habre who was backed by the CIA and by French troops.

Hebre’s was a brutal regime. During the eight years of his leadership some 40,000 people were estimated to have died in detention or executed. Human Rights Watch observed: “Under President Reagan, the United States gave covert CIA paramilitary support to help install Habre in order, according to secretary of state, Alexander Haig, to ‘bloody Gadafi’s nose’”. Bob Woodward wrote in Veil that the Chadian coup was William Casey’s first covert operation as head of the CIA.

During the years following Habre’s coup, Gaddafi’s army and the forces of the Chad government, the CIA and French intelligence clashed repeatedly. In March 1987 a force of some 600-700 Libyan soldiers under the command of General Khalifa Haftir was captured and imprisoned. Gaddafi disowned Heftir, presumably in anger at his capture, and the former Libyan General then defected to the major Libyan opposition group, the NFSL.

A Congressional Research Service report of December 1996 named Heftir as the head of the NFSL’s military wing, the Libyan National Army. After he joined the exile group, the CRS report added, Heftir began “preparing an army to march on Libya”. The NFSL, the CSR said, is in exile “with many of its members in the United States.”

In 1990 French troops helped to oust Habre and installed Idriss Debry to replace him. According to one account the French had grown weary of Habre’s genocidal policies while the new resident in the White House, George H W Bush did not have the same interest as Reagan had in using Chad as a proxy to damage Gaddafi even though the Libyan leader formed an alliance with Debry.

A New York Times report of May 1991 shed more light on the CIA’s sponsorship of Heftir’s men. “They were trained” it said, “by American intelligence officials in sabotage and other guerilla skills, officials said, at a base near Ndjamena, the Chadian capital. The plan to use the exiles fit neatly into the Reagan administration’s eagerness to topple Colonel Qaddafi”.

Following the fall of Habre, Gaddafi demanded that the new government hand over Heftir’s men but instead Debry allowed the Americans to fly them to Zaire. There Libyan officials were given access to the men and about half agreed to return to Libya. The remainder refused, saying they feared for their lives if they went back home. When US financial aid offered to Zaire for giving the rebels refuge failed to materialise they were expelled and sent to Kenya.

Eventually the Kenyans said the men were no longer welcome and the United States agreed to bring them to America where they were admitted to the US refugee programme. A State Department spokesman said the men would have “access to normal resettlement assistance, including English-language and vocational training and, if necessary, financial and medical assistance.” According to one report the remnants of Heftir’s army were dispersed to all fifty states.

That was not, however, the end of the Libyan National Army. In March 1996, Heftir returned to Libya and took part in an uprising against Gaddafi. Details of what happened are scant but the Washington Post reported from Egypt on March 26th that travelers from Libya had spoken of “unrest today in Jabal Akhdar mountains of eastern Libya and said armed rebels may have joined escaped prisoners in an uprising against the government….and that its leader is Col. Khalifa Haftar, of a contra-style group based in the United States called the Libyan National Army, the travelers said.”

The report continued: “The travelers, whose accounts could not be confirmed independently, said they heard that the death toll had risen to 23 in five days of fighting between security forces and rebels, including men who escaped from Benghazi prison thursday and then fled into the eastern mountains.”

What part the CIA played in the failed uprising and whether the then US president, Bill Clinton had given the operation his approval are not known. By coincidence or not, three months later, Gaddafi’s forces killed some 1200 political prisoners being held in Benghazi’s Abu Simal jail. It was the arrest of the lawyer representing many of the prisoners’ families that sparked the February 17th uprising against Gaddafi and with it, the return of Khalifa Heftir.

Why can’t I watch Al Jazeera?

Is it too much to hope that one outcome of the convulsions currently gripping the Arab world will be that American cable television viewers can now get to watch Al Jazeera’s coverage of events in that crucial part of the world? Probably, but anticipating disappointment should never deter one from doing the right thing.

So, in that spirit I’d like to endorse Jeff Jarvis’ call on his Buzz Machine blog for American cable companies to add the Qatar-based broadcaster to their channel lineups. Jeff writes:

What the Gulf War was to CNN, the people’s revolutions of the Middle East are to Al Jazeera English. But in the U.S., in a sad vestige of the era of Freedom Fries, hardly anyone can watch the channel on cable TV. Cable companies: Add Al Jazeera English NOW!

It is downright un-American to still refuse to carry it. Vital, world-changing news is occurring in the Middle East and no one–not the xenophobic or celebrity-obsessed or cut-to-the-bone American media–can bring the perspective, insight, and on-the-scene reporting Al Jazeera English can.

The recent momentous events in the region, first in Tunisia and now in Egypt, have served to highlight just how woefully out-of-touch, uninformed and, in too many cases, inherently biased the major US news channels are, stuck in a Bush-era time warp and terrified of airing any image of the Arab world that deviates too far from the jihadist stereotype.

Cairo in turmoil

Phillip Weiss made a similar point in an excellent piece on Salon at the weekend:

I’d thought this is what (Obama) wanted for the Arab world: democracy! But the market dropped, and the cable shows teem with mistrust of the Arab street. The talking heads can’t stop going about the Islamists. Chris Matthews cried out against the Muslim Brotherhood and shouted, Who is our guy here?– as if the U.S. has a role to play on the streets. While his guest Marc Ginsberg, a former ambassador to Morocco whose work seems to be dedicated to finding the few good Arabs out there, said that forces outside Egypt are funding the revolt– an insulting statement, given the homegrown flavor of everything we’ve seen; and when Matthews pressed him, Ginsberg said, Hamas… Iran.

Matthews’s other interpreter was Howard Fineman. Why aren’t there more Arab-Americans on US television?

I suspect Phillip knows the answer only too well,  that the reason there aren’t more Arab-Americans on US television is the same reason none of the cable companies will touch Al Jazeera. Partly it’s to do with the pro-Israel bias of the American media but it is also because by this point the American television-viewing public has a facile notion about the Middle East fixed immovably in its collective mind; Arab equals terrorist.

The media is in large measure responsible for that simplistic thought and having helped to create it, is now imprisoned by it. To challenge the idea by interviewing Arab pundits and treating them as normal, intelligent and even insightful human beings risks the accusation of harboring secret sympathy for terrorism – such journalists in Ireland were called ‘sneaking regarders’ – or at the very least of being soft on it and that prospect is enough to terrify most in the media into acquiescence. That’s how self-censorship works, as I know only too well from my years in Belfast.

The media got their cue from America’s political establishment. The network was labelled an Al Qaeda front by the Bush White House – Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld set the tone by calling it “vicious, inaccurate and inexcusable” after it aired Osama Bin Laden videos – while right-wing commentators have assailed it as ‘Terror TV’ and campaigned to keep it off the cable networks.

America’s political and military leaderships have also given violent, bloody form to their hatred of the station. In November 2001, just after the American invasion of Afghanistan, a US missile strike destroyed Al Jazeera’s Kabul office. Eighteen months or so later, Al Jazeera reporter Tareq Ayyoub was killed by an American missile as he reported from the rooftop of the station’s office even though, as a protective measure, the network had, as it had done with its Kabul office, provided the State Department with its co-ordinates some time before.

In November 2005 the Daily Mirror in Britain reported that George Bush and Tony Blair had discussed bombing Al Jazeera’s headquarters in Doha, Qatar the year before during a major offensive by US Marines on the Iraqi city of Fallujah. The paper said it had a leaked memo from 10 Downing Street laying out the discussion but the account was denied by the White House. The story got little play in the US media.

Between them, rhetorical and physical hostility to Al Jazeera have been enough to ensure that the network has become a media ‘untouchable’ in America. According to a superb piece about the network in the online magazine Guernica, posted in 2008, around 120 million people “from Jerusalem to Jakarta to Germany” can tune in to the network’s English language service but unless you live in Burlington, Vermont or Northeast Ohio – both places with significant Arab populations – you cannot get Al Jazeera in America. According to Guernica:

Comcast, Charter, Time Warner, Dish Network and DirecTV (were offered the network but) all passed.

None would say why, but it is not hard to imagine that the same fear that keeps Arab-Americans off the major networks was and still is at work in the minds of the cable companies. Right now, the only way to get Al Jazeera, aside from YouTube videos, is to log on to their English language live stream on the internet but when a big story is happening, as in the past few days or so, and demand is high the service can be very hard to get.

Which is a great pity because the US networks are making a pretty poor fist of explaining what has been happening in Egypt. As Phillip Weiss noted, they keep tripping up over their preconceptions and prejudices about the Arab world. One recurrent theme, and not just on Fox News, has been that a) the Muslim Brotherhood could well seize power if Mubarak falls, (b) the Muslim Brotherhood are Eqypt’s Al Qaeda and therefore (c) what is happening in Egypt might well be a very bad thing.

Blogger and Nation reporter, James North said it well:

All of a sudden, middle-aged American men in suits who couldn’t find their way, unaided, from Cairo’s Ramses Station down Talaat Harb to Midan Tahrir, are posing as experts, appearing on U.S. television to insinuate that the Muslim Brotherhood is violent and extremist.

Fortunately, the Brothers have an English-language website.  Scroll down it to the lower left and you will see the feature: “MB vs. Qaeda.”  This segment is one more sign of the organization’s decades-long commitment to nonviolence, even though over the years the Mubarak regime has arrested and tortured thousands of its members.

If you go to the Muslim Brotherhood’s website (you need to scroll down) you can read this in a report on the recent attacks on Christians in Egypt by Muslim extremists of the Al Qaeda variety:

In a statement the Muslim Brotherhood vehemently opposed both the attack and threat calling on all Muslims to unite and protect the holy places of all the monotheistic religions, stressing it was a religious duty. It emphasized that Islam was a religion which promoted only peace and tolerance. The MB described the attack as criminal and heinous.

Hardly the words of jihadist terrorists or sentiments of which Osama bin Laden would approve yet this crucial part of the story, that the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is actually quite a moderate force within its spectrum, has flown right over the heads of the major networks, albeit with one or two notable exceptions like PBS’ NewsHour.

There is an irony in all of this and it is that Al Jazeera’s name for radical, anti-western coverage has been inflated beyond reason. The network is really the Middle East’s version of something that lies between the BBC and CNN – many of whose veteran reporters and producers not coincidentally provide a large slice of its staff – and can be every bit as mainstream, tedious and boring. In this regard it is salutary to recall that in its early, pre-9/11 days, Al Jazeera was often accused of being the voice of America in the Arab world. But it happens to do a very good job of reporting the story in its part of the world, a far better one than the US networks. That’s why we should be allowed to watch it.