Repeating the same mistakes? The Libyan revolution, tribes and the risk of Afghanistization


A tiger cannot change its stripes, nor a leopard its spots, so too have the US, UK, France and Italy appeared to have not learnt very much from previous disastrous interventions within Muslim societies and nations. The revolution in Libya is more complex than a majority of mass media reports, both in the US and Europe, suggest. After an attentive survey of newspaper articles and online news, I can affirm that the public may not be fully informed of the reality in Libya and the dark side of one of the most complex ‘Arab Spring’ revolts. The issue is that nobody can forecast what the future without Gaddafi will be and what kind of social political system Libya may adopt when the battles end. Any person with knowledge that goes beyond the press reports is aware that NATO “humanitarian” intervention in defense of civilians in reality means the intervention of Italy, France and the UK with, this time, the support of the US. As I have written elsewhere, in this Arab revolution more than in others, former colonial European powers have economic interests and privileges to defend or expand. Libya is a country with natural resources, particularly oil and gas.

To understand the current situation and the potentially dangerous consequences, we need first to observe the composition of Libyan society and its structure. About 140 groups  form Libyan society between tribes and clans (for more info you can listen to my podcast). Perhaps only fifteen percent of Libyans lack tribal affiliations. Thirty tribes maintained strong influence before and after Gaddafi deposed the Libyan king. For instance, in Western Libya, the Warfallah tribe has about fifty-two clans and they inhabit Baniwalid, Zamazam, Bey, Sirte, Sabha, Dernah, Benghazi and in more recent times the Misurata District (for more on Libyan tribes you can read here).

We can find similar realities in other Libyan regions. For instance, in Central Libya (the desert area between Cyrenaica in the East and Tripolitania in the West), we find Gaddafi’s own tribe (Qaddafi) which attained a high status because of him. Yet it had a rather marginal place in the history of Libya, including in its anti-colonial struggle. Instead the al-Magariha tribe is the most influential tribe in this region and was a very strong ally of Gaddafi before the revolt. Notably, one of its members is the Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi. Elsewhere, in the Eastern region of Cyrenaica, we find those tribes that had challenged Gaddafi’s rule more than once. Indeed, one of Gaddafi’s the first actions as leader was to move the capital from Benghazi to Tripoli. The main tribe of the region, the Az-Zuwayya, have been at the center of several revolts, including the current one.

To these Arab tribes, we have to add the Berber tribes and regions. After Gaddafi took power, the Berbers in Libya went through a difficult time. As in the rest of North Africa, Arab regimes perceive the Berbers to be a threat since they normally resist the Arabization of their regions. Berbers indeed have distinct cultures and languages– but sometimes they differ in religious practice too. For instance, the Nefusa, one of the largest and most powerful Berber groups, which recently took arms against Gaddafi, follow the so called Ibadaya.

It is important to understand the complexity and fragmentation of Libyan society; alliances between different tribes, conflicts and rivalry mark Libyans’ ordinary life. Indeed, your tribal affiliation may decide whether or not you have a job, your career, education, status and even access to health services. Gaddafi mastered tribal segmentation in such a way as to create systems of clientele forced to support him and his family as the only possible centralized political option. He achieved this through a very calculated, if not callous, management of the country’s oil and gas revenues.

Libyan youth increasingly became tired of tribal traditions and the ‘Mafioso’ clientele system. The revolt started from their civil energy but soon became a matter for the tribes again. The coordination between the main thirty tribes gave birth to Libya’s National Transitional Council (NTC)–a tool imposed by the European powers and NATO in exchange for their military support. Yet NTC has in reality one main collagen: interest in power and hate for Gaddafi.

Be that as it is, we have also to ask who are the rebels and how much control the NTC has on them. Independent militia form a considerable part of the rebel army. Islamic radical groups which had fought Gaddafi during the 1990s are also part of such army, together with members of oppressed tribes. Yet within this military patchwork there are also opportunistic looters whom hope to take as many spoils as possible.

In the middle of this chaos, the British, French and allegedly Italian special forces are trying to direct or use what is possible of this unusual army to secure their respective national economic interests; what appears to be a kind of “European cold war” among the players to secure a new protectorate.

Since 9/11, however, al-Qaeda saw Libya as one of the main regions for the recruitment of fighters. Islamic militant groups opposing Gaddafi decided to join bin-Laden’s call for jihad against the US and its puppet Gaddafi, which in turn forced Colonel Gaddafi to support the western War on Terror. With the support of the US, and without risk of being accused of atrocities, his regime tortured, deported, and handed over ‘suspect’ Libyans to the US, some of whom were only guilty of opposing his regime. The War on Terror and EU support helped him to repress any opponent and increase the regime’s pressure on the tribes that did not fully support him.

Yet Gaddafi did not know that if the US supported him against the local Islamic resistance, led mainly by the Fighting Islamic Group, the British played a different game by attempting to use Islamic radical groups to kill or overthrow his regime. The reason is not born of a love for democracy or freedom but rather originates in economics, strategy, and natural resources. Italy, and to a lesser degree France, had access to those resources through Gaddafi.

If Gaddafi’s regime ended, the new forces would be likely to favor those whom supported them, and Italy in particular (since Berlusconi was a great supporter of Gaddafi) would have seen the previous agreement cancelled in favor of British companies.

Although direct involvement of British secret agents in supporting FIG and other Islamic armed groups has never been independently proven, the BBC aired an interview with former MI5 officier David Shayler in which he spoke of an alleged plot by the UK’s Secret Intelligence Service to kill Colonel Gaddafi together with an incredible tolerance, even in London, for FIG leaders and members. The plan failed and Gaddafi retained power until the recent revolt.

Today, however, prominent members of FIG and other Islamic groups are not only part of the NTC but among the best trained fighters that NATO could support in order to overthrow the Libyan leader. Indeed, Egyptian newspapers have reported that the high commander under which the rebels entered Tripoli, with the help of British special forces, was none other than Belhadj, known within Islamist circles as “Abu Abdullah Assadaq”.

Abu Abdullah Assadaq, together with some of the so called Libyan Afghans–for being involved in the Afghan resistance against the Red Army–immediately went from being potential candidates for Guantanamo to heroes and trusted allies of Britain and the US. Unsurprisingly, some in the White House were very embarrassed to see  former Guantanamo detainees metamorphose from enemy combatants and terrorists to freedom fighters and democracy supporters.

If we think that the Islamic militant actions and activities of these Libyan groups are something entirely of the past–even Gaddafi showed clemency with some of those whom are now hunting for his head–we would be really wrong. Although it would be interesting to discuss further these groups and their ideology, I have no such space here. Yet I wish to provide you with some brief facts.

Even a with a superficial search of the US Wikileaks cables, we can find that only a few years before this Nato supported revolution, radical imams were “urging worshippers to support jihad in Iraq and elsewhere”. We can read that Derna, a Libyan city of no more than 100,000 people but which has contributed a considerable number of fighters, contributed more suicide bombers than major Arab metropolises with populations running into the millions after the US invasion of Iraq. Yet this is not an isolated case of a single unfortunate city if, indeed, a statistical study of foreign insurgents in Iraq has revealed that 20% of them were Libyan Islamic militants (more than those coming from Saudi Arabia and Yemen or other parts of North Africa).

Do people change opinions, ideas and ideologies so quickly? How is it that the same Islamic militants who would have celebrated each American or British military death are now shoulder to shoulder with them in hunting the dictator and his family? What may happen after the civil war stabilizes and the time of sharing power and deciding the social political structure arrives? What impact will the tribal fragmentations and the different interests involved have?

We do not need to have a long memory to remember similar realities.  For example, recall for a moment what happened in Afghanistan in 1992 when warlords representing various clans and tribes, and which were central in overthrowing the regime, became locked in a power struggle which brought total anarchy to the country and how this brought the Taliban (former allies of the US) to power. What about Somalia after the overthrow of Somali dictator Mohamed Siad Barre? Who took advantage of the different interests of the international players? Of course, the Islamic militia did.

Another simple observation is that the US and British strategy is repeating the mistakes of the 1980s-1990s (Italy seems rather more cautious for reasons of interest)  as far as militant islamic groups is concerned: to take advantage of the groups’ military organization in order to destabilize a regime; to make promises and concessions to these groups and finally to betray them in the name of the “secular democracy” and seek an easier to control power in the region.

Jihad may be called against the Western Devil, and the fight may start again, though this time with new resources, allies, training and the weapons so kindly provided by NATO to fight Gaddafi. This is a film we have seen before. However, if Libya ends in the wrong hands like Afghanistan did, it may become an unimaginable threat because of its desert, resources, links and easy communications as well as regional relevance.

A Libyan version of al-Qaeda with a new bin-Laden would seriously move the ‘war on terror’ to European cities in a way that we cannot forecast. If this scenario might become true, the only one to blame would be the US and in particular the UK, Italy and France and their dream of more independence from Russian gas and influence —not the majority of Muslims.

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