Egypt Makes Libya the New Front in Anti-ISIS War, 4 Years After NATO Left Chaos Behind

February 17, 2015


Vijay Prashad

professor of international studies at Trinity College and columnist for the Indian magazine Frontline. He is the author of several books, including Arab Spring, Libyan Winter and, most recently, The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South.

Sharif Abdel Kouddous

Democracy Now! correspondent in Cairo and a fellow at The Nation Institute. He recently returned from a reporting trip inside Libya.

Four years after the U.S.-led bombing campaign toppled Muammar Gaddafi’s government, Libya is in a state of crisis. On Monday, Egypt bombed Islamic State targets in Libya after the group released a video showing the beheading of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians. Egypt claims it hit ISIS targets "precisely," but at least seven civilians, including three children, were reportedly killed in the coastal city of Derna. The attacks come as Libya faces what the United Nations calls "the worst political crisis and escalation of violence" since the U.S.-backed overthrow of Gaddafi in 2011. Two different governments claim power, each with their own parliaments and armies. A number of militant groups, including the Islamic State affiliate, are scattered in between. Will foreign governments intervene in Libya again? We are joined by Democracy Now! correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous, who is just back from a reporting trip in Libya, and Vijay Prashad, a professor of international studies at Trinity College and author of several books, including "Arab Spring, Libyan Winter."


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AARON MATÉ: Egypt has opened a new front in the war against ISIS. On Monday, Egyptian warplanes bombed northeastern Libya after Cairo vowed to avenge the killing of 21 Coptic Christians. Egypt claims it hit ISIS targets, quote, "precisely," but at least seven civilians, including three children, were reportedly killed in the coastal city of Derna. The bombings come after the Islamic State released a video showing the beheading of the 21 kidnapped Egyptians. The victims are led onto a beach dressed in orange jumpsuits like Guantánamo Bay prisoners. They are then beheaded one by one. The lead executioner points his knife at the camera and delivers a message to what he calls the "crusaders."

LEAD EXECUTIONER: O people, recently, you’ve seen us on the hills of as-Sham and on Dabiq’s plain, chopping off the heads that have been carrying the cross for a long time, filled with spite against Islam and Muslims. And today, we are on the south of Rome, on the land of Islam, Libya, sending another message: O crusaders, safety for you will be only wishes, especially when you’re fighting us all together.

AARON MATÉ: The victims were all migrant workers kidnapped late last year. There are now reports more Egyptians have been kidnapped inside Libya in recent days. The video is the first showing an Islamic State beheading outside of its strongholds in Syria and Iraq. ISIS is one of several militant groups that have emerged inside Libya since the U.S.-backed overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. Today marks four years since the official start of the Libyan revolution, which ended in Gaddafi’s ouster and death.

AMY GOODMAN: Now the country faces what the United Nations calls "the worst political crisis and escalation of violence" since that time. Two different governments run Libya, each with their own parliaments and armies. The internationally recognized government operates from the eastern cities of Tobruk and Bayda, after a rival group called Libya Dawn seized the capital Tripoli in August. A number of militant groups, including the Islamic State affiliate, are scattered in between.

Egypt’s bombing marks the first time ISIS has been targeted with strikes outside Iraq and Syria. And although it emerged in the upheaval following the 2011 intervention, there is talk now of a new foreign operation beyond the Egyptian strikes. On Monday, Italy said it would weigh attacks on the Islamic State in Libya if U.N.-backed talks fail to reconcile Libya’s rival factions. Italian Interior Minister Angelino Alfano called for direct NATO intervention, saying, quote, "ISIS is at the door. There is no time to waste."

The current war authorization measure before the U.S. Congress also increases the prospect of direct U.S. intervention. President Obama has asked lawmakers to grant him expansive authority to target the Islamic State anywhere in the world, beyond the current campaign in Syria and Iraq. With Washington’s ally, Egypt, starting a new front, that opens the question of whether Libya is next on the U.S. target list.

For more, we’re joined by two guests. From Cairo, we’re joined by Sharif Abdel Kouddous, Democracy Now!'s correspondent and a fellow at The Nation Institute. He has just returned from a reporting trip in Libya. And joining us is Vijay Prashad, professor of international studies at Trinity College, columnist for the Indian magazine Frontline. He's the author of several books, including Arab Spring, Libyan Winter and, most recently, The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South. He’s joining us from Connecticut Public Television, the PBS station in Hartford.

Professor Vijay Prashad, let’s begin with you. The significance of the Egyptian strike on Libya, ISIS’s beheading of the Christian—of the Coptic Christians from Egypt?

VIJAY PRASHAD: Amy, this is not the first Egyptian airstrike in Libya. It’s reported, although Egypt denies it, that in August of last year Egyptian fighter planes, alongside fighter planes from the UAE, struck targets near Tripoli, the capital of Libya, at that time going after the escalation by Libyan Dawn to capture the city and the parliament. Libyan Dawn is dominated—it’s a coalition, but dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, which is of course the group that President Sisi has seen as his main enemy inside Egypt. So, when Egypt began its second round of airstrikes on Monday, the parliament in Tripoli, again, dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, immediately condemned the airstrike as a violation of Libyan sovereignty. The problem with the Libyan air—the Egyptian airstrikes has been that in a very short time it has immediately opened up the polarization inside Libya, precisely the opposite political direction which Libya requires at this time, according to the United Nations.

AARON MATÉ: Well, Vijay, can you talk about how we’ve come to this point where, four years after the Libyan revolution began, now the Islamic State is claiming territory there and carrying out brutal attacks such as this one?

VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, it’s a great, you know, consternation and shame, I think, to the so-called international community that this NATO intervention of 2011 came on the heels of geopolitical wrangling between the Gulf Arab states and the Europeans. This intervention came in. It destroyed much of Libyan infrastructure at a crucial point, when Mr. Gaddafi was taken prisoner. If he had been allowed to surrender, for instance, there might have been a process opened up to bring different factions to a political table. Instead, of course, he was brutally killed, and the possibility of reconciliation at that point was squandered.

Secondly, there was no attempt by any party to bring the various revolutionaries, the thuwwar, into any kind of umbrella organization. They were allowed to have a fissiparous existence, returning to their various cities, creating—rather, you know, deepening their separation, deepening the kind of antipathy between—amongst them. And in this strange position, the NATO-backed government took power in Tripoli, where many opportunities by this government were also squandered. You know, there were oil worker strikes. There was the question of the armed militias. At no point did the government in Tripoli seem engaged by these pressing issues. Instead, one of the first acts of this government was to create a central bank. It was very interested in making deals for oil. But at really no point did they attempt a genuine political process of reconciliation inside the country. That has torn apart Libya. It alienated the east.

And for the first time in Libya, a sophisticated al-Qaeda-type group was allowed to flourish, and that was Ansar al-Sharia, which grew out in Benghazi. You know, the previous Islamist group, the Libyan international—Islamist Fighting Group, had by 2011 put itself at the service of the government, but that gesture was, as well, rebuffed.

So, I mean, I think a combination of Gulf Arab animosity between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the, you know, maybe really disregard by the West, and internal problems, where the government in Tripoli, that rode into power on the backs of NATO, really alienated the population from any possibility of a future.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to bring Sharif Abdel Kouddous into this conversation in Egypt’s capital, Cairo. Sharif, can you talk about the response right now in Egypt to Egypt’s bombing of Libya, where you just were, and who the people were who were killed in Egypt, the Coptic Christians, killed by ISIS there?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Right, well, the airing of the video really struck a chord amongst many Egyptians, especially the Coptic Christian community. The nature of the message—there was no political demands made. It was an entirely sectarian message that was delivered.

But, you know, the strikes are significant. Vijay is right that there have been covert strikes before, especially in coordination with the United Arab Emirates, on Libya by Egypt. But they’re significant insofar as they’re the first publicly acknowledged foreign military intervention by Egypt, arguably, since the Gulf War, more than—or nearly a quarter of a century ago. They claim—the Libyan army claims that they hit 95 percent of their targets and they killed over 50 militants. But, you know, that’s rarely the case, that kind of accuracy, in aerial bombing. And already Human Rights Watch has said six civilians were killed, including a mother and two children. But politically, certainly domestically, the strikes were a success. Before the airing of this video, the families of the hostages held protests against the government, accusing the government of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of not doing enough to release the hostages. But since the airstrikes, Sisi has received widespread support. He’s seen as having acted swiftly and decisively. The state and private media, which is really a vocal chorus for Sisi, is whipping up a lot of nationalist sentiment. The army has been deployed to the streets to, quote-unquote, "protect" citizens. And really, the war on terror is Sisi’s source of legitimacy. It’s his raison d’être. So, this is all playing into that vein.

In terms of the 21 Coptic Christian men, the majority of them all came from one small village in central Egypt called Al-Our. And they were, like tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians do, migrant workers who left Egypt to search for better wages in Libya. They can earn up to seven times the paltry sums they can earn here in Egypt in Libya’s oil-rich economy. They ended up in Sirte, which is a coastal city in central Libya that was the birthplace of Gaddafi but has since become a stronghold for militants, especially groups like Ansar al-Sharia, which was accused of killing U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens in 2012, but has since been infiltrated by even more extreme militants. And survivors who evaded capture by the militants really describe a harrowing ordeal, where these militants were coming house by house, calling out these migrant workers by name, leaving the Muslims and taking the Coptic Christian men. And so, it really was—I think sent shockwaves through much of Egypt to see this video aired.

AMY GOODMAN: And the response of Egyptian society in terms of religions? Why Coptic Christians, do you think, were targeted? And the place of Coptic Christians in greater Egyptian society?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, this is not the first time Coptic Christians have been targeted in Libya. A doctor and his wife and daughter were killed in December. There have been other incidents, as well. We can only look to the—what the statement by the Islamic State group was, and it was calling for revenge for the Coptic Christian crusade, and this very overtly sectarian nature of the attacks. Egypt has a Coptic Christian minority, which is about 10 percent of the population. And they suffer from discrimination in various types of laws, of how they can build churches and other ways of discrimination, as well, in terms of marriage laws and so forth. So, you know, this really struck a chord within the community, but I think, overall, there is now in Egyptian society this hyped-up sentiment for war, and there’s a lot of support, it seems, for these airstrikes.

AARON MATÉ: And, Sharif, you were just in Libya, this bombing coming just as the U.N. is trying to broker some kind of deal between the two rival factions that claim two different governments, with two different armies, in parliament. What can you tell us about the internal conflict inside Libya and how these Egyptian strikes might affect them?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, you know, there’s a power struggle that’s engulfing the country, as Vijay outlined. And Libya is really—to go there, it’s really—it’s hardly a country anymore. It’s really a torn stretch of land, and Libyans have to negotiate a minefield of regional, political and tribal conflicts just in order to survive. You have these two rival coalitions, which are opposed to each other, each with their own array of militias, each with their own prime minister and government, and each claiming legitimacy. You have in the east, in Bayda and Tobruk, the internationally recognized government that is allied with Khalifa Haftar, a former general who has waged a battle against Islamist militias in Benghazi, and they were forced out of the capital in a weeks-long battle over the summer. And in the west, in Tripoli, where the Oil Ministry is, where the National Oil Corporation is, you have the self-declared government, which, very broadly speaking, is backed by an array of militias which are Islamist-aligned, but also has a tactical alliance with very extreme militias over whom they have no control.

And so, this conflict has been raging, has caused massive displacement, has created a void in which groups like the Islamic State group can flourish, really. And there was one driver that we had at one point, and he gave a telling quote, saying, "In the east, they assume I’m Fajr," which is the Libya Dawn; "In the west, they assume I’m Karama," which is Haftar’s; "And in Derna, they wanted to behead me," referring to the Islamic State group. And so, this is the kind of political situation that Libyans find themselves in. And the politicians seem to be operating in a different realm from ordinary Libyans, a realm that has everything to do with power and very little to do with governing.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to Anders Fogh Rasmussen, former head of NATO. Speaking to Britain’s Channel 4 Monday, he said foreign boots will be needed on the ground in Libya.

ANDERS FOGH RASMUSSEN: The brief answer is we will need boots on the ground. It’s clear that you can’t—you can’t do the job through air campaigns alone. You need boots on the ground. The only question is, which boots? And in that respect, I do believe that countries in the region should play a major role in deploying such forces. But they can’t do that, and they won’t do that, unless the West supports.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Anders Fogh Rasmussen, former head of NATO. Which boots on the ground, Professor Vijay Prashad? What about what he’s saying—not only should there be, but which ones?

VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, you know, it’s interesting because Mr. Rasmussen has categorically over the last four years said that NATO should not get involved in Syria, because it’s too complicated and the issue is fraught with all kinds of consequences. In Libya, on the other hand, you know, there’s an attitude towards it, which is that it’s a playground. You know, you can encourage intervention. You can let people come in.

I mean, I think it’s a very dangerous attitude for the simple reason that unless the political question is somewhat settled, talking about sending boots on the ground, whether Egyptian or Algerian, is, I think, a mistake. What I’m trying to say is that there is an Arab cold war that’s broken out in northern Africa, where, you know, on the one side you have Saudi Arabia with Egypt, perhaps, with the UAE, on the other side you have Qatar, and you have Turkey. You have these countries that are helping fuel internal disagreements. And until there’s an understanding that these external actors need to stop providing succor to internal contradictions, and until the U.N. is able to bring these internal parties to sit down and construct some kind of political dialogue which is real, to talk about sending in boots on the ground is only going to exacerbate matters.

If Egypt enters with its considerable military into Libya, this is going to create a great deal of, you know, problems with Qatar. And God knows what they would do. Meanwhile, of course, the Islamic State is looking forward to greater Egyptian intervention, because—and one of the reasons that they are going after the Copts is not only because their preferred, you know, enemy, the Shia, are nonexistent in Libya, but also they’ve been seeking a way to create greater fractures in Egypt itself, to insinuate themselves in Egypt.

So the idea of having boots on the ground, without putting great pressure on the major Arab countries in the region to sort of cool it on their own internal fights that are greatly affecting Libyan politics, until that happens, I fear that it’s naïve to talk about airstrikes, and it is incredibly naïve and duplicitous to talk about boots on the ground.

AARON MATÉ: Well, Vijay, on the issue of naïveté, looking back, Libya was hailed as a model for humanitarian intervention after Gaddafi was overthrown and killed. Now, though, I imagine, as the country unravels and descends into this resting ground for Islamist militant groups like ISIS, defenders of the NATO intervention will point back to Benghazi. At the time, there appeared to be, at least in my opinion, back then, a credible threat that Gaddafi was going to carry out a massacre in Benghazi, and the argument was that something had to be done. Now, putting aside what NATO’s actual motives were, the threat of a massacre did seem credible, but I’m wondering, looking back now, what we know in hindsight, do you think that that particular pretext of preventing atrocities in Benghazi stands up to scrutiny?

VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, you know, it depends what you’re going to look at. If you’re going to look at the evidence that Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International produced after the worst part of the NATO bombing ended, it’s not clear that the casualty rates that had been claimed by—particularly by the Saudi media, which was Al Arabiya, it’s not clear that those casualty rates were accurate. In fact, they were greatly exaggerated, so that the claim by Al Arabiya that there were already massacres in Misurata, that there was a massacre in Ras Lanuf, etc., turns out in the end not to have been true.

Now, it’s not to say that the Gaddafi government wasn’t prepared to conduct, you know, very brutal violence in the east and in cities in the center, but you have to recognize—and this is what I think the international media at the time wasn’t willing to inhale—you have to recognize that in the east Gaddafi’s military largely defected to the rebellion, so that the battalion and the air command in Benghazi was on the side of the rebellion. There had already been aerial strikes by rebel aircraft against Gaddafi boats that were in the Mediterranean.

So what I’m saying is that there was a very complicated situation at the time. You know, mainly Saudi media, and then pushed by various international media, including CNN, began to drum up this idea that there was a massacre. I remember, in the U.N. Security Council, ambassadors talking about getting their information from the international media. That struck me as really very, very disturbing, particularly given the fact that credible human rights organizations, after the fact, showed that the numbers had been greatly exaggerated by news media, particularly by Al Arabiya.

AMY GOODMAN: Sharif Abdel Kouddous, before we end this segment, could you comment, on the ground, just having been in Libya, about the humanitarian crisis there?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Right. Libya—ordinary Libyans are really suffering. There is massive displacement. The U.N. estimates about 400,000 have been displaced. Many of them are living in schools. Many have left the country altogether. Many civil society activists, journalists, writers have left under threats. Those Libyans who do want to leave, because they can find no more life in Libya, find that the world has rejected them. Many complain that they can’t get visas because they’re Libyan.

And most of the displaced that we saw were from Benghazi, Libya’s second-largest city, which is the birthplace of the revolution and is now really the epicenter of the disaster. People describe completely bombed-out neighborhoods. They said it looks like Aleppo. There is neighborhood youth who are armed, manning checkpoints all over the city. And, you know, just the simple truth of where you’re from can determine your fate.

So—and just overall dysfunction has really become a way of life in Libya. Libyans are forced to bear the burden of the conflict as it tears away the last vestiges of normalcy. Traveling across the country is arduous. Delays at airports can literally take days. If you want to take a—go by car, then you’re going to risk checkpoints and kidnapping and different militias, which you have to negotiate. In the east, particularly, there’s very bad electricity shortages. There’s fuel shortages. We were in Bayda, which is the seat of the internationally recognized government. They are experiencing a huge influx of refugees there, of displaced. This has caused rents to go up, food prices to go up. There’s food shortages.

The crisis is most acutely felt in the hospital, where, for example, we went to the kidney treatment center, which is receiving now three times more patients. And so, for dialysis, they have to ration treatment. And a technician told us how this is reducing the lifespan of patients. He told it to us in English, because he was saying it as a patient was getting dialysis. He spoke of how his own niece, his newborn niece, died because they couldn’t find a very simple tube for a blood transfusion that she needed, and she died before they could even name her.

And in Tripoli, you know, you see masked gunmen at checkpoints at night for the first time. They’ve never been masked before. The streets are deserted. You speak to government officials—the defense minister, Khalifa al-Ghwel, was telling us how safe Tripoli was. The very next day, armed militants stormed the biggest hotel in Tripoli, the Corinthia Hotel, and killed nine people, including a number of foreigners. So, this is really—it’s really quite a disaster for ordinary Libyans. And there needs to be some kind of political solution on the ground, because, you know, jihadists thrive on more war, and this whole talk of more conflict, I don’t think will solve much in the long term.

AMY GOODMAN: Sharif, we want to ask you to stay with us in our next segment to briefly update us on the Al Jazeera journalists who are now going on trial, who must remain in Egypt, but they are out on bail. Sharif Abdel Kouddous, Democracy Now!'s correspondent in Cairo and a fellow at The Nation Institute, recently returned from a reporting trip inside Libya. And thank you so much to Professor Vijay Prashad, professor of international studies at Trinity College, columnist for the Indian magazine Frontline, author of a number of books, including Arab Spring, Libyan Winter and, most recently, The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South. This is Democracy Now! We'll be back in a minute.

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