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Vijay Prashad: 2011 NATO Bombing of Libya Led to Rise of Militias Now Fighting for Oil-Rich Land

StoryAugust 26, 2014
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Libya is experiencing its most intense fighting since the 2011 NATO-backed campaign to remove Muammar Gaddafi. On Monday, the Libyan Parliament that was replaced in an election in June reconvened and chose an Islamist-backed deputy as the new prime minister. This now leaves Libya with two rival leaders and assemblies, each backed by armed factions. Meanwhile, The New York Times has revealed Egypt and the United Arab Emirates launched airstrikes twice in the last week against Islamist-allied militias battling for control of Tripoli. Despite the strikes, the Islamist militants managed to solidify control of the capital of Tripoli by taking over the main airport. “[The U.S. and NATO] bombed the country and opened the door for the different militias to now compete against each other,” says Vijay Prashad, professor of international studies at Trinity College. “So the day Gaddafi was killed, from then onwards, the militias have basically been at each other’s throats.”

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StoryMay 23, 2014As Washington Focuses on Another Benghazi Probe, Could a Civil War Be Brewing in Libya?
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to Libya, which is experiencing its most intense fighting since the 2011 U.S.-backed campaign to remove Muammar Gaddafi. On Monday, The New York Times revealed Egypt and the United Arab Emirates launched airstrikes twice in the last week against Islamist-allied militias battling for control of Tripoli.

On Monday, Democracy Now! spoke about the situation in Libya with Vijay Prashad, professor of international studies at Trinity College. 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. I began by asking him to explain what’s happening in Libya now.

VIJAY PRASHAD: Today in Cairo, ministers from North Africa are meeting, because the Libyan crisis has become so severe. I mean, Libya has a very long border with Egypt. It has a long border with Algeria. It has a border with Tunisia. These are the three countries that are most terrified about the spillover of the violence.

So, what is this violence? You know, it’s not that the violence began yesterday, so they have an emergency meeting. This violence has been ongoing since 2011. The way the war against Gaddafi had been prosecuted was that different—you know, firstly, I should explain something about Libya to understand the nature of the war. Libya is like Indonesia, except that in between the little island cities there is desert. There is very little countryside. You know, these are cities in an archipelago. So, what happened when Gaddafi, you know, felt the resistance against his rule in 2011 was that the archipelagos of Benghazi, of Ajdabiya, these cities immediately seceded. And what’s so interesting is that they seceded as cities, as Benghazi, not as a major Libyan uprising. You then saw uprising in Misurata, in Zintan. You know, each city had its own militia, and these urban militias had a certain political character. There was an attempt—brief attempt—by NATO to try to create a unified command, but they basically gave that up. They bombed the country and opened the door for the different militias to now compete against each other. So the day Gaddafi was killed, from then onwards, the militias have basically been at each other’s throats.

And interestingly, the government in Tripoli, which to some extent, you know, dominates the oil revenues, has been paying each of these militias—you know, it’s amazing. The government in Tripoli is paying the militia in Zintan and the militia in Misurata, and they’ve been both attacking the government in Tripoli. It is a very weird and peculiar situation.

AMY GOODMAN: Why paying?

VIJAY PRASHAD: That was part of the agreement to maintain the peace. You know, there was a long process where pressure was brought on the basically parachuted government that came into Tripoli. You know, these are people who had been financial advisers to the emir of Qatar. The first major leader of the National Transitional Council, Mr. Mahmoud Jibril, was the principal financial consultant for the then-emir of Qatar’s second wife, Sheikha Mozah. So, these people didn’t have a mass base. They flew in on a NATO aircraft, they arrived in Tripoli, and in order to keep the peace, they decided to pay off every one of the, you know, little urban militias. They’ve continued that.

Now these militias are basically at each other’s throats. And it’s an exaggeration, as well, to say, for instance, that the Zintan militia is secular—that’s the one that was holding the airport; the Misurata militia is Islamist or has a Muslim Brotherhood cast, which has now taken the airport and the city. These are true adjectives. It is an Islamist force. But it’s not that the Zintan militia is not an Islamist force. It’s just that they have very different backers. The militia that has now taken the city of Tripoli is largely a Muslim Brotherhood force.

Meanwhile, in the city of Benghazi, which was the origin of the revolt, there is a major and very bloody battle between two forces. One is Ansar al-Sharia, which was the group that is alleged to have attacked the U.S. Consulate and killed the American ambassador, against a man who one should be very familiar with—his name is General Khalifa Haftar—who is the man who was a major Gaddafi general until the Chad war, defected from Gaddafi in 1987, flew to Vienna, Virginia, to live 10 minutes from the CIA headquarters in Langley, and then, a few weeks into the rebellion in Benghazi, was flown back into Benghazi, with the American hope that he would take over unified command. As I said, that failed. General Haftar has twice over the last three years attempted to create a coup in Libya. It’s failed. This time, rather than attempt a coup in Tripoli, he’s decided to position himself as the great savior of Libya and has marched his military forces into Benghazi, where he’s directlyconfronting Ansar al-Sharia. Now, some people say this is at the behest of the Americans, because they want Ansar al-Sharia destroyed.

Whatever it may be, Amy, the point is that in the eastern side of Libya, in Benghazi, there is a murderous war being fought between Ansar al-Sharia, you know, a terrorist organization, and Khalifa Haftar. And in Tripoli, as well as other cities in western Libya, there is a murderous war being waged between two militias, the Zintan militia, the militia of the town of Zintan, which has now been defeated largely, and the Misurata militia, led by a man who really needs to see a doctor. His name is Salah Badi, who suffers terrible post-traumatic stress disorder.

AMY GOODMAN: And he suffers PTSD from what?

VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, partly from the nature of the conflict that he was on the front lines of. I mean, you know, the people who flew in on NATO planes and took positions of authority in Tripoli were not on the battlefield. The people on the battlefield were people like Salah Badi. But not only that, you know, they were people who had fought in the international jihad around the world. They are people who were members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which had a major role in the 1990s inside Libya. They were defeated, they went abroad, they went to al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, etc. They return, and many of them have been fighting in Chechnya, in Philippines, in Afghanistan. So these people have very severe mental problems. And unfortunately, when—

AMY GOODMAN: How do they express those mental problems?

VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, Mr. Salah Badi, for instance, if people disagree with him, he’s like a gang leader. I mean, last year he was angry with the Parliament, and he decided that they were not doing what he had said they were going to do, so he brought a group of fighters, and they stormed the Parliament building. Earlier this year, he threatened the government that if he’s not made the head of Libyan intelligence—I mean, it’s extraordinary—he is going to kill parliamentarians. I mean, the Libyan Parliament has decided now, most likely, they will meet on a cruise ship off the coast of Tripoli, because they are too scared. They cannot—they haven’t met in the Parliament building. They decided to meet in a five-star hotel, because the security is better. And now they, in fact, might move offshore. You can see the state of Libyan politics.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Vijay Prashad, you were opposed to the U.S. intervention in 2011, the ouster of Muammar Gaddafi. Can you talk about why?

VIJAY PRASHAD: Yes. There are two reasons why I was principally opposed to the use of American and NATO force. The first reason was I had a very clear sense of who was going to benefit from this. You know, countries take time to develop alternative leaderships. They take time to develop, you know, new forms of political power. If NATO was going to come in, bomb Tripoli, destroy the Libyan state immediately and allow these different archipelago militias to take power, it was going to lead to chaos. That was one of the principal reasons.

But the second reason I was opposed to U.S. and NATO force was that by the time the Americans started talking about intervening, a third of Libya was out of Mr. Gaddafi’s hands. And I’ll give you a sense of this. If you traveled to Libya, Egypt and Syria prior to the Arab Spring, you would find something interesting. In Libya, since 1987, the military has been a wreck. There’s no morale. You know, you could walk in and out of a base without being asked questions. In other words, their military was a shambles. When Gaddafi’s son visited Benghazi a week into the rebellion, he came running back to Tripoli and said, you know, “Papa, it’s over. We’ve lost Benghazi.” You know, they essentially ceded that part of the country. Libya was going—Gaddafi’s rule was going to fall. There was no need for NATO intervention. In Egypt, the military is very powerful, but you will find something interesting. The soldiers have dark skin compared to the other Egyptians. They are recruited from upper Egypt. They are very disciplined, but they are not exactly with high morale. In Syria, the military has very high morale. You know, it has often been amazing to me. I keep wondering, why did the Turks and others believe that the Syrian regime was going to fall like the Libyan regime? They have completely different military structures, and the morale is completely different.

So, the second reason I opposed intervention in Libya was it was inevitable that Gaddafi was going to lose power. Let the process take its own way. Let them fight a little bit. Let there be a political dialogue within the rebellion. Let them create alternative structures of power. If you just give the Libyan people a destroyed country, how are they going to build a future? And that was the real danger of aerial bombardment of the style the Americans conduct. They level countries and then tell people, “Well, create a democracy.” It doesn’t work like that. If the Libyans had been given three, four, eight months to fight against Gaddafi, already much weakened, I think a different outcome might have been possible.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think it’s critical for people to understand about the forces that support Libya right now and where you feel it will go?

VIJAY PRASHAD: I mean, who supports Libya right now? You know, let’s do the drumroll. The United States has withdrawn from Libya. The French and the English have withdrawn their embassies. You know, they have all essentially abandoned Libya. I haven’t seen much talk in these countries about the importance of Libya any longer. You know, all that noise about the massacre of people in Ajdabiya, “We have to go in responsibly to protect,” etc.—all that stuff has vanished, you know? Now, what I hear from Samantha Power is the anodyne things: you know, “There needs to be a political process.” Hello, that could have been the language in 2011. You know, there needs to be politics.

AMY GOODMAN: How much violence was there before 2011, and then when Gaddafi fell?

VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, you know, violence in Libya has been there for a long time. In the 1990s, the Libyan state was cracking down against the Islamists, brutally, inside the prison, killing 200 people inside a prison. At that time, the United States didn’t say very much. During the 2000s, when the United States was exporting prisoners to Gaddafi’s jails to be tortured, you know, nobody said a thing. You know, the United States used extraordinary rendition, brought in members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, including one senior fighter whose wife was, I think, several months pregnant. They were caught in Malaysia, brought to Tripoli. When they walked into Tripoli, the head of the security services says, “I’ve been expecting you.” They were hand-delivered by a British plane. So, what we’re saying is that, you know, the violence has been there in Libya for a long time. What I question is these bursts of great humanitarian concern. They don’t come, it seems to me, authentically.

AMY GOODMAN: The whole controversy in the United States around Benghazi, the congressional committee that’s going to be investigating, how does that play into what’s happening in Libya right now?

VIJAY PRASHAD: It’s a bizarre thing. I mean, you know, when Americans say Benghazi, what they mean is Hillary Clinton’s attempt to become president. You know, I don’t think Americans really care anymore about what’s happening in Libya, to be honest with you. I think this is entirely about Hillary Clinton’s march to the White House and the Republicans’ attempt to stymie her move. I read her memoir, the section on Libya, in particular. I was very interested to see how she is trying to dodge all the potential bullets which will come from the right wing of the Republican party. So, I don’t really think people care about Libya. You know, important human rights activists have been assassinated in Benghazi. Senior figures of the government have been killed. Prime minister of Libya at one point, Mr. Ali Zeidan, had to flee the country, and he then went to Germany. You know, the prime minister of the country fled. Where was the excitement, you know? We know the word “Benghazi” only because of a very important event in the career of Hillary Clinton. And I think that tells you a great deal about the nature of American foreign policy making, that it’s so insular.

AMY GOODMAN: How does Libya, Professor Prashad, fit into the story of the Middle East right now, in the surge of ISIS, a group that you’ve been following for a long time?

VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, it’s fundamental to the entire story. You know, in a sense, people are saying that at any minute, Mr. Salah Badi of the great militia of Misurata might declare that he is an ISIS man. You know, I mean, these things are very possible. After all, if you look at Mali, if you look at other al-Qaeda manifestations, many times people opportunistically say, “We are al-Qaeda.” You know, in Mali, so many al-Qaeda were previously human traffickers, who trafficked people across the Sahara. They were drugs traffickers, arms traffickers. It suited their purpose to suddenly become al-Qaeda, you know, to create an alliance with the Berber. So, it’s not improbable. Because of the gains of the Islamic State, its prestige has risen. This is a very dangerous phenomenon, because it creates new kinds of confidence and new kinds of sensibilities, that, you know, we are going to fight to win. We’re not just fighting to secure our town anymore; we’re going to take all of North Africa. That’s why the ministers are meeting in Cairo. The Egyptians are very afraid that this is going to spill directly into Egypt. And that’s a serious threat to them.

AMY GOODMAN: And where do the ministers, the government of Egypt stand on what’s happening in Libya?

VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, honestly, I think they just want to build a big wall, to prevent it entering, you know? The Egyptians have several times threatened that they could enter to stop any attempt at movement towards Egypt. So, there have been troop movements at the Egyptian-Libyan border. They have no ambitions to go into Libya. You know, everybody’s hoping—that is, the militaries are hoping that Mr. Haftar is going to level Ansar al-Sharia. You know, one of the interesting features of the Arab Spring, unspoken feature, is that I was speaking to a senior military officer in Egypt, and he said, “You know, all of you people, you report about people on the streets and what’s happening with the Muslim Brotherhood. What you don’t know is, right through all this, the militaries of Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Libya, etc., we have been in communication with each other.” You know, they have active liaison, and they have a certain opinion about how things should run. So, for instance, I’ll give you an example of that. When Mr. Morsi, at a major rally in Cairo, gave a speech where he said to people of Egypt—

AMY GOODMAN: When he was president.

VIJAY PRASHAD: When he was president—said to people of Egypt, “Go and fight in Syria,” and then, after he stepped down from the podium, a senior cleric spoke there and said, “The Shia are the great enemy.” A few days later—you know, there’s hardly a Shia population in Egypt, but a major Shia figure was killed on the street, you know, was basically slaughtered on the street. The military decided to move, this man told me, against Mr. Morsi because of this gesture—”Go and fight in Egypt”—because, he said that, “Look, we are a proud Egyptian military. We don’t want to see a ragtag group of people. We don’t want to see Arabia, greater Arabia, turned into, you know, Afghanistan.” So, the Egyptian military, despite the politics, had very close liaison with the Syrian military and, similarly, with the Libyan military. Now, the Libyan military has vastly collapsed. Mr. Khalifa Haftar, the general, is reclaiming the mantle of a united Libyan military. So, I am almost sure that he is the one in close touch with the Egyptian military. In other words, what I’m saying is there’s another nervous system in this region. It’s not just the globalization of people, the globalization of Muslim Brotherhood, the globalization of al-Qaeda. There’s also a kind of linkage of the military. And they have a certain view of how these states should function. And I think, therefore, they will support some of these initiatives. So I don’t think the Egyptians are going to cross the border. That would be suicidal.

AMY GOODMAN: Vijay Prashad, professor of international studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, author of several books, including Arab Spring, Libyan Winter and, most recently, The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South. To see the rest of our interview, you can go to our website at

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