Libya today is not only a country torn apart politically, but a battlefield where armed militias attack each other with scant regard for any civilians who happen to get in their way, and a happy hunting ground for criminal gangs and people traffickers. The West in general, and Britain perhaps in particular, bears some responsibility for the chaos into which Libya has descended.
The UK became intimately involved in Libyan affairs about half-way through Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s 42-year-long rule. The mid-air explosion of a PanAm plane above the Scottish town of Lockerbie in 1988, soon ascribed by the US to Libya, caused relations between Britain and the Gaddafi regime – already icy because of the murder of a British policewoman outside the Libyan embassy in London in 1984 – to freeze solid.
The thaw, when it came, was swift and dramatic. Apparently inexplicably, in 2003 the Gaddafi regime, which had stonewalled on the Lockerbie issue for fifteen years, suddenly acknowledged responsibility for the disaster, paid handsome compensation to the families of those killed, and handed over two Libyan suspects, one of whom, Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, was convicted for the attack. Gilding the lily, as it were, Gaddafi then announced that Libya intended to abandon its manufacture of weapons of mass destruction, and invited international inspection to verify the elimination of all its stocks.
It seems increasingly clear that a covert relationship between Gaddafi and Tony Blair, Britain’s then prime minister, was behind this remarkable reversal of policy – a relationship now being subject to intense, and often hostile, scrutiny in the UK media and government circles. As part of a secret deal, revealed some years after the event, Blair apparently traveled to Tripoli, met with Gaddafi and finalised an alleged “deal in the desert”, in which Gaddafi agreed to eschew global terror in return for international companies helping him extract Libya’s massive oil reserves. And now a forthcoming biography of Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, goes further and alleges that Blair tried to save Gaddafi’s neck during the 2011 international military campaign aimed at ousting the Libyan dictator. It claims that Blair telephoned Downing Street saying he had been contacted by “a key individual close to Gaddafi” who wanted to “cut a deal”.
Cameron was having none of it however, and immediately after Gaddafi’s downfall began patting himself on the back for having achieved régime change without putting a single British boot on the ground, or incurring a single British casualty. It is now painfully clear that this “hands-off” policy has backfired badly, for the result of leaving Libya to sort out its own problems is today’s war-ravaged land, where criminals and gun-toting Islamists are running riot.
Cameron has belatedly acknowledged that Britain has a “moral obligation” to Libya, and should try to restore some semblance of order. Which explains recent newspaper reports that British troops may be sent to Libya as part of a European stabilisation force – a complete volte-face on the UK’s “no boots” position.
It is undeniable that Libya has turned into a main transit route for migrants fleeing conflict and poverty to make it to Europe. The number of migrants crossing the Mediterranean has passed 300,000 this year, up from 219,000 in the whole of 2014. That the criminals master-minding this traffic have little regard for the safety of the migrants is demonstrated repeatedly. Since the start of the year some 2,300 people have died trying to reach European shores many, perhaps most, via Libya. One recent tragedy saw a boat packed with some 400 people capsize and sink off the Libyan coast, killing up to 200. That same day the Italian coastguard rescued around 1,400 people off the coast of Libya, while the day before it had pulled 3,000 to safety.
Libya is certainly in need of outside help. Politically it has been carved into two major warring segments. Following its first free national election in six decades, the interim government established by the General National Congress (GNC) failed to gell. Islamist militant groups refused to accept its authority, and in September 2014 General Khalifa Haftar, a former Gaddafi loyalist, formed “Operation Dignity”, specifically to attack them. To counter Dignity, an alliance of Islamists formed “Operation Dawn”. Now the Dawn coalition controls most of western Libya; the Dignity coalition rules much of Cyrenaica in the east. Each has its own self-declared parliament and government – Dawn in Tripoli, Dignity in Tobruk.
Will the efforts of UN special envoy to Libya, Bernardino Leon, yield a political truce? Hopeful that the country’s main warring factions would agree to form a unity government by mid-September, Leon consulted with representatives of the GNC in Turkey on September 1, ahead of peace talks which started on September 3. However the prospects are not bright, for the talks exclude the jihadists affiliated with Islamic State (IS) or Ansar al-Sharia – the widespread Salafist Islamist grouping – which regard both Dignity and Dawn as enemies.
Taking advantage of Libya’s political instability, these Islamist groups are using the country as a base from which to extend their grip across the region. IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, self-apppointed caliph of all Muslims, has already declared Libya to be part of his caliphate. Their growing presence escalates the violence and reduces the chances of restoring stability.
Indeed, authoritative newspaper reports, back in February 2015, asserted that evidence existed of plans by IS to take over Libya, and use that benighted country as a “gateway” to wage war across southern Europe. Documents were said to reveal that the jihadists intended flooding Libya with fighters from Syria and Iraq, who would then sail across the Mediterranean on people-trafficking vessels, posing as migrants. According to plans seen by Quilliam, the British anti-extremist group, the fighters would then run amok in southern European cities, and also try to attack maritime shipping.
Whether these plans have been put into operation, and whether the torrent of migrants pouring out of Libya do indeed include jihadist infiltrators, are questions as yet unanswered. The mere possibility must give added urgency to plans by the UN, the US, the UK and other EU countries to provide genuine assistance to the rump of Libya’s democratic government in Tobruk.
A restoration of law and order, the re-establishment of effective government. a crack-down on the people traffickers and other gangsters running amok in the country, above all a determined effort to counter and overcome the nefarious and subversive activities of the jihadists, especially IS, not only in Libya but in its heartlands of Syria and Iraq – these must be the objectives for those now pledged to assist Libya.