From the Archive: The assault by radical Islamists on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, killing U.S. Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens and three of his aides, underscores the under-reported risk of the U.S.-backed military campaign against Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, as Robert Parry noted in 2011.
By Robert Parry (Originally published on March 25, 2011)
American neoconservatives worried that the pro-democracy wave sweeping the Middle East might take out only “moderate” Arab dictators, but the neocons then saw hope that uprisings would topple “enemy” regimes in Libya and Syria.
Yet, in rallying U.S. support for these rebellions, the neocons risked repeating the mistake they made by pushing the U.S. invasion of Iraq. They succeeded in ousting Saddam Hussein, who had long been near the top of Israel’s enemies list, but the war also removed him as a bulwark against both Islamic extremists and Iranian influence in the Persian Gulf.
In 2011, the neocons sought a stronger U.S. military intervention in Libya to oust Col. Muammar Gaddafi (another old Israeli nemesis) and urged more support for protesters in Syria to overthrow the Assad dynasty (regarded as a frontline enemy of Israel).
However, by embracing these uprisings, the neocons invited unintended consequences, including further Islamic radicalization of the region and deepening anti-Americanism. Indeed, a rebel victory over Gaddafi risked putting extremists from an al-Qaeda affiliate in a powerful position inside Libya.
The major U.S. news media aided the neocon cause by focusing on Gaddafi’s historic ties to terrorism, including the dubious charge that he was behind the Pan Am 103 bombing in 1988. There was little attention paid to his more recent role in combating the surge in al-Qaeda activity, especially in eastern Libya, the base of the revolt against him.
Similarly, Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian government has repressed Islamic extremism inside its borders, in part, because Islamic fundamentalists despise the Alawite religion of Syria’s rulers, considering it a form of apostasy that must be stamped out.
So Assad and Gaddafi had their own political reasons to be enemies of al-Qaeda, the terrorist organization which U.S. officials cite as the greatest national security threat to the American homeland.
Source of Jihadists
As analysts Joseph Felter and Brian Fishman wrote in a report for West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center, “the Syrian and Libyan governments share the United States’ concerns about violent salafi‐jihadi ideology and the violence perpetrated by its adherents.”
In their report entitled “Al-Qaeda’s Foreign Fighters in Iraq,” Felter and Fishman also analyzed al-Qaeda documents captured in 2007 showing personnel records of militants who flocked to Iraq for the war. The documents revealed that eastern Libya (the base of the anti-Gaddafi rebellion) was a hotbed for suicide bombers traveling to Iraq to kill American troops.
Felter and Fishman wrote that these so-called Sinjar Records disclosed that while Saudis comprised the largest number of foreign fighters in Iraq, Libyans represented the largest per-capita contingent by far. Those Libyans came overwhelmingly from towns and cities in the east.
“The vast majority of Libyan fighters that included their hometown in the Sinjar Records resided in the country’s Northeast, particularly the coastal cities of Darnah 60.2% (53) and Benghazi 23.9% (21),” Felter and Fishman wrote, adding:
“Both Darnah and Benghazi have long been associated with Islamic militancy in Libya, in particular for an uprising by Islamist organizations in the mid‐1990s. … One group — the Libyan Fighting Group … — claimed to have Afghan veterans in its ranks,” a reference to mujahedeen who took part in the CIA-backed anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, as did al-Qaeda founder, Osama bin Laden, a Saudi.
“The Libyan uprisings [in the 1990s] became extraordinarily violent,” Felter and Fishman wrote. “Qadhafi used helicopter gunships in Benghazi, cut telephone, electricity, and water supplies to Darnah and famously claimed that the militants ‘deserve to die without trial, like dogs,’”
The authors added that Abu Layth al‐Libi, Emir of Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), “reinforced Benghazi and Darnah’s importance to Libyan jihadis in his announcement that LIFG had joined al‐Qa’ida.
“‘It is with the grace of God that we were hoisting the banner of jihad against this apostate [Gaddafi] regime under the leadership of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which sacrificed the elite of its sons and commanders in combating this regime whose blood was spilled on the mountains of Darnah, the streets of Benghazi, the outskirts of Tripoli, the desert of Sabha, and the sands of the beach.’”
Some important al-Qaeda leaders operating in Pakistan’s tribal regions also are believed to have come from Libya. For instance, “Atiyah,” who was guiding the anti-U.S. war strategy in Iraq, was identified as a Libyan named Atiyah Abd al-Rahman. It was Atiyah who urged a strategy of creating a quagmire for U.S. forces in Iraq, buying time for al-Qaeda headquarters to rebuild its strength in Pakistan.
“Prolonging the war [in Iraq] is in our interest,” Atiyah said in a letter that upbraided Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi for his hasty and reckless actions in Iraq. The Atiyah letter was discovered by the U.S. military after Zarqawi was killed by an airstrike in June 2006. [To view the “prolonging the war” excerpt in a translation published by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, click here. To read the entire letter, click here.]
As in the anti-Islamist crackdown of the 1990s, Gaddafi used harsh rhetoric in vowing to crush the Benghazi-based rebellion in 2011. Those threats were cited by President Barack Obama and other leaders as a key reason for securing a United Nations resolution and establishing a no-fly zone over Libya, to protect the rebels and civilians in eastern Libya.
Yet, while intervening to save lives in eastern Libya, Obama and other Western officials seemed to know little about whom they were saving. Journalists also failed to identify the leaders behind the revolt. However, in a personal letter to Obama, Gaddafi cited the role of terrorists in this new uprising.
“We are confronting al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, nothing more,” Gaddafi wrote. “What would you do if you found them controlling American cities with the power of weapons? Tell me how would you behave so that I could follow your example?”
Though Gaddafi clearly had a self-interest in portraying the rebels as al-Qaeda terrorists — and the rebels surely included many common citizens simply fed up with Gaddafi’s authoritarian rule — the report from West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center lent some credence to his claims.
Still, influential American neocons and major U.S. news outlets portrayed the Libyan clash as simply a case of a brutal dictator, who has his own terrorist baggage, crushing a popular movement of innocent citizens seeking democracy and freedom. Despite the warning signs of possible Islamist influences over the rebel forces, American neocons grabbed the steering wheel of this wider-war bandwagon as it picked up speed.
“The only solution to Libya’s crisis, as Mr. Obama first recognized several weeks ago, is the removal of Mr Gaddafi from power,” said a March 22, 2011, editorial in the Washington Post, which has evolved into the neocons’ preeminent publication. “But the administration still seems to lack a coherent strategy for accomplishing that aim.”
Clearly pining for the days of George W. Bush’s muscular unilateralism, the Post’s editors demanded that Obama take the lead in implementing a military strategy that ensures regime change in Tripoli. “If the regime’s heavy weapons were systematically targeted, the rebels could surge forward,” the Post wrote. “All this would require Mr. Obama to do something he has avoided from the beginning in Libya: Exercise U.S. leadership. …
“Far from rejecting that [U.S.] role, many Arabs have been puzzled and even outraged by Mr. Obama’s manifest reluctance to support a revolution aimed at overthrowing one of the region’s most vile dictatorships. Ultimately, Mr. Obama’s passivity is self-defeating. The sooner he recognizes this, the better the chance of salvaging a decent outcome in Libya.”
Charles Krauthammer, one of the Post’s prominent neocon columnists, weighed in with his own typically snarky column on March 24, 2011, also demanding that Obama take decisive action against Gaddafi.
“Never modest about himself, Obama is supremely modest about his country,” Krauthammer wrote. “Yet at a time when the world is hungry for America to lead — no one has anything near our capabilities, experience and resources — America is led by a man determined that it should not. A man who dithers over parchment.”
The NYT’s Certainty
The New York Times, another newspaper with strong neocon tendencies, took the case for regime change in Libya into its news columns, as it did regarding Iraq in 2002-03 when the Times acted as a conveyor belt for the Bush administration’s propaganda about Iraq’s non-existent WMD.
This time, the Times reported as flat fact that Gaddafi’s regime orchestrated the 1988 bombing of Pan Am 103 – a conventional wisdom that is now repeated across the U.S. media spectrum despite the many holes in the 2001 conviction of Libyan intelligence agent Ali al-Megrahi. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Through the US Media Lens Darkly.”]
This combination of ignorance about the internal politics of Libya (i.e. who are the rebels?) and the misplaced certainty of the U.S. press corps about another designated villain (supposed Pan Am 103 terrorist mastermind Gaddafi) set the stage for a potential repeat of the Iraq disaster.
In Iraq, it turned out that Saddam Hussein, who had destroyed his stockpiles of WMD, was serving as a bulwark against both al-Qaeda-style terrorism and Iranian influence. His removal advanced both Islamic terrorist movements across the region and Iran’s power in the Persian Gulf.
In Libya, the neocons baited Obama into a wider war to overthrow Gaddafi. But they appear as ill-informed about the possible consequences in Libya as they did in Iraq: If the “rebels” are influenced or controlled by al-Qaeda-style terrorists, would they inflict massacres of Gaddafi’s supporters, thus flipping the notion of a humanitarian intervention?
Would a rebel victory give the Islamic terror groups of eastern Libya a foothold in or possible control of the whole country and its oil wealth? Would the prospect of an al-Qaeda affiliate in charge of a strategically placed Arab country require the United States to commit ground troops to the conflict to prevent an outcome that the U.S. intervention had unintentionally caused?
Over the past several decades as the neocons have grown in influence inside the U.S. political/media circles, one of their consistent characteristics has been to advocate wars against perceived “enemies” in the Muslim world. But the neocons’ lack of realism – and their enthusiasm to do whatever they think might be helpful to Israel – have often made them the classic sorcerer’s apprentice, stirring up trouble that grows worse and worse without knowing how to bring the chaos under control.
Yet, despite their war-mongering incompetence, the neocons have one great strength: they are clever enough — and well-connected enough — to block any accountability. Even when their policies go horribly wrong, they can simply reframe the narrative to make themselves out to be the smart ones.
Until their ability to rewrite the history is countered, the neocons can be expected to continue leading the United States into disaster after disaster.[Backed by U.S. and European air power, Libyan rebels drove Gaddafi from the capital, Tripoli, in September 2011. He was later captured and killed by rebel forces in the town of Sirte on Oct. 20, 2011. Since then, heavily armed militias, including some controlled by Islamist extremists, have continued to sow disorder inside Libya.] [For other examples of how neocons shape the narrative, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Inside America’s ‘Adjustment Bureau.’”]
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & ‘Project Truth’ are also available there.