How the West’s War in Libya Spurred Terrorism in 14 Countries

The first to suffer was Syria and since then the gruesome effects have been spreading in the region and beyond, to Africans and Europeans, writes Mark Curtis.  

By Mark Curtis
British Foreign Policy Declassified

Eight years on from NATO’s war in Libya in 2011, as the country enters a new phase in its conflict, I have taken stock of the number of countries to which terrorism has spread as a direct product of that war. The number is at least 14. The legacy of the overthrow of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi — pursued by U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and U.S. President Barack Obama — has been gruesomely felt by Europeans and Africans. Yet holding these leaders accountable for their decision to go to war is as distant as ever.

Portrait of Gaddafi in Ghadames, Libya, 2009. (Wikimedia Commons)

The 2011 conflict, in which NATO worked alongside Islamist forces on the ground to remove Gaddafi, produced an ungoverned space in Libya and a country awash with weapons, ideal for terrorist groups to thrive. But it was Syria that suffered first.

After civil war broke out there in early 2011, at the same time as in Libya, the latter became a facilitation and training hub for around 3,000 fighters on their way to Syria, many of whom joined Al-Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State-affiliated Katibat al-Battar al-Libi (KBL), which was founded by militants from Libya.

In Libya itself, a rebranding of existing Al-Qaeda-linked groups in the north-eastern area of Derna produced Islamic State’s first official branch in the country in mid-2014, incorporating members of the KBL. During 2015, IS Libya conducted car bombings and beheadings and established territorial control and governance over parts of Derna and Benghazi in the east and Sabratha in the west. It also became the sole governing body in the north-central city of Sirte, with as many as 5,000 fighters occupying the city.

By late 2016, IS in Libya was forced out of these areas, largely due to U.S. air strikes, but withdrew to the desert areas south of Sirte, continuing low-level attacks. In the last two years, the group has re-emerged as a formidable insurgent force and is again waging high-profile attacks on state institutions and conducting regular hit-and-run operations in the southwestern desert. Last September, UN Special Representative to Libya Ghassan Salame told the UN Security Council that the IS “presence and operations in Libya are only spreading.”

Terror in Europe

After the fall of Gaddafi, IS Libya established training camps near Sabratha, which are linked to a series of terrorist attacks and plots. “Most of the blood spilled in Europe in the more spectacular attacks, using guns and bombs, really all began at the time when Katibat al-Battar went back to Libya,” Cameron Colquhoun, a former counterterrorism analyst for Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters, told The New York Times. “That is where the threat trajectory to Europe began – when these men returned to Libya and had breathing space.”

Floral tributes to the victims of the attack in St Ann’s Square in Manchester city center. (Tomasz “odder” Kozlowski via Wikimedia Commons)

Salman Abedi, who blew up 22 people at a pop concert in Manchester in 2017, met with members of the Katibat al-Battar al-Libi, a faction of IS, several times in Sabratha, where he was probably trained. Other members of the KBL were Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the ringleader of the 2015 Paris attacks on the Bataclan nightclub and sports stadium, which killed 130 people, and the militants involved in the Verviers plot to attack Belgium in 2015. The perpetrator of the 2016 Berlin truck attack, which left 12 people dead, also had contacts with Libyans linked to IS. So too in Italy, where terrorist activity has been linked to IS Libya, with several individuals based in Italy involved in the attack on the Bardo museum in Tunis in 2015, which killed 22 people.

Memorial to victims of the attack on Bardo National Museum in Tunisia. (Yamen via Wikimedia Commons)

Libya’s Neighbors

Tunisia suffered its deadliest terrorist attack in 2015 when a 23-year-old Tunisian armed with a machine gun mowed down 38 tourists, mainly Britons, at a beach hotel in the resort of Port El Kantaoui. The perpetrator was reportedly an adherent of IS and, like Salman Abedi, had been trained in the camp complex at Sabratha from where the attack was staged.

Libya’s eastern neighbor, Egypt, has also been struck by terrorism emanating from the country. IS officials in Libya have been linked to, and may have directed, the activities of Wilayat Sinai, the terrorist group formerly known as Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, which has carried out several deadly attacks in Egypt. After the fall of Gaddafi, the Western Desert became a corridor for the smuggling of weapons and operatives on their way to the Sinai. Egypt conducted air strikes against militant camps in Libya in 2015, 2016 and again in 2017, the latter following the killing of 29 Coptic Christians near Cairo

Into the Sahel

But Libya has also become a hub for jihadist networks stretching south into the Sahel, the geographical transition zone in Africa between the Sahara desertto the north and the Sudanian Savanna to the south. 

Libya’s 2011 uprising opened a flow of weapons into northern Mali, which helped revive an ethno-tribal conflict that had been brewing since the 1960s. By 2012, local allies of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) had taken control of day-to-day governance in the northern Mali towns of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu. After France intervened in Mali, the ongoing lack of governance in Libya precipitated several groups to relocate their operational centers to Libya, including both AQIM and its offshoot, Al-Mourabitoun, from where these groups could acquire weapons more easily.

With Libya as its rear base, Al-Mourabitoun under its leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar was behind the attack on the Amenas hydrocarbon complex in eastern Algeria in January 2013, which left 40 foreign workers dead; the gun attack on the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako, Mali in November 2015, which killed 22 people; and for the attack on Hotel Splendid in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, which killed 20 people in January 2016. Al-Mourabitoun has also attacked a military academy and French-owned uranium mine in Niger.

Disastrous Foreign Policy

The fall-out from Libya spreads even wider, however. By 2016, U.S. officials reported signs that Nigeria’s Boko Haram jihadists, responsible for numerous gruesome attacks and kidnappings, were sending fighters to join IS in Libya, and that there was increased cooperation between the two groups. The International Crisis Group notes that it was the arrival of weapons and expertise from Libya and the Sahel that enabled Boko Haram to fashion the insurgency that plagues north-western Nigeria today. There have even been claims that Boko Haram answers to IS commanders in Libya.

After months of captivity by suspected Boko Haram militants, ex-hostages arrive at Cameroon’s Yaounde Nsimalen International Airport. (VOA via Wikimedia Commons)

In addition to these 14 countries, fighters from several other states have joined IS militants in Libya in recent years. Indeed, it is estimated that almost 80 percent of IS membership in Libya is non-Libyan, including from countries such as Kenya, Chad, Senegal and Sudan. These foreign fighters are potentially available to return to their own countries after receiving training.

The true extent of the fall-out from the Libya war is remarkable: it has spurred terrorism in Europe, Syria, North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa. Islamic State, although now nearly defeated in Syria and Iraq, is far from dead. Indeed, while Western leaders seek to defeat terrorism militarily in some places, their disastrous foreign policy choices have stimulated it in others.

Mark Curtis is an historian and analyst of U.K. foreign policy and international development and the author of six books, the latest being an updated edition of “Secret Affairs: Britain’s CollU.S. ion with Radical Islam.”

40 comments for “How the West’s War in Libya Spurred Terrorism in 14 Countries

  1. Tedder
    May 24, 2019 at 08:40

    Gaddafi had a plan to develop a Pan-African Bank using Libya’s stash of gold. The West wanted his oil. This was revealed by Wikileaks in Hillary’s email to Max Blumenthal: “Blumenthal’s memo argues that he was driven by a cocktail of less lofty incentives, including a desire for Libyan oil, and a fear that Qaddafi secretly planned to use his vast supply of gold to displace France’s primacy in the region.”
    Another interesting bit was that Ambassador Stevens was in Benghazi to facilitate transfer of Libya’s captured weaponry to Syrian rebels.
    Corruption and murder on a national scale, this is the legacy of empire.

  2. Robert Mayer
    May 23, 2019 at 23:14

    Gaddafi’s Libya rule was said2 discover & use “primary water”… but also2 initiate its Own Currency Separate from Petro-$!!!
    Which… Or BOTH?!!! were death penalty offense?

    • David G. Horsman
      May 26, 2019 at 21:49

      The petro-dollar to my knowledge. It is a consistent pattern.

  3. Tedder
    May 23, 2019 at 12:49

    I wonder how to measure the effects of US support of jihadi networks in Afghanistan during the Afghan wars from 1979 to 1989. I know that the Muslim Brotherhood was making mischief in Syria about the same time, but it seems that ISIS et al bloomed from that war. The West is patently guilty for this almost complete destabilization and destruction in Libya, but its motives are very suspect, having nothing to do with ‘protecting civilians’ and everything to do with gold and oil.

    • David G. Horsman
      May 26, 2019 at 21:55

      It all started with Russian brutal battle against Afganistan where the US helped the Taliban and friends get on their feet.

      Bin Laden should be a familiar name to everyone. Where ever they might have stashed him I am sure he would agree.

  4. May 22, 2019 at 20:55

    I wish Mr. Mark Curtis to tell the truth as we know it and ignore the British and EU governments that the foreign interference of a Qatari and Turkish and supporting terrorism in Libya is what made our country in its mandate now.
     But we will get rid of this epidemic soon thanks to our Libyan Arab armed forces
    Thanks to the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces Marshal Rakan Harb Khalifa Haftar.. .

  5. Drew Hunkins
    May 22, 2019 at 17:21

    Compared to the Trump presidency timeline — At this exact point in time in the Obama administration it was two months into completely obliterating and annihilating Libya, killing thousands of innocent civilians and sending tens of thousands into Europe thereby fueling political tensions in a West that was already suffering under un and under-employment.

    It was an Obama-Killary crime against humanity almost like no other.

    Say what you will about the Trump regime, but despite all its faults it has yet to commit such a blatantly deplorable and reprehensible act. Of course the key word is “yet”. We’ll certainly see what happens in the coming year or so.

    • David G. Horsman
      May 26, 2019 at 22:35

      When you are Canadian (that being quasi American) the Democrats and Republicans are nearly indistinguishable. One is covertly racist, the other overtly. Neoliberals vs. neoconservatives. Liberal vs right fascism.

      It’s the Geofascist imperialism that is the real issue to a US interest. Well over 20M dead since WW2. Wow. The Orwellian nature of times also being a very disturbing trend.

      In 2016, after Obama and faced with the lunatic raving of Killary, it is hard to imagine things getting worse than what was coming. The point being that (yet another) weird media star POS like Trump was not really surprising. However given his past performances it seemed entirely likely that maybe… just maybe… he might kill fewer people than the potential millions we were faced with.

      So far so good. One psychopath war criminal is much like another. That said tossing narcissism into the mix is proving to be problematic. What happens if he gets cornered and his plans are on the rocks? Yikes!

      I could go on all day about what a useful idiot he has proven to be but I will limit myself to one particular point. People are rapidly becoming highly aware of the threat of fascism (global and domestic corporatism, neoliberalism, neoconservative and so on) and the simple term Geofascism (neo having been already used) seems to have been settled upon. As part of my political education this has been my pet project.

      I advocate for a 10-20 point ranking system that could be applied to individuals, groups and governments. I am mainly interested in capturing ideology as data. I use the list: not, pre, proto and full as showing state.

      Ideology being subjective, I try to use laws passed, regulations and violent events as a clear metric.
      Examples: Citizenship laws (Israel) Ag laws. Gag laws. Protest laws/zones/restrictions. Criminalization of free speech and the press as well.

      Clearly things like rule by fiat (EO’s,) censorship, ignoring laws, militarized policing and many other points might be considered when looking at the basic traits in this specific

      Anywho, I had the US down as proto-fascist (meaning it was just too late.) However, thanks to @AOC and her like appearing on the scene I felt it only fair to downgrade y’all to pre-fascist. Really I think Trump deserves a lot of credit in this regard. More winning. Lol.

      I am not feeling optimistic. I mainly study human cognition and tend to find (adjusted) poll data quite reliable. I think the left greatly overestimates its size, power and unity. It’s the fascists that have all the guns.

  6. May 22, 2019 at 13:50

    I wrote the article below 8years ago.
    October 30, 2011
    “The War Criminals Who Bombed Libya”

    Libya has been bombed non-stop for around eight months all in the name of a “humanitarian mission.” The main perpetrators of this atrocity are the so-called “civilized political leaders” of the western world. Their partners in war crimes are NATO and the Al-Qaeda [2] led rebels. The propaganda merchants for the war were mostly the mainstream media who gave credibility to its illegality and mostly covered up the Al-Qaeda led connection to the rebels….

  7. May 22, 2019 at 13:41

    “The West” has been in bed with “Terrorism” for a number of years. See evidence in article link below.
    July 5, 2018
    “The Notorious Armed Terrorists Organization (NATO) Meeting July 11-12, 2018”

  8. Brian James
    May 22, 2019 at 13:27

    This should help clear the propaganda.

    Sep 11, 2011 General Wesley Clark: Wars Were Planned – Seven Countries In Five Years

    “This is a memo that describes how we’re going to take out seven countries in five years, starting with Iraq, and then Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and, finishing off, Iran.” I said, “Is it classified?” He said, “Yes, sir.” I said, “Well, don’t show it to me.” And I saw him a year or so ago, and I said, “You remember that?” He said, “Sir, I didn’t show you that memo! I didn’t show it to you!”

    • Johan Strauss
      May 23, 2019 at 05:46

      Wesley Clarke is a warmonger. The crass way he says about wars in 7 countries, , is down to his work with a US based Hedge Vulture fund.

      First always know the players and who they represent. Wesley Clarke worked closely with the KAyablian Brothers who were funded by GWB invasion into Iraq, they went under the name of Amira Industries N.V. Set up in 1996 with USA help to in the seperation of Northern Iraq into Two Parts. One part run by M Barzani and the other by Jala Talabani, both Kurds linked to Blair and the iraq invasion of 2002/3 .With the help of UK MP Nahdim Zahawis “father” who was set up with a company named IPBD Limited to enter Iraq with former UK Soldeirs in March 2003.

      Wesley Clarke facilitated many energy deals in Iraq, and Yemen, with the nortorious Dr Ashti Hawrmi A kurd oil Minster from Oxfordshire and Enzo Rosjo of Norway and London. Mark Curtis will know all about Ashti Hawrmi , who helped Thatcher son reap ENG in Africa with Simon Mann and HSBC, ECL from Henely on Thames.

      Get to know Wesley Clarke and co properly

  9. Pablo Diablo
    May 22, 2019 at 13:13

    “We came, We saw, He died, HAHAHAHAHAHAHA” — Hillary Clinton. All to get her buddy back in the money/oil game between Libya and Europe.

  10. William H Warrick III MD
    May 22, 2019 at 12:25

    This is what the Deep State wants. Instability everywhere. It then becomes a place where the US Military is needed to restabilize the area which they never actually accomplish so they then have to stay because the area is unstable. Its a circular closed loop.

    • Abby
      May 22, 2019 at 19:12

      Which means it’s great for defense company’s profits. This is one of the biggest reasons we invade countries along with helping to get the oil companies access to the oil. But still too many people think that the military is a force for good everywhere and especially for those that join it a way to protect our country.

  11. MikeW_CA
    May 22, 2019 at 10:16

    This article describes a lot of terrorism without once mentioning “Iran”. Hmm.

    • Chris N
      May 22, 2019 at 12:35

      Yet the false narrative of Iran be the largest state sponsor of terrorism goes on and on.

    • bill ziebell
      May 22, 2019 at 12:58

      You mean Saudi Arabia, not Iran. SA is the Foremost sponsor of State Terrorism, not Iran

      • Abby
        May 22, 2019 at 19:15

        You have to throw the USA into this list. We’ve been creating terrorists long before we did in Afghanistan. But yeah it’s true that the Saudis are the biggest sponsors.

    • Ander
      May 22, 2019 at 13:13

      Iran and ISIS are diametrically opposed forces, and the majority of terrorism covered by this article related to Al-qaeda and ISIS linked terrorist attacks.

      It’s easy to see that the destruction of a stable government by western airpower and western-backed insurgents created a failed state in which the most brutal terrorist organizations of our world can operate freely.

    • Rogerk
      May 22, 2019 at 15:35

      Yes, coz Iran blows up subways and cafes all the time? They want to convert or kill all infidels? Iran is not the problem. The militias they support are nationals of the country they are fighting in. Hezbollah wouldn’t even exist if Israel didn’t invade Lebanon repeatedly. The Saudi war against Yemen and the Houthis goes back to the 60s and has nothing to do with Iran, they just have a common enemy. These are local resistance fighters, they don’t care if you eat pork and don’t pray towards mecca

    • Lbanu
      May 23, 2019 at 02:44

      Iran would indeed deserve special mention for it’s good behavior in confronting the regional plague of Sunni terrorism in all its splendor. Israel would have deserved mention too for its own regional role in support of it’s Sunni allies and their sponsorship of a plethora of terrorist groupings as well as its consistent acts of aggression across the region. It is Israel that continues to occupy lands beyond borders in Lebanon, Syria and across Palestine.

  12. Stephen P
    May 22, 2019 at 10:08

    On the Benghazi Committee:

    “Serious interrogation of a failed intervention launched on the most specious grounds would have thrown a ratchet into the interventionist agenda and cast inconvenient light onto the ongoing proxy war in Syria. By diverting the discussion of Libya from the systematic dismantling of a functional state to crude partisan politics, the Benghazi committee fulfilled its role in protecting the Washington playbook.”

    The Management of Savagery, Max Blumenthal, page 269

    In other words, it was all a show folks (as was Russia-gate). It’s all just a show.

    • Ander
      May 22, 2019 at 13:14

      I really need to read Mr. Blumenthal’s new book

  13. mauisurfer
    May 21, 2019 at 22:02

    hillary did it
    obama went along

  14. Joe Tedesky
    May 21, 2019 at 21:26

    We should be angry for how the US MSM made Gaddafi synonymous with evil only for us to learn after his death of how gratuitous his leadership was for his Libyan people. And then there was ‘chuckles Hillary, we came, we saw, he died… Hollywood could not have demonized her persona anymore than how she did herself with that one.

    I always wonder to if David Petraeus used the Benghazi CIA annex to funnel by demand weapons into Syria. I also can picture Petraeus dropping his own dime on his self over his sneaking around with his mistress as away to avoid any Benghazi hearings which were around the bend if he didn’t. Yes I doubt all of the official Benghazi story…especially after Hillary’s 11 hour drilling which vaulted her into becoming a Democrat martyr of some kind.

    Knowing how hard it is to assess which Middle East country suffered the most I know is unbecoming but Libya just may be that nation. For Israel it gets its chaos of disarray via the Oded Yinon plan and the oil companies get to control the price of oil. Sadly the citizens of Libya get something they didn’t deserve all for the cost of being victims to the one of the world’s biggest asset heist ever.

    Don’t get me wrong I like to make money to put the essentials on the table so to speak but if there is a word to describe what the USA has evolved into over these many years of seeking empire over humanity it’s ‘Profit’.

    • Realist
      May 22, 2019 at 05:36

      Yes, in some religions the clerics promote the worship of a venerable “prophet.” In America, our secular hierarchy promotes the worship of unadorned “profit.”

    • Abby
      May 22, 2019 at 19:21

      Yes Petraeus did help the CIA arm the terrorists that went into Syria. But McCain and Graham were right there with him. McCain was photographed with leaders of AQ and ISIS and Stephens the day before he was killed in the Benghazi attacks.

      The hearings into Hillary’s role in Benghazi were just theater. The republicans knew what was happening at the embassy, but as someone else mentioned here they didn’t come close to talking about it. Hillary’s supporters think that she did a great job standing up to the mean republicans and even after being informed about what really happened there they refuse to believe that she is a warmonger. Same with Obama. How people can be so blind to who people really are is beyond my comprehension.

  15. robert e williamson jr
    May 21, 2019 at 20:58

    After reading Max Blumenthal’s recent, The Management of Savagery I have came away somewhat disappointed. Not so much with the body of the text which was very informative and substantiates the world view of these issues and pans the U.S. and it’s disturbing efforts.

    Could be the best thing the U.S. could do is to0 do nothing. The right wing nationalistic war on Muslims is wrong and causing more problems that in will ever solve. Always has and always will. The wrong life cannot be lived rightly

    After 15 or 20 years it’s time to stop the madness.

    Don’t hold your breath.

    • Chet Roman
      May 21, 2019 at 23:54

      “The right wing nationalistic war on Muslims”

      This is a bipartisan war, Hillary broke Libya hoping to use it in her presidential campaign. Obama expanded the wars: Yemen, Syria, coup Ukraine, etc. and expanded extra-judicial killings by drones.

      When Trump announced that he was going to withdraw our troops in Syria (because he single handedly defeated ISIS, ha, ha, ha) the liberals went nuts saying he was endangering our security. I think it was Brian Williams that was having orgasmic shudders when he saw the missiles launch toward Syria after the false flag chemical attack blamed on Assad.

      The Democrats and their public relations companies (CNN, MSNBC, Washington Post, NYT) are thoroughly corrupted and owned by the MIC/Zionists as are the Republicans.

      • May 22, 2019 at 09:53

        Are these antisemetc “tropes”…..????? Or delusional rantings?? Or is it rare unbiased analytical discussion of which tail wags certain dogs… How fid we get where we seem 2B now…?????

        • Ander
          May 22, 2019 at 14:21

          I mean, the democrats are thoroughly aligned with Zionist interests in Israel, and receive a large amount of funding from them. I don’t think saying that our government toes a Zionist line is anti-semitic; Zionism is a political ideology, and we give Israel’s Zionist administration a a little over $3 billion in military aid annually.

          Of course, one always has to tread carefully when criticizing Israel, and when coming across denigrations of Zionism on internet message boards ;)

          • David G. Horsman
            May 27, 2019 at 00:05

            So you don’t want to talk about Judeofascism?

            Yeah. Enough with the anti-fascist ranting. I concur.

    • old geezer
      May 22, 2019 at 09:20

      actually it’s been 1400 years

  16. DavidH
    May 21, 2019 at 20:07

    For Tuesday the 21st I can’t “handle” any more farther down than the first paragraph of “Disastrous Foreign Policy.” Shared it anyway; Africa needs to come into better focus.

    Maybe tomorrow…yep, tomorrow.

  17. mike k
    May 21, 2019 at 18:36

    Good ole selfish, violent, unprincipled USA at work messing up any chances for peace and happiness in the world.

    • Thomas
      May 22, 2019 at 10:00

      Or is is her being guided/bribed through by malign forces paid for with with loot appropriated that is stolen from victim taxpayers…

      • Abby
        May 22, 2019 at 19:25

        The Saudis told John Kerry that if he supplied the troops then they would finance the war in Syria. He testified to that before congress. When he was asked how much they paid he said a lot. And then he giggled. Yep. I watched some of this video.

  18. Jeff Harrison
    May 21, 2019 at 16:51

    Somehow, I am not surprised. Especially the United States, which seems to be the main engine behind most of the interventions, is really good at sending messages and really piss poor at predicting consequences. We might want to work on that.

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