OBAMA AND LIBYA (AND THE SEPTEMBER 11, 2012 TERROR ATTACK)
(Return to Table of Contents)
Obama Orders Military Intervention in Libya
- On March 21, 2011, President Obama, without consulting Congress, authorized the involvement of the U.S. military in imposing a “no-fly zone” over Libya, to prevent President Gaddafi's forces from bombing rebels who were challenging his regime. That same month, Obama signed orders allowing the U.S. to offer its covert support (via secret operations) to the rebels trying to topple the Gaddafi from power.
- In a March 28, 2011 speech justifying his decision to use such measures in Libya, Obama cited Gaddafi’s track-record of brutality and his recent declaration that he would “show ‘no mercy’ to his own people.” Added Obama: “We knew that if we waited ... one more day, Benghazi, a city nearly the size of Charlotte, could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world.... [W]hen our interests and values are at stake, we have a responsibility to act.”
- Obama's decision to intervene militarily in Libya represented a stark departure from the positions he had staked out as an Illinois state senator in 2002, when he criticized President Bush's planned invasion of Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Speaking at an anti-war rally in Chicago on October 2, 2002, Obama had said that Saddam's brutality did not constitute sufficient cause to use military force to remove him from power: “What I am opposed to is … the cynical attempt by … weekend warriors in this administration to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives lost and in hardships borne.... I also know that Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States, or to his neighbors, that the Iraqi economy is in shambles, that the Iraqi military is a fraction of its former strength, and that in concert with the international community he can be contained until, in the way of all petty dictators, he falls away into the dustbin of history....”
- Obama's 2011 decision in Libya also contradicted statements he had made in December 2007, when a Boston Globe interviewer had asked for his opinion regarding the U.S. President's constitutional authority to bomb Iran—if the need to do so should arise—without first seeking authorization from Congress. At that time (2007), Obama said: “The president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation. As commander in chief, the president does have a duty to protect and defend the United States. In instances of self-defense, the president would be within his constitutional authority to act before advising Congress or seeking its consent.”
- On March 22, 2011, author and scholar Robert Spencer offered the following analysis of Obama's actions: “As the U.S. fired more than 100 Tomahawk cruise missiles into Libya on Saturday, the objective seems clear. Barack Obama declared that … 'we are acting in the interests of the United States and the world.' But he didn’t explain how acting forcibly to remove Muammar Gaddafi would indeed be in America’s interests. And that is a case that is not as easily made as it might appear to be. How could removing Gaddafi, who is undeniably a tyrant and fanatically anti-American, not be in America’s interests? The simple answer is that it is unlikely that he will be succeeded by Thomas Jefferson or John Adams. The fact that Gaddafi is a reprehensible human being and no friend of the U.S. does not automatically turn his opponents into Thomas Paine.... [Obama] has praised 'the peaceful transition to democracy' that he says is taking place across the Middle East, and yet the countries where uprisings have taken place have no democratic traditions or significant forces calling for the establishment of a secular, Western-style republic. In fact, there is considerable evidence to the contrary. Eastern Libya, where the anti-Gaddafi forces are based, is a hotbed of anti-Americanism and jihadist sentiment.”
A Winter 2016 article in the Middle East Quarterly detailed the disastrous sequence of events to which Obama's intervention in Libya eventually led:
The overthrow of Libya's long-reigning dictator Mu'ammar al-Qaddafi by an international coalition in the summer and autumn of 2011 was hailed at the time as paving the way for a "New Libya." Instead, the country rapidly slid into widespread anarchy and violence as a kaleidoscope of tribal, ethnic, religious, political, economic, ideological, and regional interests, powerfully suppressed by the fallen regime, tore the country apart.
Nor has the violent chaos stopped at Libya's borders. With groups tied to the global jihadist community stepping into the fray in strength, political-religious militancy and a sea of sophisticated weaponry has spilled over to Libya's African and Arab neighbors, with dramatic implications for Europe as well. Anti-Western terrorist organizations affiliated with the global jihadist community have been the chief beneficiaries of the turmoil, destabilizing bordering areas and, in turn, injecting strong doses of belligerence and terror back into Libya. Escalating fighting, rampant lawlessness, and a power vacuum have turned Libya into an attractive arena for the aspirations of the Islamic State (IS), which by late 2014 to early 2015 had established a power-base in the country's eastern and central areas.
The collapsing Libyan state has become a textbook example of the law of unintended consequences. A review of how things fell apart—and what challenges lie ahead—may thus offer clues for how to approach similar situations....
Throughout the spring of 2011, a coalition of Western non-ground forces and Libyan rebels scored a series of military successes against Qaddafi and his loyalists. Rebels advanced westward from eastern Libya along the Mediterranean coast in an effort to seize the oil and gas fields, refineries, and export terminals and to inflict a fatal blow to the regime's power-center in Tripoli. By that point, there were growing cracks within the top political and military leadership of the Qaddafi regime. Eight thousand soldiers had already deserted during the initial phase of the uprising, including forces associated with the Zintan tribal group of the western mountainous regions. Musa Kusa, Libya's foreign minister and a Qaddafi confidant, had already defected in March. As of June 2011, the Libyan military "had shrunk to somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 (from its original 51,000)," yet the Western-rebel military coalition was unable to achieve a decisive victory.
This changed in early June when U.S., British, and French forces initiated air attacks on targets in built-up urban areas. The devastating impact on Qaddafi's army was soon apparent despite its reinforcement by devoted Sahelian Tuareg soldiers mainly from Mali, who fought fearlessly for "Brother Leader" as well as for their own survival. In early August, NATO stepped up its military pressure, concentrating its air assaults on the area surrounding Tripoli and paving the way for the rebels to storm the capital later that month.
On October 20, 2011, Qaddafi was captured and executed by the rebel militia of Misrata, a city on the Gulf of Sirte. Three days later, the National Transitional Council (NTC), the representative organ of authority established earlier that year by the rebels and, at that point, recognized by most countries as Libya's government, formally proclaimed the country's liberation.... Soon after the regime's collapse, Libya was further wracked by turmoil and chaos, unprecedented in scope since gaining independence in 1951. The elimination of Qaddafi's iron grip, which had held together the diverse and often contentious elements of the fragmented Libyan society, unleashed with volcanic force the long-restrained effects of cruel political-religious oppression, chronic economic neglect and deprivation, and social and tribal marginalization.
Alongside these long-repressed rivalries, there were the additional stresses to the state's formal, yet weak, institutions of governance in the form of secessionist threats to Libya's territorial integrity in Cyrenaica in the east and, to a lesser extent, in Fezzan, the southern region. What economic opportunity existed was shattered by the sharp decline in oil and gas exports, which had been practically the sole source of foreign currency. The NTC and forces allied with it were no match for the violent power struggles taking place among rival armed militias, nor could they do anything to stand up to the empowerment of a large-scale criminal economy based on illegal trafficking of drugs, migrants, and arms, which affected the security of Libya as well as Africa and the Middle East.
The Western nations had no stomach for nation-building in the wake of their traumatic experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq. Deliberately staying aloof from the nascent anarchy, they watched as Libya descended into the all-too-familiar pattern of a failed military intervention, with the nation turning into a cauldron of jihadist fanaticism and domestic and regional strife. The ex-rebel forces and other armed militias took advantage of the newly created power vacuum to promote their political and religious aspirations and, at the same time, redress their chronically socioeconomic grievances. It was not long before these groups amassed enough strength to become the dominant players on the Libyan stage and a threat to the new state's fragile organs of authority. Moreover, the militias' connections with a wide gallery of regional and international players also redrew the map of the country's foreign relations, which in turn, played a crucial role in exacerbating the fighting and in accelerating Libya's plunge into the abyss.
The numbers tell it all. In the absence of any effective central authority, by early 2013 an estimated several hundred militias operating in the immediate wake of the intervention had grown to approximately 1,700. Funds from various Libyan and non-Libyan sources bolstered both the militias' prestige and financial solvency, enhancing their recruitment potential and further widening the gap between their power and that of the ineffective national army. For example, the Islamist-affiliated Libya Shield Force, operating in Benghazi under the command of warlord Wissam Bin Hamid, received funding from the powerful Islamist bloc within the General National Congress (GNC), Libya's parliament and successor to the NTC following elections in June 2012.
Within the chaotic landscape of multiple rival armed forces, the clash between the Misrata and the Zintan militias stands out as a major catalyst to the dissolution of the state. These two groups initially developed a tactical alliance during the 2011 uprising against Qaddafi. Prior to that, the people of the city of Zintan, about 140 kilometers southwest of the capital, had been traditionally linked by kinship bonds to the Warfalla, Libya's largest Bedouin tribal group, which together with the Maqarha tribe and the dictator's own Qaddafa clan composed the regime's backbone. As noted however, Zintan soldiers from the state army defected en masse in 2011, regrouping with the anti-Qaddafi coalition of urban coastal tribes, including rebels from the Misrata.
This Western-backed alliance ultimately crushed the regime's last bastion in the capital: Qaddafi was captured and executed by Misrata militiamen while Zintan irregulars played a similarly significant role in extracting Saif al-Islam, Qaddafi's son and right-hand man, from his hiding place in November 2011 and holding him prisoner, despite persistent NTC demands to surrender him. (In late July 2015, still in the hands of the Zintan militia, a court in Tripoli sentenced Saif al-Islam to death in absentia).
It was hardly surprising, therefore, that each militia, controlling substantial arsenals of weapons, perceived itself as having the right to reshape the state. By mid-November 2013, their alliance had collapsed. The trigger was a demonstration in Tripoli by the Zintan militia, viewed by the Misrata as a provocation. In response, Misrata militiamen opened fire on the demonstrators, killing forty and wounding 150 These armed hostilities were intertwined with fierce political tensions as both militias expanded their respective coalitions. At one end of the reinvigorated conflict stood the Misrata camp, which was closely affiliated with Islamist groups politically active in the General National Congress, most notably the Muslim Brotherhood. At the other end, stood the Zintan camp affiliated with the more secularist and nationalist National Forces Alliance (NFA) that had gained a slight majority in the 2012 GNC elections. Both militias, however, used whatever legal or illegal measures at their disposal to gain the upper hand.
Soon the GNC itself became irrelevant. Due to a lack of financial resources, the state had no ability to recruit and build effective defense and security organs, certainly in comparison to the militias. In the ensuing chaos, there were frequent abductions and assassinations of politicians, policemen, military commanders, soldiers, judges, human rights activists, journalists, and foreign diplomats. Main road intersections, police stations, and government buildings came under attack. People were imprisoned in clandestine detention centers run by the militias, and the militias attacked state prisons, releasing both criminals and political prisoners affiliated with them. Even Prime Minister Ali Zeidan was briefly abducted in October 2013 after a failed no-confidence vote against him in the parliament; by spring 2014, he had fled the country.
The General National Congress's decision to remain in office until December 24, 2014, instead of ending its session earlier as scheduled, further exacerbated the state's break up. Elections to a new GNC, in fact, the government, were eventually held in June 2014, but its first sitting took place two months later in the port city of Tobruk on the country's eastern Mediterranean coast, intentionally far from the capital where Islamists had refused to dissolve the existing government, insisting on its legitimacy. The Tobruk-based government—internationally recognized as the exclusively legitimate one—was supported by Zintan militias and their allies while Islamist-affiliated Misrata militias and their respective supporters backed the one in Tripoli. As one commentator put it: "What was one single weak regime has now turned into two regimes, each of which claims legitimacy for itself and denies it to the other."
Further military unrest accompanied this political turmoil. In May 2014, Operation Dignity was launched by a newly established national army under the command of former army general Khalifa Haftar, who had defected from Qaddafi's army as early as 1987. Haftar's ambitious campaign was aimed at "cleansing" eastern Libya and, particularly, Benghazi and Derna of its Islamist and jihadist groups and at generating sweeping changes in the state's top political organs on behalf of the anti-Islamist camp. The Islamist militias in eastern Libya responded by forming a tactical alliance, declaring jihad against the "infidel" opponents. The Islamist alliance included the Ansar al-Shari'a Brigade, infamous for its role in the September 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi.
Unfortunately for Haftar and his supporters, Operation Dignity failed to produce the desired results. The militias of eastern Libya were fiercely motivated by their religious vision, their long-harbored secessionist aspirations, and their claims on oil resources. Moreover, renewed fighting in Tripoli gnawed at the resources available to Haftar's war in the east.
Regional and international involvement in Libya peaked in late August 2014. The Tripoli government backed by the Islamist Misrata forces maintained ties with Qatar, Turkey, and Sudan, which provided them with political, financial, and military support. They also received support from Libya's former grand mufti, Sadiq Ghariani, who, from the comfort of his refuge in Britain, used an Internet channel to urge Islamist forces to widen their anti-government revolt in a "Libya Dawn" campaign in Tripoli. The rival Tobruk-based government, backed by the Zintan camp, was backed by Algeria, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, France, and other Western states. France was especially concerned with the potential spillover of Libyan chaos and terror into its former colonies in the Sahel and the Maghreb, including Mali, Niger, and Algeria, where it had strategic, military, and other interests.
Providing a further twist on foreign involvement, mysterious air attacks struck Misrata-held sites in Tripoli during the second half of August 2014. Many believe them to have been Egyptian aircraft supported by planes from the UAE while others implicated Tunisia, Italy, and Belarus. Whatever the bombers' identity, the battles between the two political and military camps over control of the country exacted a heavy toll on the civilian population. In the end, however, Misrata forces claimed victory signaled by their control over Tripoli International Airport and effective command over air traffic to, from, and within Libya.
By late 2014, a new belligerent actor had entered the scene—the Islamic State (IS, or ISIS as it was previously known)—which quickly began to establish beachheads in Derna and Benghazi in eastern Libya and in centrally-located Sirte for the new caliphate that it envisioned. Soon the Sirte branch of the Ansar al-Shari'a militia had pledged its allegiance to the newcomer as did the former dictator's own tribe, the Qaddafa. In an effort to promote its expansionist and jihadist goals, the Libya-based IS launched a series of terrorist and military attacks, including one on the Mabruk and Ghani oil fields in the first half of 2015 in tandem with the horrific beheading of twenty-one abducted Egyptian Copts as well as of Ethiopian and Eritrean Christians captured while crossing through Libya's territory in their illegal migration toward the shores of Europe. There could be little doubt now that Libya had turned into a failed state where competing domestic and international parties, notably the Islamic State, used their positions to exact bloody revenge and seek further aggrandizement.
The Libyan state has been characterized in the non-Libyan media as a "pestilential swamp" where the state and its society "have gone beyond the point of no return in its precipitous slide into civil war."
There are effectively four main state, sub-state, and non-state local and foreign actors, most of them heterogynous and inconsistent in their affiliation, vying for control of Libya and its economic resources while changing the country's territorial map. These are the Tobruk government backed by the Zintan militia, the Tripoli government backed by the Misrata militia, the IS in Libya, and a broad and diverse coalition of local and foreign non-state groups, including non-Libyan rival jihadist groups fighting alongside their Libyan political and ideological camps.Calls by the Tobruk-based government for "international intervention" by the U.N. Security Council have gone unheeded yet prompted the hard line, Tripoli-based, Islamist bloc and its jihadist allies to unequivocally reject "any measure that would bring foreign troops onto Libyan soil." Writing in the Los Angeles Times, former U.S. diplomat Mieczyslaw Boduszynski and Middle East expert Kristin Fabbe described the two conflicting militias as both "a cause and a consequence of state weakness." Shortly after this observation was made, the Islamic State took many observers by surprise by its rapid consolidation of power in Libya and the attendant change of both the country's political, religious, and military map and its immediate geostrategic environment.
The self-proclaimed Islamic State, including its Libyan offshoot, inebriated by rapid successes, has even launched a social media campaign on Twitter to mobilize supporters from outside the state to "immigrate to Libya [to] guarantee your place in the gateway of the conquest of Rome." It is no accident that the Libya of 2015 is frequently awarded the dubious title of the "True Somalia" or the "Somalia of the Middle East."
By rushing heedlessly into battle in 2011 with no clear, long-term strategy, the Western powers have helped create a Frankenstein monster out of the corpse of Libya, a creature that may before long wage jihad against both Europe and the Middle East.
Events at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya -- Prior to, During, and Before the Deadly 9/11/12 Terrorist Attack
In March 2011, American diplomat Christopher Stevens was stationed in Benghazi as the American liaison to Libya's “opposition” rebels—among whom were many al Qaeda-affiliated jihadists—who were fighting to topple the longstanding regime of President Muammar Qaddafi. Ambassador Stevens' task was to help coordinate covert U.S. assistance to these rebels.
Following Qaddafi's fall from power in the summer of 2011, Ambassador Stevens was tasked with finding and securing the vast caches of powerful armaments which the Libyan dictator had amassed during his long reign. In turn, Stevens facilitated the transfer of these arms to the “opposition” rebels in Syria who were trying to topple yet another Arab dictator—Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. As in Libya, the rebels in Syria were likewise known to include al Qaeda and other Shariah-supremacist groups. In addition to facilitating arms transfers, Stevens' duties also included the recruitment of Islamic jihadists from Libya and elsewhere in North Africa who were willing to personally go into combat against the Assad regime in Syria. The U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi served as a headquarters from which all the aforementioned activities could be coordinated with officials and diplomats from such countries as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar.
Throughout 2012, violent jihadist activity became increasingly commonplace in Benghazi and elsewhere throughout Libya and North Africa. At or near the U.S. mission in Benghazi, for instance, there were many acts of terrorism featuring the use of guns, improvised explosive devices, hand grenades, rocket-propelled grenades, and car-bombs, along with explicit threats against Americans issued by known terrorists like al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri. As a result of such developments, Ambassador Stevens and others at the U.S. mission in Benghazi repeatedly asked the Obama administration for increased security provisions during 2012, but these requests were denied or ignored.
Then, on the night of September 11, 2012, the U.S. mission in Benghazi was attacked by a large group of heavily armed terrorists. Over the ensuing 7 hours, Americans stationed at the diplomatic mission and at the nearby CIA annex issued 3 urgent requests for military back-up, all of which were denied by the Obama administration. By the time the violence was over, 4 Americans were dead: Ambassador Christopher Stevens, Foreign Service Information Management Officer Sean Smith, and two former Navy SEALS, Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods, who fought to drive away the attackers.
The Obama administration immediately and persistently characterized what had occurred in Benghazi not as an act of terrorism, but as a spontaneous, unplanned uprising that happened, coincidentally, to take place on the anniversary of 9/11. Moreover, the administration portrayed the attack as an event that had evolved from what began as a low-level protest against an obscure YouTube video that disparaged Muslims and their faith. In reality, however, within a few hours following the attack, U.S. intelligence agencies had already gained more than enough evidence to conclude unequivocally that the attack on the mission in Benghazi was a planned terrorist incident, not a spontaneous act carried out in reaction to a video. Indeed, the video had nothing whatsoever to do with the attack.
Given these realities, it is likely that the Obama administration's post-September 11 actions were aimed at drawing public attention away from a number of highly important facts:
- the U.S. mission in Benghazi had never adopted adequate security measures;
- the administration had ignored dozens of warning signs about growing Islamic extremism and jihadism in the region over a period of more than 6 months;
- the administration, for political reasons, had ignored or denied repeated requests for extra security by American diplomats stationed in Benghazi;
- the administration had failed to beef up security even for the anniversary of 9/11, a date of obvious significance to terrorists;
- the administration, fully cognizant of what was happening on the ground during the September 11 attacks in Benghazi, nonetheless denied multiple calls for help by Americans who were stationed there;
- the administration had been lying when, throughout the presidential election season, it relentlessly advanced the notion that "al Qaeda is on the run" and Islamic terrorism was in decline thanks to President Obama's policies; and perhaps most significantly,
- throughout 2011 and 2012 the administration had been lending its assistance to jihadists affiliated with al Qaeda, supposedly the organization that represented the prime focus of Obama's anti-terrorism efforts; moreover, some of those same jihadists had personally fought against U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
For comprehensive details of the events that occurred before, during, and after the September 11, 2012 attack in Benghazi, click here.
(Return to Table of Contents)