On the Libyan Conflict

11 06 2011

The conflict in Libya has grown out of control. NATO has gone beyond the scope of the security council resolution of 1973 that was passed to establish a no fly zone and protect civilians. They have attempted not only to assassinate Qadaffi but have also waged a war that has deliberately attacked civilian targets in government controlled territories resulting in over 700 civilian deaths.

The Wests’ disinterest in the true dynamics of the conflict, coupled with the use of the  propaganda model to distort and dichotomize the issue, has made a mockery of the anti-war movement. The nature of this conflict is rooted in numerous internal schisms based on tribal, religious, and political grounds.  The US and NATO have opportunistically supported one group in a multi-sided civil war.

An appreciation of the history of disinformation in Libya is critical in gaining an understanding of the conflict today.

A Short History of Disinformation

The only person that has been officially designated an enemy of the US longer than Moammar Qadaffi is Fidel Castro. As with Castro, the propaganda campaign against Qadaffi has been immense. This is mainly due to Libya’s use of its oil wealth to fund various far left and independence groups that the US government classifies  as “terrorists”.

The campaign started in 1981 when a newly elected Ronald Reagan convened a group to study the “Libyan problem” within months of being sworn-in as president. In retrospect, the strategy fit the administration’s efforts to increase military spending,  scapegoat the USSR, and create the oh-so-popular phantasmal “terrorist” classification.

One of the first propaganda pieces put forth by the Reagan administration was the false claim that Qadaffi had sent a 5 member hit squad to assassinate the president and anyone close to him.  There was an assassination attempt on Reagan’s life but it came from a lone, mentally ill man, not a well funded hit squad. Considering how close Hinckley came to assassinating the president a group of 5 well-trained assassins could have probably accomplished their mission,  if they had existed.

The hit squad claim was designed to stroke  fears of Libya and how it uses its vast oil wealth. This helped escalate a campaign of economic repression against the country starting with limits on US citizen travel to Libya in 1981 and culminating in an all out ban on imports and exports in 1986 (link).

The next big propaganda push came in 1986 with the disco bombing in Berlin that killed 2 US soldiers and one civilian. The US was so convinced that Qadaffi had orchestrated the attack that a mere 10 days after the bombing Reagan ordered the bombing of Libya in which 45 soldiers and 15 civilians where killed including Qadaffi’s 16 month old daughter. 158 medals where awarded for the bombing campaign. Responding to the report of Libyan civilian deaths, a Reagan official stated that as long as the Libyan people follow Qadaffi they must “accept the consequences”.

Whatever information the US had linking Qadaffi to the disco bombing wasn’t shared with German officials such as Manfred Ganshow, chief of the Berlin Staatsschutz. Six days after the US attack against Lybia started Ganshow stated that they didn’t have any solid information to pin the bombing to Qadaffi. A few months later, the German government concluded that if there was any country to blame it was Syria, not Libya. The US has kept to its line despite the 2001 conviction of 3 people with sentencing of 12-14 years (hardly a tough sentence for terrorism) in which the judge reasoned that there was no proof  Qadaffi had ordered the attack but that Libya did deserve some blame. As was known in ’86, the Qadaffi link to the bombing doesn’t go any further than the use of a Libyan diplomatic bag used by Syrians to carry out the attack, hardly reason enough to bomb the entire Libyan nation.

Talk of US sponsored propaganda in the 80’s might seem relegated to tin-foil hats if not for the leaked August 14, 1986 memo from Poindexter to President Reagan. The memo describes the US government’s intentions to feed disinformation about Libya to the media to stroke the flames of paranoia and drum up public support for military action and sanctions against Libya . Despite the memo’s revelations, the media continues to present the US government’s narrative without practicing their journalistic duty of questioning and investigating past misinformation.  This fact is currently exemplified  by the media’s willingness to blindly  follow the US government and NATO into Libya yet again in 2011.

Today’s Propaganda

Early on during the Libyan rebel uprising there were reports that the Libyan government had carried out air attacks against civilians. Russian satellites monitoring the area did not detect any air attacks, but this fact failed to gain the attention of the media. After reports of mass civilian deaths and the undeclared war against Qadaffi began, President Obama stated that if the US/NATO hadn’t stepped in there would have been a genocide. The need for this narrative is obvious since NATO can only legally intervene in a country to prevent a genocide (link).

A look at a time line of events in Libya show the protests here are of a distinct character from those that took place in Egypt and Tunisia. Despite the obvious differences, all three are continuously lumped together in order to give the impression that all of these protests are of a similar nature and as a way of distancing the US from its former strong allies: Egypt’s  Mubarak and Tunisia’s  Ben Ali. Despite the professed similarities, the distortion starts with the US response to each uprising. While the “worthy” Libyan victims need to be saved through military intervention,  the 846 “unworthy” Egyptians apparently didn’t need America’s help.

There have also been reports of mercenaries in Libya, although the finding by Human Rights Watch that didn’t find any, or at least not their widespread use of mercenaries went extremely under reported. Also not mentioned in the news are the members of the three black tribes in Libya that support Qadaffi. There have been many reports of racist beheading, lynchings, and rape of black African migrant workers and soldiers that are suspected of being mercenaries (Link 1, 2, 3). While the often dubious reports of mercenaries being present are widely circulated, the human rights violations by the rebel forces are hardly mentioned.

The purpose of the misinformation about mercenaries is to portray Qadaffi as a marginalized, mad-dog dictator waging war on his entire county and needing an external military to maintain control. The overwhelming lack of information about atrocities committed by the Libyan rebels is meant to cast the rebels as martyrs of freedom and democracy, worthy of US/NATO support. If the media presented an honest, objective view of the conflict the drum beat to war would be muted. Would the US/NATO citizens be so wholeheartedly supportive of an intervention in a civil war in which the waring factions compete militarily for control of the country? Maybe, but there’s a hell of a lot of questions they’d need answered first.

One of the latest pieces of propaganda to come out of Libya is that a child shown to be injured by a  NATO air strikes was actually injured in a car crash. This information is based off an anonymous note given to an anonymous foreign journalist and not independently verified. It could very well be true that this child is being used as a propaganda tool by Qadaffi, but the sloppy journalism points to the propaganda model.

The question not being asked by the media is,“why intervene in Libya and not elsewhere?”

Oil: The Lubricant of War

As with most things in the this region, oil is king. Leaked cables and a very public and tenuous relationship with the west give a rare, candid look into some of the possible financial incentives for war.

At the heart of Libyan oil is the National Oil Corporation. They control most of the oil reserves, although there are many International Oil Companies (IOC) that do business in Libya. Eni (30% owned by the Italian government) , is the largest IOC in Libya. Under Qadaffi’s Libya, France was a much smaller player and was mostly confined to the smaller Western oil fields. This is subject to change as the National Transition Council (NTC) redraws contracts. Gazprom (Russian owned) has been increasing their involvement in Libya over the past few years. It’s not coincidental that Russia and Italy where against the bombing of Libya while France and the US fully supported it. As always, those who would gain from destabilization support wars.

At the heart the oil grab is the increased Russian involvement over the past few years. Gazprom has used it’s strangle hold on European natural gas and oil supply/movement to punish Belarus, Georgia, and other European countries.

In 2008 Gazprom offered to buy all excess natural gas, invest in oil production, and build a pipeline from North Africa to Europe (link). In order to make this possible there had to be a deal between Eni and Gazprom. The US feared that  this would further strengthen Russia’s strategic control over Europe’s natural gas supply and movement (link). The need to break the Russian monopoly of the European market is one many reasons for regime change.

In January of 2009 Qadaffi announced that he was looking into nationalizing all the oil fields in Libya. He said that “Oil should be owned by the State at this time, so we could better control prices by the increase or decrease in production”. One month latter he announced his plan to directly distribute all oil revenue to the people of Libya while weeding out corruption. Prime Minister Al-Baghdadi, Ali Al-Mahmoudi and Farhat Omar Bin Guida, of the Central Bank where very critical of this move citing fears of “capital flight” (link).

In retrospect, much of the corruption of the government would not have been possible with such a transparent distribution of the countries wealth. Many of the high ranking officials that had siphoned off the profits for their own benefit would no longer be able to do so. This is one of the major reasons there was such large scale flight from the government in the early days of the upheaval.

When the measure went to a vote in the General Peoples Committee (Libya is run very similar to Cuba) 64 ministers voted for it and 251 voted to delay its implementation out of 468 members. The measure failed and has not been brought up again.

A Wikileaks cable from 2007 describes Libya as an “exceptionally difficult place to do business” and that “Libya features some of the smallest profit margins in the world for IOCs”.  One unnamed IOC is said to make the same profit from a neighboring country (most likely Tunisia) that is at ¼ their production in Libya. Another IOC claimed to have had profit sharing at 6.8%, something unheard of in oil production. The cable also mentions IOC’s frustration with laws passed by the “particularly powerful General People’s Committee” that have required a 2% “Stamp Tax” as well as requiring that one Libyan be added to the payroll for every foreign worker (meant to address the countries 20% unemployment rate). The cable also mentions that the IOC officials  “consistently hear expressions of disappointment from senior GOL [Government of Libya] officials that more U.S. firms have not rushed to enter Libya’s market…”.

The NTC has been shipping oil to Qatar, a  major participatory of bombing raids, since March and on June 8th the first shipments of Libyan oil reached US refineries. In order to accomplish the sell of oil to US refineries, the Office of Foreign Assets Control at the Treasury Department needed to write new policies, which it did in April.  Despite the deal for 1.2 million barrels of crude oil the US has yet to recognised the NTC.

The wikileaks cables and the attempt to nationalize all profits highlight the balancing the act between attracting foreign capital and guaranteeing control of the countries resources so Libyan people can maintain their high living standards. As iconic as Qadaffi is he is still not as powerful as the “particularly powerful General People’s Committee”. Nonetheless, having a man to direct propaganda against is the metronome of the drum beat to war.

The Man America Loves to Hate

Qadaffi’s been alleged to have supported (or is still supporting) the FARC (with questionable evidence), the IRA, Basque and Corsican separatist, anti-apartheid groups in South Africa, the Japanese Red Army, the Italian Red Brigades, the Germany’s Baader-Meinhof, the PFLP, various leftist Latin American groups, and essentially anyone else against the U.S’ interest (link). He was also implemented in the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II who we now know was solely perpetrated by Mehmet Ali Ağca, an ultra right-winger from Turkey. He also allegedly helped out El Rukin, a Muslim “gang”, reported  to have received weapons, training and orders from Libya. When members of El Rukin went to trial the courts ruled that there was no evidence of Libyan involvement, but this was widely under reported.

Essentially anything that the US government is against, it is reported that Qadaffi is for. Some of the times, like in the case of the PFLP, Basque separatist, and anti-Apartheid groups, it’s true. Often though his support is fabricated beyond the point of recognition to make a cause for to militarily/economically intervene.

The problem the West has with Qadaffi is not that he supported “terrorist” but that he supported the wrong side. If he had supported the Contras in Nicaragua, Muerte a Secuestradores in Colombia, or the colonialist government in South Africa he would have been seen as a partner.  But to support organizations like this would be against the principles Libya was founded on.

Libya has an office called “Maktab Tafsir al-Thawra” with the rough translation being “the Bureau to Export the Revolution”. This is a tenet of Libyan socialism found in he Green Book, something everyone should read if they truly want to understand this situation.

Despite the condemnations, sanctions, and attacks from the US because on Libyan support for “terrorism” the US government did (and still does) support terrorism for their own benefit. The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (often grouped with al-Qaeda) was funded by Britain and the US in their assassination attempt of Qadaffi in the 1996. I’m sure they regret it as the LISG is the largest contributor to suicide bombers in Iraq according the a 2007 West Point Study (pdf). They are also big players in the current civil war and a few members sitting on the interim council.

The Tribal Factor

Libya has over 140 tribes (over 1000 if you include subgroups) but only 30 are really large enough to be important.  The vast majority of the population live around the coastal areas in Tripolitania and Cyrenaica but the majority of the oil reserves are in the less inhabited regions of Cyrenaica and Fezzan. The tribes of Tripolitania (West) and Cyrenaica (East) can trace their division to 11th century when the Banu Hilal (Tripolitania) and Banu Salim (Cyrenaica ) Arabs settled in these different regions.

One of the most important tribes in Libya is the Gadhafis which Qadaffi is a member of. They are made up of 6 sub-tribes and are heavily concentrated in Eastern Libya but also make up a sizable minority in Benghazi. This tribe is not historically significant as they’re relatively small but, do to political maneuvering since the 1969 coup, many Gadhafis are in prominent positions within the armed forces and government.

In order to maintain control of the country Qadaffi formed a long lasting alliance through the Gadhafis with the Warfallah and Magariha tribes, both of which are from Western Libya.

With over 1 million people, the Warfallah tribe is the largest tribe within Libya. They make up a sizable minority in Benghazi, the majority in Tripoli and are mainly centered in Wadi Warfallah and Bani Walid.  Warfallah was a strong ally of the Libyan government but members from the tribe sponsored a failed coup attempt in 1993 that helped lead to the 1997 “Charter of Honor” collective punishment law in which whole tribes can (and are) punished for actions of individuals.

The May 29 meeting of 100+ Warfallah leaders (from all 6 sub-tribes) highlights how split the tribe is. Many of the delegates, like their strongest leader Mansour Khalaf, are taking soft pro Qadaffi stances. Some Warfallah leaders want Qadaffi to step down but also reject the NTC based out of Benghazi. There is a loud (in the amount of press they get) sector of the Warfallah tribe that are hard-lined anti-Gadhafi and pro NTC. Mahmoud Jibril is from the Warfallah tribe and is currently leading the executive team of the NTC. He was appointed by Qadaffi in 2007 to head up the National Economic Development Board and is behind for much of the countries privatization and neo-liberalization policies. Although the Warfallah tribe denounced Gadafi in February their support is split between the sub-tribes and even within the sub-tribes.

The Magariha tribe is largest tribe in Fezzan and second largest in Libyia. Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi (AKA the Lockerbie bomber) is a prominent member of this tribe and Qadaffi has further secured their loyalty by orchestrating his release. In February it was reported that they supported the rebels but it is clear that not all tribal members do so as no high ranking Magariha officers have defected.

The Tarhuna Tribe (1/3 of Tripoli’s population) and the Zentan Tribe are from West Libya and are highly integrated into the military. Many civilians of this tribe where given weapons and training to aid in the resistance to an anticipated NATO ground invasion.

The Zuwaya tribe in Cyrenaica are not very large but geographically the most important. They sit on most of the large areas of oil production (Sarir, Messla and Aquila oil fields). They have sided with the rebels early in the uprising in threatening to shut off oil supply. The Libyan government gave them arms during the war with Chad over the Ouzou Strip in the 1980s (wikileaks cable). These are not very high tech or serious weapons but they have used them on the Toubou tribe whose territory they’ve been encroaching on (and stole from in the 1800’s).

The Toubou tribe (one of three black-Libyan tribes) has surprisingly joined Qadaffi loyalist forces. Although not large, many of them work on date farms and in the oil fields on lands they’ve been pushed out of. Bashir Salah Bashir is a Toubou that is in charge of Africa investment within the Qadaffi led government. Many Toubou have joined in the fighting and are being called “mercenaries” while many others have fled to Chad (the tribe overlaps with the boarder) and their return is uncertain under the new, stronger Zuwaya control. Although there is a history of grievances against the government of Qadaffi there is greater danger to them if the Toubou tribe gains more power.

The Tuareg tribe (another black-Libyan tribe) are nomadic and do not recognise national boarders. Qadaffi has helped fund their attempts to gain independence and/or political power in other North African countries. Although their culture has been horribly suppressed within Libya  by Qadaffi his son has aided them over the past few years. Some, citing repression from Qadaffi, have chosen to fight with the rebels while others believing in a reformed Libyan have chosen to fight with the government. Many of the Tuareg that are pro, anti, or neutral are being  accused of being mercenaries. There are reports that some Tuareg tribesmen are being recruited from outside Libya but their nomadic nature makes it imposable to say how many are native and how many are truly foreign.

Cyrenaica has been historically united (under Italian resistance and the following Monarchy of King Idris I) by the Harabi umbrella tribe with the most important member being the Obeidat tribe. The Obeidat Tribe is made up of 15 sub-tribes and gained influence after the failed 1993 coup in order to balance the power from the Warfallah tribe and others in the West. Because of this they gained some military personal and two high ranking defectors: Justice Minister Mustafa Mohamed Aboud Al Jeleil and the Interior Minister General Abdul Fatah Younis.

When Qadaffi took power he waned the power of the Harabi tribes in favor of the 3 large Western tribes mentioned above. What united Cyrenaica (aside from geographic location and isolation due to a desert) is Senussi Islam. About ⅓ of the population follow Senussi and are almost exclusively in Eastern Libya. Qadaffi has said that “no caliphate is necessary in order to discover the meaning of the Koran” and has advocated against Senussi teachings. During this uprising there has been a resurgence in various far-right Islamic tendencies (Wahhabi, Senussi, LIFG, ect) in the East with some hoping to use the Saudi Arabia model of Islamic governance.

The political marginalization of the East combined with the repression of far-right religious fervor has had the effect of weakening the regions power but also in unifying it.

A true gauge of tribal loyalty is next to impossible under the constant constraint of the propaganda model. During the July National Conference for Libyan Tribes meeting of 2,000 tribal leaders representing 850 tribes (and sub-tribes) a near unanimous call for the stopping of NATO bombing raids and a disarming of the rebels (link). It is unclear how representative the conference was of all Libyan tribes (especially those in the East) or how much authority they carry over their own tribe. As the propaganda model predicts, this meeting received little coverage but the April announcement of 61 tribal leaders calling for Quadfi removal received widespread coverage.

This tribal breakdown is dynamic and faulty at best. It’s useful in understanding how tribal allegiances can influence regional support but in the age of mass urbanization these allegiances hold less water. Many tribesmen are joining Qadaffi despite their leaders positions (with the same being true for the reverse) and about 15% of Libyans have no tribal allegiance.

The tribal factor is undoubtedly one of the  most important factors buy it is not the only one. The ability for Eastern Libya to unite under one ideology (conservative Islam, restoration of a monarchy, etc.), their control of the vast majority of the countries resources, and their ability to capitalize on various disaffected minorities within Libya alone cannot win this civil war alone. Support from NATO and it’s counterpart the Gulf Cooperation Council is needed if the NTC wishes take over Western Libya.

Who to Support

The ideal of a unified Libya seems out of the question for all but the current Qadaffi led government. Due to the tribal nature of Libya there is a real possibility is of the country being broken up into East and West. This would be desirable for the US/NATO military machine as they would find a new excuse to create bases along the boarder to protect the sovereignty of  Cyrenaica. There has already been talks of putting in an Israeli base on the Algerian boarder. This is shocking as the current Qadaffi led government has refused to even recognize Israel as a state. The only reason I can see for the rebels pandering so heavily to imperialist interests is to procure weapons and to ensure that NATO continues to act as its air force.

As this conflict continues to play out let us not forget that the dichotomization of opinions is the desired product of the propaganda model. We are to be either fully for Qadaffi or for the rebel led NTC, with any honest discussion being seen as reactionary. One side is always entirely evil while the other is a victim of its circumstances.

In order to pick sides in this civil war a clearer understanding is needed. Let us not project our ideals onto either side of this conflict. The rebels are not fighting against neoliberalism as was widely discussed on the left early in the uprising. Let us stay away from immaterial options such as the a phantasmal pro-socialist rebels. An honest look through the haze of propaganda reveals the grimy truth: this is a civil war based partly on tribal allegiances where one side, the East lead by the National Transition Council, is placating to the US/NATO in order to gain control over the West, lead by an aging champion of what the US considers far-left terrorism.