British investigation: Gaddafi was not going to massacre civilians; Western bombing made Islamist extremism worse.
A new report by the British Parliament shows that the 2011 NATO war in Libya was based on an array of lies.
“Libya: Examination of intervention and collapse and the UK’s future policy options,” an investigation by the House of Commons’ bipartisan Foreign Affairs Committee, strongly condemns the UK’s role in the war, which toppled the government of Libya’s leader Muammar Gaddafi and plunged the North African country into chaos.
“We have seen no evidence that the UK Government carried out a proper analysis of the nature of the rebellion in Libya,” the report states. “UK strategy was founded on erroneous assumptions and an incomplete understanding of the evidence.”
The Foreign Affairs Committee concludes that the British government “failed to identify that the threat to civilians was overstated and that the rebels included a significant Islamist element.”
The Libya inquiry, which was launched in July 2015, is based on more than a year of research and interviews with politicians, academics, journalists and more. The report, which was released on Sept. 14, reveals the following:
- Gaddafi was not planning to massacre civilians. This myth was exaggerated by rebels and Western governments, which based their intervention on little intelligence.
- The threat of Islamist extremists, which had a large influence in the uprising, was ignored — and the NATO bombing made this threat even worse, giving ISIS a base in North Africa.
- France, which initiated the military intervention, was motivated by economic and political interests, not humanitarian ones.
- The uprising — which was violent, not peaceful — would likely not have been successful were it not for foreign military intervention and aid. Foreign media outlets, particularly Qatar’s Al Jazeera and Saudi Arabia’s Al Arabiya, also spread unsubstantiated rumors about Qaddafi and the Libyan government.
- The NATO bombing plunged Libya into a humanitarian disaster, killing thousands of people and displacing hundreds of thousands more, transforming Libya from the African country with the highest standard of living into a war-torn failed state.
Myth that Qaddafi would massacre civilians and the lack of intel
“Despite his rhetoric, the proposition that Muammar Gaddafi would have ordered the massacre of civilians in Benghazi was not supported by the available evidence,” the Foreign Affairs Committee states clearly.
“While Muammar Gaddafi certainly threatened violence against those who took up arms against his rule, this did not necessarily translate into a threat to everyone in Benghazi,” the report continues. “In short, the scale of the threat to civilians was presented with unjustified certainty.”
The summary of the report also notes that the war “was not informed by accurate intelligence.” It adds, “US intelligence officials reportedly described the intervention as ‘an intelligence-light decision.’”
This flies in the face of what political figures claimed in the lead-up to the NATO bombing. After violent protests erupted in Libya in February, and Benghazi — Libya’s second-largest city — was taken over by rebels, exiled opposition figures like Soliman Bouchuiguir, president of the Europe-based Libyan League for Human Rights, claimed that, if Qaddafi retook the city, “There will be a real bloodbath, a massacre like we saw in Rwanda.”
The British Parliament’s report, however, notes that the Libyan government had retaken towns from rebels in early February 2011, before NATO launched its air strike campaign, and Gaddafi’s forces had not attacked civilians.
On March 17, 2011, the report points out — two days before NATO began bombing — Gaddafi told rebels in Benghazi, “Throw away your weapons, exactly like your brothers in Ajdabiya and other places did. They laid down their arms and they are safe. We never pursued them at all.”
The Foreign Affairs Committee adds that, when Libyan government forces retook the town of Ajdabiya in February, they did not attack civilians. Gaddafi “also attempted to appease protesters in Benghazi with an offer of development aid before finally deploying troops,” the report adds.
In another example, the report indicates that, after fighting in February and March in the city Misrata — Libya’s third-largest city, which had also been seized by rebels — just around 1 percent of people killed by the Libyan government were women or children.
“The disparity between male and female casualties suggested that Gaddafi regime forces targeted male combatants in a civil war and did not indiscriminately attack civilians,” the committee says.
Senior British officials admitted in the Parliament investigation they did not consider Qaddafi’s actual actions, and instead called for military intervention in Libya based on his rhetoric.
In February, Gaddafi gave a heated speech threatening the rebels who had taken over cities. He said “they are a tiny few” and “a terrorist few,” and called them “rats” who “are turning Libya into the emirates of Zawahiri and bin Laden,” referencing the leaders of al-Qaeda.
At the end of his speech, Gaddafi promised “to cleanse Libya, inch by inch, house by house, home by home, alley by alley,” of these rebels. Many Western media outlets, however, implied or reported outright that his remark was meant as a threat to all protesters. An Israeli journalist popularized this line by turning it into a song called “Zenga, Zenga” (Arabic for “alleyway”). The YouTube video featuring the remixed speech was circulated throughout the world.
The Foreign Affairs Committee notes in its report that, at that moment, British officials had a “lack of reliable intelligence.” William Hague, who served as the British secretary of state for foreign and commonwealth affairs during the war in Libya, claimed to the committee that Qaddafi had promised “to go house to house, room to room, exacting their revenge on the people of Benghazi,” misquoting Gaddafi’s speech. He added, “A lot of people were going to die.”
“Given the lack of reliable intelligence, both Lord Hague and Dr Fox highlighted the impact of Muammar Gaddafi’s rhetoric on their decision-making,” the report notes, also referencing then-Secretary of State for Defence Liam Fox.
George Joffé, a scholar at King’s College London University and an expert on the Middle East and North Africa, told the Foreign Affairs Committee for its investigation that, while Qaddafi sometimes used intimidating rhetoric that “was quite blood-curdling,” past examples showed that the longtime Libyan leader was “very careful” to avoid civilian casualties.
In one instance, Joffé noted, “rather than trying to remove threats to the regime in the east, in Cyrenaica, Gaddafi spent six months trying to pacify the tribes that were located there.”
Gaddafi “would have been very careful in the actual response,” Joffé said in the report. “The fear of the massacre of civilians was vastly overstated.”
Alison Pargeter, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute and specialist on Libya who was also interviewed for the investigation, agreed with Joffé. She told the committee that there was no “real evidence at that time that Gaddafi was preparing to launch a massacre against his own civilians.”
“Émigrés opposed to Muammar Gaddafi exploited unrest in Libya by overstating the threat to civilians and encouraging Western powers to intervene,” the report notes, summarizing Joffé’s analysis.
Pargeter added that Libyans who opposed the government exaggerated Gaddafi’s use of “mercenaries” — a term they often used as a synonym for Libyans of Sub-Saharan descent. Pargeter said that Libyans had told her, “The Africans are coming. They’re going to massacre us. Gaddafi’s sending Africans into the streets. They’re killing our families.”
“I think that that was very much amplified,” Pargeter said. This amplified myth led to extreme violence. Black Libyans were violently oppressed by Libyan rebels. The Associated Press reported in September 2011, “Rebel forces and armed civilians are rounding up thousands of black Libyans and migrants from sub-Sahara Africa.” It noted, “Virtually all of the detainees say they are innocent migrant workers.”
(The crimes rebels committed against black Libyans would go on to become even worse. In 2012, there were reports that black Libyans were put in cages by rebels, and forced to eat flags. As Salon has previously reported, Human Rights Watch also warned in 2013 of “serious and ongoing human rights violations against inhabitants of the town of Tawergha, who are widely viewed as having supported Muammar Gaddafi.” Tawergha’s inhabitants were mostly descendants of black slaves and were very poor. Human Rights Watch reported that Libyan rebels carried out “forced displacement of roughly 40,000 people, arbitrary detentions, torture, and killings are widespread, systematic, and sufficiently organized to be crimes against humanity.”)
In July 2011, State Department spokesman Mark Toner acknowledged that Qaddafi is “someone who’s given to overblown rhetoric,” but, in February, Western governments weaponized this speech.
The Foreign Affairs Committee notes in its report that, despite its lack of intelligence, “the UK Government focused exclusively on military intervention” as a solution in Libya, ignoring available forms of political engagement and diplomacy.
This is consistent with reporting by The Washington Times, which found that Gaddafi’s son Saif had hoped to negotiate a ceasefire with the U.S. government. Saif Gaddafi quietly opened up communications with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton intervened and asked the Pentagon to stop talking to the Libyan government. “Secretary Clinton does not want to negotiate at all,” a U.S. intelligence official told Saif.
In March, Secretary Clinton had called Muammar Gaddafi a “creature” “who has no conscience and will threaten anyone in his way.” Clinton, who played a leading role in pushing for the NATO bombing of Libya, claimed Gaddafi would do “terrible things” if he was not stopped.
From March to October 2011, NATO carried out a bombing campaign against Libyan government forces. It claimed to be pursuing a humanitarian mission to protect civilians. In October, Gaddafi was brutally killed — sodomized with a bayonet by rebels. (Upon hearing the news of his death, Secretary Clinton announced, live on TV, “We came, we saw, he died!”)
The Foreign Affairs Committee report points out, nonetheless, that, while the NATO intervention was sold as a humanitarian mission, its ostensible goal was accomplished in just one day.
On March 20, 2011, Gaddafi’s forces retreated approximately 40 miles outside of Benghazi, after French planes attacked. “If the primary object of the coalition intervention was the urgent need to protect civilians in Benghazi, then this objective was achieved in less than 24 hours,” the report says. Yet the military intervention carried on for several more months.
The report explains “the limited intervention to protect civilians had drifted into an opportunist policy of regime change.” This view has been challenged, however, by Micah Zenko, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Zenko used NATO’s own materials to show that “the Libyan intervention was about regime change from the very start.”
In its investigation, the Foreign Affairs Committee cites a June 2011 Amnesty International report, which noted that “much Western media coverage has from the outset presented a very one-sided view of the logic of events, portraying the protest movement as entirely peaceful and repeatedly suggesting that the regime’s security forces were unaccountably massacring unarmed demonstrators who presented no security challenge.”
Amnesty International also said it was unable to find evidence for the accusation that the Libyan government had given Viagra to its troops and encouraged them to rape women in rebel-held areas. Then-Secretary of State Clinton, among others, had contributed to this unproven myth.
Islamist extremism and the spread of Libyan weapons
Today, Libya is home to the largest base of the genocidal extremist group ISIS outside of Iraq and Syria. Other Islamist groups seized large swaths of territory after the Libyan government was destroyed.
“It is now clear that militant Islamist militias played a critical role in the rebellion from February 2011 onwards,” the Foreign Affairs Committee states clearly.
“Intelligence on the extent to which extremist militant Islamist elements were involved in the anti-Gaddafi rebellion was inadequate,” the report adds. It cites former British Chief of the Defence Staff David Richards, who “confirmed that intelligence on the composition of the rebel militias was not ‘as good as one would wish.’”
The inquiry asked Richards if he knew if members of the al-Qaeda-affiliated Libyan Islamic Fighting Group were participating in the rebellion in March 2011. He said that “was a grey area.” Richards recalled that “respectable Libyans were assuring the Foreign Office” that Islamist extremists would not benefit from the uprising, but admitted, “with the benefit of hindsight, that was wishful thinking at best.”
“The possibility that militant extremist groups would attempt to benefit from the rebellion should not have been the preserve of hindsight,” the committee comments. “Libyan connections with transnational militant extremist groups were known before 2011, because many Libyans had participated in the Iraq insurgency and in Afghanistan with al-Qaeda.”
NATO’s destruction of the Libyan government also caused some of its massive weapons and ammunition reserves to fall “into the hands of the militias” and to be “trafficked across North and West Africa and the Middle East,” the Foreign Affairs Committee notes.
“The international community’s inability to secure weapons abandoned by the Gaddafi regime fuelled instability in Libya and enabled and increased terrorism across North and West Africa and the Middle East,” the report states.
It cites a study by a U.N. panel of experts, which found the former Libyan government’s weapons in Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Gaza, Mali, Niger, Tunisia and Syria. The U.N. panel noted that “arms originating from Libya have significantly reinforced the military capacity of terrorist groups operating in Algeria, Egypt, Mali and Tunisia.”
A former British Parliament study cited by the report also found that Libyan weapons ended up in the hands of Boko Haram, the ISIS-affiliated extremist group that has carried out massacres of civilians in Nigeria.
Former Chief of the Defence Staff Richards told the inquiry that the U.K. had hoped to prevent the Libyan government’s weapons and ammunition from being seized, but he could not remember the British government “doing anything to achieve it.”
France’s economic and political motivations
The Foreign Affairs Committee confirms that “France led the international community in advancing the case for military intervention in Libya in February and March 2011.” The UK joined next, followed by the U.S.
The report also notes that the primary reasons France pushed for military intervention in Libya were Gaddafi’s “nearly bottomless financial resources,” the Libyan leader’s plans to create an alternative currency to the French franc in Africa, “Gaddafi’s long term plans to supplant France as the dominant power in Francophone Africa” and the desire to “Increase French influence in North Africa.”
Initially, the U.S. was undecided about military intervention in Libya, the report notes. “There were divisions in the American Government,” the investigation found. This is consistent with what President Obama has since said (he called the Libya war his “worst mistake”), and what The New York Times found in its own detailed investigation.
France and the UK were first to pressure the international community to impose a no-fly zone in Libya, ostensibly to protect civilians, the report says. Once it was on board, nonetheless, the U.S. pushed for more aggressive military intervention.
“The United States was instrumental in extending the terms of [U.N. Security Council] Resolution 1973 beyond the imposition of a no-fly zone to include the authorisation of ‘all necessary measures’ to protect civilians,” the report notes. “In practice, this led to the imposition of a ‘no-drive zone’ and the assumed authority to attack the entire Libyan Government command and communications network.”
Explaining France’s motivations, the report cites an April 2011 email to the U.S.’s then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton which noted that “Gaddafi has nearly bottomless financial resources to continue indefinitely.”
“Gaddafi’s government holds 143 tons of gold, and a similar amount in silver,” Clinton’s assistant Sidney Blumenthal wrote, citing “sources with access to advisors to Saif al-Islam Gaddafi,” Muammar Gaddafi’s son.
This gold “was intended to be used to establish a pan-African currency based on the Libyan golden Dinar,” Blumenthal said, citing “knowledgeable individuals.” He added, “This plan was designed to provide the Francophone African Countries with an alternative to the French franc.”
“French intelligence officers discovered this plan shortly after the current rebellion began, and this was one of the factors that influenced Sarkozy’s decision to commit France to the attack on Libya,” Blumenthal wrote, referencing France’s then-President Nicolas Sarkozy, of the right-wing Union for a Popular Movement party.
The French intelligence officers articulated five factors that motivated Sarkozy:
“a. A desire to gain a greater share of Libya oil production,
b. Increase French influence in North Africa,
c. Improve his internal political situation in France,
d. Provide the French military with an opportunity to reassert its position in the world,
e. Address the concern of his advisors over Gaddafi’s long term plans to supplant France as the dominant power in Francophone Africa.”
Crucial role of foreign intervention
The UK Parliament report notes that the NATO bombing “shifted the military balance in the Libyan civil war in favour of the rebels.”
“The combination of coalition airpower with the [foreign] supply of arms, intelligence and personnel to the rebels guaranteed the military defeat of the Gaddafi regime,” the Foreign Affairs Committee adds.
Resolution 1973, the March 2011 U.N. Security Council resolution that imposed a no-fly zone in Libya, was supposed to ensure a “strict implementation of the arms embargo,” the report further points out. But “the international community turned a blind eye to the supply of weapons to the rebels.”
Rebel ground forces inside Libya were “enhanced by personnel and intelligence provided by” the UK, France, Turkey, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, the investigation reveals.
Then-British Chief of the Defence Staff David Richards also told the inquiry that the U.K. “had a few people embedded” with the rebel forces on the ground.
Richards emphasized “the degree to which the Emiratis and the Qataris … played a major role in the success of the ground operation.”
Citing The Guardian, the report notes that Qatar secretly gave French-manufactured antitank missiles to certain rebel groups. The investigation also says Qatar, a theocratic monarchy, “channelled its weapons to favoured militias rather than to the rebels as a whole.”
Moreover, Alison Pargeter, the Libya specialist, told the committee, “I also think the Arab media played a very important role here.”
She singled out Al Jazeera, a Qatari news outlet, and Al Arabiya, a Saudi outlet, for spreading unsubstantiated stories about Gaddafi and the Libyan government. These news outlets “were really hamming everything up, and it turned out not to be true,” she said.
Humanitarian disaster and echoes of the Iraq War
The Foreign Affairs Committee report blames the UK, U.S. and France for failing to articulate “a strategy to support and shape post-Gaddafi Libya.”
The result of this, the report notes in the summary, “was political and economic collapse, inter-militia and inter-tribal warfare, humanitarian and migrant crises, widespread human rights violations, the spread of Gaddafi regime weapons across the region and the growth of ISIL in North Africa.”
The committee cites Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2016, which indicated:
“[Libya is] heading towards a humanitarian crisis, with almost 400,000 people internally displaced and increasing disruption to basic services, such as power and fuel supplies. Forces engaged in the conflict continued with impunity to arbitrarily detain, torture, unlawfully kill, indiscriminately attack, abduct and disappear, and forcefully displace people from their homes. The domestic criminal justice system collapsed in most parts of the country, exacerbating the human rights crisis.”
Before the 2011 NATO bombing, on the other hand, Libya had been the wealthiest nation in Africa, with the highest life expectancy and GDP per capita. In his book “Perilous Interventions,” former Indian representative to the U.N. Hardeep Singh Puri notes that, before the war, Libya had less of its population in poverty than the Netherlands. Libyans had access to free health care, education, electricity and interest-free loans, and women had great freedoms that had been applauded by the U.N. Human Rights Council in January 2011, on the eve of the war that destroyed the government.
Today, Libya remains so dangerous that the House of Commons’ Foreign Affairs Committee was in fact unable to travel to the country during its investigation. It notes in the report that a delegation visited North Africa in March 2016. They met with Libyan politicians in Tunis, but “were unable to visit Tripoli, Benghazi, Tobruk or anywhere else in Libya due to the collapse of internal security and the rule of law.”
The UK Parliament’s Libya report comes just two months after the Chilcot Report, the British government’s Iraq War inquiry, which also admits that the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq was based on numerous lies, and likewise reveals that the war only strengthened al-Qaeda and other extremists.
Citing the Iraq War inquiry, the Libya report draws comparisons between the actions of former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s administration and that of David Cameron. In 2010, Cameron created the National Security Council, ostensibly to provide a form of oversight that was lacking before the 2003 Iraq invasion.
The Libya report, however, calls on the British government to commission an independent review of the National Security Council. This review “should be informed by the conclusions of the Iraq Inquiry and examine whether the weaknesses in governmental decision-making in relation to the Iraq intervention in 2003 have been addressed by the introduction of the NSC,” the report says.
In the lone moment of humor in the otherwise macabre report, the Foreign Affairs Committee summarizes the humanitarian situation in Libya today writing, “In April 2016, United States President Barack Obama described post-intervention Libya as a ‘shit show’. It is difficult to disagree with this pithy assessment.”
By Ben Norton