A spring hijacked

Published : Oct 19, 2012 00:00 IST

IN one of his last interviews to the international media, the former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi warned that many in the armed opposition were fighters owing allegiance to Al Qaeda. His assertions were dismissed as the ranting of a delusional man fighting with his back to the wall. Now reports coming out of Libya have put the blame for the killing of the United States Ambassador, Christopher Stevens, and three other Americans on the Islamist militia Ansar al Sharia Brigade, known to have close links with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. The group, however, was quick to distance itself from the attack.

American intelligence officials believe that another militant group, the Imprisoned Omar Abdul Rahman Brigades, was responsible. The last time an American ambassador was killed on duty was in Kabul in 1979. The Americans should have known that they were playing with fire. One of the main fighting forces aligned with the West in the capital, Tripoli, was led by a former Al Qaeda fighter, Abdelhakim Belhaj.

The current Al Qaeda leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was quick to claim credit for the Benghazi attack. A few days before it, he had called for attacks against the U.S. to avenge the killing of Abu Yahya al Libi, the Al Qaeda second in command. Libi, who hailed from Libya, was killed in a U.S. drone attack in June on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. His blood is calling, urging and inciting you to kill the crusaders, Zawahiri said in his message.

Libyan government officials say the attack took place in two waves and that it was well planned. The first wave forced the evacuation of the ambassador and his staff to a safe house, where they were targeted by a group of around 20 heavily armed men with mortars and rockets.

The militia that is being blamed for the attack had earlier claimed credit for exploding a bomb outside the embassy premises in June, immediately after the U.S. military announced the killing of Libi. The Brigades said that the June attack had been timed to coincide with the arrival of a senior U.S. State Department official in Benghazi. The State Department issued an advisory at the end of August urging American citizens against all but essential travel to Libya. Reports in the U.S. media in late September talk about the large numbers of U.S. intelligence agents in Benghazi who asked to be evacuated after the storming of the embassy. The Libyan government was apparently unaware of such a large presence of U.S. officials in the city.

Libyan Deputy Prime Minister Mustafa Abushagour said that while his government had no issues about sharing intelligence with the U.S., the sovereignty of the country was important. The Libyan government installed by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) is loath to admit that it has given a free run to intelligence and security agents from the West and the Gulf monarchies. It has been reported that top secret documents containing names of Libyans collaborating with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) have gone missing after the consulate was looted. According to U.S. media reports, U.S. intelligence is now clueless on what is going on in Benghazi and eastern Libya. Many of the shoulder-fired missiles looted during the conflict are said to be in the hands of the Salafist brigades operating in the area.

It was Benghazi which provided the springboard for the so-called revolution in Libya. The Qaddafi government was caught napping as U.S., French and British intelligence agents working with rebel groups in the city set up a liberated zone in the port city. Ambassador Stevens himself played a key role in the covert operations centred on Benghazi that were crucial to the decision to authorise a no fly zone over Libya. A State Department official said in March 2011 that Stevens was the U.S. liaison to the opposition. His main job was to open funding spigots for an opposition movement.

WikiLeaks documents, however, show the late diplomat describing Qaddafi as an engaging and charming interlocutor. All the same, he was tracked down by the Americans in his home city of Sirte and killed. The former head of state was even denied a decent burial. After September 2001, Qaddafi had started cooperating with the U.S. oil companies, and diplomats were back in Libya in full force by the middle of the last decade. But Qaddafi had not calculated that the Americans were waiting for an opportune moment to execute their plans for regime change and in the process hijack the Arab Spring.

The Arab Spring provided the perfect scenario for the execution of the plan and Benghazi was the perfect setting. The residents of the city, which was the capital when the country was ruled by a monarch, were known to be unsympathetic to Qaddafi. They resented that the capital was in faraway Tripoli and much of the countrys oil wealth was spent on development projects in poor sub-Saharan countries. Many leading politicians from Benghazi are now talking of seceding from the country and have already demanded a special status from the weak central government.

Foreign fighters, including Special Forces from the British, Qatari and French armies along with arms and ammunition, were routed through Benghazi. The Americans were lulled into believing that the city which they liberated ostensibly on behalf of a people yearning for democracy would never turn against them. How can this happen in a country which we helped liberate and in a city we helped save from destruction? U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asked.

Benghazi was known to be a stronghold of militant Islamists. Qaddafi had dealt with them ruthlessly. But the toppling of a government which had provided security for Libyans for over four decades led to chaos and anarchy. Though an election of sorts was held in the middle of this year, warring militias wearing tribal loyalties on their sleeves and jehadi groups loosely affiliated to the Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) are running loose, playing havoc with the lives of Libyans. Sufi shrines have been targeted. The desecration has been going on for several months. The security forces have stood aside. Not a single arrest has been made so far.

John Cherian
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