NEW EASTERN OUTLOOK, by Eric Draitser – The unfolding violence and chaos in Libya’s second city of Benghazi should be understood as a power struggle between competing factions, each struggling to assert its own authority over the critical commercial center. However, what is purposely omitted from the Western media narrative is the fact that both groups – one a military command led by Libyan General Hifter, the other an Islamist terror group called Ansar al-Sharia – are proxies of the United States, each having received US support through a variety of channels in recent years. Seen in this way, the unrest in Libya must be understood as a continuation of the war waged against that country by the US-NATO forces.
As firefights, explosions, and air strikes become the norm in Benghazi and the surrounding areas, the nature of the conflict remains somewhat murky. On the one hand is Army General Khalifa Belqasim Haftar (also spelled Hifter), a longtime military commander under Gaddafi who fled Libya for the United States where he became a principal asset for the CIA until his return to Libya at the height of the US-NATO assault on that country. On the other hand is the Islamist Ansar al-Sharia organization, led by Ahmed Abu Khattala, which has been implicated in the September 11, 2012 attack on the US-CIA compound in Benghazi which killed US Ambassador Chris Stevens. In examining both the conflict and connections between these two individuals and the factions they lead, the fingerprints of US intelligence could not be more apparent.
However, the situation in Benghazi, and the Cyrenaica region more generally, is far more complex than simply these two factions. There are other important militias which have played a significant role in bringing the region to the brink of total war. From blockading Benghazi and Cyrenaica’s oil ports to internecine conflicts within the militia movements/coalitions, these militias have made the possibility of reconciliation almost unthinkable. And so, despite the fact that the combat phase of the US-NATO war in Libya ended nearly three years ago, the country is still undeniably a war zone.
The War for Benghazi
The news coming from Benghazi is growing steadily more troubling. On Monday June 2nd, nearly one hundred Libyans, many of them being civilians, were killed or wounded in the coastal metropolis and surrounding towns when the Islamist Ansar al-Sharia militia attacked a camp occupied by forces loyal to Army General Hifter. Hifter’s men, equipped with modest but effective air power including the use of combat helicopters, responded to the attack, driving off many of the Ansar al-Sharia militants. In the process however, residents of Benghazi were forced to flee or take refuge in their homes, with many businesses and schools remaining closed due to the sporadic gunfire and other fighting.
Though the clash was modest in scope in comparison to the horrors of the US-NATO war on Libya in 2011, it is a stark reminder of the sad reality that is modern Libya – a once proud nation reduced to a patchwork of competing militias, clans, and tribes, with no central authority ruling the country, no reliable social services, and a complete absence of the rule of law. It is within this maelstrom of political and social conflict that we must examine the nature of the conflict in Benghazi.
The city has been rocked by fighting and political posturing since the overthrow and assassination of Gaddafi in 2011. While a provisional government in Tripoli was established by the so called National Transitional Council (NTC), real power on the streets was exercised by competing militias loyal to their tribal and/or clan affiliations, and usually restricted to one major town or city. Although there are a number of Islamist militias operating in or around Benghazi, the two most powerful and well organized are the February 17 Martyrs Brigade and Ansar al-Sharia. While both organizations are nominally independent, each has outwardly expressed either a direct or indirect affiliation with the terror brand known as Al Qaeda.
Opposing both 17 February and Ansar al-Sharia is the so called Libyan National Army, a collection of militias and smaller units loyal to General Hifter. Having recently gained notoriety for declaring a quasi-coup against the Tripoli government in February 2014, the Libyan National Army has been waging a low-intensity war against the Islamist militias in hopes of gaining control over Benghazi and the Cyrenaica region. Naturally, General Hifter’s plans extend well beyond Benghazi, as he intends to use the conflict there as the pretext by which he hopes he’ll bring the country under his leadership. While there are some who see this as an unlikely scenario, it is nevertheless an important part of the strategic calculus.
Finally, there is the lingering question of other militias which have, at various times, controlled critical oil terminals and port facilities in Benghazi and the East generally. Of particular note is the militia surrounding Ibrahim al-Jathran, a young tribal leader who has called for regional autonomy for Cyrenaica from the central government in Tripoli. Jathran and his men have numerous times blockaded key oil facilities as a means of leveraging their demands. Though as yet they have succeeded only in causing a political and diplomatic problem for Tripoli, al-Jathran’s militia, and others like it, only further complicate the endlessly complex politics of the Libyan street.
Libya’s “Revolution” and US Intelligence
From the outset of the war against Libya, the United States and its NATO allies utilized a variety of terror groups and other intelligence assets to topple the Gaddafi government. While some had been directly linked to the CIA, others were pulled from the stable of terror organizations utilized at various times by the US as mujahideen in Afghanistan, Kosovo, and elsewhere. Essentially then, the US developed a loose network of proxies, some of which were ideologically opposed to the US and to one another, that it unleashed on Libya to do Washington’s dirty work.
One key group allied with US intelligence is Hifter’s Libyan National Army. The organization was founded by Hifter after his defection (or expulsion) from Libya in the early 1980s. From there, Hifter became a significant asset for the CIA in its quest to topple Gaddafi. Using Hifter’s forces in Chad during the Libya-Chad war of the early 1980s, the CIA attempted the first of many regime change efforts in Libya. As the New York Times reported in 1991:
The secret paramilitary operation, set in motion in the final months of the Reagan Administration, provided military aid and training to about 600 Libyan soldiers who were among those captured during border fighting between Libya and Chad in 1988…They were trained by American intelligence officials in sabotage and other guerrilla skills, officials said, at a base near Ndjamena, the Chadian capital. The plan to use the exiles fit neatly into the Reagan Administration’s eagerness to topple Colonel Qaddafi.
As the above cited Times article noted, the regime change efforts failed and Hifter and his associates were then given safe passage and residence in the US. A State Department spokesman at the time explained that the men would have “access to normal resettlement assistance, including English-language and vocational training and, if necessary, financial and medical assistance.” Indeed, Hifter spent nearly two decades living comfortably in a suburban Virginia home, just a short drive from CIA headquarters at Langley. He became known as the CIA’s “Libya point man,” having taken part in numerous regime change efforts, including the aborted attempt to overthrow Gaddafi in 1996.
And so, when Hifter conveniently showed back up in Libya to take part in the 2011 regime change operation, many political observers noted that this meant that the hand of the CIA was intimately involved in the uprising. Indeed, as the war evolved and more became known about the deeply rooted connection between US intelligence and the so called “rebels,” the truth about Hifter became impossible to conceal. However, Hifter was certainly not alone in being a willing puppet of NATO and the CIA.
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