Archive for the ‘Libya’ Category
New York- As the faux caliphate referring to itself as ad-Dawlah al-Islamiyyah (Islamic State) continues to smash the shared human heritage of Iraq and Syria, the world watches in revulsion with no strategy to halt it. The threat posed by salafi-jihadis to precious sites is nothing new unfortunately. In 2012 and early 2013, a jihadi outfit in northern Mali called Ansar Dine destroyed Sufi shrines and graves to prevent any form of veneration that they believed diverged from the purest monotheism. These groups style themselves as purifying movements that are merely carrying out the will of god as if they have no choice in cultural destruction. The demolition of nodes of Sufi culture in Libya has also been taking place but to far less condemnation globally as it is categorized as sectarian strife for which the outside world has no authority to judge as it doesn’t retain the Sunni jurisprudence of a particular ulama. The head of UNESCO or President Obama condemning a particular act carries no weight among the militants. It likely only further emboldens them.
Egypt, with its plethora of what seems like the world’s most famous ancient sites per square kilometer from the Sudanese border to Cairo, has been spared the large scale devastation occurring elsewhere in the region. Terrorism in Egypt has concentrated on mass casualty attacks on places frequented by Israelis or presently on security forces, most often in the Sinai peninsula.Egypt’s hulking monuments owing the pharaonic period have survived the erosion of time, vandalism eons ago by Islamists (possibly), and hordes of tourists for countless decades. When priceless monuments have been wrecked by salafis in recent years, or Deobandis in the case of the Bamian buddhas, they are attempting to erase the complexity of the lands they temporarily control. Their use of the internet to disseminate these acts is entirely hypocritical but one can be sure they have cherry picked a way to justify doing so.
When I visited the magnificent ruins of Cyrene while taking a break from covering the war in Libya in 2011, they were totally unprotected. I doubt this has changed significantly if at all. Naively, I viewed Libya’s past as being a possible key to its post-Qaddafi future. With places like Cyrene, Leptis Magna and Sabratha situated not far from sprawling beaches, Libya could’ve theoretically developed a nascent tourist industry just south of the EU. Instead, Libya is mired in a factional, fratricidal war with no effective legitimate government. At present these spellbinding sites are under threat. With Cyrene’s proximity to Derna, it may be first on the list.
As I mentioned in a previous post, there is this concept that somehow the plight of human lives and historic places are in some twisted competition for the world’s attention. This is an immense oversimplification of international affairs. It is framed as if the world community has to choose between UNESCO or UNHCR. All these challenges must be met simultaneously. The idea of the issues are somehow at moral parity is offensive to some but the two priorities really aren’t in any acutual competition. Most of this perception comes from media’s emphasis of events.
The ruins of the ancient world have the capacity to surpass the petty politics that isolate and entrap us in the present. These ancient marvels can bridge an understanding that predates our present impasses. Therein lies their intrinsic value to all humankind.
New York- How did we get here? This is what you may be wondering with the news today that a group of 21 Egyptian Copts were mass beheaded in an unspecified area of coastal Tripolitania by salafi-jihadis in Libya that pledged bayah (oath of allegiance) to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State a continent away. Like my recent post on the revolution lost in Syria to anti-everything elements, Libya was a place in 2011 that, while incredibly dangerous, welcomed journalists in droves.
Nearly a decade after 9/11, the Tunis and Tahrir revolutions ushered in a new wave of journalist wunderkinds, several of whom are today well established while still not yet 30. Now Libya is a hostile place across the board riven by parallel governments concomitantly claiming to be the legitimate rulers while salafis move in and operate freely. I would perhaps return to Libya, but with far greater caution than during my trips in 2011.
With the news of the Copts’ execution, there may be am even larger state actor moving into the fray. Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi has stated that Cairo has the right to “retaliate” in what would transparently be an act of revenge..if Egyptian security forces could discern who carried out the executions. The Egyptian air force, along with that of the UAE, already carried out bombing runs last August to smash Islamist weapons caches in and around Tripoli to no avail.
Egypt has been deeply intertwined in the Libyan remittance economy for decades. I recall speaking to my uncle in Heliopolis in March 2011 who had been a geologist for the Libyan petroleum industry in the first half of the 1970s. He described lightly-populated Libya as a migrant worker “colony” of the Nile Valley dwellers who left their densely people region to send much needed cash home to their families in Anwar Sadat’s Egypt.
The gruesome IS video reportedly alludes to “Rome” in the context of the medievally framed apocalyptic prophecy regarding the village of Dabiq in Aleppo Governorate. In IS propaganda, Rome symbolizes the West as a whole, the lands of ancient Christendom, and frankly anyone deemed kufr in IS’s takfiri thought world. The group has tightly shrouded itself in the mantle of the Judgement Day speak as part of its purported belief to be defending the prophet and the ummah as a whole. A battle for the town of Dabiq would spark the ushering in of the end of days in which Constantinople and Rome would fall to ‘the Muslims’ (orthodox Sunnis only).
Seeing as Libya was part of ancient Rome (see Cyrene and Leptis Magna), and in the early twentieth century the Italians colonized Libya, their reference to being “south of Rome” is duly a calculated one meant to get Libyans themselves onto their agenda. Should Egypt formally enter the battle for Libya, it will likely only complicate that mess further. The Egyptian state is struggling in Sinai these days with regular attacks on the military there demonstrating the lack of knowledge of the physical and human geography on the Peninsula. I’m not sure what purpose it would serve to have the Egyptians expand their failing war on terror into their western neighbor. For the Coptic hostages, it is too late.
New York- Three years ago today I trekked into northern Syria’s rebellious Idlib Governorate from Hatay Province in Turkey. I had to put immense trust in my fixer who was living in a Turkish Red Crescent camp at the time with his family after having fled the town of Binnish where he’d been a school teacher in peacetime. When I asked how many other journos he’d taken where we were headed, he said just one, the legendary Times correspondent Anthony Loyd. When I badgered about who else, he’d said Peter Bouckaert, Human Rights Watch’s emergencies director. Not bad company, I thought to myself.
These dudes were famous and if they trusted M_____d than I thought I could too. As with any of these situations though, there’s just an element of risk that cannot be subtracted. Besides the obvious dangers (and this was before Syria had become a beheading ground for the most unfortunate outsiders), there was the sheer physicality of it all. The mountain, the rain, the snow, the razor wire, the fear, the paranoia. Why was this worth doing? I was following a chain of events since early 2011 in which stultified regimes in the world’s most politically stagnant Arab-ruled states.
The so-called ‘Arab Spring’ involved far more than the ‘Arab Street’ of the early 2000s. Libya had its Tubu, Tuareg and Amazigh (Berbers), Syria had its Kurds and so forth. None of these places were ethnically homogenous. Plus there were the fleeing guest workers from Bangladesh and other forlorn states that had grown dependent on a remission economy as they bled out economic migrants. It was a broad movement that caught fire with local characteristics. Social media met kalashnikovs at dizzying rate. There were notable exceptions of course, like Algeria where it was posited that the populace had tired of the bloody war from the 1990s thus not having the stomach for a prolonged clash with the Bouteflika regime.
Returning to the Syrian border in October 2014, I wouldn’t have dared to cross it. The country had transformed from a place that welcomed foreign journalists when it was once the least covered uprising to the most feared place to work in the world. Even little Bahrain was a more fashionable topic when Syria kicked off nearly four years ago. The uprising began the day I returned to Alexandria from Benghazi on March 15, 2011 and I recall it as a minor news item. By the time I reached Syria three years ago after much of my own work in 2011 was focused on Libya, the media was still referring to the war there as a ‘crackdown.’
At the risk of sounding ultimately naive, there seemed to be an innocence about the rebel fighters I met. They welcomed me with the hospitality I remembered upon first traveling the region as a backpacker in the late 1990s. They sought to overthrow the Assad dictatorship. Yes, they were Sunni men from the countryside but they didn’t frame their struggle as a religious one when I spoke with them. I feared it might turn into a sectarian conflict with the history of the scorched earth suppression of the Ikhwan in the late 1970s, culminating with the destruction of Hama in 1982. Just as the Abu Salim prison massacre in 1996 had helped propel the Libyan war, Syria’s past would eventually come back to haunt it.
Syria’s war in 2015 is an intractable, fissiparous mess. It needn’t have been. But after decades of one man, one party style rule, even if the FSA rebels had coalesced under a properly hierarchical leadership, the country may have just morphed into a different version of chaos. We will never now. When the rebel commander asked me why the West wasn’t eager to assist his men as they had so willingly in Libya (as it appeared from a Syrian perspective), I made a cynical retort: “Look at the map. Libya borders places like Niger and Chad to its south that no one in the West gives a damn about save for energy interests. Your country borders Israel to its south (west). This makes assisting your people in an armed humanitarian intervention infinitely more complicated.”
New York- With Khalifa Haftar suddenly very relevant again after his initially notable reappearance in Libya in March 2011, Libya’s littoral is once against thrust into turmoil in both Cyrenaica and Tripolitania. Haftar is leading a fight against Ansar al-Sharia and Derna-based salafis in the east and has forces loyal to him attack the General National Congress complex in the west. Whether he can indeed overthrow the enfeebled elected government in Tripoli remains to be seen but thus far his efforts appear to be destabilizing what is already a highly fissiparous state structure with its revolving door of prime ministers. For Haftar’s staunchly anti-Ikhwan stance, the BBC is even referring to him in a loose analogy as “Libya’s Sisi” I profiled Haftar in 2011 which was picked up by Reuters at the time.
This week I am quoted by McClatchy D.C. in an article on Haftar’s newly relevant role in the Libya militia polity as well as Yahoo! Noticias España. My work was also obliquely referenced on the Middle East Institute Editor’s blog last week.
NATO helping to tip over a tin pot dictatorship during Operation Unified Protector and its U.S. precursor Operation Odyssey Dawn was one thing, but state building in Libya in that aftermath of all that is quite another. Simply put, it has not happened in any meaningful way.
From the Tuareg-cum-salafi revolt in northern Mali that began only months after Libya-based Tuareg fighters exited their evaporating sanctuary and returned home via Niger to the Toubou clashes in the Fezzan in the spring of 2012, the ripple effects of the downfall of North Africa’s most caricatured dictator have been felt across the region ever since.
Perhaps Haftar sees himself as a future Libyan military strongman in the fashion of an Egyptian-style military leader. As an old school CIA asset with Nasserist origins, it remains unclear whether he can oust those administering nascent post-Qaddafi state with whom he violently disagrees or defeat the salafi-jihadi militias flying the black flags in troubled Cyrenaica.
It should be remembered that Haftar was gone from Libya for decades before returning there when opportunity struck in 2011. What he does have doing for him is access to heavy weapons–including aircraft–to smite his opponents coupled with the element of surprise.
New York- Three years ago today a bloody revolution kicked off in earnest in Benghazi, Libya which ended the rule of Muammar Qaddafi, longest dictatorial regime in post-colonial Africa surpassing even that of Omar Bongo in Gabon who ruled that country for 41.5 years. The locals referred to the happening as the “February 17th revolution.” I’ll never forget the fortitude of the Libyan people in the face of immense, violent repression.
Here are a few selected images from that time.
New York-One of the myriad topics was what constitutes or defines intervention in Syria. A high-ranking NATO official explained to me at 2 2012 security conference that the Alliance was emphatically not going to get involved militarily in Syria even if the so-called “red lines” set forth by individual member states were crossed time and again. When NATO became deeply involved in the Libyan war, it was under the auspices of protecting civilians as stipulated by UN Security Council Resolution 1973 which outlined the multi-national mission that culminated in Operation Unified Protector.
I mentioned at that February conference that I had inadvertently run across a pair of intelligence operatives on atop a cliff on the outskirts of Nalut in western Libya’s Jebel Nafusa/Western Mountains region in August 2011. I presumed the men to be either Central Intelligence Agency officers or former ones who were now for-hire intelligence contractors. They were providing real-time battlefield intelligence while decisive air strikes were being carried out in the then (until 6pm that day to be specific) Qaddafist-controlled towns of Ghazayah and Takut on the stiflingly hot plains down below. With a satellite phone and military grade macro binoculars they were apparently relaying coordinates for air strikes and feedback about the accuracy of previous bombardments.
When I confronted the NATO official about this, which to me appeared to be in direct violation of UNSC 1973 as an outside power was clearly taking sides with one of the conflict’s belligerents thereby nullifying the idea of any form of non-partisan negotiated solution with the Qaddafi regime, NATO’s man swiftly countered that member states within the Alliance had undertaken unilateral intelligence missions which were not part of NATO’s mandate nor had its official bureaucratic blessing. Oh, ok, well I guess that wraps my question up neatly, right?
BUT…how were the Libyans on the ground, both NTC rebels and Qaddafists, supposed to interpret these elite distinctions made in Brussels, Washington, Doha, London, Paris and Benghazi? For the Libyans, the CIA and NATO were one in the same, entirely conflated entities. Not to mention perfect fodder for those on the anti-imperialist left and conspiracy theorists in general who cynically assume the overthrow of Mu’ammar Qaddafi was planned long ago at a Bilderberg Group meeting or some such thing.
So as the viewer’s comment pointed out NATO itself is nowhere in the vicinity of launching a large-scale military intervention in Syria but individual member states are indeed carrying out an intelligence war as unilateral, sovereign state actors outside the bounds of the trans-Atlantic security structure. NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen had been adamant that Syria will not become another Libya stating an armed humanitarian intervention was “not the right path.”
The conundrum escalated with the recent cross-border shelling by Syria when ordinance not only landed on Turkish soil but killed Turkish nationals which appears at least on the surface to have caused Rasmussen to change tack. An attack on one member state is theoretically an attack on the broader Alliance which the other members must then be obligated to defend if such action is deemed necessary. Now Secretary General Rasmussen has stated “We have all necessary plans in place to protect and defend Turkey if necessary.”
I also want to quickly elaborate on the unraveling of the October 20, 1998 Adana Agreement which was essentially a peace treaty between Turkey and Syria to halt PKK attacks that were being mounted from safe havens on Syrian territory at the time in a vicious proxy dispute over water rights. Hafez al-Assad, near the end of his thirty year reign, sought to improve relations with Turkey and expelled Abdullah “Apo” Ocalan, the PKK’s cult-like leader. (Ocalan was captured in Kenya on the run in 1999 and extradited to Turkey where he remains holed up in an island prison today in the Sea of Marmara) Turkish-Syrian relations than greatly improved as Turkey tilted away politically from the European Union and began renewing ties, particularly economic ones, in the lands that constituted its former Ottoman realm (as well as warming relation with the clerical regime in Iran as part of its “zero problems with neighbors” policy).
Turkey nearly mounted an invasion of Syria in the late 1990s under the pretext of attacking the PKK. Turkey has also had a long time military presence in Iraqi Kurdistan and parliament in Ankara recently renewed Turkey’s standing hot pursuit mandate whereby Turkish ground forces can enter Iraq when giving chase to PKK fighters. So Turkish troops moving into Syria en masse is not so unthinkable in the present scenario.
The PKK has been stepping up attacks across southern Turkey in recent months and many Turks believe Bashar is playing his father’s old PKK card from the 1990s in an act of calculating strategic desperation. After all, what else does the already isolated Syria regime really have to lose at this point? Even if the Assad government can somehow survive, relations with an AKP government in Turkey will not be put back together again. It is from this calculus that the Assad regime is basing its tragic strategic decisions and going with what is known as “the Hama solution” (code for scorched earth tactics in crushing any serious threat to their Ba’athist Alawi dynasty)
Barcelona- Partly out of boredom and partly out of the itch to simply create something new out of old, I threw together this photo montage over the weekend. In this era of digital photography where one shoots thousands of frames rather than analog hundreds, I was reflecting on how almost all of the images I make will never see the light of day in this regard. I put this video together in a largely random fashion with images that have been just sitting in my laptop for years. I put the photos in the order they came to me as I grabbed them one by one from various folders containing my view of many of the biggest news events of the last 10 years.
Interspersed with them are much more sublime moments of everyday life around the world. An elephant in Thailand, an aged priest in Ethiopia, a glitzy office tower in Manhattan. This has been my reality and is our collective reality. Globalization and social networking simultaneously accelerate worldwide travel and technological integration while hyper compartmentalizing our lives. We speak more so to only those who we want to and listen to those with whom we already agree.
No one knows just where any of this is going. Billionaire fraudsters suddenly imprisoned, social revolutions springing up from seemingly nowhere (though not quite), calcified dictatorships counted on for decades in the interests of “stability” suddenly crumbling to pieces, it seems as if the entire world order is in question.
Barcelona- I have a new article out today in the July issue of the Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point’s Sentinel publication. I am honored to have been awarded the cover story for the second time this year. The story is based on the two weeks I spent in Mali in May and June and a couple of months of armchair research here in Barcelona and New York. As last year when I was avidly and concomitantly following Libya and Bahrain in particular, this year my attention has largely turned to Syria and Mali.
The conflict in Mali is, yes, a result of the NATO-GCC backed war in Libya in part but Libya’s troubles are not the cause of Mali’s current crisis. The causes of Mali’s 2012 rebellion of messy irredentism and radical Islamism are rooted in local economic, ethnic, and ecological disparities. There are long-held grievances among several of northern Mali’s communities that have sat unresolved for many decades. These issues of emphasized racial and ethnic difference are discussed fairly in depth in Bruce S. Hall’s A History of Race in Muslim West Africa, 1600-1960.
Global warming (now marketed as climate change) is a causal factor. Coupled with climate issues are then food security and the survival of livestock-key for both the sedentary agriculturalist and semi-nomadic pastoralist populations competing for land and scare resources in the wider Sahel. In this light neighboring Niger is especially vulnerable with many of the same environmental and ethnic issues at stake.
So is the legacy of French divide et impera (divide and rule) during the colonial period. Up until Mali’s independence in 1960, French administrators favored certain groups over others in order to maintain their grip on power. The Salafi agenda of AQIM (and now MUJAO) has certainly exacerbated and accelerated things. The kidnapping for Westerners, most notably the brazen hostage taking in Timbuktu’s Centre Ville in late November 2011 in which a German national was shot dead when he tried to resist being hauled off into the unknowns of the Sahara, has utterly destroyed Mali’s relatively lucrative and quite vital (yet fragile) tourism industry.
On top of all this I am still trying to keep up with events in Syria. It appears from the outside looking in that the war has to have been amplified by the audacious assassinations of National Security Chief General Hisham Ikhtiyar, Defense Minister Dawoud Rajha, Deputy Defense Minister Gen. Assef Shawkat and former Defense Minister Hassan Turkmani. This has brought a sea change in the level of political violence across the country not most notably in the formerly quiet Aleppo Governorate. It seems that the al-Jaish as-Suri al-Hurra (the endonym of the Free Syrian Army) has certainly achieved increased momentum in recent days in what has been essentially an unabated war of attrition.
Before the year is out I may return to one or both of these troubled nation-states. Hard to fathom what the fall of Damascus will mean, particularly for Syria’s Alawite community as well as its numerous Christians. Add to that Palestinian and Iraqi refugees. I remember in Baghdad and environs in the spring of 2003 when there was an immediate backlash against Palestinians hosted by the Hussein regime who were resented at best and deemed collaborators at worst by furious Iraqis.
Damascus will be a tremendous tinderbox once the tipping point against Assad is finally reached. It won’t likely happen overnight (unless there were to be a spectacular and ingeniously successful assassination plot) but history is definitely against such a calcified, minoritarian regime in the Middle East today.
Another issue which managed to grab my attention today is the violence erupting in Khorog, the regional capital of Tajikistan’s difficult to access Kohistan Badakhshan (a.k.a. Gorno-Badakhshan in Russian). At least 42 people have been reported killed so far in clashes after the local intelligence chief was savagely beaten (some reports say stabbed) to death by assailants linked to a local warlord hailing from the 1992-1997 civil war.
This means something to me because I have a friend from Khorog and I’d imagined visiting the place one day. We chatted on skype today and she is terribly fretful because all phone service has been cut to the city and she cannot reach family members still residing there (she lives outside Tajikistan). The needless mayhem may have been the result of the hard sought after cigarette smuggling trade along the Afghan border. Though the region is infamous for its Russia-bound heroin trade, like all borders in the global Balkans, it’s a hub for Marlboros as well. Hopefully more information will come to light soon. Tajikistan is an incredibly brittle place that has never properly reconciled the wounds from its horrific post-Soviet civil war.