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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Burning Shores

Inside the Battle for the New Libya

Frederic Wehrey

Farrar, Straus and Giroux




LATE AUGUST IN TRIPOLI is a time of forbearance. It is still a month before the easterly winds will start their slow assault on the dulling heat. Flowering bougainvilleas have long since bloomed and now dangle down the sides of white-walled villas. At night, families emerge to stroll on a seaside promenade; backgammon players crowd the porticoed cafés of Algeria Square. It is Ramadan 2009. And in just a few weeks it will be forty years since Muammar Qadhafi came to power.

In preparation, louvered shutters across the city are freshly painted green—the official color of the dictator’s “state of the masses.” In Green Square, in the shadow of an ancient citadel, workers sweep parade grounds and erect scaffolding on vast stages. A Jumbotron video screen looms overhead, ready to broadcast the coming pageantry. Troops of Boy Scouts practice marching.

Qadhafi’s visage is everywhere on billboards. In one, a gallery of revolutionary icons—Mandela, Guevara, Nehru, and Nasser—flanks the smiling dictator in Bedouin headgear. In another, a crowd gathers before a green tent, emanating rays of light. The crowd is waving their hands, as if in gratitude or supplication.

THE TENT CONQUERED THE CASTLE, reads the wording above.

* * *

MUAMMAR AL-QADHAFI was born in a tent, a woven goat-hair dwelling that is typical among roaming Bedouin, on June 7, 1942, near a village called Qasr Abu Hadi. He grew up in a sparse country: the village sits on the Gulf of Sidra on a rocky plain flecked with acacia and thorn scrub. Libya then was one of the poorest countries in the world, a nation of mostly illiterate farmers, fishermen, and pastoralists, like his father. The tribe at the time was the dominant unit of social and political organization. And in his final years, after flirting with assorted ideologies, Qadhafi returned to this tribal milieu, ending his rule with an ethos of the desert and leaving a legacy of desertlike desolation.

Libya has always been a place on the margins. The name itself is borrowed from a term first used by the ancient Egyptians to describe the inhabitants on their western borders. In the classical imagination, it denoted all of Africa, a realm of wonders and terrors. “Libya is the world’s third part,” wrote the Roman poet Lucan. “Serpents, thirst, the heat of the sand … Libya is the only thing that can put forth such a swarm of suffering.”

The Greeks, Carthaginians, and Romans passed through, settling mostly on a sliver of fertile coast where they built cities linking the Saharan south with the Mediterranean basin. The Arabs arrived in the seventh century, displacing the remnants of the Byzantine empire and Christianity and starting a long process of Islamization. During the nearly four centuries of Ottoman rule, Libya remained a backwater: the Ottomans and their principalities never fully controlled it but rather governed through pacts with local notables.

The Italians arrived in 1911, latecomers to European imperialism, and wrested the territory from the Turks. Resurrecting the ancient term “Libia” to stress the region’s Roman antecedents, they set about colonizing it, luring Italian settlers to emigrate with exaggerated promises of empty farmland. They joined the historic provinces of Tripolitania (the west), Cyrenaica or Barqa (the east), and Fezzan (the south) under a single governor.

With the rise of the Fascists in Italy came a decade of unrelenting military conquest, marked by aerial bombardment and poison gas. The trauma of that period remains today. To be sure, the Italians imprinted Libya with asphalt highways and buildings, but they did little for Libyans themselves, shutting them out of education or any role in governance. Their farming projects subverted the economy of pastoralism. Their brutal counterinsurgency imprisoned two-thirds of the population in eastern Libya in concentration camps; by some estimates, one out of every five persons in the country perished as a result of Italian rule.

But the colonial era also gave rise to one of Libya’s great legends: the Sufi teacher turned guerrilla leader Omar al-Mukhtar. For nearly two decades, before his capture and execution at the age of seventy-three, Omar al-Mukhtar fought the Italians across the eastern Green Mountains with a band of fighters numbering no more than a thousand.

A lesser-known Libyan combatant in that struggle was the father of Muammar Qadhafi, whose exploits later hagiographies would laud and embellish. The Libya that his only son, Muammar, grew up in stood on the cusp of great change. After World War II, the country was administered by the victorious British and French militaries, remaining bereft of any political institutions, with the exception of a Sufi revivalist movement under the Sanusi dynasty. The Sanusi protostate gave way to the monarchy after independence: on December 24, 1951, Muhammad Idris, the diffident, scholarly grandson of the Sanusi order’s founder, became the ruler of the United Kingdom of Libya.

His reign was relatively peaceful, but far from successful. Infrastructure and education were underdeveloped and the country was mired in poverty. Years of famine killed and displaced thousands. The literacy rate barely rose above 10 percent. The discovery of oil in the 1950s—Libya has the largest reserves in Africa and the ninth largest in the world—did little to improve things. “I wish your people had discovered water,” Idris reportedly told an American diplomat. “Water makes men work; oil makes men dream.” Idris also opened Libya to American and British military bases, yet these allies looked uneasily on his rule—and his staying power.

“The king offers Libya no inspiring leadership,” a 1953 CIA assessment noted. “In fact he seems more interested in retiring to his ancestral hills and allowing the infant state to disintegrate.”

As is often the case, the first steps toward modernization taken by a sclerotic king are his last. Urbanization and education exposed young Libyans to the seductions of Arab nationalism. On September 1, 1969, a group of such Libyans, army officers who’d been cadets together at Benghazi’s military college, overthrew King Idris in a bloodless coup. Like Muammar Qadhafi, the captain who became their leader, many hailed from rural backgrounds and lesser tribes, shut out from the cronyism of the monarchy.

What followed in the months ahead was an attempt by Qadhafi to replicate the rule of his idol, Gamal Abd al-Nasser, in neighboring Egypt. The recipe would involve a mix of socialism and pan-Arabism with the nationalization of foreign banks and oil companies and the closure of foreign military bases (negotiations for the departure of the Americans had already been under way during King Idris’s rule). The new regime set about purging the last vestiges of the monarchy, especially the Sanusi endowments. But the putschist officers lacked the administrative and economic skills to run the country.

In 1973, buoyed by the quadrupling of oil prices and an infusion of sudden wealth, Qadhafi embarked on a decades-long political experiment at home and militant adventurism abroad. The dictator first turned inward, codifying his musings into a multivolume tract called the Green Book. Breathtaking in scope and incoherence, the Green Book was a farrago of socialism, democracy, and capitalism. Put into practice, it resulted in the deinstitutionalization of Libya and the dismantling of the professional bureaucracy, to be replaced by various popular committees and people’s militias. Libya was proclaimed in 1977 to be a “state of the masses,” or a Jamahiriya, an Arabic neologism coined by Qadhafi himself.

A series of drastic reforms accompanied the new experiment. Some had a positive impact: literacy rose to 82 percent and a free health-care system expanded across the country. Women’s status improved as well: laws forbidding polygamy and child brides were implemented, and women were afforded access to higher education. Yet other, more radical initiatives proved catastrophic. Believing that renting was a form of tyranny, Qadhafi allowed tenants to claim ownership of land and dwellings. He exhorted workers to seize businesses and turn them into collectives, banned private land ownership, and created state supermarkets. The result was the gutting of the entrepreneurial class and its flight abroad.

Radicalism at home was matched by radicalism abroad. Anti-imperialism, anti-Westernism, and anti-Zionism had long been hallmarks of Qadhafi’s worldview. Now, buttressed by newfound oil wealth, he used Libya to project that ideology, training a wide array of militants, including Palestinian groups, the Irish Republican Army, European and Latin American leftists, African insurgents, and even South Pacific separatists. By one count, more than thirty organizations passed through Libyan camps. It wasn’t just unconventional warfare that defined Libya’s bellicosity abroad: Qadhafi embroiled Libya in a disastrous nine-year war with neighboring Chad over a uranium-rich piece of border territory called the Aouzou Strip.

By the early 1980s, this militancy had brought Libya into confrontation with America, especially the administration of Ronald Reagan, who famously called the dictator the “mad dog of the Middle East.” In 1986, citing evidence of Qadhafi’s complicity in the bombing of a West Berlin disco that killed American soldiers, Reagan sent fighter-bombers to strike Libya’s terrorist training facilities. Dubbed Operation El Dorado Canyon, the raid destroyed a number of camps and military targets, killing roughly forty soldiers and civilians, with the loss of one American aircraft and its two-person crew. The attack also resulted in a gradual diminution of Qadhafi’s anti-American statements and support for terrorism, but only after a bloody uptick: the bombing in 1988 of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, that killed 270, and a French airliner over Niger in 1989 that killed 156. Qadhafi’s refusal to hand over suspects in the bombings resulted in a UN embargo against the country in 1992. The United States added its own sanctions in 1996.

By the 1990s, Libya was in ruins. Falling oil prices, combined with the effects of ill-conceived policies and now sanctions, had inflicted untold suffering on the population. The mask of egalitarianism fell away: a kleptocratic elite centered on Qadhafi’s family enriched themselves at the expense of the masses. The Revolutionary Committees became little more than thugs and enforcers. Unemployment was rising, inflation had soared to 50 percent, and Libyans faced shortages of basic foodstuffs, with fistfights arising over loaves of bread at state-run bakeries. And despite his pretensions of doing away with tribalism, Qadhafi leaned on tribes even more to maintain control.

Then, at the turn of the millennium, Qadhafi came in from the cold. In 1999 he surrendered the suspects in the Pan Am Lockerbie bombing and positioned himself as a useful counterterror partner for the West, especially after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. The dictator had faced an Islamist insurgency of his own starting in the mid-1990s, led by Libyan jihadists returning from Afghanistan, and he was quick to frame his campaign against these local militants as part of America’s “global war on terrorism.” His government, he liked to point out, was the first in the world to issue an Interpol arrest warrant for Osama bin Laden, as early as 1998.

On top of this, in December 2003, Qadhafi announced Libya would dismantle its nascent nuclear weapons program and surrender its stocks of biological and chemical weapons—a decision the Bush administration claimed had been accelerated by its invasion of Iraq. In fact, the Libyan ruler had entered into secret negotiations with Washington well before this, under Clinton, and his choice to disarm resulted less from coercion and more from the prospect of reintegration into the global economy. In 2003, the United Nations lifted its sanctions, followed soon after by the United States.

In 2006, after thirty years of enmity, America and Libya restored full diplomatic relations, marked by the reopening of an embassy in Tripoli and agreements on trade, science, and education. The oil companies returned, and the Pentagon began a modest effort to assist the Libyan military. Yet a seeming tug-of-war between reactionary and reform-oriented factions in Tripoli threatened to upend the diplomatic gains. Where Qadhafi stood was always unclear. Some hoped that limited engagement with Libyan moderates could influence the domestic power balance in favor of a supposedly progressive camp led by Qadhafi’s London-educated son, Saif al-Islam.

But how much power did Saif and his reformers really have? And was the seeming perestroika genuine?

* * *

I FIRST WENT to Libya in the summer of 2009 as a military officer working at the U.S. embassy. I was no stranger to the Arab world and its discontents—and to the paradoxes of U.S. policy in the region. I’d studied at Cairo University at the peak of an Islamist insurgency against Egypt’s dictatorial president Hosni Mubarak. I’d lived with Palestinian families during the Israeli occupation of Gaza and with Bedouin Arab tribes in Israel’s Negev Desert. During military service in Iraq, I’d met with dozens of former regime henchmen, Ba’athists, and soon-to-be insurgents. Leaving active duty, I’d interviewed the spiritual guide of Hizballah in southern Beirut and sat on the floor of his mosque listening to his sermon on American abuses in Iraq. In Saudi Arabia’s restive Eastern Province, I’d met with wanted dissidents from the kingdom’s minority Shi’a sect.

Still, nothing could prepare me for Libya. It had been an enigmatic place ever since my youth, when one of my first political memories was Ronald Reagan’s bombing of the country. For most of the intervening years, the idea of going to work in the country on behalf of the U.S. government would have seemed far-fetched.

The Libya I encountered was a place of enchantment. You could choose to insulate yourself completely in its culture and history. Wander at night in the warrens of Tripoli’s Old City, past the Gurgi mosque with its glazed tiles, the clock tower, and the cavernous baths. Travel west or east for a day to the Roman ruins at Sabratha and Leptis Magna, resplendent with colonnaded streets, amphitheaters, and views of the sea. Pause for a moment on the manicured lawn of a war cemetery, where the fallen of Britain and its empire rested after fighting the Axis. Journey south to the white-terraced town of Ghadames, the “pearl of the Sahara.”

The postcard sheen quickly wore off. The modern city of Tripoli seemed stricken and tired. True, you did not find the soul-crushing poverty of Cairo’s slums. But an aura of dread pervaded the place; people still disappeared in prisons. You were never without a minder from the mukhabarat or secret police. Libyans looked at the potted roads, the shabby housing in short supply, and the threadbare clinics, and they saw little benefit from the country’s staggering oil wealth.

They started to wonder where it was all going.

* * *

MY OWN VIEW of Libya’s decay was focused on its military. I was working at the embassy’s defense attaché office, shepherding the limited American effort to assist the Libyan army.

The American defense attaché was a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army named Brian Linvill. Born in South Carolina to a family of educators, Linvill chose a military career. He was commissioned as an artillery officer after graduation from Ohio State University and then became a foreign area officer: a soldier-diplomat who specializes in a particular region and speaks a local language. To prepare him for the job, the army sent him to Princeton University to earn a master’s degree in Middle Eastern studies and a year-plus of Arabic training in Monterey, California, where he met a fellow military student named Anna whom he would marry.

He rushed headlong into his Libya assignment, inhaling the country’s culture and lore. Libya soon became a family affair. His wife, a fluent Arabic speaker and accomplished opera singer, taught music at an international school. They took their children on weekend trips to archaeological sites. His brother, Darren, a professor at Clemson University, would later conduct research on Libya’s educational system. Linvill had an easy smile that disarmed his Libyan hosts.

The Libyan army we dealt with was shockingly decrepit, the result of decades of deliberate neglect by Qadhafi, who had feared the army might try to overthrow him. After he toppled the monarchy in 1969 with his fellow army officers, Qadhafi faced a succession of countercoups, linked to his comrades-in-arms. And so by the late 1980s, he started depriving the army of funds and equipment and stopped training new officers. In its place, he set up the Revolutionary Committees and other popular militias—lightly armed rabble. And in the 1990s, he built up his ultraloyal palace guard—elite brigades commanded by his sons and staffed by favored tribes, whose main purpose was to put down revolts. All the while, the regular army withered away. Linvill and I met officers who wore civilian clothes at work because they lacked funds to maintain their uniforms and did not want to wear them out. Soldiers who reported for duty would show up for just a few hours and then vanish to work second jobs.

Undoing the ruin of the military was a challenge. We started with the basics, focusing first on teaching English to a small cadre of Libyan recruits, which would allow them to receive more advanced schooling abroad. But even that effort was stymied by incompetence. Students wouldn’t report for their courses, and those who did make it overseas were often ill prepared. In one case, a Libyan student showed up for frogman training in Italy, only to “sink like a stone when he jumped in a training pool,” according to U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks. After his instructors fished him out and resuscitated him, he divulged that he’d obtained the training slot through family connections and “wanted a vacation in Rome.”

Still, there were pockets of competence in the Libyan military that America and its allies hoped to cultivate. The idea was that by bolstering the capacity of a few key army units, we might be able to get the Libyan government to do more policing of the Saharan desert, where al-Qaeda was taking root. One unit in particular grabbed our attention: the 32nd Reinforced Brigade, comprising ten thousand soldiers and plentiful armor and transport. The brigade recruited from loyal tribes who swore an oath of personal fealty to Qadhafi, and its high-walled bases ringed the capital to defend against aggressors, or to quash dissent from within. It was the most powerful of the dictator’s elite security formations, and its commander was Khamis al-Qadhafi, Qadhafi’s youngest son.

Tall, with a clean-shaven jaw, the twenty-six-year-old Khamis looked the part of the princely captain. As a child, he had been wounded in the U.S. airstrikes of 1986. Now, as a young man, he seemed the more responsible of Qadhafi’s offspring, or at least he eschewed the philistine lifestyle of his brothers: Hannibal, the most notorious of the siblings, had repeated run-ins with European police; Muatassim had hired the pop singers Beyoncé and Usher to perform at parties; soccer-crazed Saadi had been suspended from an Italian team for failing a drug test.

But Khamis seemed different. Linvill said he was “smart, intelligent, and conversant in English … earnestly interested in how to professionalize the Libyan military.” His trim khaki uniform stood in sharp contrast to the double-vented suits of his brothers. He was studying business management in Spain. And he held the key to Libya’s future: his 32nd Brigade was the one military unit that would be decisive in the succession to Qadhafi. “Anyone intent on assuming power would try to align himself with Khamis,” a State Department diplomatic cable asserted.

The 32nd Brigade was also a potential source for lucrative defense contracts. The British subsidiary of General Dynamics signed an £85 million deal to revamp the brigade’s command and control systems. For its part, the United States rebuffed several requests to sell Khamis sophisticated weaponry, including “Little Bird” helicopters—agile craft ideally suited for special operations. But Washington continued to entertain other forms of assistance in the hopes of wooing the young commander. Linvill was among the foreign military attachés who attended the brigade’s parades and exercises. It was all part of a broader, burgeoning courtship that would reach its consummation in America’s cooperation with Libya against al-Qaeda.

For several years, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (colloquially known as MI6) had routinely turned over al-Qaeda suspects to the Qadhafi regime, where they disappeared into prison. American and British intelligence officers visited Libyan jails to conduct interrogations—or they let the Libyans extract the information themselves, using torture. By March 2010, though, Qadhafi had freed many jihadists as part of a multiyear rehabilitation spearheaded by his son Saif al-Islam. Though the United States looked to Libya as a partner against jihadism, the program was seen as a sign of a new, more progressive approach to fighting terrorism that was gaining sway across the Muslim world, especially in Saudi Arabia. This so-called strategy of deradicalization entailed pro-regime clerics persuading their militant counterparts that violent struggle was theologically invalid. In the case of Libya, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), which had waged a campaign against Qadhafi in the 1990s, formally renounced its use of violence and reiterated its opposition to al-Qaeda. American academics and counterterrorism specialists were invited to witness the release of the recanted jihadists and were treated to a gala dinner hosted by Saif.

The spectacle built upon an earlier Libyan blitz to woo American intellectuals. Qadhafi had hired the Monitor Group, the Washington-based PR firm, to improve Libya’s image in the world and burnish his credentials as a sort of philosopher-king. Respected American and Western thinkers accepted paid junkets to Tripoli to chat with the dictator; some took consulting fees. Back home, they penned supportive op-eds. “A laid-back autocrat” and “a complex and adaptive thinker,” wrote the democracy theorist Benjamin Barber in The Washington Post. “If Gadafy is sincere about reform, as I think he is,” asserted the sociologist Anthony Giddens in The Guardian, “Libya could end up as the Norway of North Africa.”

But behind this rehabilitation, behind the counterterrorism cooperation, Libyan-American relations remained stuck in mutual enmity. The country was still a place of fear. The regime had not improved its human rights record—a fact that partially implicated the West. Desperate for outside investment and recognition, Qadhafi had handed the Americans and the Europeans enormous leverage, but, seduced by his promise of petrodollars, they’d not fully harnessed it.

Moreover, Libya was still culpable for the greatest act of mass murder against American citizens before September 11, 2001, the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. True, reparations had been paid. But for the families of the victims, America’s opening of diplomatic ties was an affront. And the release of the convicted bomber, a Libyan intelligence officer named Abd al-Basit al-Megrahi, from a Scottish prison because of a terminal cancer diagnosis further strained relations. Though American diplomats had implored Qadhafi to keep the welcome reception low-key, al-Megrahi was accompanied by Saif al-Islam on a private jet to Tripoli and received on the tarmac by a crowd waving flags. He later appeared on state television with the dictator himself. That week, I saw banners in Green Square proclaiming THE BROTHER LEADER AL-QADHAFI KEPT HIS PROMISE OF DELIVERING THE INTERNATIONAL PAWN ABD AL-BASIT AL-MEGRAHI and THE RETURN OF AL-MEGRAHI IS A VICTORY FOR THE HONOR OF THE LIBYAN PEOPLE.

It was a welcome that infuriated Washington.

* * *

IN EARLY 2011, I returned to Libya for another short military tour. Winter rains raked the capital, flooding its ill-planned alleys. The air on my predawn run along the harbor was biting and cold; great thunderclouds barreled in from the north.

The mood at the embassy was glum. The so-called reform project under Saif al-Islam had slowed to a halt, and with it the pace of American diplomatic engagement. The U.S. ambassador, an affable but blunt diplomat named Gene Cretz, had fallen afoul of Qadhafi after one of his cables leaked by WikiLeaks disclosed an unflattering portrait of the dictator and what one source called his “voluptuous” Ukrainian nurse. On running tracks and tennis courts Cretz was harassed by crowds of Libyans, sent by the intelligence service—“rent-a-mobs,” one diplomat called them. Then Qadhafi’s intelligence chief Abdullah al-Sanusi sent a warning that Cretz “could get killed for saying things like this in my country.” It was too much. Fearing for his safety, the State Department sent the ambassador home the next day.

The U.S. military’s program of outreach had also collapsed with Qadhafi rebuffing several training initiatives. But then in January 2011, an opportunity emerged. Captain Khamis al-Qadhafi accepted an offer to tour the United States as part of a graduate school internship sponsored by an American engineering company, which had hundreds of contracts inside Libya. The intent of the visit, a company spokesperson said, was to educate Khamis on “how business is conducted” by having him visit American firms. Yet there was a diplomatic angle too. During the trip, Khamis would tour the United States Air Force Academy, the National Defense University, and West Point to see how the United States educated its military officers. The State Department did not pay for the visit. But Lieutenant Colonel Linvill was assigned to accompany the young captain during his trip. He would later write that the Khamis visit to the States was an “engagement breakthrough.”

It happened at just the moment that popular protests were roiling Tunisia and Egypt. Huddled in cafés before screens broadcasting Al Jazeera, Libyans in Tripoli watched as Tunisians celebrated the ouster of their despised president and Egyptian crowds flooded into Tahrir Square. I started seeing flyers circulating on Libyan social media calling for a “Day of Rage” on Thursday, February 17, the anniversary of a 2006 Benghazi protest against Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad where ten people had died at the hands of Libyan police. “No tranquility after today,” a Facebook page announced.

Each day brought new reports of the Libyan regime trying to preempt any unrest. Qadhafi promised more free housing and subsidies. He closed border traffic between Libya and Tunisia and Egypt, released prisoners, and canceled soccer matches. He paraded tribal leaders on state television who proclaimed their devotion to the dictator. One night in Green Square I watched a car rally of shouting youths who screeched and skidded in circles, waving green flags. Still, Khamis al-Qadhafi, the commander of Libya’s most feared military unit, the one that could be counted on to quash an uprising, was thousands of miles away, touring Wall Street and American military schools.

At the embassy, American diplomats dismissed the possibility that the Arab revolts would reach Libya. Linvill told me reliable political reporting was sparse in the restive east since few embassy officers visited the region. At the embassy’s country team meetings in February, according to U.S. diplomats, the CIA representative, concerned with preserving his agency’s counterterrorism relationship with the regime, was the most forceful in arguing against the likelihood of serious unrest.

* * *

THEN ONE NIGHT, February 16, everything changed. A light rain fell across Tripoli. The phone rang inside the attaché’s office in the American embassy. It was Linvill, calling from the States: Khamis Qadhafi had cut short his trip and was coming back to Libya. The regime was preparing to fight for its life.

Copyright © 2018 by Frederic Wehrey

Maps copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey L. Ward