The fifth anniversary of the killing of America’s Libya ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi on 11th September shows his murder and the chaos around it was a portent of things to come. Five years on, some of the same forces that stormed the US consulate in Benghazi killing him and three staffers have brought mayhem to the capital.
His killers came from the same militias the international community supported in the revolution in the year before his death that overthrew dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Many of those militias were what they said they were: regular citizens who grabbed weapons and took to the streets to battle the regime. But others, including Ansar al Sharia, his murders, were bent on replacing one dictatorship with another – this time with their own leaders at the helm.
Ansar al Sharia and fellow Islamist militias went from strength to strength in Benghazi following Steven’s murder, ousting regular security forces in Benghazi and indulging in a wave of killings of civil activists, politicians and security personnel – an attempt to ‘gut’ Libya’s second city of leaders of all kinds.
That attempt failed bloodily when then Gen. Khalifa Haftar formed the Libya National Army and took the battle to the militias, pounding them out of Benghazi in a four-year battle that ended last year with thousands dead and the city centre in ruins.
But cadres from those same militias live on in Tripoli. Overtly Islamist agendas have often been subsumed into simple gangsterism, with four key militia groups dividing the city between them and forcing the weak United Nations created and supported Government of National Accord (GNA) to pay them lavish state funds.
The recent nine days of fighting in the capital, with the death of at least 65 people, many innocent civilians, came after a militia in the southern town of Tarhuna attacked the city: The militia, naming itself Seventh Brigade, wants a share of the payola lavished on the Big Four militias. The UN scrambled together a truce last week, but only at the expense of allowing ‘7 brigade’ to keep its gains in the southern suburbs, and with it a slice of the city’s population, its businesses and wealth.
Ordinary Libyans recoiled in horror from the Tripoli blood letting: Social media is alive with Libyans declaring they wish the old Gaddafi regime was back – not out of any love for him, but because today’s chaos is far worse than life under the dictator.
But chaos is what they have: The GNA has almost no support in the populace, kept alive only by support from the UN and ‘International Community’. Even militia chiefs have only partial control of their fighters, many of who are young men who were boys in 2011; they make up the bulk of the militias and many are hooked on a cocktail of opiates, use of which is exploding in the Libyan capital.
The GNA has wilted under pressure, basic services are breaking down: The militia truce has been followed by power cuts and water cuts, bread lines and currency shortages, with ordinary citizens reduced to taking water from wells and street drains. Independent media based inside Libya scarcely exists as journalists often face threats from armed groups or officials who do not tolerate critical coverage.
Worse, the so called ‘international community’ is split. Donald Trump has, wisely, announced that Libya has no strategic interest for the United States and America is adopting a low profile and his preference to support Italy’s strategy.
For America, Libya is a live issue mostly for the enduring controversy of Benghazi. Five years after the fact, and despite the trials of two Libyans accused of involvement in the killings, key questions remain unanswered.
Many doubt claims by former CIA chief John Brennan that his contractors were not forbidden from speaking about what happened to investigators.
Half a dozen congressional inquiries, and the two trials, have failed to explain just why the attackers overran the consulate that fateful night, or whether the US could have acted on warnings to move staff to safety prior to the attack.
On a point of detail, Kris “Tanto” Paronto, a former Army Ranger and private security contractor who was part of the CIA team that fought back during the September 2012 Benghazi terror attack, chose last month to remind us of the role of the former CIA Director, John Brennan accusing him of putting his “politics” before those in the field.
“He is lucky the security clearance is all he is getting away with,” Paronto told Fox News in an interview in August.
Paronto blasted Brennan after Brennan tweeted his disturbance at having his clearance pulled by President Donald Trump sighting his “principles” had been offended.
Paronto and his colleagues were even given by Brennan, non-disclosure agreements to sign during the memorial to their dead comrades, Ty Woods and Glenn Doherty, an unseemly incredibly offensive act on its own.
This, of course, was to try not to have the men speak out and rebut the story being pushed by the Obama administration, to shut them up. In fact John Brennan categorically denied that the CIA had discouraged the contractors from speaking out. A lie.
When the Benghazi survivors couldn’t take anymore mendacity they spoke out, resulting in their security clearances being pulled. What irony!
So with America out of the game and Britain consumed with Brexit, the two leading foreign powers are France and Italy, and they are split. Both are at daggers drawn: France backs Haftar, seeing him as the only force capable of defeating the militias, and wants elections for December to end Libya’s chaos. Italy counters that Libya’s chaos is too chaotic for elections, urging a postponement, and accusing France of being part responsible for the mess.
Italy’s defence and interior ministers blame the chaos partly on the 2011 NATO intervention, in which France led the field, while the prestigious Italian newspaper, Corriere della Sera writes:
“Without the slightest hint of chauvinism one can say that by supporting General Haftar’s ambitions for power, Emmanuel Macron has resolved to bring to completion the operation begun with Nicolas Sarkozy’s initial intervention seven years ago. At our expense. And at the expense of the formal legality of the GNA government of Prime Minister Al Serraj, who, with our support and that of the international community, remains our only diplomatic success in the region to date.”
Rome supports Haftar’s rival, the GNA, which is cooperating in stopping migrant smuggling across the Mediterranean, but this comes with its own problems: “Any false step by Rome, dictated by the imprudence of the moment, would immediately be exploited by the French president,” says Italian newspaper Corriere del Ticino. “If Rome doesn’t want to further weaken its position on the Libyan chessboard (on the pretext of doing something about the insecurity of the refugee routes) the only path is rationality and diplomacy.”
What neither Rome nor Paris can come up with is a strategy to combat the all powerful Tripoli militias who are bleeding the country of its lifeblood: Italy evacuated non-essential staff from its embassy during the recent militia battles and the anarchy was underlined on Monday (Sept 10) when a yet to be named militia stormed Tripoli’s National Oil Corporation. While militias rule the capital, the chaos and suffering will go on.