Libya: How to Bring Down a Nation

More than 30,000 Libyans died during seven months of bombing by an essentially tripartite force – France, Great Britain, United States – which clearly favored the rebels. “The most successful mission in NATO’s history”, in the imprudent words of NATO Secretary General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, a Dane, in Tripoli in October 2011[1].

French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s eagerness to support a military intervention with the purported aim of protecting the civilian population contrasts with the reception offered to the Libyan president, Muammar Gaddafi, when he visited Paris in December 2007 and signed major military agreements worth some 4.5 billion euros along with cooperation agreements for the development of nuclear energy for peacetime uses. The contracts that Libya seemed no longer willing to pursue focused on 14 Dassault Rafale multirole fighter jets and their armament (the same model that France sold or is trying to sold to Egypt´s General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the self-proclaimed marshal), 35 Eurocopter helicopters, six patrol boats, a hundred armored vehicles, and the overhaul of 17 Mirage F1 fighters sold by Dassault Aviation in the 1970s[2].

The major oil companies (Occidental Petroleum, State Oil, Petro-Canada…) working in Libya helped Libya pay the 1.5 billion dollars in compensation that the Libyan regime had agreed to pay to the families of the victims of Pan Am flight 103[3]. At the time, the compensation was intended to be one of the conditions for Libya to be reaccepted into the community of international relations.

The principal Libyan investment funds (LAFICO-Libyan Arab Foreign Investment Company; LIA-Libyan Investment Authority) were shareholders in many Italian and British corporations (Fiat, UniCredit, Juventus, the Pearson Group, owner of the Financial Times, and the London School of Economics, where Gaddafi was addressed as “Brother Leader” during a video conference in December 2010 and his son Saif was awarded a PhD in 2008). The New York investment bank Goldman Sachs was sued in 2014 by a Libyan fund (Libyan Investment Authority) which had lost more than 1.2 billion dollars between January and April 2008 after the American firm took a commission of 350 million dollars for investing their money in highly speculative derivatives[4].

Muammar Gaddafi had been received with full honors by the major powers some months earlier: in addition to the reception in grand style in Paris, where he was a guest for five days in 2007, he was received in Spain in December 2007, in Moscow in October 2008, and in Rome in August 2010, two years after accepting the Italian gift of 5 billion dollars as compensation for the Italian occupation of Libya from 1913 to 1943. And also of note are the five trips to Tripoli in three years by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, a paid senior advisor to the investment bank JPMorgan Chase[5]. Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy was received in Tripoli in July 2007, where he announced the beginning of a partnership for the installation of a nuclear power plant in Libya. The European Union was ready to facilitate access to the European market for Libyan agricultural exports[6]. Libya was invited by the NATO Chiefs of Defense to the Maritime Commanders’ Meeting (MARCOMET) in Toulon on May 25-28, 2008.

A policy that recalls the one towards the Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein. The Iraqi leader was invited to Paris in June 1972 and September 1975; an agreement was signed in June 1977 for the sale to Baghdad of 32 Mirage F1 combat aircraft. A coincidence that didn’t do either of them any good in the long run.

Arab military leaders (veterans of Afghanistan and members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, with ties to Al-Qaeda) helped overthrow Gaddafi. One of the principal military leaders of the rebellion, Abdel Hakim Belhadj (a.k.a. Abu Abdullah al-Sadik), then Tripoli Security Chief and today the main leader of the conservative Islamist al-Watan Party had been arrested in Bangkok in 2004, tortured by CIA agents, and delivered to Gaddafi’s Abu Salim prison. He is now the main ISIL leader in Lybia. Jaballah Matar was kidnapped from his home in Cairo by the CIA in 1990 and then handed over to Libyan officials[7] Documents seized after the death of Gaddafi reveal close cooperation between Libyan, American (CIA), and British (MI6) intelligence services[8].

Under Gaddafi, Islamic terrorism was virtually non-existent. Prior to the U.S. led bombing campaign in 2011, Libya had the highest Human Development Index, the lowest infant mortality and the highest life expectancy in all Africa. Today Lybia is a wrecked state.

In January 2012, three months after the end of hostilities, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, reported the widespread use of torture, summary executions, and rape in Libyan prisons. At the same time, the organization Doctors Without Borders decided to withdraw from the prisons in Misrata because of the ongoing torture of detainees[9].

The NATO intervention in Libya, involving most member countries under a humanitarian pretext, set an unfortunate precedent for efforts to resolve the Syrian crisis: the attack by French and British warplanes on the Warfallah tribe, who remained faithful to Muammar Gaddafi, and on the convoy carrying the Libyan leader and one of his sons, leading directly to Gaddafi’s death under deplorable circumstances. The images by videographer Ali Algadi and journalist Tracey Sheldon provide a graphic account of the Libyan leader being dragged from a drain pipe on October 20, 2011 and killed shortly thereafter. These circumstances belie the pseudo-humanitarian nature of the military intervention and tarnish the image of the “Libyan Spring”[10].

The death of U.S. Ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens and one of his aides in a fire set in the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi in September 2012, revealing the breadth of CIA activities, in which the Consulate served as a façade. The recruitment by the CIA on its Benghazi base[11] of combatants from the city of Derna for the conflict in Syria, fief of the Islamists (Al-Bittar brigade), against President Bashar al-Assad, has inescapable parallels with the recruitment in 1979, again by the CIA, of the mujahedeen against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, with all the consequences that we are well familiar with, and particularly the birth of Sunni jihadism.

The car bomb attack on the French Embassy in Tripoli in April 2013; the escape of 1,200 detainees from the Benghazi prison; the murder of the human rights lawyer Abdel Salam al-Mismari in July; and the attack on the Swedish Consulate in Benghazi in October 2013 all highlighted the inability of the authorities to gain control over the security situation in Libya as it was overrun by heavily armed militias. In July 2013, Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan threatened to bomb Libyan ports in the Benghazi region that were in the hands of militias who were profiting by exporting the oil now under their control. In October, the Prime Minister was kidnapped by 150 armed men in the center of Tripoli and held for six hours to protest the abduction on Libyan soil of Abu Anas al-Libi in a secret American airport operation. Al-Libi was accused of being one of the leaders of Al-Qaeda and later died while in custody in the United States.

The year 2015 began with Libya bereft of all institutions. It is ruled by a motley group of coalitions vying for power, based in Tripoli (Farj Libya, which controls the central bank), Benghazi (Shura Council, consisting of Ansar al-Sharia, facing off against the Libyan National Army of the renegade general Khalifa Hiftar), and in Tobruk-Bayda (offshoot of the National Transition Council, enjoying international diplomatic recognition after the June 2013 elections).

The security and health situation for the civil population is near disastrous. When I visited the country in 1994 it was a model for public health and education, and boasted the highest per capita income in Africa. It was clearly the most advanced of all Arab countries in terms of the legal status of women and families in Libyan society (half of the students at the university of Tripoli were women). The aggression against the presenter Sarah Al-Massalati in 2012, the poet Aicha Almagrabi in February 2013, and the women’s rights activist Magdalene Ubaida, now in exile in London, bear grim testimony to their legal status in post-Gaddafi Libya. The city of Benghazi is now semi-destroyed; schools and universities are mostly closed[12].

It is the theatre of fratricidal clashes between rival factions financed and armed by a series of sorcerer’s apprentices A general who has been stationed in the United States for 27 years commands a motley coalition with military backing from Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia while Islamist groups claiming allegiance to ISIL and well entrenched in Sirte and Derna are able to spread their influence thanks to the institutional crisis. and, Qatar, Turkey, and Sudan supporting Farj Libya on the other.

Gaddafi, leader of the Libyan revolution, the Jamahiriya, in power from 1969 to 2011, gave a warning to Europe in an interview with French journalist Laurent Valdiguié of the Journal du Dimanche on the eve of the NATO intervention, in words that now seem prophetic:

“If one seeks to destabilize [Libya], there will be chaos, Bin Laden, armed factions. That is what will happen. You will have immigration, thousands of people will invade Europe from Libya. And there will no longer be anyone to stop them. Bin Laden will base himself in North Africa […]. You will have Bin Laden at your doorstep. This catastrophe will extend out of Pakistan and Afghanistan and reach all the way to North Africa”[13].

Libya has become a hub for illegal trafficking, particularly of African emigrants under conditions reminiscent of the slave trade. According to Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, the refugee smuggling market in Libya was worth 323 million dollars in 2014. In the first five months of 2015, more than 50,000 undocumented immigrants have reached Italy from sub-Saharan Africa via Libya; 1,791 of them lost their lives at sea[14]. Prior to the initiation of hostilities, 1.5 million sub-Saharan Africans worked in Libya in generally menial jobs (oil industry, agriculture, services, public sector). Darker days at sea are still to come.


[1] “NATO chief Rasmussen ‘proud’ as Libya mission ends”, BBC News, October 31, 2011.

[2]. Agence France Presse, December 11, 2007.

[3]. International Herald Tribune, March 24, 2011.

[4] Jeremy Anderson, “Goldman to reveal income linked to Libyan lawsuit”, International New York Times, November 25, 2014.

[5]. The Telegraph, March 23, 2012.

[6]. O´Globo, July 26, 2007.

[7] Souad Mekhennet, Eric Schmitt, “Libyan rebels seek to shed El Qaeda past”, International Herald Tribune, July 19, 2011.

[8]. Rod Nordland, “Files note close CIA ties with Qaddafi spy unit”, International Herald Tribune, September 5, 2011.

[9]. International Herald Tribune, January 28-29, 2012.

[10]. Borzou Daragahi, “Call for probe into Libyan Civilian Deaths”, Financial Times, May 14, 2012.

[11] Seymour Hersh, “U.S. Effort to Arm Jihadis in Syria. The Scandal Behind the Benghazi Undercover CIA Facility”, Global Research, Washington’s Blog, April 15, 2014.

[12] Abdel Sharif Kouddous, “Report from the Front: Libya’s Descent Into Chaos”, The Nation, February 25, 2015.

[13] Journal du Dimanche, March 5, 2011 (

[14] Source: International Organization for Migration and the European Commission.

Patrick Howlett-Martin is a career diplomat living in Paris. His new book is La Mémoire Profanée. Les Spoliations Nazies. Le vol du Patrimoine culturel et la question de sa restitution (The Profaned Memory. Nazis Spoliations. The Theft of Cultural Heritage and the Issue of its Restitution), L’Harmattan, Paris, October 2023.