Derna, Libya: Floods, Death, and Destruction: The Gift of NATO

“Be Angry at a System That Has Enabled This Tragedy”


After the two dams broke in Derna, eastern Libya on Monday September 11, 2023, more than 11,300 persons were killed. There are over 11,000 still missing one week later. All the major international media have decried this massive loss of life highlighting the absence of a central governing authority in Libya noting in unison that, ‘that most casualties could have been avoided.’ Yet, none of the major western news outlets brought to the fore the centrality of the city of Derna in the global destabilization that had been unleashed on humanity since the United States decided that Derna would be the proving ground for the recruitment of jihadists over 30 years ago.

At this moment of the 78th session of the General Assembly of the UN, the vapid and vacuous reports of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) should not be accepted by the General Assembly. It is now incumbent on progressive humans everywhere to mobilize and organize to end the division of Libya so that the more than 100,000 civilian deaths that have taken place since the NATO invasion will not be in vain. There is near unanimity from international organizations and agencies that the deaths from the massive floods in Libya could have been avoided. The western media in its reporting on the deaths noted the deaths from the breakup of the dam was a manmade disaster.

But what was missing from Time Magazine, the Voice of America and from the myriad of reports on the floods is the responsibility of the NATO forces in creating the conditions for this disaster. NATO and its enablers had gone into Libya to derail the stabilization of Africa. The fact that one of the first acts of the NATO forces was to bomb the factory that made the pipes for the Man-Made River was a clear sign that no form of infrastructural investment should serve the Libyan peoples. This same message can be gleaned from the Libya Infrastructure Report – 2023 prepared by Fitch Solutions Country Industry Reports. This Infrastructure report was mainly concerned with the infrastructures for the oil and gas industries but not infrastructures for the people of Libya. There was no heading dealing with the dams and water infrastructures in Libya. Fitch solutions, like the Wall Street Journal are still concerned about the profitability of the oil resources of Libya and that the resources of Libya are not deployed for the people. The United Nations noted that Libya is currently the only country yet to develop a climate strategy.

Libya is not poor.

Libya is the holder of the largest reserves of oil and natural gas in Africa. It ranks seventh in the world in holding hydrocarbons. Libya is also the site of one of the largest aquifers in the world, holding an ocean of fresh water beneath the surface in the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System. France, the EU and the USA covet this wealth. Hence one read with interest the five reasons offered by Nicolas Sarkozy for the NATO intervention of Libya. Revelations from the correspondence between the Secretary of State of the United States and Nicolas Sarkozy, the President of France in March 2011 revealed that the plans for the NATO intervention were dictated by the following issues:

1) A desire to gain a greater share of Libya oil production,

2) Increase French influence in North Africa,

3) Improve his internal political situation in France,

4) Provide the French military with an opportunity to reassert its position in the world,

5) Address the concern of his advisors over Qaddafi’s long term plans to supplant France as the dominant power in Francophone Africa.[i]

That the USA went along with these justifications corroborate the understanding of the need for extra economic force and coercion along with destructive extractivism from Africa to counter the falling rate of profit in the capitalist centers.

Since 2011, the UN working with Wall Street and the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street froze the considerable assets of the Libyan Investment Authority (LIA). Muamar Gaddafi had pledged to use these resources for the development of the African Currency and to jump start the African Central Bank and African Monetary Authority.

In 2022, the head of mission of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in Libya, Dmitry Gershenson reported that Libya’s foreign exchange reserves reached a total of $82 billion. Of this $82 billion in reserves, the volume of frozen assets has stood at $70 billion since 2011. What is pertinent for researchers to explore is whether the differing factions of the leadership have been paid the interest on these frozen assets to maintain their militia supporters. Is the United States and NATO providing funds annually to factions of the militarist that are supported by the West?  The IMF, the World Bank and the UK Treasury have been complicit in supporting a narrative on Libya that deprive the Libyan people of access to their resources so that reconstruction can be undertaken.

For more than half a decade, Libya’s financial institutions had been divided into two. Of the two the most critical one was the Central Bank of Libya under the control of the UN-recognized Government of National Accord in Tripoli, while its rival in Bayda was under the control of the eastern-based Interim Government. Because the tons of gold held by Libya was in the Central Bank in Tripoli, the US Treasury worked closely with the Central Bank in Tripoli with the US spokespersons calling for the unification of the Central Banks. We can see this push as was recorded by the US Congressional Research Service: ‘

“Political disputes among Libyans have been mirrored in long running disagreements over leadership of key national financial institutions such as the Central Bank, National Oil Corporation (NOC), and Libya’s sovereign wealth fund (the Libya Investment Authority [LIA]) and its subsidiaries. U.N. Security Council Resolution 2571 (2021) expresses “concern about activities which could damage the integrity and unity of Libyan State financial institutions and the National Oil Corporation (NOC),” stresses “the need for the unification of Libya’s institutions,” and calls on “Member States to cease support to and official contact with parallel institutions outside of the authority of the Government of Libya.”

It should be noted that nowhere in the documents of the varying bodies of the US or UK institutions were there calls for unifying the engineering infrastructures needed for the health and safety of Libyans.

How does continuing divisions in Libya serve the interests of NATO?

Derna, which lies some 300 kilometers (190 miles) east of Benghazi, falls under the control of Haftar and his eastern administration. At least one of the cheer leaders for the NATO intervention in Libya has highlighted the corrupt, kleptocratic and military forces that have been backed by external forces in Eastern Libya. Libya’s Unnatural Disaster – The Atlantic. Eastern Libya from Derna to Benghazi had been like a conscription factory for the US intelligence in its recruitment of military elements called Jihadists. Some of these elements were flown to Afghanistan and fought alongside the Mujahidin. In the 1990s, they caused great destabilization in eastern Libya through various terrorist attacks and bombings. From the book by Paula Broadwell, All in: The Education of General David Petraeus, there was one glimpse of the role of Derna and Eastern Libya in the campaigns of the US military and intelligence services to unleash destruction. Derna in Libya was described as a Jihadist factory where the US intelligence services recruited jihadists for more than 30 years[1]. The NATO intervention and destruction of Libya had been orchestrated to empower these jihadists as they were flown in and militarily enabled by NATO itself.

After the killings of US State Department personnel and CIA operatives in Benghazi in 2012, there have been intense efforts by the US government to scrub information on the immense investment that had gone into the varying jihadist factions in eastern Libya. Ambassador Stevens had been named as an operative in the recruitment of men and weapons to ship from Derna to Syria.

When NATO started to bomb and destroy Libya in 2011, the justification for the intervention was under the so called ‘Responsibility to Protect.”  Since the NATO killing of over 5000 in its first year, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has been reporting the killing of civilians by “armed groups aligned with both the Government of National Accord (GNA) and the Libyan National Army (LNA) and other nonstate actors, including foreign fighters and mercenaries, committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.” None of the investigations into the ‘ARBITRARY DEPRIVATION OF LIFE AND OTHER UNLAWFUL OR POLITICALLY MOTIVATED KILLINGS’ has satisfactorily dealt with the root causes of the destruction in Libya. And since 2011, Libya has been held hostage by two differing factions of military entrepreneurs. These entrepreneurs and their international supporters have ensured that there can be no reconstruction. Characteristically, the USA and other NATO members are supporting both sides of this military apparatus arrayed against the people of Libya. The United Nations and its humanitarian agencies have been complicit in this takeover of Libya since 2011.

After the removal of Gaddafi in 2011, the United States, Britain and France embarked on a plan for a reconstituted government and a transition process in Libya. This transition process was affected negatively by the lawsuit of the Libyan Investment authority (LIA) against Goldman Sachs, the investment banking behemoth of Wall Street. Although Judge Justice Vivien Rose of the London High Court found that the relationship between Goldman Sachs and the fund, the Libyan Investment Authority, “did not go beyond the normal cordial and mutually beneficial relationship that grows up between a bank and a client,” the ruling did not conceal the hidden hand of external forces in the war in Libya in 2014. As soon as the case was to be brought before the London High Court a major war had broken out in Libya.

Since the struggles between the LIA and Goldman Sachs in 2014, Libya has been split politically and militarily  between two rival governments, one based in Tripoli in the west (backed by Qatar, Italy, and United States, Turkey), and another based in Tobruk, in the country’s east and nominally backed by a Libyan Military entrepreneur, Khalifa Haftar (backed by Russia, France,  the UAE, the US via Private military contractors, and Egypt). The United Nations recognizes the Tripoli-based Government of National Unity (GNU). In 2016, at the height of the struggles over the printing of currencies, the US Treasury Secretary weighed in on the side of the Central Bank in Tripoli. This partisan position of the Treasury has not stopped the Eastern government from using the oil resources of eastern Libya to print and circulate their own currency. The US Treasury had ruled against the Bank in Bayda printing their own currency. This has not stopped the Haftar wing and the financiers from maintaining the fiction that there is a central bank in Bayda. This fiction suits the interests of the oil companies that do business with Haftar and the Benghazi faction of militarists. This very eastern government did nothing to warn the people of Derna of the rains and floods.

Before he left office in 2016, Barack Obama had declared that his support for the intervention was the worst mistake of his presidency. An investigation by the Foreign Affairs Select Committee of the UK House of Commons, found that the NATO intervention “… to protect civilians had drifted into an opportunist policy of regime change. That policy was not underpinned by a strategy to support and shape post-Gaddafi Libya.”

Yet, both the United States Treasury and the UK Treasury pushed for the UN to continue the freeze of the reserves of the Libyan Investment authority. Libyan oil and natural gas have now gained even more geo economic importance since 2014.

It was also in 2014 when Condoleezza Rice, former Secretary of State of the United States, outlined publicly that the goal of the United States was to break “Europe away from Russia so that Europe would no longer be globally competitive.”

Germany watched as the plans of the US to sell expensive natural gas unfolded before the world. The German State attempted to intervene in Libya in 2019 when Angela Merkel called a Berlin Conference without real Libyan and African Union Participation. The United States was patient because the US had their own plans for Europe to shift the dependence of Europe from Russia to US energy supplies.  With the unfolding of the war in Ukraine in 2022, Libyan reserves of oil and gas became even more crucial. Europe became more dependent on oil and gas from Libya. The more Libya became a mere provider of natural resources “in the new geopolitics for energy resources,” the less attention was paid to the needs of the Libyan people and to the infrastructure of Libya. In my book Global NATO and the Catastrophic Failure in Libya I had outlined how Libya had become enmeshed in the financialization of energy resources.

It was not in the interest of the United States for Libya to be stable with a reconstruction plan to spend the billions of dollars on reconstruction. The floods in Derna in Eastern Libya cannot be understood outside of this geo economic and geopolitical context. The widespread neglect of infrastructure was a policy decision driven by the alliance of the NATO forces with the Libyan billionaires.

Collapsing dams and deaths of thousands

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) after the reported deaths said that the National Meteorological Center issued warnings 72 hours before the flooding, notifying all governmental authorities by email and through media. Officials in eastern Libya warned the public about the coming storm by telling them to stay at home. The mixed messages from the Libya National Army (LNA of Haftar) with respect to the storms and the dam makes this organization an accessory to the killing of 10,000 or more persons. There had been no warning about the dams collapsing.  Dams, desalination plants, electrical grids and roads have been left in disrepair throughout the country since 2011.

The two dams that collapsed outside Derna and killed thousands, displacing hundreds of others, emanated from the deformed politics of Libya. At this time of writing the exact numbers of deaths was still in dispute, From the Libyan newspapers we have learnt that a report by a state-run audit agency in 2021 said the dams had not been maintained despite the allocation of more than 2 million euros for that purpose in 2021.

A U.N. official said Thursday that most casualties could have been avoided.

“If there would have been a normal operating meteorological service, they could have issued the warnings,” World Meteorological Organization head Petteri Taalas told reporters in Geneva. “The emergency management authorities would have been able to carry out the evacuation.”

Officials in eastern Libya warned the public about the coming storm, and on Saturday, they ordered residents to avoid coastal areas, fearing a surge from the sea. But there was no warning about the dams collapsing.

As of Thursday, September 14,  the Libyan Red Crescent said that 11,300 people have been killed, and a further 10,100 are reported missing. However, local officials suggested that the death toll could be much higher than announced. In comments to the Saudi-owned Al Arabia television station on Thursday, Derna Mayor Abdel-Moneim al-Ghaithi said the tally could climb to 20,000 given the number of neighborhoods that were washed out.

The storm also killed around 170 people in other parts of eastern Libya, including the towns of Bayda, Susa, Um Razaz and Marj, the health minister said. The dead in eastern Libya included at least 84 Egyptians, whose remains were transferred to their home country on Wednesday. More than 70 came from one village in the southern province of Beni Suef. Libyan media also said dozens of Sudanese migrants were killed in the disaster.

The U.N. humanitarian office issued an emergency appeal for $71.4 million to respond to urgent needs of 250,000 Libyans most affected. The office, known as OCHA, estimated that approximately 884,000 people in five provinces live in areas directly affected by the rain and flooding.

What is happening now?

Hundreds of thousands of Libyans are praying and hoping against hope that their missing relatives may be found. The unholy practice of burying thousands in mass graves has been going on as the UN agencies warn of the breakout of diseases from decomposed bodies. The disaster brought a rare moment of unity, as government agencies exposed their helplessness. The same forces that have supported the Benghazi faction, especially from the United Arab Emirates have rushed in pretending to support rescue efforts. Libya’s eastern based parliament, the House of Representatives, on Thursday approved an emergency budget of 10 billion Libyan dinars — roughly $2 billion — to address the flooding and help those affected.

Time for a genuine demilitarization and transition in Libya

When the UN Security Council passed its Resolution 1973 (2011) of March 2011, with its plan to protect civilians, there had been language inscribed within the resolution to revisit the mandate of the UN in Libya. Brazil, Russia, China and South Africa had abstained in the passing of this resolution. Since then, this author and progressive intellectuals in Global Africa have called for the removal of the UN mandate, the unfreezing of Libyan assets and the unleashing of a genuine process of demilitarization leading to an accountable government. These calls became more urgent after France manipulated the Tuareg elements from Libya to intervene in the Sahel in the name of fighting terror.  France ought to be indicted for its continued support of Haftar and the UAE in the East of Libya. The cost of the NATO led North African adventure has grown considerably in the decade since the United States jammed Resolution 1973 through the United Nations Security Council in 2011, authorizing the use of force in Libya to protect civilians,

The African Union has been unable to move the process of demilitarization because of the influence of France in the AU. South Africa has been compromised by its wooing of the UAE and Saudi Arabia to join BRICS. This diplomatic betrayal by the South African leadership has ensured that the peoples of Libya have no real support among the leaders of Africa and Arabia. Global warming, floods and massive weather events should prod the African Union to establish a Pan African association of Dam safety. Such a technical team organized to monitor and repair dams across Africa will be a concrete step to do meaningful work towards reconstruction. African countries, which disproportionately suffer from the adverse impacts of climate change face floods, droughts and other extreme weather events. As stated in the introduction, Libya is currently the only country yet to develop a climate strategy.

This reality must be grasped for the peoples of Libya to build new self help defense units and new structures to remove the billionaires who keep Libya divided. Far from weeping over the deaths in Derna the peoples of Libya should not only mourn but organize to bring peace and reconstruction to their country. This author will echo the statement of Elham Saudi, the director of Lawyers for Justice in Libya.

The horror and despair of Libyans is matched by their fury at the rival governments that have split the country and pursued power and profit while ignoring the people’s needs. Storm Daniel is a natural disaster,  but the ensuing catastrophe “is manmade: corruption; lack of infrastructure; impunity; shutting down frontliners in civil society … Be angry at a system that has enabled this tragedy.”


[1] “U.S. Efforts to Arm Jihadis in Syria: The Scandal Behind the Benghazi Undercover CIA Facility. “

[i] Horace G. Campbell, “New Push For Military Intervention: Who Will Control The Libyan Central Bank?” Counterpunch, April 22, 2016

Horace Campbell is Professor of African American Studies and Political Science, Syracuse University. He is the author of Global NATO and the Catastrophic Failure in Libya, Monthly Review Press, 2013.  Notes.