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Archive for the ‘Libya’ Category

McClatchy’s David Enders reports from Tripoli:

The last time Hussein Ibrahim Saleh saw his brother Jamal was more than one month ago. On Saturday, Saleh received confirmation that his brother was body number 531 in a cemetery for fighters loyal to former Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi in Misrata, 120 miles east.

‘He left Tripoli on August 10 to visit our brother in Hisha,’ Saleh said, referring to a town taken over by rebels two weeks ago on the road between Misrata and Sirte, one of the cities where fighting continues between fighters loyal to Gadhafi and the rebels that deposed him last month. ‘He was missing since then.’

The majority of the more than 800 bodies and sets of remains in the ‘pro-Gadhafi’ cemetery are without names or identification other than digital photos of their faces taken by the volunteers who run the cemetery. Many of the bodies have simply been left at the cemetery by the rebels to be buried, with no information about where they were killed or found.

There is nothing terribly wrong with the story itself. Alas, it was immediately misrepresented on Twitter:

Let me try to set the record straight.

First of all, this is not a new “find”. I visited the cemetery four months ago, on May 21. The New York Times had published a story by CJ Chivers, with photographs by Bryan Denton, about the place on May 17. Jerome Starkey of the London Times had also been there. After I left, Al Jazeera and Reuters arrived.

The cemetery is easy enough to find. It’s on a desolate plot surrounded by sand dunes that offer little shelter from the hot wind that blows from the nearby Mediterranean. On that Saturday afternoon, there were no rebel checkpoints in the vicinity; you could just walk in. Here’s what it looked like:

I counted nine rows, with between 50 and 80 graves in each. In all, at least 600 bodies were buried here. Fresh ones were awaiting last rites:

Since Misrata’s rebels hadn’t yet broken the siege and fierce fighting was taking place on the city’s outskirts, I have no reason to doubt that the remains buried were those of Gaddafi soldiers fallen in battle. And as far as I could tell, all the proper burial customs were observed. The bodies were bathed here:

… and sprinkled with fragrance:

For comparison, here’s Maqbarat-e-Shuhada, or Martyrs’ Cemetery, where Misratans have buried their own war dead:


Not that different — except that all the dead here have names. (The first one buried in this cemetery was Khalid Abu Shahma, who was shot by Gaddafi’s troops on February 19. Contrary to what some observers erroneously claim, unarmed Libyans were being killed with heavy machine guns already a month before NATO intervened.)

So what happened to Hussein Ibrahim Saleh’s brother? How did he end up as body number 531 in that windswept cemetery? Was he indeed killed by rebels as the McClatchy story seems to imply?

Here’s the thing: On August 10, when Saleh’s brother reportedly left Tripoli, there was really no way to get to Hisha, where Saleh said he was heading, without crossing both loyalist and rebel lines and finding a way through Zliten, which was heavily contested at the time. While it’s possible that the poor guy managed to reach his destination alive against all odds and was killed later for one reason or another, it’s just as possible that he perished in fighting en route before ever setting foot on Misrata. A sad story to be sure, but just as unmarked graves don’t always point to an atrocity, not every disappearance is a war crime.

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The other day, a total stranger — a man whom I have never met and who knows nothing about me or my views — angrily called me out on Twitter for pointing out yet another occurrence of the “islamists are taking over the uprising in Libya” fantasy meme:

It isn’t a *meme*; it was something blithely ignored by you crazy interventionists with blood rushing to your head in March.

After promptly blocking the dude (I don’t respond well to name calling¹), I started thinking. An interventionist? Is it possible to be one without knowing it?

I’ve always considered myself quite the opposite. I’ve been a skeptic of the NATO campaign in Libya and a critic of the war effort in Afghanistan; I opposed the Iraq war from the start; and I think I’m as anti-war as anyone who has spent a career watching people suffer and perish in actual, you know, real life.

But I also value honesty, and I’ve had a hard time hiding my disgust with the disingenuousness and, in some instances, outright trollish behaviour of some of the Libya intervention’s most vocal opponents, many of whom I respect and admire as experts in other fields.

As I have tried to point out elsewhere, there is little evidence to support their pet memes — international jihadists taking political advantage of the upheaval, local rivalries sparking a tribal conflagration, “pervasive” human rights abuses by the rebels, and so on. No amount of name calling or “these go to eleven” type of argumentation will change this. And playing fast and loose with the facts doesn’t help solve the Libyan imbroglio. If anything, it distracts from the real challenges facing the post-war government, such as guaranteeing due process, disarming local militias and reintegrating the brutalised youngsters now fighting Gaddafi.

I also have a primal dislike for double standards. It boggles my mind, for example, how someone who writes blog posts decrying civilian casualties in Afghanistan (about 1,400 this year) can dismiss the death toll in Misrata (about 1,200 since February) as insignificant. Or how someone who takes umbrage when Afghans are summarily blamed for their country’s woes can call the Libyan NTC “thugs” without a shred of proof. Or how the same people who write off Al Qaeda in Pakistan as a spent force suddenly claim that a bunch of unshaven chins in Libya are an existential threat. Or how experts who meekly accept Taleban assurances that they are completely separate from Al Qaeda refuse to accept the Libyan rebels’ word for anything.

Or — and this really gets my goat — how the area experts who hated it when pundits started making pronouncements about Afghanistan with total disregard for scholarly opinion now pull the same crap on real experts on Libya.

So, okay — if calling out guys like that makes me an interventionist, hell, I’m proud to wear the label.

As for the actual military intervention in Libya, I remain doubtful. But I guess that’s beside the point.

¹ I’ve been known to resort to ad hominems myself.

@ Jari Lindholm

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In Information Dissemination, Raymond Pritchett makes a terrifying prediction:

Libya has all the makings of a prolonged, uncontrolled tribal war similar to Somalia where groups are likely to link up with elements of Al Qaeda like AQAP and AQIM for support towards taking political control once Gaddafi is removed.

Libya is also emerging as the new nexus in North Africa for Al Qaeda, and anyone who says otherwise is ignoring how that fight against Al Qaeda is the fight everyone knows is coming after Gaddafi loses power.

On Twitter, Pritchett went even further:

Libya looks more and more like the next Somalia every day. We are removing Gaddafi only to have to remove Al Qaeda later. [...] AQIM influence grows.

His sources?

[...] NATO, Pentagon, and others. It is fairly consistent concern in virtually all intel circles I speak to.

So which is it, I asked him, is the influence of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb actually growing in Libya in some measurable and documentable way, or is this merely a concern, as in “officials in Stockholm are concerned that Al Qaeda influence is growing in Sweden”?

Alas, no answer.

So let me get this straight. There’s this mega-secret hivemind — so secret, in fact, that you’re only allowed to use its whisperings to sucker-punch skeptics on Twitter — and because it thinks Libya might one day become a terrorist-infested wasteland, we can now all call it, without a shred of evidence, “the new nexus in North Africa for Al Qaeda”?

Yes, apparently we can. Of course, by the same token we could also call Sweden the new AQ nexus in Europe. But never mind.

Just for fun, let’s look at that quote again, with emphasis added:

Libya is also emerging as the new nexus in North Africa for Al Qaeda, and anyone who says otherwise is ignoring how that fight against Al Qaeda is the fight everyone knows is coming after Gaddafi loses power.

Yep. That’s a baseless assertion based on a baseless assertion. “I say this is true, and I know it is true because I am right.” Even Gaddafi couldn’t have put it better (although he has tried).

I’m not saying it isn’t possible that at some future point some terrorist organisation will try to insert itself into the war in Libya, or, indeed, that something like that isn’t already taking place.

It’s just that there isn’t any robust open source data to support the claim. Yes, desperadoes from Darnah became suicide bombers in Iraq in 2005-2007, but that doesn’t mean those men — much less Al Qaeda — are now heading the fight in Libya. Yes, NATO commander Stavridis has hinted at “flickers of Al Qaeda” among the Libyan opposition; but he has also admitted he has “no details of a significant Qaeda presence”. Oh, and yes, there is this Daily Telegraph story, based on an article in the Italian newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore, that surfaces on Twitter every time a pundit wants to argue that the West has been duped into supporting a horde of homicidal hipsters.

But what about AQIM, the Salafist hellhounds “we” are supposed to “remove” after Gaddafi falls? As usual, real experts are reluctant to go along with the hype. According to Andrew Lebovich, a researcher at the New America Foundation, even if AQIM has actually managed to grab weapons and explosives from Libya, the organisation is probably more interested in defending its home bases in Niger and Mali against Western special forces than getting mixed up in someone else’s revolution:

This incident provides more evidence that, rather than seeking to run the revolt in Libya (as some members of the U.S. security establishment and Congress seem to want to believe), AQIM is using the chaos there to take what it can, before retreating to Algeria or Mali. No one has provided any indication that more than two or three AQIM members are entering Libya at any given time, and while they could be making contacts with rebels or other assorted jihadists for the purpose of fighting, it is just as likely that they are scouting the terrain, or laying the groundwork for other smuggling convoys.

Sadly, the “Libya will be the next Qaeda Emirate” story is just one of many fantasy memes currently spreading through the Googleverse.

Another popular one, also initially put forth by Gaddafi, is the doomsday scenario about the war degenerating into a tribal holocaust. Again, such a tragedy is not inconceivable, and as the rebels capture more loyalist towns, eyewitness accounts of targeted reprisals have started to appear. Still, there is no evidence of widespread tribal violence.

That didn’t stop analysts critical of the NATO intervention from jumping at a Wall Street Journal story about the old animosity between Misrata and Tawergha. The piece, by Sam Dagher, never mentions actual violence, and it certainly doesn’t say anything about ethnic cleansing. Yet, as if by magic, the word “vengeance” started cropping up in articles quoting the story, with one normally astute observer calling the Misrati tough talk an “eruption” that is “consuming” the city, claiming that “ethnic violence” is now taking place, and finally warning that Libya may turn into “a nation of Misratas”. (A puzzling notion to those of us who have been afraid of the very same thing but for totally different reasons.)

What puzzles me is not the yawning gap between analysis and reality. It’s the bloodthirsty glee with which pundits, particularly Americans, pounce on any morsel of news that might show the Libyan uprising in an unflattering light, be it AQ influence, tribal vendettas or extra-judicial violence (by default, the rebels are assumed to be the executioners). It’s almost as if the misadventure in Iraq and the bungling of Afghanistan have left the analysts in permanent snark overdrive, wishing ill on everyone and finding disaster where it hasn’t yet happened, to hell with facts.

      © Jari Lindholm

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BBC and Reuters report that the rebels in Misrata have managed to advance from the previous western frontline in Dafniya and are consolidating their positions at Souq al-Thulatha’a 13 kilometres from Zliten, the next city along the road to Tripoli.

Lest anyone gets any big ideas about a blitzkrieg straight to the hornet’s nest, let’s have a reality check:

The fighters captured Dafniya on May 10, two months ago today. Since then they have pushed towards Zliten several times, only to be thrown back badly mangled. If — and that’s a big clump of if — they succeed in holding onto their newly fortified position at the souq and it becomes the new frontline, it would mean that they have advanced at an average rate of approximately 160 metres a day. By my count, it will take them a little less than three years to reach Tripoli. And that’s not counting the inevitable fight over Zliten, which will stall them for days if not weeks. There is talk of “special forces” being ferried across the Gulf of Syrt from Benghazi, but it is unclear who exactly they are and what their role might be once they reach Misrata.

I don’t mean to sound cynical. I’m just as fond of the brave and ingenious Libyans as all the other journalists who have spent time with them on the frontlines. Dislodging a siege army from the heart of your city using only your wits, some ancient AKs and a few dump trucks is a feat only the gutsiest can pull off.

But Misrata’s fighters are not an army, they’re a home guard — masters at urban warfare but ill-equipped to maneuver in the open. It does no one any good to pretend that saving their homes from an invader means they can beat him on his home turf, or to claim, as some well-meaning observers have done on Twitter, that they have already taken Zliten or Tawergha. Maybe some day they will; until then, the best one can hope for is that they can at least keep their own families beyond rocket range.

       © Jari Lindholm

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Libya: Why He Won’t Go

The prospects of Muammar Gaddafi’s army collapsing are “highly unlikely”, a senior defector, Col. Mohammed Ali Ethish, tells The New York Times:

“I hope that when we do reach the borders of Tripoli, the revolutionaries there free it. [...] If we don’t go in with an organized army, there’s going to be a huge mess.”

I doubt the rebels will get even that far. The war in Libya is unlikely to end in a slugfest over the capital. In fact, unless the Gaddafi regime somehow implodes, which probably won’t happen since it hasn’t already, the war is unlikely to end at all in the near future. Sitting comfortably in his family compound of Bab al-Azizia, Gaddafi has had 42 years to spread his ideology, consolidate his power and, most importantly, to prepare for his own death struggle.

Anyone who visits the battlefields of Libya will sooner or later come across two puzzling and worrisome sights: mounds of empty ammunition crates and slogans scrawled on walls. The first is a grim reminder of the fact that no matter how puny his army may seem on the pages of Jane’s, Gaddafi has had four decades to spend his oil money to buy arms and ordnance, which he will employ in defense of his last stand. But the graffiti is even more disturbing. An army that paints “Allah, Muammar, Libya — nothing else” on the walls of every farm house it occupies doesn’t strike me as exactly non-committal. Someone took the time, between unloading the ammo and setting up the Grad launchers, to actually get some paint and write that slogan. We may laugh at the ramshackle, DIY nature of Gaddafi’s jamahiriya, but it would serve us well to remember that not everyone in Libya thinks it’s a joke.

Gaddafi is not an accidental dictator who secretly thinks of himself as a reformer and is shocked when the mob inevitably arrives at the palace gates. He is hard core — defiant, vengeful and unperturbed by the bloodletting. By all accounts, including my interviews with survivors in Benghazi and Misrata, and documents in possession of the International Criminal Court, the brutal response of his security forces to the first demonstrations in February was pre-planned and well rehearsed. He knew the day would come and he wasn’t about to go down without a fight. His “zenga, zenga” speech may have been bluster, but people in the east believed he was dead serious, and they were mortified. They know their leader, they told me, and he would rather destroy Libya than let go of it.

The war has so far defied analogies (just because dudes have beards doesn’t mean it’s the next Somalia; more on this later), but in one respect Libya may yet come to resemble post-Saddam Iraq. It is not inconceivable, looking at the absolute ruthlessness of Gaddafi’s army, that he has already planned a bloody coda to his rule — a loyalist insurgency with the aim of giving him the last laugh and making his creation a failed state.


© Jari Lindholm

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Where They Fell

When I was in Misrata in May, there were still drag marks on the sidewalk outside a car wash at the end of Tripoli Street, where shrapnel from a mortar shell had hit photographers Tim Hetherington, Chris Hondros, Guy Martin and Michael Brown in the early evening of April 20. Next door was the burned hulk of Al-Beit Beitak, or The Home is Yours, a furniture store where Hondros and Brown had photographed rebels flushing out Gaddafi’s snipers earlier that day.

This is the last street corner before the overpass to Misrata airport, a spot that was, in the words of another journalist who was in the city that day, “way, way out there”. In fact, the photographers had passed what little front line there was and were under fire from at least two directions. According to Brown, things were getting “too sketchy”, and the men were about to head back when the shell exploded. The impact crater I found some 20 metres from the bloodstains was small, but since the sidewalk is concrete, the hail of shrapnel must have been horrendous. Martin and Brown suffered serious injuries; Hondros and Hetherington did not survive.

Why were they there? I find this question a little strange, particularly coming from fellow journalists, as it implies that, since there was fierce fighting all along Tripoli Street that day, they could have somehow accomplished the same by risking less. It also suggests that they made the beginner’s mistake of not paying attention to one’s surroundings and ventured too far. That may be true — it’s all too easy to wander past one street corner too many in the confusing battlefields of Libya. But documenting wars, whether by pen or camera, has never been a business where you carefully set goals and then try to reach them by expending as little of your luck as possible. In fact, it’s wasteful as hell. Often you have to roam far and wide just to witness one brief moment that may later prove significant but probably won’t. You’re not looking for the generic; you’re looking for the one-time only. That is why, to be able to shoot his pictures of the battle for Al-Beit Beitak, Chris Hondros needed to be right there at the end of Tripoli Street that day. The events were unique. They were there to see the tree fall.

There is a tendency, at least where I live, to ascribe ulterior motives to almost anything that journalists do. Sure, there are plenty of self-aggrandising dabblers around; and I’m pretty certain most of us have at some point been driven by greed or ambition or a pure, blind lust for thrills. But as motives go, simply wanting to see, “feeling the need to go with it”, as Brown says, is noble enough for me.

There are no heroes in our line of work; some just master the craft better than others. Here’s to you, guys.

       © Jari Lindholm

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