Foreign Fingers Stir Libya’s Militia Pie
After the histrionics accompanying the violent demise of Muammar Qaddafi Thursday, Oct. 20, die down, the war between pro- and anti-Qaddafi loyalists will resume – possibly with greater force.
Unless proved otherwise, Saif al Islam and his siblings are still around and the Qaddafi's tribe and tribal allies, the Qadhafah, Warfalla, Al-Awaqir and Magariha, are as hostile as ever to rule by the National Transitional Council and the tribes of Cyrenaica in eastern Libya which the NTC represents.
If the interim government had managed to start forging a small measure of national unity and stable rule, it might have stood a chance of opening negotiations with Qaddafi's supporters. But as we show in this article, the NTC has failed to display any competence as a governing body and is sundered by endless squabbling among the rebel militias controlling Tripoli, the armed groups of Western Libya and the Islamist militias, including the Muslim Brotherhood and elements close to Al Qaeda, which control parts of Tripoli and Eastern Libya.
Qaddafi's demise will probably achieve not much more than an opportunity for NATO to end its military intervention in Libya and pull out ahead of the upsurge of bloody conflicts unleashed Thursday.
Libya's incurable bane of armed militias
Two days before Qaddafi was killed, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the first senior American visitor to the new Libya, stepped off a plane at Tripoli military airport Tuesday, Oct. 18, to face a row of irregular militiamen.
Among them were officers of the militia commanded by Mukhtar al-Akhda from the western town of Zintan.
On Oct. 10, this militia pledged earnestly to hand Tripoli military airport over to the National Transitional Council – the NTC. Ten days later, the Secretary of State arrived to find that same militia very much in charge of this strategic facility along with splinters of other irregular fighting groups.
After driving into Tripoli city, Clinton met with NTC chairman Mustafa Abdul Jali and promised his interim administration more US financial and diplomatic aid, saying: “I am proud to stand here on the soil of a free Tripoli, and on behalf of the American people I congratulate Libya. This is Libya’s moment, this is Libya’s victory. The future belongs to you."
But fresh from her impression from Tripoli military airport, she also urged the NTC to get control of the armed militias and loose weapons, for the tracking down of which a large slice of the next US aid package has been earmarked.
Clinton saw the NTC chairman, but not Abdulhakim Belhaj, the ex-Al Qaida operative who controls central Tripoli at the head of the strongest Islamist militia. He goes through the motions of deferring to Abdul Jalil while in fact holding out against transferring central Tripoli to the interim government almost two months after the Libyan capital fell to anti-Qaddafi forces on Aug. 23.
The foreign powers backing Libya's rival militias
Getting control of the armed militias is as tall an order as finding the loose weapons, the bulk of which has been smuggled outside Libyan borders to line rebel pockets. This is because the uprising against Qaddafi has spawned a militia hydra with many heads, serpentine allegiances and a mixed stew of foreign patrons.
A few hours before the Clinton visit, the Wall Street Journal published a long article which described how, in the second half of September, various militia heads controlling bits of Tripoli met to establish a single governmental and military system for managing the Libyan capital.
Their meeting was rudely interrupted when two individuals burst in: Abdulhakim Belhaj and Maj. Gen. Hamad Ben Ali al-Attiyah, the chief of staff of the Qatari armed forces.
The Qatari general did not have anything to say but Belhaj warned the gathering: “You will never do this without me."
He was as good as his word: Tripoli still has no coherent, functioning government.
The NTC chairman only spends a few hours in the capital when foreign dignitaries arrive, before hurrying back to Benghazi.
According to the WSJ, the Qatari ruler Sheik Hamad Bin Khalifa al-Thani is playing a divide-and-rule game in Libya. Bypassing the Transitional Council, he sends money and arms to certain Muslim militias thereby stunting the NTC's ability to establish centralized government in Libya and confining the interim government to the rebel capital of Benghazi.
Libya's oil minister is the unofficial channel to Washington
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in Libya stress that the Qatari ruler is not the only player. The three NATO powers, the US, France and Britain, for example, may speak with one voice in endorsing Mustafa Abdul Jalil. But on the quiet, each sponsors individual, tribal and militia favorites – even though some are foes of the NTC.
Washington's pet Libyan contact is the interim government's oil and finance minister Ali Tarhuni, the current behind-the-scenes strongman of the NTC, our Libyan sources report.
He was recently promoted to interim Deputy Prime Minister, evidence of his growing clout.
It is by now an open secret in Libya – shared too by Muammar Qaddafi and his clique – that seekers of a path to US patronage or aid must first go through Tarhuni who sits tight on the only direct channel to Washington. But he has a problem: No one in Tripoli or Benghazi is certain his hands are clean.
Some Western diplomats who have met him describe how in the darkest days of the Libyan war, he would sulk and threaten to boycott aid conferences if NATO governmental contributions fell short of his demands.
The interim oil minister is taking the same line towards foreign bidders for contracts to repair and operate Libya's oilfields.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s man in Libya is interim premier Mahmud Jibril. His power has waned steadily since the Qaddafi regime was thrown out of Tripoli – so much so that he has promised to resign as soon as anti-government forces capture Sirte and Wadi Walid, Qaddafi's last bastions in western Libya.
Amid rebel celebrations over Qaddafi's death, the fighting continued Thursday night in Sirte although the NTC had earlier claimed the city had fallen.
Ignoring the Elysée Palace in Paris and its political protégé, French military intelligence in Libya is working through certain West Libyan militia chiefs, some of whom control districts in Tripoli. Their only common denominator is their antipathy for the National Transitional Council and its leaders.
Qatar roots its influence in Muslim radical forces
As for the Qatari ruler, he has picked four Libyans to cultivate as contacts, some after long association. They all hail from the Muslim Brotherhood, and some have past ties with Al Qaeda. All four are prominent – or notorious – in one way or another:
1. Mahmoud Shammam, NTC Director of Media and Information, is a former member of the Qatar-owned al-Jazeera TV board. Qatari sources say he enjoyed unrestricted access to Emir Hamad until recently when the latter thought he was getting too big for his boots.
When Shammam travels, he takes with him a large security detail. He also regularly takes his meals in Benghazi hotel private rooms and bullies the members of his entourage.
2. Abdel Hakim Belhaj, strongman of the Tripoli Military Council, established the first anti-Qaddafi militia, the Libyan Fighting Group, in 1995, after taking part alongside al Qaeda in the battle against Soviet forces in Afghanistan.
Although LFG's members say it has been disbanded, it remains on the US list of terrorist organizations. Captured in a CIA operation in Malaysia in 2004, Belhaj was eventually turned over to Qaddafi's security services.
He took part in the march on Tripoli in August at the head of his troops, trained by Qatari Special Forces in Libya's Western mountains. In the past year, he has taken delivery according to US intelligence estimates of at least 18 arms shipments directly from the oil emirate. Armed with 20,000 tons of weapons and ammunition, Belhaj commands the strongest of all Libya's many militias.
NATO powers divided over Qatari influence
Qatar also backs the two brothers, Ali Al Salabi and Ismail al-Sallabi, who come from a Benghazi family with Islamist ties.
3. For most of the 1980s, Qaddafi kept Ali Al Salabi jailed in Tripoli's Abu Salim prison with a large group of jihadists. After studying theology in Saudi Arabia and Sudan, he joined fellow clerics who found sanctuary in Qatar. In the uprising, he was the conduit for Qatari humanitarian aid, money and arms.
4. Ismail al-Sallabi is deputy commander of the Tajamuu Saraya al-Thuwar. He was imprisoned in 1997 on charge of conspiring with Islamists to topple the Qaddafi regime. He boasts that he used his time in jail to begin memorizing the Koran. In 2004, Ismail was freed under a détente brokered by Qatar between his brother and the Libyan regime.
The brothers then bided their time until the uprising of March 2011, when Ismail was named deputy commander of an umbrella group of anti-regime militias in eastern Libya which was armed and funded by Qatar.
The two share the leadership of the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood.
They enjoy an open, active line to Qatar via the most influential cleric in the Muslim world, Yusuf al-Qaradawi of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, whose fiery sermons are broadcast far and wide by Al Jazeera television.
The four NATO governments fighting in Libya are divided over the advantages of Qatar's ubiquitous influence in the new Libyan order, especially when it is articulated through Libyan Muslim fundamentalist elements.
America's dilemma over Muslim rule in Libya
The West may be said to have opened the door to the emirate as early as March by insisting on Arab input for strengthening the legitimacy of NATO's military intervention in the Libyan contest on the side of the rebels.
By and large, Arab governments resisted the call with the exception of Qatar.
(Jordan sent a small number of commandoes as part of the Qatari contingent. The few United Arab Emirates fighter jets deployed at NATO bases in Italy never received orders from their rulers to take part in NATO air strikes over Libya.)
With Libya's post-Qaddafi future so uncertain Western powers must come to terms with Qatar's looming presence at the heart of the Islamist-dominated twin centers of power in Tripoli and Benghazi.
It has placed the Obama administration in a quandary: Unwilling to stand squarely behind Qatari domination, Washington can hardly contest it, since Sheik Hamad goes about arguing that the new Muslim rulers, however extremist and tied to al Qaeda, will moderate their radicalism in time if helped by the right quarters to establish their rule.
This argument is hard for Washington to resist because it approximates President Barack Obama's philosophy of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood's rise to power in Arab lands on the grounds that time in government and friendly US and Western help will eventually modify its extremist bent.
On the face of it, therefore, the US and Qatar share a common mind-set on Libya.
Clinton is deliberately vague about future Libyan policy
France, Britain and Italy do not sympathize with this point of view because it leaves them no room to assert their influence on the affairs of the new Libya. And not all parts of the Obama administration are at one with this policy either, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in Washington report, for two reasons:
– The skeptics in Washington see the Middle East on the point of being drowned under a Muslim avalanche: The momentum would be accelerated by a Syrian Muslim Brotherhood victory against President Bashar Assad and wins for the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic parties in the parliamentary elections slated for late November – both on top of a Muslim Brotherhood takeover of Libya.
The entire Mediterranean region from east to west would end up under Muslim Brotherhood rule. They wonder if this is what the United States wants and needs.
– Washington needs to know most urgently where the Saudi royal house stand on the Qatari domination of Libya, especially with respect to the danger facing Moroccan king from spreading Islamic control of government in North Africa.
But US intelligence has not been able to plumb this mystery and all of Washington's questions to Riyadh have been met with obfuscation.
Hence, on her visit to Tripoli, Secretary of State Clinton was deliberately vague about future US policy on Libya and any possible cooperation with Qatar – or its alternative, action to cut down its influence in Tripoli and Benghazi.