Prior to 2011, Libya was seen as a shining beacon of the African and Arab worlds, a leader in development with among the highest literacy rates, a life expectancy of nearly 75 years, a strong health care system, and gender equality. Just a few short years later, Libya was in ruins and filled with slave markets. A disastrous war led by NATO against Libya and the government of Muammar al-Gaddafi resulted in the destruction of the country. Despite lies to the contrary at the time claiming humanitarian goals, it shouldn’t surprise the reader to learn that the war against oil rich Libya initiated by France was pushed for strictly on economic grounds. The western powers, as they always do, dressed up their war in the language of human rights, but it was nothing more than a front.
While there may be people skeptical about the claim that the war against Libya was pushed for strictly on imperial grounds, with the supposed human rights issues being a fabricated means of getting the public on board, an official inquiry in 2015 revealed exactly that. And who was this group of left-wing peaceniks who put this forth? Why, it was none other than a bipartisan Foreign Affairs Committee in the UK parliament. Their report opens with these telling lines: “In March 2011, the United Kingdom and France, with the support of the United States, led the international community to support an intervention in Libya to protect civilians from attacks by forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi. This policy was not informed by accurate intelligence.” Clearly when even one of the governments of the imperial core are willing to go on the record that their imperialist war was not, in fact, a humanitarian effort it must be taken very seriously. It usually takes decades for anyone involved to even slightly admit that maybe something untoward was happening in their past wars.
It is true that there were protests against Gaddafi’s government in late 2010 into early 2011, around the same time similar things had been happening elsewhere during the events referred to as the Arab Spring. However, it must be noted that the Libyan “protests” had a violent character to them almost immediately, and they were also very racially motivated, with the anti-Gaddafi rebels repeatedly targeting black Libyans. Racist practices such as rounding up and caging black Libyans, forced displacement, torture and killings were carried out by the rebels not only during the civil war, but continuing even years after Gaddafi’s death. In August 2011 rebel forces in Misrata forced all 40,000 residents of Tawergha, who are mostly descendents of black slaves, to flee the city. The crimes against black Libyans by the insurgency were so vile and so widespread that even groups as conservative and supporting of imperialism such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch were forced to condemn them, with Human Rights Watch calling the actions a “crime against humanity” in 2013, just two years after having supported the war. So it is important to view the Libyan protests even prior to official involvement from the western powers as being reactionary in nature, not liberatory. Black Libyans had been strong supporters of Gaddafi due to the efforts he had made at reaching out to them over his four decades leading the country, trying to bridge the gaps that existed and to keep the 140 tribes in Libya at peace. Rebels and NATO forces would try to peddle lies that the black Libyans being targeted were “mercenaries”, but not only is there no shred of evidence for that, but it exists to reinforce racist beliefs that black Libyans must be “outsiders”. Also present in this rebellion in large numbers were militant Islamist groups such as the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group which was affiliated with al-Qaeda. This is one of the reasons why after the fall of the Libyan government ISIS would become a major power in Libya as well as gaining access to weapons and ammunition reserves of the Libyan government.
NATO’s invasion of Libya was predicated on supposed humanitarian grounds stemming from concerns of how these “protesters” would be treated. But here we can really see how much of the rhetoric portrayed to the West was simply not based on a material understanding of what was going on in Libya. For starters, one of the first major claims of an incoming massacre in Libya following the capture of Benghazi by the rebels came from Soliman Bouchuiguir, an exiled opposition leader who led the Libyan League for Human Rights based out of Europe, who claimed that if Gaddafi took Benghazi “There will be a real bloodbath, a massacre like we saw in Rwanda.” However, these claims are undercut by the fact that Libyan forces had recaptured towns such as Ajdabiya from the rebels in February of 2011 and not attacked civilians at all. And on March 17th, two days before NATO began bombing, Gaddafi told the rebels in Benghazi “Throw away your weapons, exactly like your brothers in Ajdabiya and other places did. They laid down their arms and they are safe. We never pursued them at all.” Additionally, as the Foreign Affairs Committee notes, when the government forces recaptured Misrata, the third largest city in Libya, only 1% of casualties were women or children, pretty clearly indicating that there was a real effort to avoid civilians and focus on combatants.
In spite of that, there was a widespread belief, still held to this day by many people, that Gaddafi was planning to murder his people. Where did this come from? It would be inaccurate to say that there was no source for this misplaced belief, but it was based on faulty information and misquoting. During February of 2011 Gaddafi gave a speech concerning the rebellion going on, where he referred to the rebels as being a “terrorist few” and explicitly connected them to bin Laden. At the conclusion of his speech he promised to “cleanse Libya, inch by inch, house by house, home by home, alley by alley” of the rebels. Western media sources, however, took this quote to mean that Gaddafi was planning to target any protesters of the government with extermination, or even just planning the wholesale massacre of the Libyan people. This analysis is backed up by experts on the situation, such as Alison Pargeter, a specialist on Libya at the Royal United Services Institute, who testified that there was no evidence that Gaddafi was planning to massacre the civilians of his country. However, the imperial core had their cover for military action. In the US, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton called Gaddafi “a ruthless dictator that has no conscience and will destroy anyone or anything in his way” as she was orchestrating the US’s involvement in attacking Libya. Of course, the US didn’t just stop at taking some quotes out of context. In April of 2011 as military action was firmly underway, Susan Rice, then ambassador to the UN, made the bizarre and groundless claim that Gaddafi was supplying soldiers with viagra in order to encourage the mass rape of civilians. Although no proof was offered, subsequent email leaks revealed this was passed along by Clinton confidant Sidney Blumenthal, who got this story from former CIA operative Tyler Drumheller, whose private security company later sought to work with the new Libya government. At every step of this process were people who had no actual regard for human rights, but who recognized the political value of playing up a concern for them to push their agenda. Many of the outlandish claims of what Gaddafi would do to civilians were also spread by the Qatar based Al Jazeera, with the Qatar government having a heavy hand in arming the rebels.
If we understand that the humanitarian claim was nothing more than cover, as it always is in these imperial wars, then we must also establish what the real motivations for the war were. In this case, it was France who were the first to push for war with Libya, with the US and UK signing on afterwards. One of the biggest driving forces behind France wanting to topple the Libyan government was that Gaddafi was planning to create an alternative currency to the franc in Africa, and to replace France as a leading figure in Francophone Africa. In other words, this was the declining empire trying to maintain one of the last remaining vestiges of its old colonial empire. Among the leaked emails of Hillary Clinton in 2015, one dated April 2nd, just a few weeks after NATO’s attacks on Libya began, reads “Qaddafi’s government holds 143 tons of gold, and a similar amount in silver … This gold was accumulated prior to the current rebellion and was intended to be used to establish a pan-African currency based on the Libyan golden Dinar. This plan was designed to provide the Francophone African Countries with an alternative to the French franc (CFA).” Details further go on to stress that French President Nicolas Sarkozy was motivated primarily by gaining a greater share of Libya’s oil production and to allow the French military to reassert its position in the world. The French Central Bank has near total control over the economies of West Africa, and Sarkozy was determined to keep it that way.
To dig a little bit deeper into why taking down Libya was so important to the imperial core, one can look at the plans Gaddafi had laid out for oil. Since the 1970s, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) had worked with the US to back the US dollar with oil, and mandate that oil be sold only in dollars. In 2001, Iraq had broken this pact and started selling oil in euros. Libya went even further, beginning in 2009 starting a plan to move African oil to be bought and sold using the gold dinar, Gaddafi’s plan for a pan-African gold standard. In addition to removing African dependence on the dollar, moving all oil transactions to the gold dinar would have kept more of the oil profits in African nations, while also dealing a massive blow to the dollar which relies on being backed by oil to maintain its value. Many other nations in Africa such as Egypt, Tunisia, Nigeria and Angola were fully on board with this plan as well. With Libya having stored up more than 143 tons in gold, they were ready to put this plan into action and supplant France as the most influential nation in Africa, while also weakening the US’s financial control of the region.
France had learned of many of Gaddafi’s more broad reaching plans for ending French dominance of Africa from intelligence agents, and so throughout February and March in 2011 the Sarkozy government was the main force in the international community pushing for military intervention under the feigned humanitarian cause, beginning with the implementation of a no-fly zone over Libya. The UN resolution that instituted the no-fly zone was ostensibly supposed to carry a strict arms embargo, however the rebels continued to be supplied with arms by the NATO powers in order to shift the balance of power in Libya. The most critical role NATO played was in relentlessly bombing Libya, including the destruction of critical infrastructure. One of the most telling examples is the case of the Great Man-made River, a $33 billion infrastructure project, funded with no foreign debt through Libya’s national bank, which was created to provide water to some of the most arid regions of the country. Not only did NATO bomb the pipelines, but they even bombed the factory producing the pipes necessary for repairs. Although NATO would claim at the time that it was Gaddafi’s forces destroying the water supply, numerous evidence has come out since to reveal this as a lie, not to mention even boasts by rebel commanders at the time discussing their cutting off the water supply to starve out government forces. In fact, satellite images NATO themselves shared with reporters showed that they had skipped over targeting a nearby rocket launcher in favor of attacking the water-pipe factory in Brega. But why would they do this? As Professor Maximilian Forte argues in his book on the war, “the goal of US military intervention was to disrupt an emerging pattern of independence and a network of collaboration within Africa that would facilitate increased African self-reliance. This is at odds with the geostrategic and political economic ambitions of extra-continental European powers, namely the US.”
From March through October 2011 NATO’s humanitarian mission bombed critical infrastructure and gave aid to the rebels as they ravaged Libya. Although the ostensible reason for the military action was to protect the civilians of Benghazi, Gaddafi’s forces had retreated from Benghazi less than 24 hours after the bombing began, and yet the military intervention continued for half the year. Even as this was happening, Gaddafi’s son was attempting to negotiate a cease-fire with the Pentagon, however this was undercut by Clinton’s desire to continue the war. Leaked audio recordings from secret conversations show Seif Gaddafi telling Rep. Dennis Kucinich “It was like the WMDs in Iraq. It was based on a false report”, and telling a senior Pentagon official “We ask the American government send a fact-finding mission to Libya. I want you to see everything with your own eyes.” What Seif Gaddafi was told by US intelligence officials who were communicating with him was “Secretary Clinton does not want to negotiate at all.” In October, rebels brutally murdered Gaddafi, sodomizing him with a bayonet. Clinton’s response was to flippantly declare “We came, we saw, he died.” But what was it they saw? If they were looking for human rights violations they should have been looking at the forces they were allied with, rather than their enemies. Instead, all they saw were the rich oil reserves of Libya and a government that was trying to escape their control. Perhaps they saw the 143 tons of gold that mysteriously disappeared after Gaddafi’s death. The New York Times, meanwhile, wrote that “The Scramble for Access to Libya’s Oil Wealth Begins.”
Before the war, Libya had been a shining beacon of what a brighter future for Africa could look like. There were fewer people in poverty than in the Netherlands, the country had the highest GDP on the continent, strong health care and an excellent life expectancy, housing recognized as a human right with significant government subsidies, all while having to manage a very diverse group of people with over 140 tribes in the country and people of very different racial makeups. After the destruction of the country by NATO and the rebels Libya now houses slave markets, the largest ISIS base in the region, and has been in a perpetual state of war for nearly a decade at this point, as subsequent civil wars and proxy wars have continued to destroy what little is left of the country. Considering the heavy presence of al-Qaeda aligned members in the rebellion at the time, this shouldn’t have been surprising to anyone. Despite numerous reports even during the time that were speaking on the involvement of al-Qaeda and similar groups, Clinton stated that “We do not have any specific information about specific individuals from any organization who are part of this.” This statement goes from absurd to criminal when you consider that the Libyan government had put together a detailed report on the presence of al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups in the rebellion that a US intelligence agent was trying to get in front of Congress.
In 2014 and 2015 alone, Libya Body Count, which provided a very conservative estimate of deaths from media sources, documented more than 4,300 deaths. By 2015 even Libyans who had been opposed to Gaddafi before his fall were discussing how they felt like things were far worse off now. Although a ceasefire agreement between the warring factions was reached in late 2020, the political situation in the country is still precarious, and the quality of life is far below what it was a decade ago. Libya had been a key mover, as laid out earlier, in the push for a pan-African currency, with plans having been put in place for a single gold currency by 2023. Instead of being financially independent and at the heart of an anti-colonial project, the current Libyan government has to meet with the UN to discuss their economic situation and the adoption of a 2021 budget. This puts them right where the imperial powers want them, subjected to IMF loans and with financial independence as nothing more than a pipe dream. Massive, debt free, public projects like the Great Man-made river will never be allowed. Libya will be forced into permanent debt to the IMF, who will demand austerity and privatization.
There was a humanitarian crisis in Libya in 2011, but it was being caused by NATO, not being resolved by them. It is remarkably easy for the western powers and their media to portray any leader from a global south country they dislike as a strongman and a dictator, even when that leader was the one supporting the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa while they were all on the side of apartheid. As with almost every such “humanitarian intervention” in history, the motives were purely about financial gain and the maintaining or resurrection of empire. It is too late to change what happened in Libya, and although some of these details didn’t come out until years later, they shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who was paying attention. We must be vigilant to never let another situation like Libya arise. Because when the news media and your elected representatives are talking about how this next strongman really is the worst person alive and how they’ll be greeted as liberators for the people, you shouldn’t wait until four years later to realize that it was all bullshit. Anti-imperialism requires constant vigilance, and it requires firm conviction in the support of the colonized in their struggle for full independence and decolonization, with the understanding that achieving financial independence from the US and Europe is of the utmost importance.