The Case For A Public Enquiry On The War In Libya

Published in the Huffington Post, 26 September 2016

The case for holding a public enquiry into the British military intervention in Libya is now surely overwhelming. The principles under scrutiny – whether Britain supports international law and whether Ministers tell parliament and people the truth – are as serious as over the invasion of Iraq. The recent Foreign Affairs Committee enquiry into the Libya intervention is partly an indictment of UK policy in Libya but is also partly whitewash.

There are three main cases for Cameron and the government to answer. First, British bombing in Libya, which began in March 2011, was a violation of UN Resolution 1973. This authorised member states to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya and to use ‘all necessary measures’ to prevent attacks on civilians. What it did not authorise was the use of ground troops or regime change. Yet Cameron promoted both.

General David Richards, then Chief of the Defence Staff, revealed during his evidence session to the Committee enquiry that Britain ‘had a few people embedded’ with the rebel forces, saying that they were ‘in the rear areas’ and ‘would go forward and back’. This is new information and means that Britain had ground troops in Libya.

In addition, Richards repeatedly told the enquiry that British policy amounted to regime change. Indeed, British bombing clearly went beyond preventing attacks on civilians – three weeks after Cameron assured parliament in March 2011 that the object of the intervention was not regime change, he signed a joint letter with President Obama and French President Sarkozy committing to ‘a future without Gaddafi’.

That these were policies were illegal is confirmed by Cameron himself. He told Parliament on 21 March 2011 that the UN resolution ‘explicitly does not provide legal authority for action to bring about Gaddafi’s removal from power by military means’.

The second case to answer is over Britain’s de facto collaboration with radical Islamists during the intervention. The Foreign Affairs Committee concluded that: ‘It is now clear that militant Islamist militias played a critical role in the rebellion from February 2011 onwards’. Yet this was known at the time. Indeed, Richards was asked in his evidence session whether ‘our intervention empowered extremist groups’. He replied: ‘Broadly – the same way that Saddam Hussein’s removal did’.

I documented the role of Islamists in the Libyan rebel forces in a 2012 book. Islamist elements were prominent in the National Transitional Council, which grouped various Libyan rebel forces and which was backed by Britain. Two former mujahideen who had fought in Afghanistan led the military campaign against Gadaffi’s forces in Darnah, to the east of Benghazi, for example. Abdel Hakim al-Hasady, an influential Islamic preacher who spent five years at a jihadist training camp in eastern Afghanistan, oversaw the recruitment, training and deployment in the conflict of around 300 rebel fighters from Darnah. Both al-Hasady and his field commander on the front lines, Salah al-Barrani, were former members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), the Islamist force that Britain covertly funded to kill Gadaffi in 1996.

Other commentators recognised the Islamist nature of some of the rebels at the time. Noman Benotman, a former member of the LIFG who had fought the Soviets in Afghanistan, estimated that there were 1,000 jihadists fighting in Libya. Former Director of MI6, Sir Richard Dearlove observed that the rebel stronghold of Benghazi was ‘rather fundamentalist in character’ and Admiral James Stavridis, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, said that US intelligence had picked up ‘flickers’ of terrorist activity among the rebel groups; this was described by senior British government figures at the time as ‘very alarming’.

We are now meant to be believe that all this was beyond the knowledge of British officials at the time.

The third case to answer relates to the arms embargo, which was imposed on Libya in 2011. Resolution 1973 called on UN member states to ensure the ‘strict implementation’ of this embargo. The Foreign Affairs Committee concluded that the ‘international community’, without mentioning Britain, turned a blind eye to the supply of weapons to the rebels’. This is a very polite way of putting it. We might first ask what those ‘embedded’ British forces were actually doing in Libya and whether they were involved in supplying arms; it seems the Committee didn’t bother to.

Moreover, a massive $400million worth of arms was provided to the rebels by Britain’s ally, Qatar, much of which went to the Islamist radicals. Qatar also sent hundreds of troops to fight on the frontline and to provide infantry training to Libyan fighters in the western Nafusa mountains and in eastern Libya. Much of Qatar’s support went to the 17 February Martyrs Brigade, one of the most influential rebel formations led by Abdel-Hakim Belhaj, a leading member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group who became the rebel military commander in Tripoli.

It is inconceivable that Qatar’s military support for Libyan Islamists was not known to British ministers, and backed by them, as they consistently supported Qatar’s prominent role in the campaign against Gadaffi, alongside deepening military and commercial cooperation. Indeed, Qatar’s chief-of-staff, Major-General Hamad bin Ali al-Atiya, later said: ‘We acted as the link between the rebels and Nato forces’. Qatar also played a key role alongside Britain in the ‘Libya contact group’ that coordinated policy against the Gadaffi regime; the first meeting of the group, in April 2011, for example, was convened by Qatar and co-chaired by Britain in Doha.

Cameron resigned as an MP two days before the Committee enquiry was published, which is hard to believe was coincidental. If MPs are concerned about being lied to and about whether Britain is a rogue state in international affairs, they should now demand a new public enquiry.

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