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The Origins of Libyan Rage: From CIA Waterboarding to the Post-Gaddafi Power Vacuum

Earlier this month, Human Rights Watch released a remarkable report titled "Delivered Into Enemy Hands": It's based on interviews with 14 former detainees of the United States government, most...
September 20, 2012, 3:30pm

Earlier this month, Human Rights Watch released a remarkable report titled Delivered Into Enemy Hands. It’s based on interviews with 14 former detainees of the United States government, most of whom had aimed to overthrow Muhammar Gaddafi, the infamous Libyan leader, who was killed at the hands of a NATO-backed coup last fall. The report details waterboarding of these men, which allegedly took place 9 years ago in Afghanistan under the auspices of the CIA.


The New York Times reports, “Most of the former detainees were members of the Libyan Islamic Fighters Group, who were dedicated to the overthrow of the Gaddafi government. Many had gone to Afghanistan before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and some had come into contact with Al Qaeda. In December 2004, the State Department designated the Libyan group a terrorist organization, but the former detainees denied being allied with Al Qaeda against the Western nations that had largely considered Colonel Gaddafi a pariah.”

The accusations are intriguing. First, they directly contradict the government’s assertion that it only used waterboarding techniques on three people – Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, Abu Zubaydah, and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. That was the claim of numerous members of the Bush administration, including President Bush himself, in his 2010 memoir:

Of the thousands of terrorists we captured in the years after 9/11, about a hundred were placed into the CIA program. About a third of those were questioned using enhanced techniques. Three were waterboarded.

But it also begs questions about the United States’ curious relationship with Libya post-9/11. How did a once hostile, then seemingly cozy, if secret, War on Terror relationship devolve into a violent overthrow for Gaddafi? What is on the horizon for the African country now that it’s back in the headlines following the deadly attack on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi? I spoke by email with Vijay Prashad, author of Arab Spring, Libyan Winter, about the HRW report, Gaddafi’s reign, the NATO intervention, and the future of Libya.


This recent HRW report details how the Bush administration tortured opponents of Gaddafi, then transferred them for further punishment in Libya. Did the report surprise you at all, or were the results of the investigation predictable based on Libya’s relationship with the United States after 9/11?

The report by Human Rights Watch was remarkable for its forensic analysis of the individual cases of Libyan dissidents, arrested by the US-UK and their allies in Pakistan, Malaysia, Mauratania and so on. These details have only been known in fragments, so it is very useful to have HRW's comprehensive report in hand. The report is based on three kinds of evidence: fragmentary information that has been around since journalists and human rights campaigners revealed the existence of "ghost flights" and "black prisons"; interviews with the Libyan former detainees (some of whom had spoken to HRW in previous trips to Libya, such as in 2009, but most of whom were interviewed after the fall of the Gaddafi government); and finally, the Tripoli Documents, the papers found in the offices of the Interior Ministry after the fall of Tripoli. The interviews and the Tripoli Documents fill out a remarkable story.

But this is not a surprise. Right after 9/11, Gaddafi and his regime made overtures to the US in quite categorical terms. They suggested that since the 1990s they had also been victims to "Islamic terrorism" in the guise of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), and that they wanted to provide both full support to the US War on Terror and to join forces against al-Qaeda, and what the Gaddafi regime suggested was its Libyan affiliate, LIFG.

Documents found in Libyan government offices by Human Rights Watch pointed to the secret rendition program

Even this was not a surprise because the Gaddafi regime since the 1990s had sought an entente with the West – mainly to get out of the suffocating sanctions regime, but also because there was a section of the leadership eager for a shift from the early Gaddafi-era, with political and economic policies tilted toward an accommodation with neo-liberal economics and Western politics. Gaddafi himself had become eager to do what it took to facilitate these shifts, welcoming Tony Blair to Tripoli in 2004 with more eagerness than one would have expected from the Gaddafi of 1969-1986. This was the same man, but with a very different political orientation.

In other words, little in the report was a surprise to me. I had already written about this tendency in Arab Spring, Libyan Winter. What is useful about the HRW report is its detail, and of course the fact that this is coming from the prestigious post of the HRW.

Prashad, via Flickr

So, this cooperation on renditions existed between Libya and the United States during the Bush administration. It also existed with England; Blair met with Gaddafi. What shifted to turn the tide in Libya by the time Obama was elected?

Nothing really shifts at that time. After Gaddafi burned his bridges in the Arab world by the late 1980s, he pivoted and tried to fashion himself as an African leader. It was a consequence of this pivot that Gaddafi was fascinated by shifts in the US – how was it, he used to say, that the US has Condoleezza Rice in a position of power, and then Obama as President. Black Americans were in leadership roles. The US was not the same place as when Nixon was in power, or Reagan. That was his general sense.


He was fascinated by these shifts in the US and exaggerated their significance in his circle. In other words, he was willing to engage with the Obama administration much more than even with the Bush administration. Gaddafi hoped to have a fraternal relationship with Obama. They met at the G8 meeting in L'Aquila, Italy in 2009, when Gaddafi was head of the African Union.

Gaddafi's problems came in the context of the Arab Spring. If the rebellion of February in Benghazi and then elsewhere had occurred in any other year, Gaddafi would have hastily put it down outside the glare of the world media, as he did in 1996. But the Arab Spring changed a number of elements. For one, the rebellion was not, as in 1996. restricted to the cadre of the LIFG. There was a general sentiment that the overthrow of Ben Ali and Mubarak could be replicated in Libya. A host of different grievances came out on the streets. Therefore the rebellion itself had a much more dense appearance. It was going to be hard to put it down, as Gaddafi's own son, who went on a mission to Benghazi, realized in a day.

Rendition airplane. Photograph by Trevor Paglen

Second, Gaddafi's old adversaries, the Gulf Arabs, were ready to take their revenge on him. They, not the French, were the ones who actually pushed the envelope for a major intervention. The Qataris and Saudis had long-standing animosity against Gaddafi, and they wanted revenge. Third, the West had been put on the back-foot by its response to Tunisia and Egypt. In the former case, the French backed Ben Ali till he took flight. It was a great embarrassment to them.

In the case of Egypt, the US also backed Mubarak, despite the crowds in Tahrir, sending Frank Wisner to make a deal with Mubarak. It was unseemly. It appeared as if Western power was going to be cashiered in the region. Libya provided the Gulf Arabs the fog to put to take care of their adversary and to put down the rebellions in the Arabian Peninsula (Bahrain in particular, but also in Saudi Arabia); and Libya provided the West to return to the region as important military and moral actors. That was the reason for the intervention: not any imminent genocide. There is simply no evidence of this (and this is not a compelling reason for action, as the reverse example of Syria shows).


I wonder if you could talk a bit about what the resistance to Gaddafi looked like prior to western intervention and what groups the United States involvement, ultimately, benefited?

By the late 1990s, a host of political actors had turned against Gaddafi. The shine of the Revolution of 1969 had worn off. It had not delivered near enough, and the sanctions regime had crushed the economy. A new generation that was born just before or after 1969 was now in the majority. The educated sector amongst them, beneficiaries of the reforms from 1969, were frustrated by the lack of political opportunities and of course of the suffocated economy. The more active amongst them became human rights campaigners. They played an important part in the February Revolution of 2011, but they have not been political beneficiaries of the victory in any obvious way.

The second set of critics who came from this educated sector and from the exiled Libyan Diaspora were those who had committed themselves to neo-liberal ideas, and many of whom who had been promoted during the Saif al-Islam Gaddafi reforms in the 2000s. Their reform agenda was blocked for reasons I go into in Arab Spring, Libyan Winter, and they were frustrated by this blockage. Many of them, including the current PM, Jibril, were close associates of Saif al-Islam. They were the most vocal in March 2011, calling for NATO intervention, and they are the main beneficiaries of this intervention.


In a sense, these men had no base in Libya. They are bankers and lawyers, and not mass leaders. It was the NATO intervention that provided them with political, rather than simply technocratic, authority, and it was after that intervention that they were able to be interim leaders – a position that enabled them to effectively write the rules for the Libyan elections of 2012. These rules, for instance the insistence that a majority of the parliament be Independents and that political Islamists could not openly campaign in their parties, gave them a decisive advantage. It meant that Jibril could cobble together his own coalition out of the Independents while the Islamists were left with a much smaller section in parliament.

The working-class and the oil workers in particular have been exercising their new freedoms through strikes and demonstrations. This is very healthy, but also puts them on a collision course with the neoliberal leadership in Tripoli. This is going to be a serious clash

The Islamists and the working-class had a long-standing history of protest against Gaddafi that goes back to the 1980s. Some of this overlaps with the cardinal divide in Libya between the East and the West. Nevertheless, there was very strong working-class sentiment against the regime, whose neoliberal reforms had cut back on the broad social net they had previously enjoyed. They also did the bulk of the fighting, but given that they did so under a NATO umbrella, they were not able to define the character of the new Libya. This is something that they cavil at. Amongst this set there are the Amazigh, the people of the Jebel Nafusa, a minority that was persecuted by the Gaddafi regime and was eager for social freedoms. They continue to struggle for minority rights.

How do you perceive the future of Libya politically? As these things generally go, the country's issues no longer generate much press in the American media.


Two facts about America's wars: 1) It teaches the population geography; 2) the refugees from these wars come to the US and enhance its restaurant culture. But beyond that there is a short-attention span for the wars. The Afghanistan war, the longest war, has disappeared from public consciousness. The Iraq war, an illegal war of aggression, has not provoked any public cry for accountability. There is a culture of impunity created by the lack of consideration of why we went to war and what this did to Iraq. So it is no surprise that the Libyan war has vanished.

The 2012 elections in Libya were indeed a watershed. But what few consider is the framework within which the elections were held. Political parties with an Islamist bent were not able to operate freely (this is something that angers one of the main supporters of the 2011 intervention, Qatar, the main benefactor of the Muslim Brotherhood). It is clear that these parties have not vanished and they have taken the lessons of their electoral loss seriously. They are working to build a social majority which will have a political expression within the next five years.

The working-class and the oil workers in particular have been exercising their new freedoms through strikes and demonstrations. This is very healthy, but also puts them on a collision course with the neoliberal leadership in Tripoli. This is going to be a serious clash. In other words, the politics of Libya are fluid and open. The election results of 2012 are not indicative of the future. They tell us more about the election rules. There is going to be a period of political flux before we are able to fully understand the grammar of the new Libyan politics. (Note: This interview was conducted prior to the Benghazi attacks. Here is Prashad’s take on the recent turmoil.)


Is there an enduring legacy, or lesson, when we look back at the Gaddafi regime? He starts out in the mold of Nasser and ends up embracing the War on Terror and neoliberalism, two of the theories that assisted in his demise. How do you think his journey will be remembered historically?

When Gaddafi conducted his coup in 1969, not a shot was fired in opposition to him. His was a most popular emergence. It is remarkable how that broad support was utterly squandered by the 1980s and certainly by today. The decline of Gaddafi not only led to his downfall but it also tarnished his entire record. Few recall the days of 1969-1986, and very few champion his Green movement. There are defenders outside Libya but they wear the glasses of benighted nostalgia.

This is a pity. It means that in current Libya the tendencies of a Left do not exist. This tendency had been smashed by Gaddafi, who saw the Left as a threat to his bizarre ideology – the Green Book is a mishmash of all kinds of ideas. The left-wingers inside Gaddafi's regime were silenced, and are now afraid that they have been tainted not by their Nasserism but by their complicity in the security state that was unleashed from the 1980s onwards. There is, therefore, neither a capable Nasserite force nor a Left in Libya to recover that heritage and build a political platform capable of fighting for a different kind of Libya today.

The current political actors, the neo-liberals and the Islamists, are for different reasons adverse to the Gaddafi era of 1969-86. The neo-liberals hate it for its massive social programs (they have been able to recover their own catastrophic neo-liberal involvement in the 2000s by painting the state security state identical to the social programs, a very nifty political sleight of hand). The Islamists hate the earlier period because it might revive Gaddafi's image, and given his hatred of their politics and their lives, this is unacceptable. They have thrown out the baby with the bathwater.

Libya is a great country with a resilient population. Its future will be bright. The worry is for the short and medium term, the settling accounts between the more working-class Islamists and the Diasporic neo-liberals backed by the West – will this be conducted through a political system rigged to help the latter, or will this be taken back into the streets? I hope for a third way, for a revision of the political space, and for the entry through the strikes of the workers of a new kind of Leftism in Libya.

A Human Rights Watch video
Top: In August 2011, a Libyan man takes pictures of the courtyard of Abu Salim prison, in Tripoli. (Francois Mori/Associated Press)

Watch Vice’s documentary “Rebels in Libya”