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Patrick Cockburn: As the central state unravels, all the external powers that drove regime change look for ways to take advantage

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.

On March 19 is the third anniversary of what’s called the NATO intervention into Libya. Of course, it was more than just an intervention. It was more or less an air invasion supporting a ground rebellion. But clearly the objective was regime change.

But it wasn’t just regime change. It was the overthrow of Gaddafi and his entire state apparatus. And it should be no surprise to anyone, especially after the Iraq experience, that what one gets after destroying a state that’s in the conditions of Libya and such is armed militias, a struggle for power, and a vacuum of any kind of law and more civilized force. Certainly there was one under Gaddafi, even though Gaddafi was a dictator, as he was accused of being.

But to unpack all of this, now joining us from London, is Patrick Cockburn. He’s an Irish journalist who was Middle East correspondent in 1979 for The Financial Times and, since 1990, Middle East correspondent for the newspaper The Independent.

Thanks very much for joining us, Patrick.


JAY: So, Patrick, give us a sense of what’s happening now in Libya, the extent to which the state is unraveling, but also who benefits from all of this.

COCKBURN: Well, Libya is in a state of anarchy. The country’s really divided in two at the moment. Militias rule the streets. I mean, the one thing that is important for Libya is that it exports oil, and the export of oil has dropped from 1.4 million barrels a day to about 235,000.

The country’s grinding to a halt. It’s running out of money to pay people. You know, it’s very difficult to point at anything which isn’t going wrong. Power is fragmenting for militias, sometimes on tribal lines, sometimes on ethnic lines. And there seems to be no way of stopping this. Every time we look at it, it gets worse. So when originally NATO intervened in Libya, of course it was to prevent a massacre in Benghazi, although it’s unclear if any massacre would ever have occurred.

But they have in the last—over the last year, we had a very bad massacre in Tripoli last when there were protests against the militia. Schoolchildren, others, they used heavy machine guns on them—hospitals full of dead and dying people.

And who benefits from this? Well, you know, it’s really—it’s pretty extraordinary what happened in Libya. But it’s, you know, in many ways, as you said, a kind of rerun of Iraq. They destroyed the state. Everything was [incompr.] pretty good afterwards. And it’s been reduced to a state of primal anarchy.

What did they think was going to happen? Why did they get rid of Gaddafi? ‘Cause he wasn’t much of a problem for them. He might have been in the distant past, but he’d been toeing the line very much over the last ten years. Even so, they seem to think of him as a sort of nationalist leader, rather like Bashar al-Assad in Syria, though I don’t think any of his people really thought that way.

JAY: Yeah. I mean, if you look at Gaddafi’s participation from the time of the rapprochement with Bush–Cheney, he participated in helping with extraordinary renditions, you know, putting people in prison, interrogating them. He, you know, gave up on any attempt to have any kind of weapons of mass destruction and so on and so on.

But more importantly, Libya had really integrated into global capitalism. His son was running around Europe with one of the Rothschild kids. They were, you know, making arms deals with American arms manufacturers, going to the stock exchange. The Libyan sovereign wealth fund was in London buying up everything in sight. I mean, he was fully integrating. So why go to such effort to get rid of him?

COCKBURN: I think primarily there’s an arrogance of power and an inability to take any contradiction, even when Gaddafi was being pretty servile in doing whatever was asked of him. The same was true of the government in Syria.

And I suppose they thought also it was going to be easy to do, which in a sense it was. I mean, there was never much of a Libyan army.

But I think another thing went wrong, which was very noticeable in 2011. I was in Benghazi and later in Tripoli. But NATO did all the—and behind it the U.S.—did all the fighting, that there were these militiamen who—you saw them on television. It looked as though they were battling to overthrow Gaddafi, which in a sense they were, but, you know, on the main roadside of Benghazi, there were already more journalists than there were militiamen. They were only a mopping-up force for a war that was really launched by NATO and fought mostly by the U.S.

JAY: Now, some of the decisive fighting, it seemed to me, near the end, especially in Tripoli, were by forces that had been trained or connected with al-Qaeda in one form or another.

But the French seem very connected to all this. And, in fact, to a large extent it seemed France, who has a competing oil company, Total, that wasn’t doing very well in Libya compared to the Italian Eni and a potential Eni deal with the Russians through Gazprom. I mean, the French, I think, had a lot of reasons to hope that this thing unraveled and that they would wind up with a much bigger piece of it.

But what do you know about the French al-Qaeda connection? You’re now doing a series in The Independent called The Return of al-Qaeda.

COCKBURN: Well, I think the French, you know, really are returning to what they used to do when the French Empire was doing pretty well. We’ve already seen—we saw that in Libya, and then we saw it again in Mali. They went into Mali, you may remember, last year, they fought. And the idea at the time was that they’d leave Mali. But they’re still there. So I think the French imperial instincts are still alive and well.

You know, so I was doing a series on al-Qaeda which relates to Libya and to Iraq and to Syria, and, you know, basically asking the question about why is it that at the time of 9/11, al-Qaeda was a small organization? Then we have 9/11. Then we have vast expenditure by the U.S. and other states. We have all these security agencies expanded or set up. The U.S. fights a war in Afghanistan and in Iraq.

And today, if you look at the Middle East, al-Qaeda type organizations have never been flourishing so much, not just traditional al-Qaeda, but other groups under similar names in Iraq and Syria. If you take the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, if you take the others, they control an area, I worked out, about the size of Great Britain. In eastern Libya we have jihadis also doing well.

I think that, you know, administrations in Washington, governments in Western Europe very closely define al-Qaeda as being the original al-Qaeda. They call it the core. But actually these other organizations—the Islamic State, Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria—are exactly the same type of group, whether they’re officially affiliated or not, and they behave in the same way. I think in Libya this is why what happens—why Ambassador Stevens died, that there was a sort of peculiar belief if the local jihadis, who were puritanical fundamentalists, Muslims, if they didn’t have a direct operational link to al-Qaeda as it used to be, then somehow it was okay to deal with them and they weren’t so dangerous. And as we saw in Benghazi, that wasn’t true. As a result, Ambassador Stevens and other people were killed.

JAY: Now, we know quite a bit about the Saudi connection with al-Qaeda, but the American and Western media talks very little about it. We’ve recently done a series of interviews with Senator Bob Graham, who outright says the Saudi government was in on facilitating the al-Qaeda attacks on 9/11. We know of Prince Bandar’s threats against Tony Blair over the parliamentary inquiry into bribery involving Bandar and a military purchase of British weapons, and we know of Bandar’s threat to Putin. And when one looks at the Libya intervention, a lot of attention on the Americans, primarily—which I actually think they weren’t the drivers of it, from what I can see; the French drove it more. But the other real drivers of this was Qatar and Saudi Arabia, who don’t get talked about that much. And if you look at what’s ended up, with the strength of the various Islamist forces and the ability of the Saudis—and, I would think, to some extent the Qataris—to influence, have connection with these Islamist groups, maybe that was the objective, you know, create this kind of disorder for these—.

COCKBURN: I don’t think you have to—you know, one has to go down the road very far to just, you know, say that if the objective in Libya and Syria is to have a secular democratic country, then it’s most peculiar that the main allies of the U.S. and the West Europeans should be the only theocratic absolute monarchy still left on Earth—Saudi Arabia and Qatar and the others. Is it likely these states want to see a democracy in Libya or Syria? Is it likely they want to see a secular state, since their own system is entirely the opposite? So I think there’s always been a strong element of hypocrisy and blindness on the part of the media.

JAY: Yeah, can you dig into that for a second? Why is the media so blind to the Saudis? I mean, you know, there’s a lot of talk about the influence of the Israeli lobby and AIPAC, and deservedly so, but the Saudis are no less and barely talked about, and given that they’re essentially a completely totalitarian, medieval state?

COCKBURN: Not just essentially: in every aspect. You know, there are very few states—I can’t think of any other state on earth which is so—remains an absolute monarchy with a fundamentalist and deeply intolerant type of religion. Well, why doesn’t the media do it? Well, partly because the Saudis make in very difficult for people to get into the country, partly the media, I think, is rather the same as a lot of other parts of the political establishment, that it tends to get bought up. The Saudis have always done this. On a state level, they use their financial power, their purchase of arms. And they’ve been sort of very successful about this.

People talk about Israel, but, actually, as you say, they don’t talk very much about Saudi Arabia. And, you know, this is rather amazing when it comes to 9/11, because if it hadn’t—if Saudi Arabia had not been there financing also Pakistan, then 9/11 almost certainly wouldn’t have happened.

But it—you know, all these sort of leads go back to Saudi Arabia. You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist. These are all very open, very public.

JAY: Right.

COCKBURN: In fact, I’m against all these conspiracy theories, since I think they tend to mask the fact, but it’s really rather obvious what’s happened.

JAY: Yeah, I agree, I agree with you completely. I think if in time to come it turns out that every conspiracy about 9/11 turned out to be true, I still don’t think it’s worth discussing right now, because the stuff we do know is so alarming and important. And it gets—this other stuff just completely distracts from it.

Just finally, back to Libya, so the potential of now partitioning—how real is that, and who benefits from that?

COCKBURN: Well, you know, at the moment there is an effective partition, but it’s—on both they’re very weak. You know, you have a weak militia in Benghazi in eastern Syria—this is a very big area. You have the same thing in the west. You have the prime minister’s—who was voted out. He has just—he fled the country. You know, nobody really holds power in either area. So presumably that isn’t going to last forever, but for the moment the country is divided.

JAY: And for the Libyan people a complete mess and very—much more dangerous place than it used to be.

COCKBURN: It’s physically dangerous. You know, it’s—there’s a question of a job. You know. And for some, you know, it’s much worse. A town called—just south of Misrata [incompr.] 40,000 people on it that was destroyed because they were considered pro-Gaddafi. And the people are all now living in shantytowns or they’re sitting in prisons. The militias have their own private prisons, I think with about 8,000 people in them, where torture is endemic. I mean, this has come from all the human rights organizations.

JAY: So what—assuming anyone in any of the Western governments would listen, what should they be doing?

COCKBURN: Well, I mean, it’s got a bit late to do anything now, and I don’t think there is much they can do. I mean, this should really have been thought of at the beginning.

You see, if you’d had a proper rebellion—there were good reasons to rebel against Gaddafi. You know, he was a dictator. He had this ridiculous personality cult. There were good reasons to rise up against him and his family. But the people who overthrew him didn’t really do it themselves. They did it because of foreign military force. So they didn’t really have the capacity to step into the vacuum and take over from Gaddafi, which is why we have this anarchy at the moment.

JAY: Alright. Thanks for joining us, Patrick.

COCKBURN: Thank you.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Patrick Cockburn is a correspondent for the Independent London. He is the author of The Age of Jihad.