Libyan Chaos and the Islamic State (2/2)

Vijay Prashad, author of “Arab Spring, Libyan Winter,” says Libya is awash with weapons and fighters, much like Afghanistan 25 years ago after the withdrawal of Russia

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: This is The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.

In fear that Libya could become the satellite of the Islamic State, Egypt’s air force, joined by the Libyan Air Force, with the support of Saudi Arabia, bombed the Islamic State targets inside Libya on Monday, just a day after ISIS released a video appearing to show the beheading of 21 said to be Egyptian Christians. In a televised statement, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi confirmed that Egypt was officially bombing ISIS targets in neighboring Libya.

Now joining us to discuss all of this is Vijay prashad. Vijay is the George and Martha Kellner Chair in South Asian History and professor of international studies at Trinity College. His latest book is No Free Left: The Futures of Indian Communism. That’s by Leftword Press 2015. And he’s the chief editor at Leftword as well. And he is also the author of Arab Spring, Libyan Winter.

Thank you so much for joining us.

VIJAY PRASHAD, PROF. OF INTERNATIONAL STUDIES, TRINITY COLLEGE: Pleasure. Thanks.

PERIES: So, Vijay, now, in a New York Times editorial board editorial this weekend, Bernadino León, the United Nations envoy to Libya, said Libya has the same features of potentially becoming as bad as what we’re seeing in Iraq and Syria. He says the difference is that Libya is just a few miles away from Europe. The proximity seems to bother him. Why?

PRASHAD: Well, because he’s European. And somehow if the danger comes into Europe, that’s worse than if Arabs are suffering the blight of the Islamic State. In fact, the Islamic State knows this, which is why in the execution video that was shot in Libya, they very pointedly said we are now this side of the Mediterranean, but soon we will be in Rome. And that, I think, is a direct threat to the West, a direct provocation to the West. It was also, of course, a direct provocation to Egypt, because they killed 21 Egyptian laborers who were in Libya and were kidnapped during the course of this year. So, yeah, it bothers Mr. León more because this is a direct threat to Europe, whereas previously they saw this merely as a containable issue.

PERIES: Right. Vijay, let’s get into Libya. Describe for us what the previous attacks on Libya, the conditions it has left, and what is happening in terms of governance in Libya at the moment.

PRASHAD: Well, Libya has been in a state of chaos since 2011. You know, periodically you’ll get people at the United Nations, or indeed envoys from other countries, saying Libya is on the brink of chaos. This is to play with language. It’s been a very complicated situation since 2011. The NATO bombardment essentially dismantled the Libyan state, destroyed the Libyan state, and left Libya at that point with an extremely fractious set of armed actors, the so-called militias. These militias have to some extent calcified around different cities–the city of Misrata, city of the Zintan, city of Benghazi, etc., and some of them have taken political character.

So what has happened is they’ve also divided up along two axes. Some of them have moved towards a far more Islamist or radical Islamist kind of direction. And others are in the kind of Muslim Brotherhood mode. It’s the Muslim Brotherhood type of groups that are now in power in Tripoli. And they have cultivated a coalition called Libyan Dawn.

In the other side of Libya, there was a group called Ansar al-Sharia, which emerged after the NATO bombardment. That has been largely broken up by the armed action of a rogue Libyan general by the name of Khalifa Hifter. Many members of Ansar al-Sharia have moved into what is now the Islamic State.

There is another government of Libya. They are to some extent more appropriate, to the Western eyes, and to some Gulf Arab allies. That government is based in Tobruk, which is a few hours’ drive from the Egyptian border in the east of Libya.

So there are many different power centers in the country. It’s extremely fractious. And there’s no real easy answer either to a political solution, or, of course, to believe that the Islamic State can be defeated militarily.

PERIES: And what is this stronghold? How much of Libya is now being controlled by ISIS?

PRASHAD: It’s very hard to say. Just as in Syria and in Iraq the Islamic State operates on a kind of pendulum philosophy, one day they may be in Tripoli conducting an attack. Next day, they have based themselves in the central town of Sirte, or they are in are in Derna, which is a city in eastern Libya.

Derna has been an Islamist stronghold since the 1990s. It was a part of the Libyan Islamic fighting groups’ base. Then it attracted people from Ansar al-Sharia. Latterly, of course, it’s considered the main city of the Islamic State.

But I just want to say that this pendulum swings not only within Libya; it swings all the way down to Mali. So, from Mali there have been the movement of fighters through Chad into Libya and vice versa. You know, this is a regional problem. It shouldn’t only be seen as a Libya problem. Therefore it requires a really serious look at some of the regional dynamics that are at play.

PERIES: Very well, Vijay. Thank you so much for joining us today.

PRASHAD: Thanks a lot.

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

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DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.

I’m in conversation with Vijay Prashad. He is the George and Martha Kellner Chair in South Asian History and professor of international studies at Trinity College. His latest book is No Free Left: The Futures of Indian Communism by Leftword Press. He’s the chief editor of Leftword Books, and he’s also the author of Arab Spring, Libyan Winter.

So, in our first segment with Vijay we talked about Libya and the lack of governance in Libya. And also now in this segment we’re going to take up how Libyans and Libyan rebels got armed in the first place.

Thank you again for joining me, Vijay.

VIJAY PRASHAD, PROF. OF INTERNATIONAL STUDIES, TRINITY COLLEGE: Pleasure. Thanks.

PERIES: So, Vijay, tell us the story of how Libyan rebels and now IS gets armed in Libya in the first place.

PRASHAD: Well, Libya is awash with weaponry, so there is no difficulty in getting arms. It’s also the case that when Ansar al-Sharia was formed after the NATO bombardment in Benghazi, they took control of a large amount of the ordinance of the Libyan army.

You know, the Libyan army in Benghazi had very quickly defected to the side of the rebellion in 2011. So those arms were on the street almost immediately. The armory had been opened.

The other thing to pay attention to is that when these weapons came in, they came into the hands of people who had also been trained not only in the civil war inside Libya, but many of them had been in a pipeline out to Chechnya to Afghanistan, and then most recently through Turkey to Syria. So these are not only people with arms, but they also know how to use them.

And it’s also the case that Libya has in the last several months become an attractive magnet for fighters from elsewhere. You know, just as Iraq was a place where the state had been destroyed, vanquished, and therefore there was a vacuum created, you know, I mean, Syria, it was also the case where the state withdrew from the north and created a vacuum. In the same way, Libya is a large vacuum. So foreign fighters have indeed come in, so that the man who spoke to the camera in the most recent atrocity video from IS in Libya, he spoke with an English accent. He spoke English with a kind of strange, maybe an American tinge to his accent. There was Arabic subtitles beneath. So there are foreign fighters as well. These are people who know how to use weapons. There are weapons before, in front of them.

And a third point here is that right after the NATO-backed overthrow of Gaddafi, there was a valorization in Libya of the tour, of the revolutionary. And this valorization was very dangerous, because it allowed large sections of the population to believe they were heroic, to allow themselves to believe this was their country now, not the country of all Libyans.

And this armed group that was never demobilized, never asked to surrender their weapons, many of them are on for a permanent war. This is reminding me a great deal of Afghanistan after the Soviets pulled out. You know, that was 25 years ago. The Soviets pulled out in the late 1980s, and the civil war broke out in Afghanistan that lasts really till today. Libya reminds me a great deal of Afghanistan.

PERIES: Vijay, one of the things we learned from the New York Times editorial is that IS is using Libya as a ground for human trafficking, human trafficking from Africa to Europe. What do we know about this route and how IS might be financing itself through these efforts?

PRASHAD: Well, this is a problem right across the Sahara. You know, some years ago I reported the story of Mali, where the al-Qaeda of the Maghreb had made itself part of the landscape of northern Mali’s politics. And what al-Qaeda of the Maghreb was, essentially, were, yes, hardened al-Qaeda people, but also in alliance with Tuareg fighters, who had a longstanding regional problem with the government of Mali. So that was the second. And third were traffickers who traffic all kinds of things across the Sahara–you know, arms, people, drugs, etc. So these three social forces gathered together as al-Qaeda in the Maghreb.

This is a long-standing problem in the Sahara region. Trafficking is a big issue. It’s nothing that IS has invented suddenly or is suddenly using. This is precisely how many people are surviving in the Sahara as the desiccation of Northern Africa continues.

You know, here is a serious problem that hit Sudan as well 20 years ago. The withdrawal of the extension of the Sahara southward has created serious battles over water, serious battles over grazing ground. And many people have left agriculture, have left nomadism for trafficking. The IS groups have merely become parasitic on this phenomenon, which has its own history that’s outside IS, but not out–it’s a very important problem.

PERIES: And, Vijay, what avenues are there for a more peaceful negotiated governance in Libya, and also in terms of fighting back the IS at this point?

PRASHAD: There’s no easy road. I mean, we are in a new phase of world history. This is going to take a long time to deal with. I think it’s naive to believe that a bombing raid here and there is going to take care of it. I mean, there has been a process underway in Northern Africa where the governments had met, last year, in Cairo. There were discussions about this as a regional problem. And this is how it has to be seen. This is not merely a Libya problem. This is a problem linked to Mali. This is a probably linked to Algeria. This is a problem linked to the fact that this region has been destabilized by a variety of forces, not only the NATO war in 2011, but also forces of climate change.

There’s a lot of deep problems here. And I think a very superficial approach to it is not going to get to the heart of the matter. There needs to be much more robust regional dialog about the real crisis of the Sahara.

PERIES: Right. And, finally, Vijay, is this war currently that Egypt is conducting on Libya legal? What’s going on in terms of the UN and what they’re saying about this action?

PRASHAD: Well, what is legality? I mean, everybody has become a cowboy, and it seems that you can bomb anybody you’d like. The government in Tripoli–you know, remember, Libya has two governments, so there’s divided sovereignty. The government in Tripoli has said that this is an illegal bombing. You know, we mustn’t forget that the government in Tripoli is largely Muslim Brotherhood backed, and they very much oppose President Sisi, who has been, of course, repressing the Muslim Brotherhood inside Egypt.

The fear is that if Egypt continues its bombing run, the policies within Egypt conducted by Mr. Sisi have deepened a sense of dismay in that country, which gives open season to the Islamic State inside Egypt. This is, of course, a great threat. And I don’t think the Egyptians are looking forward too much. You know, they’re conducting things, it seems to me, on a very narrow timeframe. I think they need to really understand that the alienation of the Muslim Brotherhood inside Egypt is going to open doors for much more dissent and dissatisfaction in that country, which is exactly what the Islamic State is looking to create.

PERIES: Very well, Vijay. Thank you so much for joining us today.

PRASHAD: Thanks a lot.

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

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DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.