Libya: a reader

A collection of the best writing and reporting on Libya.

Sholto Byrnes examines the life of Colonel Gaddafi and his curious relationship with the west in this profile, published last year in the New Statesman.

Gaddafi is the last of that generation, and while others who cloaked themselves in the rhetoric of Nasser have fallen, failed or died, it is the young man once praised by the Egyptian president who now appears to be becoming the kind of Arab leader with whom we can, and with whom we wish, to do business.

Throughout the Nineties and Noughties, Gaddafi transformed from a tyrant to a laughable autocrat in the eyes of the west. He was a bit weird, but he was a man we could do business with, seemed to be the gist of it. And the west did a lot of business with him, something that could prove the final straw for the struggling Silvio Berlusconi, according to James Ridgeway at Mother Jones.

The press struggled to see past the female bodyguards, which was part of Gaddafi's plan, according to Ben Macintyre in the Times (£).

Gaddafi's female bodyguards have kept the tabloids salivating for years, but they too are part of the act. Unlikely tales of repeated assassination attempts foiled by the "killer virgins" help to maintain the illusion of permanent danger, of a nation under threat. From time to time the "Guide of the Revolution" has announced that he is standing down, his mission completed, only to be called back to power by staged rallies of adoring Libyans.

As Gaddafi strutted across the international stage, life in Libya remained a struggle. The New Yorker contains this rather eloquent description of it.

Here's a story they tell in Libya. Three contestants are in a race to run five hundred metres carrying a bag of rats. The first sets off at a good pace, but after a hundred metres the rats have chewed through the bag and spill on to the course. The second contestant gets to a hundred and fifty metres, and the same thing happens. The third contestant shakes the bag so vigorously as he runs that the rats are constantly tumbling and cannot chew on anything, and he takes the prize. That third contestant is Libya's leader, Colonel Muammar Qaddafi, the permanent revolutionary.

Hopes for reform lay briefly on the shoulders of Gaddafi's son Saif. His PhD expounded on the role of civil society in democratisation (you can read it, here). Unfortunately, these words did not translate into action, according to Andrew Solomon of the New Yorker, who argues in this blog post that the protests stem from a lack of reform, endemic poverty and – that worldwide phenomenon – discontented youth.

If the causes of the unrest are unclear, however, the actual events are even murkier. With few mainstream media outlets in Libya, reports are based around grimy, unclear clips, often taken on mobile phones.

The following video appears to show government troops opening fire on protesters. [Warning: extremely graphic images]

 

After reports – spread by, of all people, William Hague – circulated that Gaddafi had fled to Venezuela, the Libyan leader appeared on state television last night and, in a bizarre public address, said:

I am satisfied, because I was speaking in front of the youth in the Green Square tonight, but the rain came, praise to God, it is a good omen.

I want to clarify for them that I am in Tripoli not in Venezuela. Do not believe these channels – they are dogs. Goodbye.

Throw in the apparent defection of two Libyan pilots and the situation becomes even more of a confusing morass. To try to keep abrest of the events in Libya, follow this Twitter list.

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The Taliban's succession crisis will not diminish its resilience

Haibatullah Akhunzada's appointment as leader of the Taliban may put stress on the movement, but is unlikely to dampen its insurgency. 

After 19 years under the guidance of the Taliban’s supreme leader Mullah Omar, the group has now faced two succession crises in under a year. But although Haibatullah Akhunzada’s appointment as leader of the Taliban will likely put stress on the movement, it shows few signals of diminishing its renewed insurgency.

The news pretty much ends speculation about former leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour’s death in a US airstrike in Pakistan’s south-western Baluchistan province, which was criticised by Islamabad as a violation of its sovereignty.

The Taliban would have prepared extensively for this eventuality. The fast appointment, following days of intense council, appears to be a conspicuous act of decisiveness. It stands in contrast to the two-year delay the movement faced in announcing the death of the Mullah Omar. It will be not be lost on the Taliban that it was subterfuge around the death of Mullah Omar that caused the fracture within the movement which in turn led to the establishment of an ISIS presence in the country.

The appointment is a victory for the Taliban old guard. As former head of the Taliban's judiciary and Mullah Mansour’s deputy, in many ways, Haibatullah is a natural successor. Haibatullah, described by Afghanistan expert Sami Yousafzai as a “stone age Mullah,” demonstrates the Taliban’s inherent tendency to resort to tradition rather than innovation during times of internal crisis.

The decision taken by the Taliban to have an elder statesman of the group at the helm highlights the increasing marginalisation of the Haqqani network, a powerful subset within the Taliban that has been waging an offensive against the government and coalition forces in northwest Pakistan.

Sirajuddin Haqqani, the leader of the Haqqani network who already has a bounty of 5 million dollars on his head, was touted in some Taliban circles as a potential successor, however the decision to overlook him is a conservative move from the Taliban. 

The Taliban’s leadership of the jihad against the Afghan government is hinged on their claims to religious legitimacy, something the group will hope to affirm through the Haibatullah’s jurisprudential credentials. This assertion of authority has particular significance given the rise of ISIS elements in the country. The last two Taliban chiefs have both declared themselves to be amir ul-momineen or ‘leader of the faithful,’ providing a challenge to the parallel claims of ISIS’ Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Any suggestions that Mansour’s death will lead to the unravelling of the Taliban are premature. The military targeting of prominent jihadi leaders within group structures has been seen in operations against the leadership of ISIS, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and other groups.

In recent research for the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics, we found that it is often less prominent jihadis that play an integral role in keeping the movement alive. Targeted killings do create a void, but this often comes at the expense of addressing the wider support base and ideological draw of militant outfits. This is particularly relevant with a relatively decentralised movement like the Taliban.

Such operations can spur activity. If the example of the Taliban’s previous leadership succession is to be heeded, we might expect renewed attacks across Afghanistan, beyond the group’s strongholds near the eastern border with Pakistan. The brief capture of Kunduz, Afghanistan's fifth-largest city, at the end of September 2015, was a show of strength to answer the numerous internal critics of Mullah Mansour’s new leadership of the movement.

In a news cycle dominated by reports of ISIS, and to a diminishing extent al-Qaeda, atrocities, it is important to comprehend the renewed brutality of the Afghan insurgency.  Data from the Centre on Religion and Geopolitics Global Extremism Monitor found a seventeen per cent rise in fatalities from March to April, marking the start of the Taliban’s spring fighting season. A suicide attack in central Kabul on the headquarters of an elite military unit that killed 64 people was the single most deadly act of terror around the world in the month of April, and the group’s bloodiest attack in the Afghan capital for years. Reports this morning of a suicide attack on a bus killing 10 staff from an appeal court west of Kabul, suggests that the violence shows no sign of diminishing under the new leadership.

All these developments come during a period of renewed impetus behind international peace talks. Last week representatives from Pakistan were joined by delegates from Afghanistan, the United States, and China in an attempt to restart the stalled negotiation process with the Taliban.

Haibatullah Akhunzada’s early leadership moves will be watched closely by these countries, as well as dissonant voices within the movement, to ascertain what the Taliban does next, in a period of unprecedented challenge for the infamously resilient movement. 

Milo Comerford is a South and Central Asia Analyst for the Centre on Religion and Geopolitics