There could be no more apt image to describe Libyan politics today than the prime minister himself, the beleaguered Mr Ali Zeidan, being kidnapped on Tuesday morning by a militia notionally allied to his own government. When he was released several hours later, he noted, with marvellous understatement, that “there are many things that need dealing with”. Indeed there are.
For one thing, Mr Zeidan’s was not the first abduction of the week. That came courtesy of American special forces, who strolled into Tripoli on Saturday to pick up Abu Anas al-Liby, a senior member of al‑Qaeda wanted for the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Uganda. The Americans then made life immeasurably harder for the Libyan government by insisting that it had known about the raid. The predictable result was uproar.
But it’s no surprise that the US felt the need to step in. Libyan forces were neither able to prevent the 2011 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, which killed Ambassador Chris Stevens, nor arrest anyone afterwards. If the US had simply put in an extradition request, the prospect of al-Liby being picked up or ever facing trial would have been vanishingly small.
In truth, the prime minister’s kidnapping and the US raid are both no more than symptoms of something that has been obvious for over a year: Libya’s post-Gaddafi state lacks the firepower to impose its will on an increasingly lawless country. The Italian consulate in Benghazi was attacked in January, the French embassy in April, the EU ambassador’s convoy in August, and Russia’s embassy last week. And those are just the foreign targets.
This is about much more than terrorist violence. The state in Libya, which Colonel Gaddafi eviscerated for his own despotic ends, is now being consumed by the same rebel groups that brought it into life back in 2011. Performing the most basic tasks of administration, such as making arrests or monitoring borders, can require a negotiation between the government and whichever militias happen to have accumulated enough guns in that particular area. It’s not just that the enfeebled police and army won’t take them on for fear of losing. It’s also that the state has decided to outsource these functions to its tormentors. Both the prime minister’s kidnapping and the attack in Benghazi were perpetrated by groups that have worked with the government and its ministries.
Why are militias challenging the government in the first place? There’s no simple answer, because there is a dizzying variety of groups with guns. Some are Islamist, others secular and nationalist. Some are formed around particular cities or provinces. Others formed in a jumbled way during the 2011 uprising, and claim a sort of Jacobin revolutionary legitimacy against what they see as a government tainted by corrupt, pro-Western stooges.
In March, a coalition of militias, with the typically self-important title of the Supreme Security Council, laid siege to the ministries of justice and foreign affairs for two weeks, insisting that parliament sign a wide-ranging law that would ban Gaddafi-era officials from serving in government. Remarkably, parliament capitulated. It had essentially been coerced into legislating at the barrel of a gun. The speaker of parliament himself was forced to resign.
Outside of Tripoli, the problem is no better. For the past two months, Libyan oil exports have plummeted to a fifth of their Gaddafi-era peak, after guards at eastern oil facilities and ports went on strike. Part of that dispute was a demand that eastern Libya, which chafes at Tripoli’s domination, be given more autonomy.
Wars, once won, tend to be forgotten. This was the fate of Afghanistan in the years after 2001, Iraq in 2003 and Libya in 2011. But Libya’s problems will not stay within its borders. Adding to all of these domestic concerns is the massive flow of arms across Libya’s long, porous borders. Libyan weapons, looted from Gaddafi’s armouries, have been smuggled across the region, turning up in places as diverse as Mali, the Sinai, Gaza and Syria. According to one estimate, around 3,000 shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles – capable of bringing down civilian airliners – remain missing.
The dilemma is clear: Libya’s government is too weak to fix these problems itself, but unilateral American or European steps – or assistance that is too public – risks tainting the government further in the eyes of Islamists and nationalists. A careful balance has to be struck. This government’s authority has been eroding for over a year, and it has now suffered the most grievous blow yet. Unless Mr Zeidan shows he can check the power of militias, he risks a continued slide into irrelevance.
The Attack on the American Mission in Benghazi, Libya
Sept. 11, 9:30 p.m. Benghazi time
Libya Envoy’s Killing Was a Terrorist Attack, the White House Says
WASHINGTON — The White House is now calling the assault on the American diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya, a “terrorist attack.”
“It is self-evident that what happened in Benghazi was a terrorist attack,” the White House press secretary, Jay Carney, told reporters aboard Air Force One on Thursday. “Our embassy was attacked violently and the result was four deaths of American officials.”
Until now, White House officials have not used that language in describing the assault. But with the election less than two months away and President Obama’s record on national security a campaign issue, they have come under criticism from Republican lawmakers who say the administration is playing down a threat for which it was unprepared.
Mr. Carney offered the new assessment in response to a question about remarks by Matthew G. Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, who told a Congressional committee Wednesday that J. Christopher Stevens, the United States ambassador to Libya, and three other Americans had died “in the course of a terrorist attack.”
Asked if the president drew a connection between the Libyan attack, which occurred on Sept. 11, and the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon 11 years before, Mr. Carney said, “The attack occurred on Sept 11, 2012, so we use the same calendar at the White House as you do.”
In a highly charged political atmosphere, the mere use of the term “terrorist” is loaded, not least, as one administration official acknowledged privately, because the phrase conjures up an image of America under attack, something the White House wants to avoid.
Beyond that, different government agencies have different definitions for what defines terrorism, said Brian Fishman, a counterterrorism expert at the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan research group.
The classic definition, Mr. Fishman said, “is an attack by a nonstate group on noncombatants with the intent to intimidate people.” He said that another reason the administration was shying from using that term is because “they really didn’t know who did it.”
And the president, campaigning in Florida on Thursday, did not use the word terrorism when asked about the attacks.
Mr. Carney maintained on Thursday that Obama administration officials still were not calling the attack preplanned.
“According to the best information we have now, we believe it was an opportunistic attack on our mission in Benghazi,” he said. “It appears that some well-armed militants seized on that attack as the events unfolded that evening. We do not have any specific intelligence that there was significant advance planning or coordination for this attack.”Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said earlier in the week that there had been no intelligence warnings that an attack was imminent.
Mrs. Clinton said that F.B.I. investigators had arrived in Tripoli and that the United States, with the Libyan authorities, would find those responsible. She did not discuss any potential ties to Al Qaeda, but blamed extremists opposed to the democratic changes in places like Libya, Tunisia and Egypt for the violence and protests around the region generally.
Mrs. Clinton announced the creation of a panel to investigate the attack. The panel, called an Accountability Review Board, will be led by Thomas R. Pickering, a veteran diplomat and former under secretary of state. The board is authorized by a 1986 law intended to strengthen security at United States diplomatic missions.
“We are concerned first and foremost with our own people and facilities,” Mrs. Clinton said in an appearance at the State Department with the Indonesian foreign minister. “But we are concerned about the internal security in these countries, because ultimately, that puts at risk the men, women and children of these societies on a daily ongoing basis if actions are not taken to try to restore security and civil order.”