A report from the current war-torn Benghazi
Greeted as a hero while smiling to the cameras, David Cameron had flown into the Libyan city of Benghazi and was milking every last ounce of publicity from Britain’s successful role in the fall of Colonel Gaddafi.
Alongside the then French President Nicolas Sarkozy, he visited a hospital and travelled to Liberation Square to deliver a triumphant speech to cheering Libyans.
Cameron told his audience: ‘It is great to be in free Libya. Colonel Gaddafi said he would hunt you down like rats, but you showed the courage of lions . . . Your city was an inspiration to the world as you threw off a dictator and chose freedom.’ He explained that he was ‘proud of Britain’s role’ in helping to eradicate Gaddafi.
He concluded with this pledge: ‘Your friends in Britain and France will stand with you as you build your country and build your democracy for the future.’ Today, just four years on, Cameron’s hubristic promise has turned out to be worthless.
Rather than bequeath Libya a prosperous and democratic future, Britain turned away and the country lies in chaos.
Having spent £320 million on bombing the country, the British government invested only £25 million to try to stabilise it afterwards, with a separate £15 million for humanitarian aid.
Looking back, Cameron’s decision to bomb in 2011 — taken in breathtaking defiance of advice from the Chief of Defence Staff General Sir David Richards — looks as fatally misguided as Tony Blair’s decision to invade Iraq.
Instead of paving the way for democracy for the Libyan people, Britain has left a political vacuum, which has been filled by the murderous zealots of Islamic State (IS), who have turned Libya into a stronghold for their holy war and campaign of bloodshed against the West.
This became hideously clear when I visited Benghazi earlier this week. I asked my guides to take me to Liberation Square (Benghazi’s equivalent of London’s Trafalgar Square) so I could see the spot where Mr Cameron had made his vainglorious victory speech. They looked at me as if I was mad.
‘Don’t you know that the government has lost control of Liberation Square? We’ll be kidnapped or killed if we go there!’
The horrifying truth is that one third of Benghazi — where the revolution to bring down Colonel Gaddafi started in February 2011 — is under the control of radical jihadi forces, including IS.
They hold the centre of the city, where the major government buildings are located.
It is as if all areas of London from Chelsea to Tower Bridge had turned into a murderous conflict zone. How different to four years ago when Cameron and Sarkozy were mobbed here.
Benghazi is now a forgotten city. As conditions quickly worsened, Cameron ordered the immediate evacuation of all British citizens from Libya two years ago — and local officials explained to me that as far as they were aware, I was the first Briton to visit the city since then.
Occasionally, low overhead, we heard Russian-built MIG bombers screech past and there was the crack of nearby gunfire as pro- government forces fight to recapture rebel areas.
Normal life has collapsed. Last year, the school system closed completely and it only partially re-opened two weeks ago.
At the temporary city hall — the official one being in rebel hands — I learned that 72 out of the city’s 284 schools are out of use and 88 have been damaged.
The university is out of action, 15 hospitals have closed and there is a chronic shortage of medicines and other medical equipment.
Piles of rubbish litter the pavements because there is no money to pay for basic services. Assassination squads roam the streets while 800 policemen and officials have been targeted in the past four years.
Rather than the democratic dream that Cameron blithely hoped for four years ago, Benghazi has turned into a living hell.
Officials say that 335,000 of the 900,000 inhabitants have been driven out of their homes and are living in makeshift camps.
Of course, it is not just Benghazi that has collapsed into chaos since the fall of Gaddafi. The country has been engulfed by civil war.
How ironic that — as has happened after so many other Western military interventions — the overthrow of a brutal dictator has led to even worse conditions for the country’s benighted population.
Indeed, this was, tragically, entirely predictable. We witnessed it a few years earlier in Iraq after the removal of Saddam Hussein.
This week, in Afghanistan, after Western troops pulled out following their protracted involvement against the Taliban, the rebel forces claim to have retaken Sangin in Helmand province.
(Of the 456 British Armed Forces who died in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2015, almost a quarter were killed in and around Sangin.)
When will our naive politicians ever learn from these serial mistakes? Like Iraq, modern Libya is an artificial entity created by imperial conquest. The first conquerors were the Italians
But in World War II, they and their German allies were driven out by the British Eighth Army.
The British helped install Idris I as king of a united Libya under an absolute monarchy, but he was overthrown in 1969 in a bloodless coup by a group of army officers led by a 27- year-old signals officer, Muammar Gaddafi.
This meant that before the anti-Gaddafi revolution, Libya had only enjoyed a very short time as a single political unit — and none at all as a working democracy.
It is the fourth largest country in Africa with five separate ethnic groups and 140 clans. Even at the height of Gaddafi’s dictatorship, these divisions still existed and it was no surprise at all that after he was toppled, the country fell into the hands of competing militias.
The result is that there are now rival governments. One, in eastern Libya, is regarded as legitimate by the international community — but it does not control the capital city, Tripoli, to the west.
A rival government is based there, but it has little influence as a civil war rages between a coalition of fighting groups known as Libya Dawn, based in the Mediterranean city of Misrata, and another tribal group based in Zintan, in the far west. The United Nations recently brokered a deal to secure a unified interim government and elections in two years, but the agreement has become pointless given the chaos in the country.
According to Amnesty International, abduction and torture are commonplace, with victims being ‘beaten with plastic tubes, sticks, metal bars or cables, given electric shocks, suspended in stress positions for hours, kept blindfolded and shackled for days’.
The Islamic State has exploited the power vacuum left by the Franco/British intervention and has gained footholds across the country. Crucially, it controls the strategic central seaport of Sirte, once the home town of the Gaddafi clan. There, conditions have descended into pure horror, as I discovered when I travelled to the ancient city of Cyrene (site of a huge Roman city, where the German general Rommel had his base in World War II) ten hours’ drive from Sirte.
I met Abdullah, an electrician who had recently fled from Sirte. He told me how IS fighters arrived over the summer and said he witnessed 14 men being beheaded in a single day, as the terrorists asserted their control.
He said it was not a coincidence that Sirte has become the IS headquarters in Libya. Members of the Gaddafi clan — hunted down after the revolution — have switched sides to IS with well-trained former Gaddafi loyalist commanders now in control of the IS army.
The similarities with Iraq after the 2003 invasion are palpable.
There, Saddam Hussein’s former henchmen have similarly become the senior commanders for the Islamic State.
Abdullah (not his real name: he still has family in the town) told me that ISIS makes huge sums of money smuggling migrants into Europe, charging 1,000 dinar (about £500) per journey.
It goes without saying that if Islamic State can smuggle migrants across the Mediterranean, then it can also send trained killers in order to inflict further atrocities on mainland Europe.
Chillingly, ISIS makes no secret of the fact that this is precisely what it aims to do.
It has issued a propaganda video showing film of the mass murder of local Christians and boasting: ‘We are on the shores of Libya and are coming to Rome.’
Abdullah said that these IS fighters possess a range of heavy weapons, tanks, anti-aircraft guns and missiles. Fresh recruits arrive daily, many after long journeys across the desert from countries such as Chad and Nigeria.
He told me that these jihadists are paid around £500 a month, with married men receiving more than £1,000. There is no shortage of money that IS has obtained from kidnap ransoms, smuggling and extortion.
Earlier this month, IS got an unexpected financial windfall when heavy rains exposed a 40ft-long container hidden on one of Gaddafi’s farms which was full of gold and dollars. It had been buried by the late dictator.
Meanwhile, Boko Haram, the murderous terror group which controls large areas of western Africa, has linked up with IS and established a presence in Sirte.
Wherever it operates, IS imposes a reign of terror. A strict Islamic agenda has been imposed in local schools. Maths, English language and cultural studies have been removed from the syllabus.
Instead, pupils are forced to witness videos of atrocities committed by IS in Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan. At the age of 14, children are sent for military training in camps.
Every Friday, sharia courts meet to enforce the IS regime. Two weeks ago, a woman was whipped in the public square — punishment for failing to wear a burqa. Another Moroccan woman who dispensed alternative medicine was accused of witchcraft and killed.
In order to assess the chances of David Cameron’s promise to ‘build democracy’ actually being achieved, I met Libya’s deputy prime minister Abdul Salaam Al Badri in the regional capital of Beida, a small eastern town which acts as the centre for government.
Bleakly, he told me: ‘We do not have just a civil war — we have more than a civil war. These terrorist groups will not only affect Libya. They will go to Europe.’
Referring to the attacks in Paris, he said: ‘Last month, you only saw six or seven [terrorists] in Paris. Now it could be 60 or 600.’
Significantly, he blamed Britain for abandoning Libya, thus helping to create the conditions where terrorism has flourished.
‘You should have stayed and helped and not just watched. Instead, you said: ‘Gaddafi is dead, let’s go home.’ ‘
The deputy PM also bitterly complained about the crippling international sanctions that prevent the government in the east of Libya raising the money and resources needed to build — and fight the threat of IS.
Recently, his government tried to forge mutual links with the British government by writing to Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond and offering naval support against people-smuggling gangs taking migrants across the Mediterranean to Europe.
Staggeringly, I’m told Mr Hammond hasn’t replied. Nevertheless, there are reports that David Cameron may be about to send British forces back to Libya, with talk of up to 1,000 ground troops to fight IS.
To my mind, it is shaming that it has taken the atrocities in Paris and the spread of IS to Syria, to force Britain to re-engage with Libya after four years’ of neglect. (Though, to be fair to Cameron, Libyans rejected offers of assistance after the fall of Gaddafi.)
However, any decision to send British troops would be fraught with danger.
A belligerent mayor of Benghazi told me: ‘If Britain puts boots on the ground, we will fight them.’
A military commander put it even more bluntly: ‘There will be a jihad against the British if there are boots on the ground.’
So there are no easy answers. If David Cameron launches yet another British military intervention in a Muslim country, he will be sending British men and women into a death zone.
Conversely, if he doesn’t, IS fighters will be free to use Libya to launch yet more murderous assaults on Europe. The awful truth is that Mr Cameron must bear a heavy responsibility for this desperate state of affairs.
With all the lessons of post-war Iraq, he has no excuse for not foreseeing the condition of post-war Libya. In Iraq, the Americans at least made a big effort to turn the country into a successful state, though much of that effort was tragically inept.
In Libya, though, David Cameron and the Western allies did not even try. They bombed the Gaddafi regime in what was a spasm of righteous indignation — and then abandoned the Libyan people after exploiting them for that gruesome photocall in Liberation Square.
Today, tragically, Libya and the rest of the world must face the consequences.
How to submit an Op-Ed: Libyan Express accepts opinion articles on a wide range of topics. Submissions may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include ‘Op-Ed’ in the subject line.