Libya, an oil-rich nation in North Africa, spent more than 40 years under the erratic leadership of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi before a revolt pushed him from power in August 2011 after a six-month struggle. On Oct 20, Colonel Qaddafi was killed as fighters battling the vestiges of his fallen regime finally wrested control of his hometown of Surt.
The country was formally declared liberated three days later, setting in motion the process of creating a new constitution and an elected government. By early November, many of the local militia leaders who helped topple Colonel Qaddafi abandoned a pledge to give up their weapons. They said that they intend to preserve their autonomy and influence political decisions as “guardians of the revolution.”
The issue of the militias is one of the most urgent facing Libya’s new provisional government, the Transitional National Council. Noting reports of sporadic clashes between militias as well as vigilante revenge killings, many civilian leaders, along with some fighters, say the militias’ shift from merely dragging their feet about surrendering weapons to actively asserting a continuing political role poses a stark challenge to the council’s fragile authority.
The national Council has pledged in a “constitutional declaration” that within eight months after the selection of a new government, it will hold elections for a national assembly, which will oversee the writing of a constitution. Members voted to name as prime minister Abdel Rahim el-Keeb, an electronics engineer and Qaddafi critic, who spent most of his career abroad.
On Nov. 8, a Tunisian appeals court approved the extradition of former prime minister Al-Baghdadi Ali al-Mahmoudi, making him the first escaped member of Colonel Qaddafi’s felled government to be ordered returned home into Libyan custody. The extradition order came despite concerns by rights groups and foreign governments about extrajudicial killings and mistreatment of Qaddafi loyalists by militia members.
Colonel Qaddafi’s Death
Colonel Qaddafi’s final moments were as violent as the uprising that overthrew him. In a cellphone video that went viral on the Internet, the deposed Libyan leader is seen splayed on the hood of a truck and then stumbling amid a frenzied crowd, seemingly begging for mercy. He is next seen on the ground, with fighters grabbing his hair. Blood pours down his head, drenching his brown khakis, as the crowd shouts, “God is great!”
Colonel Qaddafi’s body was shown in later photographs, with bullet holes apparently fired into his head at what forensic experts said was close range, raising the possibility that he was executed by anti-Qaddafi fighters. The official version of events offered by Libya’s new leaders — that Colonel Qaddafi was killed in a cross-fire — did not appear to be supported by the photographs and videos that streamed over the Internet all day long, raising questions about the government’s control of the militias in a country that has been divided into competing regions and factions.
Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, the head of the Transitional National Council, announced the creation of a formal committee of inquiry to examine the circumstances surrounding the death of Colonel Qaddafi while in the custody of his captors, but days later, no one from Libya’s new government was investigating evidence of one of the worst massacres of the eight-month conflict, in Surt.
Nov. 8 A Tunisian appeals court approved the extradition of former prime minister Al-Baghdadi Ali al-Mahmoudi, making him the first escaped member of Colonel Qaddafi’s felled government to be ordered returned home into Libyan custody. The extradition order came despite concerns by rights groups and foreign governments about extrajudicial killings and mistreatment of Qaddafi loyalists by militia members.
Nov. 1 Libya’s Transitional National Council said that its members voted to name as prime minister Abdel Rahim el-Keeb, whom officials described as an electronics engineer and Qaddafi critic who spent most of his career abroad. He succeeded Mahmoud Jibril, who announced his resignation after the capture of Tripoli.
Oct. 28 The top prosecutor of the International Criminal Court at The Hague said that he had been in indirect contact with Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi, the fugitive son of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi and his one-time heir apparent, about turning himself in to face trial before the court.
Oct. 27 The United Nations Security Council voted unanimously to end its authorization of the foreign military intervention in Libya, the legal basis for the NATO attacks on Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s forces during the eight-month civil war that toppled him from power.
The action came despite worries in Libya that Colonel Qaddafi’s remaining loyalists might not be vanquished, and that they might regroup outside Libya to cause new trouble in the months ahead.
Oct. 26 Libya’s interim leader said that he had asked NATO to prolong its air patrols through December and add military advisers on the ground, citing worries that supporters of Qadaffi might launch attacks from neighboring countries.
Oct. 25 After permitting four days of public viewing of the slowly decomposing corpses of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, his son Muatassim and his former defense minister Abu Bakr Younes, the military council in Misurata said that the three were buried early in the day at a secret location.
Oct. 25 Libya’s interim leaders appeared to be unwilling or incapable of looking into accusations of atrocities by their fighters, despite repeated pledges not to tolerate abuse. In Surt, volunteers collected dozens of bodies, apparently of people executed only days before, including at least two former Qaddafi government officials. It appeared to be one of the worst massacres of the eight-month conflict, but days after it occurred, no one from Libya’s new government had come to investigate.
Oct. 24 Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, the head of the Transitional National Council, announced the creation of a formal committee of inquiry to examine the circumstances surrounding the death of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi while in the custody of his captors after he fled his final refuge, acknowledging the calls by foreign powers and rights groups — including some that supported the rebellion against Colonel Qaddafi’s rule — for an investigation into how he wound up dead with a bullet to the head.
Oct. 23 The leader of the transitional government, Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, declared to thousands of revelers in a sunlit square that Libya’s revolution had ended, setting the country on the path to elections, and he vowed that the new government would be based on Islamic tenets. The emotional ceremony, hastily improvised three days after the death of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, was intended to put a cap on Libya’s bloody upheaval and mark the beginning of a transition to an elected government within 20 months.
Oct. 20 The head of the Libyan military council said that Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi had been killed as fighters wrested control of his hometown of Surt after a prolonged struggle. Videos circulated on the Internet showing a wounded Colonel Qaddafi surrounded by jubilant rebels before he died. Photos of his corpse showed several bullet wounds to his head as well as wounds to other parts of his body. Wild celebrations broke out across the country.
In February 2011, the unrest sweeping through much of the Arab world had erupted in several Libyan cities. Though it began with a relatively organized core of anti-government opponents in Benghazi, its spread to the capital of Tripoli was swift and spontaneous. Colonel Qaddafi lashed out with extreme violence. Soon, though, an inchoate opposition managed to cobble together the semblance of a transitional government, field a makeshift rebel army and portray itself to the West and Libyans as an alternative to Colonel Qaddafi’s corrupt and repressive rule.
Momentum shifted quickly, however, and the rebels faced the possibility of being outgunned and outnumbered in what increasingly looked like a mismatched civil war. Then as Colonel Qaddafi’s troops advanced to within 100 miles of Benghazi, the rebel stronghold in the west, the United Nations Security Council voted to authorize military action, a risky foreign intervention aimed at averting a bloody rout of the rebels by loyalist forces. On March 19, American and European forces began a broad campaign of strikes against Colonel Qaddafi and his government, unleashing warplanes and missiles in a military intervention on a scale not seen in the Arab world since the Iraq war.
Prior to the bombing campaign, the Obama administration intensely debated whether to open the mission with a new kind of warfare: a cyberoffensive to disrupt and even disable the Qaddafi government’s air-defense system, which threatened allied warplanes. But administration officials and some military officers balked, fearing that it might set a precedent for other nations, in particular Russia or China, to carry out such offensives of their own. They were also unable to resolve whether the president had the power to proceed with such an attack without informing Congress. In the end, American officials rejected cyberwarfare and used conventional aircraft, cruise missiles and drones.
By late May, the weeks of NATO bombing seemed to put the momentum back on the side of the rebels, who broke a bloody siege of the western city of Misurata. By August, they were making territorial gains in the country’s east and west. Colonel Qaddafi rejected calls to leave power in spite of defections by subordinates, increased economic and political isolation and NATO air assaults. The rebels themselves suffered from internal dissension and lack of training.
Six months of inconclusive fighting gave way within a matter of days to an assault on Tripoli that unfolded at a breakneck pace. By the night of Aug. 21, rebels surged into the city, meeting only sporadic resistance and setting off raucous street celebrations. Expectations grew that Colonel Qaddafi’s hold on power was crumbling as rebels overran his heavily fortified compound on Aug. 23 and finally established control after days of bloody urban street fighting. The rebels struggled in the days that followed to restore order and services to Tripoli, while the fighting to subdue the last of the Qaddafi stronghold proceeded slowly.
Rifts between tribes and the growing influence of Islamists in Libya raised hard questions about the ultimate character of the government and society that will rise in place of Qaddafi’s autocracy. The Transitional National Council, which has promised to assemble a new cabinet, has thus far been unable to overcome regional disputes over the composition of the group or to persuade the militias that seized Tripoli to give up their arms.
Colonel Qaddafi took power in a bloodless coup in September 1969 and ruled with an iron fist, seeking to spread Libya’s influence in Africa. He built his rule on a cult of personality and a network of family and tribal alliances supported by largess from Libya’s oil revenues. The United States withdrew its ambassador from Libya in 1972 after Colonel Qaddafi renounced agreements with the West and repeatedly inveighed against the United States in speeches and public statements.
After a mob sacked and burned the American Embassy in 1979, the United States cut off relations. The relationship continued to spiral downward and, in 1986, the Reagan administration accused Libya of ordering the bombing of a German discothèque that killed three people, including two American servicemen. In response, the United States bombed targets in Tripoli and Benghazi.
The most notorious of Libya’s actions was the bombing in 1988 of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which killed 270 people. Libya later accepted responsibility, turned over suspects and paid families of victims more than $2 billion. After a surprise decision to renounce terrorism in 2003, Colonel Qaddafi re-established diplomatic and economic ties throughout Europe. He had also changed with regard to Israel. The man who once called for pushing the '‘Zionists’' into the sea advocated the forming of one nation where Jews and Palestinians would live together in peace.
Rather than trying to destabilize his Arab neighbors, he founded a pan-African confederation modeled along the lines of the European Union. On Feb. 2, 2009, Colonel Qaddafi was named chairman of the African Union. His election, however, caused some unease among some of the group’s 53-member nations as well as among diplomats and analysts. The colonel, who had ruled Libya with an iron hand, was a stark change from the succession of recent leaders from democratic countries like Tanzania, Ghana and Nigeria.
The most significant changes had been the overtures Colonel Qaddafi made toward the United States. He was among the first Arab leaders to denounce the Sept. 11 attacks, and he lent tacit approval to the American-led invasion of Afghanistan. To the astonishment of other Arab leaders, he reportedly shared his intelligence files on Al Qaeda with the United States to aid in the hunt for its international operatives. He also cooperated with the United States and Europe on other terrorism issues, as well as on nuclear weapons and immigration.
In August 2009, Colonel Qaddafi embarrassed the British government and drew criticism from President Obama with his triumphant reaction to the release from prison on compassionate grounds of Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, the only person convicted in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103. Mr. Megrahi was given a hero’s welcome when he arrived in Libya, and Colonel Qaddafi thanked British and Scottish officials for releasing Mr. Megrahi at a time when both governments were trying to distance themselves from the action.
Colonel Qaddafi’s son, Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi, who was educated in Britain, for years served as a bridge between the Libya power centers and the West. Prior to the 2011 unrest, the only hint of potential change in Libya came from Seif Qaddafi, who spoke of dismantling a legacy of Socialism and authoritarianism introduced by his father 40 years ago. Seif Qaddafi proposed far-reaching ideas: tax-free investment zones, a tax haven for foreigners, the abolition of visa requirements and the development of luxury hotels. He liked to boast that his country could be “the Dubai of North Africa,” pointing to Libya’s proximity to Europe (the flight from London to Tripoli is under three hours), its abundant energy reserves and 1,200 miles of mostly unspoiled Mediterranean coastline.
But the reality of daily life in Tripoli remained far removed from those lofty notions. The streets were strewn with garbage; there were gaping holes in the sidewalks, and tourist-friendly hotels and restaurants were few and far between. And while a number of seaside hotels were being built, the city largely ignored its most spectacular asset, the Mediterranean. Unemployment is estimated as high as 30 percent and much of the potential work force is insufficiently trained.
Uprising in Libya
In February 2011, protests broke out in several parts of Libya on a so-called Day of Rage to challenge Colonel Qaddafi’s iron rule. Thousands turned out in Benghazi, Tripoli and three other locations, according to Human Rights Watch. The state media, though, showed Libyans waving green flags and shouting in support of Colonel Qaddafi. Trying to demonstrate that he was still in control, Colonel Qaddafi appeared on television on Feb. 22, 2011, speaking from his residence on the grounds of an army barracks in Tripoli that still showed scars from when the United States bombed it in 1986.
Colonel Qaddafi, who took power in a military coup, had always kept the Libyan military too weak and divided to rebel against him. About half of Libya’s relatively small 50,000-member army was made up of poorly trained and unreliable conscripts, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Many of its battalions were organized along tribal lines, ensuring their loyalty to their own clan rather than to top military commanders — a pattern evident in the defection of portions of the army to help protesters take the eastern city of Benghazi.
Distrustful of his own generals, Colonel Qaddafi built up an elaborate paramilitary force — accompanied by special segments of the regular army that reported primarily to his family. It was designed to check the army and to subdue his own population. At the top of that structure was his roughly 3,000-member revolutionary guard corps, which guarded him personally. But perhaps the most significant force that Colonel Qaddafi deployed against the insurrection was a group of about 2,500 ruthless mercenaries from countries like Chad, Sudan and Niger that he called his Islamic Pan African Brigade.
The Ongoing Conflict
On Feb. 25, 2011, security forces loyal to Colonel Qaddafi used gunfire to try to disperse thousands of protesters who streamed out of mosques after prayers to mount their first major challenge to the government’s crackdown in Tripoli. Rebel leaders said they were sending forces from nearby cities and other parts of the country to join the fight. The ring of rebel control around Tripoli tightened, but in a sign that the fight was far from over, armed government forces massed around the city.
The United Nations Security Council voted unanimously to impose sanctions on Colonel Qaddafi and his inner circle of advisers, and called for an international war crimes investigation into “widespread and systemic attacks” against Libyan citizens. On March 2, rebels in the strategic oil city of Brega repelled an attack by hundreds of Colonel Qaddafi’s fighters. The daylong battle was the first major incursion by the colonel’s forces in the rebel-held east of the country since the Libyan uprising began.
Air power proved to be Colonel Qaddafi’s biggest advantage, and rebels were unable to use bases and planes they captured in the east. Planes and helicopters gave the Qaddafi forces an additional advantage in moving ammunition and supplies, a crucial factor given the length of the Libyan coast between the rebel stronghold of Benghazi and Tripoli.
As Colonel Qaddafi’s forces tried to retake a series of strategic oil towns on the east coast of the country, which fell early in the rebellion to antigovernment rebels, the West continued to debate what actions to take.
After days of often acrimonious debate played out against a desperate clock, the Security Council authorized member nations to take “all necessary measures” to protect civilians, diplomatic code words calling for military action. Benghazi erupted in celebration at news of the resolution’s passage. A military campaign against Colonel Qaddafi, under British and French leadership, was launched less than 48 hours later. American forces mounted a campaign to knock out Libya’s air defense systems, firing volley after volley of Tomahawk missiles from nearby ships against missile, radar and communications centers. Within a week allied air strikes had averted a rout by Colonel Qaddafi of Benghazi and established a no-fly zone over Libya.
The campaign, however, was dogged by friction over who should command the operation, with the United States eventually handing off its lead role to NATO, and by uncertainty over its ultimate goal. Western leaders acknowledged that there was no endgame beyond the immediate United Nations authorization to protect Libyan civilians, and it was uncertain whether even military strikes would force Colonel Qaddafi from power.
In a nationally televised speech March 28, President Obama defended the American-led military assault, emphasizing that it would be limited and insisting that America had the responsibility and the international backing to stop what he characterized as a looming genocide. At the same time, he said, directing American troops to forcibly remove Colonel Qaddafi from power would be a step too far, and would “splinter” the international coalition that had moved against the Libyan government.
Six months of inconclusive fighting gave way within a matter of days to an assault on Tripoli that unfolded at a breakneck pace. By the night of Aug. 21, rebels surged into the city, meeting only sporadic resistance and setting off raucous street celebrations. Expectations grew that Colonel Qaddafi’s hold on power was crumbling as rebels overran his heavily fortified compound on Aug. 23 and finally established control after days of bloody urban street fighting. While they struggled to restore order and services to Tripoli, rebels made further military gains, surrounding Colonel Qadaffi’s hometown of Surt, regarded as a last bastion of support for the dictator.
The report of Colonel Qaddafi’s death by the highest ranking military officer in Libya’s interim government on Oct. 20 appeared to put an end to the fierce manhunt for the former leader who remained on the lam in Libya for weeks after the fall of his government. Libya’s interim leaders had said they believed that some Qaddafi family members — possibly including Colonel Qaddafi and several of his sons — were hiding in the coastal town of Surt or in Bani Walid, another loyalist bastion that the anti-Qaddafi forces captured. As rumor of his death spread in Tripoli, car horns blared as many celebrated in the streets.
Rivalries and Mistrust
As the former rebels in Libya try to assemble a government to replace the toppled Qaddafi government, the quiet hoarding of weapons and detainees illustrates the fissures of regional rivalry and mutual distrust that continue to impede progress. Negotiations are deadlocked, council members say, over how to divide power among groups from different regions. Leaders from Benghazi, Misurata, Zintan and other cities all argue that their suffering or their contributions during the revolt entitle them to a greater voice.
The new authorities have presided over their own divisive policies, failing to curb harassment and violence against black people in the territory they control or to rein in their militiamen, some of whom have looted or burned loyalist homes and mimicked the techniques of the former government by detaining suspects arbitrarily and torturing prisoners. The fighting has given the country a martial character, marked by men in fatigues, religious battle cries and the suspicions nurtured by war.