When Tunisians rose up calling for the end of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s rule, beyond the fact that the revolution caught the rest of the world by surprise, no one seemed in much doubt about what the Tunisian people wanted. And shortly after that when Egyptians rose up demanding that Hosni Mubarak must go, the sentiment of the people was not hard to decipher. But when it comes to Libya, many Western observers seem willing to accept the analysis provided by Saif al-Islam Gaddafi who in February warned that Libya is not Tunisia or Egypt and that those challenging his father’s rule would be inviting civil war.
On Wednesday, Libyan officials took Western journalists on a trek 70 miles south of Tripoli to witness the carnage wrought by NATO airstrikes. After 10 days of attacks, Siraj Najib Mohamed Suessi, an 18-month old baby, was described by a New York Times reporter as “the first specific and credible civilian death” from allied airstrikes.
Beyond the earshot of Gaddafi government officials, relatives of the child were clear about who they blamed for his death:
“No, no, no, this is not from NATO,” one relative said, speaking quietly and on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation. The Western planes had struck an ammunition depot at a military base nearby, he said, and the explosion had sent a tank shell flying into the bedroom of the baby, a boy, in a civilian’s home. “What NATO is doing is good,” he said, referring to the Western military alliance that is enforcing a no-fly zone in Libya.
[A]s government minders directed journalists to the house and the grave, several residents approached foreign correspondents to tell them surreptitiously of their hatred of Colonel Qaddafi.
“He is not a man. He is Dracula,” one said. “For 42 years, it has been dark. Anyone who speaks, he kills. But everyone here wants Qaddafi to go.”
Denunciations of this type have been reported from all over Libya — even now some people in Tripoli are willing to cautiously speak out.
The objective of Libya’s rebel fighters is not hard to decipher — they aim to get rid of Gaddafi — unless, that is, you are skeptical about the intentions of the foreign powers.
Steve Coll says: “It is not clear what the rebels are fighting for, other than survival and the possible opportunity to take power in a country loaded with oil.”
David Bromwich sees the hand of the CIA at work and echoes of the Bay of Pigs.
While the Obama administration itself is raising the specter of al Qaeda:
President Obama’s top two national security officials signaled on Thursday that the United States was unlikely to arm the Libyan rebels, raising the possibility that the French alone among the Western allies would provide weapons and training for the poorly organized forces fighting Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s government.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates made his views known for the first time on Thursday in a marathon day of testimony to members of Congress. He said the United States should stick to offering communications, surveillance and other support, but suggested that the administration had no problem with other countries sending weapons to help the rebels, who in recent days have been retreating under attack from pro-Qaddafi forces.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who pushed the president to intervene in Libya, was described by an administration official on Thursday as supremely cautious about arming the rebels “because of the unknowns” about who they were and whether they might have links to Al Qaeda.
Najla Abdurrahman, a Libyan-American writer and activist, expresses her frustration about the confused image of the Libyan pro-democracy movement that is frequently being presented in the media.
The recent remarks by Adm. James Stavridis, NATO’s supreme allied commander for Europe, alleging “flickers in the intelligence of potential al Qaeda, Hezbollah” among Libyan rebels are indicative of a disturbing trend in much of the discussion — and reporting — on Libya over the past several weeks. Ambiguous statements linking Libya and al Qaeda have repeatedly been made in the media without clarifying or providing appropriate context to such remarks. In many instances, these claims have been distorted or exaggerated; at times they have simply been false.
The admiral’s comments — and the subsequent headlines they’ve engendered — represent a new level of irresponsibility, constructing false connections, through use of highly obscure and equivocal language, between al Qaeda and Libyan pro-democracy forces backed by the Transitional National Council. The latter is itself led by a group of well-known and respected Libyan professionals and technocrats. Even more far-fetched is the admiral’s mention of a Hezbollah connection, or “flicker” as he put it.
Statements of this type are troubling because of their tendency to create alarmist ripple effects. Such perceptions, once created, are nearly impossible to reverse and may do serious damage to the pro-democracy cause in Libya. The fact that Stavridis qualified his comments by stating that the opposition’s leadership appeared to be “responsible men and women” will almost certainly be overshadowed by the mention of al Qaeda in the same breath. One must wonder, then, what precisely was the purpose of the admiral’s vague and perplexing remarks.
There is a pressing need for officials and commentators to clarify connections drawn between Libya and al Qaeda and to provide more accurate and responsible analysis. And it’s not just Stavridis’s reference to al Qaeda that is problematic; two similar claims making the media rounds also demand careful scrutiny. One involves an anti-Qaddafi organization called the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) that confronted and was crushed by the regime in the 1990s. The second involves disturbing reports of the recruitment of Libyan youth by al Qaeda in Iraq, some of whom left their homes to take part in suicide missions in that country. Neither is connected to the current uprising, but both are frequently mentioned when discussing it.