The Arabs’ 100-Years War

Rami G. Khouri writes: The open warfare and shaken statehood that characterize Syria, Iraq and Libya are the painful commemoration of the Arabs’ own 100 Years War for stable, legitimate statehood. What the French, British and Italians left behind in Syria, Iraq and Libya after World War One led to the last 100 years of erratic patterns of development that have now erupted in open warfare within and among some countries.

Syria, Libya and Iraq are only the most dramatic examples of countries that suffer serious sectarian and other forms of warfare that could easily lead to the fracturing of those states into smaller ethnic units. Similar but less intense tensions define most Arab states. With the exception of Tunisia, the citizens of every Arab country have always been denied any say in defining the structure, values or policies of their state.

It is no surprise, therefore, that Syria, Iraq and Libya should be at once so violent, fractious and brittle. The capture of cities and territory across northwestern Iraq by the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) symbolizes a common aspect of the fragmented nature of many Arab countries — the ruling party or family that runs the government is at war with well armed non-state actors that reflect widespread citizen discontent with the power and policies of the central state. The brittle Arab state is not simply melting away, as happened in Somalia over the last two decades; rather, the state in many cases has become just one armed protagonist in a battle against several other armed protagonists among its own citizens. [Continue reading...]

facebooktwittermail

In Libya, fears of all-out war as Islamist militias allied with parliament deploy in capital

The Washington Post reports: Powerful militias aligned with the Islamist-dominated parliament deployed in the Libyan capital Thursday, raising the specter of an all-out war with forces loyal to a renegade former general who wants the legislative body disbanded.

Known collectively as the Libya Central Shield, the militias from the western city of Misurata were heeding a call by the head of parliament, Nouri Abu Sahmein, to protect Tripoli after gunmen loyal to the ex-general, Khalifa Hifter, stormed it Sunday.

It marked the first time the Libya Central Shield has deployed to Tripoli since November, when its fighters opened fire on peaceful protesters outside their base, sparking clashes that left more than 40 dead and hundreds wounded.

The group’s main rivals, the Qaqa and Sawaiq brigades from the western city of Zintan, have allied with Hifter, threatening a confrontation in Tripoli between two of the country’s most powerful militia forces.

The deployment is the latest development in a long-brewing crisis that ignited Friday when Hifter led a fierce assault on Islamist militias in the eastern city of Benghazi. More than 70 were killed in the fighting, the heaviest in the country since the 2011 revolt that deposed autocrat Moammar Gaddafi. [Continue reading...]

The Washington Post also reports: Thousands of protesters took to the streets of Tripoli, Benghazi and other cities across Libya on Friday in support of a renegade general’s campaign against Islamist militias and his calls to suspend parliament.

The protest, dubbed the “Friday of Dignity,” took its name from the offensive launched by the former general, Khalifa Hifter, one week ago in the eastern city of Benghazi. Hifter has since garnered support from current and former military officers, political figures, civil society groups and the militias that dominate many Libyan cities.

facebooktwittermail

Libya’s rogue general gains stream of new allies

The Associated Press reports: Libya’s Interior Ministry, along with the country’s the U.N. ambassador and the commander of the air force, backed a renegade general’s offensive against Islamist lawmakers and extremist militias, further building support Wednesday for a campaign the government has described as a coup.

The show of support for Gen. Khalifa Hifter appears to have triggered a heavy backlash.

Libya’s navy chief Brig. Gen. Hassan Abu-Shanaq, some of whose units have allied with Hifter, was wounded in an assassination attempt in the capital, Tripoli, early Wednesday, along with his driver and a guard, the official news agency LANA said. The night before, the air forces headquarters in Tripoli came under a rocket attack but no casualties were reported.

Hifter has been leading an armed revolt in perhaps the biggest challenge yet to the country’s weak central government and fledgling security forces. He says his campaign, dubbed “Operation Dignity,” aims to break the power of Islamists who lead parliament and whom he accuses of opening the door to extremism and fueling Libya’s chaos.

Scores of Libyan military units and commanders have made already made loyalty pledges to Hifter’s “Libyan National Army” and his offensive, which began Friday, first against Islamist militias in the eastern city of Benghazi. A number of powerful militias also back Hifter, including ones from the western city of Zintan and Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city. [Continue reading...]

The Washington Post reports: [Ahmed Matiq, named prime minister two weeks ago in a disputed vote,] said at a news conference Wednesday that he wouldn’t step aside. Libyans “don’t want to return to having a military body rule them,” he said, presumably referring to Hifter.

A leader of one of the most powerful Islamist militias in Benghazi warned the ex-general not to try to take over the city.

“If he ever thinks of coming into Benghazi it will be his grave, like it was Gaddafi’s grave,” said Ismail Salabi, a leader of the Rafallah al-Sahati Brigade. He also echoed a common criticism by Hifter’s opponents — that he was trying to carry out a coup. “If he is looking for power he should remove his military uniform and go into politics,” he said. [Continue reading...]

Barbara Slavin reports: US Ambassador to Libya Deborah Jones said Wednesday that she would not condemn the actions of Gen. Khalifa Hifter, a former officer in Moammar Gadhafi’s army who has declared war on Islamic “terrorists” in Libya and forced the country to call new parliamentary elections for June 25.

Speaking at the Stimson Center in Washington, Jones repeated US State Department assertions that the Barack Obama administration did not support and had no advance knowledge of Hifter’s actions — which included sending forces to kill scores of Islamist fighters in eastern Libya last week and storming Libya’s parliament in Tripoli over the weekend. But she added that “it’s very difficult to step up and condemn” Hifter given that his forces are “going after very specific groups … on our list of terrorists.”

“I am not going to come out and condemn blanketly what he did,” she said.

Hifter defected from Gadhafi’s military two decades ago after a failed war in Chad and moved to northern Virginia where he acquired US citizenship. He has claimed that the US government backed him in the 1990s in unsuccessful efforts to overturn the Gadhafi regime.

Karim Mezran, an expert on Libya at the Atlantic Council, told Al-Monitor that there are “widespread rumors that Egypt and the United Arab Emirates” are backing Hifter in hopes that he will expunge the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist elements from the Libyan government and even take power as Abdel Fattah al-Sisi did in Egypt after ousting President Mohammed Morsi. “If they can conquer the east, the military balance will be in their favor,” Mezran said of Hifter’s forces.

Jones, asked by Al-Monitor if Egypt and the UAE were behind Hifter, who staged a failed coup in February, said, “I have nothing for you on than that” — the diplomatic equivalent of a non-denial — but that “Libyans who reside in the UAE and Egypt support him.” She added, “I hear a lot of support of his actions against these groups but less for him as an individual. The jury is still out because it’s not clear what the agenda is behind this.” [Continue reading...]

facebooktwittermail

Libyan special forces commander says his forces join renegade general

Reuters reports: The commander of Libyan army special forces said on Monday he had allied with renegade general Khalifa Haftar in his campaign against militant Islamists, highlighting the failure of central government in Tripoli to assert its authority.

The announcement gives a major boost to a campaign by Haftar, who has been denounced by the Tripoli government as attempting to stage a coup in the oil producer.

It remains unclear how many troops support Haftar, whose forces launched an attack on Islamist militants in Benghazi on Friday in which more than 70 people died. Militiamen apparently allied to Haftar also stormed parliament in Tripoli on Sunday.

The violence has compounded government’s apparent weakness in combating militias which helped oust Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 but now defy state authority. [Continue reading...]

facebooktwittermail

Libyan militias led by former general attack parliament and declare it dissolved

The Washington Post reports: Militias allied with a former Libyan general staged a brazen attack on Libya’s parliament on Sunday and declared it dissolved, in some of the worst fighting the capital has seen since the 2011 revolution.

By Sunday night, those forces announced that the elected General National Congress was being replaced by an existing constitutional drafting committee. It was far from certain that the order would be observed. But the power grab threatened to send Libya hurtling into a full-blown civil war.

Tripoli residents and journalists reported heavy fighting, including rocket attacks and gunfights, in several central neighborhoods. Dozens of vehicles mounted with antiaircraft guns could be seen speeding toward the center of the capital from a southeastern suburb. Plumes of black smoke rose over the city.

It was unclear whether ex-general Khalifa Haftar commanded sufficient force to prevail in the showdown in Tripoli — the latest chapter in a struggle for power, land and resources that has raged in this oil-rich country since the fall of longtime dictator Moammar Gaddafi. The central government has struggled unsuccessfully to rein in scores of militias that emerged from the anti-Gaddafi uprising. [Continue reading...]

Alaa al-Ameri reports: Haftar served as a high-ranking military officer under Muammar Qaddafi and was a prominent commander during Libya’s war with Chad in the 1980s. Following his capture by Chadian forces, he went into exile in the US in 1987, where he joined the National Front for the Salvation of Libya, a group of Libyan exiles who spent much of the 1980s and 1990s trying to kill Qaddafi. Haftar returned to Libya in 2011 in support of the revolution, and was appointed chief of staff to Colonel Abdul Fatah Younis, the National Transitional Council’s commander of revolutionary forces.

The Libya to which Haftar returned had seen the rise and fall of armed Islamist opposition to Qaddafi in the form of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) during the 1990s, and yesterday’s fighting was the latest chapter of a power struggle between Islamist and secularist strands of the 2011 revolution that has been playing itself out since the early days of the uprising against Qaddafi.

Islamist militias began consolidating their power over eastern Libya through targeted assassinations before the revolution was even over — and Younis was arguably their first victim. He was a former close Qaddafi ally, seen by some as Qaddafi’s second in command. He had taken part in the coup that brought Qaddafi to power in 1969, but he defected to the fledgling revolutionary government in February 2011 after he was sent to crush the rebellion in his native Benghazi. Unlike many of Qaddafi’s close circle, Younis was not known for ostentatious living or sadistic violence.

He had, however, coordinated counterinsurgency operations in eastern Libya against the LIFG in the 1990s.

One unique aspect of the LIFG is that it combined figures from a wide swathe of the Islamist spectrum. Some, like Abu Anas al Libi, who was captured in Tripoli by US Special Forces last year, gravitated toward al Qaeda. Others, like Abdelhakim Belhadj, a key military commander during the Libyan revolution and now a politician with the Muslim Brotherhood-linked al-Watan party, maintained a view of armed Islamism that opposes the targeting of civilians per se, but legitimizes military and government targets. The upshot is that the remnants of the LIFG in Libya represent a rare nexus of Muslim Brotherhood and more violent Islamist tendencies.

The legacy of the battle against the LIFG came home to roost at the height of the revolution in July 2011, when Younis was abducted by members of the February 17th Martyrs Brigade — one of the Islamist militias now under attack by Haftar’s forces — and was then reportedly shot dead for his role in the suppression of the LIFG 15 years earlier. His burned body, along with those of two of his officers, was later dumped on the outskirts of Benghazi.

After the revolution, attacks against military personnel continued, though they were initially dismissed as either the settling of old scores dating back to the conflict in the 1990s, or the work of Qaddafi loyalists seeking revenge on colleagues who had defected to the revolutionary forces. From 2012 onward, however, the attacks in eastern Libya seamlessly transitioned from targeting foreigners and Libyans connected to the old regime, to targeting anyone from the Army, police, or judiciary who challenged the dominance of Islamist militias. [Continue reading...]

Al Jazeera reports: Libya’s army chief ordered the deployment of militias to the capital Monday, a day after the storming of the parliament building in Tripoli apparently by a renegade general’s forces which also staged an attack in Benghazi on Friday.

Monday’s development paves the way for a possible showdown between the militias — which hail from Libya’s western and central regions — and the troops allied with Gen. Khalifa Haftar, whose forces said they also suspended parliament and demanded a hand over of power, blaming the house for empowering militias loyal to the Muslim Brotherhood.

According to a statement posted on the official Facebook page of the media officer for the President of the General National Congress, Nouri Abu Sahmain signed an order for “Libya’s Central Shield,” an umbrella group of powerful militias which answer to parliament, to confront “attempts to take over power” in Tripoli, apparently referring to Haftar’s forces. [Continue reading...]

facebooktwittermail

Libya remains in the grip of rivalrous rebel factions

The Los Angeles Times reports: Dragging deeply on a cigarette and swirling his espresso dregs, the curly-haired young militiaman offered up a vivid account of the battles he and fellow rebels waged to bring down dictator Moammar Kadafi — days of blazing bombardment, thirsty desert nights.

Then he voiced his dismay at the chokehold those same armed groups now maintain on Libya.

“We fought so hard to make a new country,” said the 28-year-old of Libyan extraction who left Britain to join the revolution that swept this North African nation in 2011. “Now it’s all about money. Money and guns.”

The rebel groups that worked together to oust Kadafi have fragmented into rivalrous factions whose outsized collective power has sapped Libya’s oil wealth, turned a nascent government structure to tatters and ushered in a grim cycle of assassinations, abductions and firefights in the streets. [Continue reading...]

facebooktwittermail

Video: Inside Libya’s militias

facebooktwittermail

Under militia rule, Libya is beginning to disintegrate. Are the interventionists to blame?

o13-iconOwen Jones writes: It’s called the pottery store rule: “you break it, you own it”. But it doesn’t just apply to pots and mugs, but to nations. In the build-up to the catastrophic invasion of Iraq, it was invoked by Colin Powell, then US secretary of state. “You are going to be the proud owner of 25 million people,” he reportedly told George W Bush. “You will own all their hopes, aspirations and problems.” But while many of these military interventions have left nations shattered, western governments have resembled the customer who walks away whistling, hoping no one has noticed the mess left behind. Our media have been all too complicit in allowing them to leave the scene.

Libya is a striking example. The UN-authorised air campaign in 2011 is often lauded as a shining example of successful foreign intervention. Sure, the initial mandate – which was simply to protect civilians – was exceeded by nations who had only recently been selling arms to Muammar Gaddafi, and the bombing evolved into regime-change despite Russia’s protests. But with a murderous thug ejected from power, who could object?

Today’s Libya is overrun by militias and faces a deteriorating human rights situation, mounting chaos that is infecting other countries, growing internal splits, and even the threat of civil war. Only occasionally does this growing crisis creep into the headlines: like when an oil tanker is seized by rebellious militia; or when a British oil worker is shot dead while having a picnic; or when the country’s prime minister is kidnapped.

According to Amnesty International, the “mounting curbs on freedom of expression are threatening the rights Libyans sought to gain“. A repressive Gaddafi-era law has been amended to criminalise any insults to officials or the general national congress (the interim parliament). One journalist, Amara al-Khattabi, was put on trial for alleging corruption among judges. Satellite television stations deemed critical of the authorities have been banned, one station has been attacked with rocket-propelled grenades, and journalists have been assassinated. [Continue reading...]

Jones concludes: “No wonder western governments and journalists who hailed the success of this intervention are so silent. But here are the consequences of their war, and they must take responsibility for them.”

Once again we are offered a picture of Libya, the uprising against Gaddafi, and the chaos that has followed, as something in which the interventionists are all powerful and the Libyans themselves are like headless chickens set loose by Western overlords.

But here’s a radical idea: Maybe the anarchic state into which Libya has fallen is primarily the responsibility of its militia rulers.

If the only way of holding a country together is through the force of authoritarian rule, is that an argument in favor of authoritarianism or does it merely reveal the flimsiness of national identity?

The anti-interventionists who seem to feel nostalgic about the stability of Libya and Syria pre-2011, also seem to find it very easy to tolerate oppression which they themselves do not face.

No one enjoying democratic freedoms has the right or should have the audacity to believe that they can instigate someone else’s revolution. But the one thing on which most observers agree is that the uprisings in Libya and Syria were homegrown.

Facing well-armed government forces, the revolutionaries sought foreign support, just as Americans fighting for independence from Britain gladly accepted weapons and money from France.

Beneath a facade of anti-interventionist harmlessness (“It’s none of our business to interfere in the political affairs of others”) lurks an Orientalist contempt for Libyans and Syrians — populations whose political aspirations could apparently have continued being effectively suppressed by Gaddafi and Assad were it not for the meddlesome interference of Western neo-liberal interventionists.

When Owen says that those who supported NATO intervention in Libya should now “take responsibility,” it sounds like he’s expecting mea culpas in the form like this: intervention turns out to be a terrible thing. I promise to never support it again.

Yet those who argue that intervention in Libya was a terrible thing, need to present a credible supporting argument which I have yet to hear: why they believe Libya would now be in a better condition had NATO not become involved.

Absent the intervention, would Libyans now be living in relative peace, or, on the contrary, might Libya now more closely resemble Syria?

facebooktwittermail

Libya’s guns free-for-all fuels region’s turmoil

n13-iconThe Associated Press reports: At the heart of the Libyan capital, the open-air Fish Market was once a place where residents went to buy everything from meat and seafood to clothes and pets. Now it’s Tripoli’s biggest arms market, with tables displaying pistols and assault rifles. Ask a vendor, and he can pull out bigger machine guns to sell for thousands of dollars.

Libya, where hundreds of militias hold sway and the central government is virtually powerless, is awash in millions of weapons with no control over their trafficking. The arms free-for-all fuels not only Libya’s instability but also stokes conflicts around the region as guns are smuggled through the country’s wide-open borders to militants fighting in insurgencies and wars stretching from Syria to West Africa.

The lack of control is at times stunning. Last month, militia fighters stole a planeload of weapons sent by Russia for Libya’s military when it stopped to refuel at Tripoli International Airport on route to a base in the south. The fighters surrounded the plane on the tarmac and looted the shipment of automatic weapons and ammunition, Hashim Bishr, an official with a Tripoli security body under the Interior Ministry, told The Associated Press.

In a further indignity, the fighters belonged to a militia officially assigned by the government to protect the airport, since regular forces are too weak to do it.

Only a few weeks earlier, another militia seized a weapons’ shipment that landed at Tripoli’s Mitiga Airport meant for the military’s 1st Battalion, Bishr said. Among the weapons were heavy anti-aircraft guns, which are a pervasive weapon among the militias and are usually mounted on the back of pickup trucks. [Continue reading...]

Reuters reports: A bomb exploded on the runway of Libya’s main airport on Friday, the transport minister said, highlighting the deteriorating security situation in the north African country almost three years after Muammar Gaddafi was ousted.

Supposedly one of the best guarded places in Libya, unknown people managed to get onto the runway at Tripoli International Airport, plant an explosive device at dawn and detonate it using a timer, Transport Minister Abdelqader Mohammed Ahmed said.

facebooktwittermail

Navy Seals take over oil tanker seized by Libyan rebels

n13-iconThe Guardian reports: American Navy Seals have seized a North Korea-flagged tanker which had been loaded with crude oil at a rebel-held port in eastern Libya, the Pentagon said on Monday.

The operation to take control of the Morning Glory came a week after Libya failed to prevent the tanker from leaving the rebel-controlled eastern port of Es Sider loaded with an estimated $20m cargo, in a crisis that has brought the country to the brink of civil war.

“The Morning Glory is carrying a cargo of oil owned by the Libyan government’s National Oil Company,” said Pentagon spokesman John Kirby. “The ship and its cargo were illicitly obtained from the Libyan port of Es Sider.”

There were no casualties in the operation, which took place in international waters off the coast of Cyprus late on Sunday night. The raid was authorised by the US president, Barack Obama, after receiving a request for assistance from Tripoli. The Seals boarded the 21,000-tonne tanker using helicopters and fast boats from a warship, the USS Roosevelt.

The Pentagon said a US navy crew was now piloting the tanker towards an unnamed Libyan port where it will be handed to government control. [Continue reading...]

facebooktwittermail

Libya PM Zeidan dismissed as oil tanker ‘breaks blockade’

n13-iconBBC News reports: Libya’s parliament has dismissed PM Ali Zeidan after a tanker laden with oil from a rebel-held port reportedly broke through a naval blockade.

MPs called a vote of confidence in Mr Zeidan after they were told the North Korean-flagged ship had escaped to sea.

Defence Minister Abdullah al-Thinni was named interim prime minister.

Earlier, Libyan officials had said they had “complete control” of the tanker as it tried to leave the port of Sidra. But the rebels rejected the assertion.

Separatist militants have occupied three major eastern ports since August. [Continue reading...]

facebooktwittermail

Rebel group manoeuvres over Libya’s oil could lead to renewed civil conflict

o13-iconAmanda Kadlec writes: The oil tanker flying a North Korean flag is docked. But Libya’s central authorities are attempting to seize the vessel..

Why? Since August, eastern separatists have seized three major ports. The arrival of the tanker is just the latest of several steps to take a larger share of national oil wealth and create an autonomous state.

Since summer 2013 a band of armed men led by Ibrahim Jathran began seizing oil fields and ports in the north-east, where most of Libya’s oil also happens to be concentrated. He operates under the auspices of a group known as the Cyrenaica Political Bureau (CPB) that has since proclaimed itself as the governing authority of the region. Threats to illicitly sell crude oil to rogue buyers have hung in the air for months. To the dismay of the central government led by prime minister Ali Zeidan, this is a potent weapon in the arsenal they are using to bargain for power.

The inability of the central government to intervene in this episode provides another example of their powerlessness. Threats to bomb the ship are empty ones. Ultimatums issued to militias by the government have repeatedly failed from the earliest days of the transition. As time wears on and warnings go either unheard or are met with violent force in response, the value of such statements becomes laughable. While improvements in naval capacity have been made in the past year, and naval forces have the capacity to mobilise and fire, land security rests in the hands of the country’s scattered militias rather than a national army. [Continue reading...]

facebooktwittermail

New details emerge of Libya’s claim against Goldman Sachs

n13-iconEuromoney: A year ago, Euromoney reported that the Libyan Investment Authority was preparing litigation against Goldman Sachs for disastrous trades the US bank had put the Libyan sovereign wealth fund into in early 2008.

Nothing happens fast in Libya, and the top management of the fund has changed since our story. But on January 28, its lawyers lodged a claim at London’s High Court, accusing Goldman of “deliberately exploit[ing] the relationship of trust and confidence it has established with the LIA.”

Euromoney has seen the Particulars of Claim document lodged with the High Court by Simon Twigden, a partner and commercial dispute resolution expert at Enyo Law, on the LIA’s behalf. It makes savage reading for Goldman; it says that equity derivatives trades implemented by the bank lost the fund more than $1 billion while earning Goldman $350 million in profits.

After incurring these losses, Libya asked Goldman for a remedy. In May, 2009, the bank suggested that Libya recoup its losses by investing $3.7 billion in Goldman.

Matt Levine writes: You get the sneaking suspicion that there’s a terrible story here, that there’s a gambler’s-fallacy sense that, since you lost a lot of money on risky bets, the only thing to do is to put even more money on even riskier bets.
[...]
You see what’s going on there? Libya pays Goldman $3.7 billion and in return gets securities with “THESE SECURITIES ARE WORTH $5 BILLION” on the front of them. Guess how much those securities are worth? If you guessed $3.7 billion … there’s a decent chance that you’re too high? I dunno. If you guessed $5 billion you should be kept well away from money.

Libya said no; they “prodded Goldman to recoup their losses faster” and “also worried about whether it was wise to invest in Goldman given the collapse of Lehman.”

facebooktwittermail

Studying ritual in order to understand politics in Libya

When I was an undergraduate, early on I learned about the value of interdisciplinary studies. Had I been on a conventional academic track, that probably wouldn’t have happened, but I was lucky enough to be in a department that brought together anthropologists, sociologists, philosophers, theologians, and religious studies scholars. In such an environment, the sharp defense of disciplinary turf was not only unwelcome — it simply made no sense.

Even so, universities remain structurally antagonistic to interdisciplinarity, both for intellectual reasons but perhaps more than anything for professional reasons. Anyone who wants to set themselves on a track towards tenure needs to get published and academic journals all fall within and help sustain disciplinary boundaries.

I mention this because when questions are raised such as what’s happening in Libya? or the more loaded, what’s gone wrong in Libya? the range of experts who get called on to respond, tends to be quite limited. There will be regional experts, political scientists, and perhaps economists. But calling on someone with an understanding of the human function of ritual along with the role different forms of ritual may have had in the development of civilization, is not an obvious way of trying to gain insight into events in Benghazi.

Moreover, within discourse that is heavily influenced by secular assumptions about the problematic nature of religion and the irrational roots of extremism, there is a social bias in the West that favors a popular dismissal.

What’s wrong with Libya? Those people are nuts.

Philip Weiss helped popularize the expression Progressive Except on Palestine — an accusation that most frequently gets directed at American liberal Zionists. But over the last two years a new variant which is perhaps even more commonplace has proliferated across the Left which with only slight overstatement could be called Progressive Except on the Middle East.

From this perspective, a suspicion of Muslim men with beards — especially those in Libya and Syria — has become a way through which a Clash of Civilizations narrative is unwittingly being reborn. Add to that the influence of the likes of Richard Dawkins and his cohorts on their mission to “decry supernaturalism in all its forms” and what you end up with is a stifling of curiosity — a lack of any genuine interest in trying to understand why people behave the way they do if you’ve already concluded that their behavior is something to be condemned.

A year ago, the science journal Nature, published an article on human rituals, their role in the growth of community and the emergence of civilization.

The report focuses on a global project one of whose principal aims is to test a theory that rituals come in two basic forms: one that through intense and often traumatic experience can forge tight bonds in small groups and the other that provides social cohesion less intensely but on a larger scale through doctrinal unity.

Last week, the State department designated three branches of Ansar al Shariah — two in Libya and one in Tunisia — as terrorist organizations. The information provided gives no indication about how or if the groups are linked beyond the fact that they share the same name — a name used by separate groups in eight different countries.

There’s reason to suspect that the U.S. government is engaged in its own form of ritualistic behavior much like the Spanish Inquisition busily branding heretics.

Maybe if the Obama administration spent a bit more time talking to anthropologists and archeologists rather than political consultants and security advisers, they would be able to develop a more coherent and constructive policy on Libya. I’m not kidding.

In Nature, Dan Jones writes: By July 2011, when Brian McQuinn made the 18-hour boat trip from Malta to the Libyan port of Misrata, the bloody uprising against Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi had already been under way for five months.

“The whole city was under siege, with Gaddafi forces on all sides,” recalls Canadian-born McQuinn. He was no stranger to such situations, having spent the previous decade working for peace-building organizations in countries including Rwanda and Bosnia. But this time, as a doctoral student in anthropology at the University of Oxford, UK, he was taking the risk for the sake of research. His plan was to make contact with rebel groups and travel with them as they fought, studying how they used ritual to create solidarity and loyalty amid constant violence.

It worked: McQuinn stayed with the rebels for seven months, compiling a strikingly close and personal case study of how rituals evolved through combat and eventual victory. And his work was just one part of a much bigger project: a £3.2-million (US$5-million) investigation into ritual, community and conflict, which is funded until 2016 by the UK Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and headed by McQuinn’s supervisor, Oxford anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse.

Rituals are a human universal — “the glue that holds social groups together”, explains Whitehouse, who leads the team of anthropologists, psychologists, historians, economists and archaeologists from 12 universities in the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada. Rituals can vary enormously, from the recitation of prayers in church, to the sometimes violent and humiliating initiations of US college fraternity pledges, to the bleeding of a young man’s penis with bamboo razors and pig incisors in purity rituals among the Ilahita Arapesh of New Guinea. But beneath that diversity, Whitehouse believes, rituals are always about building community — which arguably makes them central to understanding how civilization itself began.

To explore these possibilities, and to tease apart how this social glue works, Whitehouse’s project will combine fieldwork such as McQuinn’s with archaeological digs and laboratory studies around the world, from Vancouver, Canada, to the island archipelago of Vanuatu in the south Pacific Ocean. “This is the most wide-ranging scientific project on rituals attempted to date,” says Scott Atran, director of anthropological research at the CNRS, the French national research organization, in Paris, and an adviser to the project.
Human rites

A major aim of the investigation is to test Whitehouse’s theory that rituals come in two broad types, which have different effects on group bonding. Routine actions such as prayers at church, mosque or synagogue, or the daily pledge of allegiance recited in many US elementary schools, are rituals operating in what Whitehouse calls the ‘doctrinal mode’. He argues that these rituals, which are easily transmitted to children and strangers, are well suited to forging religions, tribes, cities and nations — broad-based communities that do not depend on face-to-face contact.

Rare, traumatic activities such as beating, scarring or self-mutilation, by contrast, are rituals operating in what Whitehouse calls the ‘imagistic mode’. “Traumatic rituals create strong bonds among those who experience them together,” he says, which makes them especially suited to creating small, intensely committed groups such as cults, military platoons or terrorist cells. “With the imagistic mode, we never find groups of the same kind of scale, uniformity, centralization or hierarchical structure that typifies the doctrinal mode,” he says.

Whitehouse has been developing this theory of ‘divergent modes of ritual and religion’ since the late 1980s, based on his field work in Papua New Guinea and elsewhere. His ideas have attracted the attention of psychologists, archaeologists and historians.

Until recently, however, the theory was largely based on selected ethnographic and historical case studies, leaving it open to the charge of cherry-picking. The current rituals project is an effort by Whitehouse and his colleagues to answer that charge with deeper, more systematic data.

The pursuit of such data sent McQuinn to Libya. His strategy was to look at how the defining features of the imagistic and doctrinal modes — emotionally intense experiences shared among a small number of people, compared with routine, daily practices that large numbers of people engage in — fed into the evolution of rebel fighting groups from small bands to large brigades.

At first, says McQuinn, neighbourhood friends formed small groups comprising “the number of people you could fit in a car”. Later, fighters began living together in groups of 25–40 in disused buildings and the mansions of rich supporters. Finally, after Gaddafi’s forces were pushed out of Misrata, much larger and hierarchically organized brigades emerged that patrolled long stretches of the defensive border of the city. There was even a Misratan Union of Revolutionaries, which by November 2011 had registered 236 rebel brigades.

McQuinn interviewed more than 300 fighters from 21 of these rebel groups, which varied in size from 12 to just over 1,000 members. He found that the early, smaller brigades tended to form around pre-existing personal ties, and became more cohesive and the members more committed to each other as they collectively experienced the fear and excitement of fighting a civil war on the streets of Misrata.

But six of the groups evolved into super-brigades of more than 750 fighters, becoming “something more like a corporate entity with their own organizational rituals”, says McQuinn. A number of the group leaders had run successful businesses, and would bring everyone together each day for collective training, briefings and to reiterate their moral codes of conduct — the kinds of routine group activities characteristic of the doctrinal mode. “These daily practices moved people from being ‘our little group’ to ‘everyone training here is part of our group’,” says McQuinn.

McQuinn and Whitehouse’s work with Libyan fighters underscores how small groups can be tightly fused by the shared trauma of war, just as imagistic rituals induce terror to achieve the same effect. Whitehouse says that he is finding the same thing in as-yet-unpublished studies of the scary, painful and humiliating ‘hazing’ rituals of fraternity and sorority houses on US campuses, as well as in surveys of Vietnam veterans showing how shared trauma shaped loyalty to their fellow soldiers. [Continue reading...]

When people talk about nation-building, they talk about the need to establish security, the rule of law and the development of democratic institutions. They focus on political and civil structures through which social stability takes on a recognizable form — the operation for instance of effective court systems and law enforcement authorities that do not abuse their powers. But what makes all this work, or fail to work, is a sufficient level of social cohesion and if that is lacking, the institutional structures will probably be of little value.

Over the last year and a half, American interest in Libya seems to have been reduced to analysis about what happened on one day in Benghazi. But what might help Libya much more than America’s obsessive need to spot terrorists would be to focus instead on things like promoting football. A win for the national team could work wonders.

*

In the video below, Harvey Whitehouse describes the background to his research.

facebooktwittermail

Gunmen assassinate Libya’s deputy industry minister

Reuters reports: Gunmen killed Libya’s deputy industry minister as he drove home from a shopping trip in the city of Sirte late on Saturday, in an attack officials blamed on hardline Islamist militants.

Libya is still plagued by violence and assassinations more than two years after civil war ousted Muammar Gaddafi. Militants, militias and former rebels often resort to force to impose demands on the fragile government.

The minister, Hassan al-Drowi, was shot several times, a senior security official said, asking not to be identified.

“They opened fire from another car while he was driving, he was shot multiple times,” the official said.

“Later, they found explosives attached to his car. The theory is, the bomb failed, so they shot him instead.”

The official blamed Islamist militants who have been trying to extend their influence in the coastal city of Sirte, which has been more stable recently than the capital Tripoli or the major eastern city of Benghazi.

Sirte was the last bastion of Gaddafi loyalists in the war, and he was killed there on October 20, 2011.

Prime Minister Ali Zeidan’s central government, weakened by infighting and with only nascent armed forces, is struggling to wrest control back from areas where militias are still dominant. [Continue reading...]

facebooktwittermail

The ghosts of Benghazi

David Kirkpatrick reports: Months of investigation by The New York Times, centered on extensive interviews with Libyans in Benghazi who had direct knowledge of the attack there [on September 11, 2012] and its context, turned up no evidence that Al Qaeda or other international terrorist groups had any role in the assault. The attack was led, instead, by fighters who had benefited directly from NATO’s extensive air power and logistics support during the uprising against Colonel Qaddafi. And contrary to claims by some members of Congress, it was fueled in large part by anger at an American-made video denigrating Islam.

A fuller accounting of the attacks suggests lessons for the United States that go well beyond Libya. It shows the risks of expecting American aid in a time of desperation to buy durable loyalty, and the difficulty of discerning friends from allies of convenience in a culture shaped by decades of anti-Western sentiment. Both are challenges now hanging over the American involvement in Syria’s civil conflict.

The attack also suggests that, as the threats from local militants around the region have multiplied, an intensive focus on combating Al Qaeda may distract from safeguarding American interests.

In this case, a central figure in the attack was an eccentric, malcontent militia leader, Ahmed Abu Khattala, according to numerous Libyans present at the time. American officials briefed on the American criminal investigation into the killings call him a prime suspect. Mr. Abu Khattala declared openly and often that he placed the United States not far behind Colonel Qaddafi on his list of infidel enemies. But he had no known affiliations with terrorist groups, and he had escaped scrutiny from the 20-person C.I.A. station in Benghazi that was set up to monitor the local situation.

Mr. Abu Khattala, who denies participating in the attack, was firmly embedded in the network of Benghazi militias before and afterward. Many other Islamist leaders consider him an erratic extremist. But he was never more than a step removed from the most influential commanders who dominated Benghazi and who befriended the Americans. They were his neighbors, his fellow inmates and his comrades on the front lines in the fight against Colonel Qaddafi.

To this day, some militia leaders offer alibis for Mr. Abu Khattala. All resist quiet American pressure to turn him over to face prosecution. Last spring, one of Libya’s most influential militia leaders sought to make him a kind of local judge.

Fifteen months after Mr. Stevens’s death, the question of responsibility remains a searing issue in Washington, framed by two contradictory story lines.

One has it that the video [Innocence of Muslims], which was posted on YouTube, inspired spontaneous street protests that got out of hand. This version, based on early intelligence reports, was initially offered publicly by Susan E. Rice, who is now Mr. Obama’s national security adviser.

The other, favored by Republicans, holds that Mr. Stevens died in a carefully planned assault by Al Qaeda to mark the anniversary of its strike on the United States 11 years before. Republicans have accused the Obama administration of covering up evidence of Al Qaeda’s role to avoid undermining the president’s claim that the group has been decimated, in part because of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

The investigation by The Times shows that the reality in Benghazi was different, and murkier, than either of those story lines suggests. Benghazi was not infiltrated by Al Qaeda, but nonetheless contained grave local threats to American interests. The attack does not appear to have been meticulously planned, but neither was it spontaneous or without warning signs. [Continue reading...]

Irrespective of whatever actually happened in Benghazi, the ability of most Americans of all political stripes to view such an event without a distorted perspective is severely constrained by the degree to which terrorism has become a pillar of the American worldview.

The neoconservatives were resoundingly successful in promoting the idea of a global terrorist network — not one which has a formal, verifiable structure; but one that exists more like a mycelium of evil.

Its tentacles are subterranean, vast, and yet ethereal. It is everywhere and nowhere, elusive and yet all-powerful; at some moments about to expire and yet paradoxically always an inextinguishable force.

We are meant to fear it just as resolutely as we cling to any object of faith. Indeed, to fail to view terrorism with sufficient gravity is to fail to uphold ones responsibilities as a patriotic American.

Even though it’s more than a decade since 9/11, terrorism remains America’s cultural straightjacket — that’s why even now in popular culture we have yet to see the war on terrorism being satirized.

At the height of the Cold War, when thousands of young Americans were getting killed in Vietnam in the name of standing up against Communism, it was somehow possible for Mel Brooks to create Get Smart and poke fun at spies and the paranoiac neuroses of the era.

The world has since pulled back from the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction and yet by some spectacular defiance of logic or any sense of proportion, terrorism has been conjured as an even greater threat.

At this time, 83% of Americans believe that protecting this nation from terrorist attacks should be the U.S. government’s top foreign policy priority whereas only 37% would prioritize dealing with global climate change.

That, to my mind, is a definition of collective insanity.

facebooktwittermail