The most discerning readers will have noted a tendency in these pages to succumb to bouts of delirious optimism. At times we almost enter a fugue state where no cloud creases our thoughts…and only a Pollyanna warbling can be heard. I’m walking on sunshine…and don’t it feel good!
This reverie was only briefly interrupted today by reflections on America’s not quite copacetic nation building efforts in the Middle East. And while many more eggs are yet to be broken in Iraq, my notice was turned toward another less publicized debris field: Libya. For future reference to the people of the world: whatever predations you may suffer, just endure until America arrives…and then abandon all hope. Here’s freedom and democracy in Libya..
Death is stalking Sammy. In a flat in a rough part of Tripoli, the Libyan capital, this cadaverous 32-year-old sits on his sofa bed and transfers cocaine from a bag onto a spoon.
With Tom and Jerry on the television opposite, Sammy pours liquid onto the white powder and holds a lighter underneath the spoon until the cocaine starts to bubble, dry out and crack. He places the rocks of crack cocaine he’s made in a pipe, lights them and inhales.
The drugs are free. As a policeman, who joined the new security services in the heady days after Muammar Gaddafi was driven from power by a popular uprising, Sammy, wearing the balaclava that protects officers from reprisals, targets drug dealers and confiscates their contraband at gunpoint.
He’s been using crack for five months. In the past three days, he’s drunk a bottle of vodka and one of whisky. The drugs help him drink more. This skeletal, depressive figure is not the Sammy I have known for the past three years — not the warm, friendly, family man who, along with thousands of others, risked his life to end the madness of Gaddafi’s 42-year-rule.
After the despot was captured and killed in October 2011, he joined the new police force and pledged to uphold the law. He married, had a baby girl and bought a family home.
But now, like the entire country, Sammy is falling apart. Haunted by memories of war, and traumatised by attacks on the police by armed gangs, he has long endured nightmares that stop him sleeping. His drunken rages are now so bad that his neighbours have become used to him firing his Kalashnikov in the middle of the night. Above all, he is in despair over his country. ‘We got rid of Gaddafi — and it’s just exactly the same s***,’ he says. ‘What was it for? It was for nothing — things are worse now than they have ever been. I see it every day. It was all for nothing — absolutely nothing. We thought the war was about freedom, but not this kind of freedom. Now you can do anything you like — buy guns, people and drugs. The country is in a mess.’
The truth is, there are thousands of Sammys in the new, free Libya. The country is awash with drugs, weapons, warring gangs and Al Qaeda terrorists. And once more Libyans fear their nation is sliding inexorably into civil war. The parlous state of this benighted nation should act as a terrible warning to those watching with dismay as Iraq — another country where Britain chose to topple a long-standing strongman leader — threatens to tear itself apart along sectarian lines.
A retired Libyan general has launched a campaign against the Islamists that control areas of Tripoli, and against the government — or what passes for it, which is, in reality, a weak and makeshift administration, riven by divisions between hardline Islamists and moderates.
General Khalifa Haftar, who a few days ago survived a suicide bomb attack that killed four other people, has attempted to seize the parliament building and launched an attack with rocket-propelled grenades against the house of disputed Prime Minister Ahmed Maiteeq, whom he has accused of being in thrall to Islamic groups.
He is calling his campaign ‘Operation Dignity’. It is a name that might bring a tired smile to the lips of ordinary Libyans. Dignity is in short supply here. Weapons, unfortunately, are not. There are thousands of truck-mounted missile launchers for sale, as well as rocket-propelled grenades and anti-aircraft guns. There are an estimated 15 million Kalashnikovs in a country of just six million people. Guns are available everywhere — from dealers outside the fish market, to a kiosk selling cigarettes on the street near Sammy’s flat, where arms and other contraband goods are kept in cupboards below the counter.
Murder is also on sale.. Asked how much it would be to have a rival killed, Moody drew on his cigarette. ‘Not much. About 1,000 Libyan dinar (£600),’ he said, as other customers nodded in agreement. ‘We are turning into Somalia,’ said Abdelsalaam, a customer, as he negotiated to buy high-calibre bullets for a sniper rifle. ‘I’ve got a gun to stop myself being killed.’
Prices for weapons are rising along with demand, a sure sign of trouble ahead. A 9mm pistol cost £300 immediately after the war; now, the same model was selling for £3,000. The cost of a Kalashnikov, the Russian-designed automatic rifle capable of firing 600 rounds a minute, has soared, from £500 to more than £1,500.
It seems that all the toxic ingredients are in place to turn the country into a terror state, with Al-Qaeda affiliates setting up terror training camps, and car-bombings, assassinations and rampant corruption a feature of daily life.
And this is, let us not forget, just a short hop across the Mediterranean from Europe.
The anarchy sweeping the country has seen more than 500 senior military officers assassinated since the end of the war, and thousands more killed in clashes between warring tribes and gangs.. The U.S. ambassador was murdered by Islamic extremists in 2012. All government buildings have been closed since last month, presumably in response to the growing threat from General Haftar.
There are sporadic battles between Islamist-linked militias and moderates that could flare up into a full-blown war any day. Foreign jihadists from Yemen, Syria and Afghanistan have used the chaos to sneak into the country, often with the connivance of government Islamists, and have set up dozens of training camps in the vast southern desert. The fact that at least 3,000 surface-to-air missiles are unaccounted for has prompted fears that the terrorists could hit civilian aircraft. Known as Man pads, these missiles can be launched by a single fighter or small team of terrorists. They do not need to be mounted on vehicles, are easily smuggled and almost impossible to track.
With billions plundered from the government’s coffers by corrupt politicians, the general has accused Libya’s new administration of paying out millions to armed Islamic militants to help keep them in power by force. His first target was parliament, which he called the ‘main backer of terrorism’, with at least five figures in the administration known to have links to Al-Qaeda overseas. His forces attacked last month, setting it ablaze.
With rival militias firing bullets and shells every night, locals are despondent and terrified. Several told me they need a strong man — just like Gaddafi — to crush the terrorists, criminals and warring tribes.
Since the end of the war, these Islamists have made a comeback, while exiled jihadists, many of whom fought alongside Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, have returned to Libya and are killing anyone who dares even speak out against their aims.
The latest high-profile victim came a few days ago when Meftah Bouzid, a respected newspaper editor, appeared on TV and denounced the Islamic terrorists taking over the country. He was shot twice in the head the following morning [lack of editorial discretion]. A terrorist later spoke to the dead man’s family by mobile phone, saying he had been killed for criticising Islam. Hours later, a young student was beheaded by Islamists at one of the country’s countless checkpoints.
Back at Sammy’s flat, the former rebel says his weapons are ‘selling like hot cakes’. Some buyers are civilians looking for protection. But most are ‘men with long beards’. He says he doesn’t care who purchases the guns.
‘If they don’t buy them from me, they’ll buy them from someone else,’ he says. ‘We’re all going to die anyway.’
How hollow the triumphalism of September 2011 now seems, when a crowing David Cameron addressed the crowds in Tripoli, saying: ‘It is great to be here in free Libya. Your city was an inspiration to the world as you threw off the dictator and chose freedom. People in Britain salute your courage.’
Whatever Western politicians claimed after the war, and for all the broken lives, the country now appears as utterly doomed as poor, stupid Sammy.
I only have one question: has Tripoli completed its bid package for the next World Cup?
Though more seriously it’s certain that the architects of this miserable wake are filled with regret…regret that some are likely to survive their administrations. What men we elect to lead us. Men such as Clinton, Bush, Obama, Blair, and Cameron who supply the afterlife with so many fresh souls and retire to contemplate it all from the lecture circuit. These are men who have labored without respite to cultivate millennial scorn…for what they have wreaked abroad, but more for what they have wrecked at home.
It’s frighteningly possible that a truly extremist leader will emerge from the ruins of all this Western flailing. A leader so bereft of compassion and humanity that he offers a global program of “live as you will in your lands, as we in ours. All the best.” And this is the kind of extremism against which we must always be diligent.
Keep your eyes open.