The failure to form what could be considered a proper government, in Weber’s sense of a “monopoly on violence,” has been the complaint raised most often about the Libyan Revolution in the year that has passed since the killing of Muammar Qaddafi. We hear that the country is awash with weapons and ruled by armed militias. The central government, as represented by the National Transitional Council, is weak and unrepresentative, plagued by divisions, and lacks popular respect. The national police force and national army, also newly formed, are weak and lack firepower as compared to some of the better-armed revolutionary brigades and militias.
In short, the most informed of the critics have been quick to point out that the revolutionary Libyan government does not yet fulfill that most fundamental requirement in the definition of a state: It did not yet possess a monopoly on violence within its territory.
This criticism had a lot of currency. And Bani Walid was the proof.
Bani Walid as center of counter-revolution
Bani Walid had a long history of support for the Qaddafi regime and it isn’t surprising that it should become its last stronghold.
Over a year ago, just a week after Mummar Qaddafi was killed, Reuters wrote on October 26, 2011:
The war is not yet over for Libya’s new rulers in the desert town of Bani Walid where Gaddafi loyalists vow to fight on for their fallen leader and other residents are angry over violence and looting. Enraged by what they see as acts of retribution by forces loyal to Libya’s new government, tribesmen say their men are already trying to regroup into a new insurgency movement in and around the strategic desert town south of the capital.
This January the pro-Qaddafi forces were successful in pushing the revolutionaries out and recapturing the town. As Nick Meo and Hassan Morajea wrote in The Telegraph on January 28, 2012:
Bani Walid, about 100 miles south-east of the capital Tripoli, was a Gaddafi stronghold, fighting defiantly to the bitter end under the direction of his son Saif al-Islam. The town only surrendered after dozens of its young men were killed by rocket barrages which smashed buildings to pieces.
Since its fall in October it has been a place of simmering resentment and occasional violent flare-ups. Then last Monday its tough inhabitants staged an uprising. They overran guards at the main prison, where growing numbers of their friends had been detained, and ejected pro-government forces from the town, killing at least four of them.
Since that counter-revolutionary takeover, it had become the center of pro-Qaddafi activity in Libya, attracting supporters of the fallen regime from all across the country and developing a reputation as the one place that government forces wouldn’t go.
Still, remnants aside, the civil war had already been fought out to a decisive conclusion and the Qaddafi regime had lost. While its remaining forces have been able to carry out assassinations and cause trouble, they don’t have the support to do more than that. Even Bani Walid is split on support for Qaddafi and totals only about 1% of the Libyan population. This little island of the old Qaddafi regime could not be allowed to stand indefinitely in the new Libya.
Libyans build a government
Meanwhile, the Libyan people had bigger fish to fry in getting their country back on its feet. Industry, schools and local government all had to be reconstituted and restarted.
In the all important sphere of national government, the National Transitional Council founded the High National Electoral Commission (HNEC) which registered voters, candidates, and parties, and organized national elections which took place on July 8, and saw 1.6 million Libyan voters elect a new representative government: the General National Council (GNC). The GNC selected a president and a prime minister. The organs of state power, the army, and police were also starting to shape up.
Many of the revolutionary brigades had vowed to stay together and stay armed until they were sure they were getting the government they had fought for. With the GNC established, some were beginning to disband and others were being brought under government control. In the wake of the nationwide mass protests against the militias following the Benghazi consulate attack, that process of disbanding or integration was greatly accelerated as protesters forced some militias to flee from their bases.
Meanwhile, the problem of the Qaddafi holdouts in Bani Walid continued to fester. Still, there remained time for a peaceful solution. In the nine months of civil war, the revolutionary forces had grown from a rag-tag collection into a strong and seasoned fighting force ruling nearly all of Libya, while the Qaddafi forces had been reduced from a modern mechanized army to a rag-tag bunch of fugitives and criminals. There has never been any real question about which side would prevail in a final military confrontation.
While there was never any serious doubt that the Libyan government would prevail, the costs of an all-out assault were uncertain. For instance, Qaddafi forces had shown many times that they were not above using human shields. Thus, from January the demand that Bani Walid submit was pursued by largely peaceful means.
For example, in the beginning of October the UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General visited Bani Walid to urge tribal elders to seize an opportunity for reconciliation with the newly elected National Congress. Still, kidnappings and other criminal activities continued to be carried out by old regime forces in Bani Walid.
What changed about Bani Walid?
The Libya Herald described the situation this way on the eve of the current fighting:
The catalyst for the current standoff was the death of Omran Shaban, the Misratan revolutionary credited with first discovering Muammar Qaddafi last October, who died in a hospital in Paris on 25 September. Together with a colleague, he was captured in Bani Walid in July and held for two months before being released on 13 September following mediation efforts led by National Congress President Mohamed Magarief.
It is known that he was shot in the spine, reportedly after the vehicle in which he was travelling failed to stop at a checkpoint and then rolled over. There have also been widespread allegations that Shaban was tortured whilst in custody, although this is vehemently denied by Bani Walid leaders who say that he was treated in hospital and visited by the Red Cross.
Today, a Red Cross spokeswoman currently visiting Bani Walid to distribute humanitarian supplies refused to offer any comment on whether evidence of torture against Shaban had been found or not.
Nevertheless, Shaban’s death prompted a resolution [Law no.7] from the National Congress giving Bani Walid ten days to surrender those suspected of involvement in the case and authorising the ministries of defence and interior to use force if the town did not comply.
That deadline was subsequently pushed back to 10 October, today, following a request by Magarief to allow more time for negotiations. Libya’s military commanders have said that should the deadline pass without a resolution then an attack remains a possibility.
After that, the forces authorized by Law No. 7 to enforce the arrest of the suspects began to apply military muscle. Two weeks later one of Libya’s most important clerics spoke in favor of the operation, as reported by The Libya Herald:
Grand Mufti Sheikh Sadiq Al-Ghariani has reaffirmed his support for the recent military action against Bani Walid, arguing that it is consistent with the “application of Resolution No. 7 of the National Congress, which represents the highest authority within the state”.In a statement released by his office, the cleric warned that “bloodshed will not cease as long as those wanted for justice, those outlaws, those accused of killing innocent people remain at large.”
Earlier today, government spokesman Nasser Al-Manaa claimed that more than 100 people had been arrested from Bani Walid, out of a total wanted-list said to be some 1,000 names long.
“Resolution [No. 7] demands the handover of those in Bani Walid wanted for justice”, Ghariani said, “even through the use of force if need be.”
“Thus, the government, the national army, the chief of staff directorate and all revolutionaries are under an obligation to implement this resolution.”
There are those that raised questions about the way Resolution No. 7 was passed. “I feel that the congress has sort of followed this intense lobbying attack by the Misratans and by groups of Bani Walid revolutionaries who were kicked out of Bani Walid,” Claudia Gazzini of the International Crisis Group complained. There has also been a problem with Misrata militiamen using the operation against Bani Walid as cover for revenge against those regarded as pro-Qaddafi.
While Misrata fighters have complained at what they call Bani Walid’s continued defiance and its alleged harbouring of former Gaddafi loyalists, townsfolk there say they have been unfairly tarred with the “pro-Gaddafi” brush. “Bani Walid became a centre for those who were wanted for justice to escape,” government spokesman Nasser el-Manee told a news conference. “We can say that they kidnapped the city.”
The grand mufti also echoed this view:
The mufti said he recognised that many Bani Walid residents were victims of events beyond their control, reiterating a statement made recently by National Congress President Mohamed Magarief that the town had, to a great extent, been taken hostage by pro-Qaddafi elements and other “criminals”. Nevertheless, he said, “if Bani Walid… is not outside of the state’s authority, as claimed by those who are against the implementation of the GNC resolution, why then are state assigned forces prevented from arresting those wanted for justice? How can Bani-Walid be under stated legitimacy and yet the state is prevented from entering the town!”
Ultimately, the operation against the pro-Qaddafi militias in Bani Walid could not avoid the ugliness and tragedy that comes with any military assault in an urban center. On October 24, the day revolutionary government forces took the center of Bani Walid, Human Rights Watch published:
The number of victims from the fighting and indiscriminate shelling in Bani Walid remains unclear. Doctors at the hospital there told Human Rights Watch that at least seven people not associated with any armed group had been killed and 60 wounded between the start of the siege in late September and October 18. That number rose as the attacking forces began a major assault on October 19, causing thousands of Bani Walid residents to flee.
The Tripoli Post reported that there were demonstrations in Tripoli opposing the government assault:
Meanwhile, about 500 protesters broke into the grounds of Libya’s parliament building on Sunday to demand an end to violence in Bani Walid that has been shelled by militias from Misurata who have aligned with the Defence Ministry, for several days. State news agency LANA said on Sunday that 22 people had been killed and 200 wounded in the fighting.
“We are here to demand the government find a peaceful solution for the tribal war that is happening in Bani Walid,” a protester was quoted saying.
On 21 October 2012 UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued an official statement of concern that recognized both sides of the equation and the contradictory nature of the Libyan government’s role:
The Secretary-General is alarmed by the fighting in and around the Libyan city of Bani Walid, and in particular the reports indicating growing civilian casualties due to indiscriminate shelling. The Secretary-General reminds all parties of their obligations under international humanitarian law and calls on all the Libyan authorities and those in Bani Walid to begin immediately a process to resolve the Bani Walid stand-off peacefully. The Secretary-General is of the firm conviction that the Libyan authorities must be able to extend Libyan sovereignty and state control and services throughout the territory of Libya. In their historic July elections, the Libyan people put their trust in the Libyan State, and the Secretary-General urges all Libyans to work together to strengthen the legitimacy and effectiveness of State institutions across the country. The State and those militias acting in its name also have a responsibility to the people of Libya to act fully in accordance with international law, in particular international human rights law. All those involved in the fighting in and around Bani Walid should be aware that the international community is closely monitoring the situation.
The Secretary-General believes that the situation in Bani Walid can be resolved in a peaceful manner that preserves the rights of all Libyan citizens and permits the state to exercise its responsibilities there. The Secretary-General notes that his Special Representative in Libya is actively engaged in helping to defuse and resolve the Bani Walid stand-off.
The UN Secretary-General cautions the Libyan government to avoid civilian causalities but at the same time, having been fairly elected, he recognizes the right of the Libyan government to rule Libya.
The Russian Draft
The next day, Russia puts forward a Security Council Draft Press Statement on Bani Walid, a statement that carries no real weight of enforcement. The Secretary General had already represented the position of the UN and every committee of the UN could issue its own statement and none of them would change the facts on the ground in Libya. It’s not like the Russians rush to the Security Council with a draft statement of concern every time a few dozen people are killed in a conflict. Two days later, when the Syrian Army killed 20 people in an Aleppo bakery, Russia didn’t rush to the Security Council with a draft resolution condemning it.
In fact, the Russian resolution, and most of the coverage of the fighting in Bani Walid by the Russian media and its minions, can only be properly understood in the context of the political struggle around Syria.
Russia Today (RT) and most of its followers did not break the story that “Russia has made a draft statement.” Nor was the Secretary-General’s statement reported. Rather, the first story was “US blocks Russian resolution on Bani Walid,” followed by outrage and complaints of a double standard – as if a two week military assault on one town that cost 22 lives should be equated to Assad’s murderous eighteen month assault on a country costing more that 30,000 lives.
After that, all the pro-Assad, pro-Qaddafi coverage of Bani Walid by RT and its minions seemed designed to exaggerate Bani Walid to Syria-like proportions in order to undermine the Libyan Revolution, downplay the crimes of Assad, and charge supporters of the Syrian opposition with hypocrisy.
What was so unique about this Russian draft that RT felt compelled to promote it? Well, here is the text:
The members of the Security Council expressed their grave concern about the escalation of violence in and around the city of Bani Walid, in particular reports of growing civilian casualties, including children.
The members of the Security Council called on the Libyan authorities to take urgent steps to resolve the conflict by peaceful means and to preserve the rights of all Libyan citizens.
The members of the Security Council stressed the need to promote national reconciliation and inclusive political dialogue in Libya.
At first glance, this seems an unobjectionable statement, yet viewed in comparison to the Secretary-General’s statement we can see certain significant differences. Both statements express concern for civilian casualties, except the Russian statement makes specific references to children. As we’ll see later, this plays into specific propaganda claims. Further, whereas the Secretary-General’s statement recognizes the right of the Libyan state to use force if necessary (“the Libyan authorities must be able to extend Libyan sovereignty and state control and services throughout the territory of Libya”) the Russian statement aims to limit them to “peaceful means.” I doubt that Putin would have the Russian state limited to “peaceful means” in dealing with non-violent protesters in Moscow, let alone Chechen rebels. The Russians sound like they believe the Libyan state should be opening negotiations over power sharing with the Qaddafi forces holed up in Bani Walid.
Of course, the Russians completely fail to recognize the “national reconciliation and inclusive political dialogue” that has taken place in the past year. This reconciliation has led to free elections, in which even pro-Qaddafi forces could campaign and protest.
The Russian statement deserved to be blocked if for no other reason than it was less complete and accurate than that of the Secretary-General. However, I suspect that it was designed to be blocked so that Russians could point a finger at American hypocrisy over Syria and Libya. For RT reports paint a very different picture of Bani Walid than that of the Libyan government or other media. They speak of “massacres” and “genocide” and paint a picture of slaughter that is a far cry from the claim of 22 killed in 2 weeks of fighting.
Under the headline “Massacre in Bali Walid”, RT quotes a man in Egypt, not Libya (let alone Bani Walid), who claims via contact with relatives in Bani Walid:
“the city has been exposed to genocide from Misrata militias that are cooperating with Al-Qaeda groups. They attack the city and are using heavy machinery to demolish the houses,” Faraj said.“They are using internationally banned toxic gases against civilian people and they bombard the population with tanks.”
Government-affiliated militias are under the orders “to kill all protesters,” he said. “The city is blocked from all sides; there has been no medicine, no food, and no humanitarian aid. There is nothing inside the city.”
“There is bloodshed in Bani Walid and nobody can hear the people inside the city. [The] militias’ guns come from the outside including from Sarkozy and Obama’s administrations.”
Russia Today takes all this on as the truth about Bani Walid without any verification. The next day RT runs the headline “600 killed in Bani Walid fighting in one day”:
Alwarfally also claimed that at least hundreds of people were killed during the 20-day siege.
“The number is really big,” he said. “On the first day that [the militia] came, there were about 70 bodies from the fighting. Yesterday night there was 600.”
“The number of people in the hospitals is over 1000,” he added.
That is a truly dramatic news and a very different picture from claims that put the number killed in the overall operation in the dozens range. That would amount to killing nearly 1% of the population of the town in a single day. That would be twice the number killed in all of Syria even on a very bad day. That is worth repeating and indeed it was repeated by all the Russian minions like Information Clearinghouse and Global Research. A RT corespondent even brought it up at a U.S. State Department press briefing:
MS. NULAND: Is there a question here, or is this a political statement that you’re making here in the briefing room?QUESTION: No, no, just a – I wondering, 600 people, local resident, were allegedly killed yesterday —
RT correspondent in Lebanon, Paula Slier exclaims: [YouTube @ 03:30 ]
More and more people are saying that no one really cares about what is happening in Bani Walid and you compare this to the almost mass hysteria in the mainstream Western media and the international community today in terms of what is happening today in Syria.
(Incidentally, given that roughly two hundred people are being slaughtered daily in Syria, I am not sure how you could characterize the very slight coverage those deaths receive in the mainstream media as “mass hysteria.”)
Then US journalist and author Neil Clark went on RT to tell us that things are worse now than when Qaddafi was in power:
…we were told Colonel Gaddafi’s forces were killing lots of people, there were dangers of a massive massacre in Benghazi, and because of that we went to war…that was the reason for war. And today, the situation is much worse. We’ve got a humanitarian catastrophe taking place. The number of people killed since NATO intervened has gone up by ten to twenty times. We’ve got massacres going on at the moment and there’s complete silence here in the U.K. and in the U.S.
RT: Quality Check
So what is the quality of this dramatic information? How does RT know to trust these sources? They don’t need to. All they need to know is that they are hearing what they want to hear about Bani Walid. The claim by these men that they have communicated with relatives in Bani Walid is rendered even more remarkable because we are told by RT: “Communications were deliberately cut in order for these gangsters to prevent any person from communicating what is really happening.”
You think they would have better sources than these before they ran to the United Nations with a draft statement on Bani Walid. And you’d think they’d know that the NTC was no longer in charge before they set about criticizing the current Libyan government.
These sources sound decidedly pro-Qaddafi, and the Qaddafi regime was well exposed for faking such causalities during the Libyan civil war. Consider, for example, this conversation in which Qaddafi PM Baghdadi Mahmudi is caught plotting with an unknown caller “to take three dead children from a hospital, plant them at a known site, and have the government spokesman, Musa Ibrahim, report from there using the children as casualties to further their propaganda.”
Given this history of fabrication, why the rush to print dramatic claims without verification by more credible sources? What kind of journalism is this? Taking casualty reports from people like these is like taking wildlife reports from the boy who cried wolf.
Further, consistent with their portray of a Libya at the mercy of armed gangs and jihadists, RT reports implied that the Bani Walid assault was waged by renegade militias without government authority (YouTube 3:57). RT then reported Neil Clark’s claims that “demonstrations are banned throughout the country.” Tell that to these “Demonstrators condemning attack on Libya Al-Hurra” or these “Protesters demanding return of NOC to Benghazi”.
It seemed like RT knew no limits in how far they would go to tar the Libyan revolution and the Libyan government’s operation against these holdouts from the regime they had so long supported. As if charging them with massacres and genocide wasn’t enough, they charged them with using banned chemical weapons. Neil Clark on RT:
anytime there is any hint that the Syrian government has got chemical weapons, it’s front page news on all the western news channels. But RT is about the only channel that’s taking up this story about chemical weapons being used at the moment in Libya.
The Russia Today reports on the conflict around Bani Walid began to be filled with charges of “toxic gas poisoning” and “poisonous gas” exposure which quickly morphed into “reports of chemical weapons being used.” The basis for this charge is a fax, purportedly from doctors in Bani Walid: (YouTube @ 10:30)
We have noticed that 26 injured civilians that are suffering from difficulties in breathing, frothy secretions and an increase in heart rate, with impairment of level of consciousness, also blurring of vision and muscle spasm,
So far, not a single person is reported to have died from this “poisonous gas” or “chemical weapons” attack. However, RT was on to something. The Libya Herald conducted a much more thorough on-site investigation and report:
Government forces stationed at Bir Dufan have been accused of using gas on civilians from Bani Walid during an attack that took place on Monday. Following two visits to the town, The Libya Herald learned that 26 patients had been admitted to hospital with symptoms including hallucinations, foaming at the mouth, muscle spasms, coughing, eye irritations, dizziness, breathing difficulties and loss of consciousness.
This is the town that RT has told us is cut off from the media. The Libya Herald continues:
It remains a possibility that residents were exposed to emissions from a facility that may have been hit during the bombardment as opposed to directly from the munitions themselves. “I heard an explosion, my eyes became irritated and my mouth dried up”, said Ramadan Sahad Ramadan, one of the patients said to have been exposed to the gas, who also showed signs of breathing problems.
“I saw many tanks, I heard a big explosion and then I woke up in the hospital”, said Abubaker Sudani, another patient, who had no external injuries resulting from the blast. “I have difficulty breathing, I cannot see properly and I have thrown-up”.
Responding to the allegations, Colonel Ali Sheikhi, a spokesman for Chief of Staff General Yusuf Mangoush, denied that any gas had been deployed against the town.
“No gas has been used against Bani Walid”, he said. “We do not possess any such weapon”.
It remains unknown what affected these 26 people, but charges that chemical weapons are being used would seem a bit premature. Is this designed to be a preemptive charge against the possibility that Bashar al-Assad uses chemical weapons in Syria?
In RT’s most recent report, they went with the headline “Siege of Bani Walid: Foreign fighters, phosphorus bombs and nerve gas – RT sources.” These certainly are extremely alarming charges worthy of the world’s attention. And the “RT sources?” “A man who claimed his relatives are trapped inside the besieged city spoke with RT.” This source, who we are later told “is currently in Egypt” says of Bani Walid: “there is no communication or Internet so people are not able to connect with each other.” But somehow he has all the details of what exactly is going on!
“They use foreign snipers, I think from Qatar or Turkey, with Qatar covering all the costs,” he said. He claimed that a ship with weapons and other equipment recently docked in the port city of Misrata, where the assault on Bani Walid is allegedly being directed.
He knows all of this how? It doesn’t matter so long as RT has a source. Then all its minions can cite RT as their source. That’s how the game of supporting dictators is played.
The claim of nerve gas and white phosphorus is also based on the word of one person:
“I can confirm that pro-government militias used internationally prohibited weapons. They used phosphorus bombs and nerve gas. We have documented all this in videos, we recorded the missiles they used and the white phosphorus raining down from these missiles,” Bani Walid-based activist and lawyer Afaf Yusef told RT.
Three days earlier she had been used by RT to confirm their view that the assault was done without government authority. What can one say about these reports? I would find it helpful to know if this “Bani Walid-based activist and lawyer” was more aligned with the revolutionaries that had been kicked out of Bani Walid or the pro-Qaddafi militias that had taken over. Because, frankly, the pro-Qaddafi people do not have a strong record of telling the truth.
The best thing that could be said is that these claims should require collaboration before they become headlines. RT and its minions don’t see it that way. This is the story they want to tell and they do not rely on solid sources so much as on repetition.
Conclusion: Today in Bani Walid
According to The Tripoli Post, Italy is monitoring the situation in Bani Walid and “the toll of the clashes there stands at approximately 25 dead, over 400 wounded and more than 25,000 displaced.”
The Red Cross made its most recent report on October 26:
The humanitarian situation remains difficult for the people of Bani Walid in Libya. To help those who fled the city after heavy clashes this week, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is working with the Libyan Red Crescent to distribute food, drinking water, medicine and other essential items to more than 10,000 people in the nearby cities of Tarhuna and Orban.
But they didn’t mention anything about nerve gas or white phosphorous being used.