The history of Libya is a history of conflict with foreign invaders, from the ancient Greeks and conquering Islamic Ottomans, to the first generation of American sailors and Naval warfighters who battled the Barbary pirates. Libya also rests on a geographical plane where both trans-Saharan trade routes and various maritime endeavors intersect with each other, making the country a center of commerce and cross-cultural exchange throughout the centuries.
There was a time in Libya, perhaps encountered by the Greeks upon their arrival, before desertification when the country was largely green and flush with a complex system of irrigation canals. Giraffes and other exotic animals thrived in a Libya very different from the one we know today. As the Sahara desert began to dry out and expand, it acted as something of a filter for trade between North and Sub-Saharan Africa. In these early years of trans-Saharan commerce, caravans of camels traveling across the desert were known to number in the tens of thousands.
The Garamantes were the indigenous peoples who occupied present day Libya as far back as 1,000BCE. As an agrarian society, the Garamantes also worked as merchants and engaged in the salt trade with the ancient West African empires. Later, the Phoenicians had extended their commercial trade network across North Africa, absorbing the three cities region called Tripolis on the Libyan coast which the modern capital, Tripoli draws its name. The ancient Greeks later created a colony in Libya, welcoming Alexander the Great in 331 BCE.
As the Roman empire was coming into the picture, multiple trade routes were emerging which crisscrossed the desert. Libya was thus linked to Sudan and Algeria linked to the Niger River bend via a Mauritanian corridor suitable for grazing in the months of October through May. A third major route came into existence which connected Sudan with Egypt. A complex series of oasis acted as way points through the desert as the caravans could go as long as eight to ten days without water. By 74 BCE, Libya voluntarily became a Roman province.
Tripoli continued to grow into a commercial hub under Roman protection until the decline of the empire and the Vandal barbarian hoards swept through North Africa in the 5th Century BCE. The Romans attempted to reassert themselves in the region, but their empire was overextended causing Roman infrastructure and culture to wither away until the spread of Islam came to fill the power vacuum.
For centuries control of Libya was up for grabs between the Berber tribes, the Byzantines, and various Arab invaders, including the Caliphate of Ummayad of Syria. The burgeoning trade in gold brought the precious metal to the Mediterranean coast from the Wangara clan in modern day Mali and Ghana. Heavy caravans of several thousand camels flowed across the desert once a year while light caravans consisting of a hundred camels were more frequent.
By the 16th Century Libya had fallen under Ottoman control while favorable political conditions in Mali had now allowed for extensive trade networks to develop (mostly) unhindered by bandits and thieves. The spread of Islam had a profound effect on North Africa, developing a civil society connected by religious ties that stretched across nations and empires. Literacy promoted by the Muslim faith to allow followers to read the Koran led to Muslim caravaners to create a system of credit and other legal documents such as contracts.
While the trans-Atlantic slave trade picked up pace, Arab slavers also engaged in the practice of raiding European coastal cities to procure Christian slaves. Arabs also captured black African slaves from sub-saharan Africa, but even combining these two slave networks the number of people sold into slavery by Arabs was perhaps 1.5 million on the high estimate, a mere drop in the bucket compared to the the European trade in black slaves. However, the Barbary slavers were prolific enough to cause entire stretches of Mediterranean coastline to be abandoned in Spain, France, Italy, and elsewhere as the pirates raided as far as Iceland and Ireland.
Previously, historians believed that with the increase in maritime trade that the trans-saharan routes fell into disuse, however recent analysis shows that quite the opposite happened. The Ottoman empire’s presence in Libya opened up new markets for good flowing across the north-south trade routes from places like Bornu and Timbuktu according to a French doctor held in Libya during the 1680’s.
The 1700’s found Libya sliding into a chaotic time of coups and counter-coups. European nations paid tributes to the Barbary pirates to prevent them from seizing their merchant ships and enslaving their sailors. Ships originating in colonial America were protected as British flagged ships but after the Revolutionary War Thomas Jefferson stayed true to his principled ideals and refused to engage in paying tributes and becoming entangled in complicated foreign affairs. With American ships now under seize by North African pirates, the first of the Barbary wars kicked off.
In 1784 the first American merchant ship was seized by pirates from the Barbary Coast which included the shores of Morocco, Algeria, and Libya. Acting as the American ambassador to France at the time, Jefferson negotiated a treaty with the Moroccans but was much less successful in negotiating with the two other Barbary states. Pirates from Algeria and Libya continued to capture American ships, motivating the US government to establish a Navy in the year of 1798 to respond to the Barbary threat. All the while, American sailors were sold into slavery and a life of hard labor while the pirate states attempted to ransom them back to the US government along with their impounded vessels.
Throughout this ordeal, Jefferson stuck to his guns in regards to not paying ransoms and tributes using the rational that paying off the pirates would only incentivize them to capture more ships and ransom off more American sailors. This unfortunately was a lesson that had to be relearned in the 1980’s by Oliver North and his crew as they traded missiles to Iran in exchange to the release of American hostages in Lebanon.
The US government did compromise by paying some ransoms in order to stale for time until an adequate Naval force could be stood up but Jefferson remained adamant about ceasing the payments altogether believing that America’s future lay in westward expansion rather than cramping future Americans in cities like Boston and New York which could very well come to be filled with the urban poor and resemble the paupers crammed into London and Paris. Old Word entanglements did not sit well with him and yet
Sworn in as President in 1801, President Jefferson ceased paying any form of ransom leader the Barbary pirates to declaring war in the United States. In a episode frighteningly similar to current events, the Turkish Ottoman pirates cut down the flag pole in front of the US Consulate in Tripoli. The administrators in Algiers were like wise upset that the previous Adams Presidency had been paying Tripoli more in tribute than they received while the governors in Tunis grew angry at not having received a pay off in several years.
Jefferson had now cut off ransom payments leading to the Barbary tribes to declaring war on America. By now, the President had a Naval force at his disposal to protect American merchant ships and enforce US foreign policy. He soon dispatched a small naval force under orders to “protect our commerce and chastise their insolence-by sinking, burning or destroying their ships & Vessels wherever you shall find them.” The USS Enterprise chalked up its first defeat of a Barbary ship in August of 1801. More US Naval ships arrived on the Barbary coast and established a blockade around Barbary port cities in 1803.
The First Barbary War continued until 1805 when the US Marines led a daring raid along with Greek and indigenous mercenaries in the Battle of Derna. The action resulted in a decisive American victory, immortalized in the Marine hymn with the words, “From the Halls of Montezuma, to the shores of Tripoli; we fight our country’s battles in the air, on land, and sea.” It was America’s first war and the country’s first successful overseas military campaign.
While America had also been distracted by the War of 1812 and Europe similarly pre-occupied by the Napoleonic Wars, the powers of both government resolved to destroy the Barbary pirates once and for all. The Berlin Conference of 1884 formalized European imperialism on the African continent. While France secured Algeria using the pretext of preventing further Barbary piracy, Italy staked their claim to Libya in 1912, calling it Italian North Africa. Fighting a bitter war against Libyan Bedouin resistance, Italy eventually had to abandon the country as North Africa was plunged into World War Two.
It was during the North Africa campaign against the Nazi forces of Erwin Rommel, perhaps Germany’s most capable General, that the British Special Air Service was first convinced to be used for commando actions behind enemy lines. Conducting parachute drops and working alongside the Long Range Desert Group, the SAS strode into history, becoming the preeminent Special Operations Force which the rest of the Western World sought to emulate decades later.
As a result of an Allied victory in the Second World War, Libya was allowed to become an independent state. In 1951 Libya became an independent monarchy ruled by King Idris. With the discovery of Libya’s massive oil reserves the country became rich seemingly overnight. With wealth concentrated with and around King Idris, resistance to the monarchy and foreign interference continued to build during the Post-colonial Arab and African nationalist movement of the 1960’s.
Under the aegis of Marxist revolutionary rhetoric, Omar Gaddafi staged a coup against the king in 1969. The Libyan revolution had brought into power a dictator that would prove to antagonize America, and Africa, for decades to come.
Born to a Bedouin family of little consequence, Gaddafi rose through the ranks as a young Libyan military officer, receiving specialized radio training in England along the way. When he launched his coup he used his charisma to build popular support and align himself against the Italian colonizers and Western powers. Although coming out of a Post-Colonial background, Gaddafi can in some ways be seen as a precursor to over the top populist figures such as Hugo Chavez of Venezuela as they both took strong anti-Western stances and attempted to nationalize industry in an effort to free their citizens from the “scourge of the private sector.”
Gaddafi proposed his own unique political doctrine, one which embraced socialism but rejected the atheism of the Soviet Union, instead implementing Sharia Law for Libya. This course of action was well advised as communism had been quickly rejected in Iraq during its first go around in the Muslim world in the 1950’s as Soviet envoys insisted that the Arabs abandon their Muslim faith.
Promoting himself to Colonel, and later General, Gaddafi installed himself as the figurehead of his Revolutionary movement while giving the illusion that the reigns of power had been handed over to a series of councils and committees. Seeking to become a Pan-Arab leader at the center of a single Muslim state that encompassed North Africa and the Middle East, Gaddafi cultivated relationships with Arab leaders such as Anwar Al-Sadat of Egypt and Hefiz Al-Assad of Syria. However, these leaders never full trusted Gaddafi or his ambitious. Even though Gaddafi was strongly anti-Israeli and promoted the Palestinian cause, Egypt and Syria left Gaddafi out of the planning process as they prepared for war against Isreal.
Isreal’s defensive pre-emptive action, now known as a The Six Day War, struck a humiliating defeat to the Arab nations which resonates to this day. When Isreali fighter jets screamed over Egyptian airfields and destroyed their aircraft before they could even get off the ground it left a feeling of impenitence among the Arabs. Finger pointing and shifting of blame happened between Assad, Sadat, and Gaddafi, resulting in the Arab leaders to completely reject Gaddafi as a political player.
With the Arabs wanting nothing to do with the Libyan leader, Gaddafi instead turned his attentions to Africa, now vying for a Pan-African movement that would unite the continent under his leadership. Delusions of grandeur appeared to be a habitual character flaw of his. In addition to assassinating overseas dissidents, Gaddafi financial supported anti-Western terrorist groups as wide ranging as the IRA, Red Army Faction, Filipino Muslim militants, the Black Panthers, the ANC in South Africa, and many others.
Meanwhile, covert operations were in the works with (or against) the Libyan Colonel, operations hatched by former CIA operative Ed Wilson. Ted Shackley was the original CIA Officer who set the conditions for covert operations which utilized non-official cover, that is to say, front companies. Wilson also came to specialize in the establishment of front companies which would house various CIA projects and programs. One of his more successful endeavors was setting up Consultants International which was used as a front to provide logistics for CIA operations. However, it all came to an end when Wilson and approximately 800 other CIA operatives were fired in 1977. This had the unforeseen outcome of turning many of these operatives to freelance work.
Ed Wilson began cutting deals with the Libyan government, including sending training teams into the country to train up Libyan soldiers in Infantry and Commando tactics. One of those teams was led by legendary Special Forces Sergeant Major, Billy Waugh. Waugh, a Vietnam veteran who conducted cross-border operations with MACV-SOG, led a team consisting of three other Special Forces veterans to Benghazi in 1977.
The four men were called in for a briefing by someone acting as a lawyer and representing Ed Wilson in the Washington DC area. It was at this briefing that they learned that the mission they had been recruited for was no actually a CIA sponsored operations but rather a commercial endeavor undertaken on Wilson’s own initiative.
“My bullshit antennae went on high alert upon hearing this news,” Waugh recalls about the meeting in his memoirs as he was never completely convinced that the mission was not being backed under the auspices of the CIA.
While waiting on their visas to be approved through the Libyan embassy, Waugh received a call to his hotel room. The man on the other end of the line dropped some names on Waugh, the names of Special Forces men he had served with in Vietnam, in order to establish his bonafides. Waugh agreed to meet that man, named Pat, in a restaurant in Arlington. Pat produced a CIA identification card and informed Waugh that Ed Wilson’s training mission in Libya had not been authorized by the Agency. However, he was still encouraged to go the Libya with the training team, but to take a 35mm camera with him and snap any pictures of Libyan military installations or equipment that could prove useful to the CIA down the line.
With de facto blessing from the CIA, Waugh and his team landed in Tripoli with his training team in August of 1977. After their first meeting with Libyan military Officers, the Americans were then housed at the Omar Khayamm Hotel in Benghazi. Assigned to train Libyan commandos, Waugh relied on his Special Forces background to gain the trust of the trainees and began casually taking photographs with his CIA supplied camera, snapping pictures of everything from Surface to Air missile sites to MIG fighter jets.
Waugh worked with the Libyan commandos for almost a full year but never had a high opinion of their capabilities. In 1978, he returned home and got married before going back to Libya as a singleton operator. This time the Libyans asked him to conduct a cross-border operation into Egypt to photograph potential military targets, a request that Waugh refused as it would be him taking part in military operations for the Libyan government, a government not exactly on good terms with America to begin with.
Having refused the recon mission, Waugh was then moved to a secret compound in the Green Mountains, East of Benghazi, to train another commando unit. It was on November 4th 1978 that Waugh learned that the US embassy in Tehran had been taken over by Iranian terrorists and American held hostage in retaliation for the US providing asylum for the late shah of Iran. With Arab world perceived this act as a sell out by America. A Libyan officer who had befriended Waugh warned him at the 11th hour that the Libyan government would be coming after him and he needed to escape the country immediately.
The officer helped him escape to the Benina Airport in Benghazi and handed him a ticket too Frankfurt, Germany where Waugh’s wife was living with family at the time. While Billy got out of the country in the nick of time, he later learned that his Libyan officer friend had been executed for taking part in an attempted coup against Colonel Gaffadi.
A few years later, Ed Wilson was arrested in 1982 for selling 20 tons of C4 plastic explosives to the Gaddafi regime. It was also alleged that the Libyan commandos trained by the Special Forces veterans he had hired for Gaddafi later went around the world assassinating Libyan political dissidents in places as far flung as Germany to the United States. Wilson maintained his innocence and spend decades in prison trying to clear his name.
Through Freedom of Information Act requests, he managed to show at least eighty occasions in which the CIA had been in contact with him after he was no longer their employee, establishing that there was a relationship between him and the CIA. Although he was never able to demonstrate that the US Government allowed him to sell the C4 to Libya, he did show that he was in close contact with CIA representatives during the time of major arms deals he was making with Gaddafi. Ultimately, this was enough to have him released from prison in 2004.
Was Ed Wilson working for the CIA the entire time or did the CIA simply allow Wilson to run his own entrepreneurial activities and piggyback their own operations on to the tail end of them by recruiting people like Billy Waugh to feed them information on the backside of Wilson’s taskings? We will probably never know for sure until more documents are declassified.
Gaddafi’s reign of terror came to a head with the 1988 Lockerbie bombing which brought down Pan Am Flight 103 over Scotland and killed 270 people. Secret NSA intercepts pointed towards Gaddafi as the culprit, the bombing of the aircraft done as a part of a series of skirmishes between American and Libya which included the US military shooting down two Libyan fighter jets and sinking a number of Libyan military boats off the coast. In response, Gadaffi had a discoteque in Germany bombed which killed three people. The United States later retaliated by deploying fighter jets to drop bombs on Tripoli and Benghazi in 1986. The airstrike failed to kill the Libyan dictator but allegedly killed his adopted daughter. This small scale conflict ultimately resulted in the dictator ordering the Lockerbie bombing.
These airstrikes were almost certainly planned with the aide of the reconnaissance photos taken by Billy Waugh during his many adventures in Libya.
Another motivation for the Lockerbie bombing was America’s in assistance to Chad along with France as Gaddafi’s pivot from the Arab world to Africa saw him launching a highly unpopular war in the desert nation on his Southern border. The so-called Toyota War between Chad and Libya resulted in yet another defeat for Gaddafi in 1987 with heavy loses of both soldiers and war material.
Not content to run an extraction based economy centered around oil exportation and oppress the people in his own nation, Gaddafi’s Africa ambitions led him financing and providing weapons to butchers in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Sudan, and else where. He also provided aid and comfort to other autocrats such as Idi Amin of Uganda and Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe.
For all his sins, the Western world seemed to enter into some kind of detente with Gaddafi starting in the 1980’s. Despite the African leader’s antics with terrorism and assassination, it seems that the West could not ignore a nation so rich in oil and with a apparently unhinged leader who had a growing interest in Weapons of Mass Destruction.
Margret Thatcher wrote at the time that the former President of Sudan had once remarked about Gaddafi that he is, “a man with a split personality – both of them evil.”
After the attacks and counter-attacks between Gaddafi and the West during the 1980’s, the Libyan leader sought to rehabilitate his image as the “mad dog of the Middle East” as Ronald Reagan had once called him. He admitted to responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing and turned over two suspects, his own intelligence operatives, for trail in Europe. His concession, and willingness to pay over two billion dollars in damages to the families of the victims, is seen as purely Machiavellian. Ever the shrewd manipulator, by admitting to some responsibility for the bombing, Gaddafi succeeded in having UN sanctions against his country lifted.
The fun and games continued through the 1990’s as well. David Rothkopf attempts to dispel conspiracy theories about the power-elite in his book “Superclass” before promptly relating a personal story on his in which the CEO of a major aircraft manufacturer pitches an assassination plot to Representative Pat Schroeder.
Here is the deal. I want to sell a plane to Muammar Qaddafi and he wants to buy one. But we have sanctions in place that won’t let me sell to him. The US wants this guy dead. So, what I’m thinking is, if you help me get the okay to sell him the plane, I’ll build it with explosive bolts connecting the wings to the fuselage. Then, one day he’s up flying over the Med and we push a button. He’s gone. I make my sale. Everyone’s happy.
It is unknown what ultimately became of this plan.
Ironically, Gaddafi himself faced an internal threat from Islamic extremists in the 1990’s which influenced him to cooperate with American and British counter-terrorism initiatives. Libya was even used as a center in the rendition flight network for detained suspected terrorists held by American operatives after the 9/11 attacks. One of these rendition prisoners appears to be one of Gaddafi’s internal political opponents named Abdelhakim Belhadj, an Islamic extremist who fought with the Mujahdeen in Afghanistan against the soviets before becoming an emir in the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. The CIA then arranged for him to be arrested in Malaysia and redered to Libya where Gaddafi later released him as part of a de-radicalization program. Belhadj became a leader in the Libyan civil war against Gaddafi’s forces just a few years later.
With the British, French, and Americans convincing Gaddafi to abandon his Weapons of Mass Destruction program, the Bush administration removed Libya from the list of nations that support terrorism and both MI-6 and the CIA increased intelligence sharing and cooperation with the Libyan regime. Only after the civil war was it evident that the CIA had even written speeches for Gaddafi and helped him set up an extensive surveillance system.
At this point there was a warming of relations between Gaddafi and the West as he signed agreements with French Prime Minister Sarkozy and Italian Prime Minister Burlesconi. He also opened the door to Russia, meeting with Medvedev and Putin. The once ostracized dictator even rated a handshake
from President Obama at a G8 summit in 2009.
All of which makes Gaddafi’s liquidation, with direct Western assistance, in 2011 all the more interesting.
(Featured Image Courtesy: Telegraph.co.uk)
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