The Libyan Rebels' Massacre

What the "humanitarian mission" really achieved.

Barack Obama and his supporters are no doubt hoping the lion's share of the credit for the deposing and killing of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi will go to the president, who himself expressed praise for the rebels back in September. "Today, the Libyan people are writing a new chapter in the life of their nation. After four decades of darkness, they can walk the streets, free from a tyrant," Mr. Obama said at the time. They are indeed free from a tyrant. Whether they are free from tyranny is another matter. The final days of the fighting in and around the city of Sirte resulted in a massacre, with 53 people methodically executed at a hotel -- apparently by a faction of the same rebels who have assumed control of the country.

“We found 53 decomposing bodies, apparently Gaddafi supporters, at an abandoned hotel in Sirte, and some had their hands bound behind their backs when they were shot,” said Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch (HRW). “This requires the immediate attention of the Libyan authorities to investigate what happened and hold accountable those responsible.”

The Libyan authority at the moment is the National Transitional Council (NTC) chaired by Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, and the likelihood of a competent investigation taking place is slim: on Monday volunteers were busy scrubbing the garden of the Mahari Hotel, where the alleged atrocity appears to have taken place. The volunteers, who said the dead were comprised of "at least two former Gaddafi government officials, local loyalist fighters and maybe civilians," have collected dozens of bodies. But other evidence of the massacre, such as shell casings, plastic ties used to bind the hands of the victims, and patches of bloody grass remain behind.

Complicating any investigation is the fact that the bodies, which were found clustered together, were already in an advanced state of decomposition when they were viewed by HRW observers on October 23rd. HRW noted that the "condition of the bodies suggests the victims were killed approximately one week prior to their discovery, between October 14 and October 19. The bloodstains on the grass directly below the bodies, bullet holes visible in the ground, and the spent cartridges of AK-47 and FN-1 rifles scattered around the site strongly suggest that some, if not all of the people, were shot and killed in the location where they were discovered.”

According to witnesses HRW interviewed, anti-Gaddafi rebels from the city of Misrata had been in control of that section of Sirte since early October. Anti-Gaddafi brigades are organized according to their city of origin, and the city of Misrata has more that 100 brigades (katiba) which contain small numbers of fighters who operated semi-autonomously during battle. The names of five of those brigades, the “Tiger Brigade” (Al-Nimer), the “Support Brigade” (Al-Isnad), the "Jaguar Brigade" (Al-Fahad), the "Lion Brigade" (Al-Asad), and the "Citadel Brigade" (Al-Qasba), covered the walls and entrance of the hotel. This was apparently due to the fact that they used the facility as a base of operations. HRW did not directly accuse these five brigades of conducting the massacre, but said their presence at the hotel when it occurred "requires immediate investigation."

The current record of the National Transitional Council suggests such immediacy is a pipe dream for both practical and political reasons. Practically speaking, the rebels who ostensibly liberated the nation are comprised of several separate militias. Despite repeated attempts, the NTC has failed to establish a chain of command among those militias or form a national army. Thus, despite several alleged incidents of arbitrary arrests, torture or murder, the mechanisms for dealing with formal investigations and prosecutions remain largely undeveloped. Politically speaking, the NTC's attempt to burnish its own legitimacy requires it to establish relationships with the leaders of those militias, which may lead to more than a few alleged incidents of extra-legal activity being downplayed, ignored altogether or blamed on Gaddafi and his loyalist forces.

This last fallback position appears to be the stance the NTC is adopting with regard to the killing of Gen. Abdul Fattah Younes, the rebel’s top military commander, as well as two of his aides, back in August. Younis, former aide and interior minister to Gaddafi, defected on February 20th, and was credited with helping the rebels overthrow the regime's military garrison in the city of Benghazi. When the murders occurred, Younis was reportedly in the hands of rebel forces. NTC Chairman Abdel-Jalil had promised to investigate that incident, claiming no one, "not even the highest officials" would remain above suspicion. Yet he proposed that Gaddafi loyalists were responsible, even as other members of his organization revealed that rebels remained the chief suspects in the killing.

Abdel-Jalil is using the same template to "explain" the as yet unresolved circumstances under which Muammar Gaddafi was killed, which has also prompted calls for an investigation, due to what Abdel-Jalil characterized as the “demands of the international community.” Video footage shows that Gaddafi was still alive when he was pulled from a drainpipe after a NATO air assault ruined his escape attempt. Yet subsequent video showed the tyrant dead with a bullet wound to the head and covered in bruises. Nevertheless, Abdel-Jalil tried to deny the obvious. "Free Libyans wanted to keep Gaddafi in prison and humiliate him as long as possible," he theorized. "Those who wanted him killed were those who were loyal to him or had played a role under him. His death was in their benefit.” Though Abdel-Jalil makes no mention of it, one might be inclined to assume this argument also applies to Muammar Gaddafi's son, Muatassim, who also ended up dead, despite videos showing he was captured alive.

Such calculated obstinance raises an obvious question: if the circumstances surrounding the death of Muammar Gaddafi could be whitewashed to exonerate the rebels, what chance is there of an honest investigation being conducted of the massacre at the Mahari Hotel? It has been over a week since the incident occurred, and no one from the new government has initiated an investigation to date. HRW's Peter Bouckaert illuminates the implications. “If the NTC fails to investigate this crime it will signal that those who fought against Gaddafi can do anything without fear of prosecution,” he said.

So far they have. Back in May, the New York Times ran a story speculating that rebels had formed a "death squad stalking former Gaddafi officials in Benghazi." In August, rebels were charged with killing black people indiscriminately by African Union leader Jean Ping, who contended "the NTC seems to confuse black people with mercenaries...They are killing normal workers." (HRI) also accused the rebels of conducting "ethnic cleansing and lynching of black people." In October, rebels reportedly went on a "vengeance spree" in the town of Abu Hadi, known as a tribal center for Gaddafi. Unrestrained looting and the burning of houses by rebel forces was rationalized by rebel commander Col. Bashir Abu Thafeera, who contended they were the result of "42 years of oppression under Gaddafi." And HRW noted that of the 95 people killed in the fighting and NATO strikes prior to Gaddafi's capture, "between six and ten of the dead appear to have been executed at the site with gunshot wounds to the head and body.”

All of these illegal acts of vengeance and execution, plus others which will undoubtedly emerge as the fog of war dissipates, undercut the original premise of a "humanitarian" NATO mission sold under the auspices of "protecting the civilian population" in compliance with U.N Resolution 1973. And despite the fact that the National Transitional Council has shown little inclination to investigate any of the alleged abuses by rebel forces, NATO has announced that it will end operations in Libya by October 31st. "We did what we said we would do and now is the time for the Libyan people to take their destiny into their own hands," said NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen last Friday.

It is a destiny which remains highly problematic. Abdel-Jalil amended his original statement that Libya will be a Muslim country governed under Sharia Law. “Libyans are Muslims, but we are moderate Muslims,” he said Monday, even as he urged “forgiveness and reconciliation” in his address to the nation. Yet he remained committed to Sharia Law. “Any law that runs contrary to the Islamic principles of the Islamic Shariah is legally void,” he said. Thus, second-class status for women and homosexuals, violence and intimidation directed at non-believers, and dreams of jihadist domination--all in moderation--will apparently be the foundation of the new Libyan government. It remains to be seen whether "forgiveness and reconciliation" includes turning a blind eye to rebel abuses, assuming any investigations take place at all.

As for those who wish to take credit for the outcome of the Libyan adventure, it would be wise to remember that with credit comes responsibility. Muammar Gaddafi will not be missed. It remains to be seen if what takes his place is better or worse, when thousands of weapons, including surface-to-air missiles capable of shooting down jetliners, remain unaccounted for, autonomous militias in search of vengeance remain unfettered by external control, and the genuine composition and ultimate objectives of the rebel forces remains largely a mystery.

One always hopes war will be won by the "good guys." Fifty-three dead bodies of people seemingly executed in cold blood indicate that such a term may be nothing more than an exceedingly hollow expression when applied to the winners in Libya.

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