The question everyone should ask about Qatar’s involvement in the overthrow of the Qaddafi regime in Libya is: “Why did the Qatari government decided to take such a leading role in the overthrow of Qaddafi? What was in it for them?” It is a question which western political leaders, diplomats and journalists did not seem interested in asking or answering, but a state does not involve itself so deeply in the overthrow of another state unless it is seeking some gain. I will give my own answer at the end of this entry.
Firstly I will highlight the very leading role which the emirate took in this supposed ‘revolution’. In March 2011 Qatar became the first Arab country to fly combat missions over Libya. Qatar was to send six Mirage 2000 jets and two C-17 military transport aircraft in support of the coalition air operations over Libya. This was the bulk of combat power of the country’s small Air Force. The same month Qatar also became the first Arab nation, and the second only country in the world, to recognize the Benghazi-based rebel council as the only ‘legitimate’ representatives of the Libyan people. The day before they had announced a programme to market oil on behalf of the rebels from oil facilities they had captured.
In April 2011 it was reported that Qatar had supplied French made, Milan anti-tank missiles to Libyan rebels in Benghazi. These would have been tactically very important as the rebels had few defences against the regime’s heavy armour.
A good concise summary of Qatar’s role in the overthrow of Qaddafi is given in the book “Qatar & the Arab Spring” (2014) by K. C. Ulrichsen, published by Hurst & Co. London (pp. 122- 131). Ulrichsen writes that the chairman of the National Transitional Council (NTC), the body recognized by the western powers as representing Libya, Mahmoud Jabril, was largely based in Doha throughout the civil war, finding it easier to operate from there, than from Benghazi.
He continues to explain that during the conflict non-military aid from Qatar to the rebels included US$ 400 million in finance, water, heating gas, and other essential goods. Qatar set up a TV station in Doha, ‘Libya TV’, to broadcast anti-Qaddafi propaganda in competition with Libyan state TV. Qatar’s own state television ‘Al-Jazeera’ broadcast coverage from a pro-rebel stance. In some cases it seems that false atrocity stories may have been broadcast. An Al-Jazeera story in February 2011 that the Qaddafi regime had used the air force to strafe peaceful civilian protests in Tripoli and other cities could not be substantiated by Hugh Roberts, director of the ‘International Crisis Group’s north Africa project’. This story had been rebroadcast all over the world.
Ulrichsen writes that at the end of the conflict Libyan officials estimated that Qatar had sent some 20,000 tonnes of weapons in some eighteen shipments. Interestingly, of these only five went through the official NTC channels, the rest went via Islamist networks run by Ismael al-Salabi. Al-Salabi and his brother Ali, had been living in exile in Doha before the civil war started in 2011. Ali was to become a very influential cleric in Libya. Ismael was the leader of one of the best equipped and supplied rebel militias, the ‘Rafallah al-Sahati Companies’, apparently nicknamed the ‘Ferrari 17 Brigade’ because they were so flush with supplies. Qatar apparently had links too with Abdelhakim Belhadj a former leader of the ‘Libyan Islamic Fighters Group’, who had been rendered by the CIA back to Libya in 2004.
After the conflict had ended in October 2011 Qatari chief-of-staff, Major-General Hamad bin Ali al-Attiya, told western reporters that hundreds of Qatari troops had fought in Libya, supervising the rebels’ plans and liaising with Nato. British trained Qatari special forces are reported to have provided infantry training to Libyan fighters in the western Nafusa mountains and in eastern Libya. Qatar’s military even brought Libyan rebels back to Doha for exercises. In the final assault on Qaddafi’s Bab al-Aziziya compound in Tripoli in late August 2011, Qatari special forces were seen on the frontline.
A 25 August 2011 report in wired.com wrote:
“The principle source of support for the rebels came from Q-SOC, the Qatari special forces, says this source, who would only be identified as a former U.S. intelligence contractor with direct knowledge of operations in Libya. With the advance on Tripoli impending, the Q-SOC teams went to work getting rebels ready to finish the war, teaching them how to use the shoulder-fired missiles they looted from Gadhafi’s weapons stocks and even the basics of shooting straight.”
“They went west into the Nafusa mountains and provided minimal basic shooting and tactics training to individual rebel brigades. That’s why those rebels are generally in three-color desert uniforms, the source tells Danger Room. The Los Angeles Times described those Nafusa-based rebels as gritty, and gave them a large share of credit for turning the tide of the war. They also selected 100-plus western-region Libyans for small-unit leadership training, and flew them to Qatar and then back to Nafusa for the big push.”
“That was just one aspect of the Qatari aid to the rebels. The Qataris, however improbably, were the first foreign military on the ground providing military training. “They have been more effective than any other nation,” a rebel military representative told the Washington Post in May. “They just haven’t boasted about it.”
But the rosy picture of western and Gulf nations working together to ‘protect civilians’ and ‘bring democracy’ to Libya as universally presented by governments and the mass media was not the whole picture. On 5 December 2012 a New York Times report by James Risen, Mark Mazzetti and Michael S. Schmidt reported:
“The Obama administration secretly gave its blessing to arms shipments to Libyan rebels from Qatar, but American officials later grew alarmed as evidence grew that Qatar was turning some of the weapons over to Islamic militants, according to United States officials and foreign diplomats.
… the Obama administration clearly was worried about the consequences of its hidden hand in helping arm Libyan militants, concerns that have not previously been reported. The weapons and money from Qatar strengthened militant groups in Libya, allowing them to become a destabilizing force since the fall of the Qaddafi government.
Within weeks of endorsing Qatar’s plan to send weapons there in spring 2011, the White House began receiving reports that they were going to Islamic militant groups. They were “more antidemocratic, more hard-line, closer to an extreme version of Islam” than the main rebel alliance in Libya, said a former Defense Department official.
Mahmoud Jibril, then the prime minister of the Libyan transitional government, expressed frustration to administration officials that the United States was allowing Qatar to arm extremist groups opposed to the new leadership, according to several American officials.
The administration has never determined where all of the weapons, paid for by Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, went inside Libya, officials said. Qatar is believed to have shipped by air and sea small arms, including machine guns, automatic rifles, and ammunition, for which it has demanded reimbursement from Libya’s new government. Some of the arms since have been moved from Libya to militants with ties to Al Qaeda in Mali, where radical jihadi factions have imposed Shariah law in the northern part of the country, the former Defense Department official said. Others have gone to Syria, according to several American and foreign officials and arms traders. ”
So where are we now? After years of chaos and ups and downs, the streets are still under the control of any number of regional and tribal militias. However two competing power centres have emerged vying to become the sole ‘legitimate’ government of Libya. The elected “House of Representatives” (HOR), husbanded by the western powers was kicked out of Tripoli by militias aligned with the (many say) more Islamist GNC, a predecessor of the HOR resurrected by certain factions who did not wish to relinquish power.
The HOR, recognised by the UN and by the US government, relocated to Tobruq, and have been engaged in a war against the GNC, led by General Khalifa Hiftar, a man known to have been a CIA ‘asset’ in the past. Egypt and the UAE have intervened militarily on the side of the HOR.
The GNC for their part, sitting in the national capital Tripoli, are backed by Qatar, Turkey and, ‘enemy of the west’, Sudan. In September 2014 the Libyan PM Abdullah al-Thinni accused Qatar of sending three plane loads of arms in military aircraft to Tripoli in support of the militias which seized Tripoli. The GNC have been accused of aligning themselves with extremist Islamist factions based in the east of the country who are fighting against the HOR.
So we find the west and Qatar backing opposite sides, we see the Qatari backed factions linked to Islamist extremists. The apparent support of Qatar for an Islamist rival government which undermines the UN recognised government of Libya, as ever, has had no obviously detrimental effects on Qatar’s relations with the west. It seems there is nothing that Qatar can possibly do which will wipe the friendly smile off the faces of the west’s leaders when dealing with the Qatari Royal Family.
So why do I think Qatar so deeply involved itself in the overthrow of Qaddafi? My answer, Libya is a long way from Qatar, but Iran is not. Qaddafi’s Libya was one of only two regional powers that supported Iran. In the event of war against Iran Qaddafi could have helped Iran considerably with financial help and other forms of assistance. Taking down Qaddafi reduces Iran to just one regional ally, Syria, and we know what is happening there. Thus it is a step towards isolating Iran. The current Qatari involvement in attempting to overthrow the government of Syria is a matter for some future posts.
For detailed, objective analysis of the recent developments in Libya, I highly recommend Frederic Wehrey of the Carnegie Endowment.