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The Unintended Consequences Of Libya's Revolution


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. As you may have just heard, President Obama, in an interview with ABC News, said gay marriage should be legal.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.

CONAN: We'll talk more about that later this hour. Political Junkie Ken Rudin will join us. Last September, as many around the world cheered the fall of Moammar Gadhafi's dictatorial regime in Libya, some wondered how a traumatized and divided country could pull together, if large stockpiles of advanced weapons might wind up in the wrong hands, and what would happen to Gadhafi's legions of mercenaries.

Yesterday, continued divisions became evident in Libya as former rebels stormed the compound of interim Prime Minister Abdurrahim al-Keib in Tripoli. Reports put sophisticated Russian-built missiles in Gaza, Lebanon and Niger, and soldiers who left Libya with their weapons reportedly tilted the balance in a rebellion and in a coup in their home countries.

If you have questions about the consequences of the Libyan revolution, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, as we mentioned, Political Junkie Ken Rudin will join us to talk about the president's decision that he supports the legalization of gay marriage, but we'll also talk about going around the Americas after 305 days at sea alone.

But first, ripples from the revolution. Christopher Stephen is the Libya correspondent for Britain's Guardian newspaper. He joins us now by phone from his home in Tripoli. Nice to have you with us today.

CHRISTOPHER STEPHEN: Thank you, thank you.

CONAN: And this was, I gather, yesterday, the second attack on the prime minister's compound.

STEPHEN: Yes indeed, and it sort of came out of the blue. It was a group of rebels from (unintelligible) in the Fusa Mountains who say that they weren't - they haven't been paid. But of course it was a bit of a shock that the government can't control even this most, you know, most sensitive strategic target.

CONAN: And the various militia groups that organize themselves to fight the Gadhafi regime, are they still armed, or is there any movement toward nationalization of military power?

STEPHEN: Well, no, it's still sort of very much a sort of militia country. It was noticeable yesterday that when the militia - when the former rebels took control of the office, that it was other rebel groups which surrounded it. There really is no government force. And they had to sort of be basically rousted out of bed to come and confront them, and I think that is the main - well, one of the main problems with the government at the moment.

CONAN: Well, those same divisions reflected in these differing militias, presumably that's taking place, making itself felt on a political level as well.

STEPHEN: Yes indeed. I think that the thing that militias have in common is that they distrust this NTC, this National Transitional Council, which was - which came in the revolution. But there's always a slight disconnect between the rebels on the ground, the people who do the fighting, and the NTC, which was formed in Benghazi in the east and then transferred to Tripoli.

And the government certainly hasn't won the battle to convince them that they are actually somebody worth supporting, and I think that's really a problem because the militias kind of anchor the regional allegiances, and I think that's what's getting very strong at the moment.

CONAN: Is there any effort underway to provide some legitimacy for this government, through, for example, elections?

STEPHEN: Well, indeed, I met with a couple of NTC people tonight, and they're really sort of hanging on by their fingernails for this election, which comes in June. They're buoyed by the fact that so many people are registering, and people really are very excited to be able to vote for the first time.

And I think what they're hoping is - I mean, I think that the NTC is feeling exhausted, and I think it thinks, well, come June we'll have an election, and then we'll have a democratic government, and then they'll have this force that we don't have. They'll be able to sort of, you know, (unintelligible) the table a bit more.

CONAN: And what kinds of parties are emerging, or are there parties really?

STEPHEN: Also a very good question. The anxiety everywhere is that parties are very sort of stillborn. There are dozens and dozens of parties, but it's very unclear which parties have which sort of support and also what their programs are. And when you go and see these fledgling parties, they all say, well, on the one hand we're liberal, on the other hand we're Islamic, and there's no real ideological spectrum.

And I think that's one of the problems of post-Gadhafi Libya, that people, for 42 years they didn't really think about what their politics were. They just wanted to get rid of Gadhafi. And I think now that that's a real problem, is trying to work out, you know, what is the political divide.

CONAN: Well, one of the major divides in the country that we heard about so much during the conflict was the divide East and West, the people from the Benghazi area, who were I guess the leaders of the NTC, and then the people out in the western part of the desert who were more supportive of Mr. Gadhafi.

STEPHEN: Yes, indeed, and as you point out, the East was liberated very quickly, and then the West was the great battleground. The confusing thing about all this is that the NTC comes from Benghazi, and everywhere else in the country they say, well, these people are from Benghazi, they're not a national government.

But actually, Benghazi is perhaps the biggest opponent of the NTC, and Benghazi's leaders have met in the last few days to say that they may boycott the elections because they don't feel they have enough representation, and there are separatists in the East who are saying that the Cyrenaica, the eastern province, should be its own country.

CONAN: In the meantime, is infrastructure up? Are people able to go the shops and buy food? Is oil being produced? Is the economy up and running?

STEPHEN: Yes, it sort of is and it isn't. The oil's recovered very quickly, and I think it's now 1.4 million barrels a day, which is more or less what it was before the war. That's worked very well. And yes, business is going. I mean, you walk around the streets, shops are open, the restaurants are going, there's traffic jams.

People sort of do it very well by themselves. Ordinary Libyans are very - they're quite motivated. But anything that requires the government is sort of grinding itself to death. And for instance, there are huge rubbish (unintelligible) here because there is no rubbish collection. So everything just sort of piles up.

People are not getting paid. Rebels are not getting paid. And all the sort of central services that a government should provide are sort of basically not happening, and I think that's becoming the mounting problem.

CONAN: And what about jurisprudence? There were so many criminals who tortured people and did worse during the Gadhafi regime, including the colonel's son, who was captured in the southern part of the country. Have they been brought to justice?

STEPHEN: No, they haven't, and that's become a real bugbear. There basically is no justice system. The law of transitional justice hasn't yet been (unintelligible). So there is - there are sort of some courts working, but I mean there's no real overall justice system. There are no appeals courts. There is no mechanism to try Saif Gadhafi, for instance, the colonel's son who is still languishing in a jail in the mountain town of Zintan.

And I'm not sure that there will be any law this side of the elections, which again is a worry.

CONAN: You mentioned he's still in Zintan. That's the home area, the group that captured him. They of course have their own militia. Have they not turned him over to the central authorities?

STEPHEN: Well, they were going to. They - I think they basically dangle him in front of the government and they say, you know, if you give us this or give us that or some concession or some jobs, we'll hand him over. And it looked a month ago as if he was going to be handed over.

But then last week Zintan had a change of heart and said no, we've decided to keep him. And I think whatever it is that they want from the government is clearly not being done. And of course complicating this further is that the International Criminal Court wants him and has now become very angry and upset with Libya for not handing him over.

And Tripoli, of course, says on the one hand we want to try him here, but on the other hand we can't get him, he's still in Zintan, and we haven't got the troops to, you know, to get hold of him.

CONAN: And finally, the fighting that erupted yesterday, out of the blue you said, is it unusual, is it - is the country seething, or is the country just, as you say, exhausted and waiting for these elections?

STEPHEN: I'd say it's not seething, but it's - because it's a very, there must be like 500 militias, I mean some of them 10-strong, across this country. And most of them are pretty well-behaved and have become sort of district police and so on.

The problem is the minority of militias who are - who do their own thing, or break the law or do things like that, there's no one else to police them. And I think that's the problem. And I think yesterday, I think what put people on edge is that this militia were obviously very angry and obviously needed money and weren't getting money.

And I think the fact that they could do it and get away with it, I think that's what's making people nervous about, you know, what comes next.

CONAN: And it's not been mentioned, the prime minister is all right, and such as it is the NTC is going ahead?

STEPHEN: He seems to be all right. We're not quite sure where he is. The other feature of this government is it's obsessive secrecy. It doesn't hold its meetings in public. There's no press office. So I mean one presumes he's OK. But, you know, just where he is we're not sure.

CONAN: Christopher Stephen, thanks very much for your time.

STEPHEN: Thank you.

CONAN: Christopher Stephen, Libya correspondent for the Guardian, with us today from his home in Tripoli. Throughout the conflict we spoke often with George Joffe, a research fellow and lecturer at the Center for International Studies at Cambridge University, where he specializes in the Middle East and North Africa, and he joins us again now by phone from Cambridge. George, nice to have you with us again.

GEORGE JOFFE: Thank you.

CONAN: And as we've seen this - what's happened in Libya was not exactly the vision that many people had for the post-Gadhafi world.

JOFFE: That's certainly true, but it was actually inevitable, and it was inevitable because of the nature of the conflict. And to understand that, I think you need to bear in mind that Libya is a very peculiar state in that the population is concentrated in two areas: around the eastern town of Benghazi and around the capital in the West, Tripoli, on the coast.

Now, that's meant that although the revolution began in Benghazi, and although there was a militia in Benghazi that was supportive of the National Transitional Council, the revolution in the West that took Tripoli was actually quite independent of that, and therefore the militias that carried that out, the militias of Misrata and particularly Zintan, are not prepared to accept what the National Transitional Council may say.

And yet the National Transitional Council is recognized by the international community as the official representative of Libya, and it's that contradiction that I think explains a large part of the problems that Libya is facing at the moment, and it's that that causes the issue of the elections due in June to be so important, because if they're successful, then there could be a central authority, and the militias have said that if there were such an authority, they would accept it.

We don't know whether that's true of course, but it gives us an indication of a way out of the crisis.

CONAN: The legitimacy of elections.

JOFFE: The legitimacy of elections, yes. Now, it should be understood those elections are not really to create a new government. They're really to create an assembly, which will draw up a constitution, and then there will be new elections for a legislature after that.

But nonetheless, it's the beginning of a constitutional process. It's the beginning of creating a system that all Libyans could then regard as legitimate, and that's the crucial step. There is at the moment no army of the state. There's no central authority that could impose order and structure on Libya, and until that can be done, this sort of crisis and these sorts of tensions are bound to emerge.

CONAN: We're talking about unintended consequences in Libya after the revolution, internal rivalries, armed militias, mercenaries. And in a moment we'll talk about sophisticated missiles that are now showing up around Africa and the Middle East. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. After 40 years under Moammar Gadhafi, Libya's revolution was hailed as one of the great successes of the Arab spring when it finally succeeded last fall. And the country moves forward towards elections in June.

Many questions, though, remain about rival tribes, heavily armed mercenaries and large stockpiles of advanced weapons. Today we're talking about the ripples of revolution. Our guest is George Joffe, a research fellow and lecturer at the Center for International Studies at Cambridge University.

If you have questions about the consequences of Libya's revolution, 800-989-8255. Email is You can also go to our website, that's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION. And let's get a caller in. This is Shaheen(ph), Shaheen with us from Maui in Hawaii.

SHAHEEN: Yes, Neal, good afternoon, a big fan here.

CONAN: Thank you.

SHAHEEN: My question is basically is - the oppressive regime of Gadhafi took 42 years to brainwash and just destroy the country. Freedom is a brand new thing for Libyans, and they didn't know what to do with it, I believe. But I believe the U.S. and the E.U. have vested interests to monitor the situation there. Otherwise they're going to have 500-plus militia on the loose. Another Iraq, potentially dangerous to the world as well.

CONAN: George Joffe, obviously the United States, its NATO partners and a couple of Arab states as well, provided the air cover for the revolution. What's their role now?

JOFFE: Well, they provided the air cover. They also, some of them, provided military support too. That was particularly true of the Arab Gulf states such as Qatar, but also true of France. And in a sense, therefore, they're responsible for the way in which the militias in the west of Libya now operates as autonomous units.

But the irony is that once the Gadhafi regime had been removed, there's not much evidence of engagement by those who were responsible for the NATO operations or indeed for arming the militias that then developed, and in reality Libya has had to work out its own way alone.

For example, Libya had $150 billion worth of assets abroad. They were all frozen by the United Nations. The Libyan government, such as it is, needs money, but the unfreezing of those assets still is not complete, with the result that the funds that it's got aren't really available to it, and indeed there's been very little help in terms of trying to organize the elections very effectively.

There are teams there to provide technical advice, but there's no coherent attempt to try to create a post-conflict situation. And in part that's due to the nature of the United Nations resolutions. It didn't allow intervention on the ground, and that's been a major problem. And it should also be said, and here I agree with your caller, there's obviously a question of interests too.

And Western states, in Europe in particular, have got interests in Libyan oil, in Libyan reconstruction and so on, and they're more concerned with that, perhaps, than they are with reconstructing the country.

CONAN: The income, though, from oil that's being sold now, who controls that?

JOFFE: That goes, in theory, to the National Transitional Council. It actually goes to the Libyan Central Bank. The Libyan Central Bank is then supposed to disperse that money, but in effect it's under the control of the National Transitional Council.

But again, you can see the problems. The arguments last night that resulted in the firefight outside the prime minister's office were about the fact that the government had promised to reimburse those involved in the militias for the sacrifices they had made, and the militia was complaining about the fact it had not been paid.

And the prime minister's office has said actually they don't have the funds available to pay them. So there's clearly a problem in gaining ready cash of the kind you need to keep a country in these circumstances.

CONAN: Shaheen, thanks very much for the call. David Fulghum is senior military editor for Aviation Week and Space Technology. He joins us on the phone from his office here in Washington. David, nice to talk to you again.

DAVID FULGHUM: Yeah, Neal, good to talk to you again.

CONAN: And you did a piece a little bit ago about some of the concerns that involved missiles, Russian-built missiles, manned portable missiles, and bigger ones as well, that have shown up elsewhere now in the Middle East.

FULGHUM: Yes, I saw a picture, when the fighting began, the civil war began, and I thought it was an SA-18 missile, which is pretty advanced. But then I went to some intelligence friends, and they said no, that's an SA-24, which is the top-of-the-line - what is often a manned portable. In this case it was - they were twin-barreled and they were put on the backs of Jeeps and pickups.

And they disappeared. And the empty crates were found, but the missiles themselves were missing. So I tried to keep my ear to the ground, and I had some conversations with folks in Israel, and they said those SA-24s had now appeared in the hands of both Hamas and Hezbollah...

CONAN: Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

FULGHUM: Yes, via the Quds force in Iran. And I had heard that they were busy scooping up what they could from the arsenals in Libya and moving them into the black market. And of course Port Sudan is - seems to be a hotbed of smuggling activity.

CONAN: Port Sudan in Sudan.

FULGHUM: In Northern Sudan.

CONAN: Yeah, so the equipment is making its way across - east to Port Sudan and then being dispersed from there?

FULGHUM: Yes, that's the way I understand it, that - well, a lot of times the shipments come from Iran to Port Sudan when things are coming in to North Africa. In this case the flow of traffic was reversed, and it was going to Port Sudan and then up to - then up to Egypt, where it's handed over to the Egyptian smugglers and then out through Gaza.

CONAN: And the al-Quds force is the strike element of Iran's revolutionary guards.

FULGHUM: Well, they seem to be the people in charge of everything that happens outside of Iran militarily.

CONAN: And what are these missiles capable of? They're...

FULGHUM: They are the top-of-the-line surface-to-air missiles for - and there was quite a bit of worry about the relief flights in Libya, that they would be used by someone to shoot at the commercial traffic that was coming in, in the relief. But there was simply no sign of the SA-24s, and that's when we started realizing that these things are disappearing.

CONAN: So roughly equivalent to the Stinger missile?

FULGHUM: Better.

CONAN: Better. That's scary.

FULGHUM: It is. It is indeed, and there was some concern that it was - that they might show up in Afghanistan, but they have not, and so I was - I was not near as surprised, though, to see that they had shown up in Gaza and southern Lebanon.

CONAN: And in what kinds of numbers, do we know?

FULGHUM: We don't. There weren't huge numbers of them. I think there were - I don't have the number at my fingertips, but there were hundreds.

CONAN: Hundreds.

FULGHUM: Hundreds, plural.

CONAN: And how worried are the Israelis?

FULGHUM: Well, they know what they are. You know, the experience that we've had over the years, that there have actually been very few military planes shot down by - well, at least since the Vietnam War - by these aircraft, usually what they kill are airliners and transport aircraft. And they are - they usually hit them when they're on the approaches to runways or taking off.

If you'll remember in Iraq, the transport aircraft that was hit and put on fire and safely landed was struck on takeoff.

CONAN: They were effective, though, against Russian helicopters in Afghanistan.

FULGHUM: Indeed, and they were also - had shot down in Somalia a Russian independent transport with an SA-18, which isn't near as advanced as the SA-24.

CONAN: David Fulghum, thanks very much, appreciate it.

FULGHUM: All right, good to talk to you again, Neal.

CONAN: David Fulghum, senior military editor for Aviation Week and Space Technology. And George Joffe, that's just one of those reports about where those Libyan stockpiles are showing up.

JOFFE: Yes, and I think one needs to be rather careful about this. I've no evidence, of course, to say whether what David Fulghum said is true or not, but don't forget that actually Iran and Syria, for example, have direct access to Russian-made weapons because they have weapons agreements with Russia, and they've been supplied recently, certainly during the Syrian crisis, with weapons of that kind.

So in fact we don't need a long chain coming from Libya to explain those weapons appearing with Hezbollah, if indeed they do, or indeed with Hamas. But again, to what extent they actually have, I don't know. There is another dimension to this, which in a sense is more important, and that is that there was undoubtedly a leakage of weapons from Libya, a significant leakage of sophisticated weaponry and much simpler weaponry too.

And it leaked westwards. It didn't leak eastwards. And it leaked westwards into the (unintelligible) region, and if you're looking for an explanation of the renewed militancy of the Tuareg, for example, in Mali, it's related to that leakage to the west. It's also believed, and the Algerians have been particularly anxious to demonstrate this - that many of the weapons also ended up in the hands of al-Qaida and the Islamic Maghreb.

In other words, the real flow has been westwards. And I think that's probably more plausible than the argument that there was a complicated flow through Sudan into Syria, into Iran and, indeed, into Hezbollah and to Hamas.

We know, for example, that the Israelis have been very carefully monitoring what happens in Sudan. There was a report about six months ago of an attack on a convoy in Sudan, said to be taking equipment to Hamas, which was highly successful. I really wonder to what extent that argument about the leakage eastwards is more significant than the leakage westwards. I think it's probably the leakage westwards that we should be more concerned about.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in. This is John(ph), John with us from Fort Wayne.

JOHN: Yes. I have a Ph.D. in African history from Indiana University, and I did my field work in Mali as a Fulbright fellow. And, you know, Mali is, you know, one of the real unintended consequences of the collapse of the Gadhafi regime as many of the Tuareg were militia enlisted, and they just filtered back across the Sahara, and then destabilized Timbuktu and Gao. And so I'm wondering if the caller could just talk a little bit more about that, and I'd be happy to take his response off the air.

CONAN: OK. John, thank you.

JOFFE: Well, let me comment on that. I completely agree. I think it's a much more significant development. It's true that there were elements of the Tuareg that were recruited by the Gadhafi regime. And it's true, too, that after the regime was defeated, they filtered back in Tunisia and into Mali. And indeed in the last few months, they've created a rebellion inside Northern Mali. They've demanded a separate state, the state of Azawad, that they want to create as a Tuareg state to the north, and they've been very successful.

And in conjunction with some of the extremist Islamic groups - and their complexion is extremely complex - they have indeed taken control of Timbuktu. And in Timbuktu, those groups have been responsible for the desecration of World Heritage sites. So that seems, to me, to be a very effective way of demonstrating the consequences of the collapse inside Libya.

And there's insecurity inside Libya too. The western border region, for example, is extremely insecure. And because there's no central authority in Libya, it's not possible to restore order there. And so, in a way, it's a much more localized problem than the wider influence and implications of the problems inside the Middle East and particularly inside the Levant.

I think we should be much more concerned about these local developments because next in line after Mali, there will be Niger, and after Niger there will be a threat to Mauritania. And that actually does directly influence Western concerns and strategy because beyond that and further south is Nigeria, and Nigeria is the really big concern. If weaponry starts floating in there, then you could have a major crisis in one of the major oil producers in South Africa and one of the major suppliers to the United States and the oil it consumes.

CONAN: George Joffe of Cambridge University's Centre for International Studies. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Leslie(ph) is on the line with a question from Portland.

LESLIE: Yes. Hello. I wanted to ask if there was any linkage between the weapons coming out of Libya and the violence from Boko Haram in Nigeria.

JOFFE: Well, the short answer is that no one is quite certain. There are believed to be links, but they've never yet been proved. Boko Haram, in effect, operates entirely inside a national context. And although it's believed to have links with al-Qaida and the Islamic Maghreb, there's no firm evidence that that's the case, and there's no evidence yet the weapons have filtered down from Northern Africa into that region, that part of Africa.

Now it could, of course, occur - undoubtedly it will, insofar as insecurity reigns in the Sahel region - and that's going to create a major problem, too, in terms of control of Northern Nigeria. But at the moment, we just simply aren't certain.

CONAN: Leslie, thank you very much. Let's see if we can go to Aaron(ph), Aaron been patient on the line in Cazenovia in New York.

AARON: Thank you, Neal. A short comment and then a question, that the situation to the west, as your guest mentioned, is something that we can probably focus on because we're confident in the Israelis dealing with their situation. But we shouldn't be overconfident because that's one more straw on the camel's back as far as the Israeli situation vis-a-vis Iran.

And it's important, I think, that - and this is my question - the new prime minister in France has already, you know, called the world's attention to Mali. And I'm wondering, you know, it is Sarkozy that, you know, was the prime mover with respect to the Arab Spring in Libya in terms of external support. Now that we have the socialist government under Hollande in France, what can we anticipate in terms of French interest in Libya and in Mali, et cetera?

CONAN: George Joffe.

JOFFE: Well, basically, France has always been concerned about its former colonies, and particularly its former empire in West Africa and in North Africa and, indeed, in Central Africa too. It's therefore supplied military support to the countries in those regions, and I think it will continue to do so.

Don't forget the question of Chad, for example, is an entirely French concern. It will do so in conjunction with American interests and American forces too. Don't forget that the United States has a special command, AFRICOM, devoted to trying to control the development of asymmetrical warfare inside the Sahel region and further south in South Africa too.

So, in a way, the French government - whether it's socialist or whether, in fact, it was the previous conservative government of President Sarkozy - is going to be equally concerned about what's happening inside Africa itself. It's not a question of political attitudes inside France. It's a question really of French policy and the determination of France to remain a player inside that crucial part of Africa. So I don't really think you're going to see any change in policy or change in concern under the new president, Francois Hollande.

CONAN: Aaron, thanks very much.

AARON: Thank you.

CONAN: And, George Joffe, thank you very much for your time today, as always.

JOFFE: You're very welcome.

CONAN: George Joffe, again, a research fellow and lecturer at the Centre for International Studies at Cambridge University. He joined us by phone from his home there in Cambridge. Coming up: We're going to be talking, well, first with political junkie Ken Rudin. Earlier today, as you may have heard, President Obama told ABC News that he has changed his position and now supports legal marriage for gay couples. We'll talk about the political implications of that.

But we'll also discuss a voyage longer than 300 days alone on a 27-foot sailboat all around the Americas. The first person to sail - circumnavigate the Americas solo, Matt Rutherford, will join us. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.