NATO’S secret war against Gadhafi
OFFICIALLY, international forces weren’t supposed to take sides. In reality, they played a key role in the rebels’ victory
“We’re picking up attacks on command and control facilities. If Gadhafi happens to be there, all the better.” UNIDENTIFIED NATO OFFICER
In Part 2 of a three-part series, David Pugliese chronicles how NATO looked the other way while its members armed the rebels.
The radio on board HMCS Charlottetown crackled with the news. The Canadian warship’s boarding party had struck pay dirt – a vessel in international waters loaded with weapons and ammunition trying to sneak into Libya.
It was May of 2011, three months into Libya’s civil war, and nato had set up a ring of 20 warships to enforce a UN arms embargo. No weapons, military supplies or ammunition were to reach Libya, either for troops loyal to the country’s leader, Moammar Gadhafi, or for rebels fighting to overthrow him.
“There are loads of weapons and munitions, more than I thought,” the boarding officer radioed back to Charlottetown’s commander, Craig Skjerpen. “From small ammunition to 105 howitzer rounds and lots of explosives.”
The Libyan rebels operating the ship openly acknowledged they were delivering the weapons to their forces in Misrata.
Skjerpen radioed NATO headquarters for instructions. The response was swift: Let the ship sail on so the crew could deliver their deadly cargo.
A senior NATO officer, Italian Vice-admiral Rinaldo Veri, had boasted just weeks earlier that the blockade had closed the door on the flow of arms into Libya.
Not quite. While the UN embargo was clearly aimed at preventing the delivery of weapons both to Gadhafi and those fighting him, NATO looked the other way when it came to the rebels. Hundreds of tonnes of ammunition and arms breezed through the blockade, exposing what critics say was Canada and NATO’S real motive during the Libyan war – regime change under the guise of protecting civilians.
Qatar, one of two Arab nations to take part in the NATO-LED mission, supplied rebels with French-made Milan anti-tank missiles, with deliveries made by sea. The country also gave them a variety of trucks and communications gear, while Qatari advisers slipped into Libya to provide training.
Egypt shipped assault rifles and ammunition, with U.S. support.
Poland supplied antitank missiles and military vehicles.
Canada also didn’t sit on the sidelines when it came to supplying hardware to the rebels.
Five months into the war, Canadian government officials set in motion a plan to provide surveillance drones to rebels so they could better attack Libyan troops, day or night.
The Aeryon Scout Micro-Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, designed and built in Waterloo, Ont., is a small spy drone that fits in a suitcase.
The Canadian government put Aeryon in contact with the rebel’s National Transitional Council, while Zariba Security Corp., a private security firm in Ottawa, was to make the delivery. In July, the $100,000 drone was delivered to the rebels by Charles Barlow, president of Zariba and a former Canadian Forces officer. He took an 18-hour boat ride from Malta to the NTC training facility in Misrata, sailing without problems through NATO’S blockade.
Barlow showed the rebels how to fly the drone, using it to identify a Libyan military position, and left shortly after.
To this day, the official line from the Canadian government and military officers is that neither NATO nor Canada took sides in the war, although some occasionally let down their guard to outline what actually took place.
After the war ended with Gadhafi’s death in October, Vice-admiral Paul Maddison, the head of Canada’s navy, would tell a meeting of Ottawa defence contractors that HMCS Charlottetown “played a key role in keeping the Port of Misrata open as a critical enabler of the antiGadhafi forces.”
As with the arms embargo, NATO’S public relations strategy on the ongoing airstrikes also claimed such attacks were not done in support of the rebels’ war aims. But like the HMCS Charlottetown, NATO’S aircraft were, in reality, “critical enablers” for the anti-gadhafi forces.
Opposition forces freely admitted to journalists that from the beginning they were in contact with the coalition to identify targets, which would then be destroyed by NATO aircraft.
“We work on letting them know what areas need to be bombarded,” spokesperson Ahmed Khalifa acknowledged in March.
Another rebel named Jurbran detailed for reporters how the system worked: “I called in the strike on this tank just after 4 a.m., relaying word of its position to our headquarters in Benina airfield, who passed on its location to the French,” he explained. “They dealt with it quickly.”
The NATO strikes were highly effective and almost every time Gadhafi’s armoured forces moved, even in retreat, they were destroyed. The rebels readily acknowledged the coordinated NATO attacks on Gadhafi’s tanks and other armoured vehicles paved the way for them to capture a number of cities and towns.
But NATO’S stated goal to protect Libyan civilians was seen by critics as a one-way street, with the focus being on protecting only those allied with the rebels. It would later emerge that rebel forces hunted down black Libyans they believed supported Gadhafi, as well as African guest workers.
The BBC interviewed one Turkish construction contractor who said he witnessed the massacre of 70 Chadians who had been working for his company.
Canadian Lt.-gen. Charles Bouchard, who directed the coalition’s war effort, did not respond to a request for an interview.
But he recently told a Senate defence committee he warned rebel forces about violence against civilians, informing them they, too, could be subject to NATO airstrikes.
Asked whether air strikes were launched against rebel positions to protect civilians, Brig.-gen. Derek Joyce, who oversaw Canada’s air task force fighting in Libya, replied: “Not that I’m aware of.”
An equally controversial aspect of NATO’S Libyan war centred on allegations it was trying to assassinate Gadhafi by killing him in an airstrike.
At first, U.S. and British politicians and generals claimed they didn’t have a mandate to remove the Libyan leader from power. British Prime Minister David Cameron told his MPS the UN resolution did not pro- vide any legal authority for such action. But that soon changed. U.S. President Barack Obama announced on March 25 that, “It is U.S. policy that Gadhafi has to go.” Canadian Defence Minister Peter Mackay reiterated the point, adding that the war’s aims will “either include the departure or imminent demise of Gadhafi.”
The U.S., and later NATO, worked diligently to bring about that imminent demise. The first attacks on March 19 levelled one of Gadhafi’s homes, but he escaped the bombing.
Bouchard, who took over command of the war after the initial attacks led by the U.S., claims no attempt was ever made to kill the Libyan leader. NATO bombs were only dropped on “command and control centres” that helped direct Libyan forces, he added.
But such reasoning allowed for much flexibility, military officers privately acknowledge. Gadhafi, his sons and key government ministers could themselves be considered key parts of the command and control apparatus. If they were in a particular building, then that structure could be claimed to be a command and control centre and open to attack.
On April 30, a NATO air strike killed Gadhafi’s 29-year-old son, Saif al-arab, and three of Gadhafi’s grandchildren. Gadhafi reportedly had left the resi- dence just a few hours before missiles hit the structure. NATO said the building it attacked was a command and control bunker.
Two weeks later, NATO jets bombed a building reserved for hosting VIP guests. Again, it was deemed to be a command and control centre.
“We’re picking up attacks on these command and control facilities,” one officer told a British newspaper. “If (Gadhafi) happens to be in one of those buildings, all the better.”
In June, NATO jets bombed the compound belonging to Khoweildi al-hamidi, a close Gadhafi confidant. Hamidi, whose daughter was married to one of the Libyan leader’s sons, escaped unharmed. His two grandchildren weren’t as lucky. They were among the 15 people killed.
A few days after that air strike, U.S. House armed services committee member Mike Turner acknowledged that U.S. Admiral Samuel Locklear, commander of the NATO Joint Operations Command, told him the alliance was actively targeting and trying to kill the Libyan leader.
Because of NATO’S relentless air strikes, the days were indeed numbered for Gadhafi. Tripoli fell in August and NATO increased its bombing of Bani Walid and Sirte, Gadhafi’s hometown.
NATO aircraft hammered the once prosperous Sirte into the ground. Rebel forces also bombarded the city with artillery and rockets, sparking criticism about indiscriminate shelling. But those among the rebel forces had little sympathy; they saw the civilians in Sirte as Gadhafi supporters.
Sirte soon took on an appearance similar to the bombed cities of the Second World War.
Joyce, the Canadian brigadier-general, told the Citizen the air attacks on Bani Walid and Sirte were necessary since pro-gadhafi snipers were hiding in the rubble, targeting civilians.
By early October, the 69-year-old Gadhafi was trapped in Sirte, moving house to house with a force of about 150 men.
He hadn’t come to grips with the fact he had lost power. Gadhafi still believed Libyans would rise up against the rebels and NATO forces.
On the morning of Oct. 20, a NATO aircraft spotted a convoy of vehicles travelling at high speed and attempting to break through the rebel gauntlet around Sirte.
A NATO aircraft opened fire on a number of vehicles, while a U.S. Predator drone unleashed a Hellfire missile. Dozens of Gadhafi supporters in the convoy died instantly.
According to a NATO spokesperson, Canadian Col. Roland Lavoie, the fleeing convoy was attacked because it was “conducting military operations and presented a clear threat to civilians.”
Bouchard would later claim the alliance had no idea Gadhafi was in one of the vehicles.
But British reports indicate coalition forces did indeed know the Libyan leader was in the convoy after a surveillance aircraft intercepted a satellite phone call he made.
Gadhafi survived the attacks and was soon a captive of rebel forces.
Those fighters would later say he appeared dazed and had asked, “What’s going on? What did I do?”
Videos taken of his capture show the Libyan leader’s face covered in blood as rebels jostle him. Another video appears to show one of the men sodomizing him with a bayonet.
Shortly after, the colonel would be dead. Libya’s new prime minister, Mahmoud Jibril, said Gadhafi had been “caught in the crossfire” as he was being taken to hospital. He had been shot in the head and chest.
Some, however, believed the killing was nothing more than an execution. William Hague, Britain’s foreign secretary, acknowledged the videos and photos suggested Gadhafi had been murdered.
Still, Western leaders and military officers rejoiced.
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird brushed aside concerns Gadhafi had been executed.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper noted the apparent execution was not surprising considering Libya was “emerging from 42 years of psychotic dictatorship with killing and imprisonment on a massive scale.”
But Harper didn’t delve into why his government had, in 2009, sought closer economic ties with the same man he now branded a psychotic dictator.
NATO and the rebels had succeeded in killing Gadhafi and two of his sons. Another son, Saif al-islam, is in custody and is to be tried by the new Libyan government. The rest of Gadhafi’s family has escaped into exile.
NATO’S job was done. “Let there be no doubt that the intervention in Libya was just and warranted,” Bouchard would later say.