Ramadan: communication, and ‘gifts’ from above

IMG_3972This week – on Thursday 18 June – Ramadan began across the Muslim world.

Lasting either 29 or 30 days (based on the sightings of the crescent moon, which symbolises the start and end of the lunar month – this year Ramadan lasts 29 days, until 16 July), it is the holiest month of the Muslim year, and centres around the date on which Mohammed is said to have received the first revelation of the Qu’ran from Allah.

In short – from a Muslim perspective – it’s the commemoration of the most important communication ever made.

Within Libya, however, both communication – and ‘gifts’ delivered from the sky – remain extremely fraught and aggressive.

On Sunday 14 June, the US confirmed that it had used drones to track Mokhtar Belmokhtar and had used two aircraft to bomb a compound he was in.

It is the first time since the end of Libya’s first Civil War, in October 2011 that the US has bombed any location in North Africa.

Though the US government did not reveal the exact location of its airstrike, or whether it had been successful, Libyan sources claimed the bombs had struck a farmhouse near Ajdabiya, (a large town on Libya’s Roman coast road between Sirte and Benghazi, where I once spent a short period sharing food and stories with local men and women) and that Mokhtar had been killed in the attack (this remains in significant doubt), along with seven members of the Ansar Al Sharia militia, an Al Qaeda-affiliated militia group which is currently fighting for control of Libya’s second city, Benghazi.

If the latter point is true, it may indicate a movement in the balance of power among the forces at war in Libya. Belmokhtar himself had once been an active – indeed leading – member of Al Qaeda’s Maghreb operation, but although he remained publicly critical of young Al Qaeda members leaving the group to join IS (a trend which has taken place all over Libya, as well as in other states, including Yemen), he himself had left the organisation to set up the ‘Signed in Blood Battalion’ – a smaller, but agile militia based in Libya and active across North Africa.

Its most famous act to date was an attack on 16-20 January 2013 on a gas facility at In Amenas, Algeria. Claiming to be acting in response to Algeria allowing French forces access to its air space to battle ‘Islamist’ forces in Mali, the Battalion’s act led to the deaths of 37 hostages – among them three Americans.

That incident led to the tracking and eventual attempt on the life of Belmokhtar, but his companions in Ajdabia raise more questions – not least because of simultaneous developments in the state.

On 10 June, in Derna, which has since October last year been under the control of IS (though rather than through outright conquest, this control was taken when large numbers of members of other militias declared themselves ‘affiliated’ to the group – largely the same thing has happened in Yemen, where Ansar Al-Sharia members made the same declaration, and in Nigeria and Somalia, where Boko Haram and Al Shabaab, respectively, made organisation-wide commitments to IS), IS opened fire on members of the city’s Al-Qaida-affiliated Shura Council, killing one of its leaders, Nasser Akr.

The death of Akr, who was once held in the UK on terrorist charges, sparked a battle in which at least ten other people – reportedly including leading IS ideologue Hossam Abu-Rashed – were killed, and led to the Shura Council making an official declaration of ‘holy war’ on IS in Derna, accusing IS of ‘tyranny and cruelty’ (the terror organisation’s rule of Derna has been characterised by public whippings and executions for ‘crimes’ including smoking in public and posting social media criticisms of IS’ rule) and promising a ‘holy war against them until none of them are left’ (increasingly across the Muslim world, extremist Islamic groups have concluded that IS – more than 95 per cent of whose victims so far have been Muslims – is not a representative even of the most extreme forms of the faith).

It also called on Dernans to fight alongside it, against IS.

Within days, it looked as if the request would result only in yet more civilian death, as on 12 June, seven people who were part of a protest march against IS in Derna were shot dead by IS gunmen.

It appeared to be very much business as usual for IS. But on 15 June, following further fighting, the Dernan Shura Council announced it had expelled IS from the city, proclaiming a complete victory.

Similar claims have been made before – not least by IS itself – and the Shura Council’s announcement should be taken as provisional until both solidly proven, and until the Council repels the counterattacks which will certainly be launched against it.

And we must remember that the Shura Council itself is a particularly militaristic and unpleasant group – literally, its sole positive at present is that it is not IS. Almost any other group currently operational on planet Earth right now would be preferable to the Shura Council of Derna.

But at the same time, this defeat – however minor – is a reminder that for all its ferociousness, and its remarkable public relations campaign, IS is at present like a hamster which stands directly in front of a spotlight: its shadow is large and fearsome, but the reality is smaller. IS is an extremely serious threat, but it is not invincible – nowhere near it.

It is also worth remembering that IS is one of the few things on which the two forces – ‘Dignity’ and ‘Dawn’ – which are supposedly ‘supportive’ of Libya’s two illegitimate and powerless governments (though in fact, neither takes orders from either government) have in common: IS has attacked and is opposed to both.

And finally, one must also remember that as awful as it is to imagine, Libya has fallen this far: it is, genuinely, possible, to imagine that, given four armed forces are currently smashing Libya to pieces, killing one another and civilians seemingly without purpose (and to date with no lasting result), while two powerless governments – both entirely without legitimacy – are forced to watch from either end of the state, the declaration of war by a fundamentalist terrorist group with links to terrorists all over the world, on a slightly (but noticeably) more despicable terror organisation could be seen, even if only for a second, as a moment of potential.

And that is modern Libya. A state in which because two illegal militias are already opposed to IS, the declaration by a third illegal militia that it too is prepared to attack IS with high calibre weapons can appear as a step towards national unity.

As fighting continues, one of Libya’s ‘governments’, the HoR, continues to defy a peace process of which it dictated the terms, by refusing even to discuss the United Nations’ latest attempt to create a political route out of the mayhem of the state’s second civil war (the details of which are in the previous blog on this site.

The United Nations Support Mission In Libya (UNSMIL), with effectively no way around the monolithic roadblock the HOR has erected against progress (claiming that allowing the GNC a role in the next 12 months of Libyan political development is a betrayal of the nation, and allowing ‘extremists’ a role in government), has continued to use social media to attempt to reignite dialogue and progress.

Continuing its series of ‘Together for Peace in Libya’ images, each featuring a cartoon handshake in front of the new Libyan flag, it has issued two messages in the last ten days.

The first, issued on 15 June, was clearly aimed at the HoR, which has withdrawn from all negotiation in the wake of the UN proposals. It reads:

‘Dialogue is the only way forward.

‘There is no military solution in Libya. A political solution is the only option. Without an agreement, fighting will escalate, and all of Libya will lose.

‘A political solution unites Libyan efforts in focusing on fighting terrorism and extremism. A political solution is the only way to defend democracy, inclusiveness, respect for human rights and international law.’

The second, which was issued two days later, remains measured, but is even so noticeably more desperate:

‘The proposed agreement follows Libyan principles and international best practices.

‘The proposed agreement requires civilian control and oversight of all armed forces and security services. Both Libyan and international experience have shown that no state can function effectively without such civilian control and oversight.

‘The proposal reflects the Libyan people’s rejection of political violence and terrorism, and their desire for peaceful transfers of political power through elections.’

As noted in a previous piece on this site, the HoR’s reason for boycotting both the political proposal set forth by UNSMIL, and for refusing even to take part in any further negotiation is simple: it refuses any sharing of power whatsoever with its rival ‘government’, the GNC, many of whose members would hold low-power but average-prestige positions in the system UNSMIL proposes.

It claims to believe it is a legitimate government (though the Libyan High Court has ruled the opposite – that it is illegitimate) and that its ‘opponent’, the GNC, with which it has been negotiating, is illegitimate (the GNC is certainly illegitimate).

More than that, however, it publicly argues using the flawed logic of Operation Dignity militia commander Khalifa Haftar that the GNC is an extremist Islamic group which must be ejected from Libya.

The problem with this argument is simple: it is not only demonstrably false, but is actively being demonstrated to be so even as the HoR’s faux-outraged howls of protest are heard.

Libya is a state at war with itself: in the East, Haftar’s illegal Dignity force fights genuine Islamic extremists led by Ansar Al Sharia, with limited success. He claims to support the HoR, but his force existed before the ‘parliament’ did, and does not take orders from it.

In the West, Haftar is attempting to fight the illegal Dawn militia, which claims to support the GNC, but which is also uncontrolled by it. The Dawn forces, made up largely of members of the Misrata khetiba, are just as illegal as Haftar’s and as Ansar Al Sharia, and claim to desire a society guided by Muslim principles.

But they are self-evidently not guided by a desire for universal Sharia law (as Ansar is), and they are no more guided or ordered by the GNC than Haftar is by the HoR (which is to say not at all).

Even if the GNC were to control Dawn, that would not make either ‘extremist’.

In fact, what Dawn and Dignity have in common at this moment – and as we have seen, this may be common ground now shared by the genuine religious extremists of Ansar al Sharia and Libya’s other Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups – is a shared opposition to the Civil War’s fourth combatants, the lunatics of IS.

Quite aside from questioning HoR’s ludicrous claims that the United Nations in Libya is deliberately attempting to reward religious extremists, the ‘parliament’s’ argument that it is the GNC which should be regarded as ‘ideologically extreme’ is systematically undermined by every continuing moment of a civil war in which Ansar Al Sharia and IS are active combatants.

While HoR claims a democratic legitimacy it simply does not possess, and refuses to negotiate with the GNC, war continues to devastate Libya. And the longer HoR refuses to talk, the more that war – which neither HoR nor GNC can possibly win, as neither are active in it or control groups which are – becomes its responsibility: HoR is right now the most significant obstacle preventing negotiated peace in Libya.

The month of Ramadan is a celebration of the most important communication in the history of the Islamic world. It would, perhaps, be the perfect moment for the HoR to allow communication to help rescue Libya from chaos.

The month of Ramadan is that in which was revealed the Quran; a guidance for mankind, and clear proofs of the guidance, and the criterion (of right and wrong)…

‘…Allah desires for you ease; He desires not hardship for you; and that you should complete the period, and that you should magnify Allah for having guided you, and that perhaps you may be thankful.’ Qu’ran, Chapter Two, Revelation 185

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