By Diana West:
I will never forget the unmitigated horror of watching as the United States openly switched sides in the 2011 “Arab Spring,” abandoning allies in the war on terror (jihad) to support those same jihadist forces instead. There was precious little company in the press gallery on this one as US media, shouting slogans of “revolution” and “democracy,” blindly failed to perceive or actually covered up the obvious truth: The US, with NATO, was now supporting the Other Side — the same Other Side that had struck us in 9/11, killed and maimed our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and threatened Western liberty everywhere. It was in this crazy atmosphere, John Rosenthal’s independent reporting from Europe provided essential information and context.
John’s long-awaited book, The Jihadist Plot: The Untold Story of Al-Qaeda and the Libyan Rebellion, is now out from Encounter. It contains much new information on this shameful, perplexing, dangerous episode — whose jarring reverberations, by the way, have yet to play out.
Here is our Q & A.
DW: Whose side is the United States on in Syria?
John Rosenthal: Objectively, we are on the same side as Jabhat al-Nusra in the Syrian conflict. The administration’s listing of Jabhat al-Nusra as a terror organization changes nothing in this regard and amounts in fact to a kind of sleight of hand. It allows the administration to claim that it is supporting
the Syrian rebellion, but somehow not its “extremist” component. But this distinction is completely bogus. The response to the listing from other rebel brigades — many of which hastened to express their solidarity with Jabhat al-Nusra — makes this clear. Jabhat al-Nusra is part of the
mainstream of the Syrian rebellion. If it is extremist, then so is the rebellion as such.
DW: You explain in your book that in mid-2011, the US changed sides in the so-called war on
terror, which was originally mounted as a war against Al Qaeda; and, moreover,
that the US media missed this story. Could you state the case in brief?
JR: The US changed sides in the “war on terror” during the 2011 Libya conflict
and it did so in two senses. In the first place, it did so by virtue of
forming an alliance with some of the very same Islamic extremist forces that
it had been combating for the previous decade. As I show in the book, the
military backbone of the rebellion against Muammar al-Qaddafi was formed by
cadres of the so-called Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG). The LIFG was
listed as an al-Qaeda-linked terror organization by both the US government
and the UN Security Council. It was, in effect, the Libyan chapter of
al-Qaeda and had a long shared history with the al-Qaeda “mothership” of
Osama bin Laden. Several of the leaders of the rebellion had in fact been
previously detained by US authorities, either during the invasion of
Afghanistan or in subsequent covert counter-terror operations. In the Libyan
war, the US and its NATO allies were providing air support to troops led by
these very same people.
The second sense in which the US changed sides in the “war on terror”
concerns terror itself as a tactic. I know you are not a fan of the
expression “war on terror” and I agree, of course, that it is very
problematic. But, as I say in the book, the expression at least had the
advantage of making clear that the US abhorred terror as a tactic,
regardless of the ideological background of the groups employing this
tactic. But from the very first weeks of the Libyan rebellion — well before
it was possible to know just who the rebels were — there was already
abundant evidence that the rebels were employing terrorist tactics. This
evidence included videos documenting torture, the summary execution of
detainees, and at least one beheading — a beheading that was particularly
horrific by virtue of the fact that it occurred in public in front of a
It would have previously been impossible to imagine the US making common
cause with groups that decapitate their perceived enemies. In the meanwhile,
in Syria, it has become the new normal, and apparently no one is shocked
anymore to hear about Syrian rebel forces that behead Syrian soldiers or
real or perceived supporters of Bashar al-Assad. During the Libyan war,
however, the media — including both old and new media — for the most part
simply ignored the evidence of rebel atrocities. What I heard at the time
was that it was not possible to “verify” the videos. But the fact is that
they made no effort to verify them. Moreover, media like CNN had no problem
broadcasting “unverified” videos that allegedly documented atrocities
committed by pro-Qaddafi forces. Those videos, by the way, almost surely
showed atrocities that were likewise committed by the rebels.
Similarly, at least until the rebellion triumphed, the American media either
ignored or hushed up the al-Qaeda connections of the rebel leadership. They
did so even though one rebel commander, Abdul-Hakim al-Hasadi, was happily
holding forth to European reporters about his jihadist past in Afghanistan
and his support for al-Qaeda in Iraq.
DW: Switching sides required other core trade-offs as well. One point you make that underscores the disavowal of Western values that took place in the Libya War concerns the leading role played by NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen. You called Rasmussen’s role the greatest irony of the whole war. Could you elaborate?
JR: Before he was appointed as NATO Secretary General, Rasmussen was undoubtedly best known internationally for his role in the famous “Mohammed cartoon” controversy. The cartoons were, of course, first published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. At the time, Rasmussen was the Danish prime minister. When, in October 2005, representatives from several Muslim countries appealed to him to do something about the publication of the cartoons, he stated that he did not have the power to do anything about them and he did not want any such power. It must be said that not all Western leaders were as unequivocal in their defense of freedom of expression. Rasmussen and Denmark thus drew the wrath of radical Muslim clerics like none other Yusef al Qaradawi and the wrath of those Muslim masses that followed Qaradawi’s injunction to “rage” against the cartoons.
What most people do not know, however, is that the unrest that broke out in Libya in early 2011 had one of its main roots in just such a protest against the “Mohammed cartoons.” The protests that sparked the Libyan rebellion were called for February 17, 2011, which is why the rebellion is commonly known as the “February 17 Revolution.” But the 2011 protests were called to commemorate protests that occurred in Benghazi five years earlier, on February 17, 2006, and the object of the earlier protests was precisely the “Mohammed cartoons.” More specifically, the 2006 Benghazi protestors were enraged about a member of the Italian government, Roberto Calderoli, who had appeared on Italian public television wearing a t-shirt with a cartoon of Mohammed printed on it. If albeit made in more flamboyant fashion, Calderoli’s point was the same as Rasmussen’s: that freedom of expression is non-negotiable. Thousands of young men descended upon the Italian consulate in Benghazi, attempting to break into the building and setting it on fire. Eventually, the Libyan security forces at the consulate opened fire in order to protect the Italian diplomatic personnel inside. A reported eleven people were killed.
In 2011, Rasmussen as NATO chief would facilitate the triumph of a rebellion whose fundamental values are absolutely antithetical to the values that he defended in 2005 as Danish prime minister. At some level, I imagine he must know this. If no one else, his Italian colleagues will surely have told him about the background to the 2011 protests. It is really a remarkable case of an individual and his convictions being completely overwhelmed by the position he holds. Rasmussen is a kind of tragic figure.
DW: Who is Abu-Abdallah al-Sadiq?
JR: Abu-Abdallah al-Sadiq is the historical leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. He was a confidante of Osama bin Laden. Indeed, he is reported to have been with Bin Laden at Tora Bora in late December 2001, as American and allied forces laid siege to the al-Qaeda leader’s mountain hideout. The LIFG ran its own jihadist training camps in Afghanistan prior to the American invasion. In 2004, al-Sadiq was detained in a covert American counter-terror operation in southeast Asia. He was subsequently repatriated to Libya and turned over to the custody of the Libyan government. In 2010, he was amnestied by the Libyan government as part of a terrorist “rehabilitation” program. I suspect that the American government encouraged Libya to “rehabilitate” al-Sadiq and other imprisoned LIFG members. We know, in any case, that the American ambassador was present at a ceremony “celebrating” his release.
The international public finally got to know al-Sadiq about a year and a half later, in August 2011, though under a different name. “Al-Sadiq” was a nom de guerre. Now he was known as Abdul-Hakim Belhadj and he was the new military governor of Tripoli. Intensive NATO bombing had forced Muammar al-Qaddafi and forces loyal to him to abandon the Libyan capital and had allowed rebel forces to walk in and seize control of the city. Al-Sadiq/Belhadj was the leader of those rebel forces. Just seven years after detaining him, America and its NATO allies, in effect, conquered Tripoli on al-Sadiq’s behalf.
There is much more at Diana West’s blog