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Books on Libya

Update No: 042 - (26/04/07)

Is Libya Afraid of Resurging Terror in North Africa?
While Libya (and Tunisia) has not suffered any islamist terrorism in the past year, with the possible exception of the riots in Benghazi in March 2006 sparked off by the ‘Muhammad caricatures’ affair, there has been a surge of violence attributed to islamist groups, better described as ‘salafist’, in North Africa in recent months. In late December 2006, 14 people were killed in gun battles in the usually peaceful city of Tunis, while plans were revealed indicating that islamist militants from Algeria intended to attack the British and Italian embassies. Tunisian authorities arrested 18 Tunisians who traveled to Algeria for alleged terrorist training in response. More dramatically, on April 12, militants from the self declared “al-Qaida Organization in the Islamic Maghreb” claimed responsibility last week for two car bombs that exploded in Algiers killing at least 33 people. One of the bombs was aimed at the office of prime minister Abdelaziz Belkhadem. These were the first major attacks in the Algerian capital in more than seven years. 

This raises concerns that militants are re-organizing to stage further attacks, using the difficult to prevent ‘suicide’ technique (it is likely that some of the militants may be veterans of the terror campaigns in Iraq, just as the terror in the 1990’s was spawned from returning fighters in Afghanistan). This could once again threaten Algeria’s (and North Africa’s) political stability. The fact that the Algiers attacks coincided with the discovery of a suicide bombing plot in Casablanca, as police raided a safe-house the day before the Algiers attacks, as well as the attacks targeting the American cultural center and consulate in Casablanca four days later, suggest there is coordination among the various militant groups. However, like so much of the ‘al-Qaida’ attributed terrorism, there are many questions. We are presented largely with a view that the militants are simply motivated by religious fanaticism, ignoring the potential political or social grievances or agenda they are addressing. No doubt, as some analysts have noted, the use of the ‘Al-Qaida’ name, like some popular brand name, all but guaranteed that the attacks would attract considerable media attention worldwide. 

After all the militant violence in Tunisia at the end of 2006, failed to arouse the same attention as the Algiers attacks of April, as the salafist groups there did not use ‘al-Qaida’ in their statements. In some ways, given the typically pervasive security apparatus in Tunisia, the attacks came as a real shock to citizens and government alike. This Tunisian militant group that engaged the police there in 2006 was heavily armed and was said to be well trained, equipped with RPGs and Kalashnikovs and led by the Lassaad Sassi, a former para-military police officer from Bir El-Bey, who earned his infamous reputation in the Algerian civil war in the 90’s, and Afghanistan before that. He was killed in the battle. But Tunisian officials fear this group could have up to 300 militants and there have been confrontations near Ghadames, right on the Tunisian, Algerian and Libyan border.

The Possible AFRICOM Connection
The sudden resurgence of islamist violence in the Maghreb could indicate a security lapse or the prelude of more dangerous time ahead, but it was also predictable given their closer ties to Washington and growing tensions in the Iraq and the Middle East in general. Moreover, the United States has been looking to transform Africa into a place of strategic importance. Last February defense secretary Robert Gates announced that Washington wants to establish a special military command in Africa, possibly as soon as 2008, to "oversee security cooperation, building partnership capability, defense support to non-military missions, and, if directed, military operations on the African continent." The United States has conceived the Africa Command, officially known as the United States Africa Command (USAFRICOM or AFRICOM) to respond to the terrorist threat in Africa. Until now, African threats were managed by existing regional commands in Europe, the Pacific, and Central Command, which divided Africa among them. The new Africa command will dedicate itself exclusively to African ‘threats’ and it is currently being run from Stuttgart, Germany. The US is also rumored to have increased CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency operations in several embassies in Africa. The recent US backing of Ethiopian troops and their ousting of the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) – which brought some much needed stability, if nothing else to Somalia, after 15 years of total anarchy - is an example of the new American focus on Africa. 

It is rumored that the United States would have liked to set the AFRICOM base in Algeria, but that country’s government refused. The Algerian Foreign Affairs Minister Mohamed Bedjaoui was especially opposed to the proposal, wondering aloud why Algeria did not receive cooperation in fighting the very real terror problem it faced in the 1990’s. And so the search for an alternative country, one with access to the sea, continues. While no mention has been made of this yet, Morocco and even Libya would be ideal candidates. Libya, for its part, was once home to the largest (in physical size) US airbase until it was forced out by the government of Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi, after the 1969 ‘revolution’. 

Coincidentally, Libya was included in a recent US State Department worldwide warning about terrorist activity in North Africa. Economic targets are cited as being at greatest risk, suggesting that Libyan salafist or (‘al-Qaida’) groups are preparing to attack foreign oil workers in the gas and oil production areas of the country. And, of course, there has been increased demand for access to Libyan oil exploration and production contracts. The Salafist movement grew in response to the Algerian annulment of electoral results in 1992 that saw a victory of Islamic parties, which led to a civil war costing thousands of lives in the mid 1990’s. Salafists believe in the religious duty to wage war on Muslim governments, they see as corrupt (which doesn’t exclude many, if any). Western political dominance and values are considered elements of that corruption. Because of the Algerian civil war, itself fueled by returning Arab ‘mujahedin’, who fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan (the so-called Arab-Afghans), North Africa has become the epicenter of salafism in recent years. Since the start of 2007, there has been a rise in ‘salafist’ terrorism. Algeria and Morocco have been the main targets, but Libya could also be facing a higher risk of terrorism. 

In fact the continued verbal hostility, though far less biting than the firebrand rhetoric of the 1980’s and 90s, shown by al-Qadhafi toward the United States and the West might be a tactic by the Libyan leader to disassociate his leadership from the very powers he has wooed, since the announcement that Libya would give up its weapons of mass destruction program in December 2003. Qadhafi, at the time, probably considered a likely American success in Iraq in his strategic calculus, a success that could have prompted the United States in search of more regimes to change, including his own. As the US campaign in Iraq has deteriorated into an utter disaster, Qadhafi could pick up where he left off and seek to restore some ‘revolutionary’ credibility, even as Western and US oil companies help his country develop more sources of oil revenue to help sustain his regime. Condoleeza Rice still refuses to visit Tripoli and the saga of the Bulgarian nurses and Palestinian doctor, who, by all the evidence and all logic were wrongfully and absurdly accused of maliciously infecting 400 children with AIDS at a Benghazi hospital, appears to be the battleground that Libya has chosen to challenge the West, if only for the sake of appearances at home. The medics’ trial is unlikely to result in the death sentences faced by the accused being carried out. However, procedures, appeals and hearings continue with no end in sight. The latest twist involves a slander suit filed by police officers alleging that allegations from the medics that their confessions were extracted through torture, amount to defamation, claiming millions for themselves in damages from the poor victims of this continuing nightmare. 

In April, the American deputy secretary of state John Negroponte, the highest ranking US official to visit Libya and whom the Libyan leader refused to meet, was to have handed Qadhafi a letter from president Bush. The letter is said to have stressed that full diplomatic and political relations between Libya and the United States would only be possible only after the HIV trial is brought to an end and the Bulgarian medics are released. But in defiance, even as there have been several indications from Qadhafi, through his son and heir apparent Seif ul-Islam, that the medics face no danger of execution, Qadhafi said that “freedom for the Bulgarian Medics is nonsense”in a recent speech to the Libyan people. For good measure,Qadhafi added that the convicted bomber for the downing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, Abdel Baset Ali-Mohamed Al-Megrahi is innocent. Qadhafi also hinted that more compensation funds would be needed. Visiting French socialist politician Jack Lang, said that Qadhafi suggested the release of the medics was contingent on settling the financial compensation for the families of the 400 HIV infected children. 10 million dollars per child was the blood money required for the nurses to go free. Qadhafi is likely still shaken by the riots that erupted in Benghazi in March 2006, ostensibly over the Muhammad caricatures, which reminded the Libyan leadership that there is still the danger of Islamic militants in eastern Libya. The recent terror wave in North Africa has probably prompted the Libyan leader to adopt a more cautious approach to relations with the West. 

The National Oil Company, NOC, said that foreign companies working in Libya's oil industry must now change names to new ones reflecting Libya’s history and geography, the National Oil Corporation said on Saturday. Accordingly, France's Total has become "Mabruk Oil," the word Mabruk, which means "congratulations" in Arabic, being a popular boy's name in Libya. Repsol of Spain becomes "Akakoss Petroleum Operations" – named after the Akakoss mountains in the south. The Italian ENI shall be known as “Mellita Gas," named after the region where it operates west of Tripoli. 

The Michigan based Dow Chemical Co. has announced it is participating in a joint venture with Libya’s National Oil Company, NOC, to expand the Ras Lanuf petrochemical facility. Dow's plans make it the first global chemical company to participate in such economic development of the Libyan petrochemical industry. The project includes refurbishment and expansion of existing production facilities, and the addition of an ethane cracker and additional polyethylene and polypropylene facilities at a later stage. The current Ras Lanuf plant produces HDPE and LLDPE. 

Libya is also going ahead with plans to expand natural gas production. The country will hold a bidding round later in 2007 to develop gas fields onshore and offshore, which NOC chairman Shukry Ghanem said would account for 10 to 15 blocks, offshore and onshore. The British BP has been very keen to develop gas projects in Libya, but it has encountered difficulties and low profit margins, given the uncompetitive terms offered by the country now.  

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