On September 10, 2023, Storm Daniel hit the northeastern coast of Libya, causing heavy rainfall, flash floods, and strong winds. Amidst the storm, two poorly maintained dams collapsed in the city of Derna. The subsequent flooding had devastating consequences: it swept away people, vehicles, buildings, roads and bridges. Since then, over 15,000 Libyans have been reported dead or missing.

Anita Fuentes, Executive Producer of the Security in Context Podcast, had the chance to speak to Vijay Prashad about his article “NATO Destroyed Libya in 2011; Storm Daniel Came to Sweep Up the Remains,” published September 21, 2023 on the Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research newsletter. In this article, Vijay Prashad discusses the tragedy of the flood that struck Derna following Storm Daniel and resulted in the deaths of thousands. 

Anita Fuentes

Your article starts by discussing the warnings of ordinary Libyans, such as the poet Mustafa al-Trabelsi, about neglected Libyan infrastructure. Can you walk us through what happened? How have the Libyan authorities handled the incident? And how is Libyan society reacting to it, including calls for accountability?

Vijay Prashad

Well, the first thing to know is that Libya is a country of great wealth: of course, oil wealth, which it has in abundance and particularly, per capita oil wealth, since Libya does not have a very large population. There's a lot of very sweet oil right next to Europe, which it used to supply before the war in 2011. 

Secondly, Libya has no shortage of highly talented people. Over the course of the last 60 years, Libyan universities have generated a skilled population: engineers, lawyers... People with the capacity to build and maintain an administrative state. So it's not a question of it being a poor country where people just don't know how to build a dam. That is just not true. There are very highly skilled people and a lot of wealth in the country. 

So how is it possible that a rich country, rich in natural resources, with a skilled population, was not able over the course of the past ten years or so to maintain basic infrastructure? Well, that's the first conundrum, let's say. 

The point here is that since 2011, Libya has had effectively two – if not multiple – state administrations. That is to say there are two state administrations that are recognized by different international forces: the Government of National Unity and the Government of National Stability. I say that there are many governments because even these governments don't necessarily exercise sovereignty over every single town or every single region.

The nature of the war in 2011 created a lot of dispersed power in different cities and towns: the militias of Misrata, the religious forces in Derna... These forces also took a lot of power away from the central administration and undermined its planning capacity. Neither the Government of National Unity nor the Government of National Stability have been able to exercise the planning function.

Firstly, oil revenues have collapsed for Libya, which means its principal resource is not generating enough revenue. And, secondly, people with skills have either fled the country, which has been in chaos for the last eleven or twelve years, or they are simply demoralized. Many people have also been killed. A number of important skilled professionals have died. In Benghazi, for instance, there have been assassinations of lawyers, of engineers... People who might have helped build the state and repair dams. So, in the chaos, the very capacity of the state to act has been minimized. And, strikingly, this inability to operate has affected state functions like water control. 

“It's certainly not a tragedy of the natural kind. This is a crime. Libya is a crime scene.”

So, in a city like Derna, there are two dams, which are of importance here since, for the last twenty odd years, there have been calls for repair and renewing of these dams. In fact, the administration of Muammar al-Gaddafi had contracted a Turkish company to conduct the repairs. The Turkish company produced a document showing what it was going to do, the deal was struck, and so on. And the Turkish company was prepared to start working on that dam in 2011. And then comes the war of 2011, and the Turkish company decamps. 

Since then, there's been utter amnesia about the fact that there was this urgency to repair the dam and a company that had been contracted. The new administration acted on this. And this, again, doesn't come down to incompetence. This is the wrong approach. A lot of the media coverage has suggested that this is about incompetence, that this is about something to do with poor countries, and so on. This is an utterly, utterly erroneous form of reporting, because there had been a company contracted. It left because of the war. And because these governments  – which are, in a sense, fragments of governments, not real governments – are not able to exercise the planning function, which is a main one, the dams never really had any upkeep. So when the storm came... The storm was, of course, a considerable storm. It's not that the storm was negligible. However, a refurbished dam might have held. At least, it might not have collapsed entirely, but it did collapse, and thousands of people died. Tens of thousands of people had their lives disrupted. In fact, the poet Mustafa al-Trabelsi died after having written quite a beautiful poem. This is the situation and it's certainly not a tragedy of the natural kind. This is a crime. Libya is a crime scene.

Anita Fuentes

Your article also discusses what you see as the root causes and drivers of institutional deterioration and neglect. You write: “NATO’s destruction of Libya set in motion a chain of events” that culminated in the most recent tragedy. Could you briefly summarize those events, and particularly how they led to the division of Libyan institutions and the consequences of those divisions on the Libyan people?

Vijay Prashad

When the North Atlantic Treaty Organization—pushed by France, which is not technically under NATO Military Command, and the United States, which effectively runs NATO Military Command – began the bombardment of Libya, it was very harsh. Those of us who have covered these wars – Libya, Iraq, and so on – have directly seen what the US government directly calls “shock and awe.” The utter destruction of a society. The attack on infrastructure in both Iraq and Libya. The United States government attacked power plants, attacked bridges, attacked basic civilian infrastructure in the name of destroying the state. That's what they did in Iraq. That's what they did in Libya with ferocity: 9,000 airstrikes in Libya. 

“Those of us who have covered these wars have directly seen what the US government directly calls ‘shock and awe.’ The utter destruction of a society.”

Now, if you've ever been to Libya, you'll understand why 9,000 airstrikes sounds preposterous. Libya is a country that is largely along the Mediterranean. There's an enormous desert going down to the city of Sabha, which is the gateway down into the Sahara and the Sahel, but alongside the Mediterranean is where most of the population lives. Between towns, it's largely either desert or grass. Before the discovery of oil, Libya was a major exporter of grass to make paper; that was its principal export, and you can still see the grass growing on the side of the road as you drive along the Mediterranean. But when you leave, for instance, Sirte and enter the place between cities, there's really not much. There's not much of a large rural population. These are smaller urban settings. There's villages and towns, but the big cities occupy the main part of Libya.

There are not 9,000 military targets. There are military bases in Benghazi. There was a base out near Tobruk and Sirte. There were, of course, military facilities in Tripoli. You know, there was even a small military airport. But there were not 9,000 targets. What was NATO bombing? 

I remember, after this war, trying to harass NATO's command saying: can you please tell us what you bombed in Libya? And they refused to hand over any details. 

NATO had used a UN Security Council resolution – UN Security Council Resolution 1973 – to prosecute the bombing, so the United Nations had a legal right to ask NATO to explain what the bombing was all about, since the UN was provided as justification. However, when the United Nations asked NATO to help them understand why they were bombing Libya, NATO's lead attorney, Peter Olson, refused to answer the questions and just said “NATO does not conduct war crimes.” That’s where they left it. But they destroyed infrastructure. Traveling in Libya after that immediate bombardment in 2012 was stunning because you could see infrastructure had been destroyed. That was clear. 

Secondly, it was clear that the nature of the rebellion, the militias of Misrata, the militias of Sirte, the militias of Benghazi, the return of various radical Islamist currents from Syria brought back into Libya at this time – many of whom then went off to southern Algeria, down into Mali, formed the al-Qaida of the Maghreb... Those forces, ruthless forces, refused to allow any reconstruction of the state. 

“They would prefer to allow Libya to rot in hell than to have a chance of something better.”

Mahmoud Jibril, who used to be the financial advisor to the former Emir of Qatar’s wife, Sheikha Moza, was made the prime minister. He was naive. He had no clue of how to run a state, in fact. Maybe he was a good financial adviser, but he couldn't pick up the pieces of things. He was a puppet of the Gulf Arabs, of the United States, and so on. They were outflanked. And then in comes a general who had lived five minutes away from the CIA headquarters in Langley since the 1980s: General Khalifa Haftar. I revealed that he lived five minutes away from Langley during that, and – my God! – the attacks that came just for saying that. It was a simple matter: where did Haftar come back from? Well, he put his house up for sale near Langley, in Virginia, and then he flew into Benghazi. 

This was part of the chaos that was occasioned by the NATO war. This was not the chaos of the aftermath of Mr. Gaddafi. It was the chaos of the NATO war. And these forces: Jibril, the Muslim Brotherhood fellows who wanted their piece of the pie and were backed by the Turks, Khalifa Haftar who was backed by the Egyptians or maybe the Saudis... Hard to say who was really backing him. It was civil chaos. And it has been so for twelve years. Just imagine that. Libya is a small country in terms of population, but for a decade it has not had a stable, singular government. It has two official governments. Who is going to take responsibility for the needs of the people? Nobody. Everybody was basically cutting the pie. Corruption is rife. Taking UN money... The money that comes in doesn't get down to the people. You know, whatever criticisms people might have of Mr. Gaddafi – and there are many that people share all over the place – he produced a civilization in Libya where things seem to work. Things don't work now.

And let me tell you, when his son, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, said “I want to run for office,” he was very popular going from town to town. And, immediately, court cases came up against him. They don't want to risk the return of the Gaddafi family. They would prefer to allow Libya to rot in hell than to have a chance of something better.

Anita Fuentes

How do you assess the regional and international response to the floods? What are or should be the possible pathways forward given the entrenchment of the two different Libyan governments and their backing by different states?

Vijay Prashad

Well, the first thing is, it must be said that regional countries really came through. The Tunisians and others sent forces to come and help because the Libyan Red Cross and Red Crescent Society couldn't handle it. The state was not functional. The government in Sirte sent the minister of aviation to have a look. You know, he's a very capable person. They didn't send people in the public administration, they sent quite an efficient person. They needed regional help and regional help came, including from Egypt, and so on. I don't want to minimize that. It's very important that we remember that people did come in. These are also poor countries. They are not hugely rich countries, but they contributed. 

You're talking about the two governments: the Sirte government and the government in Tripoli. Who knows? I don't want to come up with some plan that comes from Mars, and say: “this is the way to solve it.”

“It’s a suitcase issue. It’s a lot of money exchanging hands to different people, coming from outside powers.”

There are serious political differences in the world, and Libya is, in a way, a mirror of those differences. There's the West’s attempt to influence developments in Libya, which is not going very far. The Turkish government, since the uprising in Tunisia in 2010, has tried to have an expanded foreign policy across the Mediterranean – the so-called “Neo-Ottoman foreign policy” that was pushed at the time. They have an entrenched interest in Libya. You know, Libya used to be part of the Ottoman Empire. The Saudis also have their own interests where basically their proxy is Egypt inside Libya. So different powers are pushing their own various regional, international conflicts inside Libya. At one point it was a Russian-US conflict inside Libya. The French played a duplicitous game, as usual. It’s typical of France... What I'm saying is that Libya, like Lebanon – a very good parallel – will not be able to sort out its political problem. Lebanon has been in a political malaise for decades, and part of the reason is that different groups are backed by outsiders. The so-called Christian faction is backed by the French and the United States, the Shia faction is backed by Iran, the Sunni faction is backed by the Saudis... Lebanon has been paralyzed. Well, I'm sorry to say that Libya is “Lebanonizing.” Different groups are being backed by different people. The only difference is that it's not along sectarian lines. That's largely because Libya doesn't have that kind of sectarian makeup – you know, Shia, Sunni, Christian, and so on. In Libya the makeup is regional – is, to some extent, “tribal.” There are differences of region that are playing up here. But more than anything, I must say, it’s a suitcase issue.

It's an issue of suitcases breaking up a country. What do I mean by that? It’s a lot of money exchanging hands to different people, coming from outside powers. The country is paralyzed by this. And it is therefore impossible for me or you to say how to fix this. There's no way. Inside Libya, just as in Lebanon to some extent – although Lebanon is much more advanced in this problem – there are no political forces that are going to easily be able to bring things together. I would say that Mr. Saif al-Islam Gaddafi was actually for a moment looking like somebody who could bring different groups together. But he's also deeply polarizing for good reason. He's the son of Muammar al-Gaddafi. Still, there is nostalgia growing in the country: “during Gaddafi's period, it was better,” which it was. I don't know where the door will open, but I very much hope the door will open and the suitcases will all be destroyed.

Anita Fuentes

What are the broader lessons to learn from incidents like the Storm Daniel flood, both in terms of militarism and intervention as well as climate change?

Vijay Prashad

We know that when the United States intervenes, and in this case also France, they don't intervene for humanitarian reasons. They intervene for political interests. You don't bomb infrastructure and destroy power plants for humanitarian reasons. During the lead up to the war, the African Union was running a credible peace negotiation between Jibril in Benghazi and Gaddafi in Tripoli. The AU had come to Libya, they had talked to the parties... Even during the war, the AU had sent delegates to talk to everybody. There was always the possibility of a deal. In Iraq, if you go back and look at it in 2000-2003, Saddam Hussein was desperate for a deal with the United States. He wanted the deal. He may even have left office, he was that desperate for a deal. In Afghanistan, the Taliban in 2001 were begging powers like the Pakistanis and others to tell Americans not to bomb Afghanistan because they would destroy civilian infrastructure. They said: “We will hand over Osama bin Laden. Not to them, though. We want to hand him over to a Muslim country.” That was the extradition policy. 

“Militarism should never be confused with humanitarianism.”

So militarism of this kind, this vicious destruction of civilian infrastructure, is never a good idea. Look at how the Israelis are treating Gaza. Any time the people, the Palestinians in Gaza, build anything – cement factories, anything – Israel comes in and bombs They bomb power plants, they bomb water purification plants. Ruthless destruction of infrastructure: that is the militarism of the West. That's how the West conducts its wars; Israelis included. Therefore, militarism – particularly this Western bombardment – should never be confused with humanitarianism. 

I found it depressing, in 2011, to see reasonable, sensitive people back the NATO intervention in Libya, saying: “Yes, because Gaddafi is going to conduct genocide.” That was nonsense then, and it has since been proved to be nonsense. Many human rights organizations, Amnesty International in the lead, conducted after war studies, which none of these liberal sensitive people have paid attention to. Donatella Rovera of Amnesty International visited places where there had been claims of genocide, and she said she found none. She said that this narrative of genocide was concocted, particularly by the Saudis.

Al Arabiya was running article after article saying that there was genocide happening. In fact, when I interviewed the UN Secretariat just before UN Resolution 1973 passed, I asked them: “How do you know there is genocide in Libya? You don't have anybody on the ground. You don't have access to the city of Benghazi, Ajdabiya or the cities that go up to Benghazi... How do you know?” They said: “from press reports.” So I said: “Which press are you referring to?” And they said: “Al Arabiya.” Al Arabiya is basically the mouthpiece of the royal family of Saudi Arabia, and the king at the time hated Gaddafi, because Gadhafi used to directly insult him at Arab League meetings. He would say things like: “You’re a creature of the British. You’re a dog of the Americans.” They hated him personally. This was no reason to go and bomb that country so viciously. I was dismayed to see liberal, sensitive people saying: “Well, you know, it's a good thing we got to stop the genocide. Humanitarian intervention...” What humanitarian intervention? This is not a humanitarian intervention. It was a willful, deliberate destruction of the Libyan state, which is never recovered and therefore cannot protect itself against the floods occasioned by Storm Daniel.

The video recording of the interview is available here.

Vijay Prashad is a historian, journalist, and executive director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He is the author of forty books, including “Arab Spring. Libyan Winter” (2012) and “The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and the Fragility of U.S. Power” (2022), written with Noam Chomsky. You can read more of his articles on Tricontinental’s website.

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Oct 4, 2023
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