How NATO’s War Crimes Brought Chaos to Libya

Ever since NATO’s "humanitarian" bombing campaign unseated Muammar Qadhafi’s dictatorship in 2011, the media has largely ignored the chaos they helped create in the North African country. When there is a brief flare-up in media attention, however, Western complicity in creating the devastation is downplayed – or worse, ignored. An investigation from Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, for instance, found that Western mass media, if they mentioned NATO at all, systematically minimized the role of Operation Unified Protector in the eruption of open slave markets in 2017. In his book Fast Food Fatwas, Belgian author Jonas Slaats has documented a similar bias in Belgian reporting on the sudden surfacing of ISIS in Libya two years earlier, whereby the national media conveniently left out the NATO mission and the country’s participation therein.

Now that European, regional and global power players are coalescing around their respective favorite rival government in the war-torn nation, once again few are willing to contemplate the historical context of the situation before pointing fingers. Because there is no shortage of complexity to the current (geo)political situation, one can easily write an overview of the protracted proxy war with only a fleeting one-sentence mention of NATO’s involvement back in 2011. This makes it possible to leave out any attempt at serious evaluation of the mission. Nevertheless, several reputable outlets have since documented NATO’s war crimes, exposed the fake allegations used to legitimize the "humanitarian" intervention and unveiled the atrocities committed by Western-supported "revolutionaries" in 2011. The recent indictment of Washington ally and Kosovar President Hashim Traci on ten counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, if nothing else, at least provides a stark reminder of NATO war crimes during its 78-day bombing campaign of Serbia in 1999. Similarly, this article hopes to reinvigorate the conversation on NATO’s war in Libya, the consequences of which reverberate until today.

The "Libyan model"

Although already 40 years in power, Muammar Qadhafi first addressed the UN General Assembly two years before his downfall in 2009. Upholding the UN Charter, Qadhafi lambasted the Security Council for failing to prevent dozens of wars since its inception and for letting the crimes of the five permanent members and their allies go unpunished while the global organization is employed to demonize enemies of the world powers. The Libyan leader urged the Assembly to adopt a binding resolution that would put it above the Security Council and to launch investigations into the murders of Patrice Lumumba, John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King as well as into Israeli war crimes in Lebanon and Gaza. One of my Arabic professors once told me that in a meeting with Tony Blair a couple of years earlier, Qadhafi deliberately balanced his foot on the other knee so that his shoe sole pointed directly towards his British counterpart. This is an incredibly insulting gesture in Arabic culture, probably meant to shame the clueless prime minister for his involvement in the invasion of Iraq. When he expressed his astonishment at the lack of a concerted response to Saddam Hussein’s overthrow at the Arabic League in 2008 and cautioned his fellow heads of state that they were next, Qadhafi’s audience – including, apparently, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – greeted the warning with uniform laughter.

An international pariah for most, this kind of incredulous and undiplomatic behavior, along with his sponsorship of resistance movements from Palestine to South Africa and Ireland, has convinced some anti-imperialist circles that Qadhafi is some kind of revolutionary martyr. On the domestic level, too, Qadhafi’s socialist redistribution policies financed with national oil revenues invited worldwide praise, while even the BBC found it "hard to fault" Libya for the Great Man-Made River Project that sought to create a massive irrigation infrastructure to develop the desert country’s agriculture sector. Like his conduct in foreign policy, Qadhafi’s domestic rule was perhaps as incomparable to anything else in the modern history of nation-states. Modeling the Libyan government on his 1975 Green Book, Qadhafi claimed to have built up a stateless society in which he merely served as a revolutionary guide to his people, while a system of Popular Congresses and Committees were said to swap Western-style representative parliamentarianism for an innovative system of direct democracy. In reality, of course, this bifurcation between formal and informal power mechanisms served the purpose of cementing Qadhafi’s repressive dictatorship, perhaps in a not dissimilar way as Lenin’s Bolshevist Party was able to impose its iron rule after the 1917 Russian Revolution in a violent – yet unofficial – capacity.

Compounding his unpredictable and enigmatic character, the Libyan autocrat’s pan-Arabist (and later pan-African) advocacy and anti-Israel stance brought him into collision course with the West, especially after he started attempting to acquire nuclear weaponry in the 1970s. The 1980s saw two limited American military actions against Libya and the introduction of US sanctions. The UN followed suit in 1992, imposing sanctions for Libya’s refusal to cooperate with investigations into the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which killed all 243 passengers, 16 crew members and 11 people on the ground. The Lockerbie bombing was the apex of a series of terrorist attacks on European soil throughout the 1980s accredited to Qadhafi, which led to his gradual isolation from the international community.

Proof of his involvement was often murky, however, and mounting evidence suggests that Libya might have been wrongly (and thus very likely purposefully) implicated. These acts of terrorism included the fatal shooting of London policewoman Yvonne Fletcher during a small anti-Qadhafi protest in 1984; a bomb explosion in the "La Belle" disco in West Berlin frequented by American servicemen in 1986, which killed three and wounded 200; the 1988 Lockerbie bombing; and the downing of French airliner UTA Flight 722 in the Niger desert in 1989, killing 170 occupants. Although a Libyan man was finally convicted for the Lockerbie bombing in 2001 after Qadhafi agreed to a trial in the "neutral" Netherlands, an Austrian UN observer called the trial "a spectacular miscarriage of justice." The convicted man, Abdelbasit al-Megrahi, was released on compassionate grounds after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2009 and died shortly after the fall of Qadhafi. His family is still fighting for a posthumous appeal in 2020.

Al-Megrahi’s extradition to the Netherlands and Qadhafi’s reluctant acceptance of responsibility and payment of compensation for some of these terrorist acts were a UN requirement for the sanctions to be lifted in 2003. That same year, Qadhafi agreed to give up his WMD program (including an early-stage nuclear compartment) as Libya was allowed back into the international community and the US started lifting its own sanctions. During the "war on terror" era, as the Libyan regime tortured suspected terrorists on behalf of the CIA and MI6, Libyan-Western relations further normalized. But when the West again turned its back on Qadhafi during the Libyan uprising, he was left without the deterrent of his WMD program. When two years ago John Bolton publicly floated the idea that the "Libyan model" could be applied to North Korean disarmament, it wasn’t a long stretch for many commentators to point out the obvious incentives for US adversaries to develop and hold onto a nuclear deterrent.

Mercenaries, fly-bys, and Viagra

Every Western-waged war on the Middle East has its own false pretext. George H.W. Bush claimed Iraqi troops left hundreds of Kuwaiti babies to die on the floor while stealing incubators to justify the Gulf War, his son invaded Iraq in 2003 based on the lie that Saddam Hussein possessed WMDs, the Obama and Trump administrations have endlessly claimed that Assad gasses his own people and that the Houthis are Iranian proxies in order to legitimize US interventionism in Syria and Yemen, and for the past two decades Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his American neoconservative lapdogs have tried to wage war on Iran because of the Islamic Republic’s phantom nuclear weapons program.

In Libya’s case, however, one can hardly count the number of lies on one hand. From the very beginning of the uprising in mid-February 2011, for instance, opposition-linked media claimed that Qadhafi employed Sub-Saharan mercenaries to clamp down on demonstrators. Western mass media obediently regurgitated the alleged ruthlessness of these "African mercenaries," with the Telegraph going as far as to assert that "women and children leapt from bridges to their deaths as they tried to escape" out of the clutches of these foreign thugs. UN Watch, a pro-Israel NGO, then used this allegation to convince the Human Rights Council to suspend Libya from the body after sending out an open letter signed by dozens of human rights groups – including, unsurprisingly, the National Endowment for (Meddling in) Democracy.

The letter also made several mentions of the claim that Qadhafi deployed aircraft to bomb and fire on his own people, a horrifying charge that was widely and uncritically reported by, among others, Al-Arabya, Al-Jazeera, the BBC and CNN. If the Libyan dictator was employing its air space to kill demonstrators and fly in black African mercenaries, a no-fly zone was seen as an appropriate solution to obstruct Qadhafi’s crackdown. Thus, on 17 March the UN Security Council, that global body Qadhafi had railed against two years earlier, adopted Resolution 1973 imposing a no-fly zone on Libyan military aviation, authorizing the initiating member states to take "all necessary measures" save foreign occupation to enforce the ban. Although the resolution stressed the need for a "peaceful and sustainable" solution to the conflict, France, Britain and the US started bombing two days later.

As NATO was assuming command of the operation, al-Jazeera launched perhaps the most heinous charge of all against the Libyan army. "Rape used ‘as a weapon’ in Libya," the headline screamed. Because "several doctors" in opposition-held areas were said to have found condoms and Viagra tablets in the pockets of dead pro-Qadhafi forces, the conjecture was that the Libyan autocrat installed a policy of using "rape as a weapon of war." Not only typical war hawks like US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and American UN Ambassador Susan Rice jumped on the story, however. Because a previous Security Council resolution had referred Libya to the International Criminal Court, ICC Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo employed it to build his case, charging that "Viagra is a tool of massive rape."

On the basis of these kind of claims, the ICC issued an arrest warrant for Qadhafi and two of his henchmen in June. When a reporter pressed Moreno-Ocampo for concrete evidence proving Qadhafi’s guilt of crimes against humanity, the jurist referred her to a document, "most of which is public." The document is indeed public; the whole section in which the "proof" is enumerated, however, is not. In other sections it does detail allegations of killings of protesters (though it does not explain its methodology of distinguishing between proven crimes of repression and unproven rebel claims), and like Resolutions 1970 and 1973 of the UN Security Council, it makes multiple mentions of foreign mercenaries as if it were a proven fact. Yet, while Moreno-Ocampo was telling reporters that "We have information that there is a policy to rape in Libya those who were against the government" in June, Amnesty International undertook its own investigation. It found that all of the above claims were void of evidence. To this day, there is no proof whatsoever that Qadhafi flew in foreign mercenaries, employed aircraft to shoot at civilians or ordered his troops to take Viagra and rape ahead.

Amnesty did find indications that the rebels knowingly produced the false claims that hit the front pages worldwide and manufactured evidence in support of them, while the so-called "mercenaries" were in fact mostly just innocent black African migrant workers. With this in mind, how should we interpret admissions such as that of "political activist" Amer Saad that the protesters in al-Bayda executed "50 African mercenaries and two Libyan conspirators" three days into the uprising back in February? After the Battle of Sirte – the final episode of the conflict ending in Qadhafi’s gruesome death – another Amnesty investigation and a CBS News correspondent both found evidence of executions in at least the same order of magnitude. According to the June 2011 Amnesty investigation, racist Islamist insurgents lynched at least some black Africans whom they falsely depicted as mercenaries.

"A massacre that would have stained the conscience of the world"

If anything, it was clearly not a cosmic struggle between the forces of good and evil. Yet, NATO leaders had no qualms about enlisting Manichean language to justify the war. A day after NATO took over command and the bombing turned into a full-scale war effort at the end of March, US President Barack Obama addressed the nation and repeated the lie that "military jets and helicopter gunships were unleashed on the people." Now, Qadhafi vowed to show "no mercy" to the people of Benghazi, a rebel stronghold that he was trying to retake. Thanks to Obama and his allies, however, the American Commander-in-Chief claimed that "If we waited one more day" to intervene, Benghazi "could suffer a massacre that would reverberate across the region and stained the conscience of the world." He doubled down on this claim in April, when an op-ed published in the New York Times co-written with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister Cameron asserted that "by responding immediately, our countries, together with an international coalition, halted the advance of Qaddafi’s forces and prevented the bloodbath that he had promised to inflict upon the citizens of the besieged city of Benghazi. Tens of thousands of lives have been protected."

Prof. Alan Kuperman from the University of Texas immediately countered that allegations of impending genocide rang hollow. Indeed, prior to the supposedly averted massacre of Benghazi, nothing pointed into the direction of indiscriminate killings in other cities Qadhafi’s forces had retaken. In fact, only 257 people died in the recapture of Misrata (which has a population of 400,000), while less than 3 percent of the wounded were women, which strongly suggests that the violence was not indiscriminate, and most deaths were due to combat. Moreover, Obama’s reference of Qadhafi’s "no mercy" claim to the citizens of Benghazi conveniently left out the fact that the Libyan leader promised amnesty for those "who throw their weapons away." In hindsight, a brutally frank 2016 report of the British House of Commons, charged that:

"Despite his rhetoric, the proposition that Muammar Gaddafi would have ordered the massacre of civilians in Benghazi was not supported by the available evidence. The Gaddafi regime had retaken towns from the rebels without attacking civilians in early February 2011. [Moreover], the disparity between male and female casualties [known to UN investigators in late February] suggested that Gaddafi regime forces targeted male combatants in a civil war and did not indiscriminately attack civilians. […] While Muammar Gaddafi certainly threatened violence against those who took up arms against his rule, this did not necessarily translate into a threat to everyone in Benghazi. In short, the scale of the threat to civilians was presented with unjustified certainty."

The British government-sanctioned report concluded that "UK strategy was founded on erroneous assumptions and an incomplete understanding of evidence."

"The injuries can heal but the heart can’t"

This disregard for honesty and truth concerning the danger to civilians was not limited to false claims about Qadhafi’s campaign to reconquer the country, however. After the conclusion of the military mission, officials proudly proclaimed that NATO bombed Libya for seven months without killing any civilians. In November, Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen concluded that "we have carried out the operation very carefully, without confirmed civilian casualties." NATO spokesperson Oana Lungescu elaborated that "no target was approved or attacked if we had any evidence or reason to believe that civilians were at risk." Even UN Secretary-generalBan Ki-Moon rejected claims that NATO had overreached its mandate out of hand, asserting that "Security Council Resolution 1973, I believe, was strictly enforced within the limit, within the mandate."

We now know that these statements are categorically false. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and even the New York Times all amply documented scores of civilian deaths and potential war crimes. Consider for instance the 8 August strike on the village of Majer 160 kilometers west of Tripoli, which killed 34 innocent people and wounded 30. According to Human Rights Watch:

"NATO bombs hit two family compounds, one of them hosting dozens of displaced persons. This attack was followed by another bomb that struck outside one of the compounds as neighbors and relatives were retrieving the wounded and dead. NATO says the compounds were a "staging base and military accommodation" for Gaddafi forces but it has not provided specific information to evaluate that claim. During four visits to Majer, including one the day after the attack, Human Rights Watch found no evidence of military activity at either of the compounds. A single military-style shirt was in the rubble of one of the three houses that were struck."

One of the survivors later spoke to Amnesty:

"I can’t understand why they bombed my home. We are civilians and had nothing to do with the war, politics or any such things. I lost my daughter Hanan, who was due to get married after Ramadhan [after the end of August]; and my nephew’s little girl, Arwa, who was always laughing and running around; and my brother’s daughter, Salima, and her three little children, and her sister-in-law, Mansiya, and her little twin girls had come to visit from Benghazi and got stuck here because of the war; They were all killed together with other relatives, and my wife, Fathiya sustained a serious head injury and her left leg had to be amputated. She is in Germany for medical care. Maybe the injuries can heal eventually but the heart can’t. My home became a graveyard for my family and until today neither NATO nor the NTC [National Transitional Council] have even contacted us, not even to say sorry or to ask about the victims. We have been forgotten."

A fact-finding mission of three Middle Eastern NGOs also described a NATO attack on 15 September during the decisive Battle of Sirte. It explained that after the Libyan army had repelled an attack on the western part of the city, NATO air fire destroyed two jeeps carrying combatants at dusk. But then, like in the 8 August strikes in Majer, a large crowd gathered around to assist the wounded and retrieve the corpses. Although the crowd was exclusively civilian, another missile struck, killing 47 civilians. NATO’s operational media update for 15 September noted the destruction of the two vehicles but made no mention of the large swathes of civilians it has just slaughtered. Yet, with a straight face, it reminded the press that "the aim of Operation Unified Protector is to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas under attack or under threat of attack." After the New York Times contacted NATO to respond to its 27-page investigation detailing at least 40 other civilian deaths, Oana Lungescu, the same NATO spokeswomen, finally backtracked on the lie that NATO had not killed civilians. "From what you have gathered on the ground, it appears that innocent civilians may have been killed or injured, despite all the care and precision," she coldly admitted. "We deeply regret any loss of life."

Notwithstanding this rather unconvincing, almost tongue-in-cheek admission, it is hard to see how Libyans are generally better off thanks to NATO’s "protection." The country has descended into instability and infighting for almost a decade, and as mentioned in the introduction, the chaos has produced open slave markets, prolonged civil war and even a brief ISIS presence. Nearly one third of the population has fled to neighboring Tunisia. This is not just due to a slight overreach of NATO’s mission resulting in "collateral damage." It is due to the false notion that war can save people. The above-mentioned evidence, for instance, does not even include all kinds of indirect ways in which NATO harmed ordinary Libyans in its alleged "humanitarian" crusade to save them from an imaginary genocide. As Nafeez Ahmed has pointed out, NATO’s bombardment of Libya’s immensely important water infrastructure constitutes another war crime, which actually does amount to potential genocide:

"UNICEF reported that the disruption of the GMR [Great Man-Made River project] had left 4 million Libyans without potable water. The GMR remains disrupted to this day [in 2015], and Libya’s national water crisis continues to escalate. The deliberate destruction of a nation’s water infrastructure, with the knowledge that doing so would result in massive deaths of the population as a direct consequence, is not simply a war crime, but potentially a genocidal strategy. It raises serious questions about the conventional mythology of a clean, humanitarian war in Libya – questions that mainstream journalists appear to be uninterested in, or unable to ask."

"We came, we saw, he died"

Moreover, NATO involvement was not limited to allegedly protecting civilians. As Cambridge scholar and expert on Libya Dirk Vandewalle has conceded in his book A History of Modern Libya, Operation Unified Protector "became a sine qua non for the rebels just to be able to maintain their positions" and "greater and more decisive NATO intervention [was] needed to defeat the loyalist side." The above-mentioned September air strike during the Battle of Sirte which killed 47 civilians illustrates how indispensable NATO was in the defeat of Qadhafi – and therefore the chaos that, to loan from Obama, should stain our conscience and reverberates across the region until today. Whereas the insurgents were allowed to freely move tanks into place to surround and enter Sirte, NATO bombed Sirte back to the stone ages, while any attempt by government forces to move as much as a jeep was apparently met with NATO bombardment.

So, when a convoy of 75 vehicles finally fled the battle scene on the morning of 20 October, it was intercepted by French jets and US predator drones. Here again, NATO did not elaborate how the convoy was posing a threat to the civilian population. But it did carry the dictator they desperately wanted to topple. Although the air fire left 95 "loyalists" dead, Qadhafi momentarily got a way. Yet, the rebels soon captured him, and as we now know from cell phone footage, he was subsequently beaten, tortured, shot in the head and dragged triumphantly through the streets of what was once the city symbolizing his self-proclaimed revolution. After 42 years, a jubilant Hillary Clinton could finally announce its end in her now infamous words: "We came, we saw, he died." Like the Roman General Julius Caesar, NATO had conquered yet another country.

Bas Spliet is a master student History and Arabic Studies at the University of Ghent, Belgium, where he researches the anti-nuclear weapons movement in Europe of the early 1980s. He is proficient in Arabic, traveled to Syria in 2018 and lived in Cairo in 2019. He aspires to become an investigative journalist after graduation. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter at @BSpliet.