Libya stretches along the northeast coast of Africa between Tunisia and Algeria on the west and Egypt on the east; to the south are the Sudan, Chad, and Niger. It is one-sixth larger than Alaska. Much of the country lies within the Sahara. Along the Mediterranean coast and farther inland is arable plateau land.
The first inhabitants of Libya were Berber tribes. In the 7th century B.C., Phoenicians colonized the eastern section of Libya, called Cyrenaica, and Greeks colonized the western portion, called Tripolitania. Tripolitania was for a time under Carthaginian control. It became part of the Roman Empire from 46 B.C. to A.D. 436, after which it was sacked by the Vandals. Cyrenaica belonged to the Roman Empire from the 1st century B.C. until its decline, after which it was invaded by Arab forces in 642. Beginning in the 16th century, both Tripolitania and Cyrenaica nominally became part of the Ottoman Empire.
Tripolitania was one of the outposts for the Barbary pirates who raided Mediterranean merchant ships or required them to pay tribute. In 1801, the pasha of Tripoli raised the price of tribute, which led to the Tripolitan war with the United States. When the peace treaty was signed on June 4, 1805, U.S. ships no longer had to pay tribute to Tripoli.
Following the outbreak of hostilities between Italy and Turkey in 1911, Italian troops occupied Tripoli. Libyans continued to fight the Italians until 1914, by which time Italy controlled most of the land. Italy formally united Tripolitania and Cyrenaica in 1934 as the colony of Libya.
Libya was the scene of much desert fighting during World War II. After the fall of Tripoli on Jan. 23, 1943, it came under Allied administration. In 1949, the UN voted that Libya should become independent, and in 1951 it became the United Kingdom of Libya. Oil was discovered in the impoverished country in 1958 and eventually transformed its economy.
Muammar al-Qaddafi Comes to Power and Militarizes Libya
On Sept. 1, 1969, 27-year-old Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi deposed the king and revolutionized the country, making it a pro-Arabic, anti-Western, Islamic republic with socialist leanings. It was also rabidly anti-Israeli. A notorious firebrand, Qaddafi aligned himself with dictators, such as Uganda's Idi Amin, and fostered anti-Western terrorism.
On Aug. 19, 1981, two U.S. Navy F-14s shot down two Soviet-made SU-22s of the Libyan air force that had attacked them in air space above the Gulf of Sidra. On March 24, 1986, U.S. and Libyan forces skirmished in the Gulf of Sidra, and two Libyan patrol boats were sunk. Qaddafi's troops also supported rebels in Chad but suffered major military reverses in 1987. A two-year-old U.S. covert policy to destabilize the Libyan government ended in failure in Dec. 1990.
On Dec. 21, 1988, a Boeing 747 exploded in flight over Lockerbie, Scotland, the result of a terrorist bomb, killing all 259 people aboard and 11 on the ground. This and other acts of terrorism, including the bombing of a Berlin discotheque in 1986 and the downing of a French UTA airliner in 1989 that killed 170, turned Libya into a pariah in the eyes of the West. Two Libyan intelligence agents were indicted in the Lockerbie bombing, but Qaddafi refused to hand them over, leading to UN-approved trade and air traffic embargoes in 1992. In 1999, Libya finally surrendered the two men, who were tried in the Netherlands in 2000–2001. One was found guilty of mass murder; the other defendant was found innocent. Libya had hoped its fainthearted cooperation would lead to suspended sanctions, which had severely affected the Libyan economy. The UN did suspend its sanctions, but they were not formally removed for another four years, not until Sept. 2003, when Libya finally admitted its guilt in the Lockerbie bombing and agreed to pay $2.7 billion to the victims' families. In 2004, Libya also agreed to compensate the families of the victims of the UTA airliner bombing ($170 million) and the Berlin disco bombing ($35 million).
Libya Changes Course on Weapons
After months of secret talks with the U.S. and Britain, Qaddafi surprised the world in Dec. 2003 by announcing he would give up the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and submit to full UN weapons inspections. After inspections at four secret sites, the International Atomic Energy Agency concluded that Libya's progress on a nuclear bomb had been in the very nascent stages. In May 2006, the U.S. announced it would restore full diplomatic relations with Libya after a 25-year hiatus.
In Dec. 2006, five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor working in Libya were sentenced to death after being convicted of infecting hundreds of Libyan children with AIDS. The evidence used to convict the medical workers is considered highly specious, and many believe that Libya is attempting to deflect the blame for the 1998 outbreak of AIDS in a Libyan hospital. In July 2007, Libya's Supreme Court upheld the death sentences. Days later, however, the country's High Judicial Council commuted the sentences. On the same day as the commutations, the government agreed to pay $1 million to the families of each of the 460 victims.
Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, the Libyan terrorist convicted of bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, was freed from prison on compassionate grounds by Scotland in August 2009. (He is suffering from terminal prostate cancer.) His return to a hero's welcome provoked outrage from victims' families, and the White House opposed this decision, stating that Megrahi should finish his sentence in Scotland.
Political Unrest in the Middle East Grips Libya
Anti-government demonstrations gripped several countries in the Middle East in early 2011, and protests in Libya followed those in Egypt, Tunisia, and Bahrain. The crackdown by the government in Libya, however, was the most vicious. The protesters took to the streets on Feb. 16 in Benghazi, the country's second-largest city, demanding that Qaddafi step down. The next day, declared the Day of Rage, saw the number of demonstrations burgeon throughout the country. Security forces began firing on protesters, and by Feb. 20 Human Rights Watch estimated that as many as 200 people had been killed by troops. Several government officials and diplomats defected, and members of the military joined the ranks of the opposition as the government attacks on civilians grew increasingly brutal. Some reports had fatalities numbering near 1,000 or more. Qaddafi refused to resign, but offered to double the salaries of public workers and freed some Islamic militants from jail. Protesters dismissed the move as a hollow gesture and continued their actions throughout the country. Qaddafi enlisted the help of mercenaries as the number of defections by troops swelled. He cast blame for the uprising on the West, which he claimed wants to assume control of Libya's oil, and Islamic radicals who want to expand their base.
On Feb. 27, the UN Security Council voted to impose sanctions on Qaddafi and several of his close advisers. The sanctions included an arms embargo on Libya, a travel ban on Qaddafi and other leaders, and the freezing of Qaddafi's assets. The Security Council also requested that the International Criminal Court investigate reports of "widespread and systemic attacks" on citizens. The UN sanctions followed unilateral action by the U.S., and the European Union also sanctioned Libya. By Feb. 28, rebels had taken control of Benghazi and Misurata and were closing in on Tripoli. The rebels organized a military and formed an executive committee, the Transitional National Council, illustrating that they could establish a transitional government if given the opportunity. The Libyan Air Force and security forces, however, attacked the rebels from both the air and the ground, weakening the rebellion and wresting control of rebel-held towns, including Zawiya and Zuwara, cities west of Tripoli, and Ajdabiya in the east. The rebels fought on, clinging to the rebel stronghold—and capital—of Benghazi, but Qaddafi's forces continued their march toward the city, attacking from both the ground and the air. The rebels, outnumbered, poorly armed, and inexperienced, seemed on the brink of defeat.
As the assault on rebel areas by Qaddafi's troops intensified, the Arab League turned to the international community for assistance. On March 17, the UN Security Council approved a resolution that authorized military action against Libya, including air strikes, missile attacks, and a no-fly zone, and two days later, Britain and France led a military action against Libya, launching attacks from the air and sea on Libya's air defenses. The U.S. participated in the action, but did not initiate it. Qaddafi railed against the intervention, calling it "a colonial crusader aggression that may ignite another large-scale crusader war." By March 21, the mission to implement a no-fly zone over Libya and cripple its air defenses was considered a success. In early April, two of Qaddafi's sons, Seif and Saadi, put forth a proposal in which their father would step down and allow the country to transition toward a constitutional democracy. The move would be managed by Seif. The rebels rejected the offer, and Qaddafi never fully endorsed the plan.
NATO took over control of the air strikes, which continued for weeks, and by May the rebels gained ground and momentum in cities in both the east and west of the country. Qaddafi refused to participate in talks mediated by South African president Jacob Zuma. In June, the International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants for Qaddafi, his son, Saif al-Islam, and his intelligence chief, Abdulla al-Senussi. They were charged crimes against humanity for the attacks on civilians in the first two weeks of the revolt.
In July, the U.S. and 30 other countries officially recognized the Transitional National Council (TNC) as Libya's government and gave the council access to the $30 billion in Libyan assests that had been frozen by the U.S. Later in the month, the council's military leader, Gen. Abdul Fattah Younes, was killed by fellow rebel soldiers. Younes, a former interior minister under Qaddafi, never gained the trust of the rebel movement and some questioned his loyalty.
In August 2011, rebel fighters opposing Qaddafi made progress on several fronts. They seized Zawiyah and gained control of the city's oil refinery. Zawiyah, a port city just 31 miles west of Tripoli, was a key gain. Rebel forces soon advanced into Tripoli and foreigners tried to flee the city. On August 21, with the rebels meeting little resistance from loyalists, residents in Tripoli took to the streets to celebrate the end of Qaddafi's 42 years in power. Two days later, rebels seized Qaddafi's compound. Qaddafi and his family fled and remained at large. Mustafa Abdul Jalil, the chairman of the TNC and Qaddafi's former justice minister, became the country's leader and the rebels began transferring their administration from Benghazi to Tripoli.
Qaddafi Is Killed in His Hometown
Rebels continued to make gains in loyalist strongholds throughout the country into the fall. By October, they had advanced on Surt, Qaddafi's hometown, and captured Bani Walid. The fight for Surt proved to be more challenging for the rebels, with loyalist forces fiercely committed to maintaining control of the city. Both sides suffered significant casualties. On October 20, 2011, the interim government of Libya announced that Qaddafi had been killed by rebel troops in Surt. Initial reports were unclear on the cause of death.
With Qaddafi dead, the interim government could turn its attention to rebuilding the country and setting the stage for elections. The role and influence of Islamists in government and day-to-day life were unknowns for the future of Libya. During the turmoil in Libya, the Islamists became a powerful force in the country. At the very least, they are poised to form a political party, and Islamist leaders signaled that they would participate in the democratic process. In addition, it remained unclear how the many rivalaries in the country—Islamists vs secularist, geographic, inter-tribe, and between the educated elite and tribal population—will affect the political climate in the country. At the same time, there was growing concern about the increased activity of militant groups.
Libya Holds First Post-Qaddafi Election
At the end of October 2011, the Transitional National Council elected Abdurrahim al-Keeb, an engineer and opponent of Qaddafi, as interim prime minister. In July 2012, Libyans voted in its first national election since Col. Muammar Qaddafi was ousted. The National Forces Alliance, a secular party led by Mahmoud Jibril, a Western-educated political scientist, prevailed over Islamist parties, including the Muslim Brotherhood, in the election to form a national congress. The win by the National Forces Alliance is a sign that Libya, unlike Egypt and Tunisia, is not trending toward Islamist rule. Turnout was over 60%, and international observers declared the election largely fair, despite reports of election-related violence. In August, the Transitional National Council handed power to the newly elected General National Congress, a 200-seat body. Mohammed Magarief, a longtime opposition leader and head of the National Front Party, was elected chairman of the Congress and thus Libya's head of state. In September, Mustafa Abu Shagur, deputy prime minister, prevailed over Jibril in the second round of voting by the Congress to become prime minister.
Four Americans Killed in a Terrorist Attack on U.S. Consulate
On Sept. 11, 2012, militants armed with anti-aircraft weapons and rocket-propelled grenades fired on the American consulate in Benghazi, killing U.S. ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three other embassy officials. Stevens was a widely praised diplomat and an advocate for the opposition in Libya, and had helped the new government in its transition to power. He was the first U.S. ambassador to be killed in the line of duty since 1979.
The attack coincided with protests at the U.S. embassy in Cairo over the release of a crude YouTube film, Innocence of Muslims, that insulted the Prophet Muhammad and criticized Islam. U.S. officials initially said the attack was also in response to the video, but later said they believed that the militant group Ansar al-Shariah orchestrated the attack. The Obama administration was criticized for the lack of security at the consulate that left diplomats vulnerable and for not immediately acknowledging it was a premeditated terrorist attack. During the 2012 U.S. presidential campaign, Republican nominee Mitt Romney repeatedly accused Obama of releasing misleading statements to downplay the role terrorists played in the attack. Susan Rice, U.S. ambassador to the UN, was also drawn into the controversy. After the presidential election Republicans in the U.S. Senate threatened to derail her potential nomination as secretary of state because, they claimed, in the days following the attack Rice said it was a spontaneous reaction to the release of Innocence of Muslims, rather than a terrorist attack. Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, defended Rice, saying she was relaying the notes she received from the CIA. However, Rice withdrew herself for consideration in December.
Clinton appointed an independent panel to investigate the attack, and in its highly critical report, the panel said the U.S. State Department failed to provide adequate security at the American Embassy in Tripoli and the consulate in Benghazi, overly relied on local militias for security, and did not fulfill requests for safety improvements at the compounds. It also cited "systemic failures and leadership and management deficiencies at senior levels." The report listed 29 recommended actions and improvements, and Clinton said she would act on all of them. Several State Department officials resigned after the release of the report.
The Libyan government condemned the attack and vowed to track down the perpetrators, though it proved too weak and ineffectual to do so. Indeed, the attack proved how little control the government has over the country's disparate militias, which act as the country's police yet operate independently of each other and the government. Ten days after the attack, several thousand Libyan citizens descended upon several militia headquarters and demanded that the government break up the groups. President Mohamed Magariaf rejected the demand—an acknowledgement of the important role the militias play in the country's security. In mid-October the Libyan government said Ansar al-Sharia leader Ahmed Abu Khattala organized the attack. However, it did not detain the suspect.
New Government Faces Challenges
In October 2012, the National Congress fired recently elected prime minister Mustafa Abushagur, citing its disapproval with the government he assembled. Ali Zeidan, a career diplomat who served under Qaddafi before going into exile, was then elected prime minister. Zeidan prevailed over an Islamist candidate. The political upheaval further illustrated the weakness of the fledgling government.
The New York Times reported in December that the Obama administration privately approved to transfer of weapons from Qatar to Libyan rebels in 2011, but later expressed concern that the arms ended up in the hands of Islamic militants. The concern gained urgency as the civil war intensified in Syria and the Obama administration mulled arming rebels in that country.
The National Congress passed a broad law in May 2013 that bans from taking public office anyone who served in a senior position under Qaddafi between 1969 and 2011. As written, the law threatens the standing of several current elected officials, including congress chairman Mohammed Magarief and Prime Minister Ali Zeidan. Secular opposition leader Mahmoud Jibril is also vulnerable under the new law. Magarief resigned weeks after the law passed, and his deputy, Giuma Attaiga, became acting chairman of the General National Congress. In June Congress elected Nouri Abusahmen as chairman. An independent member of Parliament, Abusahmen is a Berber, a minority group that suffered discrimination under Qaddafi.
By September 2013, Libya had deteriorated economically and politically. Oil production dropped from about 1.6 million barrels per day before the civil war to 150,000, costing the country about $5 billion in revenue from exports. Strikes were mainly responsible for the reduction. Prime Minister Zeidan came under fire for failing to stem tribal fighting. In addition, the government lacked a reliable armed force, making Zeidan dependent on militias for security. These militias exploited the situation for their own gain. The country's top cleric, Mufti al-Sadiq al-Ghiryani, called on Zeidan to resign.
Top al-Qaeda Operative Captured
U.S. commandoes captured Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, a high-ranking al-Qaeda operative who is known as Abu Anas al-Libi, in Tripol in early October 2013. He was indicted in New York in 2000 for helping to plan the 1998 bombings of the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. U.S. authorities had been pursuing Abu Anas for about 15 years. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said "the Libyan government was aware of the operation." However, Prime Minister Zeidan denied that he had any prior knowledge of the raid. Days after the abduction of Abu Anas, members of a militia that has served as a government security force kidnapped Zeidan, presumably in retaliation for allowing the U.S. operation. He was held for several hours before being released. The incident revealed the increasing fragility of the country.
Parliament Dismisses Prime Minister Over Theft of Oil; Battling Between Rival Militias Creates Instability
In July 2013, the Cyrenaica Political Bureau, a militia led by Ibrahim Jathran, began a blockade of Libya's major oil ports and demanded expanded autonomy for Cyrenaica, a province in eastern Libya, and a greater share in oil revenues. The government did little to end the blockade, despite the loss of oil revenue—the lifeblood of Libya's economy. In March 2014, the group loaded a tanker with 234,000 barrels of crude oil (valued at about $30 million) to sell on the black market. Prime minister Zeidan said the move was an act of piracy and threatened to blow up the ship. The militants, however, defied the threats and the tanker left the port. Parliament voted to dismiss Zeidan, citing his weakness and inability to control the militia. U.S. Navy SEALS raided the ship days later and captured three Libyans said by crew members to be hijackers. The ship was set to return to Libya. The raid was a major setback to Jathran's militia.
In May, former general Khalifa Heftar organized a group of anti-Islamist nationalists, calling it the Libyan National Army, and led a campaign against a coalition of Islamic militias, Libya Dawn, in eastern Libya that he said had thrown Libya into disarray. Fighting continued for several weeks, and Heftar gained the support of the country's military. Heftar served under Qaddafi but split from him in the 1980s. He also accused Prime Minister Maiteg of being under the sway of the Islamic militias.
Libya's transitional Parliament elected Ahmed Maitiq, a prominent businessman from Misurata, as prime minister in May 2014. The Supreme Court, however, ruled that the election was unconstitutional.
Parliamentary elections were held in late June 2014, and because the populace had largely lost confidence in government as militias continued to yield tremendous power, turnout and interest in the race were low. In light of the violence between rival militias in Tripoli, Parliament convened in the eastern city of Tobruk, which is controlled by Heftar. However, many of the Islamist MPs refused to attend. Members of the former Parliament, which is the preferred body of the Islamists, said they would meet in Tripoli, further complicating the political landscape.
Violence between Libya Dawn and Heftar's fighters intensified in Tripoli during the summer of 2014. In July, they battled for control of the city's international airport, and the barrage of shelling threatened the U.S. embassy, forcing the U.S. to evacuate embassy staff. Most other nations also withdrew their embassy personnel. After a month of fighting, Libya Dawn won control of the airport, and Heftar's troops fled Tripoli. Egypt and the United Arab Emirates launched airstrikes on the Islamic militias in Tripoli several times in late August. Neither nation informed the U.S. about the attacks, and U.S. officials were reportedly irate that they were kept in the dark. The ongoing violence illustrated that any hope of stability in Libya was quickly fading, and the threat of civil war loomed. In early September, the government acknowledged that the Islamists controlled government ministries in Tripoli.
U.S. Catches Suspect in Consulate Attack
U.S. special operations troops captured Ahmed Abu Khattala in a secret raid in Benghazi on June 15, 2014. He is believed to be the mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. consulate that killed four Americans, including U.S. ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens. In July 2014, the U.S. Attorney in the District of Columbia charged Abu Khattala and several others with the felony counts of "killing a person in the course of an attack on a federal facility involving use of a firearm," providing "material support to terrorists resulting in a death," and possessing a firearm during a crime. He pleaded not guilty to the charges in July.
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