The Secret War Against Libya
Editors note: This historical research article originally appeared in 2002 at MediaLens.org. Also see Peter Dale Scott's work Who are the Libyan Freedom Fighters and Their Patrons? which draws in part from this article.
Masses of information from the media constantly bombard us. Yet paradoxically often what is most significant goes unreported. Take for instance Tony Blair's recent visit to Africa. Suddenly countries such as Sierra Leone, Nigeria, and Ghana come under the spotlight. But one country which forever remains off the UK/US media map is Chad, lying just to the south of Libya and "over three times the size of California", according to the CIA's official website.
Formerly part of French Equatorial Africa, it gained independence in 1960 and since then has been gripped by civil war. In a rare case of coverage, on May 21 1992, the Guardian carried four short paragraphs: 40,000 people were estimated to have died in detention or been executed during the tyranny of Chadian president Hissene Habre (1982-1990). A report of the justice ministry committee concluded that Habre had committed genocide against the Chadian people.
Unreported in Britain, two years ago, in a case inspired by the one against General Pinochet of Chile, several human rights organisations, led by Human Rights Watch, filed a suit against Habre in Senegal (his refuge since 1990) arguing that he could be tried anywhere for crimes against humanity and that former heads of state were not immune.
However, on 20 March 2001, the Senegal Court of Cassation threw out the case. Human rights groups are now aiming to secure an arrest warrant and extradition request from Belgium (where one of the victims of Habre's torture now lives) and put him on trial there.
So behind the wall of silence, what precisely has been going on in Chad? In fact, the US and UK have been conducting over the last three decades a massive, secret war against Libya - often using Chad as its base. UK involvement in a 1996 plot to assassinate the Libya leader, President Col Mu'ammar Gadafi, as currently alleged by the maverick M15 officer David Shayler, has been reported as an isolated event. Yet the 1996 plot is best seen as part of a wide-ranging and long-standing strategy by the US/UK secret states to dislodge Gadafi.
Seizing power in Libya by ousting King Idris in a 1969 coup, Gadafi (who intriguingly had undertaken a military training course in England in 1966) quickly became the target of massive covert operations by the French, US, Israeli and British. Stephen Dorril, in his recently published book on MI6, records how in 1971 a British plan to invade the country, release political prisoners and restore the monarchy ended in a complete flop. In 1980, the head of the French secret service, Col Alain de Gaigneronde de Marolles, resigned after a French-led plan ended in disaster when a rebellion by Libyan troops in Tobruk was rapidly suppressed.
Then in 1982, away from the glare of the media, Hissene Habre, with the backing of the CIA and French troops, overthrew the Chadian government of Goukouni Wedeye. Human Rights Watch records: "Under President Reagan, the United States gave covert CIA paramilitary support to help install Habre in order, according to secretary of state Alexander Haig, to 'bloody Gadafi's nose'." Bob Woodward, in his semi-official history of the CIA reveals that the Chad covert operation was the first undertaken by the new CIA chief William Casey and that throughout the decade Libya ranked almost as high as the Soviet Union as the "bÍte noir" of the administration.
A recent report from Amnesty, Chad: The Habre Legacy, records massive military and financial support for Habre by the US Congress. It adds: "None of the documents presented to Congress and consulted by Amnesty International covering the period 1984 to 1989 make any reference to human rights violations."
US official records indicate that funding for the Chad-based secret war against Libya also came from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco, Israel and Iraq. The Saudis, for instance, donated $7m to an opposition group, the National Front for the Salvation of Libya (also backed by French intelligence and the CIA). But a plan to assassinate Gadafi and take over the government on 8 May 1984 was crushed. In the following year, the US asked Egypt to invade Libya and overthrow Gadafi but President Mubarak refused. By the end of 1985, the Washington Post had exposed the plan after congressional leaders opposing it wrote in protest to President Reagan.
Frustrated in their covert attempt to topple Gadafi, the US government's strategy suddenly shifted. For 11 minutes in the early morning of 14 April 1986, 30 US Air Force and Navy bombers struck Tripoli and Benghazi in a raid code-named El Dorado Canyon.
Backing Reagan came the ecstatic response of the major media in both the US and UK. Yet the main purpose of the raid was to kill the Libyan president. Middle East specialist David Yallop reported: "Nine of 18 F111s that left from the UK were specifically briefed to bomb Gadafi's residence inside the barracks where he was living with his family." In the event, the first bomb to drop on Tripoli hit Gadafi's home. Hana, his adopted daughter aged 15 months, was killed while his eight other children and wife Safiya were all hospitalised, some with serious injuries. The president escaped.
Following the April 1986 attack, reports of US military action against Libya disappeared from the media. But away from the media glare, the CIA launched by far its most extensive effort yet to spark an anti-Gadafi coup. A secret army was recruited from among the many Libyans captured in border battles with Chad during the 1980s. And, as concern grew in MI6 over Gadafi's alleged plans to develop chemical weapons, Britain funded various opposition groups in Libya including the London-based Libyan National Movement.
Then in 1990, with the crisis in the Gulf developing, French troops helped oust Habre and install Idriss Deby as the new president in a secret operation. The French government had tired of Habre's genocidal policies while the Bush administration decided not to frustrate France's objectives in exchange for their co-operation in the war against Iraq. Yet even under Deby the abuses of civil rights by government forces have continued.
David Shaylerís original allegations over the anti-Gadafi assassination plot were vigorously denied by the government. But within the broad historical context outlined here, they do, indeed, make sense.
Dr. Richard Keeble is director of undergraduate studies at City University's department of journalism and the author of Secret State, Silent Press (John Libbey) and Ethics for Journalists (Routledge)