Show of Power by Libya Militia in Kidnapping
By Carlotta Gall
The New York Times
Libya’s prime minister, Ali Zeidan, was hauled from his bed at 2:30 a.m. Thursday by a group of militiamen who stormed into the luxury hotel where he lives in downtown Tripoli, a kidnapping that would be extraordinary by almost any standard.
But this was Libya, where militias have unrivaled authority.
A few days earlier, a group of armed men barged into Mr. Zeidan’s office to demand back pay. They refused to leave for hours and ransacked an office when they did leave. Other militias have hampered production of oil, shut down the water running to the capital, forced power cuts, and participated in gunrunning and drug trafficking — all with impunity.
Two years after the fall of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, the long-reigning dictator, an air of revolution still hangs over the streets of the nation’s capital, Tripoli, as a weak state struggles to build any sense of national unity, let alone control the unruly, heavily armed militias. It initially seemed that the gunmen may have grabbed the prime minister because they were angry over Washington’s claim that his government approved a commando raid to capture a Libyan citizen suspected of links to Al Qaeda and terrorist attacks.
But these same militiamen had been pressing the government for the prime minister’s resignation, and thus many in Tripoli believe the commando raid was simply a pretense. When he was freed unharmed a short time later, Mr. Zeidan demonstrated just how vulnerable the central government is, thanking the “true revolutionaries” who worked for his release and appealing to armed groups to help build the state.
“I hope that they would be a part of the state, and have an effective role through its civil and military institutions,” he said in a televised speech. “I hope that we deal with this situation wisely, using our brains, away from worries and magnifying the situation, and we try to mend what we can.”
All across Tripoli, militia members fill the gap left by a weak central government. The men guarding government buildings and the main intersections still wear a variety of American military fatigues and are stationed at antiaircraft guns mounted on the backs of pickup trucks. Graffiti from the moment of liberation is still scrawled on walls and buildings. “Game over Gaddafi,” one reads in English.
Weapons from Colonel Qaddafi’s enormous arsenals are now in private hands. Every household has a gun. There are about 200,000 armed militiamen in the country, all on the government payroll, yet many are loyal only to their own commanders, not the central government.
Formed during and after the uprising against Colonel Qaddafi, Libya’s militias have evolved into a patchwork of often competing regional and political allegiances. They reflect two emerging political blocs: one drawn from prominent families from the western region around Tripoli, based in the Nafusah Mountains town of Zintan, and the other in the bustling midcoast city of Misurata, known for its strong revolutionary record.
Militias from the two regions clashed in Tripoli during Ramadan in what residents said was a grab for government property. Zintan militias have refused to turn over to the central authorities a son of Colonel Qaddafi, Seif al-Islam, and temporarily shut down the oil pipeline that flows from Libya’s southern oil fields to the port of Zuwarah to press demands with the central government.
In eastern Libya, around Benghazi, the birthplace of the uprising, some of the largest militias are loosely or explicitly Islamist, and they often clash with former Qaddafi army units that defected in the revolt. Other militias push for a greater degree of autonomy from the capital.
Libya’s tribes have also emerged as powerful, and disruptive, players. When a militia in Tripoli kidnapped the daughter of Colonel Qaddafi’s former intelligence chief after she visited her father in prison, the chief’s powerful tribe in the south retaliated swiftly by cutting the water to the capital for a week, an extraordinary burden for residents in the desert heat of late summer.
The government has tried to bind these disparate and competing forces into the ranks of the national army and police, placing them on the government payroll and ordering regional militias to leave the capital. Those moves have only been half successful. Many Libyans criticize the government for paying the militiamen in the first place, since it has caused thousands more men to join the militias.
“They turned what should be a national contribution into a job,” said Mustafa Almanen, a member of Libya’s first governing body, the Transitional National Council. The original forces that fought against Colonel Qaddafi numbered around 20,000. The original revolutionaries complain that many of the militiamen are former Qaddafi loyalists seeking protection by pretending to be revolutionaries.
One group that initially claimed responsibility for abducting the prime minister is called the Joint Operations Room of Libya’s Revolutionaries. According to one legislator it was formed just a few days ago by the speaker of the General National Congress, Nuri Abusahmen, who sat beside the prime minister as he spoke on Thursday.
Officials said that around 2:30 a.m., about 100 members of the militia stormed the hotel that functions as a residence and office space for the government. They marched Mr. Zeidan out of the hotel without his glasses, in his night shirt, and without any resistance from the security.
Habib al-Amin, the culture minister, said he had feared that the militiamen wanted to seize all the ministers who live in the same hotel. “We know the group responsible, and we are in communication with them,” he said on the sidelines of a news conference to discuss the abduction.
Only at midday were the gunmen persuaded to free the prime minister. One of the main negotiators who helped secure his release was the influential deputy defense minister, Khalid Sharif, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan and leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, the Islamist group that fought Colonel Qaddafi’s government. Mr. Sharif was detained by the United States after Sept. 11, 2001, on suspicion of having links to Al Qaeda.
“We cannot be compared to other countries where they had strong institutions of army and police. In Libya we did not have institutions,” said the deputy foreign minister, Wafa Bughaighis. “Qaddafi was known to protect himself and his own people by brigades, and his main concern was always just getting rid of anyone who opposed him. Very strong security ties, but we did not have national army or national police. Everything was set to protect him, to keep him staying in power as long as possible.”
“After the war, we found ourselves in front of a reality: no administration, no institutions, no capability to run a state, and it’s not easy to run a huge state like Libya, with endless borders, with tremendous landscape,” she said. “It was not only a revolution but a war. And that was not easy. And you do not expect a country to be well just overnight, or over a year or so, not a country that has been devastated and deprived of civility for 42 years.”
Yet local leaders suggest the problem is more political than a matter of too many gunmen. The prime minister’s abduction was part of a political power play, partly because of accusations that he approved the commando operation to capture a Qaeda suspect, Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, known as Abu Anas al-Libi, but also because of his moves to disarm and control the militias.
Some of the revolutionary brigades have resisted being disbanded and absorbed into the army and the police. Others are voicing complaints of the lack of regional development and unfair distribution of Libya’s resources.
“They are somehow partly right when they say we are being treated as the problem, but we should be part of the solution,” said Tarek Mitri, the United Nations special representative in Libya.