The Islamist militants had planned these attacks on February 14, even prior to the outbreak of Benghazi’s protests, according to Ben Halim:
We had all agreed to set off from the mosques, which we coordinated with area residents. So on Friday [February 18], we went out immediately after prayers and headed for all security departments in the city. We took control of them. We were also joined by the police force and guards. That lasted for about four hours, then we headed for Al-Beyda where there was one of Qaddafi’s brigades called Al-Jareh. We managed to overpower them. After that we went to Benghazi—that’s where the real battle started.
Another key figure in Derna’s uprising was Abdul Hakim al-Hasadi. A LIFG member, he had evaded the Libyan government’s pursuit in the 1990s and ended up in Afghanistan at the time of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, then fled to Pakistan and later returned to Libya where he was arrested. The regime released him from prison in 2007, as part of reconciliation efforts by Qaddafi’s son Saif that eventually freed hundreds of LIFG militants who had renounced violence—temporarily, as it turned out. On February 16, 2011, according to a reporter who interviewed Hasadi soon afterwards, “…his military training kicked in. Over the course of the next two days, Hasadi helped protesters organize attacks on military facilities and other government buildings in town.” In a February 20 news report, a regime official noted that the Derna attacks were being led by Islamists who had fought for Al Qaeda before being arrested and then released from Libyan prison, and who were now calling themselves the Islamic Emirate of “Barqa,” the historic Muslim name for eastern Libya.
EVENTS AROUND Beida, a city larger than Derna and closer to Benghazi, also were crucial to the militants’ success. By February 16, hundreds of protesters in the city had attacked and set fire to police stations while shouting: “People want the end of the regime.” That evening, security forces responded forcefully, allegedly killing the first three civilian victims of the revolution, but the evidence instead implicates the militants in these deaths. As the mob of protesters grew, some police and soldiers defected to their side, enabling the militants the next day to launch armed attacks and overrun Beida’s internal security directorate, where on February 17 they obtained heavy weapons including 105mm anti-tank guns.
That night and the following day, February 18, the triumphant Beida militants transported their new weapons ten miles east to Shahat to attack the region’s al-Jareh army barracks. Since February 16, protesters at the barracks had been throwing petrol bombs and rocks, but they had been unable to penetrate the base. This changed when the Beida militants arrived with their heavy weapons and machine guns, supplemented by armed Islamists from nearby Derna. Inside the barracks, a deputy commander and some soldiers from the Hussein Juweifi battalion defected, providing the rebels with additional weapons and fighters. The militants used construction vehicles to knock holes in the perimeter wall to infiltrate, then engaged in a fierce firefight. During the battle, they captured and summarily executed at least fifteen dark-skinned soldiers, suspected as foreign mercenaries but who appear to have been Libyan dual-nationals.
The following day, February 19, the militants captured the Shahat barracks including armored vehicles and heavy weapons, then transported these three hours to Benghazi, decisively bolstering the attack on the Katiba. As the Associated Press reported:
A mob descended on a local army base on the outskirts of town and forced the soldiers to give up their weapons, including three small tanks. Truckers drove them into town and rammed those too into the Katiba’s walls. Days later, the burned hulks of the armored vehicles can still be seen, stuck halfway into the breaches they made.
A U.S. intelligence veteran, William C. Taylor, confirms that “protesters had also ransacked the local arms depot from the Hussein Juweifi battalion and were turning the depot’s machine guns at the al-Fadhil base” in Benghazi. Amnesty International too documented the escalation at the Katiba on February 19–20, observing that, “by then protesters in al-Bayda had overrun the Shahat military base and looted the weapons and munitions there.” In Benghazi, the Associated Press noted that the attack on the Katiba culminated on February 20, “joined by people from the eastern towns of Derna and Beida, who had liberated weapons from local security bases.”
In addition to armored vehicles, heavy weapons, petrol bombs, light weapons and bulldozers, the attackers’ arsenal that day included a suicide vehicle bomb. Earlier in the week, the Katiba’s troops had worried that funeral processions along the perimeter were a security threat, so the soldiers had forcefully dispersed them, sparking international condemnation. On February 20, however, the troops’ concerns were vindicated when a vehicle, loaded with propane tanks and explosives, diverged from a funeral parade and detonated at the Katiba’s gate, leaving a fiery breach that enabled the militants to enter, compelling the soldiers to retreat deeper inside the garrison.
Realizing the Katiba was crucial for control of eastern Libya, Qaddafi ordered his interior minister, Abdel Fattah Younes, to lead a special forces battalion to reinforce the garrison on the afternoon of February 20. Upon arriving, however, Younes realized the tide already had turned in favor of the attackers. As other Libyan officers had done in preceding days at installations across the east, he chose to defect rather than fight a deadly and potentially losing battle against the now well-armed rebels, to whom he instead surrendered the Katiba. The next day, February 21, militants seized four eastern air bases: Abraq near Shahat, Benina near Benghazi, Adem near Tobruk and Bombah near Derna. Thus, in just one week, the rebels had conquered the entire eastern coast of the country, setting the stage for a full-blown civil war. At the time, Qaddafi was ridiculed for asserting that the rebellion was an Islamist plot, but in retrospect the evidence vindicates him.
Other regions of Libya during that same week also suffered unrest, including protests and the setting of fires at government buildings. However, unlike in the east, these actions were neither led by Al Qaeda veterans nor highly militarized, so Qaddafi was able to suppress them by early March—two weeks before the UN intervened. Thus, if not for the Al Qaeda element in eastern Libya, it is unlikely that the revolution would have provoked sufficient violence to trigger intervention.
THE HIDDEN Al Qaeda roots of Libya’s revolution highlight several important lessons. First, media reporting about emerging crises can be dangerously inaccurate. One reason is that journalists tend to gravitate to big cities—in this case, Benghazi, where the biggest protests initially were peaceful—and thus overlook key events in the hinterlands such as the Islamist rebellion. Massive nonviolent demonstrations also offer great visuals that tend to dominate international news coverage even when they are not actually driving events on the ground. In addition, some journalists love David vs. Goliath stories so much that they may be blinded to the reality of Goliath vs. Goliath. Another problem is that Western reporters in authoritarian countries tend to sympathize with and become dependent on local dissidents, who may then feed them disinformation. The upshot is that consumers of news—especially policymakers—need to carefully vet media claims before responding with action as monumental as military intervention.
The senior U.S. officials who advocated for intervention—in particular, White House special assistant Samantha Power, UN Ambassador Susan Rice, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama—appear to have suffered from two major misperceptions. They did not realize that Libya’s rebellion was led by Islamist militants, and they believed that Qaddafi’s forces were targeting innocent civilians. These fundamental errors had two conceivable causes. One possibility is that the U.S. intelligence community misunderstood what was happening, perhaps being misled by rebel propaganda, and thus provided bad guidance to policymakers. The alternative explanation is that U.S. spy agencies got it right, but administration officials instead relied on press accounts because they failed to read or distrusted the intelligence reports. In either case, an inspector general needs to pinpoint the cause of this massive policy failure, so that steps can be taken to avoid any repetition.
Another uncomfortable lesson for Western liberals is that two of their policy prescriptions for Libya backfired by facilitating Al Qaeda’s rebellion. First, Qaddafi pursued political reconciliation with Islamists by releasing hundreds of prisoners—but they reciprocated by overthrowing and killing him. Second, in early 2011, Qaddafi refrained from robust retaliation against the armed uprising to avoid harming civilians, but this gifted the insurgents momentum and encouraged other Libyans to join in, helping them quickly conquer the east. Had Qaddafi instead ignored liberal counsel by keeping most jihadis locked behind bars and brutally attacking the rest, the Al Qaeda insurgency might never have gotten off the ground.