I will never forget the unmitigated horror of watching as the United States openly switched sides in the 2011 "Arab Spring," abandoning allies in the war on terror (jihad) to support those same jihadist forces instead. There was precious little company in the press gallery on this one as US media, shouting slogans of "revolution" and "democracy," blindly failed to perceive or actually covered up the obvious truth: The US, with NATO, was now supporting the Other Side -- the same Other Side that had struck us in 9/11, killed and maimed our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and threatened Western liberty everywhere. It was in this crazy atmosphere, John Rosenthal's independent reporting from Europe provided essential information and context.
John's long-awaited book, The Jihadist Plot: The Untold Story of Al-Qaeda and the Libyan Rebellion, is now out from Encounter. It contains much new information on this shameful, perplexing, dangerous episode -- whose jarring reverberations, by the way, have yet to play out.
Here is our Q & A.
DW: Whose side is the United States on in Syria?
John Rosenthal: Objectively, we are on the same side as Jabhat al-Nusra in the Syrian conflict. The administration's listing of Jabhat al-Nusra as a terror organization changes nothing in this regard and amounts in fact to a kind of sleight of hand. It allows the administration to claim that it is supporting
the Syrian rebellion, but somehow not its "extremist" component. But this distinction is completely bogus. The response to the listing from other rebel brigades -- many of which hastened to express their solidarity with Jabhat al-Nusra -- makes this clear. Jabhat al-Nusra is part of the
mainstream of the Syrian rebellion. If it is extremist, then so is the rebellion as such.
DW: You explain in your book that in mid-2011, the US changed sides in the so-called war on
terror, which was originally mounted as a war against Al Qaeda; and, moreover,
that the US media missed this story. Could you state the case in brief?
JR: The US changed sides in the "war on terror" during the 2011 Libya conflict
and it did so in two senses. In the first place, it did so by virtue of
forming an alliance with some of the very same Islamic extremist forces that
it had been combating for the previous decade. As I show in the book, the
military backbone of the rebellion against Muammar al-Qaddafi was formed by
cadres of the so-called Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG). The LIFG was
listed as an al-Qaeda-linked terror organization by both the US government
and the UN Security Council. It was, in effect, the Libyan chapter of
al-Qaeda and had a long shared history with the al-Qaeda "mothership" of
Osama bin Laden. Several of the leaders of the rebellion had in fact been
previously detained by US authorities, either during the invasion of
Afghanistan or in subsequent covert counter-terror operations. In the Libyan
war, the US and its NATO allies were providing air support to troops led by
these very same people.
The second sense in which the US changed sides in the "war on terror"
concerns terror itself as a tactic. I know you are not a fan of the
expression "war on terror" and I agree, of course, that it is very
problematic. But, as I say in the book, the expression at least had the
advantage of making clear that the US abhorred terror as a tactic,
regardless of the ideological background of the groups employing this
tactic. But from the very first weeks of the Libyan rebellion -- well before
it was possible to know just who the rebels were -- there was already
abundant evidence that the rebels were employing terrorist tactics. This
evidence included videos documenting torture, the summary execution of
detainees, and at least one beheading -- a beheading that was particularly
horrific by virtue of the fact that it occurred in public in front of a
It would have previously been impossible to imagine the US making common
cause with groups that decapitate their perceived enemies. In the meanwhile,
in Syria, it has become the new normal, and apparently no one is shocked
anymore to hear about Syrian rebel forces that behead Syrian soldiers or
real or perceived supporters of Bashar al-Assad. During the Libyan war,
however, the media -- including both old and new media -- for the most part
simply ignored the evidence of rebel atrocities. What I heard at the time
was that it was not possible to "verify" the videos. But the fact is that
they made no effort to verify them. Moreover, media like CNN had no problem
broadcasting "unverified" videos that allegedly documented atrocities
committed by pro-Qaddafi forces. Those videos, by the way, almost surely
showed atrocities that were likewise committed by the rebels.
Similarly, at least until the rebellion triumphed, the American media either
ignored or hushed up the al-Qaeda connections of the rebel leadership. They
did so even though one rebel commander, Abdul-Hakim al-Hasadi, was happily
holding forth to European reporters about his jihadist past in Afghanistan
and his support for al-Qaeda in Iraq.
DW: Switching sides required other core trade-offs as well. One point you make that underscores the disavowal of Western values that took place in the Libya War concerns the leading role played by NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen. You called Rasmussen's role the greatest irony of the whole war. Could you elaborate?
JR: Before he was appointed as NATO Secretary General, Rasmussen was undoubtedly best known internationally for his role in the famous “Mohammed cartoon” controversy. The cartoons were, of course, first published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. At the time, Rasmussen was the Danish prime minister. When, in October 2005, representatives from several Muslim countries appealed to him to do something about the publication of the cartoons, he stated that he did not have the power to do anything about them and he did not want any such power. It must be said that not all Western leaders were as unequivocal in their defense of freedom of expression. Rasmussen and Denmark thus drew the wrath of radical Muslim clerics like none other Yusef al Qaradawi and the wrath of those Muslim masses that followed Qaradawi’s injunction to “rage” against the cartoons.
What most people do not know, however, is that the unrest that broke out in Libya in early 2011 had one of its main roots in just such a protest against the “Mohammed cartoons.” The protests that sparked the Libyan rebellion were called for February 17, 2011, which is why the rebellion is commonly known as the “February 17 Revolution.” But the 2011 protests were called to commemorate protests that occurred in Benghazi five years earlier, on February 17, 2006, and the object of the earlier protests was precisely the “Mohammed cartoons.” More specifically, the 2006 Benghazi protestors were enraged about a member of the Italian government, Roberto Calderoli, who had appeared on Italian public television wearing a t-shirt with a cartoon of Mohammed printed on it. If albeit made in more flamboyant fashion, Calderoli’s point was the same as Rasmussen’s: that freedom of expression is non-negotiable. Thousands of young men descended upon the Italian consulate in Benghazi, attempting to break into the building and setting it on fire. Eventually, the Libyan security forces at the consulate opened fire in order to protect the Italian diplomatic personnel inside. A reported eleven people were killed.
In 2011, Rasmussen as NATO chief would facilitate the triumph of a rebellion whose fundamental values are absolutely antithetical to the values that he defended in 2005 as Danish prime minister. At some level, I imagine he must know this. If no one else, his Italian colleagues will surely have told him about the background to the 2011 protests. It is really a remarkable case of an individual and his convictions being completely overwhelmed by the position he holds. Rasmussen is a kind of tragic figure.
DW: Who is Abu-Abdallah al-Sadiq?
JR: Abu-Abdallah al-Sadiq is the historical leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. He was a confidante of Osama bin Laden. Indeed, he is reported to have been with Bin Laden at Tora Bora in late December 2001, as American and allied forces laid siege to the al-Qaeda leader’s mountain hideout. The LIFG ran its own jihadist training camps in Afghanistan prior to the American invasion. In 2004, al-Sadiq was detained in a covert American counter-terror operation in southeast Asia. He was subsequently repatriated to Libya and turned over to the custody of the Libyan government. In 2010, he was amnestied by the Libyan government as part of a terrorist “rehabilitation” program. I suspect that the American government encouraged Libya to “rehabilitate” al-Sadiq and other imprisoned LIFG members. We know, in any case, that the American ambassador was present at a ceremony “celebrating” his release.
The international public finally got to know al-Sadiq about a year and a half later, in August 2011, though under a different name. “Al-Sadiq” was a nom de guerre. Now he was known as Abdul-Hakim Belhadj and he was the new military governor of Tripoli. Intensive NATO bombing had forced Muammar al-Qaddafi and forces loyal to him to abandon the Libyan capital and had allowed rebel forces to walk in and seize control of the city. Al-Sadiq/Belhadj was the leader of those rebel forces. Just seven years after detaining him, America and its NATO allies, in effect, conquered Tripoli on al-Sadiq’s behalf.
DW: What came as freshly shocking news to me was your chapter on the ties between the LIbyan Islamic Fighting Group and the Madrid Train Bombings (2004) -- and indeed to other landmark terror attacks of the past decade in Europe and North Africa.
You write: ... It has become common to read in the American press that the LIFG, despite its long history of closeness to al-Qaeda, was merely a patriotic organization dedicated to overturning the Qaddafi regime in Libya. By virtue of sheer mind-numbing repeition, the claim has perhaps lost some of its inherent implausibility in the eyes of the American public. Spaniards, on the other hand, will be less easily convinced. The numerous connections of the LIFG to the Madrid train plot make abundantly clear that the LIFG was heavily involved in global jihad."
Could you explain what you mean by this?
JR: Abdul-Hakim Belhadj himself had connections to Serhane ben Abdelmajid Fakhet, the leader of the terror cell that carried out the Madrid train bombings. Phone records obtained by Spanish investigators show that Fakhet contacted Belhadj about a month before the attacks. Belhadj has admitted to the contacts, but insists that their conversations were about unrelated “professional” matters. At around the same time, Fakhet also contacted another LIFG member and Belhadj associate in London – undoubtedly also for “professional” reasons. Fakhet was allegedly founding a “furniture business” at the time. The furniture story appears to have served as the cover for his terror contacts.
A LIFG operative by the name of Amer Azizi played a key role in assembling the Madrid terror cell. He is also, incidentally, known to have had contacts to the Hamburg cell that planned and executed the 9/11 attacks. Three weeks after the Madrid train bombings, Spanish police had tracked down Fakhet and other cell members to an apartment in a Madrid suburb. The cell members’ response to the police siege was to blow themselves up. Just minutes before detonating, however, Fakhet reportedly phoned yet another high-ranking LIFG member in London. Such behavior strongly suggests that the person on the other end of the line was Fakhet’s “emir.” These details have been widely reported in the Spanish press. There is nothing secret about them. But they have been almost completely ignored by the American media.
The fingerprints of the LIFG and its Moroccan counterpart, the Moroccan Islamic Fighting Group, are all over the Madrid train plot.
DW: Your book is such a (refreshing!) indictment of American media in particular for failing to have done a competent let aone good job in reporting Libya. Could you list your top three examples of stories the media missed; and, if you care to, could you speculate as to why you think this might be the case.
JR: Well, I’ll give you four, in chronological order, not necessarily in order of importance: firstly, at the very outset of the unrest, the evidence of the anti-Semitism of the Eastern Libyan opposition to Qaddafi. The so-called protestors were constantly drawing Stars of David on portraits of Qaddafi or on their own caricatures of him. Sometimes clever cropping managed to make these Stars of David disappear from the images that ran in the American media. But they quickly became too numerous to avoid. Nonetheless, even though they were themselves publishing photos in which the stars are clearly visible, almost no mainstream American media outlet showed any curiosity about them.
During the war, the biggest “missed” stories were two stories to which I’ve already alluded: the clear and massive evidence of rebel atrocities and the open admissions by rebel commander Abdul-Hakim al-Hasadi of his ties to al-Qaeda.
Since the war, by far the biggest “missed” story is the manifest sympathy of virtually all the Eastern Libyan militias for Ansar al-Sharia, the allegedly al-Qaeda-linked militia that has been widely accused of perpetrating the September 11 attack on the US mission in Benghazi. In fact, in the literal sense of the term, virtually all of the Eastern Libyan militias are “Ansar al-Sharia,” this is to say “supporters of the sharia.” This observation clearly applies, for instance, to Libya Shield, the Libyan-government-sponsored militia that supposedly came to the aid of American marines on the night of the attack. As I show in the book, Libya Shield flies the same black flags as Ansar al-Sharia – which is to say, the black flags of al-Qaeda – and is committed to precisely the same radical Islamic program as Ansar al-Sharia. Indeed, the two groups co-sponsored a huge “rally in support of the sharia” in Benghazi in June 2012.
By the way, I am not sure that it is correct to say that Ansar al-Sharia is “al-Qaeda-linked.” Such language is obsolete, since it presupposes the old, so to say, conspiratorial al-Qaeda – an al-Qaeda that in all likelihood barely exists anymore. It would be more correct to say that Ansar al-Sharia and the great bulk of the other Eastern Libyan militias are “al-Qaeda-inspired.” They are not “controlled” by al-Qaeda and they do not have to be. They share al-Qaeda’s ideology and methods.
As for the second part of your question, at least as concerns hot button international stories, the mainstream American “news” organizations are not news organizations. They are essentially purveyors of propaganda. Their coverage of the Libyan war was designed to legitimate the policy choices of the Obama administration and its European allies, i.e. to legitimate foreign intervention. Any facts – no matter how glaring – that were inconsistent with this purpose were ignored or suppressed. This is at least the case for the, so to say, “media of reference” like the New York Times or CNN. Once the latter have established the acceptable contours of any given story, the rest tend to fall in line. Unfortunately, this also holds for much of the so-called conservative media. Although in theory outside the mainstream, in my experience many conservative media are extremely diffident toward the mainstream media on factual matters.
DW: You make a strong case that on as many as three key fronts in Libya, "NATO partnered with rebel commanders who had previously collaborated with al Qaeda in Afghanistan and/or Iraq: al Hasadi on the Eastern front, Belhadj in Tripoli, and bin Hamid during the siege at Sirte." Do you think the implications of this have registered with any American or other Western lawmaker or politician in particular?
JR: No. As far as I know, none. I gather that the implications could well register with Rand Paul. But I don’t know if he knows about the evidence. I can tell you that the staff member of the House Oversight Committee who is directly responsible for the Benghazi hearings has been in touch with me and expressed interest in reading the book. I cannot tell you if he has, since I never heard back from him. If you could quote that same passage to Darrell Issa and ask him if he is aware of the facts and their implications, I would be very interested to know his response. My impression thus far is that even the Republicans in Congress do not want go to the root of the problem. The root of the problem is not inadequate security measures at the mission in Benghazi. The root of the problem is a NATO intervention in Libya that strengthened the hand of America’s enemies.
DW: Who do you think attacked the US compound in Benghazi on 9/11/12 and why. Second, what is your guess about the purpose of the US compound in Benghazi.
JR: Elements of virtually any and all of the Eastern Libyan militias could have been involved in the attack. This includes both the militia that was supposed to be guarding the compound, the February 17th Martyrs Brigade, and Libya Shield, the militia that escorted American marines to the supposedly secret “safe house” or annex where mission personnel had taken refuge. As it so happens, the “safe house” would become the target of a second attack after the marines arrived, which suggests that it was at this point that the attackers were tipped off about the location. I cannot say for sure who perpetrated the attacks. But I do know that the focus on just Ansar al-Sharia is mistaken and misleading. The supposedly “friendly” militias like Libya Shield and the February 17th Martyrs Brigade are no different than Ansar al-Sharia. As I say, in the literal sense of the expression, they are all “Ansar al-Sharia.”
By the way, I have come across statements from both brigades suggesting that there really were protests over an “anti-Islam film” on the night of the attacks and, moreover, that the brigades themselves sympathized with the grievances of the protestors. So, it is not impossible that there was an element of spontaneity in the attacks, after all. It has been generally assumed that the fact that heavy weaponry was used rules this out, since “protestors” generally do not go around with mortars and RPGs. But this is to misunderstand Benghazi. The militia members are armed to the teeth in any case; and, as the precedent of the 2006 Italian consulate attack shows, an “anti-Islam film” is just the sort of thing that would provoke violence in a city like Benghazi.
As to the second part of the question, I think we need to distinguish between the US diplomatic mission itself and the annex, which was reportedly being used by the CIA. I don’t know what exactly the CIA was up to. I have heard the rumors that it was coordinating Libyan weapons shipments to the rebels in Syria. But, frankly, I don’t believe that the Libyan militias would have wanted or needed American help in this regard. If this is indeed what the CIA was trying to do, it would likely have been seen as unwelcome meddling. As documented in the book, Wisam bin Hamid, the commander of Libya Shield, has pledged to protect Libya from “foreign machinations.” An operation of this nature could well have been regarded as just such a “machination.”
As for the diplomatic mission itself, it seems clear from unclassified documents that it was being maintained in order to cultivate contacts in the heartland of the anti-Qaddafi rebellion: most notably, contacts with the militias, which represent the real centers of power in Eastern Libya. We know, for instance, that American officials in Benghazi met with bin Hamid only two days before the attacks. During the rebellion, Stevens had served as America’s “special envoy” to the rebel leadership in Benghazi. On his fatal September 2012 visit, he was presumably still trying to promote friendly relations with the militias – to get them to “like us.” But for an American official, this would have been something like the diplomatic equivalent of trying to square the circle.
DW: Would you like to address the Boston Marathon Massacre?
JR: Gladly. According to the latest news reports, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has begun responding to interrogators and has told them that he and his brother were motivated by the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Needless to say, the sources for these reports are anonymous. One wonders if we will ever get to hear Tsarnaev speaking for himself. It makes about as much sense for him and his brother to have carried out a terrorist attack now because of the Iraq War as it would, say, for a supporter of the South to conduct an attack now because of the American Civil War. In fact, it makes less sense, because, as far as I know, the present American administration has not yet repudiated the Civil War.
If, however, we look as Tsarnaev’s own “VK page” – the Russian-language equivalent of a Facebook page – we see not Iraq or Afghanistan, but something else: Syria. The page features a long pro-rebellion propaganda clip on Syria. Apart from its Islamic theological trappings, the clip presents the Syrian conflict in exactly the same simple, one-sided terms as the Obama administration: just a matter of the Syrian regime slaughtering innocents. The clip, moreover, was posted by Tsarnaev on April 9th, i.e. only days before the bombings. So, clearly this is something that has been on his mind recently.
As you know, there are Chechen and/or Dagestani brigades that are taking part in the Syrian war on the side of the rebel forces. There is a horrifying video available of one such Russian-speaking brigade executing detainees, including by beheading, while waving a version of the al-Qaeda flag. If he had not carried out the Boston bombings with his brother, one could easily imagine the likes of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev joining the jihad against Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
So, what does this mean? It means that in Boston, we were attacked not by people that American policy opposes, not by our officially designated enemies, but rather by our allies, by people whom we support. The attack was not carried out by, say, Syrian or Iranian supporters of Bashar al-Assad, but rather by people who support the Syrian rebellion against Assad, just like the U.S. does.
This might seem very odd, and it is odd. But it is also in fact typical for the recent history of terrorist attacks against America and American interests. In Benghazi too, we were attacked not by our official enemies – say, by supporters of Muammar al-Qaddafi – but rather by elements of the very same Eastern Libyan jihadist forces that we helped to overthrow Qaddafi. The 2011 Frankfurt airport shooting displays the same pattern: the shooter, Arid Uka, was a young Kosovo Albanian. The Kosovo Albanians gained their independence from Serbia thanks essentially to American and NATO bombing. The shooter was not a Serb, even though it was the Serbs who were the targets of our bombs.
The most important example is undoubtedly the 9/11 attacks. The reputed “mastermind” of the attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, was a veteran of the Bosnian civil war. In the war, Sheikh Mohammed, like many other foreign jihadists, fought on the side of the Bosnian Muslim forces of Bosnian president Alija Izetbegović. This is, of course, the same side that we supported in the war. The victory of Izetbegovic’s forces and their foreign jihadist allies was essentially secured by American bombing. At least two of the “muscle hijackers” that participated in the 9/11 attacks are also known to have fought as foreign jihadists in Bosnia. The German-based 9/11 facilitator Ramzi Binalshibh is also reported to have been in Bosnia during the war.
One would think that this pattern might give officials in Washington or members of the media cause to pause. At least under certain administrations, America appears not to know who are its friends and who are its enemies.
DW: Yes, one would think. Thank you very much, John, for this wealth of information. You provide new and needed context for our confounding times.
Readers, for more of this vital reporting that our media fail to offer, The Jihadist Plot is available here.