In the intervening years, Gadhafi systematically stripped the country of its ability to self govern, installing a cult of personality where his mercurial political predilections prevailed.
In short, he was creating a state ready to fail as soon as he did.
I clearly remember being in the luxurious Rixos hotel in Tripoli, as NATO bombs were falling outside, when one of Gadhafi’s trusted lieutenants told me “you will see,” no one but Gadhafi can keep this country together. “You in the West think this is easy but when he is gone you will understand.”
He told me this without rancor, without grimace or smile. He spoke as someone who knows what they’re talking about because they’ve done it. He had the precise certainty that comes from spending years experiencing Libya’s equally mercurial and endlessly scheming tribes.
Libya has more than a 100 tribes — with some spreading across the country’s borders with Egypt and Tunisia — but only a few of them hold sway politically.
Libya’s chaos, explained in five graphics
Today his words haunt me. If there was ever a vision shared by former British Prime Minster Cameron and former French President Nicolas Sarkozy as they rushed NATO towards airstrikes over Libya, then it evaporated long ago.
Libya in chaos
Libya is in a mess. Three governments vie for power, multiple tribes compete for influence and a slice of the country’s dwindling oil wealth, and ISIS managed to take a foothold in the city of Sirte — Gadhafi’s home town.
Like the Roman emperor Septimius Severus who diverted the treasure of his empire to build up his home town — the splendid coastal city of Leptis Magna — Gadhafi did the same in his own home hamlet, lavishing it with hospitals, homes, highways, and even conference centers. His fall bred a lot of resentment there, which ISIS perhaps exploited.
Today, Sirte is under siege by western-backed local militias trying to drive out thousands of ISIS fighters, who moved in a little over a year ago.
ISIS saw the chaos in Libya as ripe for exploitation and ideal for an expansion of their barbaric cult. Al Qaeda tried to seize the same opportunity several years earlier.
Their leader Ayman al Zawahiri sent trusted lieutenants there to establish a base.
Recent reports from sources in Sirte suggest ISIS is regrouping for another phase of the fight to defend its position in the city.
Some fighters loyal to ISIS have dispersed across the country, while others have sent their families to live with local tribes. The influential Warfalla tribe, upon whom Gadhafi relied to prop up his leadership, are believed to have taken in some with ISIS links.
These are roots Libya and the West can ill afford to see grow.
From an urgency to see stability and stop ISIS’ growth in Libya, the United Nations hastened in a Government of National Accord (GNA) earlier this year.
The idea being that once established, the GNA as a sovereign government could call on allies to help it tackle ISIS. But from the moment the GNA’s leadership arrived in Tripoli in March by boat from Tunisia, they have struggled to gain legitimacy.
They compete with the Islamist-dominated General National Congress (GNC) — also known as the Government of National Salvation — under Prime Minister Khalifa Ghwell.
In 2014, the GNC ousted the previous internationally recognized government — the Council of Deputies — that has since set up camp in the east of Libya, adding weight to fears the country could split along old regional lines — east, west and south.
The latest setback to international plans came only last week when the GNA was surrounded by elements of the GNC, a coup of sorts, but in essence nothing more than a reset of the equilibrium back in favor of Islamist militias. On top of this ISIS is proving more resilient in Sirte than many imagined.
Libya may haunt Clinton
The chaos after Gadhafi’s fall has also had implications for US Presidential candidate Hilary Clinton, who served as Secretary of State during this time. In 2012, a US diplomatic compound in Benghazi was attacked, killing US ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
The White House initially described it as a spontaneous response to an American-made video mocking Islam, rather than a pre-planned terror attack by militants. To make matters worse, critics questioned whether the State Department had provided adequate security at the outposts in strife-torn city.
The incident also showed how difficult the situation on the ground was for foreign powers to navigate — not least because of the clashing factions and difficulty in knowing who to trust.
During the course of an investigation into the attack, it was also discovered that Clinton had used a private email server to conduct official business while running the State Department — though she says she “never sent or received” classified information.
In any analysis of Libya, the killing of Stephens and Clinton’s subsequent emails has its biggest impact in making the world’s super power more cautious and less likely to engage where it’s heft in finding a solution is critical.
Oil to the rescue?
Libya’s ultimate salvation lies in its oil. This could fund the rebuilding of the country and spread the wealth wide enough so that enough competing factions can come together to impose a peace.
In recent weeks, oil output has doubled from 250,000 barrels per day to 500,000 thousand — far short of the Gadhafi-era production levels in excess of 1 million barrels.
But while this may look the kind of forward momentum many in the West wish to see, it masks significant complications in Libya’s spiraling conflict.
The boost in oil sales came off the back of a military offensive by the de facto defense chief of the former internationally recognized government, General Khalifa Haftar.
He took control of key oil facilities in the east. To the West’s surprise, Libya’s National Oil Corporation chief stationed in Tripoli allowed Haftar and his allies to sell the oil.
The move makes a mockery of the UN-backed GNA’s ability to lead the country, put it under their control and own the oil. Haftar had refused to back the GNA and in this development has outmaneuvered them and put further question marks against their legitimacy.
So while the oil news looks good for now, the country has many more hurdles to clear, not least the need to address the competing regional interests. Haftar’s explosive territorial expansion in the east did not come out of a vacuum.
Haftar is widely understood to have neighboring Egypt’s backing, not just because they want strategic depth — read influence — in Eastern Libya, they also abhor the Muslim Brotherhood and their Islamist allies who hold sway in Tripoli. In 2011, Qatar threw its support behind the Islamists. A tussle of interests that has yet to be resolved.
Yes, those words uttered to me by Gadhafi’s envoy in the Rixos five years ago still resonate deeply.