On Thursday, Oct. 10, Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan was kidnapped and then released. I've visited Benghazi and Tripoli several times during the past few months and had the opportunity to meet and listen to the vision of Libyan patriots like Zeidan and Mahmoud Jibril, leader of the National Forces Alliance who won the largest number of seats in the Libyan parliament. Out of the 39 seats won by Jibril’s alliance, 24 went to women and one to a talented writer who was also blind. On meeting this group, I was taken by their spirit, determination and sophistication.
In my view, Zeidan and Jibril are liberal, subscribing to an authentic brand of liberalism that characterizes Arab countries — one that is at ease with religion and warms up to principles of social justice. When I was last in Libya, the Muslim Brotherhood was trying to ratify legislation that would in effect end the political careers of both men. So, when Zeidan was kidnapped, I was appalled, but not surprised. It was not the Muslim Brotherhood who kidnapped Zeidan, but could a “good terrorist, bad terrorist” strategy be at play here?
Though Zeidan assumed the position of prime minister of the post-Moammar Gadhafi state, there was no state left to speak of. The civil war had left the Libyan state a fading memory. According to Max Weber, the state is that entity which "upholds the claim to the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force in the enforcement of its order." Power of the state comes from this simple idea. Until individuals and groups agree to empower and submit to the authority of a central government and lay down their weapons, power continues to be loosely fragmented amongst revolutionary brigades, which were armed by NATO to bring down Gadhafi’s regime. Collectively, these groups form a “parallel state,” challenging, defying and even aborting the prospects of the emergence of a unified Libyan state.
Not that Gadhafi was the model statesman. But near the end, Gadhafi, once the guardian angel of assassins and terrorist organizations, including the IRA, ETA and Red Brigades, succeeded in having Libya removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, even having it become an important partner in the war against terror. On the other hand, the early years of Gadhafi’s reign saw remarkable improvements in basic education, health care and other public services, thus positively impacting the lives of Libyans. But under his reign, Libya gradually became a state characterized by a corrupt government and a disintegrating administration, which was further hammered out by the civil war. Absence of political parties meant that the only organized forces were the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist organizations. It was these Islamist organizations that allegedly attacked the US consulate and killed the American ambassador in Benghazi.
A few days before Zeidan’s kidnapping, the United States sent its troops to abduct Abu Anas al-Libi from his home in Libya, supposedly a US ally, to stand trial for his role in bombing the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. Further, US Secretary of State John Kerry cornered the Libyan government, saying that they knew of the operation. Jihadists in Libya reacted with outrage. Unable or unwilling to take direct revenge against the United States itself, they turned their anger toward their own state, kidnapping Zeidan. The rebel group that kidnapped Zeidan, the Libyan Revolutionary Operations Chamber, had been hired by the government to provide security in Tripoli. It said it "arrested" Zeidan after Kerry said Libya had a role in the weekend capture of Libi. The government denied that an arrest warrant was issued. Zeidan was later freed, not by his police or anti-terror squad, but by other militias who negotiated his release.
When the United States went into Iraq, it disbanded the Iraqi army. This, in my view, was a huge strategic mistake because it undermined the Iraqi state, not Saddam Hussein’s regime, which was already finished. This led to various militant groups taking on its role, ending the existence of a single entity that has a monopoly on violence. By abducting Libi, the United States has invited chaos in Libya: It undermined the Libyan government and showed little respect for its authority. It sent a message to terrorist organizations in Libya: If you are strong enough, you do not have to abide by the law. It also gave them an excuse to maintain their arms since their government is unable to protect its citizens, or even worse, is an accomplice to a foreign government’s abduction of a Libyan citizen on Libyan soil.
Libya’s militias have been using their military capacity to blackmail the government and achieve political gains. They have forced the shutdown of oil production facilities, executive appointments and certain legislation. Many of the revolutionary brigades controlling Libya now are jihadist, including Libya’s own homegrown al-Qaeda affiliate, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, of which Libi was a member. By empowering these organizations, another Islamist organization is set to benefit from the disarray in Libya: the Muslim Brotherhood.
The United States and the European Union should encourage these militias, which NATO helped arm, to submit to the authority of the interim central government and even merge with the state army and police. It should cooperate with established armies in neighboring countries, such as Egypt and Tunisia, to collectively support Libya in building a military that is capable, disciplined and possesses a sole allegiance to the state, not any tribe or movement.
To observers confused by US foreign policy in the region, the scene looks like this: The United States supports Islamists in Egypt, arms them in Syria, besieges them in Gaza, abducts them in Libya, fights them in Somalia and Mali and kills them in Afghanistan, where it had once supported and armed them. This pretty much describes the life cycle of the relationship between the United States and Islamist terrorist movements.
Instead, the United States should develop a more consistent approach in dealing with Islamist militant organizations worldwide. These movements are global in thinking and logistics, and it makes little sense to arm or support one group in one country while fighting it in another. Arming Islamist groups to topple a corrupt regime is like treating burns with sulfuric acid. Supporting the good terrorist out of a hope that this will reign in the bad terrorist will not work since all of these groups have far more in common with one another than with the rest of us. The events in Egypt and Tunisia have shown that populations in the home countries of these movements are dismissing them. It makes little sense for the United States to give them political cover or unwitting support.
Wael Nawara is an Egyptian writer, activist and columnist for Al-Monitor's Egypt Pulse. He is also the co-founder of the Al Dostor Party, the National Association for Change and El Ghad Party. Formerly president of the Arab Alliance for Freedom and Democracy, he was a visiting fellow at the Institute of Politics, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. On Twitter: @WaelNawara