Canadian military intelligence officers predicted in 2011 that Libya could descend into a lengthy civil war if foreign countries provided assistance to rebels opposing the country’s dictator Muammar Gaddafi, according to documents obtained by the Ottawa Citizen.
The warning, made just days before several countries, including Canada, began their March 2011 bombing campaign against Gaddafi’s regime, has unfolded as predicted.
Libya has descended into chaos as rival tribes and militias continue to battle each other for control of the country.
Last week, Libyan Foreign Minister Mohamed Dayri warned that warring factions were pushing his country into a full-scale civil war. Italy has also raised concerns that Islamic extremists who now occupy parts of the country pose a threat to the region and Europe.
The Canadian government and military played key roles in overthrowing Gaddafi and highlighted those efforts as a significant victory both for Libya and Canadians.
At the time, then-foreign affairs minister John Baird reinforced Canada’s support for the rebel groups fighting Gaddafi, pointing out they had a well-developed plan that would transform the country into a democracy. “The one thing we can say categorically is that they couldn’t be any worse than Col. Gaddafi,” said Mr. Baird.
But when Gaddafi was overthrown in the fall of 2011, the various rebel groups refused to surrender their weapons and instead began fighting each other.
The uprising against Gaddafi began in February 2011. But it was NATO warplanes that destroyed large parts of Libya’s military and are now credited with allowing rag-tag militias and assorted armed groups to eventually seize control of the country.
Various nations began the military intervention in Libya on March 19, 2011. Canadian CF-18 fighter jets started their bombing runs on March 23.
Just days before, however, Canadian intelligence specialists sent a briefing report shared with senior officers. “There is the increasing possibility that the situation in Libya will transform into a long-term tribal/civil war,” they wrote in their March 15, 2011 assessment. “This is particularly probable if opposition forces received military assistance from foreign militaries.”
Some officers in the Canadian Forces tried to raise concerns early on in the war that removing Gaddafi would play into the hands of Islamic extremists, but military sources say those warnings went unheeded. Later, military members would privately joke about Canada’s CF-18s being part of “Al-Qaeda’s air force,” since their bombing runs helped to pave the way for rebel groups aligned with the terrorist group.
The Royal Canadian Air Force flew 10% of the missions during NATO’s campaign.
At the time of the Libyan uprising, U.S. Adm. James Stavridis, the NATO leader, acknowledged that some of the rebels benefiting from the air strikes could be linked to Islamic extremists. But he said that, overall, the opposition forces were made up of “responsible men and women.”
In September 2014, Prime Minister Stephen Harper defended Canada’s role in Libya, suggesting that neither it nor NATO can be held responsible for the chaos that has since engulfed that country. “One can quarrel with it or not quarrel with it, but the mission was we would provide air cover for those that were initially subject to Gaddafi’s attacks and ultimately became his overthrowers,” Mr. Harper explained shortly before meeting NATO leaders.
“The decision was made at the outset that we were not going to go into Libya (on the ground) per se. It was going to be up to the Libyans to then make the best of the situation.”
Gaddafi was considered a brutal dictator, but in later years he was embraced by Western leaders, who provided his forces with military training and weapons.
Analysts with the Department of National Defence also noted Gaddafi was a staunch ally of the West in the war against Al-Qaeda and Islamic extremism.
His efforts against Al-Qaeda-backed forces and his co-operation with the U.S. in providing information on terrorist networks were highlighted in a number of DND reports from 2002, 2003 and 2006 obtained by the Ottawa Citizen using the Access to Information law.
Gaddafi had his own reasons for helping the U.S. and Western nations in fighting Islamic extremists, since they also represented a threat to his own power.