At least seven people are killed and more than 20 injured as a bomb explosion rips through a bus which picked up Israeli tourists at a Bulgarian airport.
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At least seven people are killed and more than 20 injured as a bomb explosion rips through a bus which picked up Israeli tourists at a Bulgarian airport.
Fact-Check: How the NYPD Overstated Its Counterterrorism Record
by Justin Elliott ProPublica,
The NYPD is regularly held up as one of the most sophisticated and significant counterterrorism operations in the country. As evidence of the NYPD’s excellence, the department, its allies and the media have repeatedly said the department has thwarted or helped thwart 14 terrorist plots against New York since Sept 11.
In a glowing profile of Commissioner Ray Kelly published in Newsweek last month, for example, journalist Christopher Dickey wrote of the commissioner’s tenure since taking office in 2002: The record “is hard to argue with: at least 14 full-blown terrorist attacks have been prevented or failed on Kelly’s watch.”
The figure has been cited repeatedly in the media, by New York congressmen, and by Kelly himself. The NYPD itself has published the full list, saying terrorists have “attempted to kill New Yorkers in 14 different plots.”
As Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in March: “We have the best police department in the world and I think they show that every single day and we have stopped 14 attacks since 9/11 fortunately without anybody dying.”
Is it true?
In a word, no.
A review of the list shows a much more complicated reality — that the 14 figure overstates both the number of serious, developed terrorist plots against New York and exaggerates the NYPD’s role in stopping attacks.
The list includes two and perhaps three clear-cut terrorist plots, including a failed attempt to bomb Times Square by a Pakistani-American in 2010 that the NYPD did not stop.
Of the 11 other cases, there are three in which government informants played a significant or dominant role (by, for example, providing money and fake bombs to future defendants); four cases whose credibility or seriousness has been questioned by law enforcement officials, including episodes in which skeptical federal officials declined to bring charges; and another four cases in which an idea for a plot was abandoned or not pursued beyond discussion.
In addition, the NYPD itself does not appear to have played a major role in breaking up most of the alleged plots on the list. In several cases, it played no role at all.
The NYPD did not respond to requests for comment on the list of 14 alleged plots and how it was assembled. Update (7/10): Bloomberg countered our story Tuesday afternoon, saying “we’ll never know” how many plots the NYPD has truly thwarted.
The following is a breakdown of the plots on the NYPD’s list.
Substantially developed or executed plots:
The failed 2010 attempt by Faisal Shahzad to set off a crude car bomb in an SUV in Times Square. Shahzad was in contact with the Pakistani Taliban before and after the attempt, according to the government, and he pleaded guilty to charges stemming from his role in the attempt.
The plot was widely seen as a law enforcement failure, as Shahzad was able to plant the rigged car in Times Square without being on the radar of the NYPD and other agencies.
The thwarted 2009 plot by three former high school classmates from Queens to set off bombs in the subway system. One of the plotters, an Afghan immigrant named Najibullah Zazi, testified in court this year that he and the others had received training from “Al Qaeda leaders” in Pakistan. He also admitted bringing bomb-making materials into New York. All three men have pleaded guilty or been convicted of terrorism charges. According to the AP, the plot was uncovered not by the NYPD, but rather by an email intercepted by U.S. intelligence.
Transatlantic Plot In August 2006, British authorities arrested a group of men who were later charged with plotting to blow up planes bound for North America from London with liquid explosives. (This is the plot that led to restrictions on carrying liquids aboard planes.)
The plot is included on the NYPD’s list of 14 because, according to British authorities, one of the men had a memory stick that had information on flights bound for several Canadian and American cities, including, in one case, New York. The plan was to blow up the planes over the ocean.
During the trial, there were questions about whether the men were going to act on the plan imminently. Three consecutive trials in the case ultimately resulted in eight convictions. The NYPD was not involved in thwarting the plot.
Cases with significant or dominant role by government informants:
The case of the Newburgh Four, in which four men from upstate New York planted what they thought were real bombs outside synagogues in the Bronx. The men were found guilty in the case in 2010 after the jury rejected an entrapment defense. The bombs were fakes supplied by the government.
An informant posing as a Pakistani terrorist recruited Walmart employee and Muslim convert James Cromitie over nearly a year, giving him gifts, including rent money and a trip to an Islamic conference. The informant plied Cromitie with offers of $250,000, a luxury car and a barbershop. An FBI agent on the case acknowledged under cross-examination during the trial that the government was essentially in control of what the four were doing while they were with the informant. The government maintained that Cromitie was an anti-Semite who talked about committing acts of violence and posed a real threat.
A judge who rejected an appeal last year nevertheless called the government’s conduct in the case “decidedly troubling.”
Herald Square Pakistani immigrant Shahawar Matin Siraj was arrested in 2004 and convicted in 2006 at the age of 23 of conspiracy to bomb the Herald Square subway station in Manhattan. The jury rejected an entrapment defense.
An informant for the NYPD’s Intelligence Division played a key role in the case and was paid $100,000 by the government over a roughly three-year period. He told Siraj he was a member of a (made-up) group called “the Brotherhood” that would support a bomb plot. Siraj was recorded talking to the informant about blowing up bridges and other places in New York, including the Herald Square subway station. The informant later told Siraj that the Brotherhood had approved the plot and that a leader of the group was “very happy, very, very impressed” with the idea. The informant told Siraj the group wanted him to put backpack bombs in the station, and he drove Siraj and another man to the station to do surveillance.
At his sentencing, Siraj apologized to the judge but maintained he had been “manipulated” by the NYPD informant. Siraj did not obtain explosives, there was no timetable for the plot, and there was no link to any foreign terrorist group, according to the New York Times.
JFK Airport Russell Defreitas, a naturalized American citizen from Guyana and former airport cargo handler, and Abdul Kadir, of Guyana, were arrested in 2007 and convicted in 2010 of conspiring to blow up fuel tanks at JFK airport.
At the press conference announcing the charges, a federal prosecutor said the public was never at risk. A law enforcement official described Defreitas, 63 at the time of his arrest, to the Times as “a sad sack” and “not a Grade A terrorist.” Pipeline experts told the paper that the men’s plan to blow up a wide area was not feasible.
Defreitas was recorded making odd comments talking to the informant, saying he wanted the attack to be “ninja-style” and that the airport was a good target because “They love JFK — he’s like the man. If you hit that, the whole country will be in mourning.”
An informant on the case was a convicted drug dealer paid by the government and worked in exchange for a lighter sentence in a pending drug case. He drove Defreitas to the airport several times to do surveillance with a camera that the informant had purchased for Defreitas. The informant also provided plane tickets to South America and, with the help of the FBI, secured a New York City Housing Authority apartment for Defreitas (that was under surveillance).
U.S. officials (often anonymous) question credibility or seriousness of cases:
The case of Jose Pimentel, a Manhattan Muslim convert who was arrested in November 2011 on “rarely used state-level terrorism charges” after federal authorities took a pass on the case.
Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance Jr. alleged that Pimentel had been “building pipe bombs to be used against our citizens.” City authorities said Pimentel had no contacts with foreign terrorist groups and called him a “lone wolf.”
In a series of leaks, federal authorities expressed skepticism that Pimentel was a threat. A federal source told the New York Post that Pimentel was a “‘stoner’ who wasn’t a real danger to anybody other than himself.” Another source cited by the Post questioned his mental faculties, saying he had once tried to circumcise himself. A federal source told DNAInfo criminal justice editor Murray Weiss: “Let’s just say there were issues whether [Pimentel] had the ability to do this without the intercession of the confidential informant.” Weiss also noted that the informant went shopping with Pimentel at Home Depot to buy pipe bomb materials, and the bomb was constructed at the informant’s apartment. Pimentel, who reportedly could not afford to even pay his cell phone bill, has pleaded not guilty.
The case of Ahmed Ferhani and Mohamed Mamdouh, alleged “Islamic extremists” and “lone wolves” who lived in Queens and were arrested in May 2011 after buying guns, ammo, and an inert grenade from an undercover police agent. The authorities alleged that the two men were planning to attack a New York synagogue because they were upset with how Muslims were being treated around the world.
But the case was another example of an alleged plot that the FBI took a pass on. Citing federal law enforcement sources, WNYC reported that the FBI passed on the case because the bureau found the undercover operation “problematic” and the allegations “over-hyped.” And the website NYPD Confidential reported that Ferhani has a history of mental illness.
The AP noted the case faltered early on when a grand jury declined to indict the two men on a high-level terrorism conspiracy charge. Both have pleaded not guilty to lesser terrorism charges.
Brooklyn Bridge Ohio truck driver Iyman Faris pleaded guilty in 2003 to providing material support to al Qaeda; he met with senior al Qaeda leaders abroad and researched how to attack the Brooklyn Bridge. Terrorism analyst Peter Bergen has called Faris “an actual al Qaeda foot soldier living in the United States who had the serious intention to wreak havoc in America” but “not much of a competent terrorist.” Bergen wrote the plan Faris researched to sever the bridge’s cables with a blowtorch as “akin to demolishing the Empire State Building with a firecracker.”
The plot never got off the ground. According to the Justice Department, Faris sent messages to Pakistan “indicating he had been unsuccessful in his attempts to obtain the necessary equipment.” According to the DOJ, Faris also concluded after a trip to New York that the idea “was very unlikely to succeed because of the bridge’s security and structure.”
PATH Train In 2006, 31-year-old Assem Hammoud was arrested in Lebanon. FBI officials announced that he and others — who had never met but communicated on the Internet — had been plotting a suicide attack on subway tubes under the Hudson River.
The Washington Post quoted U.S. counterterrorism officials questioning the credibility of the plot, reporting that they “discounted the ability of the conspirators to carry out an attack.” One official described the matter as “jihadi bravado,” adding, “somebody talks about tunnels, it lights people up.” A counterterrorism official told the Times, “[t]hese are bad guys in Canada and a bad guy in Lebanon talking, but it never advanced beyond that.”
Hammoud never visited the U.S., and there were no charges brought against him here. In 2012, Hammoud was sentenced to two years in prison in Lebanon, which he had already served.
Cases in which an alleged idea for an attack was not pursued:
“Subway cyanide” This alleged plot, first detailed by journalist Ron Suskind in 2006, was reportedly for a chemical attack on the New York subway system. Suskind reported that a U.S. intelligence source had said that al Qaeda was considering such an attack in 2003 but ultimately abandoned the idea. There is no evidence that the NYPD or any other law enforcement agency played any role in al Qaeda’s decision to abandon the idea. There were also reported doubts about the quality of the intelligence and the credibility of the alleged plot.
“None of it has been confirmed in three years,” a U.S. official told the Times, “who these guys were, whether they in fact had a weapon, or whether they were able to put together a weapon, whether that weapon has been defined and what it would cause or whether they were even in New York.”
“NYSE/ Citi HQ” A British citizen named Dhiren Barot or Issa al-Hindi was arrested in the U.K. in 2004 and pleaded guilty two years later to conspiracy to murder. He had attended terrorist training camps and had contacts with Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed, according to the government. He had taken video and photos of landmark sites in New York in 2000 and 2001 including the New York Stock Exchange and the headquarters of Citigroup.
An appeals court later reduced his sentence from 40 to 30 years, citing the “uncertainty” as to whether Barot’s conspiracy would ever have amounted to an actual attempted attack, and the court’s conclusion that one of the ideas for an attack in the United Kingdom was “amateurish.” The appeals ruling also noted that after Sept. 11, Barot’s plans for any attack in the U.S. “may have been ‘shelved’” to focus on the U.K. The court also noted that there was no evidence that al Qaeda leadership had endorsed any of the ideas. Prosecutors also accepted that there was no money or equipment lined up for any of the ideas.
There is no evidence the NYPD had any role in the investigation that led to Barot’s capture.
Garment District Uzair Paracha, a young Pakistani living in the United States, was convicted in 2005 of providing material support to al Qaeda. Prosecutors said that Paracha had tried to help a Pakistani al Qaeda member named Majid Khan gain entrance to the U.S., including a scheme to fool immigration authorities into letting Khan into the country.
The NYPD list says that “Paracha is reported to have discussed with top al Qaeda leaders the prospect of smuggling weapons and explosives — possibly even a nuclear device — into Manhattan’s Garment District through his father’s import-export business.” But the indictment against him makes no mention of any such plot.
Instead the NYPD appears to be referencing a claim by Khalid Sheik Mohammed to American interrogators that Paracha’s father, who is currently a Guantanamo detainee, discussed a plan with KSM to smuggle explosives into the U.S. through an import business he co-owned in Manhattan’s Garment District.
KSM said he wasn’t sure of the son’s involvement and neither the father nor son has been charged with anything related to it.
According to the government’s detainee assessment on the father, Saifullah Paracha, KSM said he wanted to use the explosives “against U.S. economic targets” but New York is not mentioned. KSM told interrogators that another man was to “rent a storage space in whatever part of the U.S. he chose” to hide the explosives. There is no claim in the detainee assessment that the idea ever got beyond discussion. Saifullah Paracha has denied the accusation. Mohammed also later told the Red Cross that in the period when he made the claims about the Paracha, shortly after his capture in March 2003 when he was apparently being subject to torture, he gave “a lot of false information” to interrogators.
Long Island Railroad Bryant Neal Vinas, an American Muslim convert from Long Island, was arrested in 2008 in Pakistan by authorities there. In 2009, then 26, he pleaded guilty to providing material support to and receiving training from al Qaeda. He told the court he “consulted with a senior al Qaeda leader and provided detailed information” about the Long Island Railroad in a discussion of a possible attack.
But in a trial in 2012 in an unrelated terrorism case, Vinas testified that to his knowledge the railroad idea was not pursued beyond discussion. Published reports do not mention any NYPD role in the case.
This is at Amman airport. (thanks Laure)
This week isn’t just the 40th anniversary of the Watergate break-in. The exact date is probably buried in a box somewhere in my basement, but I know it was about the middle of June, 1972, that I landed at Cairo airport (only the oldest of today’s three terminals was there then) and set foot in the Middle East for the first time. And it was probably about May 10-20, I believe, so I’ll settle for this as an approximate anniversary.The Middle East has changed a lot in that 40 years, and so have I, but the memories of those first impressions are still fresh. So as we move into the weekend I’ll ask you to indulge me in some personal reminiscence of 40 years of hanging around in a rough neighborhood, or at least of my first stay there.
In 1972, I had finished three years of Modern Standard Arabic at Georgetown, and set out for a year in the Center for Arabic Studies Abroad (CASA) Program at the American University in Cairo. The CASA Program is still with us, and much bigger than 40 years ago when it was relatively new (it began in 1967). There were participants there only for the summer, and a smaller, core group (I think only 20 or so, perhaps 25) there for the full year, I was one of these. The CASA Fellows for that 1972-73 school year have gone on to various careers, but several have risen to head Middle East Studies centers, and at least one made Dean; another is something of a media personality. A few spent careers in government, or finance, and there are several I’ve never heard from again, I won’t name names here, but those of you reading this will share many of these memories.
I was a 24-year-old graduate student who had never been anyplace more exotic than the border regions of Canada and Mexico, and I had committed to spend a year in a country with which, at that time, the United States had no diplomatic relations, Egypt having broken them in 1967. Instead of the huge US Embassy of today (which was our largest abroad until Baghdad surpassed it), there was a small US Interests Section under the Spanish flag. Russian military advisors and other East Bloc personnel were still present in force; as a foreigner, Egyptians would sometimes address me with “Dobry d’yen,” although “Welcome to Egypt” was also common.
Nasser had died in September of 1970, less than two years before; Anwar Sadat had consolidated his power the year before, but had not yet embarked on his reorientation from East Bloc to West. So there was a bit of trepidation. It was only two weeks or so since the Lod Airport massacre in Israel at the end of May, and Egypt had increased security at its airports, fearing an Israeli strike. So as the bus pulled away from the plane to carry us to the terminal, a military vehicle — the East Bloc equivalent of a Jeep — mounted with a .50 caliber (or 12.7mm) machinegun pulled in front of the bus with the barrel pointed at us, the arriving passengers. A cheerful welcome.
It was a wartime feel, both for genuine reasons and because the government wanted to maintain an atmosphere of siege. Israel had remained in occupation of all of Sinai since the 1967 war, and the Suez Canal was unusable. Although the 1967-70 War of Attrition was no longer raging, the canal cities of Port Said, Ismailia, and Suez had been shattered and evacuated except for the military. Throughout Cairo, brick walls had been built up as blast deflectors in front of the main doors of apartment buildings. Foreigners were banned from travel outside the Nile Valley (the resorts on the Red Sea were in the far future anyway, but the Western Desert was also off limits). Western goods were rare and expensive, imports blocked by an austerity economy.
Cairo was smaller then, and much different, though the Nile and the pyramids do not change. What is now called the 6 October bridge was in the early phases of construction (and 6 October had no meaning as yet), and the spaghetti-networks of superhighways and approach ramps were not yet there. 26th of July Street in Zamalek had not acquired its flyover highway, and the Opera Square-Midan Ataba-Ezbekiyya area had not yet been buried in highway ramps and flyovers. There was one ring road, not several. There were only a few luxury hotels: the Nile Hilton, the Sheraton in Doqqi, the second Shepheard’s, the old Semiramis. Not much else yet, and not many tourists to visit a country legally at war.
During breaks that year I also made my first visits to Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Turkey, and Greece. Lebanon was still in that pre-civil war golden age when Gulf Arabs flocked to Beirut or to the casino at Junieh; Cairo would later benefit from their largesse when Beirut descended into civil war, but then the oil price rise was a year in the future so the petrodollars weren’t as plentiful. I and some friends rented a car — 5 people in an old VW beetle — and toured all of Lebanon except the deep south, which was too tense; a few years later we’d have been unable to do so due to armed checkpoints.
Syria was fascinating. And even 40 years ago, it had a President named Asad. In Jordan, Petra was almost empty when we visited: I think one other group of tourists were there. There was a government rest house where we stayed, and maybe one or two other hotels. Even five years later, that had changed, but no one went to Jordan, or to Petra, in 1972.
From Damascus we traveled north to Aleppo; I recall spending time while our taxi underwent car repairs in Homs, 40 years before that ancient city would be in the headlines. From Aleppo we crossed to Antakya in Turkey, then across Turkey to Istanbul. We crossed the Bosphorus on a ferry; the bridge was not quite finished yet.
In those days, too, before the Gulf Arabs replaced Beirut with Cairo as their chosen destination, rents were quite low, even in the high-rent districts. Two other CASA fellows and I shared a top floor apartment in Zamalek, with one balcony directly over the Nile on Saray al-Gezira Street, and the other overlooking the Sporting Club with a view of the pyramids. I think the rent was something like LE 125 a month, but in those days the exchange rate was inflated; only five years later that flat would go for 1000 or more no doubt, and today I don’t want to know. Indeed, five years later I paid more for a flat in Bab al-Luq with cracking plaster. Taxis still relied on their meters, even with foreigners, so daily life was quite inexpensive,
Prices may have been low, but as I said, it wasn’t the “good old days”; wartime austerity meant no foreign goods and many restrictions.
While in my 40 years dealing with the Middle East I’ve managed to witness a few of the turning points (Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem, for one, in 1977; the first GCC Summit in 1981, and some others), I’ve often just missed them: in 1981 I got to Cairo two weeks after the Sadat assassination. And when left Egypt after my 1972-73 CASA year, I had no clue that “1973” would be a turning point, The October 1973 war broke out four months or so after I left,
And things have been in flux since. If you’d told me in 1973 that ten years later, I’d be taking my first El Al flight out of Cairo airport,I’d have thought you were insane. Yet I did.
I may reminisce more about my early days in the Middle East, four decades ago. Please indulge me. I feel old, but the memories remain fresh.
Tripoli International Airport was seized by an National Transition Council-aligned militia from the city of Tarhouna on June 4th. The militia members were protesting the alleged kidnapping of their commander, one Abu-Ajilah Habshi, who reportedly disappeared on Sunday while traveling along the Tripoli Airport Road.
After holding the airport for several hours and forcing passengers to debark from planes on the runways, a deal was brokered to have the militia withdraw from the airport, and the troops and vehicles left on the same day.
The Tahroun militia organization advanced on the airport after a 24-hour notice demanding Habshi’s release apparently went unheeded (the militia stated it had reason to believe their leader was being held captive in the airport itself). Libya al-Ahrar reports that NTC Chairman Mustafa abd-al-Jalil, along with a delegation from Tahroun, reached an agreement with the militia to withdraw their troops and vehicles from the airport. Earlier, Jalil had been told by the militia to “intervene to reveal the details surrounding the disappearance of chairman of the Tarhunah military council.”
No group has claimed responsibility for Habshi’s disappearance.The NTC blames Qadhafi loyalists for his disappearance, while the Tarhouna militia blames the Tripoli Security Committee.
The standoff, despite ending with the return of the airport to NTC control, is deeply embarrassing for the interim government. Earlier this year, NTC-aligned militiamen from the western town of Zintan had, after some delays, formally handed control of the Tripoli International Airport over to the NTC. The NTC had marked this changing of the guard – following several earlier handovers that broke down (or are still ongoing) – as a major success in asserting its rule over the country.
And this incident comes at a tense time as summer approaches. In an earlier move not related to the kidnapping, Libya’s national elections, are reportedly going to be pushed back a month, into July, in order to allow the election authorities, who had just approved the [inclusion(http://www.europeanforum.net/news/1411/libyan_council_lifts_ban_on_religious_parties) of Islamist parties in the elections, to vet 4,000+ candidates eligibility. In the meantime, the NTC has reportedly tried to set up a political body to oversee the practice of journalism in the country – drawing protests from Libyan journalists – as well as pass a controversial law setting up government-mandated press standards:
Law 37 prohibits “damaging” the 17 February revolution and also criminalises any insults to Islam, or the “prestige of the state or its institutions or judiciary, and every person who publicly insults the Libyan people, slogan or flag”.
The NTC passed Law 37 last month. Its backers argues that the law is necessary going into the elections because it also bans “glorification” of Qadhafi and that it will be repealed upon their conclusion. Journalist have countered by noting that it represents a reversal of the interim government’s earlier declarations on press freedoms and that the vagaries of the charges would leave reporters open to politically-motivated criticism.
The broadness of the law, and opposition from reporters and some members of the NTC, has led to a court review. Given the broadness of Law 37, factually reporting on a Libyan’s ties to the former regime – e.g., the fact that the founder of a new Libyan political party, Al-Watan, was a “former Libyan military commander” – might even be “construed” as an attack on the NTC’s legitimacy. Allowing such security officials to return to public life has been a deeply contested issue after decades of patronage and suppression. “In July 2011, militiamen killed Maj. Gen. ‘Abd al-Fattah Younis, Qaddafi’s former interior minister, whom the NTC had appointed commander-in-chief of rebel forces,” Nicholas Pelham notes, while “32,000 of Qaddafi’s 88,000-strong police force have returned to work” as well. The trials of top Qadhafi loyalists, including his former intelligence chief, Abdullah al-Sennussi, are set to begin this month. Concurrently, and controversially, “national reconciliation” talks might be building up in Cairo with a group of Libyan émigrés in Egypt represented by Ahmad Qadhafi, who defected from his late uncle’s regime last February, have drawn criticism: “[the meeting] would increase the tyranny of Al-Qadhafi’s supporters and their persistence in pursuing their actions of old,” a petition to the NTC read, arguing that the interim government “should have put real pressure on the Egyptian authorities to hand over these figures” instead of negotiating their possible return to Libya and politics. Multiple NTC members denied that the interim government had as a whole approved these talks, placing responsibility (and blame) on Jalil.
At the same time alleged ties to the Qadhafis have been used to order the arrest Libyans accused of collaboration.
The airport march by the Tarhouna militia is taking place in the context of national reconciliation efforts. Tarhouna and the region it is, the Bani Walid District, have been bastions of Qadhafi rule for years; some of the fiercest opposition to the anti-Qadhafi militias came from the area. This has made critics of the former regime even more leery of former Qadhafi loyalists, who in the past have clashed with local NTC-aligned fighters in Tarhoun itself. Additionally, members of the Tarhouna Military Council were apparently targeted in an assassination attempt by unknown parties this April.
There were reports that another NTC-aligned militia, from Misrata, had been dispatched to the airport to compel the Tahroun militia to withdraw and, perhaps, to keep them from next marching on a key NTC compound by surrounding the airport. Smoke and gunshots were seen and heard from observers outside of the airport, though it is not clear who was firing on whom. ?
I spent May 27 through June 3 in Libya, and flew out of Tripoli airport to Cairo a day before a small Tarhouna militia came there to demonstrate against the disappearance of its leader. Despite that close call, I came back optimistic about Libya over-all. The Tarhouna demonstration was dealt with efficiently by the new Libyan army, which took control of the airport weeks ago, and there is every reason to believe that it will reopen shortly. When I flew in and out of the Tripoli airport, there were no militiamen there, just regular army and police (who have distinctive red-marked vehicles). There are also now regular flights from Cairo, e.g., to provincial cities like Misrata.
There is a kind of black legend about Libya, that it has become a failed state and is a mess, that there are armed militiamen everywhere, that everybody is a secessionist, that the transitional government is not doing anything, that people of subsaharan African heritage are bothered in the streets, etc., etc. The black legend is promoted in part by remnants of the Qaddafi regime and his admirers in the West, in part by overly anxious middle class Libyans navigating an admittedly difficult transition, in part by media editors looking for a dramatic story.
Henry Kissinger, in his recent op-ed against intervention in Syria, listed the erasure of the Libyan state as an argument against such interventions. I read the allegation with disbelief. Libya is not like Somalia! It isn’t even like Yemen. (The Libyans I talked to about Yemen sympathized with the country’s problems but were astonished to hear that some Western observers looked a their situations as similar!)
So imagine my surprise on visits to Benghazi, Misrata and Tripoli, to find that there were no militiamen to be seen, that most things were functioning normally, that there were police at traffic intersections, that there were children’s carnivals open till late, families out, that jewelry shops were open till 8 pm, that Arabs and Africans were working side by side, and that people were proud in Benghazi of having demonstrated against calls for decentralizing the country.
As someone who has lived in conflict situations, I take as a very serious gauge of security whether shops are open and how late they stay open. Jewelry shops in particular are easily looted, and the loot is light and easy to fence. But in Tripoli there was loads of gold in rows of jewelry shops, along with clothing stores newly stocked with Italian fashions. Shopkeepers I interviewed were fully stocked, confident and glad to finally be rid of Qaddafi’s erratic governance, under which they were never sure if they would make a profit because policies changed frequently.
I caught a little celebration by recently graduated Libyan police at Martyr’s Square in Tripoli last week:
And here is a little set of carnival rides near Martyr’s Square in the capital:
Life is pretty normal. I talked to a Libyan of African heritage who had worked in Germany 14 years and recently had returned. He said he is *much* happier in Libya, even though he is working two jobs (one of them teaching Arabic). A friend of mine is organizing a music festival in the capital. People are gearing up for the election of the National Congress, which will draft a new constitution and gradually create a new government.
Cities unhappy with the foot-dragging of the transitional national government have simply staged their own municipal elections. Benghazi just held its successfully, and Misrata did this months ago. I met the husband of a newly-minted female city council member in Benghazi; she was the number one vote-getter among the candidates that ran, and may chair the council. The municipal governments have the legitimacy of the ballot box and are beginning to address local problems.
So if you aren’t in danger of being mugged at night in Tripoli or Benghazi, are there other problems? Sure, loads of them. While I was there the dock workers went on strike at Tripoli to complain about the poor management of the port. Then, in an oil state, money flows to municipalities rather than cities raising money through taxes, and the transitional government still isn’t very good about remitting the money. There is a human rights situation that needs to be addressed in the small town of Tawergha, the militias of which committed war crimes on behalf of Gaddafi; Tawergha has been cleared of its inhabitants, and they need to be allowed to return to their homes. And while security on the whole is fine for individuals in the big northern cities, it probably is still not entirely satisfactory for new investors bringing in expensive equipment to places like Benghazi (though BP has decided to get back into Libya). You have occasional moments of militia protest like the one yesterday at the airport in Tripoli.
But I was struck at the air of normality everywhere I went, and by the obvious comfort people had in circulating, selling and going about their lives. There are no bombings, there is no civil war, there is no serious secessionism. One man told me that the biggest change is that people are no longer afraid. They had been captive of the revolutionary committees and the secret police. And that end of political fear, the Libyans I talked to insisted, made the uncertainties of this transitional period all worthwhile.
I went to Libya expecting to find people nervous about going out, expecting to find a lot of shops shuttered, and expecting to be stopped at militia checkpoints (which was common in Beirut in the late 1970s when I lived there in the first years of the Civil War). Maybe such things exist in smaller provincial cities that I didn’t visit, like Gadames in the South. I don’t know. In the urban north, I found a society actively reconstructing itself where people clearly were going about their ordinary lives, where stores were open and people were sitting in sidewalk cafes, where there were no militiamen on the streets, no checkpoints, and where there were actually traffic cops directing traffic.
So while I wouldn’t want to minimize what difficulties remain, and while I am aware that a week on the ground won’t reveal all the society’s problems, I can say with certainty that the image found in the Western press of the place is far more negative than what I saw with my own eyes and what I heard from locals in Arabic-language conversations.
And I can say categorically that Henry Kissinger is wrong about Libya.
A group of disgruntled militiamen took over the country’s main airport on Monday, storming it with heavy machine guns and armored vehicles and forcing airport authorities to divert flights, a security official said.
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