It was May 2011, three months into Libya’s civil war, and NATO had set up a ring of 20 warships to enforce a United Nations arms embargo. No weapons, military supplies or ammunition were to reach Libya, either for troops loyal to the country’s leader, Moammar Gadhafi, or for rebels now fighting to overthrow him.
“There are loads of weapons and munitions, more than I thought,” the boarding officer radioed back to Charlottetown’s commander, Craig Skjerpen. “From small ammunition to 105 howitzer rounds and lots of explosives.”
The Libyan rebels operating the ship openly acknowledged they were delivering the weapons to their forces in Misrata.
Skjerpen radioed to NATO headquarters for instructions. The response was swift: let the ship sail on so the crew could deliver their deadly cargo.
A NATO senior officer, Italian Vice Admiral Rinaldo Veri had boasted just weeks earlier that the alliance’s blockade closed the door on the flow of arms into Libya.
Not quite. While the UN embargo was clearly aimed at preventing the delivery of weapons both to Gadhafi and those fighting him, NATO looked the other way when it came to the rebels. Hundreds of tonnes of ammunition and arms breezed through the blockade, exposing what critics say was Canada and NATO’s real motive during the Libyan war — regime change under the guise of protecting civilians.
Qatar, one of two Arab nations to take part in the NATO-led mission, supplied rebels French-made Milan anti-tank missiles, with deliveries made by sea. The country also gave them a variety of trucks and communications gear, while Qatari advisers slipped into Libya to provide training.
Egypt shipped assault rifles and ammunition, with U.S. support.
Poland supplied anti-tank missiles and military vehicles.
Canada also didn’t sit on the sidelines when it came to supplying hardware to the rebels.
Five months into the war, Canadian government officials set in motion a plan to provide surveillance drones to rebels so they could better attack Libyan troops, day or night.
The Aeryon Scout Micro-Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, designed and built in Waterloo, was a small spy drone that fit inside a suitcase.
The Canadian government put Aeryon in contact with the rebel’s National Transitional Council, while Zariba Security Corp., a private security firm in Ottawa, was to make the delivery. In July, the $100,000 drone was delivered to the rebels by Charles Barlow, president of Zariba and a former Canadian Forces officer. He took an 18-hour boat ride from Malta to the NTC training facility in Misrata, sailing without problems through NATO’s blockade.
Barlow showed the rebels how to fly the drone, using it to identify a Libyan military position, and left shortly after.
About a month before Barlow’s trip, French aircraft, unchallenged by NATO fighters enforcing a no-fly zone, had dropped an estimated 40 tonnes of ammunition and weapons, including anti-tank missiles, to rebels fighting southwest of Tripoli.
The French, like the other nations pumping weapons into the hands of opposition forces, justified their actions in a response that seemed straight from George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. There was indeed an arms embargo in place, they acknowledged, but there was also another UN resolution allowing for all necessary measures to protect civilians under threat of attack.
So the assault rifles and anti-tank missiles being dropped to rebel troops weren’t for war. They were, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé claimed, “weapons of self-defence” and because of that they didn’t violate the UN resolution.
In the case of the order to HMCS Charlottetown to allow the rebel arms ship to proceed, NATO would later justify that action in a similarly convoluted fashion. Technically the rebel ship the Canadian frigate stopped was violating the arms embargo since it was in international waters and was sailing into Libya. But NATO claimed that since the ship was travelling from one location in Libya to another in the country, there was no violation. The weapons had come from Libya and were just being moved through international waters.
To this day, the official line from the Canadian government and military officers is that neither NATO nor Canada took sides in the war, although some occasionally let down their guard to outline what actually took place.
After the war ended with Gadhafi’s death in October, Vice Admiral Paul Maddison, the head of Canada’s navy, would tell a meeting of Ottawa defence contractors that HMCS Charlottetown “played a key role in keeping the Port of Misrata open as a critical enabler of the anti-Gadhafi forces.”
As with the arms embargo, NATO’s public relations strategy on the ongoing airstrikes also claimed such attacks were not done in support of the rebels’ war aims. But like the HMCS Charlottetown, NATO’s aircraft were, in reality, “critical enablers” for the anti-Gadhafi forces.
Opposition forces freely admitted to journalists that from the beginning they were in contact with the coalition to identify targets, which would then be destroyed by NATO aircraft. “We work on letting them know what areas need to be bombarded,” spokesman Ahmed Khalifa acknowledged in March.
Another rebel by the name of Jurbran detailed for reporters how the system worked: “I called in the strike on this tank just after 4 a.m., relaying word of its position to our headquarters in Benina airfield, who passed on its location to the French,” he explained. “They dealt with it quickly.”
The NATO strikes were highly effective and almost every time Gadhafi armoured forces moved, even in retreat, they were destroyed. The rebels readily acknowledged the co-ordinated NATO attacks on Gadhafi’s tanks and other armoured vehicles paved the way for them to capture a number of cities and towns.
But NATO’s stated goal to protect Libyan civilians was seen by critics as a one-way street, with the focus being on protecting only those allied with the rebels. It would later emerge that rebel forces hunted down black Libyans they believed supported Gadhafi, as well as African guest workers.
The BBC interviewed one Turkish construction contractor who told the news service he witnessed the massacre of 70 Chadians who had been working for his company.
There were also reports the rebels ethically cleansed the town of Tawergha, south of Benghazi, as well as other locations. Tawergha originally had more than 30,000 people, most the descendants of black slaves brought to Libya in the 18th and 19th centuries, but the town, which supported Gadhafi and provided soldiers for his cause, had been emptied. Some of its inhabitants had been killed, others fled.
People from Tawergha who sought safety in refugee camps have been chased down by rebel groups, taken away and disappeared, warned Amnesty International. Women from the town have been raped. “Others have simply vanished after being arrested at checkpoints or taken from hospitals by armed revolutionaries,” Amnesty reported.
Canadian Lt.-Gen. Charles Bouchard, who directed the coalition’s war effort, did not respond to a Citizen request for an interview.
But he recently told a Senate defence committee he warned rebel forces about violence against civilians, informing them they too could be subject to NATO airstrikes. Bouchard also told the senators he was aware that the “fate of the individuals of Tawergha continues” to this day.
But he added: “Many of these individuals are still remnants of mercenaries who need to move out of the country and need to go home because there is no value in keeping them.”
Exactly where these Libyans should go, Bouchard did not say.
Asked by the Citizen whether airstrikes were launched against rebel positions to protect civilians, Brig.-Gen. Derek Joyce, who oversaw Canada’s air task force fighting in Libya, replied: “Not that I’m aware of.”
An equally controversial aspect of NATO’s Libyan war centred on allegations it was trying to assassinate Gadhafi by killing him in an airstrike.
At first, U.S. and British politicians and generals claimed they didn’t have a mandate to remove the Libyan leader from power. British Prime Minister David Cameron told his MPs the UN resolution did not provide any legal authority for such action.
But that soon changed.
U.S. President Barack Obama announced on March 25 that, “It is U.S. policy that Gadhafi has to go.” Defence Minister Peter MacKay also reiterated the point, adding that the war’s aims will “either include the departure or imminent demise of Gadhafi.”
The U.S. and later NATO worked diligently to bring about that imminent demise. The first attacks on March 19 levelled one of Gadhafi’s homes but he escaped the bombing.
Bouchard, who took over command of the war after the initial attacks led by the U.S., claims no attempt was ever made to kill the Libyan leader. NATO bombs were only dropped on “command and control centres” that helped direct Libyan forces, he added.
But such reasoning allowed for much flexibility, military officers privately acknowledge. Gadhafi, his sons, and key government ministers could themselves be considered key parts of the command and control apparatus. If they were in a particular building, then that structure could be claimed to be a command and control centre and open to attack.
On April 30, a NATO airstrike killed Gadhafi’s 29-year-old son Saif Al-Arab and three of Gadhafi’s grandchildren. Gadhafi reportedly had left the residence just a few hours before missiles hit the structure. NATO said the building it attacked was a command and control bunker.
Two weeks later, NATO jets bombed a building reserved for hosting VIP guests. Again, it was deemed to be a command and control centre.
“We’re picking up attacks on these command-and-control facilities,” one officer told a British newspaper. “If he (Gadhafi) happens to be in one of those buildings, all the better.”
In June, NATO jets bombed the compound belonging to Khoweildi al-Hamidi, a close Gadhafi confidant. Hamidi, whose daughter was married to one of the Libyan leader’s sons, escaped unharmed. His two grandchildren weren’t as lucky. They were among the 15 people killed.
A few days after that airstrike, U.S. House Armed Services Committee member Mike Turner acknowledged that U.S. Admiral Samuel Locklear, commander of the NATO Joint Operations Command, told him the alliance was actively targeting and trying to kill the Libyan leader.
Because of NATO’s relentless airstrikes, the days were indeed numbered for Gadhafi. Tripoli fell in August and NATO increased its bombing of Bani Walid and Sirte, Gadhafi’s hometown.
NATO aircraft hammered the once prosperous Sirte into the ground. Rebel forces also bombarded the city with artillery and rockets, sparking criticism about indiscriminate shelling. But those among the rebel forces had little sympathy; they saw the civilians in Sirte as Gadhafi supporters.
Sirte soon took on an appearance similar to the bombed cities of the Second World War.
Brig.-Gen. Joyce told the Citizen the air attacks on Bani Walid and Sirte were necessary since pro-Gadhafi snipers were hiding in the rubble, targeting civilians.
By early October, the 69-year-old Gadhafi was trapped in Sirte, moving house to house with a force of about 150 men.
He hadn’t come to grips with the fact he had lost power. Gadhafi still believed Libyans would rise up against the rebels and NATO forces.
On Oct. 18, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton acknowledged the Libyan leader’s whereabouts were unknown. But American and other NATO surveillance aircraft were conducting missions throughout the country, trying to pick up snippets of satellite or cellphone conversations that might indicate where Gadhafi was hiding.
Clinton was strangely predictive when in Tripoli, she told university students “we hope he can be captured or killed soon.” Two days later, her wish came true.
On the morning of Oct. 20 a NATO aircraft spotted a convoy of vehicles travelling at high speed and attempting to break through the rebel gauntlet around Sirte.
A NATO aircraft opened fire on a number of vehicles, while a U.S. Predator drone unleashed a Hellfire missile. Dozens of Gadhafi supporters in the convoy died instantly.
According to NATO spokesman Canadian Col. Roland Lavoie, the fleeing convoy was attacked because it was “conducting military operations and presented a clear threat to civilians.”
Bouchard would later claim the alliance had no idea Gadhafi was in one of the vehicles.
But British reports indicate coalition forces did indeed know the Libyan leader was in the convoy after a surveillance aircraft intercepted a satellite phone call he made.
Gadhafi survived the attacks and was soon a captive of rebel forces. Those fighters would later say he appeared dazed and had asked, “What’s going on? What did I do?”
Videos taken of his capture show the Libyan leader’s face covered in blood as rebels jostle him. Another video appears to show one of the men sodomizing him with a bayonet.
Shortly after, the colonel would be dead.
Libya’s new prime minister, Mahmoud Jibril said Gadhafi had been “caught in the crossfire” as he was being taken to hospital. He had been shot in the head and chest.
Some, however, believed the killing was nothing more than an execution. William Hague, Britain’s foreign secretary, acknowledged the videos and photos suggested Gadhafi had been murdered.
Still, western leaders and military officers rejoiced.
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird brushed aside concerns Gadhafi had been executed.
Britain’s defence chief, Gen. Sir David Richards, said the Libyan strongman’s death brought to a close “one of the most successful operations NATO has conducted in its 62-year history.” Gadhafi, Richards warned, had been a “latent threat to the U.K. and our citizens,” noting he was responsible for arming the IRA and killing hundreds in terrorist attacks.
Richards, however, didn’t explain why, if Gadhafi had been such as threat, the British military sent its special forces to train his commandos in 2009.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper noted the apparent execution was not surprising considering Libya was “emerging from 42 years of psychotic dictatorship with killing and imprisonment on a massive scale.”
But Harper didn’t delve into why his government had, in 2009, sought closer economic times with the same man he now branded a psychotic dictator.
NATO and the rebels had succeeded in killing Gadhafi and two of his sons. Another son, Saif al-Islam was in custody and is to be tried by the new Libyan government. The rest of Gadhafi’s family has escaped into exile.
NATO’s job was done. “Let there be no doubt that the intervention in Libya was just and warranted,” Bouchard would later say.