Anti-imperialism, oil and NATO's destruction of Libya

August 2021

By Pat Turnbull

It is ten years on from NATO’s 2011 seven-month long bombardment of Libya, and this once peaceful and prosperous country is still in turmoil. Britain was one of the NATO powers that destroyed Libya.

The British Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’s advice is against all travel to Libya. This advice has been in place consistently since 2014 and is still current at time of writing. It reads: ‘All travel to, from and within Libya is at the traveller’s risk. Local security situations are fragile and can quickly deteriorate into intense fighting and clashes without warning….Consular support is not available from the British government from within Libya, as consular operations remain suspended…Military clashes and inter-militia fighting pose significant risks…There remains a high threat throughout the country of terrorist attacks and kidnap against foreigners, including from Daesh-affiliated extremists (formerly referred to as ISIL) and Al Qaida, as well as armed militias…’

This is despite the fact that the Tobruk and Tripoli-based governments, the result of the division of the country that Muammar Gaddafi had held together for forty years, signed a permanent ceasefire on 24 October 2020.


Sarah Flounders, describes the disaster that struck the Libyan people in 2011: ‘Under the cover of a cynical UN Security Council vote to impose a so-called “humanitarian” no-fly zone in Libya, Washington’s goal was to systematically crush every form of resistance and reverse the policy of nationalized oil and gas wealth. US bombers had total control of the skies and everything that moved on land. With the Pentagon in the lead and the main supplier of equipment, 11 countries were dropping bombs on Libya. From the first day of NATO bombing attacks on March 19, 2011 to the capture of Muammar Gaddafi seven months later on October 20, everything built in Libya over a period of 40 years – including the water supply, electric grid, national health care system and tens of thousands of modern apartment buildings and well developed infrastructure were systematically destroyed in every city in Libya. The country with the highest standard of living in Africa now lies in ruin.’ (1)

The no-fly zone was imposed through Resolution 1973 of the United Nations Security Council on 17 March 2011. Ten members voted for it, with five abstentions – Russia, China, India, Brazil and Germany. The resolution called for a ceasefire, and authorised military action, ostensibly to protect civilian lives. At the end of the final Battle of Sirte, Gaddafi’s home town, he was not only captured by NATO-backed forces, but tortured and killed, and all on camera, broadcast to the world. The response of Hillary Clinton, President Barack Obama’s Secretary of State, to this US-sponsored murder of a head of state was: ‘We came, we saw, he died.’

The destruction of Libya had long been prepared. In 2007, at the Commonwealth Club in California, General Wesley Clark related how he had learned of a US plan to attack and destroy the governments of seven states in five years. In 1991 Paul Wolfowitz, then number three in the Pentagon, had told him that “we” had five or ten years to “clean up” the old pro-Soviet regimes before a new superpower came along to challenge “us”.  The seven countries were Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Iran. (2) Even earlier, in 1981, the CIA helped set up the National Front for the Salvation of Libya, with offices in Washington, and its military wing, the Libyan National Army, based in Egypt near Libya’s border. This organisation was to be directly involved in instigating insurrection in February 2011. The 14 April, 1986 US bombing of Tripoli, targeting Gaddafi’s home and killing his little adopted daughter, was the prelude to the 2011 campaign – indeed, another assassination attempt by a US warplane, on April 30 2011, cost the lives of his son, Saif al Arab Gaddafi, a friend and three of Muammar Gaddafi’s grandchildren. 

The so-called Arab Spring gave the imperialist alliance its opportunity.  On February 25, 2011 a long-time close friend of Gaddafi, Abdurrahman Mohamed Shalgham, who was the Libyan United Nations Ambassador, defected to the National Transitional Council, which had been set up in a familiar process where a stooge proxy is created to justify intervention. Henceforth the legitimate Libyan government would not even be represented in the UN. On February 26 the UN Security Council, under US pressure, voted to impose sanctions on Libya.

On February 28, 2011, BBC journalists interviewed Gaddafi in Tripoli.  He said, “We never thought Al Qaida would come to Libya.” He reported that the target of Al Qaida and “misguided youth” was to kill police and military in eastern Libya, in al Baida and Benghazi. He indicated that they were stealing weapons from police stations and military barracks to do this. His statements were brushed aside. He asked for a UN investigation and was supported in this by the African Union, with Jacob Zuma, South African president, requesting on Libya’s behalf that UN investigators visit Libya and determine the facts. This request was quickly rejected.  However, when in April the UN did investigate, it focused on the Libyan government instead. Government forces, not Al Qaida, were accused, against all logic, of attacking businesses and oilfields. 

In June 2011 a group of Libyan journalists made it back from Benghazi to Tripoli and reported what they saw in the east. They said over 2000 Al Qaida irregulars from Afghanistan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia were among the forces there. (3) They were committing atrocities, especially against black Libyans and black workers from other African countries, creating a huge refugee crisis on the borders with Tunisia and Egypt. Even so, the ‘rebellion’ was not moving fast enough for NATO and more intensive NATO bombing of Tripoli began on August 19th, clearing the way for the insurgents to enter the capital on 22nd August. Tripoli Central Hospital was overwhelmed with dead and injured people with virtually no staff to handle the catastrophe. Moussa Ibrahim, Gaddafi’s spokesman, in his last press conference from the Rixos Hotel, told the world’s media that in just 12 hours 1,300 had died and 5,000 had been injured in Tripoli alone. His appeal was ignored, as had been the massive demonstrations of the Libyan people in support of Gaddafi, like the one on July 1, 2011, where a crowd of more than one million, 95% of Tripoli’s population, had gathered in Green Square to protest against the NATO bombings. More than two million had demonstrated on that day in Tripoli and other cities of western Libya.

Thousands if not tens of thousands of Libyans were killed or injured by the NATO bombings.  Some 8,000 Libyans were made prisoners of the National Transitional Council regime, without casualties to the US or its NATO allies. The air war led to the seizure of all of Libya’s hundreds of billions of dollars in frozen assets and control of future oil profits. 


When Libya was granted its independence by the United Nations on December 24, 1951, it was described as one of the poorest and most backward nations of the world. The population at the time was only about 1.5 million, over 90% were illiterate, there were no universities, and only a few high schools which had been established seven years before independence.  In 1955, oil was discovered.  It was high quality, nearly sulphur free.  On September 1, 1969, Muammar Gaddafi and a group of young officers seized power from King Idris in a bloodless coup. Subsequently on 11 June 1970, the US Wheelus Air Base, the largest anywhere in the world outside the USA, was closed.  Then on 12 November 1970 the National Oil Company was founded. In 1977 Gaddafi transformed the Libyan Republic into the Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya – a ‘state of the masses’. 

Libya’s oil wealth would be used for the benefit of its people. Under Gaddafi’s 1999 Decision No 111, all Libyans received free healthcare, education, electricity, water, training, rehabilitation, housing assistance, disability and old age benefits, interest-free state loans, as well as generous subsidies to study abroad, buy a new car, help when they married, practically free petrol, and more. Other impressive social benefits included free land, equipment, livestock and seeds for agriculture to foster self-sufficient food production.  In addition, all basic food items were subsidised and sold through a network of ‘people’s shops’. Literacy under Gaddafi rose from 20% to 80%. (4) The Central Bank of Libya was state-owned and printed its own money, the Libyan dinar, to be used productively and interest free to promote economic growth. Every Libyan family received a monthly payment of 500 dinars, their share of the oil revenue. At the time of the NATO assault, the International Monetary Fund certified that Libya was debt free. Libyans were sending more money to family members living abroad than was being sent to Libya.

95% of Libya is desert and, before the NATO attacks, 70% of Libyans depended on water piped from the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System under the southern desert. This Great Man-Made River was begun in August 1984, when Gaddafi laid the foundation stone for the pipe production plant at Brega. A BBC report of March 2006 quoted chief engineer Ali Ibrahim: “At first we had to rely on foreign-owned companies to do the work…now more than 70% of the manufacturing is done by Libyans.”

By 2011 Libya had become a world leader in hydrological engineering and was keen to export its expertise to other African and Middle-Eastern countries. The official website of the Great Man-Made River Authority reported that before the NATO assault approximately 500,000 pre-stressed concrete cylinder pipes had been manufactured and transported. Pipe transportation was a continuous process, day and night. Over 3,700km of roads had been constructed for the heavy truck-trailers to transport the pipes. Claiming they were military targets, NATO admitted that its jets attacked a water supply pipeline and the Brega pipe factory on 22 July 2011, killing six of the facility’s security guards, and putting the water supplies of the Libyan people at huge risk. On 28 December 2016 Kieran Cooke of Middle East Eye reported that the political and economic chaos in Libya did not allow the collection of reliable and accurate data on the current situation of the Great Man-Made River.  


The IMF estimated that the Libyan state bank held nearly 144 tons of gold. Gaddafi wanted Libya’s wealth to help Africa develop independently of western imperialism. He proposed to create an African currency based on a gold dinar, incorporating South African gold as well. He was working on this with other African nations, including Cote d’Ivoire under President Laurent Gbagbo. This currency would have been a rival to the dollar and the euro – and to the French neo-colonial CFA franc. Gbagbo was also ousted, in April 2011, largely by French troops.

Gaddafi had other ambitious plans. He wanted to create a South Atlantic Treaty Organisation to protect Africa and Latin America from North America and Western Europe, and opted out of AFRICOM, the US’s military organisation to control Africa. He was central to the creation and financing of the African Union, and instrumental in setting up Africa’s first satellite network, the Regional African Satellite Communication Organisation (RASCOM) to reduce African dependence on external powers. Gaddafi allocated two-thirds of the $42bn needed to launch a public African Central Bank headquartered in Nigeria, an African Monetary Fund based in Cameroon, and an African Investment Bank based in Libya. The purpose was to provide low cost or interest free loans to African countries for health, education and other social purposes, as well as vital infrastructure development.

Knowing Libya was a target of the west, Gaddafi tried from 2003 to come in from the cold. When she was US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice praised Libya’s decision to “renounce terrorism and abandon its weapons of mass destruction programmes”. US sanctions on Libya were lifted in 2004, and in 2006 the US restored full diplomatic relations and removed the country from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list. As late as January 2011, the UN Human Rights Council praised Gaddafi, saying his government protected ‘not only political rights, but also economic, educational, social and cultural rights’. It also commended his treatment of religious minorities and the ‘human rights training’ of Libya’s security forces. In trying to avoid the wrath of the imperialist powers, the anti-imperialist Gaddafi may have made concessions which lost him allies he needed when they finally came for him and his country. But ten years on from the events of 2011, this article remembers the great achievements of Libya and Gaddafi as well as their destruction by NATO.

(1) The US/NATO War in Libya; A Continuation of Past Crimes, Sarah Flounders, in The Illegal War on Libya, ed Cynthia McKinney, Charity Press Inc, 2012.

(2) Editor’s Note, Cynthia McKinney, The Illegal War on Libya, Charity Press Inc, 2012.

(3) Dispatches from Tripoli, Libya During the NATO Bombing Campaign of 2011, Wayne Madsen, in The Illegal War on Libya, Charity Press Inc, 2012.

(4) Why Libya was Attacked, Stephen Lendman, in The Illegal War on Libya, Charity Press Inc, 2012

Libya bombing

Muammar Gaddafi gives his first speech as Chairperson of the African Union 2/2/2009