NATO members still refuse to discuss potential civilian harm from their strikes a decade after intervening against Gaddafi.
Ten years ago, French President Nicholas Sarkozy welcomed British Prime Minister David Cameron and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the Elysee Palace with a shock announcement. “He surprised us both when he said that he had already issued orders for French jets to take off,” Cameron later recalled. The first airstrikes of the international intervention against Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s forces hit their targets less than an hour later.
The 2011 Libyan civil war had begun on February 17th as an Arab Spring uprising, with tens of thousands taking to the streets. Within weeks Gaddafi’s forces had brutally crushed most of the protests, and were closing in on the last major rebel stronghold of Benghazi. With fears of a Srebrenica-style massacre, the United Nations passed a resolution demanding the protection of civilians, upon which the NATO intervention was then justified. The war officially ended in October as Gaddafi, whose forces had been routed, was captured and killed by NATO-backed rebels.
Neither during nor after the war has there been a thorough analysis of the number of civilians likely killed by all sides. For the tenth anniversary of the conflict, Airwars has conducted the first comprehensive overview of civilian harm from all belligerents, based on the available public materials.
Over six months Airwars reviewed thousands of media and social media posts, and post-conflict investigations; as well as conducting interviews with survivors and officials.
The result is a detailed look at a brief but violent conflict that killed at least 1,142 civilians and injured at least one thousand more in 212 incidents of concern that Airwars researched. By the highest estimate, as many as 3,400 civilians were killed in those events.
The new archive offers a detailed insight into gruesome air and artillery strikes, as well as shocking ground massacres that occurred during the civil war. The tally of civilian deaths during the uprising was almost certainly significantly higher than the Airwars study indicates. In 2011 for example, social media use by Libyans was still relatively limited, and independent media in the country was not yet established. Based on Airwars’ experience of other conflicts such as Syria, a significant number of local claims of civilian harm made online at the time may also since have been lost, as a result of sites being closed or accounts being shut down.
Many small scale ground actions are additionally not reflected at present in the Airwars database – though likely constituted a key element of the civilian toll. Most estimates of Libya 2011 casualties to date have included both fighters and civilians – with a Libyan government study from 2013 likely being the most accurate, with its estimate of 4,700 fighter and civilian deaths on the rebel side alone, as well as at least 2,100 people listed at the time as missing.
Most deaths from Gaddafi forces
The tragedy of Libya’s 2011 war was not just of those who were killed, injured and displaced – but of the new world it ushered in. Following a couple of years of uneasy calm, by 2014 the country had split in two and reverted to civil war. Only in October 2020 was a United Nations-brokered deal seemingly able to bring a decade of violence to an end, though the rifts remain.
Hala Bugaighis, a Libyan lawyer and founder of the Jusoor Libya think tank, said the 2011 war has had two long-lasting effects that have deeply impacted Libyan society.
“The first is the impact on the social fabric that emerged from armed conflicts between cities,” she told Airwars. During the war some neighbouring towns found themselves on either side of the conflict, with one broadly loyal to Gaddafi’s forces and the other supporting the rebellion.
“The second is the long term effect of the conflict on the mental wellbeing of civilians, including PTSD, stress and depression,” Bugaighis added.
The majority of civilian harm identified in the events reviewed by Airwars was reportedly caused by forces of the Gaddafi regime – with between 869 and 1,999 likely deaths and as many as 1,100 injuries identified from 105 assessed actions. Overall, as many as 2,300 civilian deaths were locally alleged from these same Gaddafi actions. Many more small-scale killings have yet to be fully documented.
At the beginning of the uprising, Gaddafi forces were reported to have deliberately targeted protesters with both heavy weaponry and small arms fire, causing high numbers of casualties.
Later on, several massacres and indiscriminate shelling of urban areas by the regime were documented in both local and international media.
“In the first days of the uprising, I was so scared,” said Bugaighis, who lived in Tripoli at the time. “Growing up in Libya we were raised to fear the regime, so at first, I thought nothing would take down the regime. I started to realise that it is more serious when the state of emergency was declared in Tripoli and foreigners were evacuated.”
Many Gaddafi forces incidents had previously gone unreported to an international audience, given the tendency of international media to focus only on larger scale events. On June 29th for example, a review of local sources found that a 13-year old boy named Moftah Muhammad Jalwal was killed and six more civilians injured by Gaddafi forces shelling on the Doufan neighbourhood of Misurata. Gruesome videos showed bloodstains at the site and injured children in the local hospital.
NATO: lower civilian harm but lack of accountability
A decade on from NATO’s intervention, neither it nor any individual member has ever publicly admitted to a single civilian death. Libyans themselves tell a very different story.
Airwars reviewed claims of thousands of airstrikes reportedly conducted by NATO and its allies during Libya 2011, which between them resulted in 223 to 403 likely civilian deaths and 215 to 357 injuries in 84 events of concern, according to our assessment. NATO itself declared having conducted 7,600 strikes. Overall, Airwars identified as many as 800 civilians locally alleged killed by NATO forces – though those higher claims appear to have been significantly exaggerated by pro-Gaddafi sources at the time.
United Nations investigators after the war accused both Gaddafi and rebel forces of indiscriminate killings, but concluded that NATO had conducted a “highly precise campaign with a demonstrable determination to avoid civilian casualties.” They noted that the international alliance had used precision-guided munitions and carried out extensive pre-strike assessments to try and avoid killing civilians.
Frederic Wehrey, Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment, said NATO planners were supported by Western special forces marking targets on the ground, which had contributed to the accuracy of bombing and helped avoid civilian harm.
Both rebels and NATO were “very active in liaison, coordinating various operation centres even though NATO commandos made clear they were not acting as the rebels’ air force,” he says.
But while NATO itself insisted it was purely focused on protecting civilians, key members of the alliance were accused of supporting regime change. An Airwars investigation has found that a Norwegian effort to negotiate Gaddafi’s stepping down in April 2011 was seemingly undermined by France and the UK. As the former Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Store now notes, “Had there been in the international community a willingness to pursue this track with some authority and dedication, I believe there could have been an opening to achieve a less dramatic outcome and avoid the collapse of the Libyan state.”
Even though the number of reported civilian casualties from NATO actions is far lower when compared to Gaddafi forces, Airwars’ findings indicate that likely fatalities were still significantly higher than the estimated 60 deaths that the United Nations documented at the time, in its review of 20 events of concern.
By contrast and based on local reporting from the time across Libya, as well as major investigations by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the New York Times, Airwars has identified at least 223 likely civilian deaths.
Those seeking clarity about individual incidents remain sadly disappointed. Inquiries to NATO about civilian harm from its actions in Libya are routinely referred to member states, which in turn then refer back to NATO. All recent Freedom of Information requests from Airwars to individual member states about their potential role in civilian harm during 2011 have been denied.
Only on one known occasion, on June 19th 2011, did NATO acknowledge that a malfunction of a munition in an attack on Tripoli’s Souk al Joumaa neighbourhood had potentially resulted in civilian casualties.
Mohammed Al Gharari, who lost five family members in the strike, told Airwars he had the following questions for NATO: “You struck people and admitted that it was by mistake. Why did you never care about us? If you had any humanity and you believe in human rights, you would have at least cared.”
“Even after ten years, no phone call or even any official has contacted us.”
Aftermath of the incident in Souq Al Joumaa on June 19th, 2011
Little reporting on civilian harm from rebels
Among the three parties to Libya’s 2011 war, the lowest documented number of civilian casualties was reported from rebel actions – with 57 incidents of concern reviewed by Airwars containing allegations of between 50 and 113 likely deaths.
That relatively low estimate of civilian harm from rebel actions can be explained by the lack of an air force and access to heavy weapons, particularly early on. It may also reflect a lack of media interest at the time.
The largest known loss of civilian life from rebel actions was reported on August 10th in the remote southern city of Tawergha, when between 24 and 74 inhabitants, including whole families and an imam of the town, were claimed killed by artillery fire. Tawergha was considered loyal to Gaddafi, with its more than 40,000 residents forced to flee by rebels. The majority of residents have still not been able to return a decade on.
“130 men from Tawergha are missing ever since, and no one knows anything about them. They were taken by the rebels. My brother is one of them,” Gabriel Farag, who also had to flee Tawergha, told Airwars. “These 130 men were arrested just for the mere fact that they are from Tawergha.”
“The war has impacted Libyan society in many ways, especially in social relationships among tribes. Libyan society is a tribal society, and the war has broken the connections between tribes across the country,” says Mustafa Al Fetouri, a Libyan journalist who covered the civil war back in 2011.
Ten years of anarchy
What followed after the 2011 defeat of Gaddafi was a decade of chaos and on-and-off civil war that turned Libya into a failed state. Many hopes were betrayed and opportunities missed in a country that had once been described as Africa’s most developed.
“The notion of justice was completely absent after the revolution,” says Bughaigis. “Instead of avoiding a repetition of the injustice that occurred in the past, such as the Abu Salim prison incident or the killing of students, all we saw was the repetition of these mistakes over and over again.”
Airwars found that some victims had been paid compensation by one of Libya’s post-revolution governments, but only for damage done to property. Efforts to create proper mechanisms for restitution were abandoned when the country slipped into civil war again in 2014.
“Justice was one of the principles of the Libyan uprising. However, all those in power have failed to do so, and it may be in a systematic way to entrench chaos and hate,” explained Bughaigis.
Former US President Barack Obama once described the failure to plan for what came after NATO’s intervention in Libya as a “shit show”, and as his biggest foreign policy mistake. “We averted large-scale civilian casualties, we prevented what almost surely would have been a prolonged and bloody civil conflict. And despite all that, Libya is a mess,” he told The Atlantic in 2016.
However, better times could now be ahead for Libyans, with the country recently selecting a unified transitional government which has committed to working on a reconciliation process for those affected by the civil wars. Those in the international community who have become embroiled in Libya’s violence since 2011 could now too – it might be hoped – finally acknowledge the civilian harm they themselves have caused.
Out with the old, in with the new.
Family photo of Libya’s outgoing Presidency Council today after they handed over power to new unity government represented here by prime minister Dabaiba & new Presidency Council president Mnefi (front right and left) pic.twitter.com/Zgq36LCFde
— Mary Fitzgerald (@MaryFitzger) March 16, 2021