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Why has the director of the CIA just visited Libya?

January 26, 2023 at 8:10 am

Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director William Burns (L) meets Libyan Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh (R) in Tripoli, Libya on January 13, 2023. [Libyan Prime Ministry – Anadolu Agency]

The director of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) arrived unannounced in Tripoli on 12 January for a brief visit that lasted just a few hours. In the first leg of the visit, William Burns met Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh in the Libyan capital, along with Foreign Minister Najla El-Mangoush and his Libyan counterpart, Hussein Al-Aaib.

Few details have been provided about what Burns discussed with his hosts. However, El-Mangoush was enthusiastic, and tweeted that they had “fruitful exchanges” about security issues to pave the way “towards stability and elections.” She also described the exchanges as “excellent initiatives” and that she is looking forward to see “concrete” steps taken to implement them.

What these “initiatives” are, and how the CIA might help Libyans vote, the minister did not say. The CIA, after all, is a spy agency known for botching rigged elections, not for helping to organise the free and fair variety. It has a long history in this respect, from Latin America to the Middle East.

In the second leg of his visit, Burns flew to Benghazi, in eastern Libya, where he met with General Khalifa Haftar, the commander of the Libyan National Army which controls large swathes of the country, including some major oil fields. Haftar has dual US-Libyan citizenship, and is usually described in the American media as a “CIA asset”. He spent two decades living near the CIA headquarters and is known to have cooperated with the spy agency against his former boss, the late Muammar Gaddafi.

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Haftar himself did not comment on the visit but his supporters interpreted it as another indication that the US is reviving its involvement in the ongoing Libyan crisis which it helped create. In 2011, the US led NATO into an eight-month war that not only toppled Gaddafi’s government, but also made the oil rich country poorer, unstable, divided and a constant headache to its neighbours.

Libya hasn’t always been high on the US agenda, but the Trump White House encouraged Haftar’s brutal war in his attempt to take Tripoli back in 2019. His army was defeated in June 2020 despite the help he was receiving from mercenaries provided by Russia’s Wagner Group and from across Africa. Trump gave the green light for Haftar’s attack on Tripoli in a short phone call between the two in April 2019, just two weeks after Haftar had launched his move against the capital. However, Turkiye played a decisive role in forcing Haftar to retreat after it deployed hundreds of its soldiers and thousands of Syrian mercenaries, and used drones in support of the then Tripoli government. Haftar’s defeat was secured and the man himself dropped under the US radar.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine last year, though, changed many things both internationally and regionally, giving room for countries like Libya to play a role, however small. After all, the country is located strategically in the middle of North Africa; it is Africa’s third largest oil producer; and it has a sizeable force of Wagner mercenaries stationed near its oil producing region. In America’s wider global energy strategy, Libya is becoming important in order to sustain some kind of stability.

This explains, in part, why Director Burns took the trouble of coming to Libya personally to meet the country’s constantly arguing leaders in Tripoli and Benghazi. Sources familiar with the details of the visit reported that he wanted Haftar to guard the oil fields, securing the flow of oil and letting Tripoli’s Government of National Unity operate in eastern Libya where Haftar is the dominant power. Since the 2014 war, which resulted in the current political division, no Tripoli-based government has been able to work in the East. In February 2022, the Tobruk-based parliament, aligned with Haftar, made things worse by electing Fathi Bashagha as Prime Minister. Nevertheless, Dbeibeh has so far refused to hand over power to anyone not elected democratically, and is looking desperately for international endorsement. The CIA head’s visit is being interpreted in this context.

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This is one of the reasons why Dbeibeh’s government and its militia allies colluded with the CIA to kidnap Libyan Abu Agila Muhammad Mas’ud and, illegally, hand him over to Washington where he is to be tried for his alleged role in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 in 1988. Washington claims that Mas’ud made the bomb that destroyed the doomed jumbo jet over Lockerbie in Scotland, killing 270 people. By helping the CIA get hold of the Libyan suspect, Dbeibeh believes that Washington is reciprocating the favour by sending Burns to visit. In other words, the US approves of Dbeibeh’s government.

It should be remembered that this is not the first time that the CIA has kidnapped Libyans from within Libya. In 2013, its agents kidnapped Abu Anas Al-Libya, accusing him of being an Al-Qaeda operative, and in 2014 it snatched Ahmed Abu Khatallah after accusing him of leading the attack on a CIA hideout in Benghazi in which US Ambassador Chris Stevens was killed. The difference this time is that the CIA chose to cooperate with a local militia to do the dirty work by snatching Mas’ud.

In the wider US strategy, Libya must remain off limits to the Russians. Basically, this is a security issue and spymaster Burns is the most qualified to press the Libyans on this. However, Russia’s Wagner Group is still in Libya. It is unlikely to leave anytime soon unless the Ukrainian “special military operation” is not going as well as the Kremlin wants us to believe.

Burns’ visit created negative publicity for Dbeibeh, and Libyans took to social media to express their resentment and anger. Questions were raised about the possibility of handing over more Libyans to the US over the Lockerbie tragedy, particularly Abdalla Sanousi, the Gaddafi era’s chief of military intelligence.

It is too early to see any tangible outcome of the CIA head’s visit to Libya, and it will be interesting to see how the “excellent initiatives” referred to by El-Mangoush come to be implemented, if they ever are. What is certain, though, is that most Libyans are waiting anxiously to see what is next after this visit, and if any more of their fellow citizens will be heading to the US in the wake of CIA Director William Burns.

READ: Libya: US intelligence demands Haftar to enable Dbeibeh government to operate in east

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.