Theater of Cruelty

A tragic chapter in Norwegian history

Ola Tunander
Ola Tunander
Tunander is Professor Emeritus of PRIO. See also wikipedia, at PRIO: , as well as a bibliography on Waterstone
Not many expected the Petersen Committee to come up with a critique of Norway's role in the Libya war, but the committee's report is nevertheless less critical than expected. It all remains a sad story.  


The report intended to evaluate Norway's participation in the Libyan war in 2011 and presented to the public on 13. September, begins by claiming that Muammar al-Gaddafi "hit the ground with air and ground forces". Furthermore, it is said that "the conflict escalated after the insurgents began to organize armed resistance to the regime". 

The regime's attack on civilians and the use of bombers, along with African mercenaries who were flown in to Libya, reportedly legitimized a military operation and the decision to create a no-fly zone. This is the opinion of the committee.

In 2016, the British Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee delivered an investigation report on the Libyan war. According to the report, Gaddafi's regime had not been guilty of attacks on civilians, and Alan J. Kuperman from Foreign Affairs was quoted as saying that there was no cover for this claim. The conflict had instead arisen between warring parties. Kuperman points out that the rebels were armed from the beginning of the conflict, while the regime had avoided the use of deadly weapons. He points out that it was the rebels who started the military conflict instead. They killed civilian-black Libyans who were accused of being mercenaries.

The British Foreign Affairs Committee's report is therefore in contrast to what was the basis for the Norwegian decision to participate in the war. The Foreign Affairs Committee and Kuperman also point out that the Libyan regime had never deployed air forces, which has also been confirmed by US intelligence and by former US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Despite this, the Petersen committee still writes that Gaddafi cracked down hard on the uprising with air forces.

Identification of Norwegian participation

The claims made in the Petersen report, which we know today were false, cause the committee to legitimize Norway's participation in the war. The committee writes that there was an opinion among politicians and in the media of an imminent genocide in the rebellious city of Benghazi. This legitimized an immediate military action. But today we know that the government forces had never attacked civilians, and that there were only 14 tanks outside Benghazi. These were unlikely to have the capacity to enter a city of 650 inhabitants if it is thought that the rebels had some support in the city. Incidentally, these Libyan forces were eliminated by French aircraft during the first hours of the war. The threat to Benghazi was therefore a pure lie. Gaddafi, for his part, stated that the youths who had participated in the uprising should go free, but that he should hunt for Al Qaeda and the foreign agents.

The Petersen Committee report mentions that Al Qaeda and the Muslim played an important role after the war, but no mention is made of why. It is not mentioned that the leader of the uprising – former Justice Minister Mustafa Abdul Jalil – was a conservative Islamist who in 2009 and 2010 had succeeded in releasing hundreds of Islamists, including Al Qaeda leaders such as Abdel Hakim Belhadj, arguing that they wanted a more liberal prison policy. Central to this settlement was Ali al-Sallabi from the Muslim Brotherhood and Qatar who had the prisoners sign that they should not use violence against the regime. Immediately after the release of these Islamists, they began a violent revolt against the regime, with Jalil as leader. Sallabi arranged arms deliveries to Benghazi from Qatar via his brother Ismail al-Sallabi, while Belhadj became the leader of Tripoli after the war. 

From the Libya War to the war in Syria

When Jan Petersen presented the report at the press conference on September 13, I asked him if the committee had dealt with the matter of who was Norway's ally on the ground in Libya. Petersen did not answer this to me. The military uprising seems to have been planned from 2009 or 2010, when Jalil began to release prisoners. It was dominated by racist Islamists who – after NATO bombed the regime's forces – carried out perhaps the greatest ethnic cleansing of black Africans in modern times. 

Many fled to Europe, and the state collapse opened to human trafficking and mass migration. Still, the committee accepted Islamist propaganda about the regime's killing of civilians and a possible genocide in Benghazi.

The committee's report records many actual events, but there is also much it does not record. After radical Islamists took over parts of Libya, the former regime's weapons – along with Islamist warriors – were spread across northern Africa and Syria. About 10 Manpads (shoulder-fired air defense missiles) were spread to Islamist groups in Africa and the Middle East, and the war in Syria must therefore be seen as a continuation of the war in Libya. 

Sidney Blumenthal, Hillary Clinton's intelligence contact, wrote in an email to Clinton in June 2011 that a victory in the war in Libya was important as it could open a war in Syria. According to Clinton, a war in Syria should further facilitate a war with Iran. 

Belhadj's deputy commander in Tripoli, Mahdi al-Harati, became the highest rebel commander of a force of 6000 men in Aleppo, Syria. The Syrian war with more than 400 dead was therefore a direct continuation of the Libyan war, with in part the same weapons and the same fighters. 

But this responsibility will not be taken on by the Petersen Committee. 

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