The deeply conflicted War on Terror

On Oct. 5, American military personnel abducted al-Qaida operative Abu Anas al-Liby, who has been indicted by a grand jury for his alleged role in planning the bombings of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. A similar attack, also on Oct. 5, by Navy SEALs in Somalia on the Islamist militia al-Shabaab was aborted after it encountered heavy resistance.

The abduction of al-Liby from the streets of Tripoli demonstrates the multifaceted relationship between al-Qaida and American interests abroad.

Following his capture, al-Liby “was held for a week on board a [United States] warship, the San Antonio, where he was interrogated outside the normal safeguards of civilian law,” according to The Guardian.

He was then brought to a federal court in New York, where he pleaded not guilty to the aforementioned charges.

But who is al-Liby, and why did his capture warrant a blatant violation of national sovereignty? His story as an al-Qaida operative began in the 1980s when he worked with the mujahedeen, Islamist forces that former President Ronald Reagan’s administration supported to counter the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

In his Message on the Observance of Afghanistan Day speech in 1983, Reagan said that the mujahedeen were “courageous Afghan freedom fighters [battling] modern arsenals with simple hand-held weapons” and “an inspiration to those who love freedom.” These well-equipped militants later evolved into al-Qaida and the Taliban.

Al-Liby later received asylum in the United Kingdom in 1995. Britain’s MI6 intelligence agency allegedly used him as part of a plot to kill Gaddafi in 1996, according to documents leaked by former MI5 agent David Shayler. These documents said that two MI6 officers – without approval by the British government – orchestrated a plot involving the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, of which al-Liby was affiliated.

Following the failure of this plot, which resulted in a car bomb that killed innocent Libyan civilians, al-Liby allegedly planned the embassy bombings. He then fled to Iran, where he was imprisoned until shortly before the tumultuous events throughout the Arab world in 2011.

In Libya, the Arab Spring took the form of a North Atlantic Treaty Organization proxy war, in which NATO artillery and American arms assisted Islamist militias, including the revived Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, in bringing down the Gaddafi government.

The portrait of al-Liby – first as a “freedom fighter” supported by the Reagan administration, then as a British asset in a plot to assassinate Gaddafi, then as an orchestrator of embassy bombings and finally as an American ally in the overthrow of Gaddafi – creates a problem for the conception of the war on terror as a struggle between the age-old combatants of freedom and oppression.

Instead, al-Liby’s case reveals Washington’s willingness to use Islamists in one conflict while simultaneously in opposition to them in another. Then tables turn, former allies become enemies and the resulting blowback kills thousands, whether on U.S. soil or in Benghazi embassies.

This policy is morally indefensible. It reveals supposed humanitarian interventions as bald-faced lies aimed at spreading American hegemony, not democracy. American imperialism has facilitated the domination of whole countries by authoritarian regimes, including the most reactionary of Islamist elements.

This reveals the war on terror to be merely a pretext for intervention abroad and the erosion of rights at home.