Mark Curtis nato Phil Miller

NATO Knew Terrorists Would Gain from Toppling Gaddafi

David Cameron kept bombing Colonel Gaddafi’s forces in Libya after the UK military realised a banned terrorist group stood to gain from regime change.
RAF Tornado being prepared for a sortie to help enforce the no-fly zone over Libya, March 24, 2011. (Neil Chapman, MOD)

By Phil Miller and Mark Curtis / Declassified UK

[This is Part 3 of Declassified UK’s investigation into the Manchester bombing; Here are Part 1 and Part 2.]

Britain’s military knew that fighters from an Al Qaeda-linked terrorist organization were benefiting from the overthrow of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, but continued to support NATO airstrikes in Libya for another two months.

The revelation raises serious questions about British foreign policy and whether the U.K.’s then Prime Minister David Cameron misled Parliament. 

In early September 2011, Cameron updated the House of Commons about the situation in Libya, telling MPs: 

“This revolution was not about extreme Islamism; Al-Qaeda played no part in it.”

However, the Ministry of Defence (MOD) had assessed the month before that: “The 17 February Brigade is likely to be an enduring player in [the] transition” away from Gaddafi’s regime and had “political linkages” to Libya’s rebel leadership, the National Transitional Council.

The 17 February Brigade, also known as the 17 February Martyrs Brigade, was a hardline Islamist militia named after the date the uprising began against Gaddafi. Its ranks included Salman Abedi, who went on to murder 22 innocent people in the Manchester Arena terrorist attack in 2017.

The MOD assessment said, “Many 17th February Brigade fighters have affiliations with the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups, such as the Libyan Islamic Movement for Change (formerly LIFG).”

The LIFG, or Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, was banned by Britain in 2005 as a terrorist organization over its links to Al Qaeda. Its supporters included the Manchester bomber’s father, Ramadan Abedi. The organization rebranded to the Libyan Islamic Movement for Change during the 2011 war.

Although the LIFG’s leadership renounced ties to Al Qaeda as part of a prisoner release deal it made with Gaddafi shortly before the 2011 uprising, many of its members continued to hold violent Islamist views. It was not until 2019 that the ban was lifted on the LIFG in the U.K.

Misleading Parliament?

May 27, 2010: Prime Minister David Cameron, left, with Defence Minister Dr. Liam Fox. (MOD)

The MOD has only released a portion of its assessment to Declassified following a freedom of information request. It is not clear whether the intelligence was shared at the time with ministers.

Dr. Liam Fox, who was defence secretary during the war, told Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee in 2016: “I do not recall reading any reports that set out the background of any Islamist activity to specific rebel groups.”

Fox was responding to a question from the committee about whether he was aware that members of the LIFG were participating in the rebellion. 

Lord William Hague, who was foreign secretary, told the committee: “Libyan leaders themselves did not have a deeper understanding of what was happening in their own country” and so “it is probably wrong to expect somebody sitting in the backrooms of the Foreign Office or Vauxhall Cross [MI6 headquarters] to know better than they did.”

General Sir David Richards, Britain’s top military officer during the intervention, said Whitehall’s knowledge about the extent of LIFG involvement in the rebellion “was a grey area.” He told the committee “in a perfect world, we would have known it all” and that “we were suspicious and beginning to build up our understanding during the campaign.”

Richards had argued internally for pauses during the bombing campaign to allow for negotiations, but Cameron overruled him.

The former defence chief told Declassified he was concerned that this particular assessment was not shown to him at the time.

“Given my well-known hostility to regime change in Libya, I am certain that my outer office staff would have brought this to my attention if they had seen it,” Richards commented.

“I suspect it remained within Defence Intelligence as one of many sometimes contradictory reports. The report’s importance was also probably not properly understood at the time.”

Defence Intelligence is a branch of the MOD that gathers and analyses information relevant to conflicts.

Failed State

The MOD assessment was compiled sometime in August 2011, when rebels led by former LIFG commander Abdul Hakim Belhaj captured Libya’s capital Tripoli. That operation relied heavily on NATO air power and planning. 

Ian Martin, the U.N.’s top official in Libya at the time, has said British attack helicopters were “pivotal … in supporting the final assault on Tripoli”, and that U.K. special forces accompanied and advised a rebel commander throughout the advance.

Although NATO’s U.N. mandate allowed it only to protect civilians, the alliance continued attacking Gaddafi’s forces until the end of October 2011, two months after the fall of Tripoli. Gaddafi was lynched by rebels in his hometown of Sirte on Oct. 20.

Oct. 31, 2011: NATO Secretary General Anders Rasmussen meets leaders of the National Transitional Council forces in Tripoli. (NATO)

By destroying Libyan government forces, rather than seek a ceasefire and negotiated settlement, as the African Union proposed, NATO helped create a power vacuum in the country.

Elections were held in 2012, at which Islamists failed to win a majority and instead used their militias to maintain political influence. Libya then descended into a failed state, as rival militias vied for control.

The chaos created a safe haven for international terrorism, with Al Qaeda’s Libyan branch Ansar al Sharia and the so-called Islamic State group setting up camps in the country.

Among those fighting with Ansar al Sharia in 2011-12 was Khairi Saadallah, a child soldier who several years later went on to murder three men in a park in Reading. Attacks on Western tourists in Tunisia in 2015, that killed 60 people, were also linked to a terrorist base in Libya.

More than a decade after NATO’s intervention, Libya is split between rival governments and run by militias. A recent survey by The Economist found that Tripoli was one of the worst capital cities in the world to live in.

An MOD spokesperson told Declassified:

“Throughout 2011, the U.K. government was responding to a rapidly changing and volatile situation in Libya and sought to make timely decisions to protect Libyan civilians and U.K. national security. All U.K. military action was taken in accordance with the United Nations mandate to protect civilians.

“Assessments of the different actors in Libya in 2011 were produced as standard by the MoD. These were routinely made available to ministers and senior officials.”

David Cameron, Liam Fox, William Hague and former Home Secretary Theresa May did not respond to requests for comment.

Phil Miller

Phil Miller is Declassified UK’s chief reporter. He is the author of Keenie Meenie: The British Mercenaries Who Got Away With War Crimes. Follow him on Twitter at @pmillerinfo

Mark Curtis

Mark Curtis is the editor of Declassified UK and the author of five books and many articles on UK foreign policy.


  1. Phil & Mark, while I sent this to the NYT, the NY ‘Times’ seems to be blocking this “War Ginning” information:

    IMHO, “Fight Like Hell” is the ‘call code word’ for the possible involvement of any alt-right coup d’état attempt by portions of the U. S. military.

    While this might well seem hyperbolic, even paranoid, the media’s apparent ‘messaging’ this week, particularly by former Admiral James Stavridis, former SACEUR NATO, and current Managing Director of the global weapons investment firm the Carlyle Group’s involvement in the Defense Industry, qua. “Merchants of Death”, seems to be predicated/signalling the terms and conditions of eliminating the weaker of the three current, but conflicted possible Empires.

    Admiral James Stavridis’s near saturation broadcasting of the “seven times greater” troop levels of ships, sailors, aircraft, pilots, special services, and other weapons from the ‘four minute NPR’ radio ‘messaging’ regrading his position as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization nations prepare to meet this week in Madrid presents shockingly provocative fodder with respect to being ‘War inducing’.

    Admiral’s Quote: trying to down play his own words, “The War Plans are very specific”

    The full transcript to the Admiral’s broadcast message should be considered akin to Hearst’s message in 1898; “Please remain. You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.”

    But in this case on 6/29/2022, Stavridis seems to be saying, “Please remain. You furnish the radio broadcast and I’ll furnish the war.”

    There has ‘So Far’ been no transcript released by NPR, but the Admiral’s speech is still available at NPR:

    Adm. Stravidis’s audio should be clicked on the 4minute and 54 second NPR interview!

    You may want to listen more than once to understand his use of Trump’s “We’ve got to fight like hell” and reference of “War Plans” by a ‘former’ (not acting) Admiral!

    Is anyone in the ‘Anti-War’ or ‘Anti-Empire’ community AWAKE to this obvious “Quiet American” War and Empire plan??

  2. This article raises serious concerns about the author’s understanding of global monetary policy and the fact that Gaddafi’s desire to peg the price of gold to the dinar would have had catastrophic consequences for legal tender all over the world.

    Gold is a great form of money but the price cannot be fixed and pegged by any price tool. It has to be fully scalable by the marketplace.

  3. The imperialists don’t care about “terrorists,” at least not these kind. They’ve allied with Muslim terrorists in Syria, and with Nazis in Ukraine. All they care about is whether they can dominate the world and get all the “resources,” a horrible euphemism for the planet and the nonhuman life here.

  4. Cameron, Sarkozy ,Obama ordered NATO to Destroy the Sahara Aquifer;
    an Underground Source of Water, Gadaffi utilised for Irrigation for Lybian Farmers. Nothing to do with “Al Qaida” or Islamic Jihadis or “Terrorism.
    It was Totally Destroyed by NATO Bombing. Gadaffi`s Army Arsenal was transported by Obama to Anti- Syrian Beheaders trying to overthrow Syria`s Russian Backed Ruler. Thousands of AK`s and RPG`s ended up in the hands of Al Shabab in Nigeria and Somalia.

  5. Libya had a high level of social development with Qaddafi, intolerable for US imperialism….his influence was well known in Northern Africa….Libyan efforts to sever the influence of the dollar demanded that the Clinton crime family destroy Libya

    1. @george simmel
      Libya had the highest standard of living in that part of the world. But the U.S. and the west don’t care about things like that; they care about resources, money, and power. Hillary Clinton should be in prison for life for talking Obama into allowing the destruction of Libya, but the ruling class doesn’t imprison themselves.

      1. Libya has universal health, mandatory state paid parental leave tuition free university, no homeless, nearly no poverty….the US/UK/French invasion was criminal immoral

      2. Blair, Sarkozy and Obama`s NATO Bombed Libya`s Sahara Aquifer; which supplied Farmers Water Irrigation for theie Crops. Nothing to do with “Terrorism” or Oil. It was Bombed to Destroy Libya as a State and Cause Starvation to it`s People.

      3. –>>> It was Bombed to Destroy Libya as a State and Cause Starvation to it`s People.

        I guess you weren’t aware that Gaddafi wanted to monetize the dinar with a fixed price peg to gold ?

        A fixed price on a monetary metal is a total abomination of free market law and free market principles.
        The whole currency system in the west would have been made vulnerable to a massive global crash. Gaddafi sealed his fate with sheer stupidity.

        Monetary law rules here.

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