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Do not overestimate the rise of Muslim radicals

Our defence correspondent argues that Western engagement took the heat out of Islamic fundamentalism in Libya - and could do so again in warring Syria

The murders of Chris Stevens, the US ambassador to Libya and members of his team was shocking news, especially to those who were aware of just how much of a help he had been to the opposition in their bleakest time in the revolution. The account put forward by the State Department at the time of the killings was of protests against an American video mocking the Prophet getting fatally out of hand.

The Independent disclosed that what happened was not a spontaneous outpouring of anger but a deliberate and organized assault by an armed group with links to al-Qa’ida. This was subsequently supported by other news organisations and it is now, after three changes of posture over the issue, the accepted position of the US administration. Indeed it transpires that there was not even a demonstration taking place when the assault with Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenades started and that the consulate may have been targeted because it was being used as a base by the CIA, monitoring extremist Islamist groups.

But this is not just about an US government agency trying to camouflage a security failure. The version first offered by the State Department gave the impression that the Libyans had been swept along in the region’s ‘Muslim Rage’ over the video and further perceived insults to Mohammed in the form of cartoons of Mohammed printed by a French magazine and that the violence in Benghazi just happened to have been particularly vicious. There were, invariably, declarations by some, in this country and abroad, who had opposed the Western intervention in the civil war that this was proof that their predictions have come true – Libya was now in the hands of a bunch of fanatics.

There may be good reasons to have opposed Nato’s bombing campaign which brought about the demise of the regime, air attacks lasting months which began in the guise of a ‘no-fly zone’, in itself a measure voted by the UN Security Council at a time when, some of us on the ground in Libya calculated, Gaddafi’s warplanes have been responsible for no more than around 30 deaths. This may be 30 deaths too many, but needs to be compared with the hundreds who have been killed and injured by air strikes by Basher al-Assad’s jets in Syria with the West showing no intention of becoming militarily involved.

It is, however, quite wrong to then go on to maintain, as some commentators have done, that this has resulted in the ascent of Muslim fundamentalists in Libya. The reverse is the case; unlike Enhada in Tunisia and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the Islamist parties did poorly in Libya despite campaigns bankrolled, to a large extent, by sponsors in Qatar and Saudi Arabia. In fact, I discovered while covering the elections there that being beholden to foreign theocratic states was as distinct handicap for candidates. In one instance, a group of students in Benghazi assured me that Abdul Hakim Belhaj – a former guerilla leader who is suing the British government for its part in his rendition — was so much in Qatar’s pocket that even his party colours were those of Qatar Airways. There was, actually, a definite difference in shades, but the young men were convinced that they had seen the true colours of the Islamists.

The Islamist parties did poorly in Libya despite campaigns bankrolled, to a large extent, by sponsors in Qatar and Saudi Arabia

The narrative also turned to a different page when it came to Libya in the strife of the last weeks in the Muslim world. While crowds were attacking American and European embassies elsewhere, local people in Benghazi were also out in the streets — to drive out hardline groups, in particular Ansar Al-Sharia who had played in the killings of Stevens and the others, from their main base in the city. Libya’s interim government has now ordered other militias to disarm and some have already begun this process. It is true that it is unlikely that all of them will do so quickly or voluntarily and we will have to see what happens to the particularly powerful brigades such as the ones in Misrata and Zintan. But it is a start.

When we used to meet Chris Stevens in the early days of the uprising in Benghazi he was not without doubts about post-Gaddafi Libya. Stevens was, however, firmly of the belief that Western engagement was essential to balance that of reactionary Islam. In another battlefront of the Arab Spring, Syria, the numbers of extreme jihadists in the rebel rank, many of them foreign — I have found in my trips covering the fighting — have noticeably risen. Western aid to the Syrian opposition remains relatively small (the UK contribution is around seven million dollars so far) compared to the vast sums — some estimates put it at hundreds of millions of dollars — coming from the Gulf.

There are sound arguments about why we should be cautious about pouring money towards an opposition which remains dysfunctional and divided 19 months into the revolt. But what the West does, or does not do, in Syria will have important bearing on whether the country, when its vicious internecine bloodletting eventually comes to an end, has a chance of following the Libyan path or that of other states of the revolution seemingly heading into an Arab Winter.