Book review: Frederic Wehrey's The Burning Shores is a devastating account of Libya after Qaddafi

A veteran Middle East correspondent has nailed the failure of the state that rose from the tyrant’s ashes

Migrants sit at a naval base after being rescued by Libyan coast guards in Tripoli, Libya June 29, 2018. REUTERS/Ismail Zitouny

 Then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was doing a TV interview in Kabul in 2011 when she learned that Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi had been killed. She laughed, and while the cameras were still rolling she pumped a fist and said, "We came, we saw, he died."

As veteran Middle East correspondent Frederic Wehrey writes in his devastating, cinematically vivid new book The Burning Shores: Inside the Battle for the New Libya, the moment might have been a turning point, but it wasn't the turning point most people had so long expected. "We thought it was the last bullet," a Libyan friend in Tripoli told him years later. "But it was just the first."

Qaddafi’s end followed a script every authoritarian state ruler knows may some day be his own, and Wehrey is concise but brutal in recounting it, perhaps because any recounting is superfluous: the mobile phone footage is all online, as is footage of the gruesome protracted aftermath, with Qaddafi’s bloated, decomposing body on view for a steady stream of Libyans to inspect – a macabre lying-in-state that had as many psychological components as sociological ones.

“The Libyans who waited to view his corpse sought closure,” Wehrey writes. “They needed to see for themselves that the outsized figure they had known only from a distance through posters, televised speeches and his reign of fear was really gone.”

The man was gone, but, as The Burning Shores makes harrowingly clear, the fear was very much still present, broken open upon the disoriented country. Long-suppressed civil resistance movements pushed for parliamentary elections to restore the stability of law, although, as Wehrey points out, some Western observers argued that this was happening too soon after widespread sectarian warfare, before militias had been demobilised. "Past experience showed," he writes, that doing this "rewarded the strongest factions and those with the guns."

And yet, there was at first the lingering possibility of being what Wehrey calls “guardedly optimistic.” The country’s oil profits were rebounding, its civil society was beginning to knit itself back together, and progress toward elections was encouraging as many onlookers as it was worrying. For a little while, it seemed possible to imagine that Libya’s time of turmoil was behind it. Then came Benghazi.

Wehrey details the circumstances of the September 11, 2012 attack on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi in a standout chapter called The Attack on the Americans, narrating the chaotic violence in which three Americans, including envoy Chris Stevens, lost their lives. The tragedy prompted the American presence in the country to pull back, hunker down and intensely militarise, a change that was happening, Wehrey observes, just as the Libyan revolution was beginning to turn on itself. “Activists were cowed by fear, and the space for civil discourse, the kind that Chris Stevens promoted, had shrunk,” Wehrey writes. “The fractures that would soon break the country apart were starting to widen with alarming speed.”

The bulk of the remainder of Wehrey’s book is a dissection of those fractures, and it’s a deeply impressive work of first-hand reporting. At every crucial dramatic turning point, virtually on every page, he’s talking with Libyans in all walks of life and of all degrees of involvement in the factional strife that quickly engulfed the country, as well as individuals from the wave of migrants that flooded into Libya from sub-Saharan Africa. Desperate families fleeing from famine and warfare in places like Chad and Niger made their way through incredible hazards to reach Libya and the sea, in increasing numbers. As the book reports, seven hundred thousand to a million immigrants are estimated to be living in Libya today, many of them looking to continue onto their final destinations.

“Those migrants who’d made it to the shores of the Mediterranean stood on a threshold, at the continental terminus of an epic journey,” Wehrey writes. “Many had never seen the sea before, and most could not swim.”


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The book’s darkest sections are its final ones, recounting (again, through some genuinely valuable first-hand reporting) not only the vicious infighting of the “Dawn” and “Dignity” insurgent factions, but the growing influence of the Islamic State in Libya, with organisational and recruiting operatives gaining footholds in key centers of the country. ISIS used its customary combination of recruitment tactics, luring disaffected young people and threatening those it couldn’t attract.

Wehrey uses the example of the port city of Derna to illustrate the process, with chilling understatement. “The Islamic State set up a sharia court, took over the town council, and posted guards at a hospital,” he writes. “It invited Derna’s police, their ranks already thinned by assassinations, to atone for their sins at a ‘repentance station.’”

The Obama administration in Washington watched all this with grim dismay, and although it's clearly not Wehrey's intention, it's difficult to avoid reading much of The Burning Shores as an indictment of Obama foreign policy – perhaps in general and certainly in particular, in Libya (and needless to say, the tragedy of Benghazi has haunted the reputation of Secretary Clinton ever since).

By the time the Islamic State was consolidating its power in places like Derna, as Wehrey writes, “President Obama’s hopes of averting a collapse of the country had been dashed.” The complete expansion of ISIS has only been thwarted because, as Wehrey puts it, “Libyans had their own stories and their own narratives” that were inhospitable to the “sectarian and apocalyptic worldview” that ISIS espoused.

Of course, those stories and narratives present challenges of their own, some of which appear intractable as Wehrey's account concludes. Qaddafi has been gone for years, but the dreams of the country for post-dictator peace have proven elusive. Wehrey clearly loves the country and its people; he clearly wants to finish out The Burning Shores on a note of hope. But this, too, is elusive. "There are no easy fixes," he writes. "It is likely that Libya will simmer with violence and instability."