George Grant - image, George Grant.
Shortly after Colonel Qaddafi fell, George Grant got a job as deputy editor of the Libya Herald. He worked there as the security situation worsened, until he was nearly kidnapped by a group of jihadis. Returning to the UK, Grant found work on the conservative end of the think tank and policy world. Once here, he launched himself into British politics, standing as the Tory candidate against George Galloway in 2015. Now he’s back on the ballot in Bradford West, “one of the most colourful constituencies in the country”, as he calls it.
The situation in Libya inserted itself into this election in the most brutal way possible when 23 people died in a bomb in the Manchester arena. The bomber, Salman Ramadan Abedi, was a Libyan Mancunian, who is said to have returned from the country only shortly before the attack, leading to a number of allegations about the Conservative government’s intervention there and subsequent strategy.
As there can be few Tory politicians who know Libya so well, I thought I’d talk to George about the allegations, and how he’d answer them. You can read my questions and his answers below.
AR: It’s been a fairly grim campaign in that it’s been marked by two particularly horrific attacks. There’s been some conversation about the links of the attacker (in Manchester) to Libya and the Libyan community… You might have seen various people making the allegation that through… getting involved and then Cameron taking his eye off the ball, the British government has helped create a vacuum of power in Libya which allowed space for this sort of politics to breed.
GG: I actually reject that. Firstly because Salman Abedi happened to be of Libyan extraction originally, but there have been terrorists who have attacked this country and elsewhere who have been from many other places. This is hardly an exclusive Libyan problem. And the problem of this fundamentalist ideology that completely rejects any kind of compromise with any sort of culture or set of values that doesn’t conform to their particularly retrograde interpretation of Islam is one that pre-dates the intervention in Libya. Indeed it pre-dates all of our lifetimes. It is something that’s existed for several hundreds of years.
So, in that sense this is not something that is new, albeit the manifestation as we are experiencing it in our country is especially acute at the present time. And also, the ability of mass instant communication, and the ability to travel the globe with relative ease, means that we feel it in our own country in a way that we haven’t done previously, but it’s been there for a very, very long time.
And the second thing I’d say with regards to leaving a power vacuum in Libya, quite separate from that, is that I think people forget the context of the intervention in 2011. And, also, there is always this temptation to paint things as black and white, so there is either a right cause or a wrong cause, and actually, particularly in the field of international relations, particularly where conflict is concerned, you’re very often choosing between shades of grey... And if you cast your mind back to the atmosphere of early 2011, there was a very genuine democratic uprising across the Maghreb and we saw Zin El Abidine Ben Ali be deposed in Tunisia by his people (that was to Libya’s West) and, to the East, Hosni Mubarak was deposed by his people. And it so happened that Colonel Qaddafi had a rather firmer grip on the reins of power than either of his counterparts to the East and West and wasn’t afraid to pull them to lethal effect.
So, what’s the message that you send out to people in that region? That we support your ambition for democracy but only if your dictator is moderately bad? But that if he’s really bad then we’ll just leave you to it?
This wasn’t Iraq, this was quite different. In Iraq, it was externally imposed intervention. People hated Saddam but there was no uprising in the country that was calling for it. In Libya, there was a very clear mass movement of people saying not only ‘we want change’, but actually, ‘help, save us from extermination’. The tanks were backed up into Benghazi, they were backed up 40 miles down the coastal road when the resolution was passed that prevented that massacre. The fact that even Russia and China, two stalwarts on the Security Council who oppose almost every Western intervention, the fact that they abstained on this I think demonstrates to people what the mood at the time was, and people with hindsight forget that.
So that was the context – we stopped a massacre and had we not done so, what would the result have been? Almost certainly a massacre in Benghazi; Qaddafi and his son Saif were saying that they were going to ‘hunt down the rats, flush out the sewers’ and so forth, and there would have been another massacre, and the dust would have settled, and the international community would have wrung their hands together and said, ‘never again, we must never allow this to happen again’.
So, it was a choice between a rock and a hard place. Now what then happened afterwards, to blame David Cameron and his government for that, is to assume that the United Kingdom should have assumed some sort of post-colonial administrative role governing Libya. The reality was that the Libyan people requested that support, they received it, and they were then tasked, with quite significant international support, with governing their own destiny. The problem, what happened – and I can tell you this as some one who was there, who was a journalist who covered this in great detail – is that the Islamists, the extremists, were not popular in Libya amongst the people. But they decided initially to engage in a democratic process. They put up candidates for parties, some of them domestic, some of them backed by international influences, not least the Qataris – and we’ve see the blowback on that in the last few days, with their alleged support for Islamist groups – and they stood candidates for the elections.
And at the local level, at the parliamentary level, and at the presidential level (for want of a better word), they were rejected at the ballot box. The Libyan people said no. And when I asked, ‘Well, why are you rejecting the Muslim Brotherhood, the Justice Reconstruction Party (as they were known in Libya), why are you rejecting the Alwattan party (which was sort of the successors to the Libyan Islamic fighting group), why are you rejecting these people?’, they would say, ‘Well, listen, I’m a Muslim, I know my faith, I don’t need some other bugger telling me how to be a Muslim. What I need is for them to be growing the economy, fixing the roads, you know, building new schools and so forth. So that’s why I’m voting the way I am.’ What then happened is that the Islamists, having failed to get what they wanted peacefully through the ballot box, decided to take it by force through the barrel of a gun, and they took advantage of the weak fledgling institutions, and if there is anyone to blame for this, it is them. It is not the West, it is not the Libyan people, the responsibility lies at the feet of those evil men who have exploited the situation having not got their way and have wrought chaos on that country.
AR: What would you say to the allegations – which are published by people including the Financial Times, so not just wild conspiracy theorists – that, for example, as I think the FT put it, M15 facilitated Islamic Mancunians to travel to Libya, that there was a willingness of the British government after 2011 to allow some of these people to travel to Libya in order to support those movements?
GG: I can’t comment on that because I don’t know the details or the truth or otherwise of that. What I can say is that obviously, as in every one of these revolutions, Islamists were involved in the anti-Qaddafi, anti-Assad, anti-Mubarak forces, because these dictators were to all intents and purposes secular dictators. And anyone who says that ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’, well this is the lesson. You need to be very careful. But I come back to this point that it is between a rock and a hard place, we were damned if we did and damned if we didn’t.
There is this doctrine of the responsibility to protect which says that when the leader of a country proves both unable and unwilling to discharge his responsibility to protect his people, that the international community has a responsibility to intervene. Not necessarily militarily, but sometimes yes. And that followed the quite horrific events of Srebrenica in Bosnia in 1994 and of course in Rwanda, where there was an even more grotesque genocide.
I just think that it is too easy to blame the West and our attempts to offer a change in some of these countries, to blame the West for all of the world’s ills. The case in Syria is a case in point. The consequences there have been every bit as much of a result of non-intervention as they have been of intervention. Libya could have been a Syria had we stood by in the way that we have stood by in Syria. It is too simple and it’s almost really a conceit, an arrogant conceit, of people in the West to imagine that we somehow still are the arbiters of the destiny of every country in the Middle East. We are not, there are forces quite outside our control, and whether you intervene or don’t intervene, very often events take a turn that we really can have very limited influence in controlling. That has been seen in Libya and has been seen in Syria.
AR: You’re running in a seat with a relatively high Muslim population, famously, and there are often allegations that the government’s Prevent strategy is counter-productive, that it amounts to racial profiling, that it sometimes helps the radicalisation process rather than hindering it, that it forces teachers to spy on their pupils, that kind of thing. How would you respond to that?
GG: There are two things I would say about Prevent. Firstly, it is undoubtedly the case that Islamist groups in the United Kingdom have worked tirelessly to discredit the Prevent strategy and they have been fairly successful in that, to the point that they have propagated a set of myths about it – that it is an insidious state spying tool – and in fact anyone who seeks to sow the perception amongst our communities that the government is there not to help them but to spy on them really deserves to be taken to task, and I don’t think that these groups have been taken to task anything like as much as they should be.
It is also undeniably true that, that being so, there is a problem. Because any successful counter-terrorism strategy rests on two pillars. Firstly, there is (what) I would call the hard element – the surveillance, the security measures, the interception and everything else. But then there is – as important, and must work hand in hand with that – the soft element, and that requires the trust and the co-operation of the communities within which these extremists operate. And those two items working together can lead to a successful counter-terror strategy.
What we have with Prevent is however successful it is in the former arena, it has clearly failed in the latter because there is a fundamental lack of trust. Now whatever strategy is implemented – and the thing is, people criticise Prevent, but I very rarely hear any viable alternative – whatever alternative, if indeed there is to be an alternative implemented – be under no illusions that the same people who have sought to discredit Prevent will seek to discredit this. And people need to actually look closely at what Prevent is actually doing rather than what they hear it is doing and the rumours around it. I think it is less insidious than people have been generally led to believe.