There at the Baghdad hospital, I joined an FBI agent in questioning the bedridden Ahmed al-Ani about his time in the Czech Republic. A diminutive man with a grizzled face creased by bouts of pain, he epitomized the type of drab regime functionary I’d come to know in Iraq all too well. Al-Ani had never met the 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta or even heard of him until he saw news reports after September 11. It is a cruel irony that this Iraqi man was first used as a prop for an American invasion and then subjected to disfiguring violence by soldiers who had carried out that invasion. But his story weighs on me in other ways.
I asked the Syrians how long they expected to stay in Libya. “As long as we are needed,” their commander replied. “We don’t want Libya to be destroyed like Syria.” Preventing this outcome, he said, meant confronting the foreign state that had tipped the scales of the Tripoli battle in General Haftar’s favor late last year—a bitter foe they know all too well. “For us, Russia is the biggest enemy,” he said. Just two days earlier, he claimed, his fighters had killed a Russian sniper not far from their villa near the front line. It was a form of payback for these Syrians, who had watched their cities being destroyed by Russian bombs.
Holmboe has long weighed on my mind in my own travels across Libya over the past decade, at times even retracing his journey. It was only on a trip this summer, though, that I finally packed Desert Encounter in my bag, dipping into its pages during languid afternoons in Tripoli and at night on the front lines during lulls in the fighting between militia groups. A blend of travelogue, spiritual musing, social critique, and journalistic exposé, Desert Encounter eschews the operatic prose and Homeric pretensions of Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Holmboe’s account of his Libyan adventure made him one of the few Western witnesses to the savagery of the Italian colonial regime’s counter-insurgency campaign, and it became a bestseller in the United States and in Europe. Reviewing the book in November 1936, George Orwell wrote: “Mussolini’s large body of English worshippers would do well to have a look at it.”
Fathi Bashagha, a leading figure in the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord, is touring Washington and European capitals, where he pleads for equipment and for help in cutting off funding to what he calls Libya’s “princes of militias.” By many accounts, these have been impressive performances and Western backers of the Government of National Accord have placed great hopes in him to restore order. Even so, European governments and, increasingly, Washington have recognized that the landscape has now changed, with the dominant military force of General Khalifa Haftar on the horizon.