JERUSALEM – Questions remain about the Obama administration’s role in supplying arms to Libyan rebels as a United Nations report released this week reveals the weapons from Libya to extremists proliferating at an “alarming rate,” fueling conflicts in Mali, Syria, Gaza and elsewhere.
During the fight against Moammar Gadhafi’s regime in 2011, it was widely reported the Obama administration coordinated foreign arms shipments via cut outs to the Libyan rebels.
In December 2012, the New York Times reported that after discussions among members of the National Security Council, the Obama administration backed arms shipments to Libyan rebels from both Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
American officials told the Times that the UAE first approached the Obama administration during the early months of the Libyan uprising, asking for permission to ship American-built weapons that the U.S. had supplied for the emirates’ use.
The administration rejected the request to ship U.S. weapons, instead urging the emirates to ship foreign weapons to Libya that could not be traced to the U.S., the Times reported.
“The U.A.E. was asking for clearance to send U.S. weapons,” one former U.S. official told the Times. “We told them it’s O.K. to ship other weapons.”
The Times further reported in 2012 the White House “secretly gave its blessing to arms shipments to Libyan rebels from Qatar last year, but American officials later grew alarmed as evidence grew that Qatar was turning some of the weapons over to Islamic militants, according to United States officials and foreign diplomats.”
There is more evidence of the Obama administration OKing arms to Libyan rebels. In March 2011, Reuters broke the story that Obama had signed a secret order authorizing covert U.S. government support for rebel forces seeking to oust Gadhafi, quoting U.S. government officials.
Reuters noted the order was a principal form of presidential directive used to authorize secret operations by the Central Intelligence Agency.
That same month the U.K. Independent reported that “the Americans have asked Saudi Arabia if it can supply weapons to the rebels in Benghazi.”
Now the United Nations reports weapons initially sent to Benghazi are spreading from Libya at an “alarming rate,” fueling conflicts in Mali, Syria and beyond.
The report by the U.N. Security Council’s Group of Experts said the North African state had become a key source of weapons transfers in the region, specifically blaming Qatar and the UAE for arming the rebels.
While not referencing the U.S. support for the arms transfers, the U.N. experts said they had found that Qatar and the UAE had breached the arms embargo on Libya during the 2011 uprising by arming the rebels.
The experts said Qatar had denied the accusation, while the United Arab Emirates had not responded.
“Some 18 months after the end of the conflict, some of this materiel remains under the control of non-state actors within Libya and has been found in seizures of military material being trafficked out of Libya,” according to the report.
The U.N. cites cases, both proven and under investigation, of illicit transfers from Libya to more than 12 countries and also to terror and criminal groups, including heavy and light weapons, man-portable air defense systems, small arms and related ammunition and explosives and mines.
Reuters reported the U.N. experts who penned this week’s report said transfers of arms to Syrian rebels had been organized from various locations in Libya, including Misurata and Benghazi, via Turkey or northern Lebanon.
“The significant size of some shipments and the logistics involved suggest that representatives of the Libyan local authorities might have at least been aware of the transfers, if not actually directly involved,” the experts said.
Confirming WND’s exclusive reporting for over a year, the New York Times last month reported that since early 2012, the CIA has been aiding Arab governments and Turkey in obtaining and shipping weapons to the Syrian rebels.
While the Times report claims most of the weapons shipments facilitated by the CIA began after the latest presidential election, Middle Eastern security officials speaking to WND have said U.S.-aided weapons shipments go back more than a year, escalating before the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. facilities in Benghazi.
In fact, the Middle Eastern security officials speaking to WND since last year describe the U.S. mission in Benghazi and nearby CIA annex attacked last September as an intelligence and planning center for U.S. aid to the rebels in the Middle East, particularly those fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
The aid, the sources stated, included weapons shipments and was being coordinated with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
Days after the Benghazi attack that killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens, WND broke the story that Stevens himself played a central role in recruiting jihadists to fight Assad’s regime in Syria, according to Egyptian and other Middle Eastern security officials.
Stevens served as a key contact with the Saudis to coordinate the recruitment by Saudi Arabia of Islamic fighters from North Africa and Libya. The jihadists were sent to Syria via Turkey to attack Assad’s forces, said the security officials.
The officials said Stevens also worked with the Saudis to send names of potential jihadi recruits to U.S. security organizations for review. Names found to be directly involved in previous attacks against the U.S., including in Iraq and Afghanistan, were ultimately not recruited by the Saudis to fight in Syria, said the officials.
Last month’s New York Times article has bolstered WND’s reporting, citing air traffic data, interviews with officials in several countries and the accounts of rebel commanders describing how the CIA has been working with Arab governments and Turkey to sharply increase arms shipments to Syrian rebels in recent months.
The Times reported that the weapons airlifts began on a small scale in early 2012 and continued intermittently through last fall, expanding into a steady and much heavier flow late last year, the data shows.
The Times further revealed that from offices at “secret locations,” American intelligence officers have helped the Arab governments shop for weapons, including a large procurement from Croatia. They have vetted rebel commanders and groups to determine who should receive the weapons as they arrive.
The CIA declined to comment to the Times on the shipments or its role in them.
The Times quoted a former American official as saying that David H. Petraeus, the CIA director until November, had been instrumental in helping set up an aviation network to fly in the weapons. The paper said Petraeus had prodded various countries to work together on the plan.
Petraeus did not return multiple emails from the Times asking for comment.
Both WND’s reporting, which first revealed the U.S.-coordinated arms shipments, and the Times reporting starkly contrast with statements from top U.S. officials who have denied aiding the supply of weapons to the rebels.
In February, the White House flatly denied involvement in arming the Syrian rebels, going so far as to say the Obama administration rejected a plan by former Secretary of State Clinton and then-CIA Director Petraeus to help arm the rebels.
With additional research by Joshua Klein.