Fake news in Libya?


IDENTIFYING fake news requires several steps. The first and most obvious, which is generally neglected by social media users, is simply to pause and think before forwarding a piece of information to all their contacts. During that hesitation, it needs to be asked “Is this really likely?” ,“What other information might corroborate it?” And “who has most to gain by peddling this claim?”.

Unfortunately, too many people on social media are more interested in attracting attention to themselves than they are in considering the veracity of information they post. Indeed, it could be argued that there is a general inability to place claims in any proper context or worse, there is a downright malign purpose in passing out fake news, knowing fully well that it is largely, if not completely, lies.

Professional journalists rightly attach “health warnings” to dubious revelations. However, especially when it involves tidbits of information handed out unofficially by government sources, they rightly regard it as their job to report what they have been told, but to respect the anonymity that their sources desires. This is risky.

The real extent of Russia’s involvement in Libya is a current example of confusing, if not completely fake news. A British government source has leaked to the media that the Russians have boots on the ground in Libya and are actively helping eastern strongman Khalifa Haftar.

The claim is that via the Russian private military contractor Wagner Group, Moscow is training, equipping and playing a fighting role within Haftar’s Libyan National Army.

The one thing about Libyans is that they are very quick to spot foreigners, whether they are terrorists smuggled in to fight for Daesh (the self-proclaimed IS) or foreign military “advisers”. Thus when in 2016 a Benghazi helicopter crash confirmed the presence of French special forces working with Haftar, it quickly emerged that these foreigners had been working out of a red-roofed compound Benghazi.

At around that time, British sources were saying there were also Russians working in the east. Given the Libyan military’s long-standing use of Russian equipment, coupled with Haftar’s visits to Moscow and trip to a Russian aircraft carrier off the Libyan coast, these claims seemed reasonable. But the latest more detailed allegations from London are less certain. Well-connected journalists have so far been unable to confirm UK briefings that the Russians have two bases, in Benghazi and Tobruk.

Moscow’s policy toward divided and strife-torn Libya has been fluid. It does not accept the UN-backed Government of National Accord and its Presidency Council led by Fayez Serraj, but it nevertheless talks with it regularly. It does, however, recognize the elected House of Representatives (HoR) which fled to Tobruk after the Muslim Brotherhood Tripoli coup in 2014. It also has dealings with the HoR-appointed government of Abdullah Thinni and by extension with Haftar, who was chosen by parliament to head the Libyan National Army.

By sitting on the fence Moscow clearly wants to be an honest broker in a future political settlement, so gaining an early repayment of the billions of dollars of Gaddafi-era debts while pushing for arms and grain sales and oil and infrastructure deals. If however, rivals in London, Washington and Brussels can establish Russia is actively helping one side in the Libyan conflict, then its mediating role would be destroyed. Fake news or what?