Today, 360 Libyan cadets spent their first day of training — in the United Kingdom.
They’re part of a military program to train the bedrock of Libya’s new army. Libyan authorities are still struggling to rein in the hundreds of militias that have held actual power since the revolution in 2011.
At a summit last June, the Libyan government asked G8 countries to help “win the peace” in Libya and reform their military. After months of delays, the first batch of recruits finally flew to the UK this week.
Last Monday, at a military base outside of Tripoli, UK Army Lt. Col. Mickey Stuart welcomed the Libyan recruits.
“Under the conditions of your visa,” he began, “you’ll be able to stay in the United Kingdom for a 24-week military training course. Employment, paid or unpaid is prohibited. ... Access to public fund and money is also prohibited.”
It’s part pep talk, part security and regulation briefing. At one point, he reminds Libyans they’re going to the UK for military training, only. “That means you can’t go off and work at the local garage,” he said, and the crowd chuckled.
Stuart is here with a dozen British officers and officials. They’ve got boxes, lists and uniforms for the 360 trainees.
On stage, it’s all organized, tidy and formal. In the audience, not so much. Cell phones go off, the men chatter away. The Libyan chaperone is scurrying around, scolding recruits.
“I’m telling you to behave and now you’re not behaving,” he yelled at them. “That tells us that your parents didn’t raise you well at home. You have to behave.”
Unflustered, Stuart goes on with the list of dos and don’ts.
“You’ll be required to reside at the general purpose force training facility. And under no circumstances will you be permitted to overnight at a location other than specified by the British army,” he said. “That understood?”
“You told us that we’ll be going out every Thursday and Friday, what happened to that?” piped up one of the recruits.
Like others in the crowd, translator Taiseer El Hamdani is amused and baffled.
“Imagine,” he mused, “he’s the captain of your army, and you ask him what about Thursday and Friday! Even these recruits don’t understand the concept of an army.”
Many of the cadets here are former rebel fighters, the same guys who became notorious during the revolution for their brazen courage — and very little discipline. Taiseer wondered aloud how these men would ever be proper soldiers.
“A rebel is a free man; you’re not under any law, you can do whatever you like. But in a military institution, when you do something out of the order, then you’re kicked out. So I think it’s hard for them to adjust to that, to be a regular soldier in an army. Are the Brits gonna polish these guys into real soldiers?” Taiseer asked with a chuckle.
The Libyan officers in the room wonder just the same, especially after what’s called “the Turkey debacle.”
Nearly a third of recruits sent to Turkey for training this winter gave up and went home before the program ended. They complained about the weather, the early-morning start and the strenuous drills.
A’del A’kari, the senior army officer who’s supervising the overseas program, said that won’t happen again. This group went through a two-month try-out, and a British background check.
A’kari says one challenge was to handpick recruits from all parts of Libya, and across the wide spectrum of tribes and militias. He said that included Islamists, as long as they didn’t have ties to any radical group.
“Some of them, they have this (Islamist) ideology but they’re not members of any group, any party related to extremists. And those people can adjust to our laws in the military, and they’re welcome to join. Because we’re not against people committed to their religion. The danger, the concern that we have: if this person is related to some group who has suspicious activities, that’s a concern for us,” A’kari said.
On top of the blacklist: individuals with ties to Ansar al-Sharia, the al-Qaeda franchise that has gained ground in eastern Libya since 2012. Their militants are widely believed to be behind the attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi that killed US diplomat Christopher Stevens.
Akari says keeping them out wasn’t a problem. None of them wanted to join. Quite the opposite, actually: they did their best to derail the process.
On March 17, a military graduation ceremony in Benghazi ended in bloodshed. Faouzi Mansour Abdallah, 27, who’s also off to the UK, was there that day.
“We were walking outside of the gate when the bomb went off, 13 died,” he explained. "The guy sleeping next to me in the barracks was killed. But see, that’s only reinforced my commitment. We have to do this because of what’s happening in Libya, especially in the east. There’s no military, no police there. So it’s either you join terrorists or you join the army. I chose the army.”
Others say they’ve grown disillusioned with the militias that fought the revolution and are now clinging to power, against Libya’s best interest.
Stuart, the British officer who was trying to get the recruits' attention earlier, says behind the unruly demeanour, they’re a highly-motivated bunch.
“They are only here as volunteers, very eager young men who want to be a part of rebuilding the Libyan army and the country, post-revolution. And I think they’re very much up for it; young, fit and healthy blokes who are very keen to do it,” Stuart said.
The next day, the recruits show up for their flights to England, sporting new green uniforms with white belts. They definitely looked more like soldiers than the day before, though the scene is still chaotic.
British officers look at the scene, amused. They say a second batch of soldiers should be ready to follow once this group is back in Libya, in December.
The US Army is supposed to eventually take over. The training will take place at a NATO base in Bulgaria. It was scheduled to start in July. But Libyan officers say not a single soldier has been recruited yet.