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A conspiracy theory too far

A sense of perspective would not be amiss. And this applies to the conspiracy theorists, too, who allege that the Afriqiyah hijack was concocted to give the Maltese Prime Minister a little publicity boost

29 December 2016, 7:40am
 If any aspect may be described as ‘artificial’ or ‘exaggerated’, it was the scene of the arraignment of the two hijackers: which called to mind the mass-arraignments of top Sicilian Mafiosi in the Falcone era.
If any aspect may be described as ‘artificial’ or ‘exaggerated’, it was the scene of the arraignment of the two hijackers: which called to mind the mass-arraignments of top Sicilian Mafiosi in the Falcone era.
2016 has been dubbed the year of ‘fake news’... and in Malta it produced its fair share of conspiracy theories, too.

The latest example concerns a hijacked Libyan plane that landed at Malta International Airport last week. Afriqiyah Airbus A320 had departed on an internal flight to Tripoli, but instead found itself diverted to Malta after two pro-Gaddafi loyalists staged a hijack armed with a hand grenade and two revolvers that later turned out to be replicas.

After a stand-off lasting four hours, the hijackers released all passengers unharmed, and gave themselves up to be arrested. As negotiations were still underway one of the hijackers told Libya’s Channel TV in a phone call that he headed a party supporting Gaddafi, and had organised the uprising to promote the group.

The two hijackers, named as Mousa Saha and Ahmed Ali, reportedly demanded political asylum in Malta. However the Prime Minister denied this at a press conference. To date it is unclear what the hijackers hoped to achieve, beyond a publicity stunt for their fledgling political movement.

Given the potential severity of the incident – and in particular, Malta’s past experiences with hijack scenarios: including the 1985 Egypt Air disaster which left more than 60 dead – it must be said that the security forces dealt with the situation admirably. Too admirably, perhaps... because the ease with which the situation was defused promptly sparked suspicion in certain quarters.

As with most conspiracy theories, the grounds for suspicion are very poor. Observers noted that the hostages were calm and unruffled as they disembarked... some chatting and smiling, some with their hands in their pockets, others messaging on mobile phones. It is unclear why this was deemed to be unusual... if, by the time they were released, the immediate sense of danger had subsided, it is entirely understandable that there would be no symptoms of fear or distress.

It was also observed that Joseph Muscat’s press conference felt somehow ‘staged’; but again, there was no reason for the conference to be handled any other way. If any aspect may be described as ‘artificial’ or ‘exaggerated’, it was the scene of the arraignment of the two hijackers: which called to mind the mass-arraignments of top Sicilian Mafiosi in the Falcone era.

This is not to say that such crimes should be treated lightly. But a sense of perspective would not be amiss.

This applies to the conspiracy theorists, too. Some have alleged that the entire incident may have been concocted to give the Maltese Prime Minister a little publicity boost... an absurd notion, given that ‘organising’ a hijack in Libya would have required logistical capability beyond the government’s means... as well as an enormous risk for very little gain.

Admittedly, however, there was something more than good fortune at work. The hijack itself was very poorly planned, using fake weapons that could not (with hindsight) have precipitated any serious consequences. This tells us more about the hijackers themselves and the situation in Libya.

Even if the incident amounted to very little, it is still indicative of the increasingly volatile political situation in Libya today. It explains why Air Malta and other European airlines no longer fly to Libya – not just because the Tripoli airport is still not operating after the destruction of in 2014, but because security is now a major concern.

Politically, the country is a mess. Libya now has three rival governments – including the UN-picked government of national accord (GNA) in Tripoli, the Islamist-dominated National Salvation government, and an internationally recognized parliament based in Tobruk – making it very difficult to find trustworthy interlocutors. Veteran army general Khalifa Haftar, who is aligned with the eastern Tobruk-based government, also wields considerable influence and currently controls huge major oil export facilities in eastern Libya.

The reality on the ground is more complex still. Warring tribes and a proliferation of weapons have made lasting stability in Libya almost impossible. Since the 2011 uprising much of the country has slid into violent chaos, with various tribes and factions vying to take control of Libya’s vast oil resources.

The waving of the green flag by a hijacker at the Gudja airport reminded us of the divisions which run deep in that country. The two hijackers are believed to be from Sabha, the capital of the southern region of Fezzan, and a hotbed of support for the old regime.

Last year, a number of pro-Gaddafi protests in Sabha – where the green flag is not an uncommon sight – turned into armed clashes when armed groups aligned with the Tripoli government tried to stop them from taking place.            

Above all, the incident should serve as a reminder of our close proximity to Libya, which in recent decades has often caused Malta to be drawn into the melee. Malta had entanglements with the Gaddafi regime over oil exploration rights in the past, and also got involved in the 1986 bombing of Tripoli by US and UK forces. In 2011 we played a pivotal role in the evacuation of Libya.

It is to be expected, then, that Malta’s fate will up to an extent always be intertwined with that of our troubled neighbour.

DealToday
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