‘The Spielberg of French Islamism’: A Profile of Omar Diaby (a.k.a. Omar Omsen)

Andrew McGregor

July 30, 2016

The Islamic State-inspired Bastille Day atrocity in Nice that killed 84 people and injured over 300 more has brought new awareness of a strain of radical Islam that thrives behind the lights and glamour of life on the French Riviera. Nurtured in hidden mosques in an alienated and unassimilated Muslim community, Islamist extremism has produced scores of jihadists from the Nice region, most of whom have traveled to Syria to take up arms in al-Qaeda or Islamic State combat groups. Most prominent of the recruiters responsible for this flow of French residents to the battlefields of the Middle East is Omar Diaby (a.k.a. Omar Omsen), a Senegalese-born extremist who eventually left for Syria himself to take command of a group of Francophone jihadists.

Diaby 1Omar Diaby: Cyber-Jihadist (CNN)

Early Life

Born in Dakar in 1976, Diaby arrived in the Nice region of France at the age of five. Nice is home to a large Muslim community, many of whom are Tunisian in origin. Though many have poor employment prospects and depend on state assistance, there is also a growing Muslim middle class. Nonetheless, radical preachers find an interested audience for their views in the Islam du caves, mosques that operate out of sight in underground parking garages in heavily-Muslim banlieus (suburbs) like Ariane and St. Roch.

Marine Le Pen’s anti-immigration Front National and right-wing French nationalism are particularly strong in the Nice region, partly as a legacy of French pieds noirs settlers expelled from Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia settling there after those nations reached independence. Their proximity to Islamists in the Ariane and Saint Roch districts perpetuates a certain amount of inter-communal tension (Guardian, July 18). Jihadist recruiters exploit these tensions to convince young Muslims to abandon their mundane lives in France to take up a more glorious existence as jihadis and martyrs in Syria and elsewhere.

Nice has taken steps to address the problem, providing teams of social workers and psychologists to persuade would-be jihadists to abandon their plans. The city also provides counseling programs to reintegrate returned jihadis (France24.com, July 15). The threat from returnees is serious; in February 2014 one such returnee from the Syrian jihad, an Algerian native who had received bomb-making training in Syria, was arrested after planning to detonate bombs during Nice’s popular carnival (France24.com, July 15).

Diaby was known in the Riviera region as a violent gangster, imprisoned for a 1995 gang-related murder (Diaby deliberately ran the victim down with a car) and again for the 2002-2003 armed robberies of two jewelers in Monaco. In prison, that great incubator of jihadists, Diaby became fascinated with radical Islamist ideology and took the new name Omar Omsen. After his release, Diaby took up preaching and the production of Islamic-themed videos until he joined a group of Salafi extremists using the name Fursan Alizza (The Knights of Pride), a move that brought him new attention from French counter-terrorism forces (Fursan Alizza is now a banned organization in France after a wave of arrests in 2012) (Dakar Actu, June 13). Diaby was again detained in 2011 after a French investigation suggested the recruiter was planning to join the jihad in Afghanistan via Tunisia and Libya (Le Nouvel Observateur, August 10, 2015).

In Nice, Diaby operated a snack bar and football club, which brought him into contact with young men to whom he could distribute jihadist literature and videos (Independent, July 17). Diaby is believed to be responsible for sending as many as 40 Nice residents to Syria before his own departure. Diaby appealed to young men by asserting they would never succeed in France and must go to a Muslim country to thrive. He also justified assault and robbery of non-Muslims in France, “a land of unbelievers,” thus providing religious sanction to petty criminals (BBC, July 16).

Former jihadists recruited by Diaby have described his recruiting methods during their trials in France. Whether early contacts were made in person or by internet, Diaby and fellow recruiters like Fares Mourad would begin by speaking of the importance of making hijra (emigration to Muslim lands), followed by discussions of religious points and end-times prophecies, but jihad was rarely if ever discussed in these initial contacts. Only later did the recruits realize Diaby, a self-styled “preacher,” could not read the Koran in Arabic or even lead his followers in prayer (Le Point, April 6).

“The Spielberg of French Islamism”

To create the right conditions for recruitment, Diaby drew on his talents as a graphics designer and video editor in creating a series of slick, professional looking video productions designed to encourage young Muslims to pursue a more militant response to the West’s alleged persecution of Islam (RFI, August 9, 2015). These videos were part of a project named “19HH” which stands for the 19 terrorists who carried out the 9/11 attacks, with the ‘HH’ acting as a symbol for the twin towers of the World Trade Center.

Diaby’s French-language video productions include “The Truth about Islam” and the three-hour “The Truth about the death of bin Laden,” [1] but it was an April 2013 release that would become famous in jihadi recruitment circles and bring him a reputation as “the Spielberg of French Islamism.” “Histoire de l’Humanité,” as its name suggests, is a broad examination of several themes, including millenarian prophecies, accusations of Christian and Jewish persecution of innocent Muslims, charges of media control, 9/11 conspiracy theories and a defence of Salafism and Takfir (the practice of one Muslim condemning another for apostasy, a basic element in Salafi-Jihadist ideology). The video stitches together various French-language news accounts, movie excerpts and found footage through the use of sophisticated special effects and graphics, the whole overlain with Arabic religious singing. [2]

Diaby uses the video to claim the U.S. government fakes criminal charges to “liquidate [American Muslims] and get them out of the scene,” giving two examples:

  • Imam Jamil Amin (the former H. Rap Brown), a Black-American nationalist militant serving a life sentence for shooting two Black-American police officers in 2000, killing one. Amin converted to Islam while serving an earlier prison sentence in the 1970s for armed robbery, eventually becoming an important figure in the American Muslim community. Famous for once saying “Violence is as American as apple pie,” the evidence in the murder case that brought him a life sentence was overwhelming despite Amin’s claims of a “government conspiracy.”
  • Humeidan al-Turki, a Saudi national living in Denver, was convicted in 2006 of the repeated rape and four-year captivity of a young female Muslim Indonesian house-servant. Sentenced to 28 years (later reduced to eight after Saudi intervention), al-Turki’s defense that he was the victim of American bias against Arab and Muslim cultural norms did nothing to save him from prison, but the charges gained some traction overseas, particularly in Saudi Arabia, where the case became an irritant in U.S.-Saudi relations. At the time he was charged, al-Turki was being investigated at the same time by the FBI in an unrelated terrorism case.

Diaby also uses extensive footage of a 2012 speech by then-French presidential candidate François Asselineau, a veteran politician who indulges in U.S. conspiracy theories while demanding a French exit from the EU and NATO together with a military withdrawal from Syria and Iraq. Asselineau’s claim that Europe is not really menaced by Islam is followed by footage of “European terrorists” from the Basque and Corsican communities.

The moral decay of the West is defined by toleration of incest and homosexuality before praise for the “Minhaj Salafiya,” a discussion of Quranic creationism and suggestions that 9/11 was an American false-flag operation that included a cover-up that required the death of Osama bin Laden. Most importantly, it makes the claim (over footage of maimed and bleeding children) that “defensive jihad” is fard ayn (mandatory) for all Muslims. The video concludes with a display of Diaby’s personal email address to obtain further information or subscribe to Diaby’s newsletter.

Diaby 2Omar Diaby: Jihad in Syria (Le Monde)

The Syrian Hijra

Fearing further arrest, Diaby slipped away to Dakar. After arrival in Senegal, Diaby was arrested by the Division des investigations criminelles (DIC), who after a hearing, released him and returned his passport. With ten others, Diaby then travelled via Mauritania and Tunis to Turkey and on to the Aleppo region of Syria. (DakarActu, June 13)

The former recruiter now turned Amir and formed his own katiba (brigade) in the Latakia governorate of Syria, a group composed of some 80 to 100 jihadis of French origin (many from Nice) allied with the Islamist Nusra Front, eventually a rival to the Islamic State organization. After arriving in Syria, Diaby was able to being eight members of his family to Syria from Senegal (Diaby is married and the father of two children) (DakarActu, June 13)

It was not until February 2014 that Diaby finally appeared in a video in person. In footage aired by al-Jazeera, the black-clad jihadist, Kalashnikov at his side, claimed that the Caliphate would be established in Damascus “as the Prophet said” (Le Monde, February 12, 2014). [3] According to Diaby, Muslim armies will use the Syrian capital as a base for operations in other countries. Diaby added that his group was “for the time being” allied with neither the Islamic State or the Nusra Front due to questions regarding their assaults on Muslim civilians: “We have learnt our religion and know that the Prophet warned us against any Muslim killing his Muslim brother. This is a very serious offense as they will both go to hell.” Nonetheless, Dibay insists that hijra is compulsory: “If someone comes to see me to tell me that he wants to go back [to France], I am going to tell him that going back to infidel land is forbidden, that God forbids it. What’s going to happen to them if they go back? They’re going to be arrested.”

Death and Resurrection

Twitter reports from Diaby’s family claimed that the jihadist had been shot and mortally wounded on July 29, 2015 during an attack on Aleppo, with Diaby succumbing to his injuries after a week-long coma (Dakar Echo, August 8, 2015). According to Diaby, the rumors of his death had been spread to allow him to leave Syria for four months of medical treatment in an un-named Arab country he entered under a false identity (L’Express, June 27). Nothing was heard from the jihadist until April 2016, when, after hearing from his cousin that journalist Romain Boutilly was preparing a video feature on jihadi recruiters in France, Diaby contacted Boutilly to announce he was still alive and would like to be included in the France2 documentary broadcast on June 2. [4] A Syrian cameraman was hired to shoot the footage, consisting of an interview with Diaby and views of his katiba’s camp. Once shooting began, Diaby exercised tight control on who and what was shown. (FranceTVInfo.com, June 2).

Relations with the Islamic State

Diaby appears to view al-Qaeda (and the related Nusra Front) as a more serious, intellectually-based movement than the Islamic State organization, whose fighters he characterizes as “ignorant youths without serious religious training [much like Diaby himself] whose deviant behavior springs forth as soon as you put weapons in their hands” (Le Nouvel Observateur, August 10 2015). He also objects to their methods of occupation:”Their understanding of Shari’a is different from ours” (Le Monde, May 29). Despite Diaby’s criticism of the Islamic State, there are indications that the movement is draining off jihadis from Diaby’s katiba to new Francophone Islamic State units (Libération [Paris], August 9, 2015).

Diaby derides the Islamic State’s videos of graphic cruelty as targeting “a reactionary, impulsive audience” through “five-minute clips that merely inspire rage” (France24.com, June 1). Nonetheless, Diaby justified the Islamic State’s November 13, 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris (which included the mass shooting at the Bataclan Theatre): “They were made in retaliation for French strikes on women and children… therefore we cannot condemn them, because Allah said “transgress for equal transgression” (Le Monde, May 29).

Al-Qaeda’s January 2015 Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris also met with Diaby’s approval:

If defending his Prophet is terrorism, then all Muslims who know their religion are terrorists. Those who insult the Prophet are to be executed, it is Islamic law. The fact that Kouachi brothers [Saïd and Chérif] applied this law does not make them terrorists, but real Muslims… Those who insulted the Prophet were executed. I wish I’d been chosen to do that” (Le Monde, May 31; AFP, May 29).

Conclusion

Breaking new ground in the use of video as a recruitment tool, Omar Diaby bears a large share of responsibility for the recent terrorist outrages in France as well as the emigration of scores of young French Muslims to Syria’s battlefields, from which many will never return. Diaby’s propaganda efforts have fostered a climate of fear and resentment amongst French Muslims, some of whom have become convinced that powerful forces in the Western world are determined to eliminate Islam and slaughter its followers, a belief that can have only one response – jihad against the infidels.

Notes

  1. For the latter, see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kqtODX02TZA
  2. See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wT_vJcw39zw
  3. For the video, see: https://www.youtube.com/v/kAtmbfilCjM
  4. The full video is available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i8OR77WMO7A

This article first appeared in the July 2016 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Militant Leadership Monitor

Looking for War in All the Wrong Places: Canada’s Search for a UN Peacekeeping Mission in Africa

Andrew McGregor

AIS Special Commentary

July 21, 2016

Canada PK MemorialCanadian Peacekeeping Memorial, Ottawa (Frank Hudec/DND)

Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responded with familiar platitudes following the brutal terrorist attack in Nice, offering “sympathy” while claiming “Canada stands with France as a steadfast ally” that will “continue to work with our allies and partners to fight terrorism in all its forms.” [i]

Yet taking the fight to the enemy is apparently not in the cards; Canada’s Liberals have no taste for a direct confrontation with the Islamic State organization.

Liberal defence policy is grounded in a belief that Canada is a “peacekeeping” rather than “peacemaking” country, and the search is now underway to find a politically appropriate place to resume large-scale peacekeeping duties, preferably African, preferably Francophone and definitely under UN auspices. These parameters immediately disqualify action against Islamic State or al-Qaeda affiliates in the most active fronts; Libya, Nigeria and Somalia. Libya and Nigeria have no peacekeeping missions and Somalia’s peacekeeping mission (actually a European-financed war against al-Shabaab) is conducted by the African Union, not the UN. So what’s left? Let’s have a look at the nine candidate missions in Africa, most of which are dominated by personnel from non-allied nations:

MINURSO – Western Sahara

Going strong since 1991, MINURSO is the African equivalent of the Cyprus peacekeeping operation (1964 to present); a seemingly endless mission with no apparent resolution in sight. Why? Because, like Turkey and Greece in Cyprus, the Western Sahara issue is manipulated by two implacable rivals (Morocco and Algeria in this case) as a form of proxy war that spares the economic and political disruption that would be created by a real war between the two nations. MINURSO is the only UN mission to be distinguished by an absence of any human rights mandate, meaning it can only watch abuses without intervention. However, the end to this mission may be in sight – Morocco has begun shutting down MINURSO operations in Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara, claiming the UN has abandoned its neutral stance in the region.

Experience – Canada contributed 35 peacekeepers to MINURSO between 1991 and 1995.

Mission Fatalities – 15[ii]

Desirability – Minimal

Language Compatibility[iii] – Minimal (Spanish and Arabic)

Risk to Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) personnel – Minimal

Political Payoff – Minimal

 

MINUSCA – Central African Republic

MINUSCA has struggled to cope with savage sectarian violence since April 2014, but its extended mandate is up at the end of the month. France is reducing the size of its own independent deployment though bandits and gunmen still roam much of the nation. A South African effort to intervene in the conflict ended in military disaster and withdrawal in 2013.[iv] The UN mission has been rife with accusations of child sexual abuse and rape, with an entire contingent of 800 Congolese peacekeepers being sent home. Peacekeepers from France, Burundi, Tanzania, Morocco and several other countries are being investigated on similar charges with new cases emerging all the time. MINUSCA is unusual in that it has a mandate to take military action to disarm and neutralize rebel fighters, though this goal sometimes appears to be of secondary importance for the UN peacekeepers.

Experience – Canada contributed an 80-man French-speaking signals unit from 1998-99 to MINURCA, an earlier UN peacekeeping effort in the CAR.

Fatalities – 22

Desirability – Minimal

Language Compatibility – Optimal (French)

Risk to CAF personnel – Significant

Political Payoff – Moderate

Canada PK MINUSMAMINUSMA Patrol, Northern Mali

MINUSMA – Mali

MINUSMA is undoubtedly the most dangerous of all the potential missions, with 101 Peacekeepers killed since April 2013.

France is conducting counter-terrorism operations in northern Mali together with its regional partners Chad and Niger as part of Operation Barkhane. As part of MINUSMA, Canadian troops would not participate in such operations, though it would be able to operate alongside NATO allies Germany (400 troops divided between MINUSMA and an EU training mission) and Holland (400 troops in MINUSMA but in the process of withdrawing four vitally needed Apache attack helicopters plus three utility helicopters). MINUSMA’s mandate has been renewed until June 2017 and it is adding another 2,000 personnel.

Mali is certainly in great need of any professional assistance as terrorism begins to spread into the previously unaffected south, where most of the population lives. Of all the possible operations, this would have the greatest direct impact so far as countering terrorism.

As conditions worsen in Mali, the UN has pledged to take a more “active and robust” approach to applying its mandate of enforcing the peace agreement and restoring government authority.[v] However, whatever good work is accomplished by the UN mission is steadily undone by the Malian Army’s determination to return to the same brutal treatment of civilians that inspired the 2012 rebellion.

Fatalities – 101

Desirability – Optimal

Language Compatibility – Optimal (French)

Risk to CAF personnel – Significant

Political Payoff – Optimal

 

MONUSCO – Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)

Established under an earlier name in 1999 to monitor a peace agreement, this mission has grown into the UN’s largest and most expensive peacekeeping mission with no end in sight. Since its start, MONUSCO has become entangled in a series of new conflicts and now acts more as a support unit for the ineffective Congolese Army than a peacekeeping mission. Even for peacekeepers with access to modern medical facilities (unlike the local population), service in the Congo can be perilous; over half of the mission’s 263 fatalities are from illness.

Canada PK MONUSCOMONUSCO Armor, DRC

MONUSCO peacekeepers have been accused of trading ammunition and rations for ivory, drugs and locally mined gold. In 2012 they abandoned the city of Goma to a much inferior rebel force claiming they were only authorized to protect civilians. The unarmed civilians of Goma were, of course, left to their fate. Despite the formation of a unique UN offensive combat formation known as the Force Intervention Brigade (FIB), UN peacekeepers are no longer trusted locally to provide protection from rampaging rebel groups. In the violence-plagued North Kivu region, the UN’s peacekeepers are referred to as “tourists in helicopters.”[vi]

India, Bangladesh and Nepal are principal contributors to MONUSCO, though India is seeking to separate itself from a mission that has brought criticism and losses of personnel. MONUSCO’s mandate has been renewed until June 2017.

Fatalities – 263 since 1999 (includes MONUC before it was renamed MONUSCO)

Desirability – Minimal

Language Compatibility – Optimal (French)

Risk to CAF personnel – Moderate

Political Payoff – Moderate

 

UNAMID – Darfur

This joint UN/African Union mission has taken a heavy toll of peacekeepers killed (233 since July 2007) but has had little impact on Sudan’s counter-insurgency operations and their attendant atrocities. Its mandate has been renewed until June 30, 2017 despite the objections of Khartoum, which never wanted the mission in the first place. In the meantime Khartoum toys with UNAMID, denying it access to areas of conflict and holding up supply shipments and visas for UN officials.

Small to large scale attacks on peacekeepers in Darfur have been common from the beginning – some of these attacks are believed to have been carried out by government forces or their proxies in an attempt to force the peacekeepers out. UNAMID’s strategic goals are protection of civilians and humanitarian efforts – the mission takes no action against insurgents or government troops. The largest contributors to the mission are Rwanda, Ethiopia and Egypt. Despite having had little impact on the ongoing conflict (a remarkable 2.6 million people are still displaced), UNAMID is now the second largest UN peacekeeping force with an annual budget of $1.35 billion.

Experience – Canada contributed seven military administrators and armor trainers from 2007 to 2009.[vii]

Fatalities – 233

Desirability – Minimal

Language Compatibility – Minimal (Arabic)

Risk to CAF personnel – Significant

Political Payoff – Moderate

 

UNISFA – Abyei (Sudan/South Sudan)

The district of Abyei is home to a nasty little struggle over an oil-rich but otherwise innocuous piece of land on the border between Sudan and South Sudan. Since neither party could agree who owned the land, it was simply left out of the peace agreement establishing South Sudan’s independence– not a good sign that a resolution is impending. In the meantime, civilians take a beating through efforts to depopulate the area.  Established in 2011, UNIFSA is overwhelmingly Ethiopian in composition.

Fatalities – 20

Desirability – Minimal

Language Compatibility – Moderate (English)

Risk to CAF personnel – Moderate

Political Payoff – Minimal

 

UNMIL – Liberia

Established in 2003 UNMIL is an unlikely choice as it is in a draw-down phase after its annual budget reached an unsustainable $340 million. Pakistan, Bangladesh and Ethiopia are the main contributors.

Fatalities – 197

Desirability – Minimal

Language Compatibility – Moderate (English)

Risk to CAF personnel – Moderate

Political Payoff – Minimal

 

UNMISS – South Sudan

Canada PK UNMISSUNMISS Post, South Sudan

In the young nation of South Sudan power still comes from the mouth of a gun, as both the government and the army are divided by differences between the country’s two largest tribes, the Dinka and the Nuer. With nearly all the nation’s oil revenues spent on arms, South Sudan is awash in weapons. Raids, clashes, massacres and ambushes are South Sudan’s reality.

Without a mandate for intervention, UNMISS (formed in July 2011) can do little more than offer refuge in their camps to masses of civilians fleeing certain death. Much of the current struggle is fuelled by the ongoing proxy war between Sudan and Uganda, the latter deploying sizeable numbers of troops and armor in South Sudan. The fact that South Sudan sits on some of the world’s largest oil reserves has done nothing to discourage all manner of small armed movements from trying to seize their slice of petroleum revenues.

The African Union has agreed to deploy thousands more peacekeepers to reinforce UNMISS, though the plan is opposed by South Sudan president Salva Kiir Mayardit (a Dinka).[viii] Local protests against the UNMISS presence are common.

Experience – Canada had a limited contribution (45 peacekeepers) to UNMISS from 2005 to 2009.

Fatalities – 43

Desirability – Minimal

Language Compatibility – Moderate (English)

Risk to CAF personnel – Moderate to Significant

Political Payoff – Moderate

 Canada PK ONUCI

UNOCI – Côte d’Ivoire

These days UNOCI is a generally low-risk operation with a 2004 mandate for assisting the implementation of peace agreements following the 2003 (and later 2011) civil wars and providing disarmament and humanitarian assistance. UNOCI is currently trying to draw attention to the prevalence of rape and other sexual violence in Côte d’Ivoire, where two-thirds of such attacks are on children.

Experience – A small number of Canadian police served with UNOCI

Fatalities – 143

Desirability – Moderate

Language Compatibility – Optimal (French)

Risk to CAF personnel – Minimal

Political Payoff – Minimal

 

Conclusion

Rather than fighting al-Qaeda and the Islamic State organization alongside our allies, Ottawa now prefers to join the ranks of second-rate militaries from third-world countries that rent out ineffective troops for UN cash. Though many UN missions perform important work in both the military and humanitarian fields, the intractability of some conflicts is often aggravated by the UN military presence, which discourages any sense of urgency in reaching reconciliation, particularly if one party believes it can use the presence of a UN mission to further their own strategic goals. While joining a UN African peacekeeping mission satisfies a Liberal nostalgia for a largely mythical golden era of Pearsonian peacekeeping, it is also a means of sidestepping a confrontation with al-Qaeda and the Islamic State for domestic political considerations, a confrontation in which Canada’s professional military and Special Forces could make a meaningful contribution in direct support of our allies beyond meaningless expressions of sympathy and solidarity.

ACRONYMS

MINURSO – Misión de las Naciones Unidas para la Organización de un Referéndum en el Sáhara Occidental

MINUSCA – Mission multidimensionnelle intégrée des Nations unies pour la stabilisation en Centrafrique

MINUSMA – Mission multidimensionnelle intégrée des Nations unies pour la stabilisation au Mali

MONUCO – Mission de l’Organisation des Nations Unies en République démocratique du Congo

MONUSCO – Mission de l’Organisation des Nations unies pour la stabilisation en République démocratique du Congo

UNAMID – United Nations Mission in Darfur

UNIFSAUnited Nations Interim Security Force for Abyei

UNMIL – United Nations Mission in Liberia

UNMISS – United Nations Mission in South Sudan

UNOCI – United Nations Operation in Côte d’Ivoire

 

NOTES

[i] Canadian Press, July 15, 2016 – http://www.cbc.ca/news/trending/bastille-day-nice-attack-canadian-reaction-1.3680263

[ii] Figures used for UN missions in Africa are taken from official UN sources: http://www.un.org/en/peacekeeping/resources/statistics/factsheet.shtml; Fatality statistics are taken from http://www.un.org/en/peacekeeping/fatalities/documents/stats_3.pdf (as of June 7, 2016).

[iii] “Language Compatibility” refers to the language compatibility of the host nation in light of the government’s stated desire to have a French language mission – therefore “Optimal” = French language, “Moderate” = English, and “Minimal” = languages other than French or English.

[iv] See Andrew McGregor:  “South African Military Disaster in the Central African Republic: Part One – The Rebel Offensive,” Terrorism Monitor, April 4, 2013,  http://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=238 ; “South African Military Disaster in the Central African Republic: Part Two – The Political and Strategic Fallout,” Terrorism Monitor, April 4, 2013, http://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=236

[v] UN News Centre, “Security Council extends mandates of UN peacekeeping operations in Darfur, Golan and Mali,” June 29, 2016;  http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=54357#.V45YkjVqncc

[vi] Al-Jazeera, January 19, 2016, http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2016/01/peacekeepers-drc-longer-trusted-protect-160112081436110.html

[vii] Government of Canada, “Archived – Canadian Forces Launches Contribution to U.N.- African Union Mission in Darfur,” CEFCOM/COMFEC NR 08.008 – February 4, 2008, http://news.gc.ca/web/article-en.do?&nid=376349

[viii] Radio Tamazuj, July 19, 2016, https://radiotamazuj.org/en/article/au-agrees-send-more-peacekeepers-south-sudan-kiir-plans-demonstrations

Al-Qaeda, Anti-Colonialism and the Battle for Benghazi

Andrew McGregor

Terrorist Research & Analysis Consortium

July 17, 2016

Islamist resistance to the efforts of anti-extremist government troops and militia allies to expel the radicals from the Libyan city of Benghazi has entered a crucial stage in which suicide bombers and desperate gunmen engaged in urban warfare imperil the lives of troops and civilians alike. In the midst of this conflict, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has attempted to intervene on the side of the Islamists by an unusual resort to historical anti-colonial rhetoric to rally support for the besieged fighters.

Trac 1 al-AnaabiA Message from Abu Ubaydah Yusuf al-Anabi

Abu Ubaydah Yusuf al-Anabi, head of AQIM’s Council of Notables and AQIM’s second-in-command, posted an audio message on June 27 urging “the descendants of Omar al-Mukhtar” to rush to Benghazi to relieve the Islamic extremists trapped there by Libyan National Army (LNA) forces and allied militias. Abu Ubaydah called on Libyans to join the fight against the LNA and “French forces” said to be assisting the LNA campaign.[1]

The Situation in Benghazi

Most of the Islamist forces in Benghazi have joined together in the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries since June 2014. Along with Ansar al-Shari’a, the council includes the February 17 Martyrs Brigade, the Rafallah Sahati Brigade and the Libya Shield 1 militia. The Islamic State organization is also active in the remaining areas of Benghazi still held by Islamist radicals.

AQIM has never established a real presence in coastal Libya, though some members appear to have established bases in Libya’s remote south-west, intended more as refuges and jumping-off points for operations in Algeria and the Sahelian regions of Niger and Mali rather than Libya. Instead, AQIM formed ties with Ansar al-Shari’a, an al-Qaeda-inspired Islamist militant group formed in the eastern cities of Derna and Benghazi during the 2011 revolution. Leadership difficulties and military pressure in the east led some Ansar members to abandon the loosely-formed group in favor of the more focused Islamic State group centered on Sirte. AQIM tends to regard Libya’s Islamic State as a rival rather than a partner, an observation seemingly confirmed by Abu Ubaydah’s failure to use his message to call for support for the Islamic State extremists currently besieged in Sirte in the same way he called for support for the Islamist militants in Benghazi.

Trac 4 - Fighting in BenghaziLNA Operations in Benghazi, July 12, 2016 (Libyan Express)

AQIM’s leader Abd al-Malik Droukdel (a.k.a. Abu Mu’sab Abd al-Wadud) attempted to co-opt the Libyan Revolution from afar when he claimed in 2011 that the revolution was nothing more than a new phase of the Salafist-Jihadi struggle against Arab tyrants, an assertion made once more by Abu Ubaydah in 2013.[2]

Ansar al-Shari’a has battled General Khalifa Belqasim Haftar’s “Operation Dignity” forces (the so-called Libyan National Army [LNA] and its allies) for control of Benghazi since May 2014. At the time of writing, the area controlled by Ansar al-Shari’a and other Islamist groups has been reduced to roughly five square kilometers near the port area.

Who is Omar al-Mukhtar?

Libya’s most prominent national hero is without a doubt the Islamic scholar turned independence fighter Sidi Omar al-Mukhtar. Well versed in tactics learned opposing the Italian invasion of Libya in 1911 and during Sayyid Ahmad al-Sharif al-Sanusi’s failed invasion of British-occupied Egypt during World War One, al-Mukhtar began an eight-year revolt against Italian rule in 1923 using the slogan “We will win or die!” Shortly after the wounded guerrilla leader was captured in 1931, he was hung by Italian authorities in front of a crowd of 20,000 Libyans as a demonstration of Italian resolve and ruthlessness. The resistance collapsed soon afterwards, with some 50% of Libya’s population either forced into exile or dead from starvation, exposure and battle wounds.

Trac5 - al-Mukhtar hangingThe Execution of Omar al-Mukhtar

Abu Ubaydah’s invocation of Omar al-Mukhtar was not unprecedented; during the 2011 revolution al-Qaeda spokesman Abu Yahya al-Libi urged Libyans to follow the example of al-Mukhtar, “the Shaykh of the Martyrs” while claiming al-Qaeda had inspired the revolution by shattering “the barrier of fear” that preserved Muslim regimes that ruled without sole reliance on Shari’a.[3]

Al-Mukhtar’s memory was suppressed during post-WWII Sanusi rule but was enthusiastically revived by Colonel Mu’ammar al-Qaddafi after the 1969 officers’ coup as a means of giving his regime and its anti-Western policies legitimacy by drawing on Libyans’ shared experience of resistance to colonialism. Qaddafi’s first post-coup speech was given in front of al-Mukhtar’s Benghazi tomb, and soon the guerrilla leader’s image was everywhere, including on Libya’s currency. In 1981 Qaddafi financed a big-budget film biography with Anthony Quinn playing al-Mukhtar and a grim-faced Oliver Reed as his deadly enemy, Italy’s Marshal Rodolfo Graziani.

Qaddafi gradually developed a highly individualistic amalgam of Islam, socialism and anti-colonialism that, to his disappointment, failed to gain traction outside of Libya, where it became the dominant political ideology only due to the weight of the state and its enforcement agencies. Qaddafi, however, continued to claim Omar al-Mukhtar as his prime inspiration.

Al-Qaeda and Anti-Colonialism

Due to its close links to nationalism, anti-colonialism has typically been treated carefully by al-Qaeda, whose goal is the creation of a pan-Islamic Arab-led Sunni caliphate rather than the perpetuation of Muslim-majority nations whose boundaries were defined by colonial powers. Recalling the examples of earlier Islamic anti-colonial movements presents al-Qaeda’s takfiri Salafists with an undesirable minefield of ideological dangers and contradictions. To cite only a few examples; Imam Shamyl’s mid-19th century jihad in the North Caucasus was entirely Sufi-based (Sufism being rejected in its entirety by modern Salafi-Jihadists), Sufi Ahmad al-Mahdi’s 19th century jihad in Sudan was meant to overthrow rule by the Ottoman Caliph and his Egyptian Viceroy rather than a European power, while Libya’s own anti-colonial Sanusi movement evolved by the end of World War II into a British-allied monarchy of the type rejected by jihadists throughout the Middle East. Al-Qaeda’s ability to find ideological, ethnic or religious failings in every Islamic movement but its own often strangles its ability to communicate its message; when it does relax its ideological firewalls enough to make historical reference to earlier Muslim leaders outside their usual pantheon it often sounds insincere, even desperate. As might be expected, the vital role played by Western-educated anti-colonial Muslim modernists in establishing today’s post-colonial nation-states is beyond al-Qaeda’s religious frame of reference and, beyond condemnation, remains an unmentionable topic in their public statements.

The most notable exception to this approach is in AQIM’s home turf of Algeria, where the al-Qaeda affiliate has always identified its main enemy as former colonial power France, issuing repeated calls for the death of French citizens and the destruction of their assets and interests in northern Africa. The origin for this lies in both AQIM’s relative isolation from al-Qaeda-Central and in the bitter experience of French colonial rule in Algeria, culminating in the brutal 1954-62 struggle for independence (inspired to a large degree by the success of the Marxist Viet Minh’s armed rejection of French colonialism in Indo-China). The Algerian independence movement was a product of its time, and identified closely with the secular socialism promoted by China, the Soviet Union and influential anti-colonial theorists such as Franz Fanon, marginalizing more Islamic trends of resistance in the process. These trends became submerged in Algeria, where they became a type of unofficial opposition to Algeria’s growing authoritarianism and reliance on the military to preserve the post-independence regime. When a brief experiment with multi-party democracy appeared to be leading to an Islamist government in the 1991-92 elections, the regime promptly cancelled the elections, allegedly at the instigation of Paris. As a consequence, Abu Ubaydah refers to the Algerian regime as “the sons of France”. The Islamists launched a new insurgency whose vicious and callous treatment of innocent civilians (possibly with the participation of government-allied provocateurs) eventually led to a crisis within the armed Islamist movement and an eventual identification with the ideals of Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda movement that led to the creation in 2007 of an Algerian-based affiliate, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

Due to its unique history and antecedents, AQIM is more likely to incorporate more traditional strains of anti-colonial thought into its messaging than other al-Qaeda affiliates in which historical references tend to hearken back to the glorious days of the mediaeval Islamic Empire rather than the more ideologically problematic colonial era. In the fierce fighting for Benghazi, it is somewhat natural then that AQIM ideologues like Abu Ubaydah would be more likely to turn to more-recent resistance leaders like Omar al-Mukhtar for inspiration than their fellow al-Qaeda affiliates.

Notably, Abu Ubaydah singles out French support for anti-terrorist operations in Benghazi, failing to note that the vast majority of those fighting and dying to retake the city from Islamist extremists are in fact Libyan Muslims. Though progress is slow, the ultimate defeat of the extremists (who have little popular support) seems certain – al-Ubaydah’s message is therefore not entirely focused on rallying his Islamist comrades, but also on persuading Benghazi’s Libyan assailants to abandon efforts to seize those parts of the city still under IS/Ansar al-Shari’a control.

The Italian Legacy

In response to the alleged presence of a small number of Italian Special Forces operatives in Libya, Abu Ubaydah claimed in a January audio message entitled “Roman Italy has occupied Libya” that the Italians had re-occupied Libya: “To the new invaders, grandchildren of Graziani, you will bite your hands off, regretting you entered the land of Omar al-Mukhtar and you will come out of it humiliated.”[4] Abu Ubaydah consciously usurped al-Mukhtar’s famous slogan “We will win or die” in his message in an attempt to align AQIM with the Islamist forces in Libya: “We are people who never give up, you will have to walk on our dead bodies. Either we win or we die.”[5] AQIM first encouraged the Libyan thuwar (revolutionaries) to use the slogan in a 2011 message addressed to “the progeny of Omar al-Mukhtar.” [6]

In a further effort to compare the current struggle with al-Mukhtar’s anti-Italian revolt, the AQIM leader also referred to “an Italian general who now rules in Tripoli,” likely describing Italy’s General Paolo Serra, a veteran of Kosovo and Afghanistan and currently the military advisor to Martin Kobler, the UN’s special envoy to Libya.[7]

In March, Abu Ubaydah again referred to “the re-colonization of Libya, now ruled by an Italian general from Tripoli.” He went on to describe how colonialism had returned to North Africa:

After the Arab revolutions and the fall of dictatorships, the West cross saw the return of Muslims to their religion and their commitment to implement sharia, he added. He had no choice but to re-colonize their territory, get hold of their resources and the oil that continues its domination and our marginalization.[8]

Trac 3 - GrazianiNew Mausoleum of Marshall Graziani

In an entirely different approach to Italy’s colonial legacy, Graziani, a convicted war criminal who flew to Libya to interview al-Mukhtar before his execution, was recently honored with a taxpayer-funded mausoleum and memorial park south of Rome.[9] Through his enthusiastic use of poison gas, chemical warfare, civilian massacres and massive concentration camps to impose Italian rule in Africa, Graziani gained the undesirable distinction of being remembered in Libya as “the Butcher of Fezzan” and in the Horn of Africa as “the Butcher of Ethiopia.”

Operation Volcano of Rage

An Islamist relief column of thirty to forty vehicles seems to have been spurred to relieve Benghazi not by al-Qaeda’s Abu Ubaydah, but rather by Libya’s Chief Mufti, Shaykh Sadiq al-Ghariani, under whose authority they claim to be fighting. The Shaykh has been Libya’s top religious cleric since February 2012, but has since become a divisive political figure generally siding with the Tripoli-based General National Congress government, also supported by Ansar al-Shari’a and the rest of the Shura Council of Bengazhi Revolutionaries.

The self-styled Benghazi Defense Brigade (BDB) began its march on Benghazi (named “Operation Volcano Rage) in late June by warning all residents of towns between Ajdabiya and Benghazi to stay out of their way or face destruction.[10] Nonetheless, the BDB had difficulty getting past Ajdabiya, where they met resistance from the LNA. Clashes around Ajdabiya were said to be responsible for disabling pumps in the Great Man-Made River Project that supplies water to Benghazi, which is already suffering from power cuts seven to eight hours a day.[11]

trac sharkasiBDB Leader Brigadier Mustafa al-Sharkasi

The alleged leader of the BDB offensive is Misrata’s Brigadier Mustafa al-Sharkasi. Other leading Islamist militants said to be with the BDB column include al-Sa’adi al-Nawfali of the Adjdabiya Shura Council, Ziyad Balham, the commander of Benghazi’s Omar al-Mukhtar Brigade and Ismail al-Salabi, commander of the Rafallah Sahati militia and brother of prominent Libyan Muslim Brotherhood member Ali Muhammad al-Salabi.

The Grand Mufti’s intervention in the ongoing battle for Benghazi is not surprising; al-Ghariani has in the past referred to those serving under General Haftar as “infidels” and has denied Ansar al-Shari’a is a terrorist group: “There is no terror in Libya and we should not use the word terrorism when referring to Ansar al-Shari’a. They kill and they have their reasons.”[12] Al-Ghariani also declared “the real battle in Libya is the one against Haftar. Only when he is defeated will Libya find security and stability.”[13] The BDB takes a similar view of General Haftar, accusing him of hiring mercenaries and collaborating with former regime members to kill innocents, steal goods and money, destroy homes and displace thousands of Benghazi residents.[14] Both the BDB and their mentor al-Ghariani profess to be opposed to the Islamic State, with some BDB members and leaders having fought the group around Sirte as part of the GNC’s Operation Dawn.

Trac 2 - Usama JadhranUsama Jadhran (al-Jazeera)

Despite a string of victory announcements by the LNA, the BDB still appears to be active some 30 km south of Benghazi (particularly in the region between Sultan and Suluq) as it continues to try to batter its way into the city. A sensational LNA pronouncement on July 10 claimed LNA airstrikes and attacks had devastated the BNB column, with radical Islamist Usama Jadhran (brother of powerful Petroleum Facilities Guard chief Ibrahim Jadhran) being killed and BNB commander al-Sharkasi being captured and removed to General Haftar’s headquarters. To date, the LNA have yet to confirm these claims, while the BNB insists al-Sharkasi remains free and that the BNB had actually overrun an LNA camp at al-Jalidiya on July 10, capturing significant arms and munitions.[15]

Conclusion

Drawing on the radical inspiration of Egypt’s Sayyid Qutb, al-Qaeda rejects independent Muslim nation-states as long as they continue to adopt the forms of governance introduced by colonial regimes rather than governance drawn strictly from Shari’a in its Salafist interpretation, i.e. the sovereignty of God (al-hakimiya li’llah) over the sovereignty of man. Until this is achieved, according to Qutb, Muslim society will continue to exist in a state of jahiliya (the state of ignorance that prevailed in pre-Islamic society). Though the Grand Mufti’s appeals for anti-LNA intervention in Benghazi have had some limited success, calls from Abu Ubaydah for Muslims to flock to the aid of Benghazi’s hard-pressed Islamist militants have produced not even a noticeable trickle in comparison, suggesting that AQIM’s desire to influence Libya’s future remains largely disconnected most of the diverse political and religious approaches favored by Libya’s Muslims. Abu Ubaydah’s attempt to invoke the spirit of Omar al-Mukhtar to rally support for Benghazi’s Islamist militants is more likely to remind most Libyans of the abuse al-Mukhtar’s legacy suffered under Qaddafi than it is to launch new waves of dedicated jihadists. Unlike Abu al-Ubaydah, Omar al-Mukhtar did not need to invent an Italian occupation of Libya to rally his people against colonialism.

This article was originally published at: http://www.trackingterrorism.org/article/al-qaeda-anti-colonialism-and-battle-benghazi/executive-summary

NOTES

[1] Libya Herald, June 27, 2016, https://www.libyaherald.com/2016/06/27/substantial-bombardment-of-benghazi-terrorist-positions/.

[2] Abu Mu`sab Abd al-Wadud, “Aid to the Noble Descendants of Umar al-Mukhtar,” Ansar1.info, March 18, 2011. For a discussion of these efforts, see Barak Barfi: “Al-Qa’ida’s Confused Messaging on Libya,” Center for Countering Terrorism, West Point N.Y., August 1, 2011, https://www.ctc.usma.edu/posts/al-qaida%E2%80%99s-confused-messaging-on-libya ; Abu Ubaydah Yusuf al-Anabi: “The War on Mali,” April 25, 2013, http://www.as-ansar.com/vb/showthread.php?t=88988.

[3] Ansar1.info, March 12, 2011 (no longer available on the web).

[4] ANSA [Rome], January 14, 2016, http://www.ansa.it/english/news/world/2016/01/14/al-qaeda-threatens-italy_bf3677bf-a525-45c2-ab8a-9d39f8fc448a.html .

[5] ANSA, January 14, 2016, http://www.ansa.it/english/news/world/2016/01/14/al-qaeda-threatens-italy_bf3677bf-a525-45c2-ab8a-9d39f8fc448a.html.

[6] Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, “In Defense and Support of the Revolution of Our Fellow Free Muslims, the Progeny of Omar al-Mukhtar,” al-Andalus Media Foundation, February 23, 2011; English translation available here: http://occident2.blogspot.ca/2011/02/english-al-qaida-in-islamic-maghreb_27.html

[7] ANSA, January 14, 2016, http://www.ansa.it/english/news/world/2016/01/14/al-qaeda-threatens-italy_bf3677bf-a525-45c2-ab8a-9d39f8fc448a.html.

[8] Al-Akhbar [Nouakchott], March 7, 2016, http://fr.alakhbar.info/10874-0-Aqmi-Laccord-inter-libyen-est-un-complot-italien.html .

[9] BBC, August 15, 2012, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-19267099 .

[10] Libya Herald, June 19, 2016, https://www.libyaherald.com/2016/06/19/new-benghazi-militant-unit-issues-ajdabiya-warning/.

[11] Libya Herald, June 20, 2016, https://www.libyaherald.com/2016/06/20/benghazi-without-water-following-power-cuts-to-soloug-reservoir-tripoli-in-fourth-day-of-water-shortages/.

[12] Magharebia, June 12, 2014, http://allafrica.com/stories/201406130754.html.

[13] Libyan Gazette, June 13, 2016, https://www.libyangazette.net/2016/06/13/grand-mufti-of-libya-calls-on-libyan-army-to-move-on-to-benghazi-after-defeating-isis/.

[14] Libya Observer, June 22, 2016, http://www.libyaobserver.ly/news/brigadier-al-shirksi-we-are-not-warmongers-we-came-defend-benghazi; July 12, 2016, http://www.libyaobserver.ly/news/defend-benghazi-brigades-our-battle-aims-regain-rights-displaced-and-thwart-haftar%E2%80%99s-project.

[15] Libya Herald, July 17, 2016, https://www.libyaherald.com/2016/07/17/police-arrest-alleged-bdb-supporters-in-soloug-and-yemenis-report/ ; July 10, 2016, https://www.libyaherald.com/2016/07/10/army-claims-capture-of-sharksi-his-bdb-militia-deny-it/; Libya Observer, July 10, 2016, http://www.libyaobserver.ly/news/defend-benghazi-brigades-confirm-control-sultan-district-western-benghazi.

 

After Nice: Where and How to Find Islamic State Terrorists in Europe

AIS Special Guest Commentary

By Dr. Emrullah Uslu

Virginia International University

July 16, 2016

In this special guest commentary, Dr. Emrullah Uslu, a former counter-terrorism officer in Turkey and authority on ethnic and religious violence in the Islamic world, addresses the question of why current counter-terrorism efforts are failing to detect the presence of “home-grown” terrorists before they strike. Dr. Uslu believes security resources could be better deployed in spotting radicalization as it happens and suggests several ways in which this can be done.

Emrullah 1

(al-Akhbar)

Following quickly on the attack in Istanbul, yet another terrorist attack in Nice has reminded us to go beyond the everyday discussions on terrorism, assimilation, and immigration to focus on the efficiency of Western counter-terrorism efforts.

Looking at broader issues such as Muslim assimilation, Western imperialism and colonialism will not help in the short-term fight against home-grown terrorism. Focusing on millions of immigrants in Europe and trying to find the terrorist among them is similar to trying to find a needle in the haystacks. Rather, we should focus on jihadist networks, how they operate, where to locate them, and how to prevent them obtaining weapons.

First we need to focus on how and where to find ISIS or Al-Qaeda sympathizers.

Though many believe that conversion of young Muslim men or women to radical Islamic ideologies and subsequent recruitment into terrorist networks happens in remote corners of Western cities, these converts join terror networks right in front of our eyes. They join terror networks under the roofs of maximum-security prisons, fitness clubs and schoolyards.

They metamorphose into monstrous terrorists right in front of our eyes. Many families who do not wish their children to become a member of terror networks are well aware of their children’s transformation into jihadists.

The only terrorist activity conducted in secrecy is planning a terror attack. Before the planning stage, a terrorist can be easily detected in various spots at various times.

What is wrong with our counter-terrorism perspective?

One example appeared in a recent Guardian story that described how many Muslims are radicalized in French prisons. However, immediately after Charlie Hebdo, the French government announced that it was putting €425m into anti-terror measures – mostly personnel and equipment for the security forces. Yet no attention was given to France’s prisons to monitor the transformation of their inmates. Where, then, are these efforts being directed?

After the November attacks, President François Hollande instituted a state of emergency under whose provisions civil administrators – not judges – have ordered more than 3,000 searches of premises and issued 400 house arrests. The targets of these measures have almost all been Muslims (as are most of the subjects of the bag searches and frisking that police carry out in town centres) and almost none have been accused of any terrorism-related crime as a result. The effect on civil liberties has been crushing, and Muslims across the country have complained to human rights organisations that they are being systematically profiled (Guardian, March 17, 2016).

It would have been much effective than bag searches if French authorities were searching the networks inside prisons, and tracking those who were radicalized in prison after they are released.

Whenever, there is a terrorist attack in any Western country the natural reaction is to increase security measures, and send counter-terrorism units to do more searches and more raids into “suspected” neighborhoods.

As a former counter-terrorism officer, I would call such measures a PR campaign rather than counter-terrorism measures. After a horrific terror attack, most politicians feel that they need to calm public anger, and the easy way to do that is to show some muscle by increasing security measures and ordering counter terrorism raids. However, counter-terrorism has more to do brain activities than showing muscle.

Almost no attention is being paid to prisons at this time to understand who reacts and how when they hear news of a terror attack.  For realistic counter-terrorism efforts European nations need to develop programs to train prison staff to identify the radicalization process in prisons.

Second, most radical Islamists are affiliated with boxing and fitness centers or ethnic coffee shops. They are regulars at these facilities.  However, law enforcement agencies focus on mosques and masjids to find terrorists. Of course, some mosques and masjids are preaching radical Islamic ideology, however it is not the preaching that turns a North African Muslim man or women into a terrorist, it is how they socialize and share that teaching that makes them join terror networks.

Therefore, instead of paying more attention to the mosques, law enforcement officers and the public should focus on private sport facilities, such as boxing saloons, fitness centers etc. At least in these centers, it is easy to detect a member’s transformation into radical Islamic ideology.

Emrullah 2Third, most schools in Europe can be a perfect spot for starting counter-terrorism investigations. I am aware of the delicate relationship between law enforcement activities, education, and democratic rights. By no means am I suggesting bringing in police officers, or setting up counter-terrorism offices, or hiring informants from students or teachers at schools.  However, there are ways to establish early warning systems to detect whether a student or his siblings are exposed to radical Islamic ideology.

When a student at a certain age changes his attitude toward national symbols, starts struggling at academic or social activities, missing classes, or reacting to certain issues, there should be a warning system to prevent those students from falling into radical Islamic traps. School officials should be trained to notice the radicalization process at school level and act proactively to prevent these kids from becoming the next generation of terrorists.

Last but not least, most families in Europe don’t want their kids to join terrorist organizations. However, most of them are unfamiliar with the radicalization process. Worse, there is no legitimate authority in the eyes of those families in Muslim ghettos to explain how the radicalization process works.

Most Muslim families in Europe become happy when their naughty kids start praying and attending religious activities. The problem arises when radical Islamists are the ones who convince the kids to pray. Here, by no means am I suggesting every kid who starts praying is affiliated with radical Islamists. However, sudden devotion to the faith, a sudden disappearance from home, unexpected socialization with new social groups or political arguments at home could be signs of the radicalization process at work.

Given the fact that most Immigrant families don’t trust law enforcement agencies, schools can be the only legitimate institutions to inform parents about the radicalization process. I would like to give you an example from Turkey.  When Turkey faced a terrorism challenge in universities where terror networks were operating to recruit ethnic and sectarian minority students, the Turkish National Police cooperated with the Higher Education Council to conduct an information campaign.

The Turkish National Police counter-terrorism department prepared a brochure to inform students and parents of the recruitment strategies and means of approach used by terror networks to draw in new university students, and the Higher Education Council agreed to mail the brochures with the university entrance exam results.

Parents learned how terror networks approach their children and what kind of behavioral changes they can expect and detect if their children are being exposed or swayed by terrorist propaganda. As a result, many families started cooperating with police to prevent their children from joining terrorist organizations.

Terrorism is a full time job for terrorists in that they constantly think of how to kill us. We, our society and our institutions must respond by doing what is necessary to prevent terror networks from stealing our children’s lives from us.

About the Author

Dr. Emrullah Uslu is a full-time professor in the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia International University. He holds a PhD in Middle Eastern Studies and Political Science from the University of Utah. He also holds an MA in Criminal Justice from the City University of New York, an MA in Journalism from Ankara University in Turkey and a Bachelor of Arts from the Turkish National Police Academy in Ankara, Turkey.

Dr. Uslu is a Turkish terrorism expert who focuses on Islamic and ethnic violence. He worked as a policy analyst for the Turkish National Police’s counter-terrorism units and headquarters; he also served as a researcher for the Ministry of Interior. He has also worked as a policy analyst for the Washington, DC-based Jamestown Foundation.

His Turkish-language book Deep State Threat Map: Kurds and Islamists addresses Turkey’s extra-legal approaches to Kurdish militancy and Islamist groups. Dr. Uslu has published many articles and book chapters on terrorism and Middle East politics; his most recent article, “Jihadist Highway to Jihadist Heaven: Turkey’s Jihadi Policies and Western Security,” appears in Studies in Conflict and Terrorism and addresses the recent terror trend in Europe.

His book in Turkish called Deep State Threat Map: Kurds and Islamists, addresses Turkey’s extra-legal approaches to Kurds and Islamic groups.  Dr. Uslu’s  has been published many articles and book chapters, on terrorism and Middle East politics. recent article  Jihadist Highway to Jihadist Haven: Turkey’s Jihadi Policies and Western Security, in Studies in Conflict and Terrorism addresses the recent terror trend in Europe.

He is often quoted by international media outlets, including the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Al-Jazeera, the Guardian, London Times, and the Asia Times, as well as other national and major Turkish media outlets.

The Pursuit of a “New Sudan” in Blue Nile State: A Profile of the SPLA-N’s Yasir Arman

Andrew McGregor

June 30, 2016

Yasir ArmanYasir Arman (Sudan Tribune)

Despite the 2011 separation of South Sudan, Sudan’s civil war continues in Darfur and what has become known as Sudan’s “new South,” Blue Nile State and South Kordofan. Though the fighting has often been intense, government forces in Blue Nile have been unable to overcome rebels of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement-North (SPLA/M-N) led by veteran opposition leader Yasir Arman. Arman claims that many of the troops arriving in Blue Nile State for the current dry season offensive are Darfuri Janjaweed who have been absorbed into Khartoum’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and include Arab tribesmen from Chad and Mali (Radio Dabanga, May 14). The conflict has left tens of thousands of displaced civilians without any type of shelter and severe shortages of power, water and medicines are reported in al-Damazin (Radio Tamazuj, May 28; Radio Dabanga, May 23).

Early Influences

Yasir Arman was born the son of a primary school teacher in the al-Jazira region south of Khartoum in October 1961. Arman is a Ja’alin Arab, one of the three Arab tribes which, along with the Sha’iqiya and the Danagla, have dominated Sudanese politics since independence in 1956.

During his time studying law at the Khartoum campus of Cairo University in the 1980s Arman was implicated in the murder of two Islamist students, though he was later acquitted in court. As a student, Arman joined the Sudanese Communist Party, once a powerful political force in Sudan until its eventual repression by President Ja’afar Nimeiri. At the same time, Arman was engaged in political discussions with southern students and became interested in the ideology of South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC), a communist-influenced movement that was, like Sudan, faced with how to build a new nation from a multi-ethnic, multi-confessional population. Arman’s leftist orientation drew the attention of Nimeiri’s security forces and Arman spent parts of 1984-85 in prison, where he was able to have further political discussions with imprisoned southern students (New Sudan Vision, January 15, 2010).

Sudan Map - ConflictsSudan: Regions of Conflict (BBC)

Arman made the unusual and personally momentous decision to leave Khartoum in 1986 and join the almost exclusively non-Arab insurrection in South Sudan led by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M). The young rebel was assigned to the Blue Nile front, led by Commander Salva Kiir Mayardit, the current president of independent South Sudan. As an Arab and a Muslim, Arman endured suspicion from his new comrades, who, unsurprisingly, suspected his motives.

Committing to the “New Sudan”: Yasir Arman and “Dr. John”

Despite the reservations of some of his fellow combatants, Arman rose quickly in the SPLA ranks, coming into close contact with the movement’s leader, Dr. John Garang de Mabior. A Bor Dinka and American educated career soldier, Garang used his considerable charisma and fierce discipline to maintain control of a movement that always seemed ready to fracture due to personal and tribal rivalries as well as inducements from Khartoum. Though the SPLA was widely regarded as a Southern separatist movement, Garang sought the liberation of the whole Sudan from the rule of the riverain Arabs of the north, a “New Sudan” that would bring an end to regional and ethnic marginalization and establish a national unity and identity based on democracy and secularism rather than ethnic and religious differences.  Unlike many SPLA commanders who paid lip service to the “New Sudan” while believing Southern separation would be the ultimate outcome of the war, Arman became deeply dedicated to Garang’s vision, which became his guiding political principle.  In time, Arman became a well-known spokesman for the SPLA/M and a familiar voice on the clandestine SPLA Radio. Arman continued to raise eyebrows in the Arab north by marrying Awuor Deng Kuol, the daughter of Ngok Dinka Sultan Deng Mjok and a former member of the SPLA’s Katiba Banaat (Girls Battalion) (New Sudan Vision, January 15, 2010).

John Garang 1985Colonel John Garang de Mabior, South Sudan, 1985

Arman’s political and diplomatic skills were put to work as one of the main framers of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that ended Sudan’s long civil war. Only six months after the ratification of the CPA, John Garang died on July 30, 2005 in a still unexplained helicopter crash near the Ugandan border, destroying optimism that a New Sudan could be created. The SPLA/M was taken over by his second-in-command, fellow Dinka and ardent separatist Salva Kiir Mayardit. Disillusioned and marginalized by this turn of events, Arman briefly left the movement in 2007 to study English at Iowa State University, the same institution attended by Garang.

Presidential Candidate

Arman’s has described the international community’s “policy of appeasement” regarding President al-Bashir as similar to that which created Adolf Hitler and has described al-Bashsir as “a racist delusional person who happens to be the president of a state and who is wanted by the International Criminal Court and is committing genocide and crimes against humanity that the world will live to regret.” [1]

The CPA made it possible for Arman to face Bashir in the presidential election of 2010, though the SPLA/M later decided to boycott the presidential contest. Some pro-independence Southerners urged others in the South to vote against Arman on the grounds that, if elected, he would make national unity more attractive to Southerners prior to the independence referendum and might even use force to maintain a unified Sudan (South Sudan News Agency, March 19, 2010). Despite withdrawing, Arman still finished second by taking over 21% of the vote to al-Bashir’s 68% (Sudan Tribune, April 27, 2010).

Juba Waves Goodbye

The CPA’s ill-defined “public consultations” on the political future of South Kordofan and Blue Nile State  were never carried out, the victim of endless obstruction from Khartoum and the NCP-dominated parliaments in both states. The South, however, was not to be denied its chance for independence and a successful referendum was quickly followed by separation from Sudan in 2011. Arman blamed the division of Sudan on political Islam, citing the NCP’s “fascist vision,” intolerance and failure to accept democratic rule and cultural and religious diversity as the source of genocide and war crimes (Sudan Tribune, February 8, 2013). [2]

The South moved on, but left two locally-raised SPLA divisions (the 9th and 10th) stranded on the northern side of the new border. Khartoum demanded the divisions either disarm, be absorbed into the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) or cross the border to rejoin the SPLA, though these units had never actually served in the south. These rebels had fought for Garang’s “New Sudan” rather than Southern independence, and decided to continue the fight against NCP rule under the banner SPLA-Northern Command (SPLA-N).  Arman was dismayed to find the new movement isolated internationally, with both the U.S. and the UK urging South Sudan to end all support to the SPLM-N (Sudan Tribune, March 24, 2012).

The Dry Season Offensive

Shortly after the latest government offensive began in April, Arman’s SPLM-N claimed that Khartoum’s military and paramilitary forces had suffered “their biggest defeat in the six years of their military offensive” in Blue Nile State (Radio Dabanga, April 26).

President Bashir announced a unilateral four-month ceasefire in South Kordofan and Blue Nile in mid-June that would, in the words of an Army spokesman, “give the armed groups a chance to join the peace process and to surrender their arms” (al-Jazeera, June 18). Similar government “gestures of good-will” have failed in the past. Khartoum wants the SPLM-N to sign onto the African Union-brokered Roadmap Agreement, a deal that has been rejected by the movement and its opposition allies in the Sudan Call coalition (formed December 2014).

Conclusion

Amidst suspicions that Khartoum’s ceasefire was only buying time to evacuate trapped wounded and rebuild its forces in South Kordofan and Blue Nile, Arman suggested Khartoum prove its sincerity by immediately sending a delegation to join in comprehensive peace talks in Addis Ababa (Sudan Tribune, June 16). Arman continues to hope for a popular rising in Sudan, one that will embrace the concept of a New Sudan: “The vision of the New Sudan remains valid and in fact, it is the only game in town to build a viable state based on citizenship, recognition of diversity, democracy and social justice, and bringing a just peace and national reconciliation… At the end of the day, the current junta in Khartoum has only two options – they either accept change or they are going to be changed.”   [3]

Note

  1. Yasir Arman, “General Bashir’s Racism and Promotion of Religious Hatred are Behind the Burning Down of the Church in the Heart of Khartoum,” April 24, 2012, http://www.sudanjem.com/_upload/2012/05/04-24-12-General-Bashirs-Racism.pdf
  2. Yasir Arman, “The Sudan Question: A Failure of Nation-building and the Experience of Political Islam,” Speech given at the Monterey Institute of International Affairs, February 15, 2013, http://collectifurgencedarfour.com/yasir-arman-the-sudan-question-failure-nation-building-experience-political-islam/
  3. Ibid

 

This article first appeared in the June issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Militant Leadership Monitor

Political Stalemate Heightens Appeal of Religious Extremism for Western Sahara Youth

Andrew McGregor

June 24, 2016

The death from illness on May 31 of the Polisario Front’s long-time leader Mohamed Abdelaziz has brought the exiled Sahrawi independence movement of the Western Sahara to an ideological crossroads. The Polisario nation, known as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), is effectively a state without land, save for a small strip of desert optimistically known as “the Free Zone.” Nonetheless, the SADR is recognized by 46 nations and is a full member of the African Union.

Western Sahara Map(GlobalSecurity.org)

The Sahrawi community is led by its sole political expression, the secular, left-wing Polisario Front (Frente Popular para la Liberación de Saguia el-Hamra y Río de Oro – Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia al-Hamra and Rio de Oro), founded in 1973 to combat Spanish colonialism. Ninety-one years of Spanish colonialism in the Western Sahara was replaced in 1975 with a 16-year war against Morocco and Mauritania, who sought to split the former colony between them. Spain effectively abandoned its West Saharan territories, leaving the region of Saguia al-Hamra (The Red Canal) to Morocco and Rio de Oro (The Gold Coast) to Mauritania. The latter eventually withdrew from Rio de Oro, but Morocco quickly occupied the area. Under the terms of a 1991 ceasefire, a UN mission was to register Sahrawis for a referendum on independence or acceptance of a Moroccan offer of autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty. This process has yet to start; in the meantime, Morocco has developed the region’s fisheries and phosphates industry and is now in the early phases of oil and gas exploration, much to the dissatisfaction of the exiled Sahrawi community.

While the Polisario leadership will use a 40-day mourning period to decide whether a leadership change should reflect the desirability of new directions for the movement or the persistence of the status quo, Morocco, which lays claim to Western Sahara, will simultaneously be seeking new openings to break the lingering impasse. During this crucial period, the Sahrawi exile community, most of whom live in a complex of six refugee camps surrounding the southwest Algerian town of Tindouf and are reliant on international donations of food and other aid, must deal not only with leadership succession, but also with:

  • Morocco’s expulsion of the UN mission charged with organizing an independence referendum;
  • The attraction of the Islamic State and other extremist factions to alienated Sahrawi youth; and
  • The political implications of offshore oil exploration contracts negotiated by Morocco without Polisario involvement.

Morocco insists it is merely reclaiming territory (its so-called “Southern States”) that had been occupied by the Spanish up until 1975. Polisario regards the Moroccan presence as colonialism, “an international crime against the Saharawi people, as well as a continuing threat to peace and regional security” (Ennahar [Algiers], June 15).

The dispute has been absorbed into the wider rivalry between Morocco and its Maghreb neighbor, Algeria, contributing to its intractability.

The Leadership Question

Mohamed Abdelaziz was elected as Polisario Front secretary-general and president of the SADR in August 1976, ruling with the help of a small but powerful group of loyalists. At the time of his death, he was serving his 12th consecutive term as president. The interim leader is one of Abdelaziz’s closest associates, Khatri Adouh, the president of the Sahrawi National Council (the SADR’s governing body).

Among the candidates for the SADR presidency are Brahim Ghali, who will likely have Algeria’s approval; Mohamed Lamine Bouhali, the current defense minister and a former Algerian army officer; Prime Minister Abdelkader Taleb Omar; Reconstruction Minister Mohamed Salem Ould Salek; and Bashir Mustapha Sayed, the brother of Polisario Front founder El-Ouali Mustapha Sayed (North Africa Post, June 1).

Polisario has always been as much a social movement as a political one. It has a strong focus on eliminating tribalism through the eradication of tribal identities and the pursuit of Arab nationalism and (at least initially) Marxist-style collectivism and anti-colonial ideology derived from political theorist Franz Fanon and various African liberation leaders of the 1960s. Its claim to a collective purpose expressing the common will of all Sahrawis and its pervasiveness in Sahrawi refugee life precludes for the Polisario leadership any possibility of internal opposition to the movement. Since the SADR’s existence depends on external aid and all such aid is funneled through Polisario-friendly Algeria, the leadership has the means of enforcing this opinion.

Western Sahara FuneralScene from the Funeral of Mohamed Abdelaziz (Ramzi Boudina/Reuters)

Polisario anti-colonialism, however, carries within it a fatal contradiction – the SADR is based on the amalgamation of several territories defined by colonially-imposed boundaries. Rejection of these boundaries as the basis of the SADR would tend to validate the Moroccan position that no state existed in the region prior to Spanish occupation aside from a handful of local tribal chiefs, many of whom at one time or another had pledged allegiance to the Moroccan Sultan or established economic relations with the Kingdom.

In the absence of a political system that accommodates opposition viewpoints, dissenting Sahrawis tend to vote with their feet, defecting into Moroccan-governed territory to reunite their divided families. Morocco claims over 10,000 Sahrawis have done this so far, but the process is strongly discouraged by the Polisario, which recognizes that the only thing keeping the SADR from becoming a purely virtual state is its ability to claim the loyalty of a significant portion of the Sahrawi population. Protests continue in the Moroccan-administered area against rule from Rabat, often resulting in excesses by the Moroccan police.

Failure of MINURSO

Formed in 1991, the UN mission in the Western Sahara, known as MINURSO (Misión de las Naciones Unidas para la Organización de un Referéndum en el Sáhara Occidental – United Nations Mission for Referendum in Western Sahara) continues to fulfill its mandate to monitor the 1991 ceasefire, but it has yet to begin its task of registering voters and preparing a referendum on the Western Sahara’s future. Many officers of this expensive peacekeeping mission have instead passed the time by vandalizing the region’s prehistoric rock art with spray-painted graffiti (The Times, February 7, 2008). Furthermore, thanks to French opposition in the UN Security Council, MINURSO remains the only UN mission without a human rights component, tying its hands when confronted with human rights abuses.

Both the Polisario and Morocco oppose MINURSO efforts at voter registration, given disputes over the eligibility of the large number of Moroccans who have settled in Moroccan-ruled Western Sahara since 1975 and the number of Malians, Mauritanians and Algerians who have joined the SADR camps. A census in the Tindouf camps might also reveal a smaller number of refugees than are currently claimed by authorities, putting at risk the ability of Algerian and Polisario authorities to siphon off an over-supply of humanitarian aid that eventually appears in regional markets. In the event MINURSO is kept from fulfilling its mission, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has warned of “escalation into full-scale war” and the presentation of new opportunities for “terrorist and radical elements” to exploit the situation (al-Jazeera, April 19).

The UN secretary-general enraged Moroccan authorities when he referred to Moroccan “occupation” of the Western Sahara during a March 5 visit to the Sahrawi refugee camps around Tindouf (al-Jazeera, March 29). Following accusations that the UN had abandoned its neutral stance on the issue, Morocco expelled U.S. aid staff from the region, ordered the UN to withdraw civilian personnel, and closed a MINURSO military liaison office despite profuse apologies from the secretary-general’s office.

Ban’s call for negotiations without precondition between the SADR and Morocco seems bound for the same UN black hole in which most calls tend to disappear. No matter what UN officials might say, such negotiations would be widely regarded both internally and externally as Moroccan recognition of the SADR’s existence. Morocco is instead playing out a long-term strategy to create a set of facts on the ground that would make a separate Western Saharan state inconceivable. Most important of these is a 1,250-mile-long sand berm separating the economically useful section of Western Sahara from the lightly populated “Free Zone.” Equipped with radar, motion detectors, rapid response teams, air support, and some of the world’s largest minefields, this sand wall has proved an effective counter to Polisario’s military qualities of mobility and intimate knowledge of local terrain.

Attraction of Islamic State and Other Extremist Groups

More than 50 percent of the population of the Polisario refugee camp is under 18 and few have ever set foot in their “homeland.” Limited employment opportunities mean many young Sahrawis are joining the 6,000 to 7,000 strong Ejercito de Liberación Popular Saharaui (ELPS or Sahrawi People’s Liberation Army), the military wing of the Polisario Front. Deeply unhappy with the lack of diplomatic progress in resolving the independence issue, many young Sahrawis are calling for a return to the battlefield.

Though internal pressure could drive the Sahrawis back to war, the outcome of any conflict with the larger, better armed and better trained Royal Moroccan Army is predictable. With Algeria unlikely to support renewed conflict in any substantial way, there is a danger veteran jihadis might be able to offer valuable battlefield support against a Moroccan regime, while introducing Salafi-jihadist ideology to the struggle. Similar situations have been seen in the past; in the Chechen anti-Russian resistance, jihadism developed at the expense of secular nationalism as a result of an influx of much-needed, but religiously motivated, foreign fighters.

Alternatively, a quick or even extended collapse of Sahrawi military resistance in renewed combat could lead to a loss of faith in the nationalist cause on the part of young fighters and an increase in smuggling, an important source of income for young Sahrawis that inevitably puts them in contact with traffickers from extremist groups. Integration with extremist networks such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) often follows, whether as paid employees or ideologically committed jihadists.

The 2010 Algerian arrest of a Polisario imam discovered with arms, 20 kilograms of explosives, and correspondence with AQIM leader Abd al-Malik Droukdel (a.k.a. Abu Musab Abd al-Wadud) and the kidnapping the next year of three European aid-workers from a Tindouf camp by a Movement for Unity and Justice in West Africa (MUJWA) cell that included Sahrawis were strong indications that extremism has penetrated the Polisario camps. [1]

By July 2012, Sahrawi Defense Minister Bouhali admitted that there were 20 to 25 Sahrawis involved in Islamist militancy, divided between AQIM and MUJWA (ABC.es [Madrid], August 11, 2012). The statement was a break from Polisario’s usual insistence that AQIM holds no attraction to Sahrawis. In March 2013, Mali’s foreign minister insisted that Polisario “mercenaries” had been recruited by the radical MUJWA for monthly salaries running between 200 to 600 Euros (Le Mag [Marrakesh], March 16, 2013).

The best known of the Sahrawis who have committed to religious extremism is Abu Walid al-Sahrawi – a former member of the ELPS, MUJWA, and Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s al-Murabitun organization – who joined Islamic State in 2015 and now calls for Moroccans and Sahrawis to support the Islamic Caliphate in the Maghreb. In May, Abu Walid threatened to launch attacks on MINURSO personnel, tourists and foreign assets in the Sahara (al-Jazeera, May 4; North Africa Post, May 6; al-Akhbar [Nouakchott], May 13, 2015). Like many Sahrawis, Abu Walid was educated in Algeria and Cuba. Algerian universities often expose young Sahrawis to more militant strains of Islam than those that usually prevail in the camps.

Offshore Oil Exploration

When Morocco began awarding contracts for oil exploration in the Western Sahara in 2002, the UN called for a legal opinion to define the legality of such measures in the absence of recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the area. Known as the Corell Opinion, the statement remains the guiding principle for Moroccan-negotiated foreign investment in the region, but the opinion has been subject to much interpretation and has been used to both justify and condemn Moroccan development undertaken without consultation with the Sahrawi people. [2]

Mustapha al-Khalfi, Morocco’s minister of communications, insists that investment and the region’s natural resource management are driven by the needs of the population. He also maintains that the participation in investment decisions of democratically elected representatives of the Sahrawi community means that “the exploitation of the natural resources in the Sahara takes place within the framework of international law with the involvement of the population and for its benefit” (al-Jazeera, July 10, 2015).

The current controversy over resource extraction is fueled by the Moroccan-authorized offshore exploration activities of Texas-based Kosmos Energy in the Cap Boujdour area, approximately 70km off the shore of Western Sahara and part of the larger Aaiun Basin. Kosmos defends its activities by noting that, at this point, they are “focused solely on exploration and do not involve the removal of resources… We believe, however, that if exploration is successful, responsible resource development in Western Sahara has the potential to create significant long-term social and economic benefits for the people of the territory.” [3]

The absence of substantial international opposition to the operations of foreign resource extraction firms in the contested region constitutes an important step in the explicit or de facto recognition of Moroccan claims in the Western Sahara.

Conclusion: The “Sahrawi State”

With the slow-moving machinations of international diplomacy and commerce working against them, Polisario’s chances of forming a legitimate state diminish with each passing year. The “Sahrawi State” is in the uncomfortable position of existing solely at the sufferance of Algiers. While an Algerian-Moroccan rapprochement seems unlikely in the short term, any future mending of their relationship would make Polisario and all its trappings of a “virtual” state entirely expendable. The future of the republic lies with its restless youth rather than Polisario’s aging first generation. Without jobs or meaningful futures, many desire a return to conflict. However, such a war, like all else, cannot happen without Algerian approval, and this might prove difficult if not impossible to obtain.

Polisario allows Algiers to affect a certain moral superiority over Morocco on the international stage, but a Polisario return to war would immediately be regarded as Algerian-sponsored and would be of little advantage to either party. A more likely scenario is a growing attraction to religious militancy as the foundation of a new state potentially free from both Moroccan and Algerian domination, especially if the option is the perpetuation of a stifling status quo in the isolated camps of Tindouf.

This attraction may co-exist with a greater willingness on the part of other Sahrawis to accept Morocco’s offers of regional autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty, combining to eventually shatter the Polisario’s independence ambitions.

NOTES

  1. “The Algerian Foreign Policy on Western Sahara,” in Anouar Boukhars and Jacques Roussellier (eds.), Perspectives on Western Sahara: Myths, Nationalisms and Geopolitics, Lanham, 2014, p.115, fn.32
  2. Hans Corell, “Letter dated 29 January 2002 from the Under-Secretary-General for Legal Affairs, the Legal Counsel, addressed to the President of the Security Council, United Nations Security Council,” February 12, 2002, http://www.arso.org/UNlegaladv.htm
  3. See position statement: Kosmos Energy: On Hydrocarbon Exploration Offshore Western Sahara, February 2014, www.kosmosenergy.com/pdfs/PositionStatement-WesternSahara-English.pdf

This article first appeared in the June 24, 2016 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

AIS Update, July 13, 2016: Unsurprisingly, a Congress of the Polisario Front chose the candidate with the closest ties to Algeria as the new president of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic and the secretary-general of the Polisario Front on July 9. Brahim Ghali, the new president, promptly announced his first official visit would be to Algiers.

Brahim GhaliNew President of the SADR, Brahim Ghali

Born in 1949, the former ambassador to Algeria was a founding member of the Polisario Front. He began a military career in a Spanish unit of Sahrawi volunteers in the 1960s. By 1969 he was deeply involved in anti-colonial activism and was jailed several times. Shortly after he participated in the founding of Polisario in 1973, he was one of the leaders of the Front’s first raid on a Spanish Army post, a successful affair that helped arm the independence movement.

The Strategic Topography of Southern Libya

Andrew McGregor

Countering Terrorism Center Sentinel

Volume 9, Issue 5 (May 2016)

West Point, N.Y.

Abstract: If the security situation in Libya deteriorates and the Islamic State makes further gains on the southern shores of the Mediterranean, there is the possibility that a coalition of foreign powers will feel compelled to intervene militarily. While such an intervention would likely be focused on the coastal regions, it would also likely have unforeseen consequences for southern Libya, a strategically vital region that supplies most of the country’s water and electricity. Militants could react by targeting this infrastructure or fleeing southward, destabilizing the region. For these reasons it is imperative that policymakers understand the strategic topography of southern Libya. 

Libya CTC MapThe Islamic State has succeeded in establishing a base in Sirte, Libya, on the Mediterranean coast, uncomfortably close to Europe. Unless a new government can unite the nation in deploying state security forces to eliminate the threat posed by the Islamic State, Ansar al-Sharia, and other extremist groups, there is a possibility of foreign military intervention. In this case, extremists could target the lightly guarded oil and water infrastructure in southern Libya essential for the survival of the nation.

Bitter and bloody tribal conflicts have erupted in the south since the 2011 Libyan Revolution, and in the absence of state authority, various militias established their own version of security and border controls. There is a strong danger of further violence in the south spreading to Libya’s southern neighbors or encouraging new independence movements. Identifying specific strategic locations in southern Libya, this article outlines the security challenges posed in each locale by virtue of its geography as well as its ethnic, political, and sectarian rivalries.

Until recently, the inability of Libya’s rival governments—the Tripoli-based General National Council (GNC) and the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR)—to cooperate on the terrorism file has hampered the ability of foreign governments to provide military assistance. It has impeded Libya’s ability to tackle Islamist extremist movements as well, but this is beginning to change due to growing support for a unified Government of National Accord. [1]

Libya-based terrorist groups are mainly concentrated in the Mediterranean coastal strip, but they have recognized the importance of Libya’s southern interior and the vast reserves of energy and water vital for Libyan viability. Control of the south determines whether the lights go on in Tripoli or Benghazi, whether water runs from the taps, and whether salaries are paid or not. It also means control of important trade and smuggling routes, the source of narcotics, armed militants, and waves of desperate African refugees risking their lives to reach Europe.

Currently, there are indications that France, Italy, the U.K., and the United States have either initiated limited interventions in the form of small Special Forces units or are contemplating greater military involvement to destroy Libya’s Islamic State group and end the uncontrolled movement of refugees to Europe from the Libyan coast. [2] In March the United Nations’ special envoy to Libya, Martin Kobler, warned Libyans that if they do not quickly address the problems of terrorism presented by Islamist extremists, “others will manage the situation.” [3] However, Libyans’ bitter experience with colonialism makes them highly suspicious of the motives behind any type of foreign intervention.

Geographic Considerations

Libya is composed of three main regions: Tripolitania (the northwest), Cyrenaïca (the eastern half), and Fezzan (the southwest). Most of Libya’s water and energy resources are found in the south, an area of rocky plateaus known as hamadat and sand seas (ramlat), all punctuated with small oases and brackish lakes. Mountainous areas include the Tadrart Acacsus near Ghat in the Fezzan, the Bikku Bitti Mountains along the Chadian border, and Jabal Uwaynat in the southeast. The climate is exceedingly hot and arid with an average temperature of over 30 degrees Celsius; dry river beds known as wadis carry away the limited rainfall and are commonly used to conceal the movements of military or smuggling convoys. Sandstorms and high winds are common in March and April. The severe climate and isolation of Saharan Libya make it difficult to find security personnel from the north willing to serve there.

A Qaddafi initiative, the Great Man-Made River (GMR) taps immense reserves of fossil water (water trapped underground for more than a millennium) contained in the Nubian Sandstone aquifer under the Libyan desert to supply Libya’s coastal cities and various agricultural projects. GMR pipelines are vulnerable to tribal groups angered by government activities. [4]

There are five energy basins (regions containing oil and gas reserves) in Libya: Ghadames/Berkine (northwest); Sirte, the most productive (central); Murzuq (southwest); Kufra (southeast); and the Cyrenaïca platform (northeast). Of these, only the Kufra Basin is not yet in production. [5]

Libya’s oases provide water and resting points in a strategic lifeline through otherwise inhospitable terrain and permit overland contact between the settlements of the Mediterranean coast and the African interior. Today, oil and water pipelines follow these routes, giving them even greater importance in the modern era.

The Tribal Situation

The southern Arabs fear that post-revolutionary demands for citizenship by non-Arab Tubu and Tuareg will make citizens of tens of thousands of non-Arabs from outside Libya’s borders, leaving the Arabs a minority in the region. The Tubu and Tuareg, in turn, fear they are victims of Arab machinations to cleanse Libya of non-Arab groups. The Tubu, an indigenous African group, are found in Chad, northeastern Niger, and southern Libya, with a traditional stronghold in the remote Tibesti mountain range of northern Chad.[6] The Tuareg are an indigenous Berber group organized in various confederations and spread through much of the Sahara/Sahel region, where they traditionally maintained control of trans-Saharan trade routes. In Libya the local Tuareg live in the southwest and are part of the Kel Ajjar confederation also found in eastern Algeria.

Strategic Sites in Southern Libya

In April 2014, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian described southern Libya as “a viper’s nest in which jihadists are returning, acquiring weapons and recruiting.”[7] Through Ottoman and Italian colonial rule, southern Libya provided a place of refuge for political, tribal, and religious groups that came into conflict with the established powers. More recently, it has offered operating space to extremist groups forced from neighboring areas such as northern Mali. With the development of Libyan plans to assault the Islamic State enclave in Sirte and the possibility of foreign military intervention at some point in the future if those efforts fail, it is worthwhile to examine those strategic sites in southern Libya that might provide new bases for Islamist extremists or those forces involved in combating such movements

GhatThe Ottoman/Italian Fortress in Ghat

Ghat

As a garrison town on the Algerian border and a center for Qaddafi loyalists, Ghat was one of the last urban areas in Libya to fall to rebel forces in late September 2011. Dotted throughout southern Libya are Ottoman and Italian fortresses, built on heights wherever possible to control important oases or the intersection of vital trade routes; many of these now serve as bases for regional militias. In Ghat, Tuareg militias hold the large Ottoman fortress on the Koukemen Hill finished by the Italians in the 1930s. There is also an airport 18 kilometers north of Ghat. The Ghat Tuareg control the Tinkarine border crossing into Algeria. Control of this crossing in the event of a foreign intervention would be essential to prevent cross-border movement of extremist groups. The Algerian Army closed the border with Libya in May 2014 after the In Amenas attacks, which originated in al-Uwaynat (not to be confused with al-Uwaynat in southeastern Libya), northeast of Ghat.[8]

Castle - ZillahItalian-era Fortress at Zillah, al-Jufra

Hun

Hun is the main town in al-Jufra oasis and a former colonial base for long-range patrols by the Italian Compagnia Sahariana. Other settlements in al-Jufra include Waddan, site of a pre-Ottoman Arab fortress; Sokna, the site of an Ottoman castle; Zellah Oasis, which is overlooked by a massive Italian-era hilltop fortress; and al-Fugha, a small oasis devoted, like the others, to date production. Al-Jufra Airbase is a dormant Libyan Air Force facility.

Jalu and Awjala

These oases are not in southern Libya proper, but they form an important link on the Kufra-Ajdabiya road and an entry point to the string of oases in Egypt’s Western Desert, a suspected route for arms traffickers. The town of Jalu, an important center for nearby oil fields, is located some 250 kilometers southeast of the Gulf of Sidra, while Awjala is about 30 kilometers northwest of Jalu. Jalu proved its strategic importance in both World War II and the Libyan Civil War during attempts to outflank opposing forces operating closer to the coast. Its size (19 kilometers by 11 kilometers) and freshwater supplies made it a useful base for military operations. As the dominant group in both oases is Eastern Berber, there is a possibility that ethnic tensions could be inflamed by renewed military activity in this strategically vital locale.

Kufra

The town of Kufra and a surrounding cluster of small oases and agricultural projects have a population of roughly 40,000. Its strategic importance lies in its location between two sand seas, which, with its reserves of fresh water and food, make it an inevitable stop for vehicles making their way between the Cyrenaïcan coast and the African interior.

Zuwaya Arabs are the majority in Kufra, which has a Tubu minority. Both the Tubu and the Zuwaya maintain important communities in Ajdabiya charged with protecting tribal interests at the northern terminus of the trade route from Kufra. Should conflict erupt between these communities as a consequence of foreign military activity in the Ajdabiya region, the result could easily be the spread of communal clashes to the volatile Kufra area.

The route between Kufra and Ajdabiya was the site of numerous skirmishes between Qaddafi loyalists and Libyan rebels during the civil war, with the Qaddafists carrying out a long-range desert attack to seize Kufra before working their way north to the Jalu and Awjala oases, where efforts were made to damage water and oil installations.[9] The limited cooperation between revolutionary Tubu and Zuwaya against the Qaddafi regime did not last, with the Zuwaya describing the Tubu as Qaddafist collaborators or even foreign mercenaries. In 2012, the Zuwaya constructed large sand berms around Kufra to cut Tubu connections with the outside.

Disputes over control of smuggling and trading routes south of Kufra led to clashes between Tubu and Zuwaya in 2011, 2012, and 2013 that left hundreds dead. Mediation brought an end to a further two months of fighting in early November 2015. Isa Abd al-Majid Mansur, leader of the Tubu Front for the Salvation of Libya (TFSL), has promoted the idea of foreign intervention in Libya, suggesting the Tubu would make good partners in international counterterrorism and anti-smuggling operations.[10] While seemingly attractive given the Tubu’s deep knowledge of the little-known region, acceptance would immediately be viewed as unacceptable by rival Arab groups and inevitably regarded as a means of challenging the “Arab essence” of the Libyan state.

The construction of the Trans-Saharan road connecting Darfur to Kufra in the 1980s increased cross-border trade but also opened a reliable route for smugglers, human traffickers, and gunmen. Qatar appears to have used the route from Sudan to ship ammunition to Islamist militias in 2011.[11]

Darfur rebels of the Sudanese Liberation Movement-Minni Minnawi (SLM-MM) were accused by the GNC and the Sudanese government of collaborating with Tubu forces under the direction of General Khalifa Haftar in the unsuccessful September 20, 2015, attack on Kufra.[12] The SLM-MM and Darfur’s Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) were accused of committing armed robberies and setting up illegal checkpoints north of Kufra this year before being driven out by Zuwaya militias in a two-day battle in February.[13] On April 24, 2016, Libya’s new Presidency Council announced it had received information that JEM was collaborating with Qaddafi loyalists to attack and disrupt oil facilities in southern Libya.[14] Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) has repeatedly accused Khartoum of shipping arms and fighters to Islamist groups by air and by the overland route through Kufra.[15]

Ma’atan al-Sarra

Ma’atan al-Sarra Oasis is located in the Kufra district some 60 miles north of the border with Chad. Qaddafi used the remote and rarely visited oasis as a supply base for Sadiq al-Mahdi’s 1976 attack on Khartoum. In the 1987 “Toyota War,” Chadian forces (mostly Tubu) took Ma’atan al-Sarra in a devastating surprise attack.

Castle - MurzuqOttoman-era Fortress, Murzuq

Murzuq

Murzuq, the unofficial “headquarters” of the Fezzan Tubu, is 150 kilometers south of Sabha. Murzuq, like Ubari, lies on the southwest to northeast route that separates the Ubari and Murzuq sand seas. Murzuq is populated by a potentially volatile mix of Tuareg, Tubu, Arabs, and al-Ahali (black Libyans descended from slaves or economic migrants from the African interior), with each community ready to exploit or reject foreign intervention in light of their own interests.

The head of the Murzuq Military Council, Colonel Barka Wardougou, a Libyan Army veteran with experience in Chad and Lebanon and the former leader of a Tubu rebel goup in Niger that joined Niger’s 2007-2009 Tuareg rebellion, has demanded a more equitable distribution of Libya’s oil wealth, threatening to form a federal state if this is not accomplished.[16]

Qatrun

The road south from Murzuq runs through the oasis town of Qatrun, where it splits to run 310 kilometers southwest to the border post with Niger at Tummo, and southeast toward Chad. When the border post at Tummo is closed, travelers from Niger must report to Libyan authorities in Qatrun. The Tubu and Qaddadfa Arabs have a strong presence in the area.

Rabyanah Oasis and Sand Sea

On the western side of the southern route to Kufra is the inhospitable Rabyanah Sand Sea. Toward the eastern end of this feature is the Tubu-dominated Rabyanah Oasis, 130 kilometers west of Kufra, and the home district of several leading Tubu militia and political leaders as well as a Zuwaya minority. In the event of a foreign intervention, this region could provide a base for the development of new Tubu political factions.

Castle - SabhaElena Castle, Sabha

Sabha

Sabha, 500 miles south of Tripoli, is the site of an important military base and airfield. The city of 210,000 people acts as a commercial and transportation hub for the region. During the Qaddafi era, the oasis was used for the development of rockets and nuclear weapons. Sabha is a tinderbox of rival ethnic/tribal communities, including the Arab Qaddadfa, their Awlad Sulayman rivals, Warfalla and Magraha Arabs, Tubu, and Tuareg. According to one Tubu leader, Sabha also serves as a local collection center for al-Qa`ida fighters from Mauritania, Libya, Algeria, and Tunisia.[17] If foreign extremists have already established a presence in Sabha, it would take very little to provoke new clashes that would further destabilize this important region.

Castle - Sabhan under fireSabha’s Elena Castle under fire, January 2014

The revolutionary Awlad Sulayman and the loyalist Qaddadfa confronted each other during the civil war despite a tribal alliance.[18] The largest Awlad Sulayman militia seized Sabha’s airport from a Hasawna Arab militia in September 2013.[19] Clashes between the Tubu and members of the Arab Awlad Abu Seif and Awlad Sulayman tribes in March 2012 killed at least 100 people. By June the Tubu were clashing with the Libyan Shield Brigade that had been sent to restore order. The Tubu and the Awlad Sulayman set upon each other again in 2013 and 2014, while the Qaddadfa Arabs and the Awlad Sulayman clashed in 2012, 2013, and 2014.[20] By July 2015, the Sabha Tubu were involved in new clashes with both Tuareg and Qaddadfa and demanding the expulsion of Awlad Sulayman fighters from Sabha’s Italian-era Elena castle (the former Fortezza Margherita).[21]

Tamenhint airbase, 30 kilometers northeast of Sabha, allowed Qaddafi to project air power into the Sahel and was an important operational base during the conflicts in Chad. The base was occupied by alleged “Qaddafists” in January 2014 who were driven out by government airstrikes and Tubu ground forces, though fighting continued for several days north of Tamenhint.[22]

Salvador Pass

The Salvador Pass lies at the north end of the Manguéni Plateau near the meeting point of Algeria, Niger, and Libya. Remote and unsupervised, the narrow mountain pass is used by well-armed traffickers and rebels to avoid the official crossing at Tummo.[23] Most notable of these is al-Murabitun leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who is believed to have used the Pass to flee from French-led forces in early 2013.[24] On the Libyan side, the Pass is nominally held by Tuareg militias that are often reduced to sending in reports of illegal crossings when they are outgunned. In mid-April 2015, the French 2e Régiment étranger de parachutistes (2e REP) met with a detachment of the Nigerien Army and consolidated control of the Pass.[25]

Sarir

The Sarir oil fields (400 kilometers south of Ajdabiya) are among Libya’s most productive and were the scene of heated struggles for control between Qaddafi loyalists and Tubu revolutionaries during the 2011 rebellion. There have since been repeated attacks on the Sarir power station and other facilities, the latest in mid-March 2016 when a suicide bomber and gunman believed to be affiliated with the Islamic State were killed by the Tubu 25th Brigade, affiliated with the Petroleum Facilities Guard (PFG). Other gunmen escaped after damaging power lines, pipelines, and Great Man-Made River facilities.[26] Clashes between Zuwaya gunmen and Tubu guards in 2013 and 2014 caused power shortages in Benghazi and Tripoli.[27]

Hundreds of Tubu fighters from the 25th Brigade and others from the Desert Shield and Martyrs of Um Aranib militias in southwest Libya headed north to Benghazi to join the LNA in their campaign against Islamist groups in Benghazi in 2014.[28] Foreign intervention in Libya could compel these forces to return south to protect local interests with a subsequent reduction of experienced fighters available to combat extremist groups in the north.

Sharara

In the desert outside of Murzuq, 70 kilometers west of Ubari, is the Sharara oil field, Libya’s largest. The area has been the scene of fighting between Tuareg and Tubu groups with production halted repeatedly by armed protesters seizing facilities to press various demands.[29] Al-Sharara and the neighboring al-Fil oil field are guarded by a Tubu-dominated detachment of the PFG that includes Zintanis and a number of Tuareg and Arabs. The PFG shut down al-Fil for a month over unpaid salaries in May-June 2014.[30]

In November 2014, a Tuareg militia attacked Zintani members of the PFG, closing the field and depriving Libya of a third of its production. The Misratan 3rd Force operating out of Tamenhint Airbase joined forces with local Tuareg fighters and retook Sharara on November 7, 2014.[31]

Tazirbu

This group of 14 small oases, located roughly 250 kilometers northwest of Kufra, was formerly the seat of the Tubu Sultan, though the Zuwaya now dominate. Its importance today lies in the 120 wells just south of Tazirbu that pump aquifer water to Benghazi and Sirte through the GMR.

Tummo Pass

South of the Plateau du Manguéni is the Tummo Pass, the official but rarely attended border post between Niger and southwest Libya. In Niger, some 80 kilometers south of the Tummo Pass, French Legionnaires and Nigerien troops have set up a forward operating base and airstrip to conduct surveillance and interception operations at Fort Madama, a colonial-era French fort.[32] Like the Salvador Pass, control of this crossing would be essential to prevent the entry or escape of extremist groups in the event of a foreign intervention, though the French presence has gone a long way to secure the Pass.

Castle - UbariDamage suffered to Ubari’s Ottoman-era Castle during fighting in January 2016

Ubari

A town of 40,000 people, Ubari is in the Targa valley, 200 kilometers west of Sabha. The Tuareg majority were generally cordial with the Arab and Tubu minorities until the arrival of a Libya Dawn-affiliated Tuareg militia from outside the area in 2014. Local Tuareg who had refused to join the group were nevertheless pulled into the fighting when the militia clashed with armed Tubu groups, splitting the town into two parts. After a year of fighting and hundreds of deaths, a peace agreement ended 14 months of conflict in November 2015, but sporadic clashes continue.[33]

The latest of these involved bombardments by Tuareg occupying the Tendi Mountain high ground that damaged Tubu neighborhoods and Ubari’s historic Ottoman castle (now used as a fort by Tubu fighters).[34]

A former military compound in Ubari is used as a base for the Border Guards Brigade 315, an Islamist militia led by Tuareg Salafist scholar and former Ansar al-Din deputy commander Ahmad Omar al-Ansari who operates a religious school in a slum area of Ubari.[35] Brigade 315 serves simultaneously as a border guard and an alleged conduit for extremists crossing into Libya.[36]

Al-Uwaynat

Al-Uwaynat is a mountain complex of 1,200 square kilometers situated at the meeting point of Libya, Egypt, and Sudan and is best known for several small springs in the midst of an otherwise waterless desert. During the Libyan revolution, Sudan set up a military support base for the Libyan rebels at Uwaynat.[37] Today, the route has been revived for commercial traffic, smuggling, human trafficking, tourist expeditions, and the movement of armed groups. Sudan has long feared the entry of al-Qa`ida or Islamic State groups into the unstable Darfur region through this route and would almost certainly bring strong forces into the area to prevent the infiltration of radical Islamists seeking to escape a foreign military intervention in Libya.

Al-Wigh Air Force Base

Strategically located close to the borders with Niger, Chad, and Algeria, al-Wigh is currently held by the Tubu Um al-Aranib Martyrs’ Brigade. In 2013, Prime Minister Ali Zidan rejected rumors al-Wigh was being used for French Special Forces operations or as a base for terrorist operations in Algeria.

Southern Libya’s Borders

Libya’s southern borders include those with Algeria (982 kilometers), Chad (1,055 kilometers), Sudan (383 kilometers), and Niger (354 kilometers). Most of the southern tribes have benefitted slightly, if at all from Libya’s enormous oil wealth, leading to competition over the cross-border smuggling trade that often takes on ethnic or tribal overtones. Sudan and Libya created a joint border patrol in 2013, but Libya pulled out of the joint patrols in the summer of 2015.[38] In the absence of government authority, control of Libya’s southern borders has been divided between Tubu and Tuareg militias. In the west, the Tuareg control the borders with Algeria and Niger as far as the Tummo border crossing; past that the borders with Niger, Chad, and Sudan are controlled by the Tubu as far as Jabal Uwaynat.[39]

Whether Tuareg or Tubu, border patrols in the south are unfunded by Libyan authorities. As a consequence, the patrols claim to focus on “social evils,” such as arms, narcotics, and militants, allowing fuel, subsidized food, cigarettes, and illegal migrants to pass for a fee. Tubu patrols on the western border complain that they receive no response from government authorities when they report terrorist infiltrations, resulting in easy entry to Southen Libya for jihadist groups operating in the Sahel/Sahara region.[40]

Conclusion

 A limited deployment in northern Libya could easily trigger violence in southern Libya that would destabilize the nation as a whole through the uncontrolled infiltration of extremists through a region already notorious for a perilous combination of vital economic installations and a general absence of security. Foreign intervention in a region historically hostile to foreign rule and where the state is already regarded as weak and unsympathetic to local aspirations could also encourage southern separatism. Various groups in the south have pondered the possibility of independence, namely the Tubu centered around Kufra, the Tuareg in the southwestern border regions, and some Arab factions in the Fezzan, alarming Libya’s southern and western neighbors where such movements have been active for decades.

A January Islamic State video statement threatened attacks on “al-Sarir, Jalu, and al-Kufra,”[41] but religious extremism has so far played only a small role in southern Libya’s political and ethnic violence. Porous borders present the possibility of Libya’s south acting as a gateway for jihadis from the Sahara/Sahel to pour into Libya to confront a foreign intervention, while Islamic State fighters might move south from Sirte in the event of an intervention, either with the intention of attacking vital installations, connecting with other Islamist groups in Libya’s southwest, or escaping into the Sahel.

Until the establishment of a representative unity government in Tripoli with the ability to deploy recognized national security units instead of ethnically or regionally based militias, vital southern oil and water infrastructure will present an enticing target for attacks by terrorists, rebels, or criminal organizations.

Dr. Andrew McGregor is the director of Aberfoyle International Security, a Toronto-based agency specializing in the analysis of security issues in Africa and the Islamic world. 

 

Citations

[1] “Majority of HoR members declare approval of national unity government but want Article 8 deleted,” Libya Herald, April 21, 2016.

[2] Missy Ryan and Sudarsan Raghavan, “Another Western Intervention in Libya Looms,” Washington Post, April 3, 2016; “France says be ready for Libya intervention,” Agence France-Presse, April 1, 2016; Mark Hookham and Tim Ripley, “SAS adds steel to Libya’s anti-Isis militias,” Sunday Times, April 17, 2016; Nathalie Guibert,”La France mène des opérations secrètes en Libye,” Le Monde, February 24, 2016; Daniele Raineri, “Esclusiva: una manciata di Forze speciali italiane è in Libia, Il Foglio, December 3, 2015; “Libia: dai parà agli incursori, le forze speciali italiane,” Agenzia Giornalistica Italia, March 4, 2016.

[3] “Presidency Council must go ‘very quickly’ to Tripoli and rebuild army for battle against IS: if not, ‘others’ will carry out the fight: Kobler,” Libya Herald, March 22, 2016.

[4] Seraj Essul and Elabed Elraqubi, “Man-Made River Cut: Western Libya could face water shortage,” Libya Herald, September 3, 2013; “Libya ex-spy chief’s daughter Anoud al-Senussi released,” BBC, September 8, 2013.

[5] Sebastian Luening and Jonathan Craig, “Re-evaluation of the petroleum potential of the Kufra Basin (SE Libya, NE Chad): Does the source rock barrier fall?” Marine and Petroleum Geology 16:7 (November 1999): pp. 693-718; U.S. Department of Energy, “Technically Recoverable Shale Oil and Shale Gas Resources: Libya,” September 2015; Omar Badawi Abu-elbashar, “Recent Exploration Activities in NW Sudan Reveal the Potential of South Kufra Basin in Chad,” American Association of Petroleum Geologists European Region’s 2nd International Conference held in Marrakech, Morocco, October 5-7, 2011.

[6] For more on tribal dynamics in southern Libya, see Geoffrey Howard, “Libya’s South: The Forgotten Frontier,” CTC Sentinel 7:11 (2014).

[7] John Irish, “France says Southern Libya now a ‘viper’s nest’ for Islamist militants,” Reuters, April 7, 2014.

[8] Wolfram Lacher, “Libya’s Fractious South and Regional Instability,” Small Arms Survey Dispatch no. 3, February 2014.

[9] “Gaddafi Attack on Libyan Oasis Town,” Agence France-Presse, May 1, 2011.

[10] “Libya’s Toubou tribal leader raises separatist bid,” Agence France-Presse, March 27, 2012.

[11] Sam Dagher and Charles Levinson, “Tiny Kingdom’s Huge Role in Libya Draws Concern,” Wall Street Journal, October 17, 2011.

[12] “Khalifa Haftar-linked Darfur rebels are behind Al-Kufra attack, official sources confirm,” Libya Observer, September 23, 2015; “Al-Kufra Clashes,” Libyan Observer, September 20, 2015.

[13] “Heavy clashes in southeast Libya, 30 killed,” Reuters, February 6, 2016; “Clashes in Libya: Sudan, Darfur rebels exchange accusations,” Radio Dabanga, February 12, 2016; “Ten more Darfur rebels killed in Libya,” Sudan Tribune, February 6, 2016; “SLM-Minnawi denies clashes in southern Libya,” Sudan Tribune, February 7, 2016.

[14] Ajnadin Mustafa, “Sewehli tells Serraj to liberate Sirte as Haftar gathers forces and Presidency Council warns of possible IS oilfield attacks,” Libya Herald, April 25, 2016.

[15] “Dignity commander claims Ansar and Libyan Brotherhood linked to ISIS,” Libya Herald, September 29, 2014; “Sudan denies arms being shifted between Darfur and Libya,” Sudan Tribune, March 8, 2015.

[16] “Three killed by Qaddafi sympathisers in Revolution Day clashes in Sebha,” Libya Herald, February 17, 2016.

[17] François de Labarre, “Le chef des Toubous libyens le promet ‘Nous combattons Al Qaïda,’” Paris Match, January 20, 2014.

[18] Lacher.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Jamal Adel and Seraj Essul, “Fresh communal clashes in Sabha,” Libya Herald, June 2, 2014.

[21] Mustafa Khalifa, “Four killed in further Tebu-Tuareg clashes in Sebha,” Libya Herald, July 13, 2015.

[22] Jamal Adel, “Libya: Fighting between Misratan forces and Qaddafi supporters at Sebha airbase,” Libya Herald, January 23, 2014; Jamal Adel, “Tamenhint airbase remains under Qaddafi loyalist control as Sebha clashes continue,” Libya Herald, January 23, 2014.

[23] Yvan Guichaoua, “Tuareg Militancy and the Sahelian Shockwaves of the Libyan Revolution,” in Peter Cole and Brian McQuinn eds., The Libyan Revolution and its Aftermath (London, U.K.: Hurst, 2014), p. 324.

[24] Paul Cruickshank and Tim Lister, “Video shows return of jihadist commander ‘Mr. Marlboro’,” CNN, September 11, 2013; “Extremists flock to Libya’s Salvador Pass to train,” Agence France-Presse, October 27, 2014.

[25] Video of the drop taken by a Harfang drone is available on YouTube. See also Andrew McGregor: “French Foreign Legion Operation in the Strategic Passe de Salvador,” Tips and Trends: The AIS African Security Report, May 30, 2015.

[26] “AGOCO officials inspect Sarir damage, pay respect to victims,” Libya Herald, March 21, 2016.

[27] “Attack on Sarir power station: report,” Libya Herald, March 14, 2016.

[28] Jamel Adel, “Tebu troops head to Benghazi to reinforce Operation Dignity,” Libya Herald, September 10, 2014.

[29] “Libya’s El Sharara oilfield ‘shut in,’” Reuters, November 6, 2014.

[30] Jamal Adel, “Production stops at El Fil oilfield,” Libya Herald, November 9, 2014.

[31] Jamal Adel, “Production at Sharara oilfield collapses following attacks,” Libya Herald, November 6, 2014; Jamal Adel, “Sharara oilfield taken over by joint Misratan/Tuareg force,” Libya Herald, November 8, 2014; Saleh Sarrar: “Libya’s Biggest Oil Field to Resume Pumping by Tomorrow,” Bloomberg News, November 9, 2014.

[32] Video of 2e REP in the Salvador Pass is available on YouTube.

[33] “Tebu and Tuareg sign peace deal in Qatar to end Ubari conflict,” Libya Channel, November 25, 2015.

[34] “Historic Obari castle damaged in renewed Tebu-Tuareg fighting,” Libya Herald, January 12, 2016; “More deadly fighting in Obari,” Libya Herald, January 15, 2015.

[35] Mathieu Galtier, “Southern borders wide open,” Libya Herald, September 20, 2013; Rebecca Murray, “In a Southern Libya Oasis, a Proxy War Engulfs Two Tribes,” Vice News, June 7, 2015.

[36] Nicholas A. Heras, “New Salafist Commander Omar al-Ansari Emerges in Southwest Libya,” Jamestown Foundation Militant Leadership Monitor 5:12 (December 31, 2014). 

[37] Rebecca Murray, “Libya’s Tebu: Living in the Margins,” in Peter Cole and Brian McQuinn eds., The Libyan Revolution and its Aftermath (London, U.K.: Hurst, 2014), p. 311.

[38] “Sudanese army says Libya pulled out its troops from the joint border force,” Sudan Tribune, August 2, 2015.

[39] Jamil Abu Assi, “Libye: Panorama des Forces en Présence,” Bulletin de Documentation N°13, Centre Français de Recherche sur le Renseignement, March 13, 2015.

[40] Maryline Dumas, “La situation des frontières au sud est toujours critique,” Inter Press News Services Agency, September 13, 2014.

[41] Ayman al-Warfalli, “Militants attack storage tanks near Libya’s Ras Lanuf oil terminal,” Reuters, January 21, 2016.

Back to the Creeks: A Profile of Niger Delta Militant Government Ekpemupolo, a.k.a. “Tompolo”

Andrew McGregor

May 30, 2016

tompolo 3Government Ekpemupolo, a.k.a. “Tompolo”

Just as the global oil industry begins to show slight signs of recovery, Nigeria, one of its biggest producers (as well as one of its most oil-dependent nations) has been struck yet again by a wave of crippling attacks on its oil infrastructure. At the heart of this disruption, according to many, is a long-time Niger Delta militant, Government Ekpemupolo, better known as “Tompolo.” Others, however, especially those from his own powerful Ijaw ethnic group (14 million people and Nigeria’s fourth-largest ethnic group), maintain that the (alleged) ex-militant is the victim of political and ethnic machinations. Currently a fugitive from serious corruption charges, Tompolo now tries to manipulate his destiny through messages sent from his hideouts in the oil-rich creeks of the Niger Delta, a nearly impenetrable and insurgent-friendly region where creeks rather than roads often provide the only means of access.

Early Career

Tompolo was born in 1970 in the village of Okerenkoko, part of the Gbaramatu Kingdom in Delta State. The future militant’s father, Chief Thomas Osei Ekpempulo, was a successful businessman providing services to the local oil industry and Tompolo followed in his footsteps despite failing to complete his secondary school education. Reputed to be only semi-literate, Tompolo freely admits that he has other people do “anything concerning paper work” (Sahara Reporters, August 16, 2012).

Like many of his fellow Ijaw youth, Tompolo first took up arms in 1997 when the Nigerian government transferred the headquarters of the Warri South Local Government from Ijaw-dominated territory to a site dominated by a rival ethnic group, the Itsekiri. In what became known as “the Warri Crisis,” Tompolo established a reputation as a fierce fighter and capable leader. Newly politicized, Tompolo then became active in Niger Delta militancy directed at remedying the alleged exploitation of the Delta region and its peoples (particularly the Ijaw) by international oil firms and the Nigerian government.

One outcome of the Warri Crisis was the formation of the Federation of Niger Delta Ijaw Communities (FNDIC) under the leadership of Chief Oboko Bello. The movement was intended to advocate for Ijaw autonomy and rights and Tompolo’s appointment as the FNDIC mobilization officer provided a springboard for the young activist. [1]

Tompolo’s personal wealth and reputation as a fighter and follower of Egbesu (the Ijaw god of war) soon enabled him to take a leadership position amongst the Delta militants. A series of successful strikes against foreign-owned oil installations allowed Tompolo to begin collecting “security fees” from firms eager to avoid bombings and shutdowns, though he continued to steal oil by breaking into Shell and Chevron pipelines (an activity known locally as “bunkering”) (Sahara Reporters, September 10, 2013) Bitter fighting in the creeks between Ijaw militants and Nigeria’s Joint Task Force (JTF – a multi-agency special purpose security force) took a considerable toll on helpless civilians caught in the middle while bunkering and attacks on pipelines flooded the creeks with oil, creating environmental devastation. Tompolo purchased a certain amount of indulgence by investing some of his considerable wealth in local health and education infrastructure, while behind the scenes that same wealth was making him an influential force in local Ijaw politics.

The growth of Tompolo’s force allowed him to assist in the creation of new movements such as al-Haji Mujahid Dokubo-Asari’s Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force (NDPVF) through the provision of arms and other assistance [2] (Sahara Reporters, August 16, 2012).

MEND Leader

In 2006, Tompolo gathered the leading Delta militants at his Camp 5 headquarters in Okerenkoko to form a united front (though maintaining a decentralized command) known as the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND). Though Tompolo assumed the role of founder, communications were put in the hands of the better-educated Henry Okah. MEND immediately opened up new revenue streams by kidnapping foreign oil workers in the Delta while further attacks on the oil infrastructure led to a 50% decline in Nigeria’s much-needed oil revenue.

Having carved out a section of the Delta under his personal control, Tompolo demonstrated his power in 2007 when he granted an audience at Camp 5 to then-Vice President Goodluck Jonathan, whose high-ranking escort was compelled to disarm before the meeting could take place (This Day [Lagos], February 8, 2016).

After Tompolo’s men executed 11 soldiers in May 2009, JTF commander Brigadier-General Sarkin Yaki Bello declared Tompolo the most wanted man in Nigeria, but repeated raids on his camps failed to apprehend the elusive militant (Sahara Reporters, August 16, 2012).

The Amnesty Era

On October 4 2009, Tompolo, like many other leading Delta militants, accepted inclusion in the amnesty program advanced by the late Nigerian president, Umaru Yar’Adua, a Muslim Fulani northerner from Katsina State and leader of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). Tompolo led some 1500 followers into a disarmament camp at Oporoza, all of whom were to be provided with varying levels of assistance in remaking their lives under the terms of the amnesty program.

When Yar’Adua died from an illness in May 2010, he was succeeded by his Vice-President and PCP number two, Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian Ijaw from Bayelsa State in the Niger Delta region.  One result of this unexpected development was a dramatic increase in funds flowing to ex-militant leaders through the amnesty program, allowing many of them to build large mansions and live conspicuously wealthy lifestyles. By 2010, it was reported that Tompolo was making good money assisting the JTF in hunting down other militants still operating in the creeks (Daily Independent [Lagos], April 4, 2015)

Tomposo’s greatest windfall came in November 2011 when he was awarded a 10-year, $103.4 million government contract to provide security for oil facilities in the Delta region. Under the terms of the contract, Tompolo’s Global West Vessel Specialists Ltd (GWVS) would provide services to the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA) with a fleet of 20 ships purchased through a public-private-partnership. The NIMASA Director-General who arranged the deal was Dr. Ziakede Patrick Akpobolokem, a friend of Tompolo.

In 2012, Tompolo acquired a small navy purchased from Norway through a British shell company after Norwegian official failed to vet the purchaser, a post-office box in the name of CAS Global.  The private fleet consisted of six Hauk-class missile torpedo boats and the Horten, a 1700 tonne support ship. The sale was disclosed by an investigative reporter two years later and created a political scandal in Norway (Dagbladet [Oslo], June 14, 2014; Maritime First [Lagos], May 5, 2015). Tompolo then added a Canadian-built Lear Jet to his holdings for the sum of $13.3 million in August 2013.

In February 2015, the NIMASA Director-General held a press conference to state that GWVS was involved solely in the provision and maintenance of platforms and had “nothing to do with bearing arms and ammunitions and chasing criminals, bandits, pirates or whatever.” Nonetheless, the Director-General admitted that NIMASA’s relationship with GWVS had brought “wonderful benefits” by bringing in criminals, controlling pollution and handling safety issues (Primetime Reporters [Lagos], February 24, 2015).

The Downfall

Tompolo’s world began to change following the defeat of his patron, Goodluck Jonathan, in the March 2015 presidential election. The new president was Muhammadu Buhari, a retired Major-General, northern Muslim and leader of the All Progressives Congress (APC) who was willing to extend the amnesty program to December 2017, but cut the flow of patronage money to the south.

As part of an anti-corruption initiative introduced by Buhari’s government, Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) charged Tompolo, Akpobolokemi and several others with 40 counts of corrupt practices committed between 2012 and 2015 involving $171 million, but the ex-militant went underground and failed to appear in court on February 14, 2016, leading to an order for his arrest and the seizure of his assets. Tompolo insists all the questionable transactions were approved by the federal government and that the real reason he is being prosecuted is his refusal to join the ruling APC (The Nation [Lagos], December 12). Further charges of attempting to defraud the government were laid in mid-April against Akpobolokemi and Tompolo (the latter in absentia) (Punch [Lagos], April 18).

Tompolo filed a counter-suit through his lawyer seeking a stay in the proceedings against him; the case will be heard by the Federal High Court in Lagos on June 17 (Daily Post [Lagos], May 19). Tompolo blames most of his troubles on Chief Ayiri Emami (a.k.a. Akulagba), an Itsekiri business tycoon, prominent APC member and business rival in the pipeline protection business; “Ayiri Emami and others accusing me of the destruction of oil facilities in part of the Delta are simply looking for relevance, recognition and pipeline surveillance contracts.” (Sahara Reporters, May 16).

Emergence of the Niger Delta Avengers

A new and unexpected campaign of bombings and attacks on oil infrastructure in the Niger Delta began almost immediately after charges were laid against Tompolo. Claiming responsibility was a previously unknown group using the name Niger Delta Avengers (NDA). Gas and oil pipelines were blown up as was Chevron Nigeria’s Okan platform, an attack that impacted roughly 35,000 bpd of Chevron’s net crude oil production (Sahara Reporters, January 15; Channels Television, May 23; AFP, May 7; Center for International Maritime Security, May 5). The Greek-owned oil tanker MV Leon Dias was hijacked on January 29, with militants demanding the release of Nnamdi Kanu, leader of the separatist Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB). The militants abandoned the ship two days later, taking five crewmen with them as hostages (International Business Times, February 4). Most damaging was the early March destruction of the massive Forcados 48-inch underwater crude oil pipeline, resulting in the loss of 300,000 b.p.d., or $12 million per day (This Day [Lagos], March 10).

Tompolo 2Niger Delta Avengers Attack on a Chevron Pipeline (Daily Post)

The NDA has released a stream of grammatically unsound press releases, usually signed by their spokesman “Colonel” Mudoch Agbinibo. One such statement expressed respect for the previous generation of militant leaders in the Niger Delta, but warned that if they stood in their way, “we will crash you.” The group also emphasizes that they are not solely an Ijaw movement, but also include Isekiri in command positions (Niger Delta Avengers.com, May 12).

The NDA has singled out Chevron as a target, claiming it was ready to take the fight to the firm’s tank farm and headquarters in Lekki (Lagos State) (Niger Delta Avengers.com, May 11). Among its main concerns is the alleged distribution of 90% of the Delta’s oil blocs to individuals from northern Nigeria, a problem the movement suggests it will remedy by demanding the shut-down of operations in these blocs, otherwise they will be “blown up.” The movement further promised that it would unveil “our currency, flag, passport, our ruling council and our territory” by October 2016. (Niger Delta Avengers.com, May 12).

Hidden Hand behind the Niger Delta Avengers?

Given the timing and Tompolo’s fugitive status, suspicion quickly devolved on the ex-militant as the hidden hand behind the NDA.

One of Tompolo’s former MEND colleagues, Africanus Ukparasia (a.k.a. General Africa, now an APC member), accused Tompolo and another former MEND Leader, High Chief Bibopiri Ajube (a.k.a. General Shoot-at-Sight) of organizing the attacks as well as assembling a fleet of ships and men to deter federal prosecution efforts (Sahara Reporters, January 26). Elsewhere, a statement issued by “General” Ossy Babawere of the Lagos and Ogun State-based Forest Soldiers militant group claimed they had declined a request from Tompolo for the group to initiate bombings and pipeline vandalism in the Delta region and instead urged the militant leader to surrender himself for prosecution (Daily Post [Lagos], January 31).

The Egbesu Mightier Fraternity, a militant group dormant since 2011, issued a demand on May 19 for the restoration of Tompolo’s seized bank accounts while claiming: “Tompolo is not responsible for the bombing of oil and gas pipelines in the region. Egbesu Mightier Fraternity is part of the bombings. We are responsible” (Vanguard, May 19).

Tompolo has repeatedly tried to dissociate himself from the NDA, suggesting his accusers are simply looking for “pipeline surveillance contracts” (Vanguard [Lagos], May 16). In mid-March, NIMASA took over GWVS’s fleet of 20 ships, explaining: “These ships are mounted with guns… We don’t want a situation where [they] will be used against the Nigerian state” (Daily Trust [Lagos], March 16).

On April 29, Tompolo sent a warning to President Buhari that some members of his own APC party in Bayelsa and Delta states “are not happy with him because they have not gotten anything from him after almost a year since he assumed office by way of appointments and contracts. Therefore, some of them are involved in nefarious activities in the oil and gas sector…” (Sahara Reporters, April 29).

In a May 2 statement, Tompolo laid the blame for the NDA attacks on oil servicing companies seeking repair contracts and enemies he made “protecting oil facilities”; “It is unfair to link me with this new militant group, which I do not agree with in terms of its philosophy, ideology and mode of operation. I am not part of the Niger Delta Avengers” (The National [Lagos], May 2). Tompolo’s repudiation of the group did not go down well with the NDA and an apology was demanded for this “slap in the face” along with a threat that if such was not issued in three days, the NDA would attack energy infrastructure in Tompolo’s home region. Tompolo refused to apologize and three days later the NDA attacked gas and oil facilities in the Gbaramatu Kingdom (Sahara Reporters, May 5; Niger Delta Avengers.com, May 3; Bella Naija, May 9).

In a May 10 open letter addressed to President Buhari, Tompolo suggested that the EFCC charges against him were inspired by ethnic bias on the part of other “political actors” from the Delta region who would be glad to see the Gbaramatu Kingdom and “by extension, Ijawland” ravaged during the search for him. Tompolo reminded the president that there was nothing criminal about his support for ex-president Jonathan; “I did so out of conviction not because I hate you or because you are a northerner” (The Whistler [Abuja], May 10).

In response to NDA activity, the Nigerian military began putting pressure on illegal refineries and bunkering operations, particularly in the Gbaramatu Kingdom and the Warri South West Local Government Area (Daily Post [Lagos], April 26). The townspeople of Oporoza (Gbaramatu Kingdom) have complained the hunt for Tompolo has led to incursions of heavily armed troops “looking for an excuse to burn out town down” (YNaija, May 15). According to Bibi Oduku, the chief of the Riverine Security force, it is the people of Gbaramatu Kingdom who make up the membership of the NDA, suggesting that “It is not possible for any militia groups to carry out attacks in Gbaramatu without the permission or blessings of the said ex-militant leader [i.e. Tompolo] (Vanguard, May 12).

Conclusion

According to the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), Nigeria loses 800,000 barrels of crude oil a day to pipeline vandalism and bunkering and does not have enough vessels to properly patrol the Delta region (The Eagle Online, May 23).

Given Nigeria’s oil-related economic crisis, it is perhaps unsurprising that President Buhari is questioning the value provided by employing ex-militants such as Tompolo as private security forces when the state is already paying for a police and military. When ex-militants flaunt the wealth gained by rebellion and subsequent reconciliation with the government and engage in corrupt practices to further fleece a government that has offered re-entry to society, it rots the core of the public administration, does little to discourage Delta youth from “going to the Creeks” (i.e. rebellion), and nothing at all to further the environmental or political interests of their own communities. In some sense it is irrelevant whether Tompolo is using the NDA to manipulate his own legal proceedings – it is the sum of his career that encourages Delta youth to use violence to further their own aims.

Notes

  1. Patricia Taft and Nate Haken: Violence in Nigeria: Patterns and Trends, Springer, 2015, p.15.
  2. For Asari-Dokubo and the NDPVF see Andrew McGregor, “A Profile of the Niger Delta’s al-Haji Mujahid Dokubo-Asari,” Militant Leadership Monitor, Part One; March 2013; Part Two, April 2013.

 

This article first appeared in the May 2016 Militant Leadership Monitor

Islamic Kingdom vs. Islamic State: Assessing the Effectiveness of a Saudi-led Counter-Terrorist Army

Andrew McGregor

April 16, 2016

After taking the throne in January, the new Saudi regime of King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud seems determined to shake off the perceived lethargy of the Saudi royals, presenting a more vigorous front against a perceived Shi’a threat in the Gulf with the appointment of former Interior Minister Muhammad bin Nayef as Crown Prince and Salman’s son Muhammad as Minister of Defense and second in line to the throne. To contain Shiite expansion in the Gulf region, the Saudis created a coalition of Muslim countries last year to combat Yemen’s Zaydi Shiite Houthi movement, which had displaced the existing government and occupied Yemen’s capital in 2014. Assessing the military performance of this coalition is useful in projecting the performance of an even larger Saudi-led “counter-terrorist” coalition designed to intervene in Syria and elsewhere.

Saudi Border PostSaudi Border Post Overlooking Yemen

As a demonstration of the united military will of 20 majority Sunni nations (excluding Bahrain, which has a Shi’a majority but a Sunni royal family), the Saudi-led Operation Northern Thunder military exercise gained wide attention during its run from February 14 to March 10 (Middle East Monitor, March 3, 2016).[1] The massive exercise involved the greatest concentration of troops and military equipment in the Middle East since the Gulf War. However, Saudi ambitions run further to the creation of an anti-terrorism (read anti-Shi’a) coalition of 35 Muslim nations that is unlikely to ever see the light of day as conceived. Questions were raised regarding the true intent of this coalition when it became clear Shi’a-majority Iran and Iraq were deliberately excluded, as was Lebanon’s Shi’a Hezbollah movement.

Coalition Operations in Yemen

A Saudi-led coalition launched Operation Decisive Storm in Yemen on March 26, 2015 as a means of reversing recent territorial gains by the Zaydi Shi’a Houthi movement, securing the common border and restoring the government of internationally recognized president Abd Rabu Mansur al-Hadi, primarily by means of aerial bombardment.

Nine other nations joined the Saudi-coalition; the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Sudan, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and Senegal, the latter being the only non-Arab League member. Senegal’s surprising participation was likely the result of promises of financial aid; Senegal’s parliament was told the 2,100 man mission was aimed at “protecting and securing the holy sites of Islam,” Mecca and Madinah (RFI, March 12, 2015).

Despite having the largest army in the coalition, Egypt’s ground contributions appear to have been minimal, with the nation still wary of entanglement in Yemen after the drubbing its expeditionary force took from Royalist guerrillas in Yemen’s mountains during the 1962-1970 civil war, a campaign that indirectly damaged Egypt’s performance in the 1973 Ramadan War against Israel. The Egyptians have instead focused on contributing naval ships to secure the Bab al-Mandab southern entrance to the Red Sea, a strategic priority for both Egypt and the United States.

With support from the UK and the United States, the Saudi-led intervention was seen by Iran, Russia and Gulf Shiite leaders as a violation of international law; more important, from an operational perspective, was the decision of long-time military ally Pakistan to take a pass on a Saudi invitation to join the conflict (Reuters, April 10, 2015).

Operation Decisive Storm was declared over on April 21, 2015, to be replaced the next day with Operation Restoring Hope. Though the new operation was intended to have a greater political focus and a larger ground component, the aerial and naval bombing campaign and U.S.-supported blockade of rebel-held ports continued.

The failure of airstrikes alone to make significant changes in military facts on the ground was displayed once again in the Saudi-led air campaign. A general unconcern for collateral damage, poor ground-air coordination (despite Western assistance in targeting) and a tendency to strike any movement of armed groups managed to alienate the civilian population as well as keep Yemeni government troops in their barracks rather than risk exposure to friendly fire in the field (BuzzFeed, April 2, 2015).  At times, the airstrikes have dealt massive casualties to non-military targets, including 119 people killed in an attack on a market in Hajja province in March 2016 and a raid on a wedding party in September 2015 that killed 131 people (Guardian, March 17, 2016).

While coalition operations have killed some 3,000 militants, the death of an equal number of civilians, the use of cluster munitions and the destruction of infrastructure, mosques, markets, heritage buildings, residential neighborhoods, health facilities, schools and other non-military targets constitute a serious mistake in counter-insurgency operations. Interruptions to the delivery of food, fuel, water and medical services have left many Yemenis prepared to support whomever is able to provide essential services and a modicum of security.

A Muslim Army or an Army of Mercenaries?

When the population of Germany’s small states began to grow in the late 18th century, the rulers of duchies and principalities such as Hesse, Hanover, Brunswick found it both expedient and profitable to rent out their small but highly-trained armies to Great Britain (whose own army was extremely small) for service in America, India, Austria, Scotland, and Ireland. Similarly, a number of Muslim-majority nations appear to be contributing troops to the Saudi-led coalition in return for substantial financial favors from the Saudi Kingdom.

Khartoum’s severance of long-established military and economic relations with Iran has been followed by a much cozier and financially beneficial relationship with Saudi Arabia (much needed after the loss of South Sudan’s oilfields). Sudan committed 850 troops (out of a pledged 6,000) and four warplanes to the fighting in Yemen; like the leaders of other coalition states, President Omar al-Bashir justified the deployment in locally unchallengeable terms of religious necessity – the need to protect the holy places of Mecca and Madinah, which are nonetheless not under any realistic threat from Houthi forces (Sudan Tribune, March 15, 2016).

Khartoum was reported to have received a $1 billion deposit from Qatar in April 2015 and another billion in August 2015 from Saudi Arabia, followed by pledges of Saudi financing for a number of massive Sudanese infrastructure projects (Gulf News, August 13, 2015; East African [Nairobi], October 31, 2015; Radio Dabanga, October 4, 2015). Sudanese commitment to the Yemen campaign was also rewarded with $5 billion worth of military assistance from Riyadh in February, much of which will be turned against Sudan’s rebel movements and help ensure the survival of President Bashir, wanted by the International Criminal Court for genocide and crimes against humanity (Sudan Tribune, February 24, 2016). Some Sudanese troops appear to have been deployed against Houthi forces in the highlands of Ta’iz province, presumably using experience gained in fighting rebel movements in Sudan’s Nuba Hills region (South Kordofan) and Darfur’s Jabal Marra mountain range.

The UN’s Somalia-Eritrea Monitoring Group (SEMG) cited “credible information” this year that Eritrean troops were embedded in UAE formations in Yemen, though this was denied by Eritrea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. (Geeska Afrika Online [Asmara], February 23). The SEMG also reported that Eritrea was allowing the Arab coalition to use its airspace, land territory and waters in the anti-Houthi campaign in return for fuel and financial compensation. [2] Somalia accepted a similar deal in April 2015 (Guardian, April 7, 2015).

UAE troops, mostly from the elite Republican Guard (commanded by Austrian Mike Hindmarsh) have performed well in Yemen, particularly in last summer’s battle for Aden; according to Brigadier General Ahmad Abdullah Turki, commander of Yemen’s Third Brigade: “Our Emirati brothers surprised us with their high morale and unique combat skills,” (Gulf News, December 5, 2015). The UAE’s military relies on a large number of foreign advisers at senior levels, mostly Australians (Middle East Eye, December 23, 2015). Hundreds of Colombian mercenaries have been reported fighting under UAE command, with the Houthis reporting the death of six plus their Australian commander (Saba News Agency [Sana’a], December 8, 2015; Colombia Reports [Medellin], October 26, 2015; Australian Associated Press, December 8, 2015).

There is actually little to be surprised about in the coalition’s use of mercenaries, a common practice in the post-independence Gulf region. A large portion of Saudi Arabia’s combat strength and officer corps consists of Sunni Pakistanis, while Pakistani pilots play important roles in the air forces of both Saudi Arabia and the UAE. As well as the Emirates, Oman and Qatar have both relied heavily on mercenaries in their defense forces and European mercenaries played a large role in Royalist operations during North Yemen’s 1962-1970 civil war.

Insurgent Tactics

The Houthis have mounted near-daily attacks on Saudi border defenses, using mortars, Katyusha and SCUD rockets to strike Saudi positions in Najran and Jizan despite Saudi reinforcements of armor, attack helicopters and National Guard units. Little attempt has been made by the Houthis to hold ground on the Saudi side of the border, which would only feed Saudi propaganda that the Shiites are intent on seizing the holy cities of the Hijaz.

When Republican Guard forces loyal to ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh joined the Houthi rebellion, they brought firepower previously unavailable to the Houthis, including the Russian-made OTR-21 mobile missile system. OTR-21 missiles have been used in at least five major strikes on Saudi or coalition bases, causing hundreds of deaths and many more wounded.

Saudi ArtillerySaudi Artillery Fires on Houthi Positions (Faisal al-Nasser, Reuters)

The Islamic State (IS) has been active in Yemen since its local formation in November 2014. Initially active in Sana’a, the movement has switched its focus to Aden and Hadramawt. IS has used familiar asymmetric tactics in Yemen, assassinating security figures and deploying suicide bombers in bomb-laden vehicles against soft targets such as mosques (which AQAP now refrains from) as well as suicide attacks on military checkpoints that are followed by assaults with small arms. With its small numbers, the group has been most effective in urban areas that offer concealment and dispersal opportunities. Nonetheless, part of its inability to expand appears to lie in the carelessness with which Islamic State handles the lives of its own fighters and the wide dislike of the movement’s foreign (largely Saudi) leadership.

War on al-Qaeda

With control of nearly four governorates, a major port (Mukalla, capital of Hadramawt province) and 373 miles of coastline, al-Qaeda has created a financial basis for its administration by looting banks, collecting taxes on trade and selling oil to other parts of fuel-starved Yemen (an unforeseen benefit to AQAP of the naval blockade). The group displayed its new-found confidence by trying (unsuccessfully) to negotiate an oil export deal with Hadi’s government last October (Reuters, April 8, 2016).

Eliminating al-Qaeda’s presence in Yemen was not a military priority in the Saudi-led campaign until recently, with an attack by Saudi Apache attack helicopters on AQAP positions near Aden on March 13 and airstrikes against AQAP-held military bases near Mukalla that failed to dislodge the group (Reuters, March 13; Xinhua, April 3, 2016).

Perhaps drawing on lessons learned from al-Qaeda’s failed attempt to hold territory in Mali in 2012-2013, AQAP in Yemen has focused less on draconian punishments and the destruction of Islamic heritage sites than the creation of a working administration that provides new infrastructure, humanitarian assistance, health services and a degree of security not found elsewhere in Yemen (International Business Times, April 7, 2016).

Conclusion: A Saudi-led Coalition in Syria?

The Saudis are now intent on drawing down coalition ground operations while initiating new training programs for Yemeni government troops and engaging in “rebuilding and reconstruction” activities (al-Arabiya, March 17, 2016). A ceasefire took hold in Yemen on April 10 in advance of UN-brokered peace talks in Kuwait to begin on April 18.  Signs that a political solution may be at hand in Yemen include Hadi’s appointment of a new vice-president and prime minister, the presence of a Houthi negotiating team in Riyadh and the exclusion of ex-president Saleh from the process, a signal his future holds political isolation rather than a return to leadership (Ahram Online, April 7, 2016).

If peace negotiations succeed in drawing the Houthis into the Saudi camp the Kingdom will emerge with a significant political, if not military, victory, though the royal family will still have an even stronger AQAP to contend with.  Like the Great War, the end of the current war in Yemen appears to be setting the conditions for a new conflict so long as it remains politically impossible to negotiate with AQAP. However, AQAP is taking the initiative to gain legitimacy by testing new names and consolidating a popular administration in regions under its control. Unless current trends are reversed, AQAP may eventually be the first al-Qaeda affiliate to successfully make the shift from terrorist organization to political party.

The cost to the Saudis in terms of cash and their international reputation has been considerable in Yemen, yet Hadi, recently fled to Riyadh, is no closer to ruling than when the campaign began. Sana’a remains under Houthi control and radical Islamists have taken advantage of the intervention to expand their influence. Perhaps in light of this failure, Saudi foreign minister Adl al-Jubayr has suggested the Kingdom now intends only a smaller Special Forces contribution to the fighting in Syria that would focus not on replacing the Syrian regime but rather on destroying Islamic State forces “in the framework of the international coalition” (Gulf News, February 23, 2016). Introducing a larger Saudi-led coalition to the anti-Islamic State campaign in Syria/Iraq without a clear understanding and set of protocols with other parties involved (Iran, Iraq, Russia, Hezbollah, the Syrian Army) could easily ignite a greater conflict rather than contribute to the elimination of the Islamic State. Saudi Arabia is not a disinterested party in the Syrian struggle; it has been deeply involved in providing financial, military and intelligence support to various religiously-oriented militias that operate at odds with groups supported by other interested parties.

The Saudi-led intervention in Yemen has left one of the poorest nations on earth in crisis, with 2.5 million displaced and millions more without access to basic necessities. With Yemen’s infrastructure and heritage left in ruins and none of the coalition’s strategic objectives achieved, it seems difficult to imagine that the insertion into Syria of another Saudi-led coalition would make any meaningful contribution to bringing that conflict to a successful or sustainable end.

Notes

  1. Besides Saudi Arabia, the other nations involved in the exercise included Egypt, Jordan, Senegal, Sudan, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritania, Mauritius, Morocco, Pakistan, Chad, Tunisia, Djibouti, Comoro Islands and Peninsula Shield Force partners Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
  2. Report of the Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea pursuant to Security Council resolution 2182 (2014): Eritrea, October 19, 2015, 3/93, http://www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=S/2015/802

 

An edited version of this article appeared in the April 15, 2016 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor under the title: “Saudi Arabia’s Intervention in Yemen Suggests a Troubled Future for the Kingdom’s Anti-Terror Coalition,” http://www.jamestown.org/programs/tm/single/?tx_ttnews[tt_news]=45324&tx_ttnews[backPid]=26&cHash=e2d5de949e926ff3b5d9228dc4b96af7#.VxfvSkdqnIU

 

Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood and the Struggle for Post-Revolutionary Libya: A Profile of Shaykh Ali Muhammad al-Salabi

Andrew McGregor

March 2016

The rise to power of Mu’ammar Qaddafi (1969-2011) in Libya led to major changes in the observation of Islam in a deeply conservative Sunni Muslim North African nation. While establishing Shari’a as the basis of Libyan legislation, Qaddafi sought to disrupt the dominant Sanusiya and other Sufi orders that dominated traditional Islamic worship in Libya. As the Sufi orders were weakened, Qaddafi adopted an unorthodox approach to Islam in which he was uniquely gifted with the ability to interpret the Quran while diminishing the importance of the hadith-s and Sunna. The result was state-imposed “Islamic socialism,” tightly tied to Qaddafi’s poorly received implementation of the Libyan jamhariya (“state of the masses”) as the national political structure. Unwilling to enter into debate over his controversial interpretations of Islam (likely due to his lack of scholarship in this area as well as his personal arrogance), Qaddafi took harsh measures against Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood in the 1980s, plunging many Brothers into grim prisons while driving others into self-exile in Europe and America. Ironically, it was Qaddafi’s repression of Sufist worship that allowed the Muslim Brothers to fill a void in the spiritual and political opposition to Qaddafi during the 2011 revolution. At the forefront of these efforts was a second-generation Muslim Brother, Shaykh Ali Muhammad al-Salabi.

SalabiShaykh Ali Muhammad al-Salabi (Moises Saman, NYT)

The Libyan Ikhwan

The Libyan Muslim Brotherhood was formed in 1949. Prior to the 2011 revolution, membership was traditionally small and heavily focused on professionals, many of whom were based in the West, with Geneva serving as a type of headquarters for the exiled Brothers. Their first post-revolutionary conference on Libyan soil was held in November 2011.

The development of the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood was strongly influenced by the arrival of numerous Ikhwan [“Brothers”] from Egypt following Nasser’s decision to repress the movement after initially cooperating with it. Many of the exiles were academics and access to educational institutions under King Idris exposed many Libyan youth to the Brotherhood’s ideology. Qaddafi’s 1969 coup brought this period to an end, and the movement henceforth developed largely in exile in Europe and the United States. [1]

Officially, the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood is led by Ahmad Abdullah al-Suqi of Misrata, though al-Salabi is a prominent, if unofficial, intellectual and spiritual leader, largely through his international connections, including a close relationship to Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Brotherhood’s Qatar-based over-all spiritual leader (Libya Herald, October 5, 2015). Hizb al-Adala wa’l-Tamiyya (the Justice and Development Party) is widely considered to be the movement’s political arm in Libya, though party leader Muhammad Sawan (a former political prisoner) insists that the party is “administratively and financially independent of the Muslim Brotherhood” (al-Jazeera, July 3, 2012).

Early Life in the Qaddafi Era

Born in 1963, al-Salabi is the son of a Benghazi banker and Muslim Brotherhood member who was imprisoned for opposing the Qaddafi regime. Under his influence, al-Salabi joined the movement himself while still a youth. At 18-years of age, al-Salabi was sentenced to eight years in Tripoli’s Abu Salim prison in connection to an alleged role in a plot to kill Mu’ammar Qaddafi, though al-Salabi maintains his only crime was praying at the mosque daily and encouraging others to do so (Washington Post, December 9, 2011). [2]

Over 1200 prisoners (mostly but not exclusively Islamists) were massacred in a single day at Abu Salim prison in 1996 (prior to al-Salabi’s incarceration). Mu’ammar’s son, Sa’if al-Islam al-Qaddafi, made efforts to address the still-simmering anger over the Abu Salim massacre by promising an investigation into the still-taboo subject in 2008. With Qaddafi still in power, the resulting probe found few witnesses or participants willing to discuss what orders were given and by whom. Ultimately, it was small-scale protests over the Abu Salim massacre in Benghazi that sparked the Libyan uprising in 2011.

His sentence done, al-Salabi lost little time in leaving Libya in 1998 to take a bachelor’s degree at the Islamic University of Madinah, followed by a master’s degree and a doctorate from Omdurman Islamic University in Sudan.  Ultimately, al-Salabi settled in Qatar, where the regime was supportive of the Muslim Brotherhood so long as it remained uninvolved in domestic politics. Qatar is host to a significant international Muslim Brotherhood community, though the movement does not operate in Qatar itself, the local chapter of the Brotherhood having shut itself down as redundant in 1999 after first expressing its approval of the state’s religious direction and administration (The National [Abu Dhabi], May 18, 2012).

In 2009, al-Salabi served as a mediator between the regime, as represented by Sa’if al-Islam Qaddafi, and still-imprisoned members of the Jama’a al-Islamiya al-Muqatila bi-Libya (Libyan Islamic Fighting Group – LIFG), most of whom were kept under often brutal conditions in Abu Salim prison.

Headed by al-Salabi, funded by Qatar and drawing inspiration from a similar Egyptian effort (Dr. Fadl’s “Revisions”), the initiative used arguments based on Islamic theology to de-radicalize imprisoned militants and resulted in the production of a book written by Abd al-Hakim Belhaj and five other leading Islamist prisoners, Corrective Studies in Understanding Jihad, Enforcement of Morality and Judgement of People. [3]

It was during this time that al-Salabi began to forge a relationship with Belhaj, a still incarcerated LIFG commander. As a result of the initiative, hundreds of Islamists were released from Libyan prisons after swearing not to take up arms against the regime. Belhaj and several other former LIFG commanders became closely associated with al-Salabi after their release, though their oath meant little in the end.

Scholarship

Salabi’s Master’s thesis, Al-Wasatiyah fi al-Qur’an al-Karim (Moderation in the Noble Quran), was published in Arabic in 2001. The work examines the concept of wasatiyah in Islamic epistemology, a concept that calls on Muslims to adopt a balanced approach to Islam that emphasizes fairness and best practices. [4] After completing a doctorate in Islamic studies at Omdurman Islamic University in the Sudan in 1999, al-Salabi produced a series of biographies (often in multiple volumes) of the Prophet Muhammad, the early Caliphs, crusader adversary Salah al-Din al-Ayubi and others.

All these works (save his master’s thesis) have been translated into English by Saudi publishing houses and garnered general scholarly approval in the Islamic community and wide sales internationally, though the Russian seizure of a single copy of al-Salabi’s biography of the first Caliph, Abu Bakr al-Siddiq, led to a 2014 ban on the unexplained claim the work contained “information aimed at justifying suicidal terrorism and armed struggle (jihad) in the path of Allah under the guise of religious ideology”(Forum 18, March 20, 2015).   Al-Salabi also specializes in the study of hadith-s, accounts of the words or actions of the Prophet Muhammad. Prior to his return to Libya in 2011, al-Salabi was best known to other Libyans by his frequent appearances on Qatar-based al-Jazeera TV.

Revolution

Shortly after the anti-Qaddafi revolution began in February 2011, Qatar decided there was an opportunity to increase its influence in Libya, which is similarly blessed with massive reserves of gas, possibly with a mind to expanding the operations of Qatar’s highly successful natural gas firms (Reuters, June 9, 2011). Al-Salabi returned to Libya to act as the point man for shipments of arms from Qatar and the provision of Qatari intelligence and training from Qatari Special Forces operatives. Qatar’s support for the Salabis and the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood appears to have been more practical than ideological in that the chaotic early days of the revolution offered few (if any) other Islamist groups that could claim to be fully organized with an established hierarchy. Nonetheless, Doha’s preference for Islamist revolutionary groups and al-Salabi’s pre-existing relationship with the Qatari regime sealed the deal, and soon both parties began to build a network of influence funded and controlled from Doha.

Saif al-Islam QaddafiSa’if al-Islam Qaddafi (Guardian)

Contacts between al-Salabi and Sa’if al-Islam Qaddafi appear to have continued well into the revolution; in July 2011, Sa’if al-Islam announced the formation of an alliance with al-Salabi against the rebels. Al-Salabi denied the creation of an alliance, but did acknowledge that he had been in continuing talks with regime representatives (AFP, August 4, 2011). In the course of an interview with the New York Times, Sa’if al-Islam Qaddafi described al-Salabi as “the real leader” of the revolution. (NYT, August 3, 2011).

Post-Revolution Politics

Al-Salabi loudly opposed the appointment of Mahmoud Jibril (a close friend of Sa’if al-Islam al-Qaddafi) to head the Transitional National Council (TNC) during the revolution. Though Jibril had proclaimed Shari’a would be the basis of all Libyan legislation, he remained tainted in the Islamists’ eyes by his former role as a major player in the Qaddafi administration. The pressure from al-Salabi, Belhaj and others eventually compelled Jibril to resign on October 23, 2011.  Ironically, one of al-Salabi’s criticisms was that Jibril was going too far by announcing he would ban all non-Islamic finance, with al-Salabi stating simply that “We are part of international banking systems” (Telegraph, November 10, 2011).

Al-Salabi’s vitriolic personal attacks on Jibril quickly backfired, with some of his own supporters melting away as protests against his remarks broke out in Benghazi and Tripoli. Even Abd al-Hakim Belhaj failed to rally behind the Ikhwan leader. Forced to step back until the controversy subsided, earlier predictions that al-Salabi would emerge as Libya’s first post-revolution leader were proved false. [5]

The Islamist Hizb al-Watan (Homeland Party) was founded by al-Salabi and Belhaj in November 2011 (initially under the short-live name National Gathering for Freedom, Justice and Development. According to al-Salabi, the movement was “not an Islamist party, but a nationalist party… but its political agenda respects the general principles of Islam and Libyan culture” (Telegraph, November 10, 2011). Al-Salabi has been publicly consistent on two principles; first, that the movement is democratic and second, that the movement is focused on the implementation of moderate Islamic politics along the lines of the “moderate” Islamist governments of Turkey and Malaysia. He was supported in this by Belhaj, the allegedly reformed militant, when he stated: “Libyans are Muslims and they call for moderate Islam, so none of us poses a threat to anyone inside or outside Libya” (al-Jazeera, July 3, 2012).

Salabi told a post-revolution gathering that included Islamic scholars critical of his decision to enter politics: “We call for a moderate Islam. But you all have to understand that Islam is not just about punishment, cutting hands and beheading with swords” (Reuters, October 10, 2011).

Contrary to expectations, Hizb al-Watan failed to take a single seat in the Libyan National Assembly election of 2012, which was easily won by Mahmoud Jibril’s National Forces Alliance (39 seats, 48% of the vote). [6] The Muslim Brother’s Justice and Development Party took 10% of the vote, but benefitted from the election of a large number of independent candidates sympathetic to the Brotherhood.

Situating himself as a proponent of democracy, al-Salabi called for general elections in May 2015 “to put an end to the bloodshed and protect Libya,” urging the UN envoy to Libya and Libyan politicians to stop “wasting time and effort and manipulating Libyans’ feelings in preparation to invade their country under the pretext of combating terrorism” (Middle East Monitor, May 5, 2015).

In interviews with Western journalists, al-Salabi inevitably professes an admiration for American-style democracy that he claims began when he read Jefferson in prison (Washington Post, December 9, 2011). Responding to a leaked video showing the beating of Sa’adi Qaddafi in a GNC prison in Tripoli and reports that former regime members were being tortured in revolutionary prisons, al-Salabi denounced the treatment, insisting it repeated the “authoritarian behavior that was ousted in the 17 February revolution” (Middle East Memo, August 6, 2015).

Isma’il al-Salabi

Al-Salabi works closely with his brother Isma’il, who was also imprisoned by Qaddafi in 1997 until his release in 2004. During the revolution, Isma’il took command of the Raffalah Sahati militia, a main recipient of Qatari arms and a part of the February 17 Brigade, a coalition of Islamist militias. The May 2014 launch of Operation Dignity by General Khalifa Haftar quickly led to clashes in Benghazi between Isma’il’s Raffalah Sahati Brigade and Haftar’s Libyan National Army, with tensions between the two groups continuing to this day (al-Hayat, May 19, 2014).

Ali and Isma’il al-Salabi work closely with Jalal al-Dugheily, a politician and former soldier who served as Defense Minister in the post-revolutionary TNC, a position that allowed him to help with the mass transfer of Qatari arms to Islamist revolutionaries.

A third brother, Khalid al-Salabi, left Libya in 1996 and is an imam at a Galway mosque in Ireland and head of the Galway Islamic Society (Irish Times, September 10, 2011).

Conclusion

The influence of the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya is now being challenged by the upstart Islamic State organization. The extremism of the Islamic State is obviously distant from the al-Salabi’s emphasis on moderation; to counter the movement, the cleric has called for a national unity government that possesses a clear mandate to combat terrorism and “is also prepared to cooperate with the international war on terrorism” (Libya Herald, March 1, 2016).

Al-Salabi appears to have pulled back from the political scene to some degree today, but continues to be active in promoting and organizing Islamist forums. The Shaykh may still play a role in restoring Libyan stability, but it has become clear al-Salabi speaks for only a small percentage of Libyans. His professions of moderation in both Islam and Islamist politics brings back unfortunate memories of Egypt’s Muhammad al-Mursi’s embracement of moderation and inclusion in Egypt’s post-revolutionary period before the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood sought to control most elements of Egyptian society and governance, bringing themselves down in the process. Unlike al-Mursi, al-Salabi’s interest in moderation appears sincere and long-held; on the other hand, his close association with Belhaj, a former militant whose disavowal of extremism appears somewhat less certain, and Islamist militias including the one controlled by his brother, lead to inevitable questions about his commitment to democratic ideals. Libyan gratitude for Qatar’s assistance during the revolution has withered into a growing resentment of what is now widely viewed as a prolonged interference in Libya’s domestic politics. Once an asset, al-Salabi’s close relations with the Qataris has begun to work against him in the Libyan political arena.

Al-Salabi recently insisted that both the General National Congress (GNC) government in Tripoli and the rival House of Representatives (HoR) government in Tobruq must resign, as neither institution is legitimate. Only in this way can a real and inclusive national dialogue be initiated to restore Libyan unity (Middle East Monitor, November 23, 2015). With both governments doggedly hanging on to belief in their own legitimacy a month later, al-Salabi issued a call for the leaders of both institutions to meet with Fayez al-Sarraj, head of the new UN-sponsored Government of National Accord (GNA), the latest effort to unite Libya’s political structure (Libya Prospect, December 21, 2015).

For now, al-Salabi’s campaign to promote modernity and moderation in Islamist politics is treated with some suspicion by many Libyans following the Egyptian Brotherhood’s disastrous term as the government of Egypt. However, as Libyans continue to struggle to establish a unity government and bring an end cycles of ethnic and political violence, new opportunities will undoubtedly emerge for al-Salabi and his colleagues to ensure Islamists are well represented in any future government.

Notes

  1. Libya Electoral, Political Parties Laws and Regulations Handbook – Strategic Information, Regulations, Procedures, International Business Publications, Washington D.C., 2015, p.53.
  2. M. Cherif Bassiouni (ed.): Libya: From Repression to Revolution: A Record of Armed Conflict and International Law Violations, Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 2013, p.444.
  3. An English summary of the 420 page work can be found here: http://www.quilliamfoundation.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/publications/free/a-selected-translation-of-the-lifg.pdf
  4. Mohamed Shukri Hanapi: “The Wasatiyyah (Moderation) Concept in Islamic Epistemology::A Case Study of its Implementation in Malaysia,” International Journal of Humanities and Social Science, Vol. 4, No. 9(1); July 2014, pp. 51-62, http://www.ijhssnet.com/journals/Vol_4_No_9_1_July_2014/7.pdf
  5. Fitzgerald, Mary: “Finding Their Place: Libya’s Islamists During and After the Revolution,” in Peter Cole and Brian McQuinn (eds.): The Libyan Revolution and its Aftermath, Oxford University Press, 2015, pp. 194-95.
  6. Richard A. Lobban Jr. and Christopher H. Dalton: Libya: History and Revolution, Praeger Security International, Santa Barbara, 2014, p.153, fig. 7.1.

This article first appeared in the March 2016 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Militant Leadership Monitor.