Islamic State Announces Libyan Return with Slaughter of LNA Personnel in Jufra

Andrew McGregor

AIS Special Report, August 24, 2017

A late-night strike by a large group of Islamic State militants on a Libyan National Army (LNA) checkpoint near Fugha in the central province of Jufra was a bloody warning that the Islamic State is regrouping in Libya after a major defeat late last year.

(Libya Observer)

The dead included nine soldiers of the 131st Infantry Battalion and two civilians from Sirte who had the misfortune of arriving at the checkpoint as the killings were ongoing (al-Wasat, August 23, 2017). The men had apparently been taken prisoner first, as they died from close range shots to the head or from being beheaded or having their throats slit.

The killers left the scene with stolen arms and vehicles after setting fire to the checkpoint and everything they couldn’t carry away (Libya Observer, August 23, 2017). The Islamic State’s Amaq news agency claimed a total of 21 LNA personnel had been either killed or wounded in the attack (Telegram messaging service, August 23, 2017).

The Islamic State militants were forced out of their stronghold in the coast city of Sirte late last year by Bunyan al-Marsous (“Solid Structure”), a Misratan-led coalition of militias (mostly Islamist), aided by punishing air strikes by American warplanes based offshore.

Eight of the soldiers at Fugha were from Surman and were former members of the 32nd Mechanized Brigade, a Qaddafist-era elite unit commanded by the late Colonel Khamis al-Qaddafi, son of the Libyan leader (Libya Herald, August 23, 2017). Despite their reputation as loyal, even fanatical, Qaddafists, some veterans of the Brigade were integrated into the 131st Battalion after the revolution. The battalion battled the Islamist Benghazi Defense Brigades (BDB) in the coastal oil crescent region in early March 2017. A surprise strike by the BDB against the Sidra and Ras Lanuf oil terminals on March 3 ejected LNA units (including the 131st) from the area, while there were unconfirmed reports that two NCOs of the 131st Battalion had been captured and beheaded by the BDB. The deceased were later identified as Muhammad Oweidat and Imad Zlitni, but the BDB denied beheading the two soldiers (Libya Herald, March 12, 2017).

LNA Forces seize Jufra Airbase in June, 2017 (Libya Express)

The LNA expelled the BDB from its bases in Jufra in a rapid campaign in early June. The operation was helped by the fact that the BDB had lost local support following an especially vicious assault on the LNA-held Brak al-Shatti airbase on May 18. Seven civilians and over 130 captive soldiers of the LNA’s 10th and 12th Brigades were slaughtered by the BDB and their allies. Many had their throats slit, while others appear to have had their heads run over by trucks.

Surman, the home of eight of the soldiers killed at the Fugha checkpoint, was the scene of fighting in March 2016 between local fighters and male and female Islamic State terrorists from Tunisia who had escaped American airstrikes and a February 25-28 offensive against Islamic State fighters in neighboring Sabratha.  During its brief occupation of Sabratha, the Islamic State militants beheaded 12 policemen after overrunning their station but were unable to fulfill their intention of destroying the Roman ruins there. After the beheadings, ten of the terrorists were killed by the Surman fighters; a woman and her child were the only prisoners (Libya Observer, March 3, 2016).

Both LNA commander “Field Marshal” Khalifa Haftar and Faiez Serraj, chairman of the rival UN-recognized Presidency Council, promised a firm response to the Fugha attack. To some degree, the Islamic State has been able to exploit the lack of a united response to their activities due to political and military divisions within Libya. The massacre at Fugha was the first large-scale operation by Islamic State fighters since the collapse of their Sirte stronghold last December and suggests the movement may have successfully regrouped to launch a new phase of their campaign to impose an Islamic Caliphate on Libya.

General Ali Kanna Sulayman and Libya’s Qaddafist Revival

Andrew McGregor

AIS Special Report, August 8, 2017

General Ali Kanna Sulayman (Paris Match)

Lieutenant General Ali Kanna Sulayman, a member of the Tuareg ethnic group, ruled the military district of southwestern Libya during the Qaddafi era. Ali Kanna was forced from Libya into exile in Niger during the Libyan Revolution, but unlike many of his Tuareg Libyan Army comrades who joined rebel movements in northern Mali, Ali Kanna kept his eyes on Libya, waiting for a chance to reinsert himself as leader of a neo-Qaddafist movement in the Fezzan region. Since his quiet return several years ago, Ali Kanna has tried to organize a multi-ethnic “Army of the Fezzan” and succeeded in reasserting his authority in Tuareg-held regions of southern Libya while attempting to rally the Tubu and Arab tribes of Fezzan in a common cause. With the recent release of many leading Qaddafists from prison, Ali Kanna stands to be a major player in the gathering neo-Qaddafist revival.

Background

In 2004, Ali Kanna was appointed commander of the newly formed Maghawir Brigade, a unit of approximately 3,000 Sahelian Tuareg (i.e. hailing from Niger and Mali rather than Libya) based in the Fezzan city of Ubari. When the 2011 revolution broke out, the brigade used deadly violence to repress protests in Tripoli and fought revolutionaries in northwestern Libya. [1]

When the unit broke up in the latter stages of the revolution, those Tuareg members who did not return to Mali or Niger formed the Tendé Brigade in the Fezzan city of Ubari. The brigade would play a major role in the severe fighting that took place there against the Tubu in 2014.

Exile

Most of the Sahelian Tuareg deserted Qaddafi as things began to look bad for the regime during the 2011 revolution. Ali Kanna fled to Niger rather than northern Mali, where the Tuareg, who had brought their arms with them, formed new rebel movements to establish the new nation of “Azawad.” General Ali Sharif al-Rifi, another committed Qaddafi supporter and his last air force commander, also fled to Niger, and the two generals settled temporarily in the historic city of Agadez. Al-Rifi later moved to the Niger capital of Niamey, where he associated with Sa’adi al-Qaddafi until the latter was deported to Libya in 2014. Al-Rifi was reported to have returned to his home in the Fezzan town of Waddan in June 2017, a sign that Qaddafists now feel it is safe to return to Libya (Libya Herald, June 18, 2017).

In September 2013, a group of Fezzani elders met in Ubari to declare the establishment of Fezzan as an autonomous federal province of Libya in response to the inability of authorities to provide either services or security in the region. Most of those involved were Qaddafists but the initiative went nowhere, having failed to involve local communities and institutions (al-Arabiya, September 26, 2013; Libya Herald, September 28, 2013).

Return

After his return to Fezzan, Ali Kanna initially allied himself with the Misratan Third Brigade against the forces of “Field Marshal” Khalifa Haftar, a Qaddafist general who was repudiated by Qaddafi after his defeat and capture in Chad’s 1986-87 “Toyota War.” Understandably bitter over his treatment, Haftar was rescued from captivity by the CIA and brought to the United States to act as an asset-in-waiting should the United States commit itself to regime change in Libya. Never deployed for this purpose, Haftar returned to Libya during the revolution seeking to establish himself as a national strongman in the Qaddafi mold, accepting aid to accomplish this from anyone willing to offer it, including Egypt, the UAE and Russia.

Ali Kanna made a bold move to reshape the political and military landscape of the Fezzan when he held a gathering of tribal and village representatives to ask the youths of every tribe to abandon their allegiances to various militias and join a new “Army of the Fezzan,” warning there was “a great threat to the people of the South” (Paris Match, May 22, 2016).  The Fezzan Army would be loyal to the principles of the Jamahiriya rather than the GNA government in Tripoli or the rival HoR government in Tobruk (Middle East Eye, November 11, 2016).

Ali Kanna appeared to make progress with his concept of a Fezzan Army independent of Libya’s rival governments in October 2016, when a group of southern Libyan National Army (LNA – a military coalition under the command of Khalifa Haftar) officers appointed him commander of the “Libyan Arab Armed Forces in South Libya.” General Ali Kanna was explicit that his new command would remain aloof from politics and would not support any government until the achievement of national unification. LNA headquarters treated the incident as a rebellion and sent General Muhammad Ben Nayel to surround and disarm the dissident officers (Digital Journal, October 9, 2017; Libyan Express, October 10, 2017). General Ben Nayel was commander of the LNA’s 12th Brigade and an important figure within the Arab Magarha tribe.

Without sufficient support for the initiative, Ali Kanna changed course and declared he would work with any national army operating under a unified national leadership (Libya Herald, April 13, 2017). Of course, the establishment of such an army is still far from sight.

There was speculation that Ali Kanna and other returning Qaddafists were seeking to carve out a new place for themselves in Libya by dedicating themselves to ridding Libya of Islamic State forces, even if this meant coming under the command of Khalifa Haftar.

The Qaddafist Revival – 2017

When Sa’if al-Islam Qaddafi was released from a Zintan prison in early June 2017 after six years imprisonment, there were reports of street celebrations in Sabha and a rumor that he had joined Ali Kanna in the Fezzan (Libya Herald, June 10, 2017). Sa’if, who was sentenced to death in 2015, is widely regarded as the most likely of Qaddafi’s surviving progeny to revive Qaddafism as a political ideology in Libya. Sa’if al-Islam’s release was followed by the release of 30 officers of Qaddafi’s army and other Qaddafi supporters from Hadba prison in Tripoli (Libya Herald, June 11, 2017). Days later Sa’adi Qaddafi, Abu Zayid Dourda (a chief administrator in Qaddafi’s government) and former intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi were transferred from prison to a luxury hotel in Tripoli where they were allowed to meet with supporters. Up to that point, al-Senussi, Qaddafi’s top enforcer, was awaiting his execution under a death sentence issued two years ago (Libya Herald, June 13, 2017; Arab News, February 22, 2017).

General Ali Kanna (center) at the Ghat Ceremony. The green scarves symbolize the Qaddafist Jamahiriya state.

Ali Kanna expressed his continued devotion to the Libyan Jamahiriya (the Qaddafist state) on September 1, 2016 during a ceremony in Ghat to mark the 47th anniversary of the Libyan Revolution of 1969 (Lavoixdelalibye.com, September 24, 2016).

Ali Kanna’s status was evident when he attended the ceremony marking the completion of the reconciliation agreement between the Tuareg and Tubu in May 2017. The agreement was the culmination of peace efforts started after a bitter conflict between the two groups nearly destroyed the Fezzan city of Ubari in 2014. Ali Kanna was reported to have played an important role in the Doha-sponsored mediation process after his 2015 return to Libya.

In May 2017, the Misratan 13th Brigade (the former “Third Force”) conducted a peaceful handover of the Sharara oil field to Ali Kanna’s Tuareg militia, their former allies. Sharara was seized in 2014 by the Third Force and local Tuareg allies who forced out Tubu and Zintani militias (Libya Herald, May 25, 2017).

Under pressure from local tribal militias, the 13th Brigade then evacuated Tamenhint Air Base north of Sabha, which was quickly occupied by the LNA’s 12th Brigade with support from the LNA’s 116th Brigade (Libya Herald, May 25, 2017). The 13th Brigade’s withdrawal was a major setback for the Misratan supporters of Libya’s internationally recognized government, the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA).

Conclusion

Sa’if al-Qaddafi appears unlikely to abandon politics now that he has been released from prison, but restoring Qaddafism as an ideology in Libya will be slow and careful work. Part of these efforts will involve exploiting a relationship with Khalifa Haftar’s LNA and the GNA’s rival, the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR) government, which has expressed a willingness to allow members of the Qaddafi regime to re-enter public life. To complete his encirclement of Tripoli and the GNA, Haftar needs support in the Fezzan, the last region to fall to the anti-Qaddafi revolutionaries in the 2011 revolution. The vast oil and natural gas reserves of the Murzuq Basin and Fezzan’s al-Sharara and al-Fil oil operations are also major strategic assets of immense value to whoever controls them.

In the meantime, Ali Kanna, who is widely believed to have close ties to Algerian intelligence [2], can offer protection to Sa’if al-Qaddafi and a potential military base of veteran fighters capable of making Sa’if a political force in Fezzan to be reckoned with. Though this process remains fraught with uncertainty and a Fezzani population that is by no means solidly pro-Qaddafist, the resurgence of General Ali Kanna Sulayman will continue to go hand-in-hand with the revival of Qaddafism in post-revolution Libya.

Notes

  1. Wolfram Lacher, “Libya’s Fractious South and Regional Instability,” Small Arms Survey Dispatch no.3, February 2014.
  2. Rebecca Murray “Southern Libya Destablized: The Case of Ubari,” Small Arms Survey Briefing Paper, April 2017, fn. 85.

General with a Deadline: Ibrahim Attahiru’s 40 Days to Seize Boko Haram Leader Abu Bakr Shekau, Dead or Alive

Andrew McGregor

AIS Special Report, July 29, 2017

After an eight year hunt for Boko Haram leader Abu Bakr Shekau, Nigeria’s Chief of Army Staff, Lieutenant General Tukur Yusufu Buratai, has placed one of the nation’s top generals in an uncomfortable spot by issuing him a forty-day deadline to apprehend Shekau, dead or alive.

Major General Ibrahim Attahiru

The Man and the Mission

The order was given on July 21 to Major General Ibrahim Attahiru, the Theatre commander in northeast Nigeria and leader of the anti-Boko Haram Operation “Lafiya Dole.” [1]

As commanding officer of the Nigerian Army’s 82nd Division, Attahiru directed Operation Crocodile Smile, a joint forces amphibious operation launched against militants in the Niger Delta on August 29, 2016. Attahiru declared the operation a success at its close in mid-September, having killed 23 militants and carrying out the destruction of 38 camps and 91 illegal oil refineries. Army losses included four drowned and one victim of militant fire (Today [Lagos], September 18, 2016). [2] General Attahiru was the Director of Administration Defence Headquarters when appointed to the Borno theatre.

Attahiru and Operation Lafiya Dole

Attahiru took command of the North-East Theatre and Operation Lafiya Dole in May 2017 after a surprise shakeup of leading Nigerian Army commanders. Attahiru replaced Major General Lucky Irabor, who had served 14 months in the post and had the confidence of many of his officers despite repeated and unfulfilled predictions of an imminent Boko Haram collapse. Irabor was posted as the new Force Commander of the Multi-national Joint Task Force (MNJTF), a regional effort to combat Boko Haram with its headquarters in N’Djamena.

During the command turnover, General Irabor claimed that the Army had taken 1400 suspected members of Boko Haram prisoner in recent months. At the same ceremony, Attahiru promised the opening of a divisional human rights desk where misconduct by officers and troops could be reported (Today [Lagos], May 30, 2017; Vanguard [Lagos], May 30, 2017).  Assertions of human rights abuses during the conflict in Borno have frequently impeded the progress of the military and may even have aided recruitment by Boko Haram.

Burning Villages, Operation Lafiya Dole

The first test of this new approach came days later, following a Boko Haram attack on the village of Ali Dawari (near Maiduguri) on June 7. Villagers fled the attack, but when they returned they claimed to have witnessed Nigerian troops (who had arrived in the meantime) loading their personal effects and foodstuffs onto three military trucks before setting fire to the village. Attahiru dismissed the entire incident: “No soldier would do such a thing. Our troops are guided by rules of engagement and they won’t descend to the level of doing what the people are alleging. On the contrary, the Boko Haram terrorists perpetrated such atrocities and not our troops” (Today [Lagos], June 13, 2017).

The Nigerian Army is processing selected Boko Haram detainees through “Operation Safe Corridor,” a de-radicalization and rehabilitation process designed to enable the former insurgents to “positively reorient their views about life and society in general.” [3] Few details of how this is accomplished are available.

The Shekau Resurgence

According to figures provided by General Attahiru, Boko Haram should now be in its death throes. On July 6, Attahiru told reporters that 404 terrorists had been killed and another 800 to 1000 captured in the last four months alone against a loss of 15 soldiers. However, the general also admitted to 97 suicide bombings and vehicle-borne bombings in the same time span (Today [Lagos], July 7; July 9, 2017).

Rather than disappearing, Shekau has made repeated video appearances in which he threatens his opponents – in March he insisted his movement would not stand down until it had been established in Benin, Cameroon, Chad, Nigeria, Niger and Mali (Premium Times [Lagos], March 17, 2017).

Abu Bakr Shekau (center)

On March 28, Nigerian defense minister Mansur Dan-Ali admitted that Shekau was still alive and justified the prolonged eight-year search for Shekau by noting: “It took America about seven to 10 years to get Bin Laden so we will get Shekau as soon as possible.” Following years of government claims that Shekau was dead, the minister now claimed that it was Boko Haram that was trying to give the impression he had been killed so the Army would relax its efforts (Daily Times [Lagos], March 29, 2017).

A 33-minute video released in June depicted Shekau describing an attack by his followers on a military outpost outside of Maiduguri while displaying ammunition and military gear seized in the assault. Shekau scorned the Army’s operations in the Sambisi forest, claiming his group had already moved to a site near Maiduguri and mocked the military’s repeated claims that he was either dead or replaced by a double: “So I’m alive. But if God wills that you will kill me, it is not surprising because many prophets of Allah were killed by infidels” (Today [Lagos], July 21, 2017).

The Boko Haram leader’s latest video, released on June 28, asserted “There is no way we Muslims in mosques and Christians in churches can work together. This has never happened before even during the life time of apostles and prophets.” According to Shekau, Nigeria’s constitution and democracy prevents any type of dialogue between Muslims and Christians. He issued a warning to Nigeria’s Muslim clerics that they were “playing with hell-fire” by “giving wrong interpretations of the Holy Quran” (Vanguard [Lagos], June 28).

Shekau also claimed credit for the Damboa road ambush a week earlier, saying ten policewomen had been captured who God had given to the insurgents to be their “slaves.” He ended his message by calling on Nigerians to “work for Islam, in accordance with the caliphate that was established by ‘Uthman Dan Fodio, which is a caliphate built upon truth and belief in God” (Vanguard [Lagos], June 28, 2017). Shekau’s reference was to the 19th century Sokoto Caliphate established by the Fulani Islamic scholar ‘Uthman Dan Fodio, a frequent ideological touchstone for jihadists operating in the Sahel.  The Caliphate was known for its reliance on slave labor – Shekau’s boast implies that a revival of slavery is part of the Islamists’ program.

Boko Haram vs. Oil Exploration

Though there are indeed fears that Boko Haram may be scattering; it appears to still have a strong hold on parts of the Sambisi forest, the group’s traditional refuge. On July 26, an Army statement announced that a lieutenant and nine soldiers of the Army’s 5th Brigade had been killed the day before after a convoy escorting Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) workers came under heavy fire in the forest from Boko Haram militants. A number of other soldiers were missing (Sahara Reporters, July 26, 2017). A statement by a Nigerian Army spokesman claimed that all NNPC staff had been rescued while troops were busy “neutralizing” terrorists and pursuing them “relentlessly.”

Two days later, more independent sources were reporting over 50 dead “with more bodies coming in.” The bodies of 18 soldiers and 30 others were brought back to Maidguri after the attack in an area near Lake Chad. Many of the civilians were members of the so-called “Civilian JTF,” a vigilante group that works alongside Nigerian military forces, though their amateur status often leads to heavy casualties in confrontations with the more experienced Boko Haram.

In contrast to the Army’s claim that all oil personnel had been rescued, Minister of State of Petroleum Resources Ibe Kachikwu told journalists that he could not confirm that any NNPC staff had been rescued (The Cable [Lagos], July 28, 2017). A day later, a video emerged of three kidnapped NNPC members in Boko Haram hands, begging the government to meet their captors’ demands. Their identities were confirmed by the Vice-Chancellor of Maiduguri University (to which they are attached) with the vice-chancellor also confirming the deaths of five other members of the university in the ambush (AFP, July 29, 2017).

The ambush was intended to disrupt oil exploration in the Borno region by targeting geological surveyors deployed there after having received assurances from the military that the region was now safe. Nigeria is looking to begin oil production in the northeast to relieve the pressure militants are putting on production in the Delta region, though the attack (so far attributed to al-Barnawi’s faction) demonstrates that the Army’s claims to have secured the region sufficiently to permit oil operations are largely illusionary.

Elsewhere, a video released by Boko Haram in early July showed members of the groups executing eight “apostates” who had defied the “Shari’a police” before cheering crowds. The video also showed other punishments inflicted by the group, including a stoning, a beheading, flogging and forced amputations (AFP, July 11, 2017).

Warnings that some elements of Boko Haram were relocating to the northern Nigerian city of Kano (the largest city of the former caliphate) appeared to be confirmed on July 23 when a well-equipped cell of five militants were arrested after a firefight there with Nigerian security forces. According to the Kano State police chief, the fighters had relocated to Kano from the Sambisi forest (AFP, July 24, 2017).

Nigerian Army Patrol, Operation Lafiya Dole

Boko Haram attacks intensified after the ill-advised release of a number of Boko Haram leaders from Nigerian prisons in May in exchange for the release of 82 of the “Chibok girls” kidnapped in 2014. The most common tactic used by Shekau’s group at present is road ambushes. Female suicide bombers are also still being deployed, though it is uncertain whether these originate with Shekau’s group or the Boko Haram faction led by Abu Musab al-Barnawi and Mamman al-Nur.

Conclusion

According to a Nigerian military memo, Boko Haram has begun re-occupying “Camp Zero,” their former main base in the Sambisi Forest. When the Nigerian Army took the base in December 2016, it was heralded as the beginning of the end for Boko Haram, and its capture continues to be frequently referred to in government and military statements as proof of the success of the campaign against the militants. However, the military appears to have withdrawn from the base in March, leaving it wide open to reoccupation by the Islamist gunmen (AFP, July 24, 2017).

There is one consistent aspect to the struggle in north-eastern Nigeria – the reality promulgated by Nigerian military spokesmen remains in conflict with the reality experienced by Nigerians in Borno State. Nigerian intelligence has had few successes in Borno, and with the military apparently unsure of whether Shekau is in Sambisi, Maiduguri or even Kano, it seems unrealistic to believe he will be apprehended “dead or alive” by the end of August. If the military did indeed have information regarding Shekau’s whereabouts, a more clandestine approach would seem to be called for. Instead, the Army has jeopardized the career of one of its leading officers by imposing a short and arbitrary date for the end of the hunt for Nigeria’s most elusive individual. That the order came with a public plea for information regarding Shekau’s whereabouts inspires little confidence.

Worst of all, there may actually be little encouragement behind the scenes to bring Shekau in alive or even at all. Continued destabilization of the north has been treated as a political advantage by many Nigerian politicians. [4] Even if Shekau (who needs only to remain hidden for a month to score a major propaganda coup) is somehow disposed of, the equally, if not stronger, al-Barnawi-Mamman al-Nur faction of Boko Haram will remain at large. Ultimately, the forty-day deadline appears to be little more than an ill-considered political publicity stunt carried out at the expense of a professional soldier.

Notes

  1. Nigerian Army Press Release, “Chief of Army Staff Gives Theatre Command Operation Lafiya Dole Deadline to Capture Abubakar Shekau,” July 22, 2017, http://www.army.mil.ng/chief-of-army-staff-gives-theatre-command-operation-lafiya-dole-deadline-to-capture-abubakar-shekau/
  2. For Operation Crocodile Smile, see: “Nigeria Expands Its ‘War on Terrorism’ to the Niger Delta,” Terrorism Monitor, September 16, 2016, http://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=3719.
  3. Nigerian Army Press Release: “Boko Haram… 43 Surrendered Insurgents Air Lifted for De-Radicalization,” July 24, 2017, http://www.army.mil.ng/press-release-boko-haram-43-surrendered-insurgents-air-lifted-for-de-radicalization/
  4. For the political uses of Islamist violence in northern Nigeria, see: “Political Violence and Islamist Militancy become Entwined in Maiduguri Bombing,” January 25, 2014, http://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=793.

Does Canada Want to Combat Terrorism in Africa? Forget UN Peacekeeping – Support the Sahel G5

Andrew McGregor

AIS Commentary, July 24, 2017

Canada’s Trudeau government announced last summer that it was prepared to deploy up to 600 troops on a UN peacekeeping mission, likely in Africa. In the meantime, no movement has been made on the pledge, much to the disappointment of the UN and Canada’s allies, who were holding the leadership of the Mali peacekeeping mission open for a Canadian officer. Now, however, a non-UN alternative has emerged, one that is desperately needed and has both a military and development component – the Sahel Group of Five (SG5).

It is perhaps not surprising that no decision has been made regarding a Canadian peacekeeping force in Africa. While Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland speaks of a need for Canada to set a “clear and sovereign course” independent of the United States, both Prime Minister Trudeau and his defence minister Harjit Singh Sajjan have emphasized the importance of consulting Washington before making any decision. Given the Trump administration’s disengagement from Africa and the urgency of a military contribution in Africa, such deference seems unnecessary and counterproductive.

The Purpose of the SG5

In the Sahel, a broad band of arid nations just below the Sahara, political and religious extremism feed off climate change, lack of development, absence of infrastructure, competition for resources and ethnic rivalries, leaving the region in dire need of external assistance and internal reform. Meanwhile, efforts to address these issues are restricted by al-Qaeda and Islamic State terrorism paid for by trafficking in narcotics, migrants and other “commodities.” The region’s barely existent borders make a mockery of unilateral efforts by weak states to address the crime and violence.

With the encouragement of France, the Sahelian nations of Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad and Mauritania created the Sahel Group of Five (SG5) as a multilateral response to these issues in 2014, though the concept remained dormant until its revival last February. While the force’s mandate calls for a campaign against terrorism and trafficking, it also calls for the return of displaced persons, delivery of aid, facilitation of humanitarian operations and a role in implementing development strategies.

Each nation will initially provide a battalion of 750 men aided by French training, communications and logistical support. The military component will operate in all five countries, with the right of “hot pursuit” across international borders. The first military leader of the force will be Malian chief-of-staff General Didier Dacko, an experienced and capable veteran of counter-terrorist and counter-insurgency operations.

The UN Security Council unanimously “welcomed” a resolution calling for the formation of the force on June 21, though US pressure prevented approval for its deployment under a UN mandate, which would have involved UN financing. The Trump administration is seeking to reduce its contribution to UN peacekeeping costs but the US can still be expected to continue providing intelligence and logistical support for counter-terrorist efforts in the Sahel.

Putting the SG5 into action is expected to come with a budget of over €400 million. The EU has pledged €50 million, France €8 million (on top of a substantial military contribution) and each of the SG5 nations will contribute €10 million. France has additionally pledged €200 million in development assistance. Angela Merkel has also promised the support of Germany, which already has 650 troops in Mali and the United Arab Emirates have expressed interest in funding the initiative. The force will seek additional funding from “bilateral and multilateral partners” at a future donors’ conference.

Other than France and Belgium, Canada is the only Western partner with a large military and civil French language capacity, making it ideal for deployment in the francophone Sahel. Canadian contributions in terms of combat troops, logistics, intelligence, training, humanitarian assistance and development planning would greatly reduce the unfunded portion of the SG5’s annual budget while simultaneously improving the capability of all these elements.

Of the contributing Sahel nations, Chad is the most militarily effective, but existing commitments to the UN peacekeeping operation in Mali (MINUSMA) and the Multi-National Joint Task Force (MNJTF), a regional coalition formed to tackle Boko Haram in the Lake Chad Basin, have forced Chad’s President Idris Déby to warn that substantial assistance will be required for Chad to play its expected role in the SG5. Without Chad’s participation, the alliance stands little chance of battlefield success.

Mali’s government has criticized MINUSMA for its “defensive posture, which has given freedom of movement to terrorist and extremist groups.” The UN’s peacekeepers in Mali have made only glacial progress implementing the terms of the 2015 peace agreement. The force suffers inordinate casualties while doing little to combat terrorism in the region, a task largely left to French troops operating outside of UN auspices.  MINUSMA is hampered by the restriction of its operations to territory within Mali’s borders, while its terrorist opponents face no such limits. The SG5 addresses this problem.

As the lone Western sponsor of the SG5 and the former colonial power in each of the participating nations, there is some anxiety that France will exploit the group for its own political and economic benefit. The presence of another less-interested sponsor could provide some balance and reassurance to those African nations already experiencing the strong influence of Paris in their affairs. It might also encourage a more favorable attitude to the force from Algeria, where the bitter legacy of the war for independence has led to great suspicion of all French security efforts in the Sahel.

Not Without Difficulties

Of course participation would not be without problems. A Canadian commitment would have to be long term – creating a capable SG5 could take three years and creating a uniform military standard will be difficult. However, it need not be open-ended; the ultimate goal must always be for the Sahel nations to assume full responsibility.

If funding is limited, security operations will almost certainly be treated as a priority over other aspects of the G5S mandate, based on the harsh reality that violent extremism undermines the effectiveness of all other programs as well as the sovereignty of regional states. At present, aid workers are regarded by the region’s militant groups as nothing more than easy prey and a source of funding through ransom.

Integration of alienated groups into security and development operations will be essential if the SG5 is to be prevented from becoming a transnational occupation force. This cannot be achieved without offering economic alternatives to rebellion and cross-border crime, emphasizing the importance of the development component.

Despite fears that France may be looking to draw down their African commitment, President Emmanuel Macron has pledged continued French support and has already visited the region twice to confirm this commitment.  There is no doubt, however, that Paris is seeking to reduce its military expenditure in Africa – Operation Barkhane, its 4,000 man mission to provide security in the Sahara/Sahel region, costs €800 million per year.

Conclusion

A religious adherence to UN peacekeeping as the only legitimate or desirable means of contributing to international security turns a blind eye to less rigid and more adaptive structures free of UN bureaucracy and inefficiency.

For a Canadian government increasingly seen as soft on terrorism, unwilling to rescue or ransom its Canadian victims but eager to reward Canadian-born practitioners, the need for some sort of dedication to international counter-terrorism efforts might seem obvious. The SG5 provides an opportunity for Canada to stand beside its European allies, set an independent course from Washington and play a meaningful role in destroying Africa’s deadliest extremist groups while engaging in important development assistance where it is needed most.

If Ottawa’s aim in African security operations is to encounter minimal difficulties and avoid casualties, the SG5 will not be for them. If, however, Canada is ready to give its highly capable military and development sector a real challenge with the potential of providing a secure future to some of the world’s most impoverished peoples, then it should take a serious look at the SG5 alternative.

According to Foreign Minister Freeland, “it is precisely the countries that stand for values and human rights that also need to be ready to say we are prepared to use hard power where necessary.” If the world “needs more Canada,” the Sahel is in special need of a Canadian presence.

Dr. Andrew McGregor is the Director of Aberfoyle International Security, a Toronto-based agency specializing in security issues in the African and Islamic worlds.

Passing the Torch: Fulani Warlords in the Central African Republic

Andrew McGregor

AIS Special Report, July 23, 2017

The Borku region of Chad is a barren desert wilderness, inhabited today by only the hardiest of nomads. In the midst of this region is an old French colonial-era fort at a place known as Koro Toro, a reminder of the days of the early 20th century when French Legionnaires and Senegalese Tirailleurs fought bitter battles with the Tuareg and Arab warriors of Libya’s Sanusi order for control of Borku.

Koro Toro Prison (Makaila)

Today that fort now serves as one of the world’s most feared prisons, a place of searing heat and daily torture where inmates receive little in the way of food or water and have no expectations of health care. Many of its inhabitants are political prisoners who dared challenge the rule of Chad’s President Idriss Déby Itno and his family. Those who take up arms against the regime are classed as “mercenaries” and very few of those, if any, have been through any kind of judicial process before being sent to Koro Toro for a slow death.  As President Déby once remarked, We do not send mercenaries to Koro-Toro to feed or care for them” (Tchadhanana, November 13, 2009).

One of the most famous of Koro Toro’s condemned is “General” Abdel Kader Baba Laddé, a Fulani warlord whose name means “Father of the Bush” in the Fulani language. [1] Baba Laddé faces a litany of charges related to his activities in the Chad-Central African Republic (CAR) borderlands, including war crimes, crimes against humanity, murder, rape, mutilation, arson, arms-trafficking and the kidnapping of children for use as soldiers.

On July 21, 2017, Baba Laddé’s lawyers held a press conference in the Chadian capital of N’Djamena to protest their client’s continued detention at Koro Toro without trial since January 2015. The advocates claimed there is never any progress made on his file, adding that Baba Laddé is now very ill (APA News, July 21, 2017).

Warlord in the Borderlands

Baba Laddé began his career modestly as an NCO in Chad’s gendarmerie. After leaving the gendarmerie, he assembled a group of bandits in 1998 under the guise of a political movement opposing President Déby’s Chadian regime, called the Front Populaire pour le Redressement (FPR). The former NCO declared himself a “general” and further adopted the pretension of being the leader of a unified Fulani nation stretching from the west coast of Africa to the Red Sea (Jeune Afrique, December 26, 2011). Nonetheless, he was driven from Chad in 2008 and entered the lightly governed region of the northern CAR, a traditional zone of operations for Chadian freebooters, fugitives, marauders and slavers.

General Abdel Kader Baba Laddé (RFI)

Baba Laddé’s constant clashes with Chadian forces along the border were unwanted by the CAR government, which allowed Chadian operatives working under the Chadian military attaché in Bangui to abduct and deport the warlord to Chad in October 2009. He reappeared in Cameroon in August 2010, claiming to have escaped ten months of torture in Chad. He vanished in November 2010, only to emerge once more in the CAR in January 2011. Baba Laddé then shifted between South Sudan and the CAR, proclaiming his new mission of taking down the governments of both Chad and the CAR.

In July 2012, Chadian president Idriss Déby described Baba Laddé as “a Chadian ex-gendarme who became a route-cutter [highwayman] and ivory trafficker. This is not a rebel, as certain media pretend, but a highway bandit. This type of person does not constitute a menace for Chad. For the CAR [however], it’s possible” (Jeune Afrique, July 23, 2012).

Despite this, Chadian and CAR authorities negotiated a deal for the legal return of the warlord to Chad in September 2012. In January 2013, he was appointed a special advisor to Chad’s prime minister, but conflict between the two led to Baba Laddé fleeing N’Djamena and making the rounds of neighboring countries.

In January 2014, Baba Laddé issued a statement claiming Chadian authorities had tried to organize his arrest and extradition from his refuge in Niamey (capital of Niger), but succeeded only in the arrest of his aide-de-camp (Alwhida Info [N’Djamena], January 27, 2014).

Yet another deal saw Baba Laddé’s return to N’Djamena and his appointment in July 2014 as prefect of Grande Sido, a department of Moyen-Chari province along the CAR border. After being named prefect, Baba Laddé promised to “tackle the task of developing this territory, supporting its people and helping the refugees of the CAR” (Alwhida Info [N’Djamena], July 25, 2014). However, he was dismissed in November 2014 over the opposition of locals who felt he was doing a good job and returned to the bush in the northern region of the CAR just narrowly ahead of soldiers who had been sent to arrest him. His wife and bodyguard, who had been left behind, were brutally assaulted by soldiers angry at being given the slip. A few weeks later, he was detained by the UN peacekeeping force MINUSCA and turned over to Chadian officials by the CAR on January 2, 2015. [2] Days later Baba Laddé was sent to Koro Toro prison and has not emerged since.

Baba Laddé’s Successor

After September 2012, Baba Laddé’s role in the CAR was much diminished and leadership of the FPR passed into the hands of his second-in-command, Fulani “General” Ali Darassa Mahamat. The FPR continued to be widely viewed in the CAR as a “foreign” group from Chad, as are the Fulani people in general.

General Ali Darassa Mahamat

In 2013, Darassa led the majority of the FPR into the Séléka coalition, a largely Muslim assembly of various rebel groups whose combined strength allowed them to overthrow the CAR government in March 2013. The coalition’s factions made little pretense of trying to govern the country, instead running wild without restraint, directing much of their violence against Christian communities. The result was the creation of vigilante Christian “anti-Balaka” militias and the outbreak of a disorganized but vicious civil conflict that UN peacekeepers struggled to contain.  Séléka was officially dissolved in September 2013, which failed to stop the violence, but did lead to a realignment of Séléka’s constituent parts as a result of ethnic rivalries and disputes over control of revenues derived from resources.

Ali Darassa regrouped Baba Laddé’s FPR as the Union pour la Paix en Centrafrique (UPC) in September 2014. Officially, the UPC seeks autonomy rather than independence for the Muslim north. The UPC has a fierce rivalry with two other Muslim-majority movements in the CAR:

The Front Populaire pour la Renaissance de la Centrafrique (FPRC) – One of the main groups to emerge from the Séléka split, the FPRC is commanded by Noureddine Adam, who seeks independence for the CAR’s Muslim north, believing it is impossible for Muslims and Christians to live together. The group is largely composed of members of the Gula and Runga ethnic groups. The FPRC now cooperates with Christian anti-Balaka fighters against the UPC.

Area of the Republic of Logone/Dar al-Kuti

An FPRC spokesman declared the establishment of the independent Muslim state of Logone in the northeast CAR with Bambari as its capital in December 2015. The name was soon changed to “Dar al-Kuti,” after a 19th century Muslim slave-raiding state under the influence of the Chadian Sultanate of Wadai. In its later days under Sultan Muhammad al-Sanusi, Dar al-Kuti became heavily reliant on slave-labor for agricultural and other purposes. The Sultanate quickly dissolved when the French consolidated their control of the region after al-Sanusi’s death in 1911 and once profitable plantations collapsed as their slave labor fled to the bush.

The FPRC’s General Ibrahim Alawa claims the movement’s problem is not with Fulani civilians, but with Ali Darassa: “He has decided to be King of the Fulani and wants to make them into an army” (IRIN News, May 18, 2017).

The Mouvement Patriotique pour la Centrafrique (MPC) – Led by General Mahamat al-Khatim, the MPC split from the FPRC in July 2015, but still cooperates with the FPRC when it is to its benefit. Both the MPC and the FPRC are known for murderous attacks against civilians, including vulnerable IDPs. The groups fund themselves in part through “taxes” on Fulani herders using migration routes through territories under their control. [3]

Muslim Militias Battle for Dominance

In 2013, the UPC took control of much of the south-central Ouaka Province, a region of forest savannah. From its base around the town of Bakala, Darassa’s militia has committed repeated massacres and atrocities against local civilians since November 2016. The US chargé d’affaires in the CAR demanded Darassa’s arrest in August 2015 following assaults on civilians at Bambari (the CAR’s second-largest town), though MINUSCA declined to take action.

Gunmen from all the ex-Séléka factions feud over control of diamond and gold-mining areas, though they don’t engage in mining themselves, preferring to let others do the hard work before “taxing” them. Over 400,000 people are now displaced in the CAR, with many Muslims actually taking the risk of fleeing into Christian-controlled regions to avoid the UPC.

Clashes between the FPRC and UPC in April 2017 over control of Ouaka once more led to civilian losses as Fulani herders or suspected Gula and Runga supporters of the FPRC were attacked by gunmen. After an ultimatum from MINUSCA, Darassa led his men out of Bambari on February 21, 2017.

Conclusion

The CAR is an unfortunate victim of the warlord-ism that plagues neighboring South Sudan and other African regions. Exploitive by nature and an opponent of all efforts to establish central authority at their expense, the warlords carry on with impunity. Efforts to promote development, education or health initiatives are unwanted and threatening innovations in the regions they rule.

Even when one warlord, such as Baba Laddé, can finally be removed, there are others ready to immediately fill his place. The limited mandates provided to UN peacekeeping missions and broader international disinterest ensure the warlords’ survival, even as their activities provoke communal violence against the communities they pretend to defend. The consequence, ultimately, will be a growing degradation of once self-sustaining communities and a greater outward flow of desperate, poorly educated and largely unemployable migrants to Western nations that will find it increasingly difficult to accommodate such levels of migration without dramatic changes to their social and economic structure.

Notes:  

  1. The Fulani are also known as Peul or Fula. For a profile of Baba Laddé’s career up until April 2012, see: “Central Africa’s Tribal Marauder: A Profile of Fulani Insurgency Leader General Abdel Kader Baba Laddé,” Militant Leadership Monitor, April 30, 2012, http://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=455; For a broader view of the violent clashes between Fulani herders and other ethnic groups across the Sahel and its political implications, see: “The Fulani Crisis: Communal Violence and Radicalization in the Sahel,” Combating Terrorism Center at West Point CTC Sentinel (Volume 10, Issue 2), February 22, 2017, http://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=3881
  2. Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA), with a strength of 13,000 men.
  3. Human Rights Watch, “Central African Republic: Executions by Rebel Group,” February 16, 2017, https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/02/16/central-african-republic-executions-rebel-group

Operation Bayard and the Death of Ansar al-Islam Leader Malam Ibrahim Dicko

Andrew McGregor

AIS Special Report, July 18, 2017

The death of Malam Ibrahim Dicko, the radical Islamist leader of Burkina Faso’s Ansar al-Islam movement, marks a major success for combined French-Burkinabé security operations in the volatile region alongside the northern border with Mali. Dicko’s movement, composed largely of Muslim Fulani and Rimaïbe tribesmen, had created havoc in the area with several fierce assaults on military and police bases in the region in December 2016 and February 2017. [1]

French Mirage 2000 Jets during Operation Bayard  (© Emmanuel Huberdeau)

Dicko’s death appears to be a direct consequence of Frances’s “Operation Bayard.” This operation used intelligence gathered in late March 2017’s “Operation Panga,” a joint French- Burkinabé effort to clear the region of the border with Mali in Soum Province of Islamist militants. Operation Bayard began on April 29 with strikes by French Mirage 2000 jet fighters on suspected Ansar al-Islam bases along the border in the Foulsaré Forest.

Tigre HAD (Hélicoptère Appui Destruction – Helicopter Support Destruction) attack helicopters armed with Hellfire AGM-114 missiles secured the perimeter to inhibit the militants’ escape before French commandos were inserted by NH90 Caïman helicopters. Over April 29-30 the initial team was joined by French para-commandos and combat engineers to defuse the mines the militants were in the habit of deploying to prevent infiltration of their bases (a French military engineer was killed by a mine during Operation Panga). The commandos killed 20 militants and wounded many more before seizing twenty motorcycles (an important element in Ansar al-Islam’s surprise attacks), two vehicles, and a large quantity of arms, ammunition, computer gear and bomb components.

Malam Ibrahim Dicko and his bodyguard were reported to have come under attack from one of the Tigre helicopters before the surviving militants scattered to escape the French commandos (Jeune Afrique, July 12, 2017). Unable to settle in one place for long due to constant pressure from pursuing security forces, Dicko is believed to have died sometime in June from complications due to diabetes.

French Tigre HAD Attack Helicopter

A vague posting on Ansar al-Islam’s little-used Facebook page (no longer available) suggested that Dicko’s “grave circumstances” had led to his replacement as Ansar al-Islam leader by his brother, Jafar Dicko, the “new commander of the believers and guide of Ansar al-Islam” (Fasozine.com, June 28, 2017).

The expiry of the charismatic Ibrahim Dicko and the death of 20 of his fighters (with many more incapacitated out of roughly 150 members) in Operation Bayard may deal a death blow to Ansar al-Islam, which is less than a year old. The group has already lost two of Dicko’s most valued lieutenants. One, Amadou Boly, was assassinated on Dicko’s orders when he objected to the growing extremism of the movement; the other, Harouna Dicko (Dicko is a very common name in the area), was killed in late March by the Burkinabé Groupement des forces anti-terroristes (GFAT), a joint army/gendarmerie anti-terrorist formation. Jafar Dicko, an unknown quantity, will be hard-pressed to revive the movement as an independent military threat. Surviving members are more likely to join one of the other militant groups operating in the region with similar aims, such as Amadou Koufa Diallo’s largely Fulani Force de libération du Macina, now part of the larger Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa’l-Muslimin (JNIM – Group for the Defense of Islam and Muslims) led by Iyad ag Ghali.

Note

  1. For Dicko’s biography, see Andrew McGregor, “Islamist Insurgency in Burkina Faso: A Profile of Malam Ibrahim Dicko,” Militant Leadership Monitor, April 30, 2017, http://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=3908

Qatar’s Role in the Libyan Conflict: Who’s on the Lists of Terrorists and Why

Andrew McGregor

July 14, 2017

The Middle East diplomatic crisis that has set a coalition of Arab states against Qatar has inevitably spilled over into Libya. A number of those states party to the dispute have been involved in a proxy war, with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Egypt backing the eastern-based House of Representatives (HoR) and Khalifa Haftar’s anti-Islamist Libyan National Army (LNA), while Qatar and (to a lesser extent) Turkey support the Tripoli-based and UN-recognized Presidency Council/Government of National Accord (GNA).

Al-Sadiq Abd al-Rahman Ali al-Ghariani

The main issues in the Gulf dispute are Qatar’s sponsorship of al-Jazeera and the channel’s willingness to criticize regional leaders (save Qatar’s al-Thani royal family), Qatar’s provision of a refuge for members of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, its support for Islamist movements and its cooperative relations with Iran, with which it shares one of the world’s largest natural gas fields.

Amid the dispute Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE produced a “terrorist list” of 59 Qatari or Qatari-allied individuals from nine Arab countries, including five individuals from Libya (The National [Abu Dhabi], June 9). [1] The list-makers seek to coerce Qatar to assist in Iran’s isolation and to end its support for the Muslim Brotherhood. This Arab states’ list was followed by a second list of 76 Libyan “terrorists” issued by the HoR’s Defense and National Security Committee on June 12, seven days after the HoR and its interim government severed relations with Qatar (Libya Herald, June 12).

What follows examines the most notable Libyans named on those lists, their contacts with Qatar and the reasons behind their inclusion.

Qatar’s Involvement in Libya

During Libya’s 2011 revolution, Qatar deployed its air force against then Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s loyalists and installations. It also provided substantial arms and supplies to revolutionary forces in Libya, earning it a significant degree of good will within the country.

Since then, however, Qatar has focused its support on Islamist forces operating in Libya, a policy that has aggrieved nations such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, all of which seek to stifle the growth of Islamist movements that could challenge the legitimacy of their regimes. Qatar’s continued insistence on playing a role in Libya’s domestic politics since then has also brought on resentment and even anger in many quarters of Libyan society.  Both Egypt and the UAE, meanwhile, mount regular air operations against Islamist targets inside Libya. [2]

On June 8, LNA spokesman Colonel Ahmad al-Mismari presented audio, video and documentary evidence of massive political and military interference by Qatar in Libya since the 2011 revolution, comprising a wave of assassinations (including an attempt on Haftar’s life), recruitment and transport of Libyan jihadists to Syria, funding of extremist groups and training in bombing techniques via Hamas operatives from the Khan Yunis Brigade. Much of this activity was allegedly orchestrated by Muhammad Hamad al-Hajri, chargé d’affaires at the Qatari embassy in Libya, and intelligence official General Salim Ali al-Jarboui, the military attaché (al-Arabiya, June 9; The National [Abu Dhabi], June 8).

Mismari also claimed on June 22 to have records of “secret meetings” held by the Sudan Armed Forces and attended by Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir that confirmed a conspiracy to support terrorism in Libya, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and alleged that Qatar and Iran were operating arms factories in Sudan to supply Libyan terrorists (Libya Herald, June 22).

On June 29, al-Mismari declared that the LNA was fighting “not with Libyan terrorists, but with transnational terrorism” supported by “the triad of terrorism in Libya,” Qatar, Sudan and Turkey. The colonel also claimed that the LNA’s intelligence department had obtained recordings of an al-Jazeera correspondent coordinating covert flights by Qatari aircraft to Libya to “support terrorist groups” (al-Arabiya, June 29).

Egypt also views Libya as a battleground for its efforts to eliminate the Muslim Brotherhood. On June 28, Egypt’s foreign ministry claimed Qatar was supporting terrorist groups in Libya operating under the leadership of the Brotherhood, resulting in terrorist attacks in Egypt (Asharq al-Awsat, June 29; al-Arabiya, June 28)

Qatar provides a home and refuge for members of the Muslim Brotherhood, but it does so on the condition that they do not involve themselves in Qatari politics. The local chapter of the Brotherhood shut itself down in 1999 after expressing approval of the emirate’s political and social direction (The National [Abu Dhabi], May 18, 2012).

The Muslim Brotherhood’s political misadventures in Egypt led to distrust of the Brothers’ agenda in Libya, especially as the movement still struggles to establish grass-roots support after decades of existence in the Gaddafi era as a movement for Libyan professionals living in European exile.

List One: The Arab States’ List

The “terrorist” list issued by Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE included the following Libyan individuals:

Ali Muhammad al-Salabi – Al-Salabi, a second-generation Muslim Brother, was sentenced to eight years in prison at 18-years-of-age for his alleged connection to a plot to kill Gaddafi.

The intellectual and spiritual leader of the Libyan Brotherhood, al-Salabi consistently presents himself as a proponent of democracy and cooperation with international efforts to combat terrorism (Libya Herald, March 1, 2016). Al-Salabi developed ties with Qatar in 2009, when Qatar funded an al-Salabi headed de-radicalization initiative for imprisoned members of the al-Qaeda associated Jamaa al-Islamiya al-Muqatila bi-Libya (Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, or LIFG). When the 2011 revolution erupted, al-Salabi returned to Libya to act as a local conduit for Qatari arms, intelligence and military training. He now holds Qatari citizenship and has a close relationship to Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s 91-year-old Qatar-based spiritual leader (also named on the list) (Libya Herald, October 5, 2015). Al-Salabi has close ties with Abd al-Hakim Belhaj (see below), with whom he founded the Islamist Hizb al-Watan (Homeland Party) in 2011.

Abd al-Hakim Belhaj– An allegedly reformed militant, Belhaj is chairman of Hizb al-Watan, believed to be financed by Qatar. Belhaj was amir of the LIFG and the leader of the post-revolutionary Tripoli Military Council. He is believed to have received substantial support from Qatar during the 2011 revolution and routinely defends Qatari activities in Libya against their critics.

Mahdi al-Harati – A Libyan-born Irish citizen with military experience in Kosovo and Iraq, al-Harati returned from Ireland during the 2011 revolution and took command of the Tripoli Brigade. Briefly mayor of Tripoli before being ousted in 2015, al-Harati later led Libyan and Syrian fighters in Syria as part of the anti-government Liwa al-Ummah, a unit alleged to have included London Bridge attacker Rachid Redouane, a resident of Ireland (al-Arabiya, June 9; Libya Herald, June 9; Telegraph, June 6). The LNA alleges al-Harati is supported by Qatari intelligence (al-Arabiya, June 9).

Ismail Muhammad al-Salabi – Brother of Ali Muhammad al-Salabi, Ismail was imprisoned by Gaddafi in 1997 and released in 2004. He became a principal recipient of Qatari arms shipments during the revolution as commander of the Raffalah Sahati militia, part of a coalition of Islamist militias known as the February 17 Brigade (al-Hayat, May 19, 2014). Clashes with Hatar’s LNA began in 2014 and continue to this day, with Ismail serving a prominent member of the Benghazi Defense Brigades (BDB) coalition. He is reputed to have a close relationship with Qatari intelligence chief Ghanim bin Khalifa al-Kubaisi (al-Arabiya, June 9).

Al-Sadiq Abd al-Rahman Ali al-Gharaini – The 75-year-old al-Ghariani was, until recently, the controversial Grand Mufti of Libya and the head of the Dar al-Ifta, the office responsible for issuing fatwa-s (religious rulings). The Mufti considers Haftar and those under him to be “infidels” and has called for the destruction of the HoR, which voted to sack him in November 2014. The Dar al-Ifta office in Tripoli was shut down by the GNA on June 1, 2017, and all its contents were confiscated (al-Arabiya, June 1). A strong supporter of Qatar’s involvement in Libya who commands the allegiance of several Islamist militias, the Mufti is perceived by some Libyans as a supporter of religious extremism. Nonetheless, the League of Libyan Ulama (religious scholars) issued a strong condemnation of the Mufti’s inclusion in the terrorist list, warning against “accusing the righteous” (Libya Herald, May 10).

Benghazi Defense Brigades (BDB) – The BDB was one of 12 organizations to appear on the “terrorist” list. A coalition of soldiers, Islamists and revolutionaries, the BDB has pledged allegiance to Mufti al-Ghariani. The BDB offered to demobilize and disband on June 23 following an intense backlash after their brutal attack on the Brak al-Shatti airbase on May 18 and their subsequent failure to hold Jufra against an LNA offensive. [3] The coalition claimed it had been disparaged as a terrorist group only after it exposed a plot by France, Turkey and the UAE to invade Libya (Libya Herald, June 23; Libya Observer, June 23). On June 6, Misratan officials ordered the BDB (which it called “the Mufti’s forces”) to disband and surrender their weapons, threatening force if their demand was not complied with (Libya Herald, June 6). Instead, the group relocated to Sabratha, where it remained under arms. By July 10, the still-undissolved BDB was reported to be leading an offensive by pro-Khalifa Ghwell forces against pro-GNA militias in Garabulli, east of Tripoli (Libya Herald, July 10; Libya Express, July 9). [4]

The BDB, noting the UAE’s active military role in the Libyan conflict and its support for the “war criminal” Haftar, described the list as a fabrication designed with the intent of imposing “political restrictions on anyone who poses a threat to the UAE’s attempt at supremacy over the entire region” (Libya Observer, June 10).

List Two: The HoR’s List

The majority of those on the HoR list are based in Tripolitania. Most of those listed share an opposition to Haftar, the LNA and/or the HoR, though the role of many is inflated. Many are described as members of the “Muqatila,” a shorthand reference to the now defunct LIFG. The inference is that they are former members or remain sympathetic to the goals of the group, which was once closely associated with al-Qaeda.

While there is no apparent order to the HoR list, it makes more sense when those on it are gathered into focused groups, along with more detailed (and occasionally corrected) descriptions. There is, however, often some overlap in these unofficial categories.

The Muslim Brotherhood (MB)

Twenty-nine members of the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood made the list. The MB described the inclusion of its members on a “terrorist list” as “defamation” (Libya Herald, June 11). Many are resident in Doha, the Qatari capital, and receive Qatari funding. The most prominent of those included are:

JCP Chairman Muhammad Sawan

Muhammad Sawan – Chairman of the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Hizb al-Adala wal-Tamiyya (Justice & Construction Party, or JCP), since its founding in 2012. He is a Misratan who was imprisoned during the Gaddafi era.

Ahmad al-Suqi – The head of the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood, elected in October 2015.

Nizar Kawan – An Amazigh (Berber) member of the Libyan State Council and an official in the JCP. [5] Kawan was the victim of a failed assassination attempt and RPG attack on his home in June 2014. The attack was allegedly instigated by the pro-Haftar Libyan ambassador to the UAE, Aref al-Nayed, who was recorded urging a similar attempt on the life of Khalid al-Sharif (see below) (Libya Observer, September 3, 2015).

Fawzi Bukatif (RFI)

Fawzi Bukatif – A Misratan, Bukatif is the current Libyan ambassador to Uganda. A reputed financial coordinator for the MB with Qatar, he was the commander of the February 17 Brigade during the revolution and has close ties to Ismail al-Salabi. Bukatif accused the HoR of inciting violence with the list and threatened legal action: “I’m not against Hafter or the HoR, but I don’t agree with what they are doing. It seems they want to fight and kill anyone who disagrees with them” (Libya Herald, June 12).

Dar al-Ifta and Associates of Sadiq al-Ghariani

The most prominent of these are:

Abd al-Basit Ghwaila (Daily Mail)

Abd al-Basit Ghwaila – Director of the Tripoli office of the Ministry of Awqaf (religious endowments), Ghwaila is a Libyan-born Canadian citizen. He became the focus of attention when it was revealed that he was a close friend of the father of Manchester bomber Salman Abedi as well as the founder of an Islamic youth group to which Salman belonged. In 2016, his own son Awais was killed fighting alongside extremists in Benghazi. Ghwaila is an important official in al-Ghariani’s Tanasuh Foundation and a regular preacher on the Mufti’s Tanasuh TV station (Libya Herald, June 6).

Salem Jaber – A leader in the now dissolved Dar al-Ifta, Shaykh Salem advocates jihad and is a Salafist proponent of Saudi-style Islamic education. He demands beards for men and has called for drinkers and fornicators to be whipped. The list suggests he is a spiritual leader in the BDB.

Hamza Abu Faris – A leading Libyan religious scholar and former Islamic affairs minister, he is described on the list as an associate of the BDB and “instigator of jihad.”

The Manchester/Birmingham Connection

Tahir Nasuf – A Manchester-based LIFG fundraiser and former director of the group’s main fundraising organization, the now banned UK-based al-Sanabel Relief Agency. Funds flowed from Sanabel to Abu Anas al-Libi in Afghanistan, wanted for alleged involvement in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar al-Salaam (The Guardian, May 28). Nasuf was on the UN sanctions list from 2006 to 2011.

Khalid Tawfik Nasrat – A former LIFG leader and the father of Zuhair Nasrat, one of the detainees in the investigations of the Manchester attack. Zuhair was arrested at the south Manchester Nasrat family home where Manchester bomber Salman Abedi frequently stayed. Nasrat and his two eldest sons returned to Libya to fight in the 2011 revolution (Daily Mail, May 29).

Abd al-Basit Azzouz (BBC)

Abd al-Basit Azzouz – After fighting in Afghanistan, LIFG member Azzouz arrived in Manchester in 1994, where he settled alongside other LIFG members. In 2006, he was arrested by British police for alleged ties to al-Qaeda and detained for over nine months before being released on bail. Azzouz left for Pakistan and was appointed head of Libyan al-Qaeda operations by al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawihiri in May 2011. An expert bomb-maker, Azzouz had some 200 recruits under his command in Libya. Suspected of involvement in the 2012 attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, he was named in 2014 by the U.S. State Department as one of ten “specially designated global terrorists” (Telegraph, September 27, 2014; Express [London], May 24). He was arrested in Turkey in 2014 in a joint Turkish/CIA operation and sent to Jordan before his expected deportation to the United States to face charges. His public trail goes cold after that (Hurriyet [Istanbul], December 4, 2014). In February 2016, the UN added him to its al-Qaeda sanctions list, implying he was again at large. [6]

Bashir Muhammad al-Faqih – He is described in the list as “the spiritual leader of al-Qaeda and the LIFG in Libya.” As a resident of Birmingham and former member of the LIFG, al-Faqih was convicted and sentenced to four years in prison in 2007 after admitting to charges under the UK’s Terrorism Act. In 2014, his appeal to the European Court of Justice resulted in an EU order to overturn his conviction and return his passport (BBC, July 17, 2007; Manchester Evening News, October 8, 2010). He was involved in al-Qaeda financing via the Sanabel Relief Agency, which put him on the UN sanctions list from 2006 to 2011.

Politicians

The most prominent of these are:

Abd al-Rahman al-Shaibani al-Suwehli

Abd al-Rahman al-Shaibani al-Suwehli – As chairman of the Libyan State Council since April 6, 2016, Suwehli has challenged the legitimacy of the HoR. A bulletin from the State Council said that the HoR was using the term “terrorism” to vilify and denigrate their opponents through the list and threatened legal action (Libya Herald, June 12). Suwehli and Presidency Council chief Fayez Serraj were targeted for assassination when their motorcade came under heavy fire on February 20. Suwehli later accused GNS head Khalifa Ghwell of being behind the attack (Libya Herald, February 20).

Omar al-Hassi – After the formation of the elected HoR in 2014, the Islamist al-Hassi became “prime minister” of an alternative parliament formed from GNC members who had failed to be re-elected. He was dismissed in 2015 after unspecified accusations by an auditor. The list provides the unlikely description “field commander and political official in BDB.”

Benghazi Defense Brigades (BDB)

The most prominent commanders on the list are:

Brigadier General Mustafa al-Sharkasi – A professional soldier and former air force colonel in the Gaddafi-era, al-Sharkasi has emerged as the dominant commander in the BDB. Turning against the regime, he acted as a militia commander in Misrata during the revolution. Once part of Haftar’s LNA, he is now bitterly opposed to him (Libya Herald, November 13, 2016).

Al-Saadi al-Nawfali – The leader of the Operations Room for the Liberation of the Cities of Ajdabiya and Support for the Revolutionaries of Benghazi. This group cooperates closely with the BDB, in which he also holds a leadership position. Al-Nawfali has been variously described as an al-Qaeda operative, a former Ansar al-Sharia commander in Ajdabiya and a supporter of Islamic State (IS) forces.

Anwar Sawan – A Misratan supporter of the BDB and the Benghazi Shura Council, Sawan is a major arms dealer to Misratan Islamist militias. He supported the fight against IS in Sirte and opposes both Haftar and Serraj.

Ziyad Belam (al-Jazeera)

Ziyad Belam – A commander in the BDB and former leader of Benghazi’s Omar al-Mukhtar Brigade and the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council (BRSC), an alliance of Benghazi-based Islamist militias that once included local IS fighters. He was seriously wounded in an assassination attempt in October 2014. 

The BDB responded to the HoR’s “terrorist” list by providing their own “top 11” terrorist list focused on eastern-based civilian supporters of Haftar and the HoR. The most prominent individuals on the list were HoR President Ageela al-Salah and HoR Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni. (Libya Herald, June 16).

Islamic State (IS)

Ali al-Safrani and Abd al-Hadi Zarqun (a.k.a. Abd al-Hadi al-Warfali) – Both were accused of being financiers for IS in Libya. Sanctions were imposed on the two by the U.S. Treasury Department in April.

Mahmoud al-Barasi – A former Ansar al-Sharia commander in Benghazi, now purported by the list to be an IS amir in that city. He once said Ansar’s fight was against “democracy, secularism and the French,” and labeled government members “apostates” who could be killed (Libya Herald, November 25, 2013).

Al-Qaeda Operatives

The most notable of these are:

Muhammad al-Darsi (al-Jazeera)

Muhammad al-Darsi – A leading al-Qaeda figure in Libya, Darsi was given a life sentence in Jordan in 2007 for planning to blow up that nation’s main airport. He was released in 2014 in exchange for the kidnapped Jordanian ambassador to Libya, who was seized by gunmen in Tripoli (al-Jazeera, May 14, 2014).

Abd al-Moneim al-Hasnawi – Allegedly a high-ranking member of Katibat al-Muhajirin in Syria, Abd al-Moneim was recently spotted back in Sabah (Fezzan), where he was allegedly working with the Misratan Third Brigade, the BDB and the remnants of Ibrahim Jadhran’s Petroleum Facilities Guard (PFG) (Menastream.com, November 15, 2016). The list describes him as a representative for al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in southern Libya.

Militia Commanders

Salah Badi – A Misratan, Badi was an officer in Gaddafi’s army but was later imprisoned. A former GNC parliamentarian, he resigned in 2014. Badi formed the Jabhat al-Samud (Steadfastness Front) in Tripoli in June 2015. Badi supports Khalifa Ghwell’s GNS and opposes both the GNA and Haftar. He was recently seen leading the Samud Front in a pro-GNS offensive against Tripoli in early July (Libya Herald, July 7).

Tariq Durman – Leads the Ihsan Brigade in Tripoli, which is made up of supporters of Mufti al-Ghariani. He supports the GNS.

Khalid al-Sharif

Khalid al-Sharif – A deputy amir in the LIFG, Khalid was captured in 2003 and held prisoner in a secret CIA detention center in Afghanistan for two years. He was then returned to Libya and imprisonment under Gaddafi (Christian Science Monitor, May 7, 2015). Khalid controlled Tripoli’s Hadba prison until May 26, when it was seized by Haitham Tajouri’s Tripoli Revolutionaries’ Brigade, which then destroyed al-Sharif’s home (Libya Herald, May 27). A search revealed the prison to have contained a bomb-making factory (Libya Herald, June 4). In June, the Libyan National Committee for Human Rights tied Manchester bomber Salman Abedi to Khalid al-Sharif and other former LIFG members and demanded the International Criminal Court and the UN investigate “Qatar’s role as a financier of this group” (Arab News, June 3).

Sami al-Sa’adi (ITV)

Sami al-Sa’adi – Al-Saadi left Libya for Afghanistan in 1988, where he became a deputy amir of the LIFG. He was arrested in a joint UK/US operation in 2004 and returned to Libya, where he was tortured and spent six years in prison. The UK paid £2.2 million in compensation in 2012 but did not accept responsibility for the rendition. After the revolution, he became close to Mufti al-Ghariani, founded the Umma al-Wasat Party and was a commander in the Islamist Libya Dawn coalition. In late May, Saadi’s Tripoli home was destroyed by the Tripoli Revolutionaries’ Brigade (Libya Herald, May 27).

Ahmad Abd al-Jalil al-Hasnawi – A Libyan Shield southern district commander, the LNA claimed al-Hasnawi planned and led the BDB’s Brak al-Shatti attack (Libya Herald, May 19; Channel TV [Amman], May 22, via BBC Monitoring). A GNA loyalist, al-Hasnawi commands wide support within his Fezzani Hasawna tribe.

Outlook

The Libyan component of these two “terrorist” lists have a common purpose — to lessen foreign resistance to the takeover of Libya by the HoR-backed LNA while simultaneously discrediting the counter-efforts of Qatar.

Egypt’s military regime in particular is determined to eliminate Muslim Brotherhood influence in the region. Another common theme of the lists is the insistence that the arms embargo on Libya be lifted in order to supply Haftar with the weapons needed to defeat “terrorism” and control the flow of “foreign fighters” (despite their being used by both Haftar’s LNA and pro-GNA forces).

Clearly designed for an international audience, the HoR’s list is light on IS militants (already despised by the West) and heavy on political, military and religious opponents to Haftar and his Egyptian and UAE backers. The BDB, as one of the strongest military challengers to Haftar’s LNA, is particularly singled out.

While some of the individuals mentioned above have long histories of supporting terrorist activity, many of the lists’ lesser individuals not included here can only be regarded as having the most tenuous of links, if any, to terrorism.

In this sense, the list may be viewed as political preparation for an expected Haftar assault on Tripoli later this year, branding all possible opposition in advance as “terrorists” for international consumption.

Notes

  1. A Qatari official insisted that at least six of the individuals on the list were already dead (Foreign Policy, June 15).
  2. The UAE uses al-Khadim airbase in Marj province for operations by AT-802 light attack aircraft and surveillance drones (Jane’s 360, October 28, 2016). The UAE also controls an estimated 70% of Libyan media, according to an Emirati investigative website (Libya Observer, June 13).
  3. See “Libya’s Military Wild Card: The Benghazi Defense Brigades and the Massacre at Brak al-Shatti,” Terrorism Monitor 15(11), June 2, 2017, https://jamestown.org/program/libyas-military-wild-card-benghazi-defense-brigades-massacre-brak-al-shatti/
  4. Khalifa Ghwell is leader of a third rival government, the Government of National Salvation, which has some support from Mufti al-Ghariani. The offensive is the latest in a series of attempts by Ghwell to overthrow the GNA administration in Tripoli.
  5. The State Council was formed by the 2015 Libyan Political Agreement as an advisory body to the GNA/Presidency Council and HoR as a third element of the unified government.
  6. https://www.un.org/sc/suborg/en/sanctions/1267/aq_sanctions_list/summaries/individual/abd-al-baset-azzouz

This article first appeared in the July 14, 2017 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

The Carousel of Rebellion and Reintegration: A Profile of Northern Mali’s Colonel Hassan ag Fagaga

Andrew McGregor

July 5, 2017

From the moment of its independence in 1960, Mali was almost doomed to failure as a post-colonial state created from the territories of French West Africa. With its odd, bow-tie shape incorporating a larger but sparsely populated Muslim Sahel-Saharan region in the northeast and a smaller but more fertile, more populated Muslim/animist region in the southwest, the two distinct areas of Mali had little in common, including severe racial and tribal divisions that ignite communal violence to this day.

Colonel Hassan ag Fagaga (Tamoudre)

Northern Mali (known in rebel parlance as “Azawad”) is home to a number of ethnic groups, including Arabs, Songhai, Peul/Fulani, Moors and the Tuareg, a desert-dwelling branch of the North African Berbers. Clan-based and stubbornly independent, the Tuareg stretch across the deserts and mountains of Algeria, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and Libya. One of their most formidable strongholds is in the Kidal region of northern Mali, bordered to the north by Algeria and to the east by Niger. The Tuareg came to international prominence during their stiff resistance to French imperialism in the 19th and early 20th centuries. For many in Kidal, life in post-independence Mali is simply a new and similarly unwanted form of colonialism.

Born in 1958 as a member of the Ifergoumessen clan of the “noble” Kidal Ifoghas Tuareg confederation, Hassan ag Fagaga was still a child when portions of the Kidal Tuareg rose up in their first post-independence rebellion in 1963. The rising, which suffered from unfulfilled hopes of Algerian and French support for Tuareg independence, was quickly crushed. A ruthless repression by the new Malian government (dominated by southern Bambaras) involving massacres and torture created a legacy of animosity and resistance in the Kidal Tuareg. The rebellion was fuelled by racially-fuelled anger at a colonial decision to place the “white” Tuareg under the rule of “blacks” (the Malian majority) whom the Tuareg had always viewed as servants or slaves. [1]  This was the formative environment in which the young Hassan lived.

Rebellion of 1990-1996

A second rebellion by young Tuareg fighters began in Ménaka in June 1990. Many of the rebels, like ag Fagaga, had military training in Libya as part of Qaddafi’s “Green Legion,” which fought in Lebanon and Chad without ever achieving its intended “elite” status. The new rebellion would establish many clan and class-based divides in the Tuareg community that continue to endure and torment efforts to bring a resolution to the cyclical violence in northern Mali.

The revolt was led by the Mouvement Populaire de Libération de l’Azawad (MPLA), largely composed of fighters returning from Algeria and Libya, where many Tuareg had taken refuge from famine, persecution and economic deprivation.

Colonel Amadou Toumani Touré became president in March 1991 by overthrowing President Moussa Traoré. The change led to the negotiatioin of the Algerian-brokered 1991 Tanamrasset Agreement, which split the MPLA into three factions:

  • The Mouvement populaire de l’Azawad (MPA) led by Iyad ag Ghali (Iriyaken Tuareg and currently Mali’s most wanted man). [2] Mostly Kel Ifoghas, including Ifergoumessen, the MPA signed the agreement and went over to the government;
  • The Front populaire de libération de l’Azawad (FPLA) led Zeidan ag Sidalamine. Mostly Kel Intessar from Gouna region, southwest of Timbuktu, and Chamanamas Tuareg from the Ménaka region, the FPLA rejected the agreement;
  • The Armée révolutionnaire de libération de l’Azawad (ARLA), led by al-Hajj ag Gamou (Imghad). [3] Mostly Taghat Mellit and Idnane Tuareg, the ARLA also rejected the agreement.

A fourth rebellious faction was the Front islamique arabe de l’Azawad (FIAA) a group led by Ahmad Ould Sidi Mohamed and consisting of Malian Arabs and Moors (i.e. Mauritanian Arabs and Berbers). This group also went over to the government in 1991. The MPA and the FIAA joined the Malian Army’s Mixed Brigades, which now fought their former allies in ARLA and the FPLA.

In February 1994 al-Hajj ag Gamou stunned the Ifoghas and other traditional Tuareg by kidnapping the amenokal (supreme chief), Intallah ag Attaher. Though the amenokal was later released unharmed in a prisoner exchange, this shocking attack on the social order led to the dissipation of ARLA support and by the end of 1994 the group had been thoroughly defeated by the Ifoghas and their allies. [4] After being integrated into the Malian Army following the rebellion, ag Gamou became a Bamako loyalist and eventually the first Tuareg to join the Malian general staff. He and Fagaga would meet on the battlefield repeatedly over the coming years.

Fighting flared on and off until 1996, when various Tuareg rebel factions reported for demobilization and disarmament, bringing many ancient and useless weapons to be thrown into the bonfire of the televised “Flame of Peace” ceremony in March 1996. At this point ag Fagaga was integrated as an officer in the Malian Army.

Rebellion of 2006

In April 2006, Mu’ammar Qaddafi abused his hosts by using a visit to Timbuktu to express his support for the creation of an independent Tuareg state (Jeune Afrique, March 19, 2007). Qaddafi’s words inspired ag Fagaga to desert the Malian Army and mount another rebellion in league with his Ifergoumessen cousin Ibrahim ag Bahanga and Ahmad ag Bibi, calling themselves the Alliance démocratique du 23 mai pour le changement (ADC). [5]

 The uprising began as some 150 Tuareg soldiers rallied under Lieutenant Colonel ag Fagaga and left their barracks with their weapons and vehicles. According to Fagaga, the rebels would eventually number 2,000, including some 200 deserters from the armed forces (Jeune Afrique, May 29, 2006). The ADC was largely Ifergoumessen, but attracted some Idnane Tuareg. [6]

KidalBourrichon)

Based in the Adrar des Ifoghas (the main mountain range in Kidal), the movement launched attacks on Kidal and Ménaka. Iyad ag Ghali soon took overall command, with Fagaga leading military operations. As usual, clan and personal rivalries played an important part in the rebellion – Fagaga’s desertion may have been prompted by the promotion of al-Hajj ag Gamou (member of a “vassal” clan) over Fagaga, a member of a “noble” clan.

Fagaga maintained that the rebellion was prompted by “serious discrimination” against Tuareg in the military as well as a lack of development in northern Mali. He went on to deny Libyan funding and said he was seeking autonomy for the north within a Malian state: “The Tuareg cannot indefinitely accept to live as second-class citizens in their own country” (Jeune Afrique, May 29, 2006).

The 2006 rebellion ended before the close of the year with an Algerian-brokered settlement, one clause of which stipulated the rebels would be absorbed into the Malian Army. Fagaga was back in Malian uniform.

 Rebellion of 2007-2009

Government failure to implement the peace agreement led Fagaga, a Lieutenant Colonel, to desert the National Guard in August 2007. Still using the name ADC, Fagaga acted as military commander while his cousin Bahanga (also a deserter) took overall command. Bahanga’s Paris-based father-in-law, Hama ag Sid’Ahmed, acted as the group’s political representative.

Ibrahim ag Bahanga

In September 2007, Bahanga attacked Malian troops at Tinzaoutene, the headquarters of his smuggling network. Throughout the conflict, Bahanga and Fagaga have great success in capturing demoralized troops from southern Mali and holding them hostage.

In the same month, Bahanga and Fagaga created the Alliance Touaregue Niger-Mali pour le changement (ATNMC), a movement that was rejected by the Niger Tuareg and never received the same level of support as the ADC within northern Mali. The movement also continued to use the name ADC in official communications. In May 2008, the movement changed its name but retained its acronym, better reflecting its Malian base as the Alliance Touaregue Nord Mali pour le changement (ATNMC)

In March 2008, Fagaga threatened to “eliminate” any al-Qaeda fighters entering the Tuareg rebels’ zone of operations, but acknowledged some jihadists had entered the Kidal region (El Khabar [Algiers], March 5). The fighting intensified until July 2008, when Algerian mediation brought about a ceasefire and promises to re-integrate the rebel fighters into the Malian military. Bahanga fled instead to Libya (possibly with Fagaga) and remained there until December 2008, when he renewed the revolt with an attack on the Malian garrison at Nampala.

An exasperated Malian president Amadou Toumani Touré declared “enough is enough” and unleashed Colonel Mohamed Ould Meydou’s Bérabiche Arab militia and Colonel al-Hajj ag Gamou’s Imghad Tuareg militia, expert desert fighters who chased the rebels from their bases in the Tigharghar Mountains and into Algeria by January 2009.

Fagaga split with Bahanga, who remained in the field, and laid down arms with 400 fighters on January 4, 2009 before re-integration into the army (Jeune Afrique, January 27, 2009). On his return to Bamako, the Colonel was vague when questioned regarding the purpose of his rebellion. When pressed, he claimed: ”We want the correct application of the Algiers Agreement. We do not want to reduce or increase the content of this document by a comma.” He made light of potential differences with his new colleague, Colonel Gamou, who had played a decisive role in quashing the rebellion: “Gamou, who’s that? He is an element of the army. There is no Gamou problem. Nor is there a problem between me and Gamou and even with the other soldiers of the army. They are on a mission and they do their job.” Finally, Fagaga angered many Malians when he placed his hand on his heart and swore he had never killed a Malian soldier: “I never killed anyone or attacked an army position. I was not in the fighting… However, there were attacks on our position, I defended myself without great difficulty. Whether you believe me or not, that’s the truth” (L’Indépendant [Bamako], February 19, 2009). Few believed him.

The failure of Bahanga and Fagaga to elucidate any kind of political basis for their rebellion other than dissatisfaction with the implementation of the Algiers Accords led to suspicions that the real motive for the revolt was to drive away security forces interfering with Bahanga’s lucrative smuggling trade (L’Aube [Bamako], May 15, 2008).

By January 2010 both Bahanga and Fagaga were reported to be in Algeria making an unsuccessful pitch to reconstitute and rearm the ATNMC as a regional anti-terrorist force targeting al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) (L’Observateur [Bamako], January 10, 2010; January 27, 2010). Bahanga died in a mysterious desert car crash on August 26, 2011 after clashing with AQIM and other groups over control of narcotics smuggling routes in northern Mali.

Rebellion of 2012-2013

In September 2011, an unusual decree was circulated through Mali’s military command announcing that Colonel Fagaga had been given a three-year leave on July 1, 2011 “for personal reasons without pay.” It was believed the leave was to allow Fagaga to lead a contingent of young Malian Tuareg to Libya to support its beleaguered leader, Mu’ammar Qaddafi (Le Hoggar [Bamako], September 16 2011). Qaddafi’s army collapsed and Fagaga resurfaced several months later, this time as a military leader in the rebel Mouvement national de libération de l’Azawad (MNLA), formed on October 16, 2011 and consisting largely of Malian Tuareg Libyan Army veterans. The military commander was Colonel Mohamed ag Najim (Idnane Tuareg), a colonel in Qaddafi’s army.

The MNLA drew most of their forces from the Idnane, Taghat Mellet and Chamanass Tuareg, all vassal clans traditionally under the authority of Kel Ifoghas nobles. These groups were joined by elements of the Ifergoumessen, including Colonel ag Fagaga. [7]

Iyad ag Ghali

Since Fagaga’s earlier cooperation with Iyad ag Ghali, the latter had adopted a Salafist form of Islam after his experience as a diplomat in Saudi Arabia and association with Tablighi Jama’at missionaries in Mali. He had also become embittered with much of the Kel Ifoghas leadership after having been passed by as the declared successor of amenokal Intallah ag Attaher. Ghali formed his own Islamist movement, Ansar al-Din, which recruited primarily from the Kel Ifoghas while incorporating a number of foreign fighters. Ansar al-Din and the MNLA launched the rebellion as allies in January 2012, but Ghali would later turn against the MNLA and cooperate instead with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Movement for Unity and Justice in West Africa (MUJWA) to create a short-lived Islamic state in northern Mali. When French forces and their allies from Chad and Niger launched an overwhelming offensive against the Islamist extremists in early 2013, elements of the MNLA were there to act as guides in the mountains and caves of the Adrar des Ifoghas. Mali’s military, in a state of near collapse after their defeat in the north and a bout of internal fighting, played little role in the offensive and were unable to re-establish government authority in the north.

When public buildings in Kidal were turned over to Malian authorities in November 2013, Fagaga showed his displeasure by suddenly departing the city with his men, arms and vehicles to Tinzaoutene, igniting fears that he would resume armed rebellion (L’Aube [Bamako], November 19, 2013).

In the summer of 2014 tensions exploded between the pro-government Platforme movement (including Tuareg, Songhai and Arab fighters) and a rebel coalition led by Hassan ag Fagaga, who had returned from Tinzaoutene. The coalition consisted of the MNLA, the Tuareg Haut Conseil pour l’Unité de l’Azawad (HCUA) and the anti-Bamako faction of the Mouvement Arabe de l’Azawad (MAA).  After a series of clashes in Kidal in May 2014 the rebels were defeated at the Battle of Anéfis on July 11, 2014. A running fight followed in the Tabankort region on July 19-21. The result was inconclusive, but the rebels retired to Kidal where they were blockaded by Platforme forces including Colonel Gamou’s Groupe autodéfense touareg Imghad et allies (GATIA).

The clashes led to the Algiers Accord on peace and reconciliation in Mali, signed on May 15, 2015 by all parties except the jihadist groups, who were excluded from the agreement.

There were further skirmishes around Kidal between the CMA and Platforme forces in the summer of 2016. Fagaga joined a delegation of CMA leaders who travelled to Bamako to seek a means of ending the fighting and reviving the implementation of the 2015 Algiers Accord (Le Républicain [Bamako], August 12, 2016).

Months later, Fagaga’s younger brother Azbi was one of the leading suspects in an October 6, 2016 attack by Malian Tuareg fighters on a Malian refugee camp in northern Niger. The attackers killed 22 Nigerien soldiers. A month later a French attack helicopter struck suspected members of the group, killing nine, including Mohamed ag Bahanga, Ibrahim ag Bahanga’s brother (Reuters, October 6, 2016; Actuniger.com, November 7, 2016).

Head of the Interim Authority of Kidal, 2017

Hassan ag Fagaga (on microphone) at his installation as president of the interim authority of Kidal (Journal du Mali)

On February 28, 2017, ag Fagaga was appointed president of the interim authority of the Kidal region, ironically making him the state’s representative for the promotion of national unity, respect for the constitution and the perpetuation of secular government (L’Humanité [Bamako], May 15). [8] His installation ceremony was attended by officials from Algeria, France, the U.S., the EU and the African Union. However, nothing about the ceremony suggested a return of government authority to Kidal. The national delegation arrived and departed in armored vehicles belonging to the UN peacekeeping force. [9] Armed rebels provided security, the flags outside were those of the Azawad independence movement and women and children chanted independence slogans in the streets (Le Malien [Bamako], March 7).

The appointment was confirmed with a swearing-in at Bamako on March 16. Only the day before, Fagaga complained that Mali’s government did not want to follow the procedures laid out in the peace agreement for a return to Kidal: “That is why today all the structures established by the peace agreement are still empty shells” (l’Indicateur du Renouveau [Bamako], March 15).

Bamako’s press had only condemnation for the appointment of “the deserter Fagaga,” a “war criminal” (Le Démocrate [Bamako], March 8). One daily described the appointment as “a real capitulation,” while another described ag Fagaga as Iyad ag Ghali’s “hired hand,” whose appointment had delivered Kidal to the terrorist leader on a platter (Le Malien [Bamako], March 14; L’Aube [Bamako], February 20).

Kidal remains a “no-go” region for most Malian leaders and officials, who in practice must obtain permission to visit from the CMA. Even the new governor of Kidal, Sidi Mohamed ag Ichrach, was sworn in at Gao rather than Kidal due to CMA perceptions that he is too closely tied to GATIA and the pro-Bamako Platforme coalition.

On March 2, Fagaga’s one-time comrade and current rival, Iyad ag Ghali, took control of the newly created Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wa’l-Muminin (JNIM), a merger of Ansar al-Din, al-Murabitun, the Macina Liberation Front and the Saharan branch of AQIM. Three days later the group claimed credit for an attack on the military camp at Boulkeissy, just north of the border with Burkina Faso. A series of terrorist attacks have followed.

In May, Fagaga gave his views on Ghali and his violent campaign to impose Shari’a in northern Mali:

Iyad says he is fighting for the application of the Shari’a. It is a noble cause. On the other hand, I do not approve of his method to achieve it… Iyad is a cousin but those who have known me for a long time know well that we do not share the same vision… Iyad says he is fighting for the application of the Shari’a. It is a noble cause. On the other hand, I do not approve of his method of achieving it. I even have doubts about his real will to apply Shari’a. Our prophet taught us that if one wants to be successful in a matter, one must do it with the greatest discretion. This is quite the opposite of what Iyad does (Jeune Afrique, May 12, 2017).

Fagaga has emphasized the need for “moral education” for young Tuareg fighters who have come of age in unsettled conditions, while disparaging those who pose as holy warriors: “A jihadist is no more than a man with a Kalashnikov” (Jeune Afrique, May 12; Sahelien, May 10).

Conclusion

Hassan ag Fagaga has always been a military character rather than a political player. Even when asked directly, he has struggled to articulate his precise reasons for rebellion other than vague references to Bamako’s failure to adhere to specific accords. Now, however, the eternal rebel finds himself in an administrative role (albeit interim in nature) as part of the Malian government. Negotiation and conciliation have never been his strengths, yet these are exactly the qualities he will need to exercise if he is to play anything more than a divisive role as Kidal’s interim leader.

Assuming July’s elections proceed without delay or incident (a large assumption in Mali), the question is where will Fagaga go then? Despite his appointment, there is little evidence he has abandoned his separatist sympathies. The Colonel’s military experience could be of value in combatting terrorism, but this would entail the unlikely re-acceptance of the two-time deserter into the Malian Army and his cooperation with long-time rivals such as Generals Gamou and Ould Meydou. It seems just as likely that this “rebel’s rebel” might be unable to resist the lure of a return to the desert wilderness to mount yet another struggle for the independence of Azawad.

Notes

  1. J.S Lecocq, That Desert is Our Country: Tuareg Rebellions and Competing Nationalisms in Contemporary Mali (1946-1996), University of Amsterdam, 2002, p.134.
  2. For Iyad ag Ghali, see “Bringing Militant Salafism to the Tuareg: A Profile of Veteran Rebel Iyad ag Ghali,” MLM, February 29, 2012, http://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=492
  3. For al-Hajj ag Gamou, see “The Fox of Kidal: A Profile of Mali’s Tuareg General, al-Hajj ag Gamou,” MLM, November 30, 2016, http://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=3751
  4. Georg Klute and Trutz von Trotha, “Roads to Peace: From Small War to Para-sovereign Peace in the North of Mali,” In: Marie-Claire Foblets and Trutz von Trotha (ed.s), Healing the Wounds: Essays on the Reconstruction of Societies after War, Hart Publishing, 2004, pp.118 – 119.
  5. For Ibrahim ag Bahanga, see “Ibrahim Ag Bahanga: Tuareg Rebel Turns Counterterrorist?” MLM, March 31, 2010, http://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=2773
  6. Stephanie Pezard and Michael Shurkin, Achieving Peace in Northern Mali: Past Agreements, Local Conflicts, and the Prospects for a Durable Settlement, Rand Corporation, 2015.
  7. Alexander Thurston and Andrew Lebovich, “A Handbook on Mali’s 2012-2013 Crisis,” Institute for the Study of Islamic Thought in Africa (ISITSA) Working Paper Series/Columbia University Working Paper no. 13-001, September 2, 2013, http://www.bcics.northwestern.edu/documents/workingpapers/ISITA-13-001-Thurston-Lebovich.pdf
  8. Interim authorities were appointed for five northern regions; Kidal, Gao, Ménaka, Timbuktu and Taoudénit. Their appointments will expire after local elections scheduled for July 2017.
  9. Mission multidimensionnelle intégrée des Nations unies pour la stabilisation au Mali (MINUSMA).

This article first appeared in the July 5, 2017 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Militant Leadership Monitor.

Jabal ‘Uwaynat: Mysterious Desert Mountain Becomes a Three-Border Security Flashpoint

Andrew McGregor

AIS Special Report, June 13, 2017Before the advent of motorized desert exploration in the 1930s there were few areas as little known as the Libyan Desert, a vast and largely lifeless wasteland of sand and stone as large as India. In the midst of this forbidden wilderness stands a lonely sentinel, a massive mountain that covers some 600 square miles and rises to a height of 6345 feet, once possibly forming an island in the prehistoric sea that preceded the Saharan sands. Though its springs and rain-pools were known to the Ancient Egyptians, Jabal ‘Uwaynat was eventually forgotten for thousands of years by all but a handful of hardened desert dwellers who sought its fresh water and seasonal grazing. Since its “rediscovery” less than a hundred years ago, possession of this lonely massif has almost led to a war between Italy and Great Britain and is now at the heart of a security crisis involving Libya, Egypt and Sudan, whose borders meet at Jabal ‘Uwaynat.The Highway to Yam

The ancient importance of Jabal ‘Uwaynat is revealed in the rock art at the site depicting cattle, giraffes, lions and human beings, but no camels, which were only introduced into Egypt in roughly 500 BCE. The drawings suggest an occupation in the Neolithic period far earlier than the era of the Ancient Egyptians at a time when water was far more plentiful in the region. [1]

The Inscription of Mentuhotep II at Jabal ‘Uwaynat

Though ‘Uwaynat was long believed to lie beyond the regions explored by the Ancient Egyptians, the remarkable 2007 discovery of a depiction of the Egyptian Middle Kingdom king Mentuhotep II (11th Dynasty, 21st century BCE) promises to rewrite these perceptions. The portrayal of the seated king was accompanied by his name in a cartouche and an inscription mentioning the land of Yam, known as a destination for Egyptian trade caravans supplying exotic goods from the African interior from as early as the Old Kingdom reign of Merenre I (6th Dynasty, 23rd century BCE). [2] The exact location of Yam has never been determined, but the new evidence suggests it was somewhere south of ‘Uwaynat and further west into the African interior than previously thought by many scholars, possibly in Ennedi (modern Chad) or even Darfur (modern Sudan). The precise site of the inscription has been kept secret to avoid the ravages of “adventure tourism” that has led to the damage or destruction of many important Saharan monuments and rock art sites in recent years. [3]

Entering the Modern Era

The great mountain disappeared from the historical record until the early 19th century, when, according to English desert explorer Ralph Bagnold, an Arab from the Libyan oasis of Jalu and a resident at the court of Sultan Muhammad ‘Abd al-Karim Sabun of Wadai (1804-1815, modern eastern Chad), undertook to find a new trade route northwards through the Libyan Desert to Benghazi on the Mediterranean coast. The experienced Arab caravan leader, Shehaymah, headed northeast first to the remote springs at Jabal ‘Uwaynat, then worked northwest to Kufra and on through Jalu to Benghazi. [4] The fact that Shehaymah headed into this unknown wasteland suggested that he had some prior knowledge of ‘Uwaynat. Though this route was used by the Shehaymah and the Wadaians only once, this was the first known reference to the isolated mountain. From that time, caravan routes from Wadai bypassed ‘Uwaynat to the west on a more direct route north to the coast, while the famous Darb al-Arba’in caravan route from Darfur to Asyut in Egypt bypassed ‘Uwaynat far to the east, letting knowledge of ‘Uwaynat’s existence fade from all save the Tubu tribesmen of the eastern Sahara whose mastery of the desert and its mysteries was unparalleled.

Ahmad Muhammad Hassenein Bey

Nearly 3,000 years after its last known visit by the Egyptians, Jabal ‘Uwaynat was finally mapped by another Egyptian, the aristocrat Ahmad Muhammad Hassanein Bey, who “discovered” this “lost oasis” during an extraordinary 2200 mile trek by camel from the Mediterranean port of Sollum (near the Egyptian/Libyan border) to al-Fashir, the capital of Darfur. At the time of Hassanein Bey’s arrival, the mountain was the site of a settlement of some 150 Gura’an Tubu from Ennedi, relatively recent arrivals who did not wish to live under the rule of the French who had recently colonized the Chad region up to the Darfur border. Seven years later, only six remained; three years after that, the Gura’an settlement had disappeared forever. [5]

Two years after Hassanein Bey’s visit, Prince Kamal al-Din Hussein (son of Egypt’s Sultan Husayn Kamel, 1914-1917) visited ‘Uwaynat in a remarkable expedition using French Citröen Kegresse halftracks, supported by immense camel-borne supply convoys. This well-financed motorized journey by halftracks, as temperamental as camels in their own way, marked the beginning of the end of ‘Uwaynat’s ancient isolation.

The legendary English desert explorer Ralph Bagnold reached ‘Uwaynat by motorcar in 1930, inventing the techniques of desert-driving in the process. His atmospheric description of the place is still worth citing:

[‘Uwaynat] was by no means the flat-topped plateau it had looked from the plain; for the rock was hollowed out by a freak of erosion into spires and pinnacles over a hundred feet in height, separated by winding passages… Wandering through this labyrinth, we came out at unexpected places to the threshold, as it were, of a broken doorway high up in the battlements of some ruined castle, with nothing but a sheer thousand-foot drop beneath. From these openings the enormous yellow plain could be seen, featureless and glaring with reflected sunlight, reaching away and away in all directions (except to the south, where the peak of Kissu many miles distant rose like a lone cathedral) to a vague hazy horizon… With that little vision came a sudden overwhelming sense of the remoteness of the mountain – as if it included the whole world and was floating by itself, with Kissu peak as its satellite, in a timeless solitude. [6]

In 1931 an Italian expeditionary force under General Rodolfo Graziani crossed the desert to take the oasis of Kufra (northwest of ‘Uwaynat), where they defeated a desperate resistance put up by the Zuwaya Arabs. Unsatisfied with his conquest, Graziani (“the Butcher of Libya”) urged his men to pursue the survivors into the desert, attacking refugee families with armored vehicles and aircraft. Many of the refugees headed towards ‘Uwaynat, dropping dead daily in large numbers due to lack of food and water. Not knowing the region, some tried to follow the tracks of Prince Kamal’s halftracks, but when these became obliterated by sand and wind there was little hope left. Many of the refugees were rescued by British desert explorer Pat Clayton, who abandoned his survey work in the region to cover some 5,000 total miles of desert in his vehicles ferrying exhausted and dying refugees to safety. His efforts earned him a British medal and a ban from Italian-held Libya.

The British-Italian Struggle over ‘Uwaynat

The pursuit of the refugees brought Jabal ‘Uwaynat to the attention of the Italians, who sent expeditions to the mountain in 1931 and 1932 with an eye to claiming it for Italy, though it was already claimed by the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan Condominium government. Suddenly this desert massif known to the Europeans for only less than a decade became a site of strategic importance – a base there would bring Italian forces within striking distance of the Aswan Dam (550 miles away) using aircraft or motor vehicles. The Italians busied themselves with naming all the mountain’s prominent features for prominent Italian fascists, but were deeply disappointed to discover Bagnold’s cairn at the highest point of Jabal ‘Uwaynat.

In the meantime, both the Italians and the British in the region remained wary of encountering the deadly but phantom-like Gura’an raiders led by the notorious Aramaï Gongoï.  These Tubu raiders could cross hundreds of miles of trackless and apparently waterless deserts on their camels without benefit of any kind of navigational equipment before descending on unsuspecting oases or desert convoys. Mystified by these skills, their oasis-dwelling victims even claimed the Gura’an camels left no tracks in the sand.

The British and Italians began sending aircraft and patrols to ‘Uwaynat and by 1933 it seemed, incredibly, that Britain and Italy could go to war over possession of a remote place only a select few had ever seen or heard of until that point. Saner heads prevailed in 1934 as diplomats defined the border, giving Italy (and later independent Libya as a result) sovereignty over much of the mountain (including ‘Ain Dua, the most reliable spring) as well as the “Sarra Triangle” to the southwest of the formation in return for Italy abandoning its claims to a large portion of northwest Sudan.  These claims had been based on Italy’s view of itself as the sovereign successor to the Ottoman Empire in the region, the Ottomans having once made optimistic but largely unenforceable claims to large tracts of the Saharan interior in the late 19th century.

What the British Foreign Office had overlooked was that Italy had taken control of the remote but valuable Ma’tan al-Sarra well inside the so-called “Sarra Triangle.” The site for the well was chosen in 1898 by the leader of Cyrenaïca’s Sanussi religious order, Sayyid Muhammad al-Mahdi al-Sanussi. Al-Sannusi wished to open a new trade route to equatorial Africa from his headquarters in Kufra, but was hindered by the nearly waterless 400 mile stretch between Kufra and the next major well at Tekro (northern Chad). Al-Sanussi said a prayer at the site, roughly mid-way between Kufra and Tekro, and ordered his followers to dig. Months passed with camel convoys ferrying supplies to the workers until they finally found, at a depth of 192 feet, an apparently unlimited supply of water. [7]

Lying two hundred miles west of ‘Uwaynat, the strategic value of Ma’tan al-Sarra would be realized by Mu’ammar Qaddafi, who used it as a staging point for a group of Sudanese dissidents and followers of Sadiq al-Mahdi (great-grandson of Muhammad al-Mahdi and two-time prime minister of Sudan) to launch a 1976 attack on his enemy President Ja’afar Nimieri in Khartoum. The force passed south of ‘Uwaynat but the coup attempt failed after several days of bloody fighting in the Sudanese capital, followed by a wave of executions of captured dissidents and their supporters.

Qaddafi later used the Ma’tan al-Sarra as a forward airbase in his unsuccessful attempt to seize the Aouzou Strip during the Libya-Chad war of 1978-1987. Chad’s largely Tubu army under Hassan Djamous seized the airbase in a devastating lightning raid on September 5, 1987, bringing an effective end to the war with a humiliating Libyan defeat.

‘Uwaynat in the Second World War

As World War II broke out, possession of ‘Uwaynat was contested between the modified Fords and Chevrolets of the Commonwealth Long Range Desert Group (LRDG), invented and commanded by Major Ralph Bagnold, and their motorized Italian counterparts in the Compagnie Sahariane, a largely Libyan force with Italian officers and NCOs. As the war began, Italian forces established posts at the ‘Uwaynat springs of Ain Zwaya and one at ‘Ain Dua, both equipped with airstrips and garrisoned largely by Libyan colonial troops under Italian command.

After the Italians had been driven from the region by British and Free French offensives, the British-led Sudan Defence Force (SDF) used the route past ‘Uwaynat for regular convoys of arms and supplies to the Free French garrison in Kufra.  This oasis had been taken by General Phillippe Leclerc’s Free French forces with the assistance of the British Commonwealth’s Long-Range Desert Group (LRDG) on March 1, 1941. [8]

A Libyan SIAI-Marchetti SF-260

When a Libyan National Army-operated SIAI-Marchetti SF.260 light aircraft disappeared in the region in May 2017, it was a reminder that extreme heat and sudden sandstorms can make aerial surveillance of the border region around ‘Uwaynat a perilous undertaking. The aircraft left Kufra airbase to investigate reports of armed Sudanese crossing the border in vehicles. Its pilot and co-pilot were discovered dead the next day (Libya Observer, May 24, 2017).

It was not the first. In 1940, a Bristol Blenheim light bomber being used for reconnaissance by Free French forces was forced down near Jabal ‘Uwaynat. Its crew wandered in the desert for 12 days before being picked up by an Italian patrol and packed off to Italy as prisoners. A second Free French Blenheim went missing on February 5, 1942 after a bombing mission on the Italian-held al-Taj fort at Kufra. The plane and the remains of its crew were discovered by a French patrol in the Ennedi region of Chad in 1959. [9]

A French Patrol Discovers the Lost Blenheim in Ennedi, 1959

Less fortunate were the crews of three South African Air Force Blenheims that became lost in May 1942 and were forced to land in the desert between Kufra and ‘Uwaynat when their fuel ran out. Only one man survived to be rescued; the others perishing in agony from heat, thirst and misguided attempts to preserve themselves through drinking the alcohol in their compasses and spraying themselves with blister-inducing foam from their fire-extinguishers. [10]

There are some surprising peculiarities to aerial surveillance in the open desert. Stationary vehicles can be extremely difficult to spot from the air, as patrols from the LRDG discovered while operating in the Libyan Desert in World War II. It became common practice to simply stop when the approach of enemy aircraft was heard, a tactic that saved many patrols no matter how counter-intuitive it might have seemed.

Modern Gateway for Rebels, Traffickers and Mercenaries

In the Qadddafi-era, a trans-Saharan desert road connecting Kufra through ‘Uwaynat to Sudanese Darfur was promoted as a means of establishing trade between the two regions. The collapse of security in southern Libya after the 2011 anti-Qaddafi revolution brought the route to the attention of smugglers, human traffickers and members of Darfur’s multiple rebel movements who were being slowly squeezed out of Darfur under pressure from Sudan’s security forces.

A June 1, 2017 report of the UN Libyan Experts Panel described how Darfuri rebel movements received offers for their military services from both rival governments in the Libyan conflict, broadly the Bayda/Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR) and its military arm, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA), versus the Tripoli-based Presidency Council/Government of National Accord (GNA) and their allied Islamist militias. Due to a presence in Libya dating back to the Qaddafi-era (when the Libyan leader acted as a sponsor in their war against Khartoum), commanders such as Abdallah Banda, Abdallah Jana and Yahya Omda from Darfur’s largest rebel movement, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), were able to access Libyan networks to their benefit.

Rebel fighters from the rival Sudan Liberation Army – Minni Minnawi (SLA-MM) began operations in Fezzan in 2015 before joining LNA operations in the northern “oil crescent” in 2016. Fighters from another major rebel faction, the Sudan Liberation Army – Abdul Wahid (SLM-AW), were cited as being aligned with the LNA (Libya Herald, June 11, 2017). Through 2014-2015, there were numerous accusations from Haftar and his supporters that Khartoum was using the desert passage past ‘Uwaynat to send arms and fighters to reinforce Islamist militias in Benghazi, Kufra and elsewhere, resulting in a short diplomatic crisis. [11] Haftar recently claimed Qatar was funding the entry of Chadian and Sudanese “mercenaries” into Libya through the southern border (al-Arabiya, May 29, 2017).

Some 30 members of JEM, allegedly supported by Tubu fighters, were reported killed in two days of fighting north of Kufra in February 2016 (Reuters, February 5, 2016; Libya Observer, February 4, 2016; Libya Prospect, February 7, 2016). Some of the fighting took place at Buzaymah Oasis, 130 km northwest of Kufra, where the Darfuri rebels had attempted to set up a base. The Darfuris were attacked by Kufra’s Subul al-Salam Brigade, a Salafist militia formed in October 2015 and composed largely of Zuwaya Arabs, the dominant group in the Kufra region. Led by Abd al-Rahman Hashim al-Kilani, the militia was allied with Khalifa Haftar, who is reported to have supplied the unit with 40 armored Toyota 4x4s in September 2016 (Libya Herald, October 20, 2016). After a number of kidnappings and highway robberies committed by the alleged JEM fighters, the Subul al-Salam group again engaged the Darfuris in October 2016, killing 13 fighters. An October 23, 2016 Sudanese government statement claimed the Darfuris were supporters of Khalifa Haftar. [12] Subul al-Salam also clashed with Chadian gunmen 400 km south of Kufra on February 2, 2017, killing four of the Chadians, possibly Tubu from the Ennedi mountain range south of the border (Libya Observer, February 2, 2017).

A May 2017 Sudanese intelligence report repeated nearly year-old claims that elements of the Darfuri Sudan Liberation Movement – Minni Minawi (SLM-MM) under local commander Jabir Ishag were active in the Libyan south around Rabaniyah and around the oil fields north of Kufra. The report also claimed the presence of SLM-Unity and SLM-Abd al-Wahid (SLM-AW) units northeast of Kufra and JEM forces under commander al-Tahir Arja in the north, near Tobruk, where they were alleged to be supporting Khalifa Haftar (Sudan Media Center, May 22, 2017; Libya Observer, October 10, 2016; GMS-Sudan, July 27, 2016).

Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces Deploy at ‘Uwaynat

Sudanese troops were reported to have moved up to the Jabal ‘Uwaynat region on June 2, 2017 (Libyan Express, June 3, 2017). Most of these were likely to belong to Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF – Quwat al-Da’m al-Seri), a 30,000 strong paramilitary that was integrated into the Sudanese Army in January 2017. Prior to that, the paramilitary had operated under the command of the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS –Jiha’az al-Amn al-Watani wa’l-Mukhabarat ) and became notorious for the indiscipline and human rights abuses common to the infamous Janjaweed, from which much of the strength of the RSF was drawn at the time of its creation in 2013. The disorderly RSF has even been known to clash with units of the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF).

Besides recruitment from a variety of Arab and non-Arab tribes in Darfur, the RSF also employs many Arabs from Chad, former rebels against the Zaghawa-dominated regime of President Idriss Déby Itno. Designed for high mobility, the RSF claims it can reach the Libyan border within 24 hours of an order for deployment (Sudan Tribune, January 17, 2017). [13] The RSF leader is Lieutenant General Muhammad Hamdan Daglo (a.k.a. Hemeti), a member of the Mahariya branch of the Darfur Rizayqat. The RSF enjoys the patronage of Sudanese vice-president Hassabo Abd al-Rahman, who is, like Daglo, a member of the Mahariya branch of the Rizayqat. Hemeti is nonetheless despised by many SAF officers as an illiterate with nothing more than a Quran school education (Radio Dabanga, June 4, 2014).

A June-July 2016 deployment of the RSF in the ‘Uwaynat region led to the arrest of roughly 600 Eritrean and Ethiopian illegal migrants, most of whom were attempting to reach Europe or the United States. The RSF activity was in step with a European Union grant of €100 million to deal with illegal migration that followed a Sudanese pledge to help stop human trafficking to Europe (Sudan Tribune, July 31, 2016). The funds were intended to construct two detention camps for migrants and to provide Sudanese security services with electronic means of registering illegal migrants. The traffickers, however, do not always go quietly; in April 2017 the RSF engaged in “fierce clashes” with human traffickers, leading to the arrest of five of their leaders and the capture of six 4×4 vehicles. According to one smuggler of migrants, the presence of the RSF has changed the situation on the border:  “The road to Libya is still working, but it’s very dangerous” (The Economist, May 25, 2017).

The RSF commander has suggested Europe does not appreciate the RSF’s efforts in fighting illegal migration on their behalf, stating that despite a loss of 25 killed, 315 injured and 150 vehicles in the fight against illegal migration, “nobody even thanked us” (Sudan Tribune, August 31, 2016). Daglo went on to warn his troops could easily abandon their positions and allow the migrants and traffickers free passage. Whether Daglo was speaking for the government or on his own behalf is uncertain.

RSF commander Muhammad Hamdan Daglo “Hemeti”

Only days after Daglo’s complaints, Yasir Arman, secretary-general of the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement–North (SPLA/M-N), claimed to have received details of a European operation to directly supply the controversial RSF with funds and logistical support. Arman maintained that this “Satanic plan” was intended to cover up the RSF’s participation in atrocities and genocide. The EU issued a prompt denial (Sudan Tribune, September 7, 2016). [14]

Rising Tensions between Egypt and Sudan

Egypt’s army has been engaged in a constant effort to prevent Libyan arms crossing its 1000 km border with Libya, the preferred route being to cross the border through the Libyan Desert and then on to the Bahariya Oasis in Western Egypt, connected by road with the Nile Valley. In late May 2017, Egypt’s president Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi announced that Egypt’s military had destroyed some 300 vehicles carrying arms across the Libyan border in the last two months alone (Ahram Online, May 25, 2017).

Last October, LNA chief-of-staff and HoR-appointed military governor of the eastern region, Abd al-Raziq al-Nathory, announced that Egyptian forces guarding the border with Libya had in some cases established positions as far as 40 km inside Libya (Libyan Express, October 15, 2016).

The issue of Darfur rebel groups entering Sudan from Libya, the possible establishment of a buffer zone on the border triangle between Egypt, Libya and Sudan, and a Sudanese proposal to create a joint border patrol force were addressed in a meeting between the Sudanese and Egyptian foreign ministers in Cairo on June 3, 2017 (Sudan Tribune, June 3, 2017). Tensions between Egypt and Sudan have flared up in recent weeks with new friction over the disputed status of the Halayib Triangle west of the Red Sea coast, Khartoum’s support for Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam construction (which Egypt claims will violate long-standing Nile Basin water-sharing agreements) and accusations from Khartoum of Egyptian material support for Darfuri rebels re-entering Sudan. Less than two weeks before the meeting, Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir announced that the RSF had seized Egyptian armored vehicles used by Darfuri rebels crossing the border near ‘Uwaynat from Libya, while Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and NISS Facebook pages posted photos of captured or destroyed Egyptian vehicles allegedly used by the rebels (Sudan Tribune, May 24, 2017).

Conclusion: From Isolation to Insecurity

Jabal ‘Uwaynat’s magnificent isolation is quickly becoming a romantic memory. Today it has become a focal point for modern scourges such as human-trafficking, narcotics smuggling and militancy-for-hire. Its apparent future is one of more frequent clashes, greater surveillance and the introduction of more imposing barriers to movement. To some degree, this undesirable future can be averted if Libya’s political house can be put in order in the near future, thereby reducing the demand for foreign guns-for-hire, enabling the imposition of proper border controls to deter human-trafficking and allowing the introduction of more effective cooperative security efforts between Libyan, Sudanese and Egyptian security services.

Notes

  1. For the Rock Inscriptions at Jebel ‘Uwaynat, see: Francis L. Van Note, Rock Art of the Jebel Uweinat (Libyan Sahara), Akadem. Druck- u. Verlagsanst, Graz, Austria, 1978; András Zboray, Rock Art of the Libyan Desert, Fliegel Jezerniczky Expeditions, Newbury, 2005 (DVD); Maria Emilia Peroschi and Flavio Cambieri, “Jebel Uweinat (Sahra Orientale) et l’Arte Rupestre: Nuuove Prospettive di Studio Dalle Recente Scoperte,” XXIV Valcomonica Symposium, Art and Communication in Pre‐literate societies, Capo di Ponte, Italy, 2011, pp. 339-345, http://www.academia.edu/30404525/The_rock_art_of_Jebel_Uweinat_Eastern_Sahara._New_perspectives_from_the_latest_discoveries.pdf
  2. For the Jabal ‘Uwaynat inscription of Mentuhotep II and its implications, see: Joseph Clayton, Aloisia De Trafford and Mark Borda, “A Hieroglyphic Inscription found at Jebel Uweinat mentioning Yam and Tekhebet,” Sahara 19, July 2008, pp.129-134; Andrés Diego Espinel, “The Tribute from Tekhebeten (a brief note on the graffiti of Mentuhetep II at Jebel Uweinat),” Göttinger Miszellen 237, 2013, pp.15-19, http://www.academia.edu/8699848/2013_-_The_tribute_of_Tekhebeten ; Julien Cooper, “Reconsidering the Location of Yam,” Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 48, 2012, pp.1-21,http://www.academia.edu/5646190/Reconsidering_the_Location_of_Yam_Journal_of_the_American_Research_Center_in_Egypt_48_2012_1-22 ; Thomas Schneider, “The West Beyond the West: The Mysterious “Wernes” of the Egyptian Underworld and the Chad Palaeolake,” Journal of Ancient Egyptian Interconnections 2(4), 2010, pp. 1-14, https://journals.uair.arizona.edu/index.php/jaei/article/view/82/86 ; Thomas Schneider, “Egypt and the Chad: Some Additional Remarks,” Journal of Ancient Egyptian Interconnections 3(4), 2011, pp.12-15, https://journals.uair.arizona.edu/index.php/jaei/article/view/12651/11932
  3. For example, the roughly 7,000 year-old Nabta Playa stone circle (northwest of Abu Simbel in Egypt’s Western Desert) has been subject to pointless damage, theft and even re-arrangement by unauthorized “New Age” tourists to better correspond to their own theories regarding its purpose. Rubbish dumps around the site attest to the thoughtlessness of these visitors and their unlicensed guides.
  4. Ralph A. Bagnold: Libyan Sands: Travel in a Dead World, Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1941 edition (orig. 1935), pp.188-189.
  5. A.M. Hassanein Bey: The Lost Oases, Century Co., New York, 1925, pp. 219-234.
  6. Bagnold, op cit, p.173.
  7. Michael Crichton-Stuart, G Patrol, Wm Kinder and Co., London, 1958, pp.54-55.
  8. For the SDF convoys on this route in WWII, see “The Kufra Convoys,” http://www.fjexpeditions.com/frameset/convoys.htm
  9. See http://aviateurs.e-monsite.com/pages/de-1939-a-1945/morts-de-soif-dans-le-desert.html
  10. See http://www.fjexpeditions.com/frameset/convoys.htm
  11. “Are Sudanese Arms Reaching Libyan Islamists through Kufra Oasis?” Tips and Trends: The AIS African Security Report, April 30, 2015, http://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=1482
  12. http://www.sudanembassy.org/index.php/news-events/1258-report-new-information-on-the-involvement-of-darfuri-rebels-in-the-conflict-in-libya
  13. For the RSF, see Andrew McGregor, “Khartoum Struggles to Control its Controversial ‘Rapid Support Forces’,” Terrorism Monitor, May 30, 2014, http://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?tag=rapid-support-forces; Jérôme Tubiana, “Remote-Control Breakdown: Sudanese Paramilitary Forces and Pro-Government Militias,” Small Arms Survey, May 4, 2017, http://www.css.ethz.ch/en/services/digital-library/articles/article.html/571cdc5a-4b5b-417e-bd22-edb0e3050428
  14. For Yasir Arman, see Andrew McGregor, “The Pursuit of a ‘New Sudan’ in Blue Nile State: A Profile of the SPLA-N’s Yasir Arman,” Militant Leadership Monitor, June 30, 2016, http://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=3652

Libya’s Military Wild Card: The Benghazi Defense Brigades and the Massacre at Brak al-Shatti

Andrew McGregor

June 2, 2017

Insignia of the Benghazi Defense Brigades

In shocking events on May 18, fighters in southern Libya carried out a massacre, slaughtering more than 140 soldiers and civilians, most of whom had already surrendered. The attack was carried out by a militia from the Libyan city of Misrata and their allies, the Benghazi Defense Brigades (BDB, Saraya Difaa al-Bengazhi), a politically enigmatic military coalition that claims it is anti-terrorist in nature while consistently being described as terrorist by its enemies. [1]

Founded on June 1, 2016, the BDB alliance combines professional soldiers, ex-policemen and a significant number of Islamist mujahideen expelled from Benghazi by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA). The BDB describes itself not as an Islamist coalition, but as a group of thuwar (revolutionary fighters) and soldiers who oppose Haftar’s “oppressive” militias in their fight “for liberty, freedom and the safe return to our city [Benghazi] with our displaced families,” while combatting terrorism “in all its shapes and forms” (Libya Herald, April 19). [2]

Political Background

Understanding the BDB’s activities first requires some familiarity with Libya’s fractious administration. Libya’s unity government, as determined by the UN-brokered Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) of December 17, 2015, has devolved into a number of rival parts, including:

  • The Government of National Accord (GNA), the Tripoli-based executive authority, which includes the internally divided but largely Islamist nine-member Presidency Council, the chairman of which is Fayez al-Serraj. It oversees the functions of the head-of-state and is intended to have authority over a yet-to-be formed national military. In the meantime, the GNA is supported by powerful militias from the city of Misrata.
  • The Bayda/Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR), the legislative authority controlled by Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni. The HoR resists the authority of the Presidency Council and has refused to transfer responsibility for the armed forces to Tripoli, endorsing instead a collection of mainly Cyrenaïcan militias referred to as the Libyan National Army (LNA). This force is led by Khalifa Haftar, who is broadly anti-Islamist but nonetheless includes Saudi-backed Salafist “Madkhali” fighters in his coalition.
  • The High Council of State, a Tripoli-based consultative body led by Abd al-Rahman Swehli, which functions independently of the GNA.

The GNA is also challenged by the so-called “Government of National Salvation” (GNS), the Tripoli-based remains of the pre-LPA General National Council (GNC), a parliament formerly led by Misratan Khalifa al-Ghwell. The ex-PM has attempted to overturn the authority of the UN-recognized GNA, but the GNS does not control any institutions of importance.

The BDB are the avowed enemy of “Field Marshal” Haftar, regularly described in BDB statements as a “war criminal.” Given Haftar is the commander of a regional militia, his absurd rank (which he was awarded by HoR parliamentarians in 2016) reflects his posturing as a new Libyan strongman who believes he alone is capable of uniting the shattered nation. Haftar is opposed by many Misratans due to his past as a Gaddafi-era general, his long association with the CIA while living as an exile in Alexandria, Virginia, and his battle to subdue Misratan influence in Benghazi and elsewhere.

Affiliation to Dar al-Ifta and the Grand Mufti

The BDB’s Statement no.19 declared the group had “no party, political or ideological affiliations” (Libya Herald, March 12; al-Jazeera TV via BBC Monitoring, March 12). Despite this, the movement has pledged loyalty to controversial Tripoli-based Libyan Grand Mufti Sadiq al-Ghariani and claims to operate under his authority and that of the Dar al-Ifta, Libya’s fatwa-issuing authority.

Despite his status as Libya’s leading cleric and recognition by the GNA and the Presidency Council, al-Ghariani is in practice a divisive influence whose leadership has already been rejected by the HoR. Al-Ghariani is opposed to any political settlement involving Haftar and condemned a recent reconciliation meeting in Cairo between the field marshal and al-Serraj, the Presidency Council chairman.

In May 2016, the Mufti surprised many by urging all “revolutionaries” to abandon the fight against Islamic State (IS) forces in Sirte to instead concentrate their forces against the LNA in eastern Libya, claiming IS in Libya would collapse once Haftar was defeated (Al-Tanasuh TV, May 11, 2016, via BBC Monitoring).

BDB leader Brigadier General Mustafa al-Sharkasi declared last year that his fighters were “not ashamed to say we use the Dar al-Ifta as our reference … When we are victorious in the city of Benghazi, we will revert to Islamic reference in our dealing with the people …” (al-Nabaa TV/Twitter, via BBC Monitoring, June 21, 2016).

LNA spokesman Colonel Ahmad Mismari has repeatedly claimed that the BDB are supplied with weapons and vehicles by Qatar and Turkey (viewed as sympathetic to Islamist forces) in violation of the international arms embargo on Libya (Libya Herald, March 3).

The BDB’s allegiance to al-Ghariani and the Dar al-Ifta has created friction with other groups in the capital. A BDB camp in the Suq al-Jama district of Tripoli was attacked on November 30, 2016 by RADA (“Deterrence”) forces led by Abd al-Raouf Kara, a pro-GNA militia strongly opposed to the Grand Mufti (Libya Herald, December 1, 2016). The BDB are also believed to have contacts with GNS leader Khalifa Ghwell (Libya Herald, March 3).

BDB Leadership

The BDB Leadership – al-Sa’adi al-Nawfali, first row, far left; Mustafa al-Sharkasi, first row, third from left.

The BDB leadership includes the following individuals:

Brigadier General Mustafa al-Sharkasi, a professional soldier, has emerged as the dominant commander in the BDB. Al-Sharkasi served as an Air Force colonel at Benina airbase, 19 kilometers (km) east of Benghazi, under the regime of Muammar Gaddafi. Turning against the regime, he acted as a militia commander in Misrata during the revolution. Once part of Haftar’s LNA, he is now bitterly opposed to him (Libya Herald, November 13, 2016).

Ziyad Belam, sometimes cited as the BDB leader, is the former commander of Benghazi’s Omar al-Mukhtar Brigade and leader of the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shurah Council (BRSC), an alliance of Benghazi-based Islamist militias that once included local IS fighters. He was seriously wounded in an assassination attempt in October 2014. 

Al-Sa’adi al-Nawfali is the leader of the Operations Room for the Liberation of the Cities of Ajdabiya and Support for the Revolutionaries of Benghazi (known by its Arabic acronym GATMJB). This group cooperates with the BDB, allowing al-Nawfali to hold leadership positions in both organizations. Al-Nawfali appeared in a 2014 video with al-Murabitun commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar (AgenziaNova.com, June 20, 2016). He has been variously described as a former Ansar al-Sharia commander in Ajdabiya and a supporter of Islamic State forces in Nawfaliyah.

Ismail Muhammad al-Salabi was a commander in the Rafallah Sahati militia and is the brother of prominent Libyan Muslim Brotherhood member Ali Muhammad al-Salabi. Ismail is an associate of GNA Defense Minister Colonel Mahdi al-Barghathi, formerly chief of military police in Benghazi and a former LNA armored unit commander.

Osama al-Jadhran is the Ajdabiya-based brother of former Petroleum Facilities Guard (PFG) commander Ibrahim al-Jadhran. An Islamist who was tortured during imprisonment in the Gaddafi era at the notorious Abu Salim prison, Osama took a prominent part in the BDB’s March 2017 capture of Ras Lanuf airport.

Ahmad al-Tajuri is an artillery commander from the Tajuri district of Benghazi and former leader of the BRSC. 

Faraj Shaku is a commander of the February 17 Martyrs’ Brigade and a former BSRC commander.

Mahmoud al-Fitouri is a senior commander in the BDB.

The main force of the BDB is based in Jufra (south-central Libya). Its communications are handled by its official media establishment, Bushra Media.

Operation ‘Volcano of Wrath’

The BDB launched its first offensive on Ajdabiya, 15 km southwest of Benghazi, on June 18, 2016, together with local forces in the city opposed to the LNA. Describing the BDB as part of IS, a Petroleum Facilities Guard (PFG) spokesman said that the PFG was fighting the BDB in Ajdabiya under the guidance of the GNA’s ministry of defense (Libya Herald, June 25, 2016). Shortly after the attack on Ajdabiya, Brigadier al-Sharkasi declared that the BDB was on its way to Benghazi to “liberate it from these criminals, these people that have broken out of prison, these militias, the gangs of Haftar” (al-Nabaa TV/Twitter, via BBC Monitoring, June 21, 2016).

On July 11, 2016, the BDB announced the commencement of Operation “Volcano of Wrath,” intended to break the LNA’s siege of Benghazi and allow displaced residents to return (Bushra News/Twitter, via BBC Monitoring, July 17, 2016).

The BDB’s offensive ultimately stalled outside of Benghazi, but not before it claimed to have shot down a helicopter containing three members of the French Direction générale de la sécurité extérieure (DGSE, Directorate General for External Security) operating in support of the LNA defenders (Bushra News/Twitter via BBC Monitoring, July 17, 2016; ChannelsTV.com, February 3). Three days later, the BDB claimed a French “retaliatory” airstrike on BDB positions in western Benghazi had killed 13 of their fighters (Libyan Express, July 20, 2016). Al-Sharkasi later blamed the BDB’s failure to enter Benghazi on the intervention of “foreign” warplanes (al-Jazeera TV via BBC Monitoring, March 12).

Failed Attack on Sidra and Ras Lanuf

In December 2016, the BDB joined former members of the BRSC and some members of Ibrahim Jadhran’s PFG in a disastrous attempt to take the important oil terminals at Sidra and Ras Lanuf. The facilities had been wrested from the PFG by the LNA in September 2016. Operating under the unified command of the “Oil Ports and Fields Liberation Room,” an armed group of 600 to 800 men left Jufra in a convoy for the ports in Libya’s vital “oil crescent” west of Benghazi, where they were repulsed by stronger LNA forces (ICG, December 14, 2016).

The LNA responded with airstrikes on BDB positions on the Jufra airbase, killing BDB spokesman Mansur al-Faydi, PFG commander Moussa Bouain al-Moghrabi and BDB commander Ahmad al-Shaltami, a former member of Benghazi’s Ansar al-Sharia (Libya Herald, December 12, 2016). Brigadier Idris Musa Bughuetin and Colonel Osama al-Ubaydi, two officers close to Mahdi al-Barghathi, the GNA defense minister, were captured by the LNA (Eyeonisisinlibya.com, December 13, 2016).

This led to questions regarding the alleged role of the GNA’s defense ministry in preparing and even ordering the failed offensive. Some verification of these allegations appeared to come through a tweet showing captured vehicles that clearly bore the markings of the ministry’s 12th Brigade (Twitter, December 7, 2016).

UAE AT-802 (WS-Clave)

On February 9, 2017, aircraft believed to belong to either the LNA or to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which backs Haftar, struck BDB positions at the Jufra airbase, killing two people and wounding 13 others (Libya Herald, February 9). The UAE uses al-Khadim airbase in Marj province for operations by AT-802 light attack aircraft and surveillance drones (Jane’s 360, October 28, 2016). The AT-802’s are reportedly flown by American private contractors working for former Blackwater CEO Erik Prince on behalf of the UAE (Intelligence Online, January 11).

Three days later, a BDB statement called for “a general mobilization by all of Libya’s honorable revolutionaries, officers and soldiers” against Haftar’s LNA and mercenary fighters of Darfur’s Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), who they claimed were fighting alongside the LNA (al-Jazeera TV via BBC Monitoring, February 12).

Operation ‘Return to Benghazi’

The mobilization led to the BDB’s seizure of the oil terminals at Sidra and Ras Lanuf from the LNA with a surprise attack on March 3. The BDB was able to catch the LNA off guard by moving its forces forward in small groups of two or three vehicles before concentrating its forces just outside the ports (Libya Herald, March 3). An LNA spokesman said the BDB’s success was due in part to its use of sophisticated jamming equipment that interfered with LNA communications (Libya Herald, March 6). There were reports that Defense Minister al-Barghathi had again ordered the defense ministry’s 12th Brigade to support the BDB offensive (Libya Herald, March 7). There were also unconfirmed reports that the BDB had beheaded two NCOs of the LNA’s 131st Infantry Battalion taken prisoner during the attack (Libya Herald, March 12).

The offensive was supported by demonstrations in Tripoli and Misrata, while the Grand Mufti used a television address to urge residents of eastern Libya to join the BDB’s march on Benghazi (Libya Observer, March 3). After taking Ras Lanuf Airport, a BDB statement insisted that control of the oil ports was not the aim of the operation, but was only a step in assisting internally displaced persons (IDPs) forced from Benghazi by the LNA (Libya Observer, March 3).

The LNA succeeded in holding the line east of the terminals at al-Uqaylah with the help of Tubu reinforcements from southern Libya, leaving some 170 km of Libya’s coastline in the hands of the BDB (Libya Herald, March 6).

In the days following, the Brigades repelled successive attempts by the LNA’s 152 Battalion to expel them. Airstrikes, believed to be carried out by Egyptian warplanes, targeted BDB positions in the oil crescent, but the failure of Haftar’s LNA created a small crisis in relations with Cairo, with urgent pleas for greater support against the BDB “terrorists” (Libya Herald, March 13). Haftar advisor Abd al-Basset al-Badri was also dispatched to Moscow to ask for greater Russian support in the fight against the BDB (Libya Herald, March 14).

The oil terminals were handed over to Brigadier Idris Bukhamada, an ally of Defense Minister al-Barghathi. Bukhamada was appointed head of the PFG in February 2017 by the Presidency Council to replace Ibrahim Jadhran, who was seized by a militia in Nalut in March. The LNA was incensed that their own candidate for PFG chief, Brigadier Muftah al-Magarief, was left out in the cold (Libya Herald, March 8).

During the orderly BDB withdrawal, the LNA’s Colonel al-Mismari announced, “the terrorist gangs of al-Qaeda [i.e. the BDB] are fleeing Ras Lanuf” (Facebook via BBC Monitoring, March 7). Al-Mismari also accused the Presidency Council of hosting secret meetings with al-Qaeda leaders to fund and support the BDB’s operations in the oil crescent (Libya Observer, March 7; Middle East Observer, March 7).

The LNA spokesman’s accusations appear to be part of a larger campaign intended to portray Haftar’s political enemies as radical Islamists with close connections to al-Qaeda and/or IS in order to rally international support for his own militia.

A Presidency Council statement condemning the seizure of the oil crescent by the BDB was in turn rejected by two Islamist members of the council — Abd al-Salam Kajman (of the Muslim Brotherhood) and Muhammad al-Amari — who instead offered their support to the “revolutionaries” (Twitter, March 3; Libya Herald, March 6).

The BDB, meanwhile, considered its turnover of Sidra and Ras Lanuf should be seen as proof it was part of a broad-based solution to the Libyan conflict exclusive of al-Qaeda or other extremist groups. Unlike the jihadists, the BDB has attempted to interact with the traditional enemies of the extremists, urging Egypt to play a “positive role” and stating its approval of Italy’s stance on Libya. According to BDB commander Mahmoud al-Fitouri: “We are partners to the international community in fighting terrorism; we will never allow terrorist groups to deploy in the region” (Libya Observer, March 9).

Massacre at Brak al-Shatti

Brak al-Shatti Airbase indicated by marker (Libya Observer)

In December 2016, the LNA’s 12th Brigade took Brak al-Shatti airbase, 900 km south of Tripoli and 60 km north of the city of Sabha in Libya’s southwest. The move came after the pro-GNA Misratan Third Force militia was forced to withdraw, providing the LNA with a useful base for operations in the Fezzan, a region where it had had little influence up to that point.

A priority target was the Third Force-held Tamenhint airbase outside of Sabha. Attacks on Tamenhint began in January, when the LNA’s 12th Brigade (largely Magarha, Qaddadfa and Tubu, not to be confused with the GNA’s 12th Brigade) under General Muhammad Ben Nayel arrived at Brak al-Shatti.

Misratan Third Force Insignia

To put an end to these attacks, the BDB and the defense ministry’s 13th Brigade (the re-named Misratan “Third Force”) commanded by Colonel Jamal al-Treiki launched a surprise assault on Brak al-Shatti at 9:30am on May 18, driving most of the garrison into the desert. The assault was apparently timed to coincide with the ill-advised withdrawal of much of the LNA’s 12th Brigade to the town of Tukrah (northeast of Benghazi) for a celebration of the third anniversary of Khalifa Haftar’s “Operation Dignity.”

As many as 141 men were executed — their throats slit, or by a single bullet to the head — after the airbase was captured, including fighters of the LNA’s 10th and 12th Brigades and seven civilian truck drivers delivering rations to the base (Libya Herald, May 18; Libya Herald, May 19).

Local hospital officials told Human Rights Watch that nearly all military personnel delivered to the hospital had received a bullet wound to the front of the head. Others arrived still bound and some had injuries consistent with having their heads run over by a vehicle. No LNA wounded arrived at the hospital and there were no casualties from the attackers, suggesting the airbase had been quickly overrun with little resistance. Survivors and videos indicated the LNA prisoners were verbally abused before being killed as “apostates, enemies of God, mercenaries of Haftar and dogs of Haftar” (Human Rights Watch, May 21). General Ben Nayel’s nephew, Ali Ibrahim Ben Nayel, was among those reported killed in the attack (Libya Herald, May 18). After the massacre, the assailants withdrew to their base in Jufra, allowing escaped elements of the 12th Brigade to return along with LNA reinforcements.

Even though the Misratan 13th Brigade falls under the ultimate authority of the UN-backed Presidency Council, that body insisted it had no role in the attack (Libya Herald, May 19). The Council suspended Mahdi al-Barghathi as defense minister on May 19 pending an investigation. The Council also suspended the Third Force/13th Brigade commander, Colonel al-Treiki, though the Council has little effective authority over the Misratan militia (Libya Observer, May 20). No measures were taken against the BDB, which operates outside of GNA control.

On May 19, the 13th Brigade warned the Presidency Council to “reconsider” its statements rejecting responsibility for “the cleansing of the Brak airbase of Islamic State members,” claiming they had documentary proof they had operated on the direct orders of the defense minister and the Presidency Council (Facebook, via BBC Monitoring, May 19). The reference to IS was unexplainable; there was no possibility the garrison at Brak al-Shatti could have been mistaken for IS terrorists.

Ahmad al-Hasnawi

The LNA’s Colonel al-Mismari claimed the attack was planned and led by Islamist Libyan Shield Southern District commander Ahmad Abd al-Jalil al-Hasnawi (Libya Herald, May 19; Channel TV [Amman], May 22, via BBC Monitoring). Al-Hasnawi, a GNA loyalist, led members of his Hasawna tribe into Tamenhint airbase on April 15 to support the Misratan Third Force (Jihadology.net, April 19).

According to the LNA’s 12th Brigade, a number of foreign prisoners were taken following the action, including a Palestinian, a Chadian and two Malians. A unit spokesman said 70 percent of the fighters they had killed or taken prisoner were foreign nationals, adding: “We are convinced we are fighting al-Qaeda” (Libya Herald, May 20).

Libyan MiG-23 “Flogger” (Wings Palette)

LNA retaliation for the massacre came on May 21 in the form of multiple airstrikes by LNA MiG-23 “Floggers” on BDB facilities at Jufra airbase, civilian targets in the city of Hun (the capital of Jufra district) and bases of Misratan militias that had previously fought IS in Sirte (Libyan Express, May 21; Libya Observer, May 21; Libya Observer, May 23; Libya Observer, May 24).

The LNA spokesman claimed the targets in Jufra belonged to al-Qaeda. He also announced the expulsion from Sabha of Humat Libya, a local militia that he claimed, on the basis of interrogations of “foreign fighters,” had participated in the slaughter at Brak al-Shatti (Libya Herald, May 23).

Though securing Tamenhint was given as the reason for the assault on Brak al-Shatti, the LNA announced on May 25 that the Misratan militia had withdrawn from the airbase, leaving it to be taken by the LNA’s 12th Brigade with support from the 116th Brigade (Libya Herald, May 25). 

Dangerous and Unpredictable

IS-style atrocities are hard to reconcile with the BDB’s occasional efforts to engage responsibly with internal and international partners in Libya’s ongoing political process.

The BDB is more of a military coalition than a cohesive political movement under a single command and is thus subject to internal differences and dissolution or expansion at any time, particularly in Libya’s current over-heated political climate in which personal differences can lead to command ruptures overnight. The complex mix of leaders and fighters comprising the BDB almost ensures the improbability of defining a specific ideology guiding the coalition, other than a shared hatred of Haftar’s authoritarianism and a determination that the field marshal will never play a role in Libya’s political or military future.

Acting outside the control of any of Libya’s rival political institutions, the BDB has become a dangerous and unpredictable wild-card in the political process. The brutal attack on Brak al-Shatti effectively derailed some of the most promising steps taken towards political reconciliation in Libya.

Rather than being reined in by more responsible armed elements supporting the GNA, the BDB appears to have entered a military alliance with the powerful Misratan Third Force/13th Brigade with the unauthorized support and approval of elements in the GNA’s defense ministry.

The BDB has strayed far from its initial mission of “liberating” Benghazi from Haftar’s control, and the LNA’s penetration of the Fezzan has provided the BDB with new battlefields, possibly as a proxy for external anti-Haftar actors such as Turkey and Qatar.

Until the BDB is either eliminated or brought under effective control by one of the recognized political factions in Libya, it will retain the capacity to disrupt diplomatic efforts to arrive at a much-needed political solution to Libya’s internal chaos.

NOTES

[1] The terms “brigade” and “battalion” are often used interchangeably when referring to Libyan militias, which rarely if ever equal the approximately 4,000 men in three battalions that form a typical US army brigade. The actual size of any unit may fluctuate on a continual basis according to military and political fortunes.

[2] Thuwar, or “revolutionaries,” as used by the BDB and their allies, usually refers to Islamist militias opposed to Khalifa Haftar and the LNA. Radical Islamist jihadists rejecting the political process in its entirety tend to refer to themselves and their allies as “mujahideen.” The distinction is important in defining how the BDB see themselves in the context of the Libyan conflict.

This article was originally published in the June 2, 2017 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.