Tinclads, Timberclads and Cottonclads: Naval Innovation in the US Civil War

Andrew McGregor

A Lecture Delivered to the Civil War Roundtable, Royal Canadian Military Institute, Toronto, February 5, 2020

Introduction

Though Civil War battlefield tactics had difficulty in shaking off the influence and tactics of the Napoleonic wars, rapid change and innovation were hallmarks of the naval part of the Civil War from the beginning. The wooden sailing ships armed with smoothbore, muzzle-loading guns were soon replaced by iron ships powered by steam engines and armed with rifled, breech-loading guns. This process was far from smooth, however, and expediency and necessity fuelled innovation as much as improved technology. While the ironclads were the war’s greatest contribution to naval architecture, their lesser-known cousins, the shallow-draft tinclads, timberclads and cottonclads, performed vital service for both sides.

These ships fought on an enormous maritime front, including the Gulf of Mexico and 700 miles of the Mississippi River as well as its great tributaries, most notably the Tennessee River, the Red River and the Yazoo River. Seizing control of the Mississippi’s southern reaches was part of the Union’s grand plan to strangle the Confederacy through a coastal blockade and a two-pronged takeover of the Mississippi that would split the south and diminish its ability to wage war. The plan was fine, but the north had no ships for an offensive river campaign and the south had none to mount a defense. The construction of naval ships for river work began quickly on both sides, though both parties found it quicker to use existing ships modified for naval work. The variety of these existing ships led to an intense period of experimentation and innovation in an effort to gain the upper hand, reviving ancient tactics and producing the poor cousins of the famous ironclads, the less well-known tinclads, timberclads and cottonclads that fought just as hard.

The Timberclads

Though the Union’s naval efforts on the Mississippi first came under control of the US Army, certain officers were released by the navy to assist in the formation and command of the river fleet. Work began on the construction of ironclads, but in the meantime three sidewheel steamers, the Lexington, the Tyler and the Conestoga, were purchased for conversion into naval ships.

The USS Lexington

With high sides that invited enemy fire and engines above the water-line that could easily be put out of action, the three steamers were manifestly unfit for combat. Their conversion into battle-ready craft was put in the hands of naval architect Samuel Pook, who lowered the engines, reinforced the hulls and reduced the height of the superstructure. Decorative trim was removed and the glass pilot houses were replaced with stronger wooden structures. The urgent need for river-going warships could not be filled through the slow and still experimental construction of ironclads, so the steamers were fitted with the five-inch thick oak beams that gave the ships their name – timberclads. This wooden armor was capable of defending against small-arms fire, but was largely ineffective against shot and shell. The work, carried out in Cincinnati, was judged to be of low quality and the conversions were plagued by the usual demands by local businessmen for lucrative government contracts.

Nonetheless, the timberclads went into service at Cairo (Care-O), Illinois, in August 1861 with naval crews under army command.

From the beginning, the Tyler and Lexington usually worked in tandem. The Tyler carried one 32-pounder smoothbore and six 8-inch smoothbore guns, while the Lexington carried two 32-pounder smoothbores and four 8-inch smoothbores. The Conestoga, the weakest of the three, carried four 32-pounder smoothbores. (For those unfamiliar with naval gunnery, the weights refer to the size of the shot, measured by weight or circumference, rather than the size of the gun).

The armament of the Tyler and Lexington was improved in late 1862, when they were issued with 30-pounder rifled guns well suited for work against riverside defensive works. This was the timberclads’ primary role, and they played an important part in forcing the surrender of Forts Henry and Donelson on the Tennessee River.

During the Battle of Shiloh (April 6-7 1862), the Confederates attempted to anchor their right flank on the Mississippi and drive the Union forces into the river. The timely arrival of the Tyler and the Lexington at Pittsburg Landing prevented this deployment. The timberclads then supported a general advance with their guns. Grant later acknowledged the important role played by the ships in preventing a disastrous Federal defeat. In February 1863, the Lexington again saved the day when it arrived at Fort Donelson just as the defenders had run out of ammunition, preventing the Confederates from recapturing the fort.

Confederate Cottonclads

With warehouses full of cotton that could not be brought to market, the Confederates found a novel use for it as armor for its converted steamers. Cottonclad CSS Stonewall Jackson

The cottonclads’ boilers and engines were protected by 500 lb bales of compressed cotton. Sometimes the bales were sandwiched by double pine bulkheads. Many of the rams were converted wooden tugboats or towboats, preferred for their strong “walking-beam” steam engines.

Eventually the Union would also adopt cotton as a cheap and quick means of providing some protection to the crews of its river steamers.

Though the war brought an end to most commercial river traffic, experienced rivermen were hard to find for both sides, many of them having enlisted in the armies. The Union’s War Department began to transfer these men to their river craft, along with a transfer of naval officers to army command. Discipline and efficiency began to improve once the ships were transferred to navy command in 1862. The Confederates had greater difficulty – requests for the return of rivermen from the army to the river craft were frequently met with transfers of the infirm, incapable and incompetent instead. River pilots were in high demand and both sides made a practice of offering captured pilots financial incentives to change sides.

Battle of New Orleans, April 24, 1862

Confederate control of the Mississippi rested on two bastions, New Orleans and its outer defense works in the south, and Forts Donelson and Henry in the north.

The LSNS Governor Moore Fires through its Own Bow to Sink the USS Varuna

The small Confederate river fleet that met Commodore Farragut’s squadron south of New Orleans on April 24, 1862 consisted of two gunboats and two ironclads under the command of the Confederate Navy, six lightly armed cottonclads and rams under the command of the Confederate Army, as well as two sidewheel cottonclad rams, the Governor Moore and the General Quitman, that were part of the Louisiana State Navy. The Governor Moore was commanded by Captain Beverley Kennon, whom some of you might remember from one of my earlier talks as the designer of Alexandria’s defenses while attached to the Egyptian Army after the Civil War. During the battle, the Union gunboat Varuna was rammed on the starboard side by Captain Kennon’s Governor Moore. With the two ships locked together, Kennon discovered the Governor Moore’s bow gun could not be sufficiently depressed to fire on the Varuna, so he ordered the gun to fire twice through his own ship’s bow into the Varuna. Kennon freed his ship and again rammed the Varuna in nearly the same spot. The Confederate ram Stonewall Jackson rammed the Varuna once more to polish her off. The Federal fleet then concentrated its fire on the Governor Moore, sending it to the bottom of the river.

The defeat of the Confederate fleet sealed the fate of New Orleans, the largest city in the Confederacy, which surrendered to Farragut days later.

The Ellet Rams

Colonel Charles Ellet Jr. was one of the most forceful proponents of reviving the ram as a naval weapon. Ellet published a pamphlet advocating the use of rams in 1855, but the US Navy took no interest. The ram had been the centerpiece of naval tactics in the ancient world for centuries, but was reliant on the ability of the galleys that carried it to reverse direction by its oars to pull the ram back from a punctured ship and prevent the attacking vessel from being drawn down into the deep along with its victim. As galleys were gradually replaced with sailing ships that were less maneuverable in tight quarters and the introduction of gunpowder enabled ships to sink each other at a distance, the ram fell out of use, seemingly forever. The introduction of steam, however, with engines capable of running in reverse, had made the ram a viable weapon once more, especially for close-quarters action of the type that could be expected in river warfare. Both the Federals and Confederates would adopt the ram as the primary weapon on many of their river gunboats.

The Ellet Rams

In 1862, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton gave Ellet the task of creating a ram flotilla consisting of seven converted sidewheelers and sternwheelers. The ram bows were built of 5 inches of oak encased in iron but retained their original shape rather than the projecting “beak” typical of the ancient rams. These lightly armed ships, with reinforced hulls to withstand the force of a collision, were intended to serve alongside the timberclads on the rivers. Rams could be dangerous even to their own side; accidental collisions involving a ram usually ended with the sinking of the ship that was struck. The regular navy was unimpressed by Ellet’s designs, deeming them unsuitable for combat.

Ellet was allowed to choose the commanders of his new rams. Nepotism was his guiding light in these choices, as he chose brothers, nephews and even his own 19-year-old son Charles Rivers Ellet as commanders.

Battle of Plum Point Bend, May 10, 1862

The Confederate River Defense Fleet ran into the Union’s Mississippi River Squadron four miles north of Fort Pillow, Tennessee on May 10, 1862. The place was known as Plum Point Bend. The Confederate fleet attacked Union ironclads of the Mississippi River Squadron during a thick morning fog. The General Bragg slowed the Federal ironclad Cincinnati by ramming it, allowing the General Sterling Price to ram the ironclad’s stern, completely disabling it. The Sterling Price was badly damaged in the engagement, but was quickly repaired in time for the later Battle of Memphis.

Though the Union squadron consisted mostly of ironclads assigned to protect mortar boats bombing Fort Pillow, the Confederate cottonclads won the day with their surprise attack, ramming and sinking two Federal ironclads, the Cincinnati and the Mound City.

Battle of Memphis, June 6 1862

The Confederate River Defense Fleet consisted of 8 cottonclad sidewheel rams converted under the direction of Colonel WS Lovell. The fleet was run by the War Department rather than the navy and was charged with the defense of the upper reaches of the Mississippi.

Battle of Memphis

Though faster than the Union ironclads, the cottonclads were no match in battle. All the ships of the River Defense Fleet were sunk, burned, captured or run aground in the battle, which was watched by thousands from the river bluffs.

The battle began as Ellet’s flagship, the USS Queen of the West rammed the CSS Colonel Lovell, splitting her in two. Before the Queen could pull back, she was in turn rammed by the CSS Sumter. There was little in the way of strategy in the battle as it quickly descended into a chaotic brawl.

CSS General Sterling Price

The General Price and General Beauregard both attacked the USS Monarch, but collided with each other, leaving both as helpless targets for federal rams. The General Beauregard received a shot to her boiler from the Monarch, scalding to death most of its crew, save for 14 terribly burned men who were rescued by the Monarch. Colonel Ellet, who commanded the Union fleet, was wounded in the battle and died 15 days later. The General Price, the best armed of the Confederate rams, sank after colliding with the USS Queen of the West. After the battle, the ram was raised and repaired before entering Union service. The ship joined Admiral Porter’s ironclads in running the blockade off Vicksburg on April 16, 1863, an important step in the fall of the city. The General Price took part in the Red River Campaign, but in March 1864 it accidentally rammed the USS Conestoga and sank her.

One of the ships that had helped sink the ironclad Cincinnati at Plum Point Bend was the CSS General Bragg, named for Confederate General Braxton Bragg. The ship was badly damaged in the battle, but repaired in time to take part in the Battle of Memphis. The General Bragg ran aground during the battle and was captured by Federal troops. After repairs, the ship was brought into Union service as the USS General Bragg. She spent 15 months patrolling the Mississippi, but was disabled by a Confederate battery in Louisiana in June 1864.

The Tinclads

After the Battle of Memphis, the Union had little use for its rams, which were designed almost exclusively for offensive naval actions. Shallow draft river steamers were now armed and altered by the addition of a thin belt of metal armor. Commonly known as “tinclads,” these steamers became the workhorse of Federal “brownwater” naval operations.

Sidewheel Tinclad USS Black Hawk

While the rams were built to engage Confederate ships, the Union purchased dozens of sidewheel and sternwheel flat-bottomed steamers for other duties on the rivers, such as patrols, fire support and transport escort. In their conversion to military service, the steamers were equipped with a light iron sheeting up to an inch thick capable of repelling small arms fire. Tin was not actually used – the term “tinclad” was only meant to distinguish these steamers from the heavier and more formidable ironclads. The flagship of the 69-ship fleet of tinclads, as they came to be called, was the USS Black Hawk, a former ocean-going luxury passenger steamer named New Uncle Sam.  The most powerful of the tinclads was the USS Ouachita, a captured Confederate steamer that was armed with five 30-pounder Parrot rifles, eighteen 24-pounder smoothbores and fifteen 12-pounder smoothbores. Though the tinclads were typically slow, they carried between four to eight guns and performed valuable work that ships with a deeper draft could never accomplish.

With their light armor providing some protection from small arms fire, the tinclads carried out patrols, guarded river crossings, carried dispatches, cleared mines, provided fire support to land operations, escorted transports, shipped prisoners, towed ironclads and skirmished with Confederate guerrillas. It is difficult to imagine Federal success in the Western theater without the contribution of these converted river steamers.

Yazoo River Expedition to Vicksburg

Frustrated in their attempts to take the city of Vicksburg from the Confederates, Union commanders devised a plan to flank the city’s riverside defenses by sending a naval expedition through the backwaters and bayous of the Mississippi Delta to reach the Yazoo River and eventually Vicksburg.

The flagship of the expedition was the USS Rattler, a tinclad sternwheeler that had played an important part in the capture of Fort Hindman from the Confederates and the capture of its 6500 man garrison.

However, the going was extremely tough for the five tinclads, two ironclads and transport steamers of the expedition carrying 6,000 troops. Shallow water, felled trees, overhanging limbs and driftwood slowed the expedition’s progress, while exhausted men complained of having to “dig the gunboats out of the woods.” The slow pace permitted Confederate General Pemberton to build a rudimentary fort in their path. As the narrow channel prevented the gunboats from deploying anything more than the bow gun of its lead ship, the expedition was finally called off. The Rattler was driven aground by a storm in 1864, where its guns were salvaged before Confederates burned it.

Indianola vs. Queen of the West, February 24, 1863

The CSS Queen of the West Attacks the USS Indianola on the Red River (Tom W. Freeman)

While patrolling the Mississippi near Vicksburg, the Federal ironclad Indianola encountered a Confederate flotilla consisting of the newly captured Queen of the West, the Webb and two smaller cottonclads carrying troops for boarding operations. The Webb and the Queen of the West rammed the Indianola seven times, forcing her to run aground, partly sunk. The crew surrendered and the Confederates began planning to raise and repair the ship. Admiral David Porter, in command of the Union’s Mississippi fleet, described her loss as “the most humiliating affair that has occurred during this rebellion.”

However, it was now the Confederates’ turn to experience a little humiliation. Federal troops quickly assembled a fake ironclad, a 300-foot long hollow wooden vessel with logs for guns and smudge pots to generate smoke from its fake stacks. Flying a skull and crossbones flag at its bow and the message “Deluded Rebels, Give In,” the imposter was carried by the current past the guns of Vicksburg, which made a furious attempt to sink the intruder. Confederate vessels on the river turned away rather than confront this new and apparently powerful ironclad, abandoning the salvage crew working on the Indianola. Panicked, the salvage crew spiked the Indianola’s guns and blew her up before fleeing. Without firing a shot, the great hoax deprived the Confederates of a potent addition to their river fleet.

Battle of Galveston

In the early morning of January 1, 1863, Confederate forces under General John B. Magruder launched an attack intended to retake the city of Galveston from Union forces. Off Galveston a small fleet of six federal ships lay at anchor, with only one, the USS Westfield, ready to sail, though it quickly ran aground. Confederate troops retook the forts and turned the guns on the Federal ships, while infantry attempted to board them.  Battle of Galveston

Two Confederate ships arrived, the armed tugboat Neptune and the Confederate Army cottonclad Bayou City. The two engaged with the largest of the Federal ships, the Harriet Lane, using their rams and guns. The Neptune was sunk, but the Bayou City continued its attack. Badly damaged, the Harriet Lane was boarded after its commander was killed and its second in command mortally wounded. The latter Union officer was discovered by his father, Confederate Major Albert M. Lea. Also found on the ship was the U.S. signal code book, a valuable acquisition.

With the battle going badly, the remaining Union ships fled to New Orleans, while the still-grounded flagship Westfield was blown up to prevent its capture. Even that went badly, as the Union fleet commander and part of his crew were killed when the charges went off prematurely. The departure of the Federal fleet was taken as a sign by Federal troops still ashore to surrender. The Confederate triumph in the six hour battle left Galveston in Southern hands until the end of the war.

Red River Campaign

The naval war on the Mississippi was pretty much finished in July 1863 but continued to the end of the war on the rivers that fed it.

One of the war’s most poorly conducted campaigns was the Federal Red River campaign of March 1864. While the official aim was to extinguish resistance in Louisiana and Texas, Admiral David Porter, who conducted naval operations on the river, later described it as “a big cotton raid” meant to seize some 100,000 bales of cotton from the Confederates. Some 90 Federal ships joined the expedition, the largest fleet ever assembled in North America at that point.

The plan was to send Union gunboats 350 miles up the river to Shreveport, with Federal troops led by Nathaniel Banks marching on land parallel to the fleet. Banks was a political general with no military experience – Porter was under the impression General Sherman would lead the land forces when he agreed to the campaign. Porter had little faith in Banks, who had already suggested he might abandon the fleet if he ran into trouble.

Launched on March 10, 1864, the campaign went well enough at first with the rebels pulling back ahead of the Union forces. The army reached the city of Alexandria eight days later, but without their commander. Banks arrived a week later on a ship full of cotton speculators with political connections in Washington. Porter was outraged.

However, the Union troops became confused in unfamiliar terrain, not even discovering the road that ran alongside the river. Confederates burned the cotton rather than allow it to fall into Federal hands, and started to mount successful counter-attacks.

Ironclad USS Eastport

Thirty miles from Shreveport, the tinclad fleet encountered a large steamboat blocking the river. It was as far as they would get, with Federal troops now fleeing back to their starting point in Alexandria. Rebel artillery and marksmen were able to deploy on the banks without opposition, keeping the tinclads under constant fire. To make matters worse, the river, which should have been rising at that time of year, was falling instead. The ships began to snag or run aground, requiring men to perform the hard labor of freeing them while under murderous fire. The strongest ship in the fleet, the USS Eastport, a former Confederate steamer captured by the Union and converted to an ironclad, struck a mine and had to be blown up to prevent its capture. Another steamer carrying slaves taken from plantations had a shell pierce her boiler, killing over 100 right away. 83 others were scalded so badly most of them died. The nightmare threatened to turn worse as it became apparent the fleet would be unable to cross the rapids at Alexandria due to low water. It looked like ships worth a total of $2 million would have to be abandoned and destroyed.

The USS Lexington Crosses the Dam and Rapids at Alexandria, Louisiana

At this point, a Wisconsin engineer, Colonel Joseph Bailey, employed thousands of men, many of them timbermen from Wisconsin and Maine, to work on a massive dam across the 758-foot wide river, using lumber, bricks and even the machinery from a demolished sugar mill. After ten days, the water had risen high enough to allow four ships to shoot the rapids, but others could not make it. Another three days of dam construction finally allowed the rest of the fleet to escape total destruction. It was a brilliant piece of engineering in the midst of an otherwise disastrous campaign that cost more than 5000 Federal lives.

Nonetheless, the campaign was judged a disaster. Porter declared he never wished to command a river fleet again and was transferred to the Atlantic blockade. The ambitious Banks lost any hope of running for the presidency and spent the rest of the war testifying about his own incompetence in front of Congress.

Final Run of the CSS William Webb

For the last major Confederate naval action on the Mississippi, a wooden sidewheeler privateer converted to a cottonclad ram by Colonel Lovell was armed with a bronze 130-pounder James rifle on its forecastle and two 12-pounder howitzers. The James rifle was the largest used on any of the river warships, weighing 14,896 pounds.

Lieutenant Charles “Savvy” Read, CSN

Taking command of the CSS William Webb was Lieutenant Charles “Savvy” Read, one of the naval war’s most outstanding characters. Bold and fearless, Read had graduated from the US Naval Academy only a year before the war broke out. Read served as an officer on Confederate commerce raiders such as the CSS MacRae and the CSS Florida, as well as serving on the Confederate ironclad Arkansas as it made its dramatic passage through the Union fleet on the Mississippi. Given command of one of the Florida’s prizes, Read raided the Atlantic coast, capturing or destroying 22 ships. Finally captured off Maine, he served time as a prisoner before being freed in an exchange. He then commanded several torpedo boats in the James River before taking command of the Webb in Shreveport.

On April 23, 1865, the Webb began a southwards dash from Shreveport, down the Red River to the Mississippi, where it broke through the blockade of the Red River. The Webb now made a run for the Gulf, with the intention of steaming out to the Pacific to raid Federal shipping there. Evading all kinds of Union warships, the Webb made it past New Orleans but was brought up short by the USS Richmond, a powerful steam sloop. Recognizing the stronger Richmond would easily destroy the Webb and her crew, Read ran the Webb aground and set her on fire. It was the last significant naval action of the war on the Mississippi and her tributaries.

Conclusion

With the war finally over in the spring of 1865, nearly all the converted river steamers were sold for scrap or returned to commercial use. The United States would never again fight a war on its rivers.

Ram warfare continued for some time, being an important part of naval architecture until the end of the 19th century, when it was finally realized by all that powerful new guns would fight naval battles at a distance. Several terrible accidents involving rams and other warships, and even a collision with a passenger ship that took over 500 lives, effectively put an end to the naval ram as an instrument of war.

In conclusion then, we can say that there were more dramatic and romantic parts of the naval Civil War that inspired songs, paintings and poetry, episodes such as the global cruises of the Confederate commerce raiders, the battle between the Alabama and the Kearsage or the ground-breaking battle between the Virginia and the Monitor at Hampton Roads. Nonetheless, the hard and often relentless fighting done by these often ungainly, unsightly and quickly improvised Union steamships in the war’s Western theater played just as important a part in the war’s conclusion as the better known Union blockade by helping to split the Confederacy in two.

Bibliography

Coffey, Walter: “Confederates Confront the Indianola,” February 1, 2018, https://civilwarmonths.com/tag/c-s-s-william-h-webb/

Frazier, Donald S.: Cottonclads!: The Battle of Galveston and the Defense of the Texas Coast (Civil War Campaigns and Commanders Series), State House Press, Abilene, Texas, 1998

Joiner, Gary: One Damn Blunder from Beginning to End: The Red River Campaign of 1864, Scholarly Resources, 2003

Konstam, Angus: Mississippi River Gunboats of the American Civil War, 1861-65, Osprey Publishing, Oxford, 2002

McPherson, James M.: War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865, University of North Carolina Press, 2012

Miller, Francis Trevelyan: The Navies: The Photographic History of the Civil War, Castle Books, New York, 1957

Smith, Myron J. Jr.: The Timberclads in the Civil War: The Lexington, Conestoga and Tyler on the Western Waters, McFarland & Company, Jefferson NC, 2008

Smith, Myron J. Jr.: Tinclads in the Civil War: Union Light-Draught Gunboat Operations on Western Waters, 1862-1865, McFarland & Company, Jefferson NC, 2010

Van Doren Stern, Philip: The Confederate Navy: A Pictorial History, Bonanza Books, New York, 1962

Wideman, John C.: Naval Warfare: Courage and Combat on the Water, Civil War Chronicles, MetroBooks, New York, 1997

Southern Libya Will Be More Restive

Andrew McGregor

Oxford Analytica Daily Brief, October 9, 2019

Significance

The UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Libya yesterday condemned attacks on civilian infrastructure and called an October 6 airstrike on an equestrian club in the capital, Tripoli, that injured several children “one of the lowest points” of the conflict. Warlord Khalifa Haftar’s military offensive to take control of Tripoli has stalled for six months on the city’s outskirts. Essential to Haftar’s ambitions is full control of southwestern Libya, the Fezzan region, which has been drawn into the battle for Tripoli.

“Field Marshal” Khalifa Hafter (Middle East Online)

What Next

Neither of Libya’s governments can declare victory without full control of the resource-rich south. Haftar’s “control” of Fezzan consists of making deals with locals to declare allegiance to him and exploiting ethnic and racial divisions. However, this has destabilized the region, which as a result may see recurrent bouts of violence. This would potentially make it a liability to Haftar’s ambitions to control the whole of Libya. Meanwhile, the internationally recognized Tripoli authorities, the Government of National Accord (GNA), are unlikely to make inroads in the south given that they have long neglected the region and do not have deep pocketed sponsors such as Haftar has in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Subsidiary Impacts

  • Lawlessness in Fezzan exposes Libya’s coastal cities (hosting most of the population) to debilitating shortages of fuel and water.
  • Haftar risks losing the support of his foreign allies, particularly his main sponsor, the UAE, if he fails to finish the assault on Tripoli.
  • Further clashes in the south are probable – especially if there is external interference.

Analysis

South-western Libya, the Fezzan region, is a vast desert spotted with lucrative oil fields, oases, long-range trade routes and deep sub-desert aquifers. It is dominated by a mixture of Arab tribes, Arab/Berber groups, the non-Arab Berber Tuareg and the indigenous Black African Tubu.

Fezzan suffers from economic decline, widespread unemployment, inadequate infrastructure and soaring crime rates. Many locals are involved in migrant or oil smuggling. Beyond the oasis towns of Sebha, Murzuq and Ubari, Islamic State cells and groups of Chadian and Darfuri rebels roam the desert wilderness, with the displaced rebels offering their services to both sides of the Libyan conflict as mercenaries. Some southern Libyans have also joined the fighting in the north.

A group of experienced anti-Haftar Tubu fighters under Hassan Musa went north to Tripoli when the battle began, where they joined by other militias in the defense of Tripoli, according to the Small Arms Survey. Arab fighters from the south also joined Haftar’s assault on Tripoli, including members of the Awlad Sulayman, Zuwaya and Mahamid tribes.

(AFP)

A key town in southern Libya is Murzuq, a desert oasis town roughly 800 kilometres south of Tripoli with a largely Tubu peacetime population of roughly 30,000. In February, Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA), a loosely disciplined coalition of militias, mercenaries and Saudi-influenced Salafists, moved into the city to take control. Residents fled airstrikes, ethnic clashes and incursions.

Violence flared in Murzuq again in August. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), 26.465 people have been internally displaced from Murzuq to surrounding areas because of this round of fighting. Over 100 civilians have been killed in two months of fighting in and around Murzuq.

During this time, the city has also been struck by repeated airstrikes from UAE-supplied fighter-bombers and drones operating from al-Khadim airbase in eastern Libya. An LNA drone attack on August 5 in Murzuq killed 43 local dignitaries. Tubu officials reportedly turned down a UAE offer for a financial settlement to address their grievances over the UAE’s role in the incident – an offer that included a requirement for the Tubu to recognize Haftar as the Libyan leader. On September 12, the Presidential Council declared Murzuq to be “a disaster stricken area.”

Much of the internal fighting in Murzuq was the result of tensions between the anti-Haftar Tubu and LNA-aligned Alhali communities (the Alhali are Arabized black Libyans descended from slaves or economic migrants). Many homes were looted and burned during the clashes and those fleeing the fighting were subjected to robbery, abduction or sexual harassment at illegal checkpoints. Local Tubu could not fail to notice most of the LNA army attacking Murzuq was composed of traditional enemies of the Tubu, prompting claims of ethnic cleansing.

Airstrike in Southern Tripoli, December 2019 (AFP)

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres blamed Haftar for the eruption of violence in Murzuq, citing his forceful entry into the city and his attempt to impose new authorities. When Haftar took Murzuq and other parts of the south, he drove out GNA-affiliated security forces, but, short of manpower, he did not consolidate his control of the south by installing garrisons. Instead, he withdrew nearly all his troops to the north to participate in the assault on Tripoli that started in April. This created a security vacuum that provided a fertile ground for renewed violent clashes emanating from grievances incurred during and after the February take-over.

The Islamic State

The lawlessness in the south has also allowed the Islamic State (IS) to regroup. IS fighters were driven out of their stronghold in the coastal city of Sirte in 2016 in a ground operation conducted by the Bunyan Marsous (a coalition of western militias opposed to the LNA and IS terrorists) with the assistance of nearly 500 bombing runs by US warplanes.

Since then, the IS, with an estimated strength of between 300 to 2,000 fighters, has attempted to reform in the remote regions of the Fezzan. There is speculation that the terrorists have turned to the lucrative human trafficking trade to finance their operations in Libya. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), there are now over 655,000 migrants in Libya, roughly 10% of the Libyan population. Over 70% of the migrants hailed from five African nations – Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Sudan and Egypt. While some have found menial work in Libya, many are determined to continue on to Europe.

While the US administration has done little to intervene in the struggle between Libya’s rival governments, it has displayed a determination to prevent an IS resurrection in the southern desert. Central to this effort is a series of air attacks on IS bases by US Air Force Reaper drones based in Niamey, Niger. On September 19, the first US airstrike killed eight suspected terrorists in a compound in Murzuq. AFRICOM commander General Stephen Townsend stated afterwards that the U.S. would not permit the IS to reform under the cover of the battle for Tripoli.

Further US airstrikes on September 24, 26 and 29 killed a reported 35 more IS terrorists. AFRICOM director of intelligence Rear Admiral Heidi Berg said the attacks on Islamic State militants were carried out in coordination with the PC/GNA to destroy IS safe havens. If AFRICOM assessments of IS casualties are correct (or close), their airstrikes must have caused a significant disruption to IS efforts to regroup in southern Libya.

Why Mozambique Is Outsourcing Counter-Insurgency to Russia: Hidden Loans and Naval Bases

Andrew McGregor

November 4, 2019 (Part One of this article was published on October 29, 2019)

At the heart of Mozambique’s reinvigorated relationship with Moscow (see EDM, October 29) is a financial scandal that almost ruined the country. Specifically, corrupt elements in the southeast African state’s Frente de Libertação de Moçambique (FRELIMO) government and the Serviço de Informaçao e Segurança do Estado (SISE, Mozambique’s intelligence agency) secretly arranged for $2 billion in loans from foreign commercial banks for three state-owned firms without parliamentary approval in 2013–2014. Guaranteed by the government, loans from Russia’s VTB Bank and Credit Suisse were made to EMATUM, Proindicus and Mozambique Asset Management (MAM). The scandal severely undermined Mozambique’s currency and GDP growth as well as resulted in the imposition of strict new conditions on further International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank assistance. It also discouraged further foreign investment even as Maputo struggled to find up to $2 billion to finance its share of development of LNG reserves off Cabo Delgado (Macauhub.com.mo, October 18). Moscow’s VTB Bank is demanding repayment of its loan (over $500 million) by the end of the year (Clubofmozambique.com, September 9).

Mozambican Troops Inspect Terrorist Damage in Cabo Delgado (PetroleumEconomist)

As Mozambique’s state security forces—the Forças de Defesa e Segurança (FDS)—proved incapable of dealing with the lightly-armed terrorists in the north, Maputo began a search for military alternatives. Initially, Erik Prince’s Dubai-based Lancaster Six Group (L6G) private security firm was in competition with Russia’s Wagner private military company (PMC) and Eeben Barlow’s South African Specialized Tasks, Training, Equipment and Protection International (STTEP) for security contracts in Cabo Delgado, with Prince promising to eliminate the terrorists in three months in return for a share of oil and natural gas revenues (Issafrica.org, November 20, 2018; Macauhub.com.mo, October 18, 2019). Prince also indicated he was interested in forming partnerships or making investments in the three state-owned firms involved in the hidden loan scandal in deals expected to lead to maritime security operations in the gas-rich Rovuma Basin (Deutsche Welle—Português Para África, June 4, 2019).

On August 20, Russia forgave 95 percent of Mozambique’s debt to the Russian Federation during a Russian-Mozambican business forum. Though the forum encouraged continuing growth in bilateral trade, some Mozambican businessmen expressed concern over the consequences of dealing with Russia while it remains under Western sanctions for its annexation of Crimea (Agência de Informação de Moçambique, August 22). Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi also encouraged Russia’s Gazprombank (specializing in financing oil and gas projects) to help invest in liquid natural gas (LNG) projects in the Rovuma Basin (Agência de Informação de Moçambique, August 22). Rosneft, a publicly-owned Russian energy firm, has three licensed exploration blocks in Mozambique and is seeking more.

Russian Cargo Plane Unloads Military Supplies at Nacala International Airport, September 26, 2019 (ClubofMozambique)

Prince and Barlow lost out in the security competition; in late September 2019, reports emerged of armed Russians, possibly from Wagner PMC, arriving in the northern cities of Nacala and Nampula (both in Nampula province, immediately south of Cabo Delgado), allegedly accompanied by drones and helicopters (see EDM, October 15). The reports followed an admission by Mozambique’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation that Russia was providing military equipment for use in Cabo Delgado (Noticias ao Minuto, October 5). Another report suggested the men were Russian regulars, 160 in number, who intended to create a mobile military intelligence (GRU) base and a permanent Russian naval base (Observador, September 28). The Russian embassy in Maputo has denied the presence of Russian military personnel in Mozambique (Sapo 24, October 3).

Russia’s ambassador to South Africa, Ilya Rogachev, recently defended the use of Russian PMCs in Africa, claiming critics see Russia “through colonial eyes,” overlooking Moscow’s perception of African states as “equal and not junior partners.” Rogachev added that “private military companies are not necessarily bad… I think it depends on the goals that are assigned to these companies” (Daily Maverick, October 17).

LNG Fields in Mozambique’s Rovuma Basin (BankTrack)

Though Cabo Delgado is deeply impoverished, organized crime runs lucrative operations there, trafficking in heroin, timber, wildlife and rubies (Globalinitiative.net, October 2018; Enact Africa, July 2, 2018). For now it remains unclear whether the terrorist attacks in the region are more closely connected to radical Islamists from the north or organized crime using Islamism as a cover. The intention could be to create enough insecurity to delay the development of a legitimate industry that could threaten their operations. It has been suggested elsewhere that the insurgency is designed to facilitate the entry of private military firms into the region and enable their exploitation of local energy resources (Deutsche Welle—Português Para África, June 13, 2018). Local journalists attempting to investigate the violence have faced intimidation, detention and even torture from government security forces (Mg.co.za, April 25).

Moscow and Maputo signed an agreement simplifying the entry of Russian naval ships into Mozambican ports and a memorandum on naval military cooperation, on April 4, 2019. Mozambique’s defense minister, Athanasio Salvador Mtumuke, noted that “our national flag depicts the Kalashnikov rifle, which symbolizes the deep relations between our countries in the military area…” (Sputnik Brasil, April 5, 2018).

Alexander Surikov, Moscow’s ambassador to Mozambique, has emphasized the readiness of Russian energy firms to develop natural gas reserves in Mozambique’s north, adding, “We provide [military] assistance to them without threatening their neighbors and rattling the saber, we only do what our partners in Mozambique ask for” (TASS, October 25).

Port of Nacala (MacauHub)

Moscow undoubtedly has eyes on the port of Nacala, southern Africa’s deepest harbor, which lies roughly 200 miles south of the Rovuma Basin. The Mozambican town of Palma, close to the border with Tanzania, is slated for development as the main port for the Rovuma LNG industry, but it is unlikely to serve a dual purpose as a Russian naval base. Palma has suffered from attacks by the insurgents. Additionally, local demonstrations calling for a halt to LNG-related development until security is established have been dispersed by police gunfire (Agência de Informação de Moçambique, January 14). Mozambique’s most powerful neighbor, South Africa, will hold joint naval exercises for the first time with the navies of Russia and China in November.

Besides military support, the FRELIMO government is seeking strong allies as it battles internal dissatisfaction with electoral fraud, growing crime, emerging terrorism, internal political challenges and rampant corruption. While Russia may offer itself as a solution to some of these problems, the question is whether Maputo can overcome its traditional reticence to engage wholeheartedly with Moscow’s regional ambitions. Financial pressure and the lure of energy riches may be just enough to permit Russia to establish its long sought naval base in Mozambique.

This article was first published in the November 4, 2019 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor.

Why Mozambique Is Outsourcing Counter-Insurgency to Russia: The Historical Relationship

Andrew McGregor

October 29, 2019

A new government offensive in Mozambique’s northern Cabo Delgado province is the latest attempt to eliminate shadowy Islamist insurgents in a region whose untapped energy reserves could reverse the country’s economic misfortunes and the damage inflicted by decades of civil war and on-again, off-again insurgencies (Agência de Informação de Moçambique, October 21). Unsuccessful in such efforts over the last two years, there are now reports Mozambique has turned to Russia for military aid (see EDM, October 15). But why Russia, and what would Moscow expect in return? The arrival of Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gamo in 1498 began a centuries-long colonization of a vast tract of southeastern Africa that came to be known as Mozambique. Modern resistance to the Portuguese began with the formation of the nationalist Frente de Libertação de Moçambique (FRELIMO) in 1962. FRELIMO’s first attack on a Portuguese post occurred in Cabo Delgado in 1964. Pro-Soviet Marxist-Leninist factions consolidated their control of FRELIMO in the late 1960s as a wave of mysterious deaths and assassinations eliminated nationalist leaders. This allowed the emergence of Marxist-Leninist hardliner Samora Machel as FRELIMO military commander.

Portuguese Patrol in Mozambique

By 1972, FRELIMO was being supplied with weapons from Moscow and Beijing. This allowed Lisbon to justify its campaign against the guerrillas by insisting they were controlled by the Soviet Union. Marxism was in many ways unsuited to Mozambique; the education of native populations was never a strong-point of Portuguese colonialism, and with most skilled labor done by Portuguese settlers, there was simply no working class to mobilize. Thus, the new socialist state that emerged with independence in 1975 was left open to the anti-Marxist armed opposition of the Resistência Nacional Moçambicana (RENAMO), supported by the fiercely anti-Communist states of Rhodesia and South Africa. FRELIMO’s poor performance against RENAMO later led to a major military intervention by Marxist Zimbabwe (former Rhodesia) to save the FRELIMO regime.

The wholesale departure of the Portuguese following independence left FRELIMO desperate for external assistance. Independence also brought about an important change in FRELIMO’s military approach. No longer fighting a guerrilla war, FRELIMO needed heavy weapons, air-defense systems and training in conventional tactics to fend off incursions by the Rhodesian and South African militaries. Unable to obtain such support from the People’s Republic of China, the party turned to Soviet, Cuban and East German sources, with thousands of military advisors arriving to train the Mozambican army and provide security for the president. Soviet arms, including 24 Korean War–vintage MiG 17 jet fighters flown by Cuban pilots, tended to be outdated Soviet surplus, much to the disappointment of FRELIMO leaders. This encouraged a lingering skepticism in the FRELIMO leadership regarding the depth of the Soviet commitment to a socialist Mozambique.

Samora Machel

In March 1977, Machel signed a 20-year Treaty of Friendship with the Soviet Union. As part of its Cold War struggle with the West, the Soviets clearly eyed Mozambique as an important strategic asset with warm-water ports and easy access to coastal east Africa and the Indian Ocean. However, FRELIMO worked hard to avoid cutting all ties to the West. As one leading FRELIMO member (hardline Marxist Marcelino dos Santos) explained, “We did not fight for fifteen years to free ourselves to become the pawn of yet another foreign power” (Allen Isaacman and Barbara Isaacman, Mozambique: From Colonialism to Revolution, 1900–1982, Hampshire, England, 1983, p. 171).

In 1980, Mozambique opened an embassy in Moscow, only the second Mozambican embassy in a non-African country (Lisbon being the first). In the same year, Machel decreed that all FRELIMO officers must be Communists. Following a daring South African raid on an African National Congress base just outside of Maputo in January 1981, Soviet warships arrived in the Mozambican ports of Maputo and Beira with a warning of reprisals for further attacks (CSM, February 24, 1981). Nonetheless, Mozambique remained wary of committing itself to full support of Soviet foreign policy objectives. Soviet pressure to establish a new naval base in Mozambique’s Bazaruto Archipelago was firmly rebuffed.

By the mid-1980s, relations with Cuba were in decline and Soviet intentions were regarded with greater suspicion, partly due to Soviet intrigues in Angola (another former Portuguese colony) and Machel’s death in a Soviet-piloted Tupolov aircraft in October 1986 (CSIS Africa Notes, December 28, 1987). Facing financial pressures elsewhere, the Soviets began to back away from their expensive commitment to FRELIMO even as the United Kingdom and the United States stepped in with military and economic support in the war against RENAMO.

Currently led by Ossufo Momade, RENAMO ended its long insurgency by signing a Peace and National Reconciliation Agreement in Maputo in August 2019 (Clubofmozambique.com, August 21), though the movement has yet to relinquish all its arms as called for in the agreement. While this brought a welcome respite to Mozambique’s seemingly endless internal warfare, a new and more mysterious insurgency was emerging in the nation’s north simultaneously with the discovery of massive natural gas deposits in the little-known region.

Cabo Delgado (top) – (ISS Africa)

Most of Mozambique’s Muslim minority lives in Cabo Delgado, especially amongst the Makua people and the Swahili culture of the coast. Moderate Sufism, rather than radical Salafism, is the dominant strain of Islamic worship. The Portuguese made Roman Catholicism the official religion of the colony, but, during the war of independence (1964–1974), Portugal grew more accommodating of Islam to prevent Muslims aligning themselves with the secular rebels. The post-independence Marxist state was less accommodating—Machel always wore his shoes when entering a mosque and once informed a gathering of Muslims that “God is a pig” (Allen Isaacman and Barbara Isaacman, Mozambique: From Colonialism to Revolution, 1900–1982, Hampshire, England, 1983, p. 50). Muslims were increasingly treated as second-class citizens, and the anti-FRELIMO Cabo Delgado Front launched a short-lived, low-level insurgency shortly after independence.

Cabo Delgado’s quiet poverty was interrupted by the offshore discovery of vast natural gas fields by US energy firm Anadarko in 2010. Further exploration revealed what could be the third-largest reserves of natural gas in the world (Eia.gov, May 2018). Newfound wealth attracted new insurgents, and a previously unknown group claiming to be Islamists launched its first attack on civilians in the region in October 2017, killing 40 people (Daily Maverick, October 27, 2017).

This new terrorist group called themselves Ahlu Sunna wa’l-Jama’a (ASJ, a.k.a. Ansar al-Sunna), though they are popularly known as “al-Shabaab,” despite having no apparent ties to the Somali Islamist movement of the same name. Since then, the group has carried out multiple atrocities against the civilian population. In one recent case, responsibility was taken by the Islamic State organization (Sábado, September 29, 2019).

This article was first published in the October 29, 2019 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor

Falling off the Fence: Russian Mercenaries Join the Battle for Tripoli

Andrew McGregor

October 8, 2019

Russia’s so-far ambiguous approach to Libya’s internal conflict, one of reassuring both sides of its continued support, has begun to shift with the deployment of Russian mercenaries backing “Field Marshal” Khalifa Haftar on the front lines of the battle for Tripoli. Despite Moscow’s search for deep-water ports on the Mediterranean coast, control of oil supplies to Europe, influence over migrant flows to Europe from sub-Saharan Africa, and preference in massive reconstruction contracts, the Kremlin has still refrained from offering Haftar unequivocal support in his attempt to conquer Libya and create a family dynasty.

Russian Mercenaries in Southern Tripoli (Libya February TV)

Haftar first began seeking Russian assistance in 2015 after being impressed by Russian military operations in Syria and promised “oil, railways, highways, anything you want” in return for military aid and diplomatic support in his battle with Tripoli’s Presidential Council/Government of National Accord (PC/GNA), which is recognized by the United Nations (Meduza, October 2, 2019). Moscow declined any official military support at that time, opting instead to unleash its private military contractors (PMC), beginning with the arrival of the RSB Group in 2017. Haftar met with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Wagner PMC boss Yevgeny Prigozhin in Moscow in 2018 (Novaya Gazeta, November 9, 2018; YouTube, November 7, 2018). Russian officials insisted Prigozhin was at the meeting only in his capacity as caterer (RIA Novosti, November 11, 2018). But Wagner PMC personnel subsequently arrived in Libya in March of this year to carry out repairs to Russian-made military equipment (Janes.com, September 13, 2019).

A number of important documents related to Wagner PMC activities in Libya were obtained in September by the Dossier Center (funded by former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky) and Russian news portal The Project, in cooperation with the Daily Beast news agency (The Project, September 12). One of the more interesting documents was written or modified by Pyotr Bychkov, a trustee and African expert in Prigozhin’s Fund for the Defense of National Values (FDNV). The document outlines Haftar’s efforts to exaggerate or publicize his Russian military connection in order to awe his enemies. Haftar comes under criticism for using extortion and bribes (some $150 million provided by the United Arab Emirates) rather than military activity to ensure his campaign to bring southwestern Libya under his control (FDNV, April 10).

Russia is reportedly seeking a role for Muammar Qaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes committed during the 2011 revolution (Alarabiya.net, December 30, 2018; Bloomberg, September 25, 2019). Two Russian operatives working for the FDNV were arrested by the GNA in May on charges of political interference related to meetings with Saif al-Islam Qaddafi (Nation News, July 5). Documents obtained by the Dossier Center revealed Russian operatives were unimpressed by Saif al-Islam, noting that he had “a flawed conception of his own significance” and would require full-time Russian minders if used as a political frontman. Hedging their bets, the Russians created Facebook pages promoting both Qaddafi and Haftar. While plans to help rig elections should Haftar run in the future were outlined, it is clear that the Russians were similarly unimpressed with the field marshal (The Project, September 12).

Shortly after Haftar’s Tripoli offensive began, Russia moved to veto a UN Security Council statement calling on the LNA to halt its advance on Tripoli (France24, April 8). Haftar arrived in Moscow three days later. United States President Donald Trump made a secret phone call to Haftar on April 15 (made public on the April 19), reversing US support for the UN-recognized PC/GNA government without consulting the State Department.

A Russian briefing report dated April 6 noted that LNA officers appealed to the commander of the Russian PMC, Lieutenant General A. V. Khalzakov, for deployment of a Russian drone to find a GNA artillery battery that had inflicted serious casualties on LNA forces. The appeal was denied (FDNV, September 13).

GNA forces targeted an LNA operations room in Souk al-Sabat (35 kilometers south of Tripoli) on September 9, killing a reported seven Russian and Ukrainian mercenaries. The men were believed to be operating a howitzer battery firing on Tripoli (Anadolu Agency, September 19; Libya February TV, September 9; for the Ukrainian role in Libya, see EDM, September 6).

Russian and Sudanese mercenaries fighting for Haftar were reported to have made gains in southern Tripoli this month before being repulsed by the Islamist Sumud Brigade, led by Salah Badi (Libya Observer, September 21). Photos of Russian Wagner PMC mercenaries began to appear on local social media on September 22 (Libya Observer, September 22).

(Citeam.org)

A GNA strike on an LNA position on the Sabea frontline (south of Tripoli) on September 23 reportedly killed four LNA commanders and several Russian mercenaries (Libya February TV, September 23). The airstrike was carried out with a precision not commonly found in GNA air operations and was likely the work of Turkish Bayraktar drones operated by Turkish pilots in Tripoli. The Russians were allegedly caught in the open as they prepared to lead an assault on GNA positions (Meduza, October 2). Sources consulted by Meduza offered estimates of between 15 and 35 Russians killed in the airstrike, though an anonymous source in the Russian defense ministry claimed only one Russian had been killed. Meduza, an investigative news service specializing in Russian affairs, based its revelations on interviews with Wagner PMC fighters and commanders as well as Federal Security Service (FSB) and interior ministry forces veterans with close ties to Wagner Group.

 Vadim Bekshenyov (Citeam.org)

Further operations in the area uncovered personal belongings apparently abandoned as Russian fighters retreated. The possessions of one Vadim Bekshenyov, a veteran of the Syrian conflict, included a Russian bank card, Russian ID, printed Russian Orthodox icons, Syrian currency and a photo of a medal awarded by the Russian government for service in Syria. Evidence suggested the mercenary was a former marine in Russia’s Pacific Fleet (Defense Post, September 26; Facebook.com, September 25; Facebook.com, September 25; Citeam.org, September 27).

Russian Medal for Syrian Service on Bekshenyov’s Phone (Citeam.org)

The covert nature of the Wagner Group’s Libyan operations is reflected in the fact that neither the PMC nor the Russian government notified families of combat deaths or returned to them the bodies and decorations of deceased fighters (the usual practice) (Meduza, October 2). So far, Russian mercenary assistance has been unable to move the frontline in southern Tripoli. Russian failure in this campaign would be a blemish on Russian arms, so the Kremlin will be certain to continue to deny all knowledge of private Russian troops in Libya while keeping other political options open—however unpalatable.

This article first appeared in the October 8, 2019 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor

Foreign Drones Take to Libya’s Skies to Shatter Military Stalemate

Andrew McGregor

AIS Special Report, August 7, 2019

“Field Marshal” Khalifa Haftar’s three-month old offensive to take Libya’s capital of Tripoli has bogged down, forcing Libya’s would-be ruler to look to air operations to break the impasse. Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA, nominally representing the House of Representatives rival government in Tobruk) and the forces of the UN-recognized Presidency Council/Government of National Accord (PC/GNA) have both turned to foreign-made and operated drones to advance their struggle for dominance. The fact that these drones violate a UN arms embargo and their operators are probably foreign nationals highlights the increasing proxy nature of the conflict in Libya.

Bloodbath in Murzuq

On August 4, drones likely operated by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on behalf of the LNA targeted a meeting of some 200 local dignitaries gathered in Murzuq’s al-Qala district to discuss intercommunal violence. The result was 43 dead and more than 60 injured. The LNA confirmed the strike on Murzuq, but claimed it had targeted “Chadian opposition fighters,” a euphemism used by the LNA to refer to the indigenous Libyan Tubu, a non-Arab ethnic group found in southern Libya, northern Chad and eastern Niger. [1] The massacre followed an LNA airstrike in June that struck a migrant detention center in Tripoli, killing 44 migrants.

Chinese Drones over Misrata

Chinese Wing Loong II Drone (Dafz.org)

GNA forces in Misrata (north-west coast) announced the downing of one of the UAE’s Wing Loong II drones on August 3, adding that LNA warplanes unsuccessfully tried to destroy the drone before it could be retrieved by the GNA (Libya Observer, August 3, 2019). The drone was equipped with Chinese Blue Arrow 7 laser guided missiles, some of which were recovered by the GNA. The UAE has used the Chinese-built drones in Yemen and in last year’s LNA siege of Derna in eastern Libya. Misrata is a stronghold of anti-Haftar forces.

Wreckage of the UAE Wing Loong II Drone Downed Near Misrata (SouthFront.org)

The UAE was the first export customer for the Wing Loong II, which is comparable to the US General Atomics MQ-1 Predator, but sells for a fraction of the price ($1 to 2 million vs $30 million) (Dafz.org, November 10, 2018). The UAE’s drones deploy out of al-Khadim airbase in eastern Libya, which was expanded in 2016 to accommodate UAE air operations.

New Turkish Drones

Bayaktar TBII Drone System

On July 25, the LNA declared it had brought down a Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drone during an attack on al-Jufra Airbase, held by the LNA since June 2017. There was speculation that the craft may have been downed by one of the UAE’s Russian-made Pantsir S1 air-defense systems that have been spotted alongside LNA forces in Libya (SouthFront.org, July 25, 2019; Jane’s 360, June 19, 2019). The Bayraktar TB2, with a flight endurance of 24 hours and a payload of 150 kilograms, can carry out reconnaissance, surveillance and attack functions day or night. Twelve Bayraktar drones have been sold to Ukraine with another six purchased by Qatar (Daily Sabah [Istanbul], June 24, 2019). The GNA is believed to have obtained the drones in June or early July.

Destroyed Ilyushin Transports in al-Jufra (Avia.pro)

Two Ukrainian Ilyushin IL-76TD transports were destroyed in the drone strike on al-Jufra. The planes were two of five such transports belonging to Kiev’s Alfa Air and were produced between 1990 and 1992 (Libya Observer, July 28, 2019). The GNA also claimed to have destroyed ammunition depots and a hanger containing drones, though the LNA issued an unlikely claim that the aircraft were not delivering weapons, but were solely allocated to carry pilgrims to Mecca (Anadolu Agency [Ankara], July 26, 2019; Libya Herald, July 28, 2019).

Al-Jufra Region and Airbase (Libya Observer)

PC/GNA authorities claim al-Jufra Airbase is a gathering and provisioning point for mercenaries from Sudan and other nations involved in the assault on Tripoli as well as a launch point for foreign military aircraft (Libya Observer, July 30, 2019).  A spokesman for the PC/GNA’s military deployment (Operation Volcano of Rage) claimed the attack had killed 42 LNA members, adding that their artillery now had the Jufra airbase in range (Libya Observer, July 28, 2019).

Italian Commandos in al-Jufra

In retaliation for the strike on Jufra, Haftar’s forces struck Misrata airport with missiles the next day, the fifth such attack in 15 days (Libyan Express, July 27, 2019). After the strikes, the LNA declared that the raid had revealed the existence of an Italian military base, but the presence of Italian military personnel in Misrata has been known for several years.

Italy sent Special Forces units to Libya in August 2016 to support Tripoli’s efforts against Islamic State terrorists. The Italian deployment included members of the 9th Parachute Assault Regiment, the Italian Air Force, counter-terrorist specialists from the Carabinieri and commandos from the Comando Raggruppamento Subacquei e Incursori Teseo Tesei, a unit of Special Forces frogmen named for Major Teseo Tesei, who died in a 1941 human torpedo attack on Malta (Italian Insider, August 11, 2016).

Italy announced in April that its forces would remain in Tripoli and Misrata despite the launch of the LNA offensive to take Tripoli and, eventually, Misrata. The current deployment is believed to consist of 100 personnel in Tripoli and another 300 in Misrata (Arab News, April 9, 2019).

A LNA drone struck Misrata’s Air Academy on August 6. The LNA claimed to have struck a military cargo plane carrying ammunition, but local GNA-affiliated forces insisted the plane was a civilian cargo plane that had landed only minutes earlier (Libya Observer, August 6, 2019).

UAE Russian-Made Pantsir S1 Air Defense System in Yemen – Now in Use by the LNA?  (Defense-Blog.com)

GNA-aligned General Osama Juwaili warned that that the airport at Bani Walid (southeast of Tripoli) could be targeted next if it continued to be used by “Haftar’s gangs” as a military base for LNA fighters and mercenaries after the LNA lost Gharyan to GNA forces (Libya Observer, July 30, 2019).

Outlook

It is unlikely that local Libyan forces are capable of operating the drones, suggesting an active military presence by both Turkish and Emirati air force personnel. Libya’s drone warfare illustrates the increasing internationalization of the Libyan conflict and its use as a proxy battleground. Perhaps most disturbing is the likelihood that Libya is also being used as a testing ground for new weapons technologies at the expense of its civilian population. The cynicism of the international community in its approach to Libyan bloodshed eight years into a seemingly interminable civil conflict hardly suggests that compromise and reconciliation will carry the day anytime soon. In the meantime, extremists and terrorists will make the most of the ongoing chaos to entrench themselves in Libya’s ungoverned regions.

Note:

  1. For more on the LNA’s conflict with the Murzuq Tubu, see: “Is Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army Carrying out Ethnic Cleansing in Murzuq?” AIS Special Report, July 20, 2019, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=4476 .

Army for Sale: Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces and the Battle for Libya

Andrew McGregor

AIS Special Report, August 4, 2019

RSF Patrol (al-Jazeera)

With their barely literate leader General Muhammad Hamdan Daglo “Hemetti” in full control of Sudan (though nominally only number two in the ruling military council), Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF) paramilitary has attracted international attention through its brutal repression of civilian demonstrators seeking civilian rule. [1] Now an estimated 30,000 strong, the RSF is deployed in the cities of Sudan, the goldfields of Darfur, the northern borders with Libya and Egypt, the battlefields of South Kordofan and Blue Nile State and even in Yemen, where they serve as part of the Saudi-led coalition battling Houthi rebels.

Good Days for African Warlords: General Muhammad Hamdan Daglo “Hemetti”

Though Sudan has little interest in the internal struggle for control of Yemen, the RSF’s deployment of as many as 10,000 men since 2015 was clearly made in return for Saudi and Emirati cash badly needed to prop up the flailing regime of ex-president Omar al-Bashir. Following the coup that overthrew al-Bashir, Sudan’s ruling Transitional Military Council (TMC) has accessed $500 million from the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) with pledges of another $2.5 billion in commodities to follow. Both nations see military rule as an effective way of keeping Muslim Brotherhood members (known as “Ikhwan” in Sudan) out of the Sudanese government.

Mercenaries for Sale

The TMC and its new civilian partners are in need of Saudi funds to keep new waves of economic protests from breaking out. Thus, the deployment to Yemen continues, but with the precedent of soldiers-for-dollars already set, the TMC is looking for new revenue streams as well as ways to keep Darfur’s Arabs of military age busy abroad rather than pursuing grievances against Khartoum at home.

The answer? A May 17 $6 million contract between the TMC and Dickens & Madson, a Montreal-based firm run by former Israeli intelligence agent Ari Ben-Menashe. Among other things, the contract stated Dickens & Madson would counter unfavorable media coverage of the TMC and (presumably) the RSF, arrange a meeting between President Trump and TMC leaders, and, most ambitiously, create a union with South Sudan and a joint oil project “within three months.”  With only days to go before three months are over, no such union or joint project has emerged.

Dickens & Madson also pledged to obtain financing for the TMC from the United States, the Russian Federation and other countries, including “funding and equipment for the Sudanese military.” Most importantly for the cash-strapped TMC, was the intent to “obtain funding for your Council [TMC] from the Eastern Libyan Military Command in exchange for your military help to the Libyan National Army (LNA).” [2]

The New Qaddafi? Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar (Reuters)

One thousand RSF members began arriving in eastern Libya in the last days of July, the beginning of a Libyan deployment that might eventually reach as many as 4,000 fighters. Their new employer is Libyan warlord “Field Marshal” Khalifa Haftar, whose self-styled “Libyan National Army” (a loosely disciplined collection of militias) has spent the last few months in a so-far frustrated attempt to seize the Libyan capital of Tripoli from the UN-recognized Presidency Council/Government of National Accord (PC/GNA).

According to al-Jazeera, leaked documents revealed that the UAE began picking up Sudanese military personnel in military aircraft from Khartoum in May. The agency further claimed that Hemetti had recruited 450 additional Arab mercenaries from Darfur, Chad and Niger. According to a source, Hemetti specified they should be “light-skinned and speak Arabic” (al-Jazeera, July 24, 2019). Hemetti would have had connections with the Arab tribes in these lands from his days in the Janjaweed, when Khartoum invited regional Arabs to fill areas where indigenous African Muslims had been displaced by state-sponsored violence. The UAE is one of Haftar’s major backers, providing military air support from their eastern Libyan base in al-Khadim.

The RSF is expected to provide security for the Libyan oil facilities that are expected to provide the funds needed to buy the RSF’s services, enabling Haftar to concentrate his forces for a final push to take Tripoli from the collection of militias that have aligned themselves with the PC/GNA.

The Montreal Connection

Ari Ben-Menashe, who arranged the rental of the RSF, is an arms dealer with a checkered business career and a controversial claim to have played a central role in the Iran-Contra affair. Ben-Menashe served a year in an American prison for his role in supplying arms to Iran before being acquitted on the grounds that he was working under orders from Israel. After failing to obtain refugee status in Australia, Ben-Menashe moved to Montreal in 1993, where he obtained Canadian citizenship and set up the Dickens & Madson consulting agency, though his American partner was deported in 2008 to the United States, where he was wanted on multiple racketeering and fraud charges in two states.

While secretly working for Zimbabwean despot Robert Mugabe in 2002, Ben-Menashe helped implicate Mugabe’s main political rival in charges of treason. There are allegations that Ben-Menashe was paid for his services by a Zimbabwean drug lord who wished to maintain his cozy relationship with Mugabe. In 2014, Ben-Menashe signed a $2 million deal with Libyan warlord Ibrahim Jadhran to promote the latter’s attempt to create an autonomous Cyrenaïcan state in eastern Libya. As in other deals Ben-Menashe had with Sierra Leone and the Central African Republic, the former intelligence agent pledged to work towards obtaining economic and military support from Russia. The fixer thus encouraged an existing trend to greater Sudanese-Russian cooperation that began with a January 2019 draft military agreement between the two countries that could lead to “a Russian naval base on the Red Sea” (Sputnik, January 12, 2019; Sudan Tribune, January 13, 2019). [3]

Ben-Menashe moved on to another Libyan warlord in 2015, signing a $6 million contract with Khalifa Haftar. Besides promising to improve Western media coverage of Haftar’s campaign against Libya’s UN-recognized government, Ben-Menashe again agreed to seek grants from the Russian Federation “for security equipment and technical support.” Haftar’s campaign received a huge boost in April when Haftar discussed “ongoing counterterrorism efforts” with President Trump by phone. The White House followed up with a statement recognizing “Field Marshal Haftar’s significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources” (Reuters, April 19, 2019). Despite multiple accusations of war crimes and human rights violations including summary executions of opponents and the indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets such as hospitals, refugee centers and residential housing, Haftar has already received covert military and open diplomatic support from Russia, Egypt, France, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. [4]

Hemetti’s Revenue Streams

Renting out young Darfuri fighters is a proven revenue source for Hemetti. Musa Hilal, Hemetti’s former mentor and Janjaweed commander, opposed the deployment to Yemen and encouraged Arab tribesmen in Darfur not to volunteer. Hilal also accused Hemetti and his patron, former Second Vice President Hasabo Muhammad ‘Abd al-Rahman (like Hemetti, a member of the Mahariya Branch of the Rizayqat Arabs), of siphoning off millions of dollars donated to Sudan by Saudi Arabia and the UAE in exchange for the use of the RSF in Yemen (al-Jazeera, September 10, 2017).  Hemetti was reported to have been paid directly, and told a press conference he deposited $350 million in Sudan’s Central Bank, but was not clear on how much he may have kept for personal or political uses (African Arguments, August 1, 2019).

An RSF Column in the Desert (AFP)

An April 2018 New York Times investigation of the traffic in migrants through Sudan, based on separate and confidential interviews with known smugglers, suggested that the RSF was, according to the smugglers’ testimony, the main organizer of the cross-border trade, supplying vehicles and sharing in ransom revenues obtained from the detention of the migrants in Libya (NYT, April 22, 2019).

Hemetti’s control of much of Sudan’s newly discovered gold reserves (some of it wrested from Musa Hilal by force) provides him with the financial clout needed to make the former camel trader a candidate for Sudan’s presidency. Darfur, Sudan’s “Wild West,” is already producing enough gold to make it Africa’s third-largest producer, though a remarkable 70% is believed to be smuggled of the country via remote air strips.

Notes:

  1. For RSF commander Hemetti, see: “Snatching the Sudanese Revolution: A Profile of General Muhammad Hamdan Daglo ‘Hemetti’,” Militant Leadership Monitor, June 30, 2019, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=4455
  2. The contents of the contract were revealed under the requirements of the US Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). The document can be seen in full at: https://efile.fara.gov/docs/6200-Exhibit-AB-20190617-8.pdf
  3. For Russian mercenaries in Sudan and Russia’s search for a naval base on the Sudanese Red Sea coast, see: “Russian Mercenaries and the Survival of the Sudanese Regime,” Eurasia Daily Monitor, February 6, 2019, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=4356
  4. For LNA war crimes, see: “Libya’s Video Executioner: A Profile of LNA Special Forces Commander Mahmud al-Warfali, Militant Leadership Monitor, July 6, 2018, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=4214

Terrorism Will Justify Egypt’s Political Repression

Andrew McGregor

Oxford Analytica Daily Brief, August 6, 2019

Significance

Egypt recently extended its national state of emergency for an additional three months, the ninth time it has done so since April 2017. The state of emergency provides the president with extraordinary powers over all Egyptian media and the exercise of individual rights to movement and assembly.

Egypt is the Arab world’s largest and most influential state; attacks there on democratic norms and institutions whether by terrorist groups or the state have a direct impact on the direction of other Arab nations. How Egypt deals with extremist fighters returning from campaigns in Iraq, Syria and Libyan as well as its ongoing campaign against the MB will have repercussions throughout the Middle East.

Analysis

Six years after Egypt’s military overthrew the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood government, the nation faces a three-pronged terrorist threat from the Islamic State (IS), al-Qaeda (whose leader, Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, is Egyptian) and militant offshoots of the banned Muslim Brotherhood. The terrorists have multiple targets, including Christians, Sufi Muslims, politicians, civil servants and security personnel of all types.

President ‘Abd al-Fatah al-Sisi used a July 23 speech to declare victory over the terrorists, stating their infrastructure and bases had been destroyed (Al-Sharq al-Awsat, July 23, 2019). The president’s announcement came only days after the Interior Ministry claimed it had broken up a major plot by the Muslim Brotherhood to incite riots and other violence in a campaign orchestrated through social media and satellite television channels.

Egyptian Immigration Minister Nabila Makram (CBC)

The Sisi regime has broadened its definition of terrorism to include most forms of political opposition. Independent reporting of terrorism issues in Egypt can bring about charges of supporting terrorism, with severe penalties. In an alarming statement, Egyptian Immigration Minister Nabila Makram used a July 23 speech in Toronto to casually suggest that anyone criticizing Egypt should be killed (Al-Jazeera, July 25, 2019).

Political dissent now equals terrorism, turning a significant and non-violent portion of the population into terrorists. As the number of individuals identified as “terrorists” by the state swells, it becomes harder to ever triumph over “terrorism.” Low-level insurgencies are common in authoritarian states and serve to provide justification for repressive measures. Hundreds of suspects at a time are processed through the justice system in mass trials. In the meantime, detainees are exposed to real terrorists in prison.

According to a 2018 report from the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP), over 27,000 arrests have been made in al-Sisi’s war on terror, with half belonging to the MB and more than 11,500 detainees having no known affiliation to a terrorist group. This is in addition to more than 7,000 deaths in counter-terrorism operations, 95% of these being residents of North Sinai, where the MB has little influence (TIMEP, 2018, p.11).

Most Sinai Egyptians are Bedouin who are distrusted by the government, kept out of the security services and largely excluded from any but the most minor economic activity and development. Profitable tourist facilities in south Sinai that prohibit employment of local Bedouin have been built on land seized from Bedouin owners. Many of North Sinai’s 450,000 people have roots in Palestinian Gaza, just across the border, and see little reason to integrate with Egyptian society at large.

Demolition of Rafah by the Egyptian Army

Egyptian authorities have tried but failed to isolate the terrorist threat in northern Sinai by turning the region into an open-air prison where arbitrary measures prevail. Demolition crews have been hard at work demolishing buildings and homes and productive farms are razed. The city of Rafah (70,000 residents) no longer exists except as a memory in a new “buffer zone” established on the border with Israel. Services are nearly non-existent and departure from this armed quarantine can only be made by obtaining a special permit. These are hardly steps designed to encourage greater engagement by the local population in the anti-terrorism struggle.

IS has carried out a steady stream of ambushes, bombings and assassinations targeting security forces, Sufis and Christians. IS preachers have accused the Sufis of heresy, sorcery and cooperation with security forces to justify their mass murder. This includes a 2017 attack on the Rawda Sufi mosque that left over 300 dead after security forces ignored intelligence warning of the attack and were slow to respond once it had started (ICG, January 31, 2018).

Cairo claims to have killed some 3,000 terrorists in Sinai since the beginning of the insurgency, though this number is either inflated or includes innocent victims of security rampages and extrajudicial executions. An additional 9,000 residents have been arrested on suspicion of being members of the Islamic State or other terrorist groups.

The Egyptian Army has empowered local drug addicts and criminals by enrolling them as so-called manadeeb (“delegates”). Usually wearing masks and dressed in army camouflage, the manadeeb identify terrorist suspects (an easy way to take revenge on otherwise innocent residents) and participate in their interrogation and even summary executions (HRW, May 28, 2019).

IS targeting has forced nearly the entire Christian population of Sinai to depart for refuge in the Nile Valley, though they are still under threat from IS Wilayet Sinai terrorists who have expanded their operations to other parts of Egypt through attacks on tourists, diplomatic facilities and churches.

Terrorist cells have a very different composition elsewhere in Egypt. Many of the cells operating in the Nile Valley region are composed of well-educated middle class Muslim Brotherhood members or sympathizers. These members are not unemployed social outcasts or alienated from Egyptian society at large, a status that should alarm Egyptian authorities. The MB is highly resilient – it has endured persecution before, but is organized to survive these episodes.

Egyptian M1 Abrams Main Battle Tank

While Egypt’s militants are largely restricted to weapons such as firearms, explosives, IEDs and suicide attackers, Egypt’s security apparatus has brought a wide variety of sophisticated weapons and equipment to bear, including advanced surveillance aircraft, Apache attack helicopters, F-16 fighters, Rafale multi-role fighters, mortars, M1 Abrams main battle tanks, artillery, missiles and a variety of infantry fighting vehicles and armored personnel carriers.

There is no improving economy to offer alternatives to terrorism. To the contrary, Egypt’s economy is struggling across the board, with major declines in foreign currency reserves, rampant unemployment, an industrial sector distorted by military involvement and a precipitous drop in investor confidence. The tourist industry, one of the nation’s largest employers, has been devastated by the impact of terrorism.

What Next

Al-Sisi’s supporters in parliament have introduced amendments to the constitution that will allow al-Sisi to remain in power until 2034. Egyptian political development is static, unable to break free from a cycle of generals turned politicians, from Nasser through Sadat and Mubarak to al-Sisi. This political stagnation will continue to foment opposition that can now find no legal form of expression other than violent means.

The majority of terrorist attacks in Egypt have targeted security forces rather than civilians, though there is a progression to more indiscriminate killings such as attacks on churches and mosques.

Impacts

  • Al-Sisi exploits his role as a front-line opponent of terrorism to gain Western tolerance for his rule, if not outright support.
  • Authorities insist the political violence within Egypt is supported by Egypt’s “enemies,” Qatar and Turkey in particular.
  • Egypt’s increasingly secret war on terrorism fails to engage the larger population.
  • Ayman al-Zawahiri has used the overthrow of Muhammad Mursi as proof that only violence can root out and destroy Egypt’s “deep state.”

Is Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army Carrying Out Ethnic Cleansing in Murzuq?

Andrew McGregor

AIS Special Report, July 20, 2019

Tubu Rider in Murzuq

Deep in the desert of Libya’s southwestern Fezzan region is the ancient town of Murzuq, a small commercial hub and oasis in the midst of some of the world’s most difficult and energy-sapping terrain. At the moment, it is the scene of a bitter struggle between local fighters of the indigenous black Tubu group and Libyan National Army (LNA) forces led by “Field Marshal” Khalifa Haftar, a former CIA asset now tentatively backed by Russia.  Haftar also enjoys military support from Egypt, France and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in his campaign to conquer Libya.

Murzuq is not an easy place to live – the town experiences extreme heat year round. In the current summer months, Murzuq has an average daily temperature of over 90º F and daily highs over 100º F. In the 19th century, Murzuq was infamous for a virulent and usually fatal fever that felled Ottoman authorities and European visitors alike. Despite this, Murzuq remains home to many members of the indigenous Tubu ethnic group, famous for their physical endurance and martial skills. The Tubu, ranging through southern Libya, eastern Niger and northern Chad, share a common culture but are split by dialect into two groups, the northern Teda and the southern Daza.

Murzuq at 14º E and 26º N.(Atlas of Reptiles of Libya)

Many Libyan Tubu have complained of “ethnic cleansing” by Libya’s Arabs and Arab/Berber tribes since the 2011 Libyan revolution, even though most Tubu sided with the revolutionaries against Qaddafi, who had revoked their citizenship and treated them as foreign interlopers despite their historical presence in southern Libya long before records were kept. In this, they stood apart from their Saharan neighbors and occasional rivals, the Tuareg, most of whom backed Qaddafi and played an important role in the dictator’s army.

Until recently, the non-Arab Tubu and Tuareg had observed a century-old non-aggression treaty, but the Tubu have endured recurring clashes with Arab tribes, most notably (but not exclusively) the Awlad Sulayman in Fezzan and the Zuwaya in the Kufra region of southern Cyrenaïca (eastern Libya, Haftar’s power-base). The overthrow of the Qaddafi regime and the subsequent failure to replace it with a unified government has exacerbated these ethnic tensions and revived the Arab canard that the Tubu are foreigners from Chad and Niger in need of expulsion.

(Nationalia.Info)

Murzuq is a strategically located city in the sparsely inhabited Fezzan, some 144 km south of the regional capital of Sabha, which has also been the site of battles between Tubu and Arab Awlad Sulayman factions since 2011. Unlike Sabha, with its Tubu minority, Murzuq is largely Tubu. Like many of the southern settlements centered on rare oases, Murzuq is home to an impressive Ottoman-era castle later used by Italian colonial garrisons.

Located on a route between nearly impassable and water-less sand seas, control of Murzuq is important to the control of Libya’s most productive oil fields as well as offering dominance of several trans-Saharan trade routes that must past through here. Italian-occupied Murzuq was the target of one of the Second World War’s most daring desert raids, with British and New Zealanders of the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) joining Free French desert fighters to cross hundreds of miles of barren desert to launch a surprise attack on the Italian outpost. Italian losses were heavy, the aerodrome and its bombers shattered and the fort badly damaged by mortar fire before the raiders withdrew. General Leclerc’s Free French returned to claim Murzuq in January 1943, completing the Allied conquest of the Fezzan.

Haftar’s Offensive in Fezzan

“Field Marshal” Khalifa Haftar leads the Libyan National Army (LNA), a loose coalition of militias ostensibly operating on behalf of one of Libya’s two competing government, the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR). In practice, the LNA serves as a vehicle for the advancement of Haftar’s personal agenda, which includes taking control of Libya and establishing a family dynasty. Though most Tubu support the rival and UN-recognized Presidency Council/Government of National Accord (PC/GNA, based in Tripoli), there are also Tubu representative in the HoR. Tubu support for the PC/GNA is not firm, as the community regularly complains of a lack of government support and services in the south. The region as a whole continues to suffer from economic decline, widespread unemployment, inadequate infrastructure and soaring crime rates. Smuggling and human trafficking present attractive alternatives to grinding poverty.

Haftar began his offensive in southwestern Libya in January 2019, with the cited objectives of securing the region and “protecting residents from terrorists and armed groups” (Libya Observer, January 19, 2019). More importantly, for Haftar at least, was the necessity of securing the volatile and loosely governed Fezzan before advancing on Tripoli to complete Haftar’s conquest of Libya and destruction of the UN-recognized government before elections scheduled for December.

Before launching the offensive, Haftar formed a southern battle group in October 2018 composed of the 10th Infantry Brigade, the Subul al-Salam Battalion (Kufra-based Salafists, mostly Zuwaya Arabs), and the 116th, 177th and 181st Battalions (Libya Herald, October 24, 2018).

As LNA forces advanced on southwestern Libya, anti-Haftar Tubu fighters responded by creating the “South Protection Force” (SPF). In its first statement, the SPF condemned the LNA’s “military aggression” and called for an investigation into the LNA’s use of Sudanese mercenaries (Libya Herald, February 7, 2019). Both rival governments have resorted to using rebels from Darfur and Chad (many of the latter being Chadian Tubu) who have taken refuge in southern Libya after being forced out of their home bases by government military operations. Haftar and the LNA typically refer to Libyan Tubu as Chadian rebels in need of expulsion from southern Libya.

Clashes against Tubu fighters in Ghadduwah oasis (lying roughly halfway between Murzuq and Sabha) began on February 1, leaving 14 killed and 64 wounded (Libya Observer, February 2, 2019). Fighting continued through the week as the LNA claimed it was clearing Chadian rebel movements from the area. However, observers and local Tubu claimed that the oasis’s Tubu residents were the real target, leading to a series of resignations of Tubu HoR members and officials citing racial persecution (Libya Observer, February 3; Libya Observer, February 6, 2019). LNA spokesman General Ahmad al-Mismari had a different view of the military operations, insisting “Our Tubu brothers fight with us” (AFP, February 6, 2019). The oasis was eventually turned into a base for regional LNA operations.

Ottoman-Era Castle in Murzuk, 1821 (George Francis Lyon)

Warplanes attached to the LNA (likely UAE in origin) carried out an airstrike on Murzuk on February 3, killing 7 and wounding 22. LNA spokesmen claimed the strike had targeted a gathering of the “Chadian opposition” (Libyan Express, February 4, 2019). On the same day, French warplanes attacked a column of 40 pickup trucks carrying Chadian rebels across the border back into northern Chad. According to the LNA, these fighters were fleeing the LNA offensive (AFP, February 6, 2019). [1]

Local Tubu were alarmed that much of the LNA force advancing on Murzuq was composed of Tubu rivals such as the Brigade 128 (Awlad Sulayman), led by Major Hassan Matoug al-Zadma, and the Deterrence Brigade led by Masoud al-Jadi (Libya Observer, February 2, 2019). Also figuring prominently in the LNA force were Darfurian mercenaries from the rebel Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) who had been driven out of Darfur by the operations of Sudan’s military and the notorious Rapid Support Forces (RSF) of General Muhammad Hamdan Daglo “Hemetti.” [2] Murzuq HoR member Rahma Abu Bakr described the situation in Murzuq as “tragic” on February 4, saying the town was besieged by “tribal forces” (Libyan al-Ahrar TV [Doha], February 4, 2019).

By February 5, the LNA’s Tariq bin Zayid Brigade (Madkhali Salafists) was involved in clashes inside Murzuq as it prepared to mount an offensive on the Umm al-Aranib region, northeast of Murzuq. [3] At the same time, the LNA’s 141st Brigade was cutting off exit and entry points for armed groups within the town (Libya 218 TV [Amman], February 5, 2019). Stocks of fuel, food and medical supplies reached critically low levels under the LNA blockade. Tubu reluctance to negotiate with an LNA command composed of their tribal enemies and Sudanese mercenaries was stiffened by social media posts from individual members of the LNA force threatening the Tubu with genocide and expulsion from their traditional lands (Libya Observer, February 3, 2019).

Murzuq’s Old Mosque (foreground) and Ottoman-Era Castle as they appear today.

On February 8, the LNA announced it had carried out “violent and painful” airstrikes on three groups of “Chadians and their allies” near Murzuk (Defense Post, February 8, 2019). The next day, LNA aircraft struck the runway at nearby al-Fil oilfield just as a Libyan Airlines plane was about to leave for Tripoli with a load of sick and wounded people in need of treatment. Tripoli’s Presidential Council (PC) described the incident as “a terrorist act and a crime against humanity” and an attempt to deprive Libyans of their oil resources (Libya Observer, February 9, 2019).

Struggle for the Oilfields

A century-old peace agreement between the Tubu and the Tuareg that defined tribal territories did not survive the political violence that followed the 2011 revolution, with large clashes breaking out in the Tuareg-dominated city of Ubari, roughly 80 miles northwest of Murzuq.  A 2015 peace treaty brokered by Qatar that also included the Arab Awlad Sulayman was short-lived, though it was replaced by another agreement signed in Rome in 2017. However, Haftar’s intrusion into Fezzan and his alliance with the Awlad Sulayman brought an effective end to that treaty as well.

A chief objective for Haftar’s LNA in the south was control of the Sharara oilfield, Libya’s largest, capable of producing 315,000 barrels per day. Security at the facility was handled since 2017 by Tuareg fighters of Brigade 30, led by Ahmad Allal. The brigade initially repulsed attempts by the local LNA affiliated 177th Brigade (mostly Hasawna Arabs, led by Colonel Khalifa al-Seghair al-Hasnawi) to take over the Sharara oilfield (Libya Herald, February 7, 2019).

In response to the incursion by LNA fighters, the GNA commander for the Fezzan, Tuareg General Ali Kanna Sulayman, attempted to build a military alliance of Tubu and Tuareg minorities, most of whom shared similar grievances with the government and animosity towards Haftar and the Arab gunmen who followed him. [4 However, Kanna failed to bring Brigade 30 onside amidst pressure from Tuareg elders to abandon the facility in order to avoid pitting one Tuareg group against another. Kanna left for al-Fil and by February 12 the LNA-aligned Tuareg Brigade 173 began to move into the main facility after negotiating with armed protesters who had held parts of the oilfield since December 2018, forcing the National Oil Corporation (NOC) to declare a state of force majeure at the facility (Middle East Monitor, February 12, 2019; Middle East Eye, February 10, 2019).

Production resumed under LNA occupation, but by July 14, protesters again threatened to take over the facility as well as al-Fil oilfield, which has been closed by a strike over salaries since February (Libya Observer, July 14, 2019; AFP, July 15, 2019). Protesters frequently take over oil and water pumping facilities (part of Libya’s vast “Man-Made River” project) to call attention to days-long power outages and shortages of fuel and water in the south that persist despite the south being Libya’s main source of wealth and resources.

Battle for Murzuq

The LNA moved on Murzuq in early February, beginning with airstrikes and a fuel blockade. Once Sharara was secured, Awlad Sulayman fighters began to enter Murzuq from the east on February 20, though they met stiff resistance from Tubu fighters of the South Protection Force (Libya Observer, February 20, 2019).The assault on Murzuq followed failed negotiations between residents and the LNA, represented by LNA Special Forces commander Wanis Bukhamada.

Gunmen believed to belong to the LNA broke into the home of local security director Ibrahim Muhammad Kari on February 20, murdering the unarmed officer and stealing his safe before torching his home (Libya Observer, February 21, 2019).

The LNA claimed to have secured Murzuq on February 21, but other reports suggested the Tubu, aided by Chadian mercenaries, had in fact repulsed Haftar’s troops in ongoing fighting (Libya Herald, February 21, 2019). Within a few days, however, the LNA consolidated its control of Murzuq. By February 26, Tubu fighters were withdrawing to the south and the LNA announced it had “liberated Murzuq from Chadian gangs” (Libya Observer, February 24, 2019). The occupation permitted the LNA to take over the nearby al-Fil oilfield the following day.

LNA Brigadier ‘Abd al-Salim al-Hassi

Murzuq was quickly engulfed in looting, arson and extra-judicial killings. As many as 104 cars belonging to Tubu residents were stolen and 90 houses torched while activists and community leaders were hunted down by LNA gunmen. Even the home of local Tubu HoR representative Muhammad Lino as well as those of his brother and father were burned down, allegedly on the orders of the LNA’s commander of military operations in the west, Brigadier General ‘Abd al-Salim al-Hassi (Libya Observer, February 24, 2019).

One Murzuq resident complained that Libyan TV didn’t “say the truth, they just show the LNA celebrating and saying ‘we have liberated Murzuq and there is now security and freedom.’ But it’s not true. We are not okay and we do not have freedom” (Middle East Eye, February 26, 2019). There were soon numerous complaints from Tubu leaders and politicians that Haftar’s LNA was conducting “ethnic cleansing” and “ethnic war” (AFP, February 6, 2019; Libya Observer, February 23, 2019).

Much of the looting and arson was blamed on mercenaries from Darfur employed by Haftar’s LNA. One of the occupying brigades, the 128th (commanded by Awlad Sulayman Major Hassan Matoug al-Zadma) was composed of members of Kufra’s Zuwaya tribe and members of Fezzan’s Awlad Sulayman, both traditional enemies of the Tubu. Observers recorded video footage showing fighters from Darfur’s rebel Sudan Liberation Army – Minni Minawi (SLA-MM, mostly Zaghawa) operating as mercenaries tied to the LNA’s Brigade 128 (Middle East Eye, February 26, 2019; Middle East Eye, February 14, 2019; Libya Herald, February 7, 2019). [5]

Evacuation and Return

The LNA began a surprise evacuation of Murzuq late in the day on March 5, redeploying to Sabha after heavy clashes in Murzuq both before and during the evacuation that left four Tubu tribesmen dead (Libya Observer, March 6, 2019, Libyan Express, March 6, 2019).

As residents attempted to restore normalcy after the LNA occupation, Representative Muhammad Lino noted a lack of support from Tripoli’s PC/GNA and demanded to know whether there was coordination between allegedly rival political formations to “exterminate” the Tubu. The representative also noted that the HoR had denounced the March 15 mosque attack in New Zealand but had nothing to say about the death of Muslims in Murzuq (Libya Observer, March 26, 2019).

Tubu Folk Festival in Murzuq

Murzuq residents were dismayed when the LNA returned early this month, allegedly in pursuit of Chadian rebels and Islamic State terrorists whom they blamed for the armed resistance to the LNA’s return.  Murzuq’s Security Directorate issued a statement denying the presence of Chadian fighters or Islamic State forces in Murzuq, insisting only Tubu residents of the town were involved in the battle against Haftar’s invasion force (Libya Observer, July 9, 2019).

As the LNA re-occupied Murzuq, deadly clashes broke out between Tubu residents and members of the local al-Ahali community (Arabized black Libyans descended from slaves or economic migrants) (Anadolu Agency, July 11, 2019). On July 10, the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) expressed concern over the human cost of Tubu clashes with the LNA occupiers (Libyan Observer, July 10, 2019).

Conclusion

It seems increasingly clear that Khalifa Haftar and his Arab allies in the LNA are intent on reversing any gains Libya’s southern minorities may have made since the 2011 revolution. Both the Tubu and the Tuareg were used and abused by the Qaddafi regime according to the “Supreme Guide’s” whims and needs. Both were denied their ethnic identity, the Berber Tuareg characterized in Qaddafi’s mind as “southern Arabs” and the indigenous Tubu denied all rights as Libyan citizens.

Some Tubu support the LNA’s campaign against Chadian rebels and mercenaries, but are dismayed by the LNA’s indifference to their support and their continuing identification of all indigenous Tubu as non-Libyan foreigners, an attitude fostered by Arab supremacists during and after the Qaddafi regime.

Like the Tuareg, Libya’s Tubu population is determined not to be driven out from their harsh ancestral homeland where they have roamed for thousands of years. The vast spaces of the Libyan interior, its brutal climate and harsh topography make deployment there highly unpopular amongst the coastal Arabs who contribute the vast majority of Haftar’s LNA. Securing Libya’s southern borders, oil resources and water supply will require the cooperation of Libya’s southern minorities, not their elimination. A new Libyan state cannot be built on a foundation of ethnic cleansing, identity denial and Qaddafi-era Arab supremacism.

Notes

  1. For the Chadian rebels and their efforts to return to Chad, see: “War in the Tibesti Mountains – Libyan-Based Rebels Return to Chad,” AIS Special Report, November 12, 2018, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=4308
  2. For Hemetti and the RSF, see: “Snatching the Sudanese Revolution: A Profile of General Muhammad Hamdan Daglo ‘Hemetti’,” Militant Leadership Monitor, June 30, 2019, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=4455
  3. For the role of the Madkhali Salafists in the Libyan conflict, see: “Radical Loyalty and the Libyan Crisis: A Profile of Salafist Shaykh Rabi’ bin Hadi al-Madkhali,” Militant Leadership Monitor, January 19, 2017, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=3840
  4. For General Ali Kanna, see “General Ali Kanna Sulayman and Libya’s Qaddafist Revival,” AIS Special Report, August 8, 2017, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=3999
  5. For Minni Minawi, see: “The Unlikely Rebel: A Profile of Darfur’s Zaghawa Rebel Leader Minni Minawi,” Militant Leadership Monitor, December 8, 2017, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=4088

The Inates Attack: Islamic State Embarrasses Niger’s Military… Again

Andrew McGregor

AIS Special Report,  July 3, 2019

For the second time in less than two months, militants belonging to the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) have demonstrated the poor intelligence and operational incapacity of Niger’s military through an hours-long attack on a Nigerien military base at Inates, 260 km north of the national capital, Niamey.

The assault on the advanced military post began July 1 at 2:30 PM with the arrival of a pair of suicide bombers in cars who charged into the center of the camp before detonating their charges. This was the signal for a large number of IS fighters on motorcycles to open fire on the camp, which they had surrounded.

(Map – BBC)

Responsibility for the attack was claimed on July 3 by the Islamic State’s Amaq news agency (Reuters, July 3, 2019).

Niger’s Defense Ministry reported the intervention of French and American warplanes that managed to drive away the attackers (RFI/AFP, July 12, 2019). Two French Mirage 2000 fighters from Niamey worked over the terrorists, killing several and destroying one truck, while American and French surveillance aircraft monitored the ISGS withdrawal. Eighteen Nigerien soldiers were killed in the ISGS assault.

Material losses in the ISGS attack included a barracks burnt to the ground by the suicide bombers, several vehicles incinerated and at least a dozen stolen, and the loss of numerous weapons. Four soldiers remain missing, likely either captured or lost after fleeing into the desert.

A place in Tillabéri known as Balley Béri was the site of a deadly Islamic State ambush of Nigerien troops on May 14. Twenty-eight men of the 112e Compagnie Spéciale d’Intervention (CSI) were killed, including their commander.

Troops of the Forces Armées Nigeriennes (FAN) on Patrol (AFP)

The attack raised security concerns in Niamey, which is hosting a summit of African Union leaders from July 4 to July 8. The real issue, however, concerns Niger’s inability to provide meaningful security in its remoter regions without the intercession of French military assets, a troubling development for Nigeriens who fear a loss of sovereignty and the development of a Paris-reliant neo-colonial state.