The Battle for Sabha Castle: Implications for Libya’s Future

Andrew McGregor

AIS Special Report, July 9, 2018

Libya’s fractious southern desert region is dotted by castles dating to Libya’s 19th century Ottoman period and the succeeding era of Italian colonial occupation in the early 20th century. The purpose of these defensive works was always the same: establish a fortified position with a strong garrison at choke-points of the Saharan trade network. Government control of watered oases, food supplies and local trade forced most caravans into communities dominated by fortifications intended to convince local tribes of the permanence of the occupiers. [1]

Sabha Castle Under Fire by Tubu Fighters (Libyan Express)

Insecurity in the south has taken the form of sabotage to power and water pumping stations, occupation of oil fields by gunmen, civil conflict, tribal warfare, fuel smuggling, arms proliferation, intrusion of foreign mercenaries, rampant kidnappings, human trafficking and even body-snatching. As fighting rages on around them in bursts of tribal, ethnic or politically motivated violence, Libya’s aging fortresses have become valuable strongpoints in many southern cities, including Sabha, located in the heart of the Libyan Sahara.

The Castle

With some 75,000 people, Sabha is the largest city in Libya’s southwestern Fezzan region and is 780 km south of Tripoli. Surrounded by desert, Sabha experiences average daily highs between 88º F and 102º F for seven months of the year. During Libya’s 2011 civil war, the city became a Qaddafist stronghold, only succumbing to revolutionaries aided by British airstrikes in September 2011.

Sabha Market – Castle on horizon, center right.

In the chaos that followed the overthrow of Qaddafi, the largely anti-Qaddafi Awlad Sulayman Arabs succeeded in seizing control of Sabha’s security apparatus and created a tribal militia under the official-sounding name of the 6th Infantry Brigade. Various tribal factions turned Sabha into a battleground in 2012 and 2014 as they fought for control of the city and the smuggling routes to the south of it.

Sabha’s strong-point is undeniably the massive walled Italian colonial-era fortress built atop a hill overlooking the city. Popularly known as the “Sabha castle,” the site is also known as Fort Elena or by its Italian name, Fortezza Margharita. The fortification’s imposing bulk was intended to intimidate the local tribes and consolidate Italian control of Fezzan. In the Qaddafist era, Sabha became a major military base during Qaddafi’s long and ultimately fruitless effort to seize northern Chad. The remote city then became the center of Qaddafi’s equally unsuccessful nuclear weapons program.

Though it is home to a number of tribes and a significant number of sub-Saharan migrants, two long-antagonistic groups emerged after the 2011 revolution as contenders for control of Sabha, the Arab Awlad Sulayman and the indigenous Tubu, a dark-skinned indigenous people found in parts of southern Libya, northern Chad and northeastern Niger. The Tubu are divided into two broad groups according to dialect; the northern Teda Tubu and the southern Daza Tubu.

The Battle

The struggle between the Tubu and the Awlad Sulayman began to escalate in February with small-scale street clashes. These intensified in early March, as homes, schools and hospitals all endured shelling. With snipers dominating the rooftops, thousands of civilians were forced to seek refuge elsewhere.

The commander of the 6th Brigade was Ahmad al-Utaybi (Awlad Sulayman). When Haftar prematurely attempted to extend his influence to Sabha by declaring the 6th Brigade a part of the LNA, al-Utaybi instead insisted the 6th was loyal to the Presidency Council/Government of National Accord (PC/GNA) defence ministry in Tripoli rather than the rival House of Representatives (HoR) government in Tobruk (Haftar’s LNA being, at least nominally, the armed wing of the HoR). An angry Haftar ordered al-Utaybi’s replacement by Brigadier Khalifa Abdul Hafiz Khalifa on February 25 (Al-Sharq al-Aswat, February 27). Al-Utaybi’s reluctance to give way led to attacks on 6th Brigade positions in Sabha by LNA-affiliated gunmen, possibly including Chadian and Sudanese mercenaries. Eventually the 6th Brigade was forced to pull back into their headquarters in the castle.

Haftar’s LNA then issued a bold order on March 9, 2017 that they had little chance of enforcing – a voluntary departure of all nationals from neighboring African countries living in the south by March 17, followed by the removal by force of those remaining “using all possible means, both land and air” (Xinhua, March 9, 2018; Middle East Monitor, March 9, 2018). Enforcing this order would likely entail the ethnic cleansing of most of Libya’s indigenous Tubu, many of whom have endured continuing difficulties obtaining citizenship documents after Qaddafi stripped them of their citizenship following the failure of his Chadian adventure. The inability or unwillingness of Libya’s post-revolution leaders to address this issue has contributed to the violence in southern Libya, where the Tubu have come to understand their presence can only be maintained by arms.

The LNA’s “Operation Law Enforcement” began on March 19 after the expiry of the ultimatum for foreign nationals to remove themselves. The operation’s goals were to restore security in the south, extend Haftar’s influence into a strategically vital region and drive those Chadian or Darfuri mercenaries not aligned with the LNA out of Libya.

Forbidding Haruj (Norbert Brügge)

LNA reports indicated the first airstrike of Operation Law Enforcement targeted a ten-vehicle group of Chadian mercenaries operating out of the Haruj volcanic field of central Libya, a physically hostile region consisting of 150 dormant volcanoes of various sizes and the blackened remains of their lava flows. The region is well known to local nomads, who have visited Haruj since the Neolithic Age seeking volcanic rock for weapons or tools. The wadi-s (dried river beds that funnel seasonal rains) of Haruj continue to offer forage to Arab and Tubu herders to this day as well as temporary shelter for militants.

Volcano Ruin, Haruj

As part of Operation Law Enforcement, the LNA also despatched units from Benghazi to distant Kufra oasis, 580 miles south into the Cyrenaïcan desert (Libya Herald, March 15, 2018). These arrived in mid-March under the command of Brigadier Belqassim al-Abaj, a former Qaddafi loyalist who held Kufra for Qaddafi until early May 2011, when Tubu revolutionaries and others drove him out. Al-Abaj is a Zuwaya Arab, which is hardly likely to encourage the Tubu, who have struggled with the Zuwaya for control of Kufra since the revolution. Animosity between the two groups dates to the 1840s, when the Zuwaya arrived from the north and made their first efforts to displace the indigenous Tubu. Al-Abaj’s force joined the local LNA-affiliated Subul al-Salam, a Zuwaya Salafist militia that has fought Chadian mercenaries and displaced Darfuri rebels with some success. [2]

Brigadier Belqassim al-Abaj

On March 18, the LNA reported the arrest of 16 militants who had crossed into Libya near the southern oasis of Kufra from Sudan. The detainees were said to have carried Sudanese and Syrian passports and were veterans of Syrian pro-al-Qaeda movements such as Jabhat al-Nusra (Libyan Express, March 18, 2018; Xinhua, March 18, 2018). The arrests were followed by airstrikes on unspecified targets in southern Libya two days later.

In late March, LNA airstrikes targeted a Chadian rebel group working as mercenaries inside Libya. Though Haftar has employed Chadian mercenaries himself, the targeted group, the Conseil de Commandement Militaire pour le Salut de la République (CCMSR – Military Command Council for the Salvation of the Republic), allied itself with the Benghazi Defense Brigades (BDB), bitter enemies of Haftar. [3] The CCMSR leader, Hassani Bulmay, was arrested in Niger in October 2017.

The Castle Falls

With its new commander finally in place, the 6th Infantry Brigade declared a unilateral ceasefire on April 9, 2018 as well as its allegiance to Khalifa Haftar and the LNA (Libya Herald, April 10, 2018). Mediators and reconciliation experts from the PC/GNA and the rival HoR arrived in Sabha to ease the conflict, but their efforts were generally unsuccessful, largely because of differing approaches and ultimate aims.

By the first week of May, abductions began in Sabha and the deaths of children and other civilians from shelling were reported (Libya Observer, May 7, 2018). The Awlad Sulayman were able to place snipers on the castle’s high points, giving them a clear field of fire into the predominantly Tubu neighborhoods of Tayouri and Nassiriya (Libya Herald, May 14, 2018).

The battle for the castle intensified on May 11-12. The escalation appeared to be due to an attempt by Haftar’s newly-appointed military governor for the south, Major General Mabruk al-Ghazwi, to impose a ceasefire on both parties. Ghazwi had just been transferred from Kufra, where he acted as LNA military commander, and appeared to have lacked a full grasp of the local situation in Sabha. Before accepting a ceasefire, the Tubu demanded to know if their 6th Brigade opponents were now under LNA command. Ghazwi’s response that the brigade was indeed a part of the LNA enraged the Tubu fighters, who determined to drive the Awlad Sulayman gunmen from the castle once and for all.

By May 15, Sabha’s mayor, Hamid al-Khayali, was, describing the situation in Sabha as “tragic” (Libya Observer, May 15, 2018).  In response, the Presidential Council (PC) in Tripoli ordered the creation of three new brigades to operate in the south and extend the writ of the PC/GNA (Libya Observer, May 16, 2018; Libya Herald, May 17, 2018).

Tubu Range – Daza are in dark red, Teda in light red (Nationalia)

The Tubu, as is customary during clashes with southern Libya’s Arab population, were accused of hiring Tubu mercenaries from Chad and Niger or of being Chadians themselves. The claim is a Qaddafi-era canard that has survived the late dictator, though it must be acknowledged that many Teda Tubu travel back and forth across the unregulated and relatively new border through their traditional lands with some regularity. Awlad Sulayman tribesmen are also found in Chad as a result of flight from Libya during the Ottoman and Italian colonial periods; some of these have returned to Libya since the revolution.During a fierce battle on the morning of May 13, 2018, the Tubu finally broke the defenses of the 6th Brigade and poured into the castle. The Awlad Sulayman brought up armor for a counter-attack, but were ultimately repulsed. The LNA’s military governor al-Mabruk al-Ghazwi then ordered a final withdrawal, leaving the castle and the northern and eastern parts of Sabha in Tubu hands (Libya Herald, May 13, 2018). After taking the castle, a Tubu spokesman invited the Presidential Council (PC) to secure Sabha (Libya Observer, May 13, 2018).

The castle, which appears on Libya’s 10 dinar bank-note, was badly damaged by artillery, though not for the first time since the 2011 revolution. The latest shelling of the fortress was condemned by the Libyan Antiquities Authority as an attack on “Libyan history and civilization” (Libya Observer, March 5, 2018).

The Struggle for Tamanhint Airbase

Days after the castle fell, fighting broke out at the massive Tamanhint airbase, 30 km northeast of Sabha The base was held by members of the Misratan pro-PC/GNA 13th Brigade (formerly “Third Force”), until May 25, 2017, when LNA forces from southern and eastern Libya began to assemble in large numbers at Traghan (east of Murzuq, 125 km south of Sabha) in late March 2017 (Misrata is a coastal city in northwestern Libya and the home of several powerful anti-Haftar militias). Attacks by these forces and local opposition to the Misratan presence helped convince the 13th Brigade’s leaders to withdraw to the north on May 25, 2017, leaving the base to the LNA.

On March 24, 2018, the base was occupied by the Tarik bin Zayid Brigade, a Salafist militia affiliated with the LNA. The unit is led by Sulayman al-Wahidi al-Si’aiti (aka al-Massloukh, “the skinny one”).

The LNA briefly lost Tamanhint to attackers in 15 vehicles on May 29, 2018, before the attackers were in turn driven off by LNA airstrikes, apparently without loss. The LNA claimed the attackers were a mix of Chadian mercenaries and fighters from the notorious anti-Haftar Benghazi Defense Brigades (BDB) (Libya Herald, May 31, 2018; June 1, 2018). [4]

The Israeli Defense Force in Sabha?

An unconfirmed report from London-based al-Araby al-Jadeed claimed Haftar held an early July meeting in the Jordanian capital of Amman with Israeli intelligence to discuss the insertion of Israeli security forces in Sabha in order to dissuade alleged French and Italian efforts to control the southern region (Middle East Monitor, July 3, 2018). In return, Israel could expect Libyan oil shipments and large orders from Israel’s booming arms industry (presumably despite the porous UN arms embargo).

Other reports suggest that Israeli military assistance to Haftar began in 2014, with the July 2018 meeting being only the latest in a series of secret meetings between Haftar and Mossad representatives in Amman since then. The meetings are allegedly mediated by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which provides substantial military support to Haftar and air support to LNA ground forces (Middle East Eye, August 14, 2017; Reuters, July 25, 2015; New Arab, July 24, 2017). Haftar announced on June 29 that he had information regarding “international forces” seeking to insert military forces into southern Libya in order to bring illegal migration under control. Haftar warned these un-named forces “against such actions, which are considered as a violation of international law and an attack on the Libyan state and its sovereignty” (Asharq al-Awsat, June 30, 2018).

Conclusion

An LNA spokesman in Derna declared on June 11 that the successful conclusion of the two-year battle for that city will be followed by new campaigns to secure southern Libya (Libya Observer, June 11, 2018). Meanwhile, the occupation of Sabha’s commanding fortress by Tubu militiamen has posed a setback to Haftar’s long-range efforts to secure Fezzan through local tribal fighters. Nonetheless, Sabha’s Awlad Sulayman may have suffered a defeat, but the 6th Infantry Brigade remains in the region and will no doubt spearhead any new attempts by the LNA to take hold of the region.

Whether there is any substance to Haftar’s claims that foreign militaries intend to occupy southern Libya to control the flow of sub-Saharan migrants into Europe remains unknown, though both French and Italian troops have established themselves on the Niger side of that nation’s border with Libya’s Fezzan region. With Derna’s last points of resistance likely to collapse by the end of July, the LNA will be able to deploy its forces in the south against those aligned with the internationally recognized PC/GNA government. The resulting chaos may work in the favor of Islamic State fighters already active in Fezzan [5] and attract further international attention, making Sabha’s castle the epicenter of Libya’s ongoing crisis.

NOTES

  1. Photos of many of these Ottoman/Italian fortifications in Libya can be found at http://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=2837
  2. For more on Subul al-Salam and their Saudi religious influences, see: “Salafists, Mercenaries and Body Snatchers: The War for Libya’s South,” Terrorism Monitor, April 6, 2018, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=4173
  3. For more on Chadian militant groups operating inside Libya, see: Rebel or Mercenary? A Profile of Chad’s General Mahamat Mahdi Ali,” Militant Leadership Monitor, September 7, 2017, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=4010
  4. For the BDB, see: “Libya’s Military Wild Card: The Benghazi Defense Brigades and the Massacre at Brak al-Shatti,” Terrorism Monitor, June 2, 2017, http://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=3917
  5. Islamic State militants operate close to Sabha; in March, a US airstrike killed two men alleged to be IS operatives in the southern town of Ubari (Libya Observer, March 24, 2018; Libyan Express, March 24, 2018; NYT March 25, 2018). Ubari is a principal center in the smuggling of weapons, drugs and illegal migrants from the African interior. A statement from US Africa Command (AFRICOM) declared that the attack had been coordinated with the PC/GNA government. It was the southernmost strike in Libya acknowledged so far by AFRICOM (Reuters, March 24, 2018). AFRICOM identified one of the deceased as Musa Abu Dawud, a veteran Algerian militant who led successful attacks against Algerian and Tunisian military posts (AP, March 29, 2018; Arab News, March 28, 2018). The IS leader in Libya is believed to be Al-Mahdi Salam Danqo (aka Abu al-Barakat), who served the Islamic State in Mosul.

Libya’s Video Executioner: A Profile of LNA Special Forces Commander Mahmud al-Warfali

Andrew McGregor

July 6, 2018

Major Mahmud Mustafa Busayf al-Warfali (right) takes a selfie with two alleged militants (center rear) on their way to their execution.

Islamist militants have long used the power of videotaped atrocities to terrorize their opponents. One man believes he can do the same in the interests of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s attempt to gain control of Libya: Major Mahmud Mustafa Busayf al-Warfali, a senior officer in Libya’s Special Forces unit.

Early Career – The Libyan Revolution

Born in 1978, al-Warfali, a member of Libya’s Warfalla tribe, joined Libya’s elite al-Sa’iqa (“Thunderbolt”) Special Forces brigade after Qaddafi’s fall. Many Warfalla were pro-Qaddafi and fighting continued for months after Qaddafi’s death around the Warfalla-dominated town of Bani Walid (90 miles southeast of Tripoli) Nearly five months after Qaddafi’s death, al-Warfali was involved in the successful defense of Bani Walid as spokesman of the revolutionary forces against an assault on the town by lingering pro-Qaddafi forces (AP, January 23, 2012; Express, January 23, 2012).

Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar (left) and Major General Wanis Bukhamada

Al-Sa’iqa is led by Major General Wanis Bukhamada (Magharba tribe), a career military officer who deserted the Libyan regular army in 2011 to join the revolutionary forces. Al-Sa’iqa joined Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) in early 2014, as Haftar began a three-year siege of Benghazi (Reuters, May 18, 2014). Despite its name, the LNA is actually a coalition of revolutionary militias, former Qaddafi loyalists, radical Saudi-influenced Islamists and African mercenaries, though it is closely tied to the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR), one of three rival governments in Libya.

War Crimes in Benghazi

During the siege of Benghazi, al-Warfali’s enemies attempted to eliminate him through a car bomb targeting his convoy on February 7, 2017. Two soldiers were killed while al-Warfali was rushed for medical treatment at the Benghazi Medical Center, where his men imposed a security lockdown so tight that even doctors had difficulty gaining access to al-Warfali (African News Agency, February 27, 2017).

Al-Warfali Executes Bound Suspects, Benghazi, 2017

Al-Warfali began to attract international attention in March 2017, when a video was released of the LNA officer executing three bound suspects in the Salmania district of Benghazi. Following international outrage, the LNA announced it was launching an inquiry and would not tolerate extra-judicial killings.

Al-Warfali Executes an Algerian Militant, May 2017

Nonetheless, a  video released in early May 2017 showed al-Warfali firing into the head of a bound individual alleged to be an Algerian Islamic Stare (IS) militant (Al-Arabiya, May 11, 2017). The Benghazi Security Directorate accused al-Warfali’s men of murdering police captain Musa al-Mijibri (Libya Observer, July 23, 2017). The accusation did not prevent al-Warfali’s promotion to major shortly afterwards.

Apparently responding to the international condemnation of his actions, al-Warfali resigned his commission on May 15, 2017 in a theatrical videotaped event, but Bukhamada refused to accept it (Libya Herald, May 16, 2017).

In June 2017, al-Warfali was accused by the UN Panel of Experts on Libya of running a number of secret and illegal prisons. [1] In the same month, al-Warfali appeared in a video killing four masked men, stating he was “honored” to kill them and purify the world of their evil  (Libya Herald, August 15, 2017). Al-Warfali sometimes quotes scriptural justification for his executions while waving a Quran in his hands.

Summary Execution of 20 Bound Men, July 17, 2017 – Al-Warfali in black shirt, bottom left

Another video was released showing a July 17, 2017 mass execution of 20 bound men in orange jump suits directed by al-Warfali. The victims were arranged in four rows before gunmen approached them from behind to fire point-blank into the back of their heads. Al-Warfali himself kills one of the last three prisoners (Libya Observer, July 23, 2017; Libya Herald, August 15, 2017). Al-Warfali insisted the killings came only after “it was proven that they were involved in the killing, kidnapping, torture, bombing and slaughter” of military personnel and Libyan civilians (Al-Arabiya, July 24, 2017).

The International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for al-Warfali on August 15, 2017, alleging he had committed and ordered “murder as a war crime” in seven incidents involving 33 victims between June 2, 2016 and July 17, 2017. [2] Not long after his supposed arrest, al-Warfali was spotted in Ajdabiya conducting the summary execution of five prisoners taken by the LNA (Libya Observer, September 7, 2017; Libya Herald, January 25).

On August 17, 2017, the LNA announced al-Warfali had been arrested and detained on August 2 at Haftar’s order.  Despite pledges to do so, the LNA failed to provide the ICC with any of the results of their investigation (Libya Observer, August 17, 2017; Al-Jazeera, August 18, 2017).

In Abyar, roughly 40 miles from Benghazi, 36 bodies were discovered on October 26, 2017, all bearing signs of torture and execution-style shots to the head. The bound men were alleged to have been prisoners at one of the LNA’s private prisons (Al-Arabiya, October 30, 2017; Libya Observer, November 29, 2017). Some security sources implicated Mahmoud al-Warfali and Saddam Haftar, one of the LNA commander’s sons (Al-Jazeera, October 29, 2017; Libyan Express, October 28, 2017).

In early December 2017, a Sa’iqa spokesman, possibly oblivious to the fact al-Warfali was supposed to be under arrest, announced that the Special Forces commander had led al-Sa’iqa’s 1st battalion in an assault on militant positions in the Sidi Akribesh district of Benghazi  (Libya Herald, December 2, 2017).

Al-Warfali conducts revenge killings, Benghazi, January 2018

After the twin bombing of Benghazi’s Baya’at al-Radwan mosque that killed dozens of worshippers (many of them LNA members) on January 24, 2018, al-Warfali was reported to have taken revenge by executing ten suspected militants outside the damaged mosque. The bodies were left in the street (al-Ahram [Cairo], February 4, 2018). Photos of al-Warfali killing at least one of the kneeling prisoners were later released, attracting the attention of UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres (Libya Herald, January 25, 2018).

Arrest and Release

Haftar complained to an Italian daily that the focus on al-Warfali was disproportional, even citing a lack of “concrete evidence,” despite the videos: “I respect the laws of human rights and the authority of the International Criminal Court. But it should also add the horrific crimes that are being committed daily in Libya. Why is the court only focussing on Warfali?” (Corriere Della Sera, September 28, 2017).

As Haftar continued to ignore the ICC warrant, Gambian ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda declared the LNA leader needed “to demonstrate, by concrete actions, respect for international justice” (Middle East Monitor, November 9, 2017). Haftar’s response to the extradition demand was to again ask: “There are crimes being committed in Libya every day, so why are you focusing only on Warfali?” (Asharq al-Aswat, November 9, 2017).

Al-Warfali formally turned himself in to LNA military police headquarters in Benghazi on February 6. Shortly afterward, LNA gunmen led by sons of Khalifa Hafter showed up and took al-Warfali to Rajma (27 km east of Benghazi). There were fears in al-Sa’iqa that al-Warfali had been spirited away in order to carry out his extradition to the ICC, and rioting Special Forces and Islamist fighters were soon mounting barricades in the streets of Benghazi in protest. With the LNA’s strongest unit now taking to the streets to oppose their Field Marshal, al-Warfali found himself back on the streets in less than two days (Libya Observer, February 8).

According to an account carried by Libyan TV, Haftar demanded Bukhamada turn over the Sa’iqa fighters who were involved the in the Benghazi riots. Perhaps aware that his demand might not be met, Haftar offered to release back wages owed to Sa’iqa members in return for Bukhamada’s cooperation (Al-Nabaa TV, February 22). The detention of the Sa’iqa rioters provoked yet more Sa’iqa protests and road seizures (Libya Observer, March 8).

Al-Warfali conducts summary executions, May 2018

After this episode, Bukhamada was reassigned to Derna, where a new offensive was being prepared. Rumors that he had been sacked by Haftar as leader of the Special Forces proved false, but there were suggestions that Haftar was disturbed by the level of support Bukhamada and al-Warfali had received in Benghazi after the latter’s arrest (Libya Herald, February 18).

An Army without Discipline

While al-Warfali may have tapped into a widespread Libyan thirst for revenge against murderous Islamic State militants who never displayed any mercy of their own, his actions damage the LNA’s efforts to gain international recognition as a state army while his very public indiscipline creates rifts within the LNA’s loose command structure.

Is al-Warfali a rogue commander or a loyal agent of Haftar’s campaign to seize power in Libya? The LNA has claimed the illegal executions represent “only those who committed them,” even as al-Warfali continued serving as an LNA officer (Asharq al-Awsat, August 19, 2017). The executions are either approved at the top or demonstrate that Haftar little control of the varied military coalition he presents as Libya’s “national army.” [3]

There is little difference between the methods used by al-Warfali and those employed by the Islamic State terrorists; al-Warfali is certainly not the first to adopt the tactics of his enemy. What is unusual is his determination to document his own participation in potential war crimes. Al-Warfali may enjoy immunity now, but, as an ICC spokesman pointed out, conditions often change, noting “There is no statute of limitations for the ICC arrest warrants” (Libya Herald, August 15, 2017).

Notes

  1. United Nations Security Council: “Final report of the Panel of Experts on Libya established pursuant to resolution 1973 (2011),” June 1, 2017, http://undocs.org/S/2017/466, p.19.
  2. “The Prosecutor v. Mahmoud Mustafa Busayf Al-Werfalli,” ICC-01/11-01/17, https://www.icc-cpi.int/libya/al-werfalli
  3. For the difficulties in creating a national Libyan army, see: “The Missing Military: Options for a New National Libyan Army,” AIS Special Report, November 10, 2017, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?tag=libyan-national-army

This article first appeared in the July 6, 2018 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Militant Leadership Monitor.

“We Don’t Need Derna Anymore”: What the Battle for Derna Means for Libya’s Future

Andrew McGregor

June 29, 2018

The Southern Approach to Derna (Libyan Express)

Once an important Mediterranean port in the ancient world of the Greeks and Romans, the city of Derna is currently being leveled by artillery and airstrikes supporting a ground offensive led by 76-year-old “Field Marshal” Khalifa Haftar. A former Qaddafi loyalist, veteran of Libya’s disastrous war in Chad and a one-time CIA asset, Haftar now seeks total control of Libya while acting as the commander of the so-called “Libyan National Army (LNA),” nominally the military wing of the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR), a rival government to the internationally recognized Presidency Council/Government of National Accord (PC/GNA) in Tripoli. The LNA is a coalition of former revolutionaries, Saudi-influenced Islamist militias and occasionally mercenaries who fight under Haftar’s direction.

More recently known as a hotbed of jihadist activity, Derna plays an important part in U.S. military history; in 1805 Consul William Eaton led seven U.S. Marines and several hundred Greek, Arab and Turkish mercenaries on a five hundred mile march from Alexandria to Derna, where his odd little army took the city from a larger Karamanli force in little more than an hour. It was the young republic’s first over-seas land battle and a notable success after the French had failed to take Derna five years earlier.

Today, however, Derna has become known as a hotbed of jihadist activity. Haftar’s campaign aims to bring an end to that, but the longer the LNA bombardment continues the less certain his political future becomes.

Derna and the Islamic State

Located on the coast near the green hills of the northeastern Jabal Akhdar region, Derna supplied over 50 fighters for the anti-American jihad in Iraq in the 2000s. In October 2014, a group of Islamist militants based in Derna (particularly dissident members of the Abu Salim Martyr’s Brigade) pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) organization and took over many parts of the city despite the opposition of other Islamists with close ties to al-Qaeda. IS rule was marked largely by beheadings and other forms of public humiliations and executions.

Fighters opposing the IS within Derna formed the Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen Derna (Derna Mujahideen Shura Council – DMSC) on December 12, 2014. This group began to drive IS militants out of Derna in June 2015 even as the LNA imposed a loose siege on the city. The DMSC fought a merciless war against IS members responsible for murders and suicide bombings in Derna, frequently executing IS militants after obtaining their confessions (Libya Express, March 22, 2016).

In the meantime, the IS slaughter of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians in Sirte in February 2015 led to Egyptian airstrikes on IS strongholds in Libya, including DMSC targets in Derna. The DMSC declared they had “no relation with the IS in Syria and Iraq,” adding that they also had nothing to do with the IS beheadings of Egyptian Copts hundreds of kilometers away (Middle East Eye, February 19, 2015). Later that year an American F-15 airstrike killed IS commander Abu Nabil al-Anbari (a.k.a. Wissam Najm ‘Abd Zayd al-Zubaydi; a.k.a. Abu Mughira al-Qahtani) just outside Derna (BBC, December 7, 2015).

Neighborhoods of Derna (NGO Reach)

For a time the IS fugitives were able to establish themselves in the industrial suburb of al-Fatayih, but were eventually forced from there in April 2016, bringing the DMSC’s two-year campaign to an end (Libyan Express, April 20, 2016). Four days later the DMSC complained that since the IS expulsion Haftar’s small air force had mounted 12 airstrikes on civilian neighborhoods of Derna while failing to attack fleeing IS fighters who were dangerously exposed in open country (Libyan Express, April 24, 2016).

The Egyptian air force bombed Derna again in May 2017 as retaliation for an attack on Christians in central Egypt that was blamed on IS militants from Derna (BBC, May 26, 2017). The DMSC denied any involvement in the mass-killing, reminding Cairo that the IS had been expelled from Derna, while suggesting the accusation was an attempt to divert attention from the Egyptian government’s inability to tackle its own security crisis (Libyan Express, May 28, 2017). The LNA’s two-year-old siege of Derna was tightened in August, with residents describing it as “collective punishment” (Middle East Eye, August 7, 2017).

The Field Marshal

Inaccurate reports of Haftar’s imminent death in April after a medical evacuation to Amman and then Paris may have sparked a succession struggle within the LNA, possibly including the April 18 car bomb attack on Haftar’s LNA chief-of-staff, General ‘Abd al-Razik al-Nazuri (218 TV [Libya], via BBC Monitoring, April 18).

Haftar’s bid for power is supported by Russia, France, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which has been accused by the UN of providing military helicopters and other aircraft to Haftar’s LNA in violation of the UN arms embargo. There are also reports of Haftar seeking military support from Israel (The New Arab, July 27, 2017; Libyan Express, December 25, 2017; Middle East Eye, August 5, 2017),

Charges related to alleged LNA war crimes have been filed in France, the U.S. and the International Criminal Court (ICC) (Libya Observer, May 2). Haftar has refused to turn suspected war criminals in the LNA ranks over to the International Criminal Court (ICC), and has even been charged with torture and murder himself in Paris (Middle East Confidential, May 3).

The Offensive Begins

As the LNA began to occupy the southern heights overlooking Derna in the third week of April, the DMSC appealed for reconciliation, extending “Its hand in peace” and declaring its members were “ready to be accountable for any injustices we are proven to have committed.” Oddly, the group suggested mediation through the offices of former Libya Grand Mufti Shaykh Sadiq al-Ghariani, one of Haftar’s most bitter and vocal opponents (Libyan Social Media, via BBC Monitoring, April 22). Instead, the seizure of the heights allowed LNA artillery spotters to direct more intensive fire onto targets within Derna.

Fighting on the Outskirts of Derna (Libyan Express)

On May 7, Haftar announced a final offensive to “liberate” Derna, even if “we have to evacuate all civilians from it” (Libyan Observer, May 7). A member of the Presidential Council, Muhammad Amari Zayid, described the offensive as a “war crime” that was being carried out to satisfy “personal ambitions” rather than serve the interests of the nation (Libya Observer, May 8). Zayid succeeded in meeting with the head of the Derna local council, who confirmed that Derna’s civil and military institutions were affiliated with the PC/GNA (Asharq al-Awsat, May 10).

On May 11, the DMSC reorganized as the Derna Protection Force (DPF), possibly to build a common cause with less religiously-driven fighters who nonetheless oppose Haftar and the imposition of his own form of strongman rule across eastern Libya. Some members of the DPF were formerly aligned with Ansar al-Shari’a, an Islamist militia close to al-Qaeda that dissolved in May 2017 after suffering heavy losses in fighting with the LNA and its allies (Reuters, May 27, 2017).  By May 15, LNA attacks had begun to strike civilian areas of Derna. Social media photos displayed indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas of Derna’a Wasat al-Bilad district, with local sources saying bodies (including those of women and children) could not be recovered due to shelling and airstrikes (Libya Observer, June 9).

Worried residents of Derna were not reassured by a video released by an LNA fighter in which the speaker warned they would be treated worse than the “Khawarij” (a derogatory reference to the Kharijites, a violent and despised extremist sect in early Islam); “We will demolish your houses; we will kill everyone, even civilians, we don’t need Derna anymore” (Libya Observer, May 17). This was followed by an announcement from Haftar’s “Information and Fighting E-Terrorism Unit” that they had a list of 21,000 “terrorists” they were seeking in the city of 125 to 150,000 people (Libya Observer, May 27).

Omar Rifa’i Juma’a Surur

A veteran Egyptian jihadist and qadi (religious judge), ‘Umar Rifa’i Juma’a Surur (a.k.a. Abu ‘Abdallah al-Masri), was killed in a May 21 airstrike on Derna, according to an LNA spokesman (Al-Wasat [Cairo], May 21; Al-Sharq al-Awsat, June 11). Surur was alleged to have acted as a recruiter of jihadis headed for Syria, Iraq and Egypt (Egypt Today, May 21).  Known for his strong opposition to the rival Islamic State, Surur was formerly a lieutenant of Egyptian jihadist Hisham ‘Ali al-Ashmawy, an expert in tactics and weapons (Al-Arabiya, June 10). Two other militant clerics, Abu Zayd al-Shilwi and Abu ‘Umar ‘Abd al-Salam al-Awami, were killed the same day (Telegram Messaging via BBC Monitoring, June 11). The LNA also suffered losses; On May 22, the LNA announced the death in combat of 36th Brigade commander Brigadier ‘Abd al-Hamid Warfali during clashes southwest of Derna (Libya Observer, May 23).

Nonetheless, Haftar announced on May 24 that the end of “four consecutive years of holy struggle” was approaching in Derna, while proclaiming he had ordered his men not to “harm the city’s residents or their property” (Middle East Monitor, May 24). The LNA commander also called on the families of DPF fighters to pressure their kinsmen to abandon arms in the struggle against the LNA and seek the “fair trial” being offered (Reuters, May 25).

Egyptian airstrikes coordinated with the LNA struck central Derna and the Fatayeh industrial zone on May 26, 2017, followed by claims to have destroyed the DPF headquarters (Libyan Express, May 27, 2017; Middle East Eye, May 29). Drone attacks and heavy shelling forced the DPF to withdraw from al-Fatayeh on May 29 even as Derna’s local council issued an appeal to all local, regional and international organizations to open Derna’s port for humanitarian assistance, describing conditions as “disastrous” (Anadolou Agency, May 28; Libya Observer, May 29).

The LNA Enters Derna

By June 1, the LNA claimed to have taken al-Fatayih and the heights overlooking the Bab al-Tobruk district of Derna (Middle East Eye, June 1). Shaykh Sadiq al-Ghariani took to Libyan TV to describe the attack during the holy month of Ramadan as “preposterous.” Urging all Libyans to support the citizens of Derna with civil disobedience if necessary, al-Ghariani declared that “What is happening in Derna is not a war on terrorism, but a war on all Libyans in order to subdue them” (Tanasuh TV, via Libya Observer, June 2).

The attacking force consisted of four battalions of LNA troops, with two battalions working their way into Derna from the west and two from the east, beginning on June 4. Troop movement is directed by the ‘Umar Mukhtar Operations Room under the command of Major General Salim al-Rafadi. The troops are strengthened by elements of the al-Sa’iqa Special Forces brigade and supported by artillery and warplanes belonging to the LNA, Egypt and the UAE (The National [Abu Dhabi], June 5). France, which aided Haftar in his three-year siege of Benghazi, is reported to have secretly provided Haftar with a newly-obtained Beechcraft King Air 350 reconnaissance airplane for work over Derna (Libya Observer, June 3; Libyan Express, November 1, 2016). Publically, France is promoting a peace process intended to lead to presidential and parliamentary elections in December.

At the forefront of the LNA offensive is Wanis Bukhamada’s Sa’iqa Special Forces. Bukhamada insists his unit is “fighting members of terrorist groups operating under a variety of names… Libyan fighters… must resolve their issues with the Libyan state through the courts… As for foreign fighters, they have no place in Libya…” (Al-Wasat via BBC Monitoring, May 20). LNA forces captured Derna’s security chief, Yahya Usta ‘Umar, on June 8. Though appointed by the GNA, Haftar’s representatives described ‘Umar as an al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorist (Libyan Express, June 8).

With the LNA having developed a reputation for the mistreatment and even murder of prisoners, Haftar announced he had asked his troops to “respect legal procedures relating to prisoners” during the battle for Derna (AFP, June 5). By June 8, the LNA claimed to control of 75% of the city, with Haftar setting the final stage of the conflict in religious terms during a speech to his troops: “After four years of holy struggle against the Kharijites, we are close to the liberation of Derna” (Egypt Today, June 8).

By June 12, the LNA claimed to control the port and all the rest of the city save for an inner core of some 10 km², where fighting was described as “very heavy” with LNA losses due to desperate DPF suicide attacks (Middle East Monitor, June 12; Libya Herald, June 12). Mines and IEDs have taken the largest toll on LNA attackers.

LNA Brigadier General ‘Abd al-Salam al-Hassi insisted that LNA forces would protect the lives and property of Derna’s civilian population, though reports from inside Derna described civilian deaths under bombardment and an inability to retrieve victims under constant fire (Libya Herald, June 6; Libyan Express, June 7). Another LNA official dismissed reports of Egyptian troops participating in the assault on Derna as an attempt by the Muslim Brotherhood to diminish the significance of the LNA’s impending victory, though he did acknowledge “high-level coordination and cooperation” with Egyptian officials (Asharq al-Awsat, June 10).

A report by Swiss-based NGO Reach detailed extensive damage from the siege to Derna’s roads and its water, electric and sewage systems. Schools, mosques and bridges have been bombed and those attempting to escape the destruction faced harassment or violence at checkpoints if they managed to get through networks of mines and snipers. [1] Shortages of food and medicine have been exacerbated by daily shelling and airstrikes while access to water and electricity remains intermittent at best.

Conclusion

It is likely that Haftar’s decision to turn away from his march on Tripoli to consolidate his rear in Cyrenaïca was strongly influenced by his supporters in Egypt, France and the UAE, all of whom regard Derna as a dangerous spawning ground for Islamist militants.

As the battle for Derna rages on, the international community looks away, having no particular objection to the elimination of this long-time Islamist hotbed despite the similarity of Haftar’s tactics to those used by Mu’ammar Qaddafi in 2011. This time, there is no imposition of a “no-fly zone” or mobilization of the international community. Italy has stated its readiness to supply humanitarian aid if “access is granted by the parties involved,” but this and a call for restraint from the UN Security Council constitute nearly the whole of international concern for the residents of Derna (Libya Observer, June 2). While the LNA claims to be working towards supplying “liberated” areas of Derna, other observers warn of an impending “humanitarian catastrophe” as the fighting continues (Middle East Eye, June 12). As the LNA commander is fond of referring to all his political opponents as “terrorists,” the question is whether the license given to him by the international community in Derna will apply to future attacks on Tripoli and other centers of anti-Haftar resistance.

It took three years for Haftar to take Benghazi, with repeated proclamations of victory routinely followed by reports of continued resistance. DPF fighters show little sign they are about to capitulate; rather than being “hours” away from total victory, as the LNA claimed on June 11, an extended period of urban warfare punctuated by deadly suicide attacks seems more likely. There is also a danger that the lightly-disciplined LNA fighters may commit abuses over time that could generate international disapproval. If this happens, it will have a serious impact on Haftar’s ability to bring western Libya under his control before the elections scheduled for December. For Haftar, a quick victory is essential – prolonged civilian suffering combined with the brutal realities of urban combat and a perceived inability to secure Derna could easily damage the aging Field Marshal’s political prospects and standing in the international community.

NOTE

  1. “Libya: Public services break down as conflict escalates in encircled city of Derna,” Reach, Geneva, June 5, 2018, http://www.reachresourcecentre.info/system/files/resource-documents/reach_lby_situationoverview_ra_derna_jun2018_0.pdf

This article first appeared in the June 29, 2018 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Salafists, Mercenaries and Body Snatchers: The War for Libya’s South

Andrew McGregor

April 6, 2018

Renewed fighting in southern Libya around the Kufra and Sabha oases demonstrates the difficulty of reaching anything more substantial than temporary and fragile political agreements in the region. The parties to the seemingly intractable conflict in the south include a range of legitimate and semi-legitimate actors – forces allied to Libya’s rival governments, self-appointed police and border security services – and illegitimate actors, such as foreign mercenaries, bandits, jihadists and traffickers.

Tubu Tribesmen in Sabha, southern Libya (Libyan Express)

The fact that membership of these groups often overlaps leads to heated clashes over turf and privileges that endanger the civilian population while inhibiting sorely-needed development initiatives. On March 13, the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) warned that the build-up of armed forces in the south “risks further escalation” of the ongoing violence. [1] Tensions are so high at present that even the body of the 19th century head of the Sanusi order has been pulled into the struggle for the resource-rich deserts of southern Libya.

The Madkhali Infiltration

The Saudi-backed Madkhalist religious sect is the most prominent player in the Kufra and Sabha violence. A basic tenet of Madkhalism is respect for legitimate authority, the wali-al-amr.  This Salafist movement was first introduced to Libya by Mu’ammar Qaddafi to counter Libya’s more revolutionary Salafist groups. Madkhalist militias in Libya typically seek to control local policing duties, providing them a degree of immunity while enforcing Salafist interpretations of Shari’a that have little in common with traditional Libyan Islamic practice.

Rabi bin Hadi al-Madkhali

Although Saudi sect leader Rabi bin Hadi al-Madkhali issued a surprising declaration of support in 2016 for General Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) in its fight against “the Muslim Brotherhood” (ie the Tripoli-based government), Libya’s Madkhalis do not appear to have a preferred allegiance in the rivalry between Tripoli’s Presidency Council/Government of National Accord (PC/GNA) and Haftar’s military coalition (Arabi21.com, September 21, 2016). Indeed, they appear to be covering their bases by supporting both rivals without coming into direct conflict with either.

The Madkhalis in Tripoli are represented by the Rada Special Deterence Force, led by Abd al-Rauf al-Kara. Nominally loyal to the PC/GNA but operating largely independently of government control, they act as a self-appointed police force complete with private jails reputed to be dens of torture (Middleeasteye.net, January 15).

Meanwhile the growing Madkhali armed presence in Benghazi appears to be meeting resistance. The January 25 twin car-bombing that killed 41 people in Benghazi, including LNA commander Ahmad al-Fitouri, appears to have targeted the Baya’at al-Radwan mosque frequented by Madkhalist militia members (Libya Herald, January 23). The Madkhalists also dominate the 604th Infantry Battalion in Misrata (Libya Tribune, November 4, 2017).

Body-Snatching at Kufra Oasis

A combination of fresh water and nearly impassable desert depressions on three sides makes southeast Libya’s remote Kufra Oasis an inevitable stop for cross desert convoys or caravans. Some 1,500 km from the Libyan coast, Kufra is now a major stop for the flow of illegal migrants that Kufra mayor Muftah Khalil says is overwhelming local security services (Libya Observer, March 5). Since the 2011 Libyan Revolution, Kufra has several times erupted in tribal violence, usually pitting the Zuwaya Arabs against indigenous black semi-nomadic Tubu tribesmen, whose homeland stretches across southern Libya, northern Chad, northwestern Sudan and northeastern Niger. There is long-standing friction between the two communities – the Zuwaya were only able to take possession of Kufra in 1840 by driving out the Tubu.

Sayyid Muhammad al-Mahdi al-Sanusi

Things have been heating up in the Kufra region in recent months, as Sudanese mercenaries clash with LNA forces and Subul al-Salam, a local Madkahlist militia affiliated with the LNA.  In the last days of 2017, Subul al-Salam attacked al-Taj (“The Crown”), a height overlooking the Kufra Oasis, destroying the funerary shrine of Sayyid Muhammad al-Mahdi al-Sanusi, who built a proto-Islamic state in the Sahara and Sahel from 1859 until his death in 1902, and stealing his body.

The emptied tomb of Sayyid Muhammad al-Mahdi al-Sanusi (Libya Observer)

A former representative for Kufra, al-Tawati al-Ayda, insisted that the vehicles used in the attack bore the insignia of the LNA. He also suggested the attack was inspired by the arrival in Kufra of Tripoli Madkhalist preacher Majdi Hafala (Libya Observer, January 2).

The Sanusi are a conservative Sufi religious order that grew into a powerful political and military organization in the 19th and early 20th centuries, resisting invasion by the French and later the Italians. Founded in Mecca by Muhammad al-Mahdi’s Algerian father in 1837, the order’s rapid growth after moving to Libya in 1843 attracted the attention of the Ottoman rulers of Libya and the movement moved south, out of Ottoman control, to the oasis of Jaghbub in 1856.

The conservative asceticism at the core of the movement had wide appeal in the desert communities and tribes. This was especially true in the southern oasis of Kufra, to which al-Mahdi moved the Sanusi headquarters in 1895. Using the trade routes that ran through Kufra, al-Mahdi introduced the commerce-friendly Sanusi brand of Islam to the Saharan and sub-Saharan interior of Africa. The Zuwaya Arabs of Kufra became adherents to the Sanusi tariqa, or path, and defenders of the Sanusi family. Today, the Zuwaya form the core of the Subul al-Salam militia responsible for the assault on al-Taj.

While they enjoyed more influence in Cyrenaïca than Tripolitania, the Sanusis eventually formed Libya’s post-Second World War pro-Western monarchy between 1951 and 1969.  There is some support in Cyrenaïca for the restoration of the exiled royals as a means of bringing rival government factions together. The current heir to the Libyan throne is Muhammad al-Sanusi, who has not pursued a claim to a revived Sanusi constitutional monarchy, but equally has done nothing to discourage discussions about it within Libya.

After overthrowing the Sanusi monarchy in 1969, Qaddafi began a campaign to malign the Sanusis as the embodiment of the inequities of the old regime and a challenge to the peculiar blend of socialism and Islam he propagated in his Green Book. Attitudes shaped by Qaddafist propaganda against the Sanusis still color the way the order is regarded by many modern Libyans.

The desecration at al-Taj was quickly denounced by the Presidency Council in Tripoli. The Dar al-Ifta (Fatwa House) run by Grand Mufti Sadiq al-Ghariani blamed the imported Madkhalilst trend: “Madkhalists are being sent to Libya by Saudi Arabia in order to destabilize the country and abort the revolution. These are all loyalists of Khalifa Haftar and his self-styled army in eastern Libya” (Libyan Express, January 2). Dar al-Ifta also used the incident to launch a broader attack on Libya’s Madkhalists, which it accused of detaining, torturing and murdering Islamic scholars and clerics who failed to fall into line with the Salafists sect (Libya Observer, January 2). The Madkhalis in turn accuse al-Ghariani of association with the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood, and hence a follower of the late revolutionary Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leader Sayyid Qutb (executed in Egypt in 1966), the Madkhalis’ ideological arch-enemy.

Surprisingly, this is not the first time al-Mahdi’s corpse has gone missing – it was disinterred by unknown individuals in 2012 and reburied in a nearby cemetery, before relatives recovered it and returned it to the shrine at al-Taj (Libya Observer, December 30, 2017).

Operation Desert Rage

Chadian and Sudanese rebels driven from their homelands have turned mercenary in Libya to secure funding and build their arsenals. [2] Grand Mufti al-Ghariani has accused Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) of funding the recruitment of African mercenaries to occupy southern Libya on behalf of Haftar’s LNA (Libya Observer, March 13). In practice, the rebels have found employment from both the LNA and the PC/GNA government in Tripoli.

Sudanese fighters of Darfur’s Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) killed six members of the LNA’s 106 and 501 Brigades engaged in border security near Jaghbub Oasis on January 15. A seventh LNA soldier was abducted. The area was the site of an earlier clash in October 2016 between JEM and Kufra’s Subul al-Salam militia in which 13 JEM fighters were killed (Libya Herald, October 20, 2016).

Sudanese Forces at Jabal ‘Uwaynat (Libya Observer)

The LNA responded to the death of the border guards with “Operation Desert Rage,” which opened with January 20 airstrikes against what the LNA alleged were Sudanese and Chadian rebels near Rabyana Oasis, 150 km west of Kufra. Possibly involving Egyptian aircraft, the strikes caused “heavy losses” to a 15-vehicle convoy of “terrorists” (TchadConvergence, January 22). The Sudanese and Chadians had been prospecting for gold in the newly discovered deposits near Jabal ‘Uwaynat, the remote meeting point of Egypt, Libya and Sudan (Egypt Today, January 23). The commander of the LNA’s Kufra military zone, al-Mabruk al-Ghazwi, said patrols had been sent in every direction to prevent JEM fighters from escaping (Libya Observer, January 20).

Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) spokesman Brigadier Ahmad al-Shami confirmed the presence of Darfuri rebels working as mercenaries in Libya last summer, noting their greatest concentrations were at the oases of Kufra and Rabyana as well as the city of Zintan in Libya’s northwest (Libya Observer, July 20, 2017).

The ‘Invasion’ of Sabha

The Tubu, Awlad Sulayman Arabs and African mercenaries are also engaged in a new round of post-revolutionary fighting in Sabha, capital of Libya’s southwestern Fezzan region.

Following the 2011 revolution, the Awlad Sulayman took advantage of shifts in the local tribal power structure to take over Sabha’s security services and regional trafficking activities. This brought the Arab group into conflict with the Tubu and Tuareg, who traditionally controlled the cross-border smuggling routes. The result was open warfare in Sabha in 2012 and 2014. One of the leading Awlad Sulayman commanders at the time was Ahmad al-Utaybi, now commander of the Awlad Sulayman-dominated 6th Infantry Brigade.

In mid-February, Haftar announced his decision to join the 6th Brigade with the LNA, but al-Utaybi quickly declared his Brigade’s loyalty was to the defense ministry of the GNA government in Tripoli. Following al-Utaybi’s refusal to commit his forces to the LNA, Haftar announced his replacement as commander of the 6th Infantry Brigade with Brigadier Khalifa Abdul Hafiz Khalifa on February 25, though Khalifa has been unable to assume command (Al-Sharq al-Aswat, February 27). At the same time, the 6th Brigade came under heavy attack from alleged Chadian and Sudanese mercenaries working for Haftar. According to al-Utaybi: “The militias who attacked our locations wanted to take control of it and then seize the entire southern region because the fall of the Brigade means the fall of the security of the south” (Libya Observer, February 24).

Al-Utaybi claims that the fighting is not tribal-based, but is rather a clash between the 6th Brigade and groups loyal to Haftar, consisting largely of Tubu mercenaries from Chad, Niger and Sudan (Libyan Express, March 1; Libya Observer, March 2). [3] There are also claims that the conflict has much to do with the collapse of the Italian agreement with the southern tribes providing them with funding and development in return for suppression of migrant flows through Libya to Europe (Eyesonlibya.com, February 27).

Damage to Sabha Castle from shelling (Libya Observer)

The 6th Brigade was forced to withdraw into Sabha’s Italian colonial-era fortress. The historic building has been heavily damaged in this round of fighting, with the Libyan Antiquities Authority protesting that: “Those who do not wish us well are seeking to obliterate Libyan history and civilization” (Libya Observer, March 5). The fighting consists largely of artillery attacks on the fortress and ethnic neighborhoods, as well as sniping, assassinations and drive-by killings.

Sabha’s mayor, Hamid al-Khayali, insists that well-armed Chadian and Sudanese mercenaries flying the flags of “African countries” were taking advantage of the region’s insecurity: “This is an occupation of Libyan land. This is on the shoulders of all Libyans. The south is half-occupied and some Sabha areas are occupied by foreign forces from Sudan, Chad and other countries; why is the Libyan army silent about this?” (Libya Observer, February 25; Libyan Express, February 27).

The long-standing Arab suspicion of the Tubu was reflected in a Presidency Council statement in late February praising the 6th Brigade’s defense of Sabha against “mercenaries” intent on changing the south’s demographic structure from Arab-dominant to Tubu-dominant (Libya Observer, February 27).

Roadblock to Political Resolution

The abduction of Muhammad al-Mahdi’s body was, like earlier Salafist demolitions of Sufi shrines in coastal Libya, both a demonstration of Madkhali determination to reform Libya’s religious landscape and a provocation designed to reveal what real resistance, if any, exists to prevent further Madkhalist encroachments on Libyan society.

For now the Madkhalists are in ascendance and have made important, even unique, inroads in assuming control of various security services across the country, regardless of which political factions are locally dominant. Reliable salaries, superior weapons and a degree of legal immunity ensure a steady supply of recruits to the Madkhali militias.

However, the Madkhali rejection of democracy, and their indulgence in extra-judicial law enforcement and theological disputes with nearly every other form of Islamic observance, ensures their growing strength will inhibit any attempt to arrive at a democracy-based political solution in Libya.

Notes

[1] “UNSMIL statement on the ongoing violence in Sabha,” March 13, 2018, https://unsmil.unmissions.org/unsmil-statement-ongoing-violence-sabha

[2] The Chadian groups include the Front pour l’alternance et la concorde au Tchad (FACT), the Conseil du commandement militaire pour le salut de la République (CCMSR) and the Rassemblement des forces pour le changement (RFC). The Sudanese groups are all from Darfur, and include the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), the Sudan Liberation Movement – Unity (SLM-Unity) and the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army – Minni Minnawi (SLM/A-MM). The latter two attempted to return to Darfur in 2017 but were badly defeated by units of the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF).

[3] Libyan Arabs commonly describe the Libyan Tubu as “foreigners” and “illegal immigrants” despite their historic presence in the region.

This article first appeared in the April 6, 2018 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

 

Egypt Looks for Security Answers as Its War on Terrorism Moves to the Desert Oases

Andrew McGregor

January 15, 2018

The spread of the Islamist insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula to the heavily populated Nile Delta and Nile Valley regions of Egypt has been facilitated by the importation of arms from Muammar Qaddafi’s looted Libyan armories. Prior to Libya’s 2011 revolution, arms and explosives were difficult to obtain. Since then, the growth of new Egyptian militant groups such as Liwaa al-Thawra (Revolution Brigade) and Harikat Souad Masr (Hasm – Arms of Egypt Movement) have been enabled by the availability of arms smuggled over 370 miles through the vast wastes of Egypt’s Western Desert, the 263,000 square miles of which account for two-thirds of Egypt’s land mass. With the Libyan-Egyptian border stretching for more than 650 miles, uncontrolled entry points to Egypt are plentiful, allowing militants and smugglers to move back and forth.

The Oases of the Western Desert (Our Egypt)

The Oases

The only centers of population in the Western Desert are the ancient oases of Siwa, Dakhla, Farafra, Bahariya and Kharga. Over time, the oases have been occupied by Ancient Egyptians, Romans, Mamluks and Ottomans. Modern influences only began to enter the oases with the construction of a road connecting them to the Nile valley in the 1970s. The mostly Muslim peoples of the oases are a mix of their original ancient inhabitants, Berbers, Arab Bedouin from Libya and migrants from the Nile Valley.

Ruins of the Oracle of Amun Temple at Siwa Oasis

Despite their isolation, the recent battles fought in the oases between Islamist extremists and government forces are far from the first incidents of large-scale violence in these communities. The terrain of the Western Desert has been treacherous for military operations since the Persian King Cambyses lost an entire army to a sandstorm after it had been sent to destroy the Oracle of Amun in 55 BCE.

In the modern era, the oases only began to come under Egyptian government control in the 18th and 19th centuries. In 1819, the Egyptian Viceroy Muhammad ‘Ali succeeded where Cambyses had failed by bringing Siwa under Egyptian control in a ruthless conquest in which he deployed Bashi Bazouks (ill-disciplined Ottoman irregulars), Bedouin fighters and a battery of artillery.

Sayyid Ahmad al-Sharif al-Sanusi

Conflict returned to the region during the First World War, when an Ottoman-allied expeditionary force entered the Western Desert from Libya. Commanded by Libyan Sanusi leader Sayyid Ahmad al-Sharif and Egyptian defector and professional soldier Muhammad Salih al-Harb, the expedition was designed to sweep through the oases before inciting an anti-British rebellion in the Nile Valley. By March 1916, the Sanusis held all five major oases, but the rebellion failed to materialize. After a year of ever more difficult attempts to sustain an army in the desert, Ahmad al-Sharif returned to Libya with only 200 men, his reputation in tatters.

British officers in stripped-down Ford Model T’s began intensive exploration of the desert in the postwar years. When war again descended on the region in 1939, their work provided the basis for successful anti-Axis operations by the Commonwealth’s Long Range Desert Group (LRDG). In the years before the defeat of Germany’s Field Marshal Irwin Rommel and his Afrika Korps, LRDG vehicles ranged the desert, discovering the routes that are now used by smugglers and arms traffickers.

LRDG Patrol in Siwa Oasis (WWII Today)

Tensions rose in the region again after Qaddafi seized power in Libya in 1969. However, the colonel’s attempts to incite revolutionary activity amongst the cross-border Awlad ‘Ali Bedouin (with historic ties to Libya) were dashed by a four-day border war in 1977, in which Qaddafi discovered his small and amateurish army was no match for battle-tested Egyptian troops.

Egyptian Efforts to Control Arms Smuggling 

The movement of arms from Libya to Egypt began during the short tenure of Egypt’s President Muhammad al-Mursi, who was deposed by the army in July 2013. Security forces disrupted a major arms smuggling network, the so-called Madinat Nasr cell, in November 2012. The suspects claimed the arms were intended for Syria, but plans and documents found in their possession indicated the arms were to be used by the extremists to overthrow the government of President al-Mursi, whom they reviled for participating in democratic elections. [1] However, when an arms convoy was intercepted near Siwa Oasis in July 2013, it became clear that the problem was far from solved (Mada Masr [Cairo], October 22, 2017).

The Egypt-Libya border region is patrolled by the Egyptian Border Guards, a lightly armed paramilitary unit operating out of the western oases. The Egyptian armed forces do not have a counterpart to partner with on the Libyan side, although there are growing ties with Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, commander of a largely Cyrenaïcan (eastern Libyan) militia coalition known as the Libyan National Army (LNA). Restoring security in Libya is key to ending the cross-border arms shipments, and Egypt has agreed to reorganize the LNA with the intention of molding it into a true national force (Middle East Monitor, September 19, 2017).

Despite the efforts of the border guards and the Egyptian air force, shipments of Libyan arms (including advanced weapons) appeared to intensify in the last year:

  • May 8 2017 – The Egyptian Army announced the destruction of a convoy of 15 vehicles carrying arms and ammunition across the Libyan border into Egypt (Ahram Online, May 8, 2017).
  • June 27, 2017 – An Egyptian army spokesman claimed 12 vehicles loaded with arms, ammunition and explosives had been destroyed during 12 hours of airstrikes near the Libyan border (Reuters, June 27, 2017; AFP, June 27, 2017; New Arab, June 28, 2017).
  • July 16, 2017 – Fifteen vehicles carrying explosives, weapons and ammunition were reported destroyed by the Egyptian air force (Middle East Monitor, July 17, 2017).
  • October 23, 2017 – The Egyptian air force reported the destruction of eight vehicles in the Western Desert carrying arms and ammunition (Daily News Egypt, October 23, 2017).
  • October 27, 2017 – The Interior Ministry recovered 13 bodies as well as weapons and suicide bomb belts after a raid on a training camp for militants at a farm on the highway from Asyut to the oasis of Kharga (Reuters, October 27, 2017; Daily News Egypt, October 28, 2017).
  • October 31, 2017 – The Egyptian army reported the destruction of six 4×4 vehicles and the death of all their occupants. The vehicles were reportedly carrying arms and other illegal materials (Ahram Online [Cairo], October 31, 2017). Earlier that day, Egyptian airstrikes targeting facilities of the Shura Council of Mujahideen in Derna, Libya killed at least 20 civilians (Mada Masr [Cairo], October 31, 2017). [2]
  • November 11, 2017 – An army spokesman reported the destruction of ten vehicles carrying arms and ammunition in the Western Desert (Ahram Online, November 11, 2017; Libya Herald, November 12, 2017).

In all, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi claims that Egypt has destroyed no less than 1,200 vehicles carrying arms, ammunition and fighters in the 30 months prior to November 2017 (Xinhua, November 11, 2017). Though the list above may seem to indicate Egyptian success in controlling the border, the influx of modern weapons to Sinai and the Nile Valley suggests many arms convoys continue to get through the Egyptian defenses.

Controlling the border from the air without intelligence from the ground can lead to undesirable outcomes, particularly in a region that has become increasingly popular with tourists, who can now enjoy relatively safe excursions into the inhospitable desert thanks to 4×4 vehicles, satellite phones and GPS navigational equipment. From the air, there is little to distinguish tourist convoys from convoys of arms traffickers, as the Egyptian military discovered when one of their Apache attack helicopters mistakenly slaughtered 12 guides and Mexican tourists in September 2015, despite their having a police escort. Authorities claimed the group of four vehicles was in an area near Bahariya oasis “off limits to foreign tourists,” although a permit with a full itinerary had been obtained for travel in the region (BBC, September 13, 2015; PanAm Post, September 15, 2015).

Battle at Farafra Oasis

One of the most dangerous militants operating in the Western Desert is Hisham ‘Ali al-Ashmawy Musa’ad Ibrahim  (a.k.a. Abu Omar al-Muhajir), a graduate of the Egyptian military academy and a former member of the elite Sa’iqa (Thunderbolt) commando unit. Al-Ashmawy is reported to have received advanced military training in the United States (Egypt Today, October 21, 2017).

Hisham al-Ashmawy

After 10 years’ service in Sinai, al-Ashmawy was dismissed from the Egyptian army for Islamist activities and promptly joined the Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis terrorist group in 2012, where he provided training in weapons and tactics.

In July 2014, al-Ashmawy led an attack on Egyptian border guards in the Western Desert’s Farafra oasis. The assault was carried out by uniformed militants in four-wheel drive vehicles and armed with rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) and other weapons (Egypt Today, November 28, 2017). The poor ground-air cooperation in the Egyptian military was again exposed when an injured officer was unable to call in air and ground support after the attackers broke off, allowing the militants to withdraw safely into the desert after killing 21 border guards (Egypt Today, October 21, 2017). Wounded during the operation, al-Ashmawy was taken for treatment in the Libyan city of Derna, an Islamist stronghold where he had strong connections with the now defunct Ansar al-Sharia group (Egypt Today, October 21, 2017).

Farafra Oasis

Soon after the Farafra assault, al-Ashmawy split from Bayt al-Maqdis over the group’s decision to pledge allegiance to Islamic State (IS). He appeared in a 2015 video under the name Abu Omar al-Muhajir to claim responsibility for the Farafra attack and to announce he was leading a new group, al-Murabitun (not to be confused with the Sahara/Sahel movement formerly led by Mokhar Belmokhtar).

In June 2016, militants struck again in Farafra, killing two officers and injuring three others (Daily News Egypt, October 23, 2017).

Disaster at Bahariya Oasis

Bahariya Oasis (Roderick Phillips)

The desert’s Islamist militants again displayed their military skills with the October 20, 2017 destruction of a column of Egyptian police. Working from air force intelligence that suggested a handful of militants were camped along the al-Wahat-al-Kharga-Assyut highway near the Bahariya oasis (85 miles southwest of Cairo), the Egyptian police sent to deal with them were working without air support and had only basic intelligence on the region (al-Arabiya, October 21, 2017).

Instead of a handful of terrorists, the police column ran into an ambush carried out by a larger than expected force. Egyptian security sources told multiple media outlets that over 50 security officers had been killed before the Interior Ministry issued a statement saying that only 16 had fallen with 15 militants killed (Mada Masr [Cairo], October 21, 2017). The ministry’s statement was followed by government criticism of all domestic and international media that published the numbers provided by security sources.

Abd al-Rahim al-Mismary (al-Hayat TV)

The only militant to survive the Egyptian pursuit that followed was a Libyan veteran of the Shura Council of Mujahideen in Derna, Abd al-Rahim Muhammad Abdullah al-Mismary. Al-Mismary stated that he belonged to a group led by Imad al-Din Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Hamid (better known as Shaykh Hatim), another graduate of Egypt’s military academy and a lieutenant of al-Ashmawy (Egypt Today, November 17, 2017; Libya Herald, November 17, 2017). Shaykh Hatim, whose Ansar al-Islam group claimed responsibility for the Bahariya attack, was killed in retaliatory Egyptian airstrikes shortly after the attack (Ahram Online, November 17, 2017; al-Arabiya, November 3, 2017). According to al-Mismary, Shaykh Hatim’s group had been present in Bahariya oasis without detection since January 2017 (Egypt Independent, November 17, 2017).

Military Shake-Up 

The fallout from the Bahariya massacre hit the highest levels of the armed forces command structure. Army chief-of-staff Mahmud Ibrahim Hegazi was replaced by Lieutenant General Muhammad Farid Hegazi (no relation), a member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) that ruled Egypt after President Hosni Mubarak was deposed (The National [Abu Dhabi], October 29, 2017).

General Mahmoud Farid Hegazy

Also replaced were a number of high-ranking interior ministry officials, including the director of Egypt’s National Security Agency (NSA, responsible for domestic intelligence), General Mahmoud Sharawi,; Giza security director Hisham al-Iraqi; General Ibrahim al-Masri, chief of the Giza NSA; and head of special operations for the Central Security Forces General Magdy Abu al-Khair (MENA [Cairo], October 28, 2017; Daily News Egypt, October 29, 2017; Ahram Online, January 18, 2017).

The disaster at Bahariya made it clear that lightly armed interior ministry units cannot deal effectively with better-armed militant groups directed by leaders with advanced training in military tactics. Poor intelligence and unfamiliarity with the desert by security units drawn from the Delta or Nile Valley have hampered operations, while poor ground-to-air coordination has several times resulted in disaster. Nonetheless, Egypt’s military planners continue to neglect improvements in their capabilities in the Western Desert in favor of massive investments in prestigious, but likely useless, items such as French amphibious assault ships and German submarines.

Meanwhile, the instability in the Western Desert has pulled Cairo into the Libyan conflict at a time when it is struggling to control the Sinai and tensions with Sudan are increasing over the disputed Hala’ib Triangle region and Egypt’s alleged support for Darfuri rebels. Until improvements are made in Egypt’s operational capacity in the Western Desert, extremists and arms smugglers will continue to fuel militant and terrorist activities in the Sinai and Egypt’s main population centers.

NOTES

[1] See Andrew McGregor, “The Face of Egypt’s Next Revolution: The Madinat Nasr Cell,” Jamestown Foundation Hot Issue, November 20, 2012: https://jamestown.org/program/hot-issue-the-face-of-egypts-next-revolution-the-madinat-nasr-cell/

[2] The city of Derna, besieged by the LNA since 2015, appears to be the base for Egyptian extremists working out of Libya. Some of these have established bases in the vast Western Desert; according to Egypt’s interior ministry, Amr Sa’ad’s Jund al-Khilafah (Soldiers of the Caliphate), a militant group responsible for a series of attacks on Copts in the Delta and Nile Valley, was trained in the southern regions of the Western Desert, near the Upper Egyptian governorates (Mada Masr [Cairo], October 22, 2017).

This article first appeared in the January 15, 2018 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Europe’s True Southern Frontier: The General, the Jihadis, and the High-Stakes Contest for Libya’s Fezzan Region

November 27, 2017

Andrew McGregor

AbstractLibya’s relentless post-revolution conflict appears to be heading for a military rather than a civil conclusion. The finale to this struggle may come with an offensive against the United Nations-recognized government in Tripoli by forces led by Libya’s ambitious strongman, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. However, the conflict will continue if Haftar is unable to consolidate control of the southern Fezzan region, the source of much of the oil and water Libya’s coastal majority needs to survive. Contesting control of this vital region is an aggressive assortment of well-armed jihadis, tribal militias, African mercenaries, and neo-Qaddafists. Most importantly, controlling Fezzan means securing 2,500 miles of Libya’s porous southern desert borders, a haven for militants, smugglers, and traffickers. The outcome of this struggle is of enormous importance to the nations of the European Union, who have come to realize Europe’s southern borders lie not at the Mediterranean coast, but in Libya’s southern frontier. 

Libya (Rowan Technology)

As the territory controlled by Libya’s internationally recognized government in Tripoli and its backers shrinks into a coastal enclave, the struggle for Libya appears to be entering into a decisive phase. Libyan strongman Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar claims his forces are now in control of 1,730,000 square kilometers out of Libya’s total of 1,760,000 square kilometers.1 However, to control Tripoli and achieve legitimacy, Haftar must first control its southern approaches through the Fezzan region. Europe and the United Nations recognize the Tripoli-based Presidential Council/Government of National Accord (PC/GNA) as the official government of Libya, but recognition has done nothing to limit migrant flows to Europe. Whoever can control these flows will be the beneficiary of European gratitude and diplomatic approval.

Securing Tripoli means preventing armed elements supporting the PC/GNA from fleeing into the southern desert. Haftar must control water pipelines (the “Man-Made River Project”) and oil pipelines from the south, secure the borders, and prevent Islamic State fighters, pro-Qaddafists, Islamist militias, and foreign mercenaries from turning Fezzan into a generator for continued instability in Libya.

Fezzan is a massive area of over 212,000 square miles with a mostly tribal population of less than 500,000 living in isolated oases or wadi-s (dry riverbeds, often with subsurface water). Hidden by sand seas and rocky desert are the assets that make Fezzan so strategically desirable: vital oil fields, access to massive subterranean freshwater aquifers, and a number of important Qaddafi-era military airbases. A principal concern is the ability of radical Islamists to exploit Fezzan’s lack of security to further aims such as territorial control of areas of the Sahara/Sahel region or the facilitation of potential terrorist strikes on continental Europe. Many European states are closely watching the outcome of this competition due to the political impact of the large number of sub-Saharan African migrants passing through Fezzan’s unsecured borders on their way to eventual refugee claims in Europe.

Competing Governments, Competing Armies 

The security situation in Fezzan and most other parts of Libya became impossibly complicated by the absence of any unifying ideology other than anti-Qaddafism during the 2011 Libyan revolution. Every attempt to create a government of national unity since has been an abject failure.

At the core of this political chaos is the United Nations-brokered Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) of December 17, 2015, which called for a tripartite government consisting of a nine-member Presidency Council (PC) to oversee the functions of head-of-state, a Government of National Accord (GNA) as the executive authority, and a House of Representatives (HoR) as the legislative authority with a High Council of State as a consultative body. In practice, most of these bodies are in conflict with each other or enduring high levels of internal dissension, leaving the nation haphazardly governed by scores of well-armed ethnic, tribal, and religious militias, often grouped into unstable coalitions. Contributing to the disorder is Khalifa Ghwell’s Government of National Salvation (GNS), which claims to be the legitimate successor of Libya’s General National Congress government (2014-2016) and makes periodic attempts to seize power in Tripoli, most recently in July 2017.2

The most powerful of the military coalitions is the ambitiously named Libyan National Army (LNA), a coalition of militias nominally under the Tobruk-based HoR and commanded by Khalifa Haftar, a Cyrenaïcan strongman who lived in Virginia after turning against Qaddafi but is now supported largely by Russia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). It is this author’s observation that Haftar has a habit of speaking for the HoR rather than taking direction from it.

The Tripoli-based PC, which has military authority under the LPA, is still trying to organize a national army. In the meantime, it is backed by various militias based in Misrata and Tripoli. Together with the GNA, it forms the internationally recognized government of Libya but still requires a majority vote from the Tobruk-based HoR to be fully legitimate under the terms of the LPA. There are even divisions within the seven-member PC, with three members now opposing PC chairman Fayez Serraj and supporting the HoR and Haftar.3

Fezzan’s Tribal Context 

Fezzan’s human dimension consists of a patchwork of often-overlapping tribal and ethnic entities prone to feuds and shifting alliances. These might broadly be said to belong to one of four groups:

  • Arab and Arab-Berber, consisting of the Awlad Buseif, Hasawna, Magarha, Mahamid, Awlad Sulayman, Qaddadfa, and Warfalla groups. The last three include migrants from the Sahel, descendants of tribal members who fled Ottoman or Italian rule and returned after independence. These are known collectively as Aïdoun (“returnees”);4
  • Berber Tuareg, being the Ajjar Tuareg (a Libyan-Algerian cross-border confederation) and Sahelian Tuareg (typically migrants from Mali and Niger who arrived in the Qaddafi era);
  • Nilo-Saharan Tubu, formed by the indigenous Teda Tubu, with smaller numbers of migrant Teda and Daza Tubu from Chad and Niger. These two main Tubu groups are distinguished by dialect;
  • Arabized sub-Saharans known as Ahali, descendants of slaves brought to Libya with little political influence.

The LNA’s Campaign in Jufra District

The turning point of Haftar’s attempt to bring Libya under his control came with his takeover of the Jufra district of northern Fezzan, a region approximately 300 miles south of Tripoli with three important towns in its northern sector (Hun, Sokna, and Waddan), as well as the Jufra Airbase, possession of which brings Tripoli within easy range of LNA warplanes.

Al-Wahat Hotel in Hun after LNA airstrikes (Libya Observer)

The campaign began with a series of airstrikes by LNA and Egyptian aircraft in May 2017 on targets in Hun and Waddan belonging to Abd al-Rahman Bashir’s 613th Tagreft Brigade (composed of Misratans who had fought the Islamic State in Sirte as part of the Bunyan al-Marsous [“Solid Structure”] coalition)5 and the Benghazi Defense Brigades (BDB),a the latter allegedly supported by a group of Chadian mercenaries. In early June 2017, the LNA’s 12th Brigade swept into the Jufra airbase with the help of local tribal leaders.6 Opposition was slight after the Misratan 13th Brigade and the BDB pulled out toward Misrata.

This allowed the LNA to take the town of Bani Walid, an important center in Libya’s human trafficking network strategically located 100 kilometers southwest of Misrata and 120 kilometers southeast of Tripoli. The site offers access by road to both cities and will be home to the new 27th Light Infantry Brigade commanded by Abdullah al-Warfali (a member of the Warfala tribe) as part of the LNA’s Gulf of Sidra military zone under General Muhammad Bin Nayel.7 Possession of Bani Walid could allow the LNA to separate the GNA government in Tripoli from its strongest military supporters in Misrata.

An Opening for Islamist Extremists

North African jihadis are likely to use the political chaos in Fezzan to establish strategic depth for operations in Algeria, Niger, and Mali. Those militants loyal to al-Qa`ida united in the Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa’l-Muslimin (JNIM) on March 2, 2017, as a merger of Ansar al-Din, al-Mourabitoun, the Macina Liberation Front, and the Saharan branch of al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The group’s Tuareg leader, Iyad ag Ghali, will look to exploit Libyan connections in Fezzan already established by al-Mourabitoun chief Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who mounted his attack on Algeria’s In Amenas gas plant in 2013 from a base near al-‘Uwaynat in Fezzan.b For now, it appears Ag Ghali can count on only minimal support from the Sahelian Tuareg community in Fezzan, which largely favors Qaddafism over jihadism.c

The rival Islamic State announced the establishment of the wilaya (province) of Fezzan as part of its “caliphate” in November 2014.d Since their expulsion from Sirte last December by al-Bunyan al-Marsous and intensive U.S. airstrikes, Islamic State fighters now range the rough terrain south of the coast, presenting an elusive menace.8 Following the interrogation of a large number of Islamic State detainees, the Attorney General’s office in Tripoli announced that Libyans were a minority in the group, with the largest number having come from Sudan, while others came from Egypt, Tunisia, Mali, Chad, and Algeria.9

Masa’ad al-Sidairah (Sudan Tribune)

Some Sudanese Islamic State fighters are disciples of Sudanese preacher Masa’ad al-Sidairah, whose Jama’at al-I’tisam bil-Quran wa’l-Sunna (Group of Devotion to the Quran and Sunna) publicly supported the Islamic State and its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi until a wave of arrests forced it to pledge to abandon Islamic State recruitment in Sudan for the Libyan and Syrian battlefields.10 Sudanese authorities state that at least 20 Sudanese Islamic State recruits have been killed in Libya.11 Many of these entered Libya via the smugglers’ route passing Jabal ‘Uwaynat at the meeting point of Egypt, Sudan, and Libya.12

Other Islamic State fighters fleeing Sirte headed into Fezzan, where they were reported to have concentrated at the town of al-‘Uwaynat, just north of Ghat and close to the Algerian border. This group was believed responsible for the February 2017 attacks on Great Man-Made River facilities and electricity infrastructure, including the destruction of almost 100 miles of electricity pylons between Jufra and Sabha.13 e On May 6, 2017, Islamic State militants mounted an ambush on a Misratan Third Force convoy on the road between Jufra and Sirte, killing two and wounding three.14 Libyan investigators claim the Islamic State has rebuilt a “desert army” of three brigades under the command of Libyan Islamist al-Mahdi Salem Dangou (aka Abu Barakat).15

Islamic State fighters shattered any thought their Sirte defeat left the group in Libya incapable of mounting operations on August 23, 2017 with an attack on the LNA’s 121st Infantry Battalion at the Fugha oasis (Jufra District). Nine soldiers and two civilians were apparently killed after capture by close range shots to the head or by having their throats slit. Most of the soldiers were former members of Qaddafi’s elite 32nd Mechanized Brigade from Surman and may have been targeted due to the role of Surmani troops in wiping out Islamic State terrorists who had briefly occupied the town of Sabratha, in between Tripoli and the border with Tunisia, in February 2016.16

Securing the Southern Borders

Control of the trade routes entering Fezzan was based on the midi-midi (friend-friend) truce of 1893, which gave the Tuareg exclusive control of all routes entering Fezzan west of the Salvador Pass (on the western side of Niger’s Mangueni plateau), while the Tubu controlled all routes from Niger and Chad east of the Toumou Pass on the eastern side of the plateau.17 The long-standing agreement collapsed during the Tubu-Tuareg struggles of 2014, fueled by clashes over control of smuggling operations and the popular perception of the Tuareg as opponents of the Libyan revolution.

Today, both passes are monitored by American drones operating out of a base north of Niamey and by French Foreign Legion patrols operating from a revived colonial-era fort at Madama, 60 miles south of Toummo.18 Chad closed its portion of the border with Libya in early January 2017 to prevent Islamic State militants fleeing Sirte from infiltrating into north Chad, but has since opened a single crossing.19

On a September 2017 visit to Rome, Haftar insisted the international arms embargo on Libya must be lifted for the LNA, adding that he could provide the manpower to secure Libya’s southern border, but needed to be supplied with “drones, helicopters, night vision goggles, [and] vehicles.”20 Haftar said earlier that preventing illegal migrants from crossing the 2,500-mile southern border would cost $20 billion.21

Some southern militias have proven effective at ‘policing’ the border when it is in their own interest; a recent fuel shortage in southern Fezzan was remedied when the Tubu Sukour al-Shara (“Desert Eagles”) militia, which is based in Qatrun some 200 kilometers south of Sabha, closed the borders with Chad and Niger on September 7, 2017, and began intercepting scores of tanker trucks smuggling fuel and other goods across the border into Niger, where they had been fetching greater prices, but leaving Fezzan with shortages and soaring prices.22

Sukour al-Sahra leader Barka Shedemi

Sukour al-Sahra is led by a veteran Tubu warrior from Niger, Barka Shedemi, and has support from the HoR.23 Equipped with some 200 vehicles ranging over 400 miles of the southern borders, Shedemi is said to have strong animosity toward the Qaddadfa tribe after he was captured by them in the 1980s and turned over to the Qaddafi regime, which punished him as a common brigand by cutting off a hand and a leg.24 Shedemi has reportedly asked for a meeting with Frederica Mogherini, the European Union’s top diplomat, to discuss compensation for his brigade in exchange for halting migrant flows across Libya’s southern border.25

Foreign Fighters in Fezzan 

Since the revolution, there has been a steady stream of reports concerning the presence of Chadian and Darfuri fighters in Libya, especially those belonging to Darfur’s Justice and Equality Movement (JEM). JEM leaders were once harbored by Qaddafi in their struggle against Khartoum, and took refuge in Libya after the revolution as pressure from the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) forced the rebels across the border. Khartoum backs the PC/GNA and has complained of JEM’s presence in Libya to the United Nations’ Libyan envoy.26

Haftar sees the hand of Qatar behind the influx of foreign fighters: “The Libyan army has recorded the arrival in Libya of citizens from Chad, Sudan, and other African and Arab states. They got into Libya because of the lack of border controls. They received money from Qatar, as well as other countries and terrorist groups.”27 Haftar’s statement reflects the deteriorating relations between Qatar and much of the rest of the Arab world as well as Haftar’s own indebtedness to his anti-Qatar sponsors in Egypt and the UAE. Haftar and HoR spokesmen have also claimed Qatar was supporting what it called terrorist groups (including the Muslim Brotherhood, Ansar al-Sharia, and the defunct Libyan Islamic Fighting Group) and carrying out a campaign of assassinations that included an unsuccessful attempt on Haftar’s life.28 f

Notwithstanding his complaints about JEM and other foreign fighters, Haftar is accused of employing JEM and Darfuri rebels of the Zaghawa-led Sudan Liberation Army-Minni Minnawi (SLA-MM), which arrived in Fezzan in 2015. Acting as mercenaries, these fighters participated in LNA campaigns in Benghazi and the oil crescent alongside members of SLA-Unity and the SLA-Abd al-Wahid, largely composed of members of the Fur ethnic group for which Darfur is named.29 When the SLA-MM returned to Darfur in May 2017, they were badly defeated by the RSF.30

Foreign fighters are alleged to have played a part in the June 2017 Brak al-Shatti airbase massacre of 140 LNA soldiers and civilians by the BDB and their Hasawna tribal allies, with a spokesman for the LNA’s 166th Brigade asserting the presence of “al-Qa`ida associated” Chadian and Sudanese rebels with the BDB.31 In the days after the Brak al-Shatti combat, the LNA’s 12th Brigade spokesman claimed that his unit had captured Palestinian, Chadian, and Malian al-Qa`ida members, adding that 70 percent of the fighters they had killed or taken prisoner were foreign.32 The claims cannot be verified, but many BDB commanders have ties to factions of al-Qa`ida and/or the Islamic State.

While Arab rivals of the Tubu in southern Libya often delegitimize local Tubu fighters by referring to them as “Chadian mercenaries,” there are actual Tubu fighters from Chad and Niger operating in various parts of Libya. Fezzan’s Tubu and Tuareg ethnic groups often take advantage of their ability to call upon their cross-border kinsmen when needed.33 Tubu leaders in Niger’s Kawar region complain that most of their young men have moved to Libya since 2011.34

Chadian rebels opposing the regime of President Idriss Déby Itno have established themselves near the Fezzan capital of Sabha as they build sufficient strength to operate within Chad.35 In mid-June 2017, artillery of the LNA’s 116th Infantry Battalion shelled Chadian camps outside Sabha (including those belonging to Mahamat Mahdi Ali’s Front pour l’alternance et la concorde au Tchad [FACT]) after accusing them of fighting on behalf of the PC/GNA. A U.N. report suggests that FACT fought alongside the BDB during the latter’s operations in the Libyan oil crescent in March 2017, losing a prominent commander in the process.36 A FACT splinter group, the Conseil de Commandement Militaire Pour le Salut de la Republique (CCMSR), also has a base near Sabha, which was attacked by LNA aircraft in April 2016.37

Efforts to Restore Border Security in Fezzan 

Alarmed by the rising numbers of migrants trying to reach Europe from Libya and Libya’s inability to police its own borders, Italy and Germany called in May for the establishment of an E.U. mission to patrol the Libya-Niger border “as quickly as possible.”38 Ignoring its colonial reputation in Libya, Rome suggested deploying the Italian Carabinieri (a national police force under Italy’s Defense Ministry) to train southern security forces and help secure the region from Islamic State terrorists fleeing to Libya from northern Iraq.39

European intervention of this type is a non-starter for the PC/GNA government, which has made it plain it also does not see Libya as a potential holding tank for illegal migrants or have interest in any plan involving their settlement in Libya.40

In Fezzan, migrants are smuggled by traffickers across the southern border and on to towns such as Sabha and to its south Murzuq, ‘Ubari, and Qatrun in return for cash payments to the Tubu and Tuareg armed groups who control these passages. In 2017, the largest groups of migrants were from Nigeria, Bangladesh, Guinea, and Côte d’Ivoire.41 The main center of the trade is Sabha, where members of the Awlad Sulayman are heavily involved in human smuggling.42 The Tubu and Tuareg also run profitable but dangerous operations smuggling narcotics, tobacco, alcohol, stolen vehicles, state-subsidized products, and other materials across Libya’s borders. Street battles in Sabha are common between competing factions of traffickers.43

Italy has signed a military cooperation agreement with Niger that will allow it to deploy alongside Sahel Group of Five (SG5) forces (an anti-terrorist and economic development coalition of five Sahel nations with support from France and other nations) and French and German contingents with the objective of establishing control over the border with Libya.g On the Fezzan side of the border, Italy will support a border guard composed of Tubu, Tuareg, and Awlad Sulayman tribesmen as called for in a deal negotiated in Rome last April.44 Rome will, in turn, fund development projects in the region. Local leaders in Fezzan complain national leaders have been more interested in border security than the lack of development that fuels border insecurity, not realizing the two go hand-in-hand.45 Italian Interior Minister Marco Minniti noted his conviction that “the southern border of Libya is crucial for the southern border of Europe as a whole. So we have built a relationship with the tribes of southern Sahara. They are fundamental to the south, the guardians of the southern border.”46

A Failed Experiment

Proof that the migrant crisis cannot be solved on Libya’s coast came in September/October 2017 in the form of a 15-day battle in the port city of Sabratha (78 kilometers west of Tripoli) that killed 39 and wounded 300. The battle marked the collapse of an Italian experiment in paying militias to prevent migrants from boarding boats for Italy.47

Fighting in Sabratha, September 2017 (Libya Observer)

The Italian decision to select the GNA-aligned Martyr Anas Dibbashi Brigade (aka 48th Infantry Brigade) to cut off migrant flows from Sabratha (which it did with some success) angered the Wadi Brigade (salafist followers of Saudi shaykh Rabi’ bin Hadi al-Madkhali who are aligned with the LNA)48 and the (anti) Islamic State-Fighting Operations Room (IFOR, consisting of pro-GNA former army officers, though some have ties to the Wadi Brigade). Like the Anas Dibbashi Brigade, both groups had made great sums of cash from human trafficking. With the southern border still unsecured, migrants continued to pour into Sabratha but could not be sent on to Europe, creating a trafficking bottleneck.49 Suddenly, only Anas Dibbashi was making money (in the form of millions of Euro from Italy),50 leading to a fratricidal struggle to restore the old order as members of Sabratha’s extensive Dibbashi clan fought on both sides of the conflict.h Both LNA and GNA forces claimed victory over the Anas Dibbashi Brigade, with Haftar claiming IFOR was aligned with his LNA.51 Following the battle, migrant flows resumed while Haftar warned his forces in Sabratha to be ready for an advance on Tripoli.52

The Fezzan Qaddafists 

A challenge to Haftar’s efforts (and one he has tried to co-opt) is the strong current of Qaddafism (i.e., support of the Jamahiriya political philosophy conceived by Muammar Qaddafi) in Fezzan, the last loyalist area to be overrun in the 2011 revolution. Support for Qaddafi was especially strong in the Sahelian Tuareg, Qaddadfa, and parts of the Awlad Sulayman communities.

Fezzan’s Qaddafists were no doubt inspired by the release of Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi in early June 2017 after six years of detention.53 Saif, however, is far from being in the clear; he remains subject to a 2015 death sentence issued in absentia in Tripoli and is still wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for alleged war crimes committed in 2011.54 On October 17, 2017, the Qaddafi family lawyer announced Saif was already visiting tribal elders as he began his return to politics.55 The announcement followed a statement from the United Nations Special Envoy to Libya, Ghassan Salamé, that Libyan elections must be open to all, including Saif and other unreformed Qaddafists.56

General Ali Kanna Sulayman, a Tuareg Qaddafi loyalist, fled to Niger after the fall of Tripoli in 2011, but was reported to have returned to Fezzan in 2013.57 His former comrade, Qaddafi-era Air Force commander Ali Sharif al-Rifi, also returned from Niger to his Fezzan home of Waddan in June 2017.58 Thirty Qaddafi-era prisoners, mostly military officers, were released in early June 2017 by the Tripoli Revolutionaries’ Brigade (TRG) under orders from the HoR.59

General Ali Kanna took control of the massive Sharara oil field in Fezzan after the Misratan 13th Brigade pulled out in the last week of May 2017. As leader of a neo-Qaddafist militia, Ali Kanna has spent his time trying to unite local forces in a “Fezzan Army” that would acknowledge the legitimacy of the Qaddafist Jamahariya.60 In October 2016, there were reports that former Qaddafist officers had appointed Ali Kanna as the leader of the “Libyan Armed Forces in Southern Libya,” a structure apparently independent of both the GNA and Haftar’s LNA.61

The effort to promote armed Qaddafism in Fezzan has faltered under pressure from the LNA’s General Muhammad Bin Nayel.62 LNA spokesman Colonel Ahmad al-Mismari downplayed the threat posed by Ali Kanna, claiming his “pro-Qaddafi” southern army is composed mostly of foreign mercenaries with few professional military officers.63

In mid-October, an armed group of Qaddafists (allegedly including 120 members of the Darfuri JEM) attempted to take control of the major routes in and out of Tripoli before clashing with Islamist Abd al-Rauf’s Rada (Deterrence) force, a semi-autonomous police force operating nominally under the GNA’s Ministry of the Interior.64

Two alleged leaders of the Qaddafist group, Libyan Mabruk Juma Sultan Ahnish (aka Alwadi) and Sudanese Rifqa al-Sudani, were captured and detained by Rada forces.65 Ahnish is a member of the Magraha tribe from Brak al-Shatti, while Rifqa (aka Imam Daoud Muhammad al-Faki) is supposedly a Sudanese member of JEM, though other accounts claim he may be Libyan.66 According to Rada, the rest of the JEM group refused to surrender and presumably remains at large. It was claimed the Darfuri mercenaries were working on behalf of exiled Qaddafists belonging to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Libya (PFLL).67 i

The fragility of Tripoli’s water supply became apparent on October 19, 2017, when Mabruk Ahnish’s brother, Khalifa Ahnish, made good on his threat to turn off the Great Man-Made River if Mabruk was not released within 72 hours. Khalifa also threatened “kidnapping and murder,” cutting the Sabha-Tripoli road, and blowing up the southern gas pipeline leading to Italy via the Greenstream pipeline.68 Khalifa claimed to be working under the command of General Ali Kanna, though the general denied having anything to do with Khalifa or his brother.69

Conclusion 

Haftar’s apparent military strategy is to secure the desert airbases south of Tripoli and insert LNA forces on the coast west of Tripoli, cornering his opponents in the capital and Misrata before mounting an air-supported offensive, similar to the tactics that enabled the capture of Jufra.j Haftar is trying to sell the conquest of Tripoli as a necessary (and desirable) step in ending illegal migration from Libyan ports to Europe.70 The strategy has political support; HoR Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni has consistently rejected international proposals for a mediated settlement to the Libyan crisis, insisting, as a former professional soldier, that only a military effort can unite the country.71

The LNA’s prolonged effort to take and secure Benghazi points to both the difficulty of urban warfare and the weakness of the LNA relative to its ambition to bring Libya’s largest cities under its control. The pullback of the PC/GNA-allied Misratan militias from Jufra may be preparation for a consolidated stand against Haftar, but it also weakens security in the south, offering room for new actors. Fezzan remains an attractive and long-term target for regional jihadis who may find opportunities to exploit or even hijack the direction of a protracted resistance in Fezzan to the imposition of rule by a new Libyan strongman. With no single group strong enough to resist Haftar’s LNA (whose ultimate victory is by no means certain), all kinds of anti-Haftar alliances are possible between Qaddafists, Islamists, Misratans, and even jihadis, with the added possibility of eventual foreign intervention by the West or Haftar’s assertive Middle Eastern or Russian partners.

In a study of the 2014-2016 fighting in ‘Ubari (a town in between Sabha and al-‘Uwaynat) released earlier this year, Rebecca Murray noted her Tuareg and Tubu sources “overwhelmingly dismissed the possibility that radical IS [Islamic State] ideology could take root in their communities, which they described as traditional, less religiously conservative, rooted in local culture, and loyal to strong tribal leaders.”72

The perspective of her sources might be optimistic. Unfortunately, the situation strongly resembles that which existed in northern Mali before well-armed Islamist extremists began moving in on existing smuggling networks, using the existence of “militarized, unemployed and marginalized youths” (as Murray describes their Libyan counterparts) to create new networks under their control while simultaneously undermining traditional community and religious leadership. While tribal leaders may still command a certain degree of loyalty, they are nonetheless unable to provide social services, employment, reliable security, or economic infrastructure to their communities, leaving them susceptible to those who claim they can, whether religious radicals or would-be strongmen.     CTC

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

Substantive Notes

[a] The BDB is a coalition of Islamists and former Qaddafi-era army officers, which includes some fighters who were in the now largely defunct Ansar al-Sharia group. See Andrew McGregor, “Libya’s Military Wild Card: The Benghazi Defense Brigades and the Massacre at Brak al-Shatti,” Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Monitor 15:11 (2017).

[b] The town of al-‘Uwaynat in southwest Fezzan is not to be confused with Jabal ‘Uwaynat, a mountain in southeast Cyrenaïca. According to Malian and Mauritanian security sources, Belmokhtar was replaced in early May 2017 by his Algerian deputy, Abd al-Rahman al-Sanhaji, whose name suggests he is a Berber. Belmokhtar’s presence in southern Libya, far away from operations in Mali, was cited as a major reason for the change. Malek Bachir, “Exclusive: Notorious leader of Saharan al-Qaeda group loses power,” Middle East Eye, May 9, 2017.

[c] The ‘Ubari-based Maghawir Brigade, created from Sahelian Tuareg as a Libyan Army unit in 2004, split during the revolution with those favoring the revolution forming the new Ténéré (Tamasheq – “desert”) Brigade, while the Qaddafi loyalists were forced to flee to Mali and Niger. Many of the latter returned after the collapse of the Azawad rebellion in northern Mali (2012-2103) and regrouped around Tuareg General Ali Kanna Sulayman as the Tendé Brigade, though others rallied around Ag Ghali’s cousin, Ahmad Omar al-Ansari, in the Border Guards 315 Brigade. Mathieu Galtier, “Southern borders wide open,” Libya Herald, September 20, 2013; Rebecca Murray, “In a Southern Libya Oasis, a Proxy War Engulfs Two Tribes,” Vice News, June 7, 2015; Nicholas A. Heras, “New Salafist Commander Omar al-Ansari Emerges in Southwest Libya,” Jamestown Foundation Militant Leadership Monitor 5:12 (2014); Rebecca Murray “Southern Libya Destabilized: The Case of Ubari,” Small Arms Survey Briefing Paper, April 2017, fn. 23.

[d] The Islamic State declared the division of Libya into three provinces of its self-proclaimed caliphate on November 10, 2014, based on the pre-2007 administrative divisions of Libya: Wilayah Barqa (Cyrenaïca), Wilayah Tarabulus (Tripolitania), and Wilayah Fezzan. See Geoff D. Porter, “How Realistic Is Libya as an Islamic State ‘Fallback’?” CTC Sentinel 9:3 (2016).

[e] The Great Man-Made River is a Qaddafi-era water project that taps enormous aquifers under the Sahara to supply fresh-water to the cities of the Libyan coast. Cutting the pipelines is a relatively cheap and efficient way of applying pressure to the urban areas on the coast where most of the Libyan population lives.

[f] Military sources in the UAE claimed on October 23, 2017, that Qatar was assisting hundreds of defeated Islamic State fighters to leave Iraq and Syria for Fezzan, where they would create a new base to threaten the security of Europe, North Africa, and sub-Saharan Africa. However, this alarming news must be tempered by recognition of the ongoing propaganda war being waged on Qatar by the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Amal Abdullah, “Hamdeen Organization moves hundreds of armed ‘Daesh’ to Libyan territory,” Al-Ittihad, October 22, 2017.

[g] The SG5 is a multilateral response to terrorism and other security issues in the Sahel region. Created in 2014 but only activated in February 2017, the SG5 consists of military and civil forces from Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad, and Burkina Faso, with logistical and financial assistance from France and other Western partners.

[h] The Italian government maintains that the estimated €5 million payment was issued only to the GNA government or Sabratha’s local council and not directly to a militia. However, the route payments took is largely irrelevant to the outcome. Patrick Wintour, “Italy’s Deal to Stem Flow of People from Libya in Danger of Collapse,” Guardian, October 3, 2017.

[i] The founding declaration of the PFLL declares its intent is to build a sovereign state and “liberate the country from the control of terrorist organizations that use religion as a cover and are funded by foreign agencies.” “Founding Declaration of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Libya,” Jamahiriya News Agency, December 25, 2016.

[j] Of concern to Tripoli are reports that Haftar forces have repeatedly struck civilian targets (especially in Hun) as displayed in the LNA’s Jufra air offensive. Abdullah Ben Ibrahim, “A night of airstrikes in Hun town,” Libya Observer, May 24, 2017.

Citations

[1] “Majority of Libya now under national army control, says Haftar,” Al Arabiya, October 14, 2017.

[2] “Tripoli Revolutionaries Brigade controls Garabulli after three days of clashes,” Libyan Express, July 11, 2017; Waleed Abdullah, “Cautious calm east of Tripoli after clashes: Official,” Anadolu Agency, July 10, 2017; “Pro-Ghwell forces halt advance on Tripoli after Serraj calls for international allies to attack,” Libya Herald, July 7, 2017.

[3] “Former PC loyalist Majbri joins Gatrani and Aswad in fresh challenge to Serraj,” Libya Herald, September 3, 2017.

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

[5] “Brigade 613 calls for response to Dignity Operation airstrikes in central Libya,” Libya Observer, May 23, 2017; “A night of airstrikes in Hun town,” Libya Observer, May 24, 2017; “Haftar’s warplanes conduct airstrikes on Al-Bunyan Al-Marsous locations in central Libya,” Libyan Express, May 24, 2017.

[6] “Haftar forces capture strategic Libya airbase after ‘secret deals,’” The New Arab, June 4, 2017; “Operation Dignity seizes Jufra airbase in central Libya,” Libyan Express, June 3, 2017; “Haftar’s forces seize Hun town in Jufra, a dozen killed,” Libyan Express, June 3, 2017; Jamie Prentis, “Waddan taken by LNA in fierce fighting,” Libya Herald, June 2, 2017; “Clashes in Waddan town leave a dozen killed,” Libya Observer, June 3, 2017.

[7] “LNA sets up new force in Bani Walid,” Libya Herald, October 19, 2017.

[8] Lamine Ghanmi, “ISIS regroups in Libya amid jihadist infighting,” Middle East Online, October 15, 2017.

[9] “Islamic State set up Libyan desert army after losing Sirte – prosecutor,” Reuters, September 28, 2017; “IS cameraman involved in 2015 Sirte massacre of Egyptian Christians in custody says Assour,” Libya Herald, September 28, 2017.

[10] “Sudanese Jihadist killed in eastern Libya,” Sudan Tribune, February 10, 2016; “Sudanese security releases three ISIS sympathizers,” Sudan Tribune, January 1, 2016.

[11] “Sudanese twin sisters arrested in Libya over ISIS connections,” Sudan Tribune, February 7, 2017.

[12] “9 Sudanese migrants found dead near Libyan border, 319 rescued: SAF,” Sudan Tribune, May 1, 2014; Andrew McGregor, “Jabal ‘Uwaynat: Mysterious Mountain Becomes a Three Border Security Flashpoint,” AIS Special Report, June 13, 2017.

[13] Aidan Lewis, “Islamic State shifts to Libya’s desert valleys after Sirte defeat,” Reuters, February 10, 2017; John Pearson, “Libya sees new threat from ISIL after defeat at Sirte,” National [Abu Dhabi], February 10, 2017.

[14] “IS slays two in ambush on Third Force convoy,” Libya Herald, May 8, 2017; “Libyan Rivals Rumored to Meet Again in Cairo This Week,” Geopoliticsalert.com, May 10, 2017.

[15] Ahmed Elumami, “Islamic State set up Libyan desert army after losing Sirte – prosecutor,” Reuters, September 28, 2017; “Libya Dismantles Network Involved in Beheading of Copts,” Al-Sharq al-Awsat, September 29, 2017.

[16] See Andrew McGregor, “Islamic State Announces Libyan Return with Slaughter of LNA Personnel in Jufra,” AIS Special Report, August 24, 2017.

[17] Hsain Ilahiane, Historical Dictionary of the Berbers (Imazighen), 2nd ed., (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017), pp. 146-147.

[18] Nick Turse, “The US Is Building a $100 Million Drone Base in Africa,” Intercept, September 29, 2016; “France: The Saharan Policeman,” BBC, March 19, 2015.

[19] “Chad shuts border with Libya, deploys troops amid security concerns,” Reuters, January 5, 2017.

[20] Lorenzo Cremonesi, “Migranti, Haftar: Vi aiutiamo a fermarli, dateci gli elicotteri,” Corriere della Sera, September 28, 2017.

[21] Lorenzo Cremonesi, “Haftar e le minacce alle navi italiane: ‘Senza il nostro accordo, è un’invasione,’” Corriere della Sera, August 11, 2017.

[22] Jamal Adel and Hadi Fornaji, “Massive rise in petrol prices in south, but convoys of tankers from Misrata expected to start rolling this weekend,” Libya Herald, September 23, 2017.

[23] Jamal Adel, “Qatrun Tebu brigade clamps down on southern border smuggling,” Libya Herald, September 11, 2017.

[24] “Southern border reported blockaded as Qatrun leader confirms ‘big’ drop in migrants coming from Niger,” Libya Herald, September 7, 2017.

[25] “Barka Shedemi crée la panique à Niamey et maitrise la frontière,” Tchad Convergence/Le Tchadanthropus-Tribune, October 23, 2017.

[26] Jamie Prentis, “Sudan reiterates support for Presidency Council but concerned about Darfuri rebels in Libya,” Libya Herald, May 1, 2017.

[27] “Hafter praises the PC and says Qatar is arming Libyan terrorists,” Libya Herald, May 30, 2017.

[28] “Libya Army Spokesman Says Qatar Involved in Number of Assassinations,” Asharq al-Awsat, June 8, 2017; “Libyan army reveals documents proving Qatar’s interference in Libya,” Al Arabiya, June 8, 2017; “Libyan diplomat reveals Qatari ‘involvement’ in attempt to kill General Haftar,” Al Arabiya, June 6, 2017; “Haftar accuses Qatar of supporting terrorism in Libya,” Al Arabiya, May 29, 2017.

[29] “Sudanese rebel group acknowledges fighting for Khalifa Haftar’s forces in Libya,” Libya Observer, October 10, 2016; “Intelligence Report: Darfur Mercenaries Pose Threat on Peace in the Region,” Sudan Media Center, May 22, 2017; “Darfur Groups Control Oilfields in Libya,” Global Media Services-Sudan, July 27, 2016.

[30] “Final report of the Panel of Experts on Libya established pursuant to resolution 1973 (2011), S/2017/466,” June 1, 2017, p. 115; “Sudan: Rebel Commander Killed, Chief Captured in Darfur Battles,” Radio Dabanga, May 23, 2017; “Sudan, rebels resume heavy fighting in North Darfur,” Sudan Tribune, May 29, 2017.

[31] “East-based Libyan army says al-Qaeda attacked airbase,” Channel TV [Amman], May 22, 2017.

[32] Maha Elwatti, “LNA claims many Brak al-Shatti attackers were foreign, says it is fighting al-Qaeda,” Libya Herald, May 20, 2017.

[33] “Letter Dated 4 March 2016 from the Panel of Experts on Libya Established Pursuant to Resolution 1973 (2011), Addressed to the President of the Security Council,’” S/2016/209, United Nations Security Council, March 9, 2016; Rebecca Murray “Southern Libya Destabilized: The Case of Ubari,” Small Arms Survey Briefing Paper, April 2017, fn. 57.

[34] Lacher.

[35] “Libya militia to halt attack on Chadian fighters in south,” Facebook via BBC Monitoring, June 15, 2017; Célian Macé, “Mahamat Mahad Ali, la rose et le glaive,” Libération, May 29, 2017.

[36] “Final report of the Panel of Experts on Libya established pursuant to resolution 1973 (2011), S/2017/466,” June 1, 2017, p. 18. See also Andrew McGregor, “Rebel or Mercenary? A Profile of Chad’s General Mahamat Mahdi Ali,” Jamestown Foundation Militant Leadership Monitor, September 2017.

[37] “Final report of the Panel of Experts on Libya established pursuant to resolution 1973 (2011), S/2017/466,” June 1, 2017, p. 116.

[38] Beata Stur, “Germany, Italy propose EU patrols along Libya’s border with Niger,” New Europe, May 15, 2017; May 15, 2017; “Italy and Germany call for EU mission on Libyan border,” AFP, May 14, 2017.

[39] Paolo Mastrolilli, “A Plan for Carabinieri in Mosul After Caliph’s Militiamen Take Flight,” La Stampa [Turin], April 21, 2017.

[40] Sami Zaptia, “Libya refused international requests to strike migrant smuggling militias: GNA Foreign Minister Siala,” Libya Herald, April 29, 2017.

[41] Gabriel Harrison, “EU parliament head says Libya should be paid €6 billion to stop migrants,” Libya Herald, August 28, 2017.

[42] “Final report of the Panel of Experts on Libya established pursuant to resolution 1973 (2011), S/2017/466,” June 1, 2017, p. 63.

[43] Jamie Prentis, “LNA airstrikes again hit Tamenhint and Jufra,” Libya Herald, April 29, 2017; “Deadly Clashes in Sebha over Car Robbery,” Libya Herald, May 5, 2017.

[44] Francesco Grignetti, “L’Italia studia una missione in Niger per controllare la frontiera con la Libia,” La Stampa [Turin], October 15, 2017.

[45] “Tebu, Tuareg and Awlad Suleiman make peace in Rome,” Libya Herald, March 30, 2017.

[46] Patrick Wintour, “Italian minister defends methods that led to 87% drop in migrants from Libya,” Guardian, September 7, 2017.

[47] “Salafists loyal to Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar control Sabratha, declare war on Tripoli,” Libyan Express, October 6, 2017; “Libya pro-GNA force drives rival out of Sabratha,” AFP, October 7, 2017.

[48] Abdullah Ben Ibrahim, “Khalifa Haftar: Libyan Army is launching legitimate war in Sabratha,” Libya Observer, October 3, 2017. See also Andrew McGregor, “Radical Loyalty and the Libyan Crisis: A Profile of Salafist Shaykh Rabi’ bin Hadi al-Madkhali,” Jamestown Foundation Militant Leadership Monitor, January 2017.

[49] “ISIS Fighting Operation Room declares victory in Sabratha,” Libya Observer, October 6, 2017.

[50] Francesca Mannocchi, “Guerra di milizie a Sabratha, ecco perché dalla città libica riparte il traffico dei migrant,” L’Espresso, September 19, 2017; Nello Scavo, “Tripoli. Accordo Italia-Libia, è giallo sui fondi per aiutare il Paese,” Avvenire, September 1, 2017.

[51] Khalid Mahmoud, “Libya: Serraj, Haftar Share the ‘Liberation’ of Sabratha,” Asharq al-Awsat, October 7, 2017.

[52] Cremonesi, “Migranti, Haftar: Vi aiutiamo a fermarli, dateci gli elicotteri;” “Salafists loyal to Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar control Sabratha, declare war on Tripoli.”

[53] “Saif al-Islam Gaddafi freed from Zintan, arrives in eastern Libya,” Libyan Express, June 10, 2017; Jamie Prentis, “ICC chief prosecutor demands handover of Saif Al-Islam,” Libya Herald, June 14, 2017.

[54] Chris Stephen, “Gaddafi son Saif al-Islam ‘freed after death sentence quashed,” Guardian, July 7, 2016; Raf Sanchez, “Gaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam at large in Libya after being released from death row, lawyer says,” Telegraph, July 7, 2016.

[55] AMN al-Masdar News, October 18, 2017.

[56] Marc Perelman, “Ghassan Salamé: le processus politique en Libye est ouvert ‘à tout le monde sans exception,’” France 24, September 23, 2017.

[57] Lacher. For General Kanna, see Andrew McGregor, “General Ali Kanna Sulayman and Libya’s Qaddafist Revival,” AIS Special Report, August 8, 2017.

[58] “Qaddafi’s air force chief flies home from exile: report,” Libya Herald, June 18, 2017.

[59] “Tajouri releases Qaddafi people imprisoned for six years,” Libya Herald, June 11, 2017.

[60] Mathieu Galtier, “Libya: Why the Gaddafi loyalists are back,” Middle East Eye, November 11, 2016; Vijay Prashad, “Don’t Look Now, But Gaddafi’s Political Movement could be Making a Comeback in Libya,” AlterNet.org, December 29, 2016; François de Labarre, “Libye, le general Ali Kana veut unifier les tribus du Sud,” Paris Match, May 22, 2016.

[61] Ken Hanly, “Southern army leaders try to change leaders unsuccessfully,” Digital Journal, October 9, 2016; Abdullah Ben Ibrahim, “Armed groups in southern Libya abandon Dignity Operation,” Libya Observer, October 9, 2016.

[62] Jamie Prentis, “LNA resumes airstrikes on Tamenhint as Misratans target Brak Al-Shatti: report,” Libya Herald, April 13, 2017.

[63] “’We are the LNA, we are everywhere in Libya’ says LNA spokesman,” Libya Herald, February 2017.

[64] “Tripoli-based Special Deterrent Force apprehends Gaddafi-loyal armed group,” Libya Observer, October 16, 2017.

[65] “Libya on brink of water crisis as armed group closes main source,” Libyan Express, October 23, 2017; “Water stops in Tripoli as Qaddafi militants now threaten to blow up gas pipeline,” Libya Herald, October 19, 2017.

[66] Hadi Fornaji, “Now Tripoli port as well as Mitiga airport closed as Ghararat fighting continues,” Libya Herald, October 17, 2017.

[67] “Tripoli-based Special Deterrent Force apprehends Gaddafi-loyal armed group;” “Rada says it has broken up Tripoli attack plot,” Libya Herald, October 16, 2017.

[68] “Gunmen block Tripoli-Sebha road in new bid to force release of Mabrouk Ahnish,” Libya Herald, October 23, 2017.

[69] “Armed Group Threatens to Blow Up Pipeline that Transmits Libya’s Gas to Italy,” Asharq al-Awsat, October 19, 2017; “Gaddafis threaten Tripoli residents with water cut,” Libya Observer, October 17, 2017; “Water stops in Tripoli as Qaddafi militants now threaten to blow up gas pipeline.”

[70] “Eastern forces already devised plan to control Tripoli, says spokesman,” Libyan Express, July 11, 2017.

[71] Hadi Fornaji, “Thinni spurns calls for political dialogue, says ‘military solution’ is only answer to Libya crisis,” Libya Herald, April 8, 2017.

[72] Rebecca Murray, “Southern Libya Destabilized: The Case of Ubari,” Small Arms Survey Briefing Paper, April 2017.

 

Attempt to Expel Khalifa Haftar from Benghazi is Just Latest Challenge for Libya’s “Field Marshal”

Andrew McGregor

AIS Special Report, November 14, 2017

The leader of the Libyan National Army (LNA), Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, is suddenly finding his presumed path to becoming Libya’s latest strongman ruler blocked by various hurdles in the form of war crimes accusations, tribal conflict, internal dissent and allegations of corruption and nepotism. While Haftar’s LNA (actually a coalition of militias rather than a “national army”) remains Libyan’s most potent military force, it is not as strong nor does it control as much territory as the Field Marshal and his supporters would have the international community believe.

Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar (Libyan Express)

Haftar is the leader of the military arm of the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR) parliament, which claims to be the legitimate government of Libya rather than the rival Tripoli-based Presidency Council/Government of National Accord (PC/GNA), which is recognized by the United Nations as Libya’s legitimate government. In reality, both factions are different arms of a tripartite national government formed by the 2015 Libyan Political Agreement (LPA). In Libya’s political confusion, even this rivalry is not set in stone; some members of the PC/GNA support the HoR and some members of the PC/GNA support the HoR. A political resolution of Libya’s civil conflict is impossible without the different arms of government uniting in a common purpose. Khalifa Haftar, however, shows every sign of intending to become a new Qaddafi-style strongman while giving lip-service to the provisions of the LPA.

Opposition from the Awaqir

Friction between Haftar’s camp (supported by members of his Furjan tribe) and the Awaqir Arabs of eastern Libya dates back to the January 2016 appointment of Awaqir member al-Mahdi al-Barghathi as the GNA’s Minister of Defense. Up to that point, al-Barghathi had served under Haftar as commander of the LNA’s 204th Tank Brigade. His defection to the rival GNA government in Tripoli was roundly denounced by Haftar and his lieutenants. Haftar soon distanced himself from two Awaqir armed groups formerly under his command, Faraj Egaim’s “Special Tasks Forces” and Salah Bulghaib’s “Military Intelligence” militia.

Awaqir Tribal Leader Braik al-Lwati

The dispute reached the point of no return when Awaqir tribal leader Braik al-Lwati and five other tribesmen were killed by a car bomber while leaving a mosque in Suluq (southeast of Benghazi) in May 2017.[1] Haftar was widely suspected of ordering this and other assassinations of Awaqir figures as the tribe began shifting its loyalties from Haftar to the PC/GNA. This was an intolerable situation for Haftar, who regards Benghazi as LNA turf. The PC/GNA Defense Minister al-Barghathi survived a Benghazi car-bomb attack in July 2016.

The conflict intensified when the Presidency Council appointed Awaqir tribesman Faraj Egaim the new Deputy Minister of the Interior on August 31. Haftar quickly denounced the move, calling it a “threat to national security,” while blaming “the Muslim Brotherhood and terrorist groups” of being behind the appointment.[2] Egaim was targeted by a car-bomb in Benghazi days later but survived.

Faraj Egaim and Members of the Interior Ministry (Marsad Libya)

A second unsuccessful car-bomb attack on Egaim occurred on November 5, 2017 after he opened an investigation into LNA involvement in a massacre of prisoners outside Benghazi. Five days later, Egaim told the Jordan-based 218 News TV on that he blamed Haftar for orchestrating the latest car-bomb attempt on his life and for ordering a mortar attack earlier that day (November 10) on the Interior Ministry base in Benghazi’s Budzira district that killed three members of his command. With audible anger, Egaim gave the “troublemaker” Haftar, his sons and followers 48 hours to quit Benghazi and turn the city over to the Sa’iqa Special Forces Brigade commander Wanis al-Bukhamada, adding “We declare war on the traitor [Haftar] and his camp…”[3] Egaim also accused Haftar’s followers of committing all the abductions and murders in Benghazi since 2014 during a second November 10 interview on the Libya 218 TV channel.[4]

The next morning (November 11), LNA troops stormed Egaim’s Benghazi headquarters. There were no deaths in the attack and no report of prisoners, though the assailants reported seizing all the Interior Ministry vehicles.[5]

Other LNA units, including the 106th Brigade commanded by Haftar’s son Saddam, moved on the predominantly Awaqir town of Bersis, 60 km east of Benghazi, where Egaim kept a second headquarters.[6] Egaim’s HQ there was taken on the 12th and his home destroyed by heavy artillery.[7]

Initial reports that Egaim had been taken prisoner in Marj shortly after the assault on his Bersis HQ proved false.[8] Haftar issued an arrest warrant for Egaim and ordered all security checkpoints in eastern Libya to watch for the fugitive commander.[9] The Field Marshal then left the search to his subordinates, taking an unscheduled trip to Dubai, purportedly to watch an Air Show.[10] Meanwhile, members of the Awaqir tribe took to social media to issue threats to Haftar’s Furjan tribe.[11] With Egaib on the run, the LNA ordered the absorption of Salah Bulghaib’s largely Awaqir “Military Intelligence” unit into the LNA’s main intelligence group.

Accusations from Haftar’s Former Spokesman

Colonel Muhammad al-Hijazi, a former officer in Qaddafi’s army, quit as spokesman of Haftar’s Operation Dignity (the name for Haftar’s anti-Islamist offensive) in January 2016, accusing him of war crimes in Benghazi and a desire to become a new Qaddafi: “We cannot be silent anymore about his killings, kidnappings, destruction and forced disappearances.” He also accused Haftar of illegally transferring military funds to his sons in Egypt, Tunisia and Jordan.[12]

Colonel Muhammad al-Hijazi (Libya Observer)

Al-Hijazi returned to the attack on November 4, accusing Haftar of destroying Libya’s social fabric and authorizing a wave of assassinations in eastern Libya: “We were deceived when he said he did not want any position of power, then he raised his own status and gave his sons, who are civilians, military ranks and now he is seeking a mandate to rule all of Libya.” Al-Hijazi claimed many officers wanted to quit Haftar’s LNA, but feared torture and assassination at the hands of Haftar loyalists.[13]

The former LNA commander alleged that the “assassinations, political killings [and] secret prisons” were the work of the Salafist fighters under Haftar’s command. These fighters are influenced by Saudi cleric Osama al-‘Utaibi and the anti-Sufi and anti-Muslim Brotherhood Madkhalist ideology, which has gained traction in the LNA leadership.[14] Al-‘Utaibi was invited by Haftar to conduct a speaking tour of eastern Libya in January and February 2017.[15] Unprecedented restrictions imposed soon after ‘Utaibi’s visit by LNA chief-of-staff Major General Abd al-Razzaq al-Nazhuri on women travelling without male companions were viewed as an example of the cleric’s growing influence.[16]

Al-Hijazi also singled out certain Haftar loyalists as responsible for the “massacre” of civilians by airstrikes on the Islamist stronghold of Derna, namely LNA spokesman Colonel Ahmad al-Mismari, LNA chief of staff al-Nazhuri and LNA air force chief Saqr al-Jarushi.[17] Al-Jarushi is known for his May 2015 televised threats to Libyan troops who had failed to join Haftar’s forces, saying that if they failed to join by the end of the month, they were “traitors who have to be slaughtered and their wives must be raped before their eyes.”[18] 

War Crimes Allegations

Haftar ignored demands last week from the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) to turn over a commander in the LNA’s Sa’iqa Special Forces Brigade who is wanted for personally executing 33 prisoners in a series of seven videotaped killings. An ICC arrest warrant was issued in August for the commander, Mahmoud Mustafa Busayf al-Warfali. Al-Warfali submitted his resignation last May, but it was refused by Sa’iqa chief Wanis al-Bukhamada. In June, al-Warfali was accused by the UN Panel of Experts on Libya of running a number of secret and illegal prisons.[19] Haftar’s response to the ICC’s extradition demand was to ask: “There are crimes being committed in Libya every day, so why are you focusing only on Warfali?”[20]

  1. Commander Mahmoud al-Warfali

As if to answer the Field Marshal’s question, the ICC may be about to expand their focus to Haftar himself. New allegations of LNA war crimes emerged with the October discovery of 36 bodies found in a quarry in al-Abyar, southeast of Benghazi. The bodies were bound and blindfolded and showed signs of torture and bullets fired into their heads at short-range. According to local witnesses, the victims had been arrested by the LNA months ago and included not only political opponents but LNA members who disagreed with Haftar’s methods. Some security sources implicated Mahmoud al-Warfali and Saddam Haftar.[21]

In Europe, a group of civil rights lawyers is pressing the ICC to prosecute Khalifa Haftar, insisting that he must take ultimate responsibility for the actions of his troops: “Hundreds of civilians have been deliberately targeted by those forces resulting in their murder, torture, and displacement.”[22]

The Field Marshal is also under attack on a new and unexpected front – Washington. Libyan human rights activist Emadeddin Zahri Muntasser has met with US government officials in Washington and requested an investigation into war crimes and financial malfeasance allegedly committed by Khalifa Haftar and his sons Saddam, Khalid and al-Saddiq, all US citizens. Muntasser’s 300 page complaint claims the Haftars have violated the US Neutrality Act by enlisting in foreign service as officers as well as other acts prohibiting war crimes, genocide and torture.[23]

Several other Libyan groups are reported to be preparing lawsuits against Haftar timed to be introduced during Haftar’s upcoming visit to the US to attend the wedding of his son Uqba Haftar.[24] The multiple complaints and lawsuits may prove embarrassing in the US, where Haftar was closely associated with American intelligence services for two decades.

In an effort to ward off the mounting complaints against him, Haftar authorized his son Khalid to retain the Washington lobbying firm Grassroots Political Consulting (GPC). The firm will advocate on Haftar’s behalf in Congress and provide political and strategic advice. The six-month contract is for $120,000.[25] Though this effort may bear some fruit with poorly informed politicians, other elements of the international community will be sure to note the continuing resistance within Libya to acceptance of the Field Marshal as Libya’s new strongman.

NOTES

[1] Libya Observer, May 19, 2017

[2] Libya Observer, September 2, 2017.

[3] Libya Observer, November 10, 2017.

[4] Libyan Express, November 10, 2017.

[5] Xinhua, November 11, 2017; Libya Herald, November 11, 2017.

[6] Libya Herald, November 11, 2017.  Bersis is the site of an Interior Ministry prison where detainees are held without charge and allegedly tortured by prison personnel. See Libya: Widespread Torture in Detention: Government Should End Arbitrary Detentions, Ill-Treatment in Eastern Libya, Human Rights Watch, June 15, 2017, https://www.hrw.org/news/2015/06/17/libya-widespread-torture-detention

[7] Xinhua, November 12, 2017.

[8] Libyan Express, November 11, 2017.

[9] Asharq al-Awsat, November 13, 2017.

[10] Libya Herald, November 13, 2017.

[11] Libya Herald, November 10, 2017.

[12] Libya Observer, January 22, 2017.

[13] Libya Observer, November 5, 2017.

[14] For the Madkhalists in Libya, see: Andrew McGregor, “Radical Loyalty and the Libyan Crisis: A Profile of Salafist Shaykh Rabi’ bin Hadi al-Madkhali,”January 19, 2017, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=3840

[15] Libya Observer, November 5, 2017; Libya Herald, February 7, 2017.

[16] Libya Herald, February 19, 2017.

[17] Libya Observer, November 5, 2017.

[18] Awalan TV, May 19, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sgWbYsEX5dI

[19] Libyan Express, November 8, 2017.

[20] Asharq al-Aswat, November 8, 2017.

[21] Al-Jazeera, October 29, 2017; AP, October 29, 2017; Libyan Express, October 28, 2017.

[22] Libya Herald, November 13, 2017.

[23] Libya Observer, October 17, 2017.

[24] Middle East Monitor, November 6, 2017.

[25] Odwyerpr.com, November 7, 2017, http://www.odwyerpr.com/story/public/9698/2017-11-07/rogue-libyan-general-retains-dc-lobbyists.html

The Missing Military: Options for a New National Libyan Army

Andrew McGregor

AIS Special Report, November 10, 2017

NATO’s concentrated airstrikes destroyed Muammar Qaddafi’s Libyan Army in 2011 and paved the way to victory for an assortment of untrained and inexperienced Islamist and tribal militias. With no other unifying ideology other than overthrowing Qaddafi, these militias not only staked out their own share of power in the collapsed state, but began to expand, bringing in recruits who had done nothing during the revolution but were now willing to pose, bully and extort the civilian population. Many veterans of Qaddafi’s army fled into exile or remained to find themselves imprisoned or at the receiving end of an assassin’s bullet. Such was the end of Libya’s professional army.

The United Nations and most parties in Libya agree that the formation of a new national army is essential to escape the rule by militia that is preventing Libyan reconstruction. Lack of coordination between armed groups allows space for Islamic State militants, human traffickers and smugglers to operate with impunity.

To understand the competition to form a national Libya army, it is necessary to first understand the rivalry between the different arms of the tripartite government called for in the UN-brokered Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) of 2015. The functions of head-of-state (including the authority to form a military) are carried out by a fractious nine-member Presidency Council (PC) based in the national capital of Tripoli and led by its chairman, Fayez Serraj. Also based in the capital is the executive authority, the Government of National Accord (GNA), which generally works in concert with the PC. The parliament, the House of Representatives (HoR), is based in the eastern city of Tobruk and competes with the PC/GNA, which needs the approval of the HoR to assume its full powers and legitimacy. An advisory body, the High Council of State, tends to side with the HoR. Making matters worse is the existence of another would-be government, Khalifa Ghwell’s Government of National Salvation (GNS), which consists largely of members of the pre-agreement General National Congress (GNC) government who failed to be elected into the new government bodies and frequently attempt to restore the old order through violent incursions into the capital.

The question of legitimacy is inextricably tied to the ability to purchase arms on the international market through an exemption to the UN Security Council’s international arms embargo. Experienced officers and soldiers are awaiting the emergence of a unified military to which they can offer their services. In the meantime they have the choice of isolated aloofness, patient exile or participation in local, highly politicized militias that actually impede the creation of a national force.

At the moment, there are basically five contestants jockeying to compose the core of a national military. These might be split into two groups; the contenders and the pretenders:

The Contenders:  

1/ The “Libyan National Army (LNA),” actually a coalition of mostly eastern militias led by “Field Marshal” Khalifa Haftar and tied to the House of Representatives (HoR) government in Tobruk.

2/ “Bunyan al-Marsous (BaM)” (The Solid Structure), a coalition of mainly Islamist militias, most hailing from the Western city of Misrata.

The Pretenders:

1/ The “Libyan Army,” a national army still in formation under Major General Abd al-Rahman al-Tawil and authorized by the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA).

2/ The “Presidential Guard,” led by Colonel Najmi al-Nakua and nominally under the GNA’s Presidency Council (PC).

3/ The “Libyan National Guard” (LNG), based in Tripoli and led by Brigadier General Mahmoud al-Zigal. The LNG is tied to the rival Government of National Salvation (GNS).

The Libyan National Army (LNA)

The LNA is a coalition of mostly eastern (or Cyrenaïcan) militias led by “Field Marshal” Khalifa Haftar and tied to the HoR parliament in Tobruk. Major General Abd al-Razzaq al-Nazhuri is the LNA’s chief of staff.

Many of Haftar’s closest aides and bodyguards are drawn from his own Furjan tribe. His sons Khalid and Saddam have been made leading officers in Haftar’s LNA despite lacking any military training or experience.[1] The influential Cyrenaïcan Awaqir tribe has complained strongly of nepotism in the command structure, such as Saddam Haftar being given command of Benghazi’s 106th Brigade.[2]

Saddam and Khalid Haftar (Libya Observer)

Though the LNA professes to be politically secular rather than Islamist, its ranks include units from the Saudi-inspired Salafist Madkhali movement as well as large numbers of mercenaries from Chad and Darfur.[3]

An American citizen, Haftar was once a powerful colonel in Qaddafi’s regular army but his capture by Chadian forces in the disastrous 1987 battle at Ouadi Doum led to Qaddafi’s refusal to arrange for his repatriation or even acknowledge his existence. Cast adrift from Libya, Haftar and many fellow Libyan prisoners were extracted from Africa by the CIA to form the nucleus of a never-used force for use in an anti-Qaddafi uprising. After two decades’ residence close to CIA headquarters in Arlington Virginia, Haftar returned to Libya in 2011 to join the revolution. Ambitious and frustrated at failing to achieve a consensus that he deserved to be the new Libyan ruler, Haftar mounted a failed coup in February 2014. Haftar still managed to consolidate his control in 2014 over the “Libyan National Army” (as approved by the HoR, which does not have authority over military matters).  As the United States backed away from involvement in Libyan political affairs following the 2012 Benghazi affair, Haftar sought out new support from Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Russia and, to a more limited extent, France. On April 19, 2017 Russia’s deputy envoy to the UN told the Security Council that Haftar’s LNA must form “the nucleus of the Libyan armed forces in the future.”[4]

Egypt declared on September 19, 2017 that it would take a leading role in the reorganization of the Libya Army around Haftar’s LNA.[5] Chairing a Cairo meeting between Egyptian military officials and officers of the LNA was the former Egyptian chief-of-staff Lieutenant General Mahmoud Ibrahim Hegazy (replaced as chief-of-staff by Lieutenant General Muhammad Farid Hegazy on October 29, partly due to Mahmoud’s inability to secure Egypt’s border with Libya). After the declaration, an LNA officer said the LNA was “open to discussion with all parties excluding terrorist organizations,” but as Haftar refers to all his opponents as “terrorists,” this was not the opening it might appear.[6]

In order to coordinate LNA activities, Haftar created a central operations room in Benghazi on October 11, 2017 under the command of Major General Wanis Bukhamada (Magharba tribe), leader of the Sa’iqa (“Lightning”) Special Forces and a capable veteran of Qaddafi’s regular army.

Almost before he could begin his new duties, Bukhamada became involved in the investigation of the torture and murder of 36 men found dead on October 26 in Abyar, east of Benghazi. Allegations that the dead had been held in LNA military prisons and the possibility of war crimes charges from the ICC have unnerved the LNA leadership, already under pressure from International Criminal Court (ICC) war crimes charges against Mahmoud al-Warfalli, a Sa’iqa commander videotaped executing dozens of unarmed prisoners in a series of incidents.[7] The newly appointed Deputy Minister of the Interior for the PC/GNA, Faraj Egaim, opened his own investigation of the Abyar incident and was subsequently targeted by a car bomb in Benghazi on November 5, 2017.[8]

Faraj Egaim (Libya Observer)

Egaim’s appointment was part of a shift by his Cyrenaïcan Awaqir tribe from Khalifa Haftar’s anti-Islamist “Operation Dignity” to the PC/GNA in Tripoli. The shift was prompted by Awaqir claims that Bukhamada’s Sa’iqa force had provided a safe corridor for Islamic State militants to escape Benghazi and a series of car bomb attacks against leading Awaqir members in Benghazi the tribe blames on Haftar and his supporters.[9] Targets included tribal leader Braik al-Lwati, who was killed in May 2017, while Awaqir PC/GNA Defense Minister al-Mahdi al-Barghathi survived a July 2016 car-bomb. Egaim, whose defection to the PC/GNA was not well received in the Haftar camp, survived an earlier car bomb in September 2017. Egaim had been the commander of the LNA’s Special Tasks Force when he led Aqaqir tribesmen in a June 2017 attack on Benghazi’s Kofiya Prison to free Nuri Bu Fannarah, an Awaqir tribal leader who claimed he had evidence to prove Haftar had ordered the assassination of Braik al-Lwati.[10]

On October 1, 2017, the HoR and the High Council of State issued a joint statement declaring a former Libyan Army officer in the Qaddafi era turned revolutionary, Salim Juha, the new chief-of-staff under Khalifa Haftar as commander-in-chief.[11]  It was not clear whether this marked a change in loyalties by Juha or if this meant General al-Nazhuri had been replaced or dismissed. Juha had previously been named chief-of-staff of the Libyan Army by PC deputy Fathi Majbri in late 2016 while Majbri was acting PC chairman during Serraj’s absence at a family wedding. This appointment (and several others suddenly made by Majbri) was overturned when Serraj returned.[12]

Bunyan al-Marsous (BaM – “The Solid Structure”)

Bunyan al-Marsous is a coalition of mainly Islamist militias, most of which originate in the Western city of Misrata. The coalition is led by General Bashir al-Qadi.

General Bashir al-Qadi

BaM was formed in emergency circumstances when Islamic State fighters launched a surprise offensive towards Misrata from their base in Sirte in April 2016. BaM has pledged allegiance to the United Nations backed PC/GNA government in Tripoli, though it frequently complains of a lack of support from that administration. BaM has campaigned to have itself recognized by the PC/GNA as the national army of Libya and is now patrolling south of Sirte after repeated reports of Islamic State activity in the area.

BaM defeated strong Islamic State forces in Sirte after an eight-month campaign assisted by 495 American air strikes on Islamic State targets (Operation Odyssey Lightning) and a minor but separate contribution from the LNA. Eight hundred BaM fighters, mostly Misratans, were killed in the campaign to eliminate the Islamic State terrorists.[13]

In October 2016, after some 200 American airstrikes on Sirte (largely from USS Wasp, a multi-purpose amphibious assault ship), the American air campaign came under surprising criticism from BaM’s Brigadier Ibrahim Bait, who claimed (with little merit) that the US airstrikes had been less effective than the sorties carried out by Misratan aircraft and had made no difference to BaM’s attempts to retake Sirte.[14]

Rivalry between the LNA and BaM erupted soon after the collapse of the Islamic State occupation of Sirte. The LNA’s small air-force bombed BaM targets in the Jufra District city of Hun in northern Fezzan on December 26, 2016. The attack on BaM positions by their alleged allies in the Battle for Sirte took the coalition off-guard but left them angry, as spelt out by a BaM spokesman who reminded all of the coalition’s costly campaign against IS terrorists: “We warn the party that carried out today’s airstrikes on the brigade in Hun, Jufra, today against ever repeating such a criminal act, or else the GNA forces shall respond very strongly to any violations or targeting of its forces.”[15] LNA aircraft again attacked BaM targets in the Hun and Sokna towns of Jufra District in May 2017, this time describing those killed in the attacks as “terrorists.”[16]

The inclination of BaM’s leaders to conduct their own foreign policy has repeatedly placed them at odds with the PC/GNA politicians responsible for such matters. Several leading Misratan members of BaM visited Grozny and Moscow in April 2017, where they were urged (unsuccessfully) to reconcile with Khalifa Haftar, who is favored by the Russians.

BaM infuriated the PC/GNA by undertaking a visit by 15 BaM officials to Qatar on its own initiative in mid-August 2017 without the prior consent of the PC or the GNA’s Defense Ministry. The delegation included BaM commander Bashir al-Gadi and former BaM spokesman Muhammad al-Ghusri (who left the coalition to act as spokesman for the PC/GNA defense ministry in January 2017 but still joined the BaM delegation).[17] The BaM delegation was received as an official visit by Qatar’s ruler. Nonetheless, the visit was unpopular in both Tripolia and Misrata. Hamid Aisa Khadr and Hamza Treiki, two Misratan commanders who took part in the BaM offensive on Sirte, called for the prosecution of al-Gadi and al-Ghusri after their visit to Doha.[18]

PC chairman Fayez Serraj forbade further such meetings and warned of courts martial for future offenders.[19] After Serraj’s response, BaM Colonel Ali Rafideh accused the PC of failing to provide salaries, logistical support and treatment for wounded BaM fighters after the victory in Sirte.[20]

Brigadier Muhammad Gnaidi

The growing gulf between BaM and the PC was recently illustrated by threats made by BaM Brigadier Muhammad Gnaidi against Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE on Libya’s Islamist Tanasuh TV. Gnaidi’s threats to attack the nations supporting Haftar’s LNA (and, in the case of Egypt and the UAE, participating in air attacks) followed LNA air strikes on the besieged Islamist stronghold of Derna that killed 15 civilians, mostly children. PC chairman Fayez Serraj’s call for an investigation of the “irresponsible” remarks was met by Gnaidi with the remark that unless Serraj took firm action against the three nations, he should leave Libya “on board the vessel that brought him to Tripoli.”[21] In the face of this insubordination Serraj dismissed Gnaidi from the Military Intelligence Directorate and the leadership of the GNA’s Libyan Army. Gnaidi promptly announced a new allegiance to the military arm of the Government of National Salvation.[22]

After an apparently unplanned clash between BaM and LNA forces both hunting Islamic State fighters south of Sirte in early July 2017, Sa’iqa Special Forces commander Wanis Bukhamada spoke highly of BaM’s performance in Sirte and said the LNA would welcome any regular forces that fought terrorism into its fold.[23] BaM issued a stiff rebuke to Bukhamada’s invitation to join the LNA, stating there was “currently no army in Libya” to join, while adding the Libyan people were in need of a “capable military force.”[24]

The Libyan Army

The “Libyan Army” authorized by the Government of National Accord (GNA) based in Tripoli is intended to be a national army under the command of Major General Abd al-Rahman al-Tawil.

Major General Abd al-Rahman al-Tawil

General al-Tawil was appointed by the PC as the chief-of-staff of the Libyan Army on September 1, 2017. The problem with his appointment was that there were no forces to place under his command other than the Presidential Guard, which appears to have remained under the direct command of PC chairman Fayez Serraj and will not become part of the planned national army.[25] The appointment still angered HoR interim PM Abdallah al-Thinni and Khalifa Haftar, with the latter announcing he was breaking off all lines of communication with the PC/GNA.[26]

Three of the seven members of the PC (Ali al-Gotrani, Fathi al-Mijibri and Omar al-Aswad) responded to al-Tawil’s appointment by rejecting Serraj’s authority and declaring Khalifa Hatar and the LNA chief-of-staff to be the sole military leaders of the Libyan nation.[27]

Speaking for many, but not all, of the Misratan armed groups, the Misratan Military Council (MMC) announced on January 31, 2017 that all the brigades under its control would join the incipient “Libyan Army” loyal to the PC/GNA and in opposition to the “rogue general” Khalifa Haftar (Digital Journal, January 31, 2017).

The Presidential Guard

Led by Brigadier Najmi Ramadan Khari al-Nakua and his deputies, Ibrahim Bilad and Abu Lagri, the Tripoli-based Presidential Guard is intended to draw upon security personnel from across Libya, but from the start there has been pressure from Misrata to go with a Misratan majority.[28]

Brigadier Najmi Ramadan Khari al-Nakua (Libya Observer)

The Presidential Guard was created under the authority of the PC/GNA in May 2016, with an initial base of 500 fighters recruited from various militias given the task of protecting Tripoli’s international airport.

Despite the unit’s name, the Presidential Guard’s loyalty appears to be somewhat capricious: when armed groups supporting Khalifa Ghwell’s Government of National Salvation (GNS) attacked Tripoli in an October 2016 coup attempt, the Presidential Guard abandoned the PC, invaded the offices of the High Council of State and announced the installation of the GNS as Libya’s legitimate government.[29] The Guard’s change of allegiance appears to have been provoked by unpaid salaries, though Ghwell was unlikely to make good on these as his coup quickly collapsed due to a lack of broad support from Tripoli’s militias.[30] The Guard’s commander, Ali Ramali, who was alleged to have taken control of the unit’s payment system to reward those loyal to himself and deprive others, was subsequently dismissed for refusing to obey orders from the PC/GNA.[31]

In June 2017, the Presidential Guard made an unsuccessful bid for an exemption from the UN Security Council’s arms embargo on Libya.[32] In the next month the Presidential Guard announced a plan to prohibit the possession of arms by “unauthorized individuals” in Tripoli as well as a ban on the entry of light, medium and heavy weapons to the capital, though progress on this file is so far difficult to discern.[33]

Fending off critics such as Haftar who claim the Presidential Guard aspired to form a new national army, the Guard has stated that it is not to be viewed as a substitute for the army or as an obstacle to its reconstruction, while describing itself as a “disciplined force” loyal to the PC and without any allegiance to political parties, cities or tribes.[34] The Guard has pledged to restrict itself to duties involving border control and protection of state facilities, government members and visiting dignitaries.[35]

The Guard runs training facilities in Tripoli, Misrata and Gharian where recruits receive three months of basic training, followed by specialty training such as mechanical support, communications and Special Forces tactics.[36] According to al-Nakua, Algeria has agreed to send gendarmes to train the Presidential Guard.[37]

Italian general Paolo Serra, the military advisor of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), urged the PC to hasten the full establishment of the Presidential Guard in September, along with developing a program to disarm the militias.[38] Al-Nakua has outlined plans for an ambitious expansion of the unit, adding six additional brigades in western Libya to the one already operating in Tripoli.[39]

The Libyan National Guard (LNG)

Based in Tripoli and led by Brigadier General Mahmoud al-Zigal, the LNG was formed in February 2017 by supporters of Khalifa Ghwell’s Government of National Salvation (GNS) who had fought against the Islamic State in the Battle of Sirte.[40] Zigal insisted the LNG had no ties to political parties and would avoid entanglement in regional or tribal disputes.[41]

Brigadier Mahmoud al-Zigal (Libya Observer)

The GNA described the National Guard as “outlaws” determined to “form a parallel body to the Presidential Guard” in order to “lead the capital into bloody armed conflict.”[42] The PC quickly declared the LNG illegal, but did not have sufficient power to shut it down.[43]

Following the National Guard’s February 10, 2017 parade of military vehicles and weapons in Tripoli, the US State Department issued a warning that the introduction of a new unit with such a significant quantity of weaponry would further destabilize the fragile security situation in Tripoli.[44]

Shortly after the LNG’s creation, clashes broke out in Tripoli between Haithem Tajouri’s Tripoli Revolutionaries Brigade (TRB) and Misratan fighters led by Tripoli-based Misratan militia leader Mahmud Baiyu (a.k.a. Sharikan). Biayu was closely tied to many of those who had joined the LNG, but was disappointed when the newly-formed National Guard failed to support him, possibly the result of strong American criticism of the new force.[45]

In April 2017, the National Guard announced it was sending units south to join the Benghazi Defense Brigades (BDB) and the Misratan Third Force (lately renamed the 13th Brigade) in fighting against the LNA’s 12th Brigade around Tamenhint airbase (northwest of Sabha).[46] Al-Zigal urged all forces based in southern Libya to fight “the idiot war criminal Khalifa Haftar.”[47] If LNG units did reach the south, they do not appear to have played any significant role in the fighting, which ultimately went against the BDB and their Misratan allies. The many ex-soldiers of the BDB have made clear they will never agree to Khalifa Haftars rule and refuse to even consider laying down their arms until the “war criminal” is no longer a candidate for national leadership.

Signs of Cooperation?

A rare joint operation by LNA and PC forces occurred from November 2 to November 8, 2017, when the LNA-affiliated Special Operations Forces commanded by Major Imad Trabulsi and pro-PC forces commanded by Major General Osama Juwaili (commander of the PC/GNA western military region and a former officer in the Qaddafi-era Libyan Army) mounted a joint attack in the Wirshefana district (southwest of Tripoli) on the local 4th Brigade commanded by Omar Tantoush. Trabulsi and Juwaili are both from the western city of Zintan, where many powerful militias exist as rivals to similarly powerful rivals in Misrata. A loyalist general in Qaddafi’s Libyan Army during the 2011 revolution, Tantoush was released from prison in 2015 to serve in Khalifa Haftar’s LNA but left a year later. He was replaced by Trabulsi.[48]

Major General Osama Juwaili (Middle East Monitor)

Tantoush’s 4th Brigade was accused by Trabulsi of harboring an armed group (including 120 mercenaries from Darfur) belonging to the pro-Qaddafist Popular Front for the Liberation of Libya (PFLL) who attempted to take control of the main routes in and out of Tripoli in mid-October. Apparently there were fears that the Qaddafists had lost faith in the leadership of Saif al-Islam Qaddafi (said to be in Wirshefana and afflicted with depression) and were preparing to join Haftar’s LNA.[49] Oddly, both the PC and the LNA denied authorizing the operation, effectively depriving it of any significance as an example of possible cooperation.

Conclusion

There are elements of the LNA that support the PC/GNA and elements of BaM that support Khalifa Haftar. Though BaM and the LNA profess to have a common enemy in the Islamic State, there is little coordination between the two and incidents such as a July clash between BaM and LNA units that allowed Islamic State fighters to escape are not unheard of.[50]

BaM has expressed its willingness to cooperate with any group to destroy the Islamic State in Libya, which they fear will begin recruiting amongst illegal migrants unable to get to Europe but unwilling to return home.[51]  However, as seen above, this willingness to cooperate does not appear to include entertaining overtures from the LNA. There are suspicions in Libya that both BaM and the LNA have a certain degree of tolerance for Islamic State activities in the hope that the extremists will attack their rivals.[52]

At the moment, Khalifa Haftar’s LNA is the strongest military grouping in the country. BaM has significant internal divisions and resents the PC/GNA for failing to provide it with the support it expected during the battle for Sirte and afterwards. The PC/GNA’s “Libyan Army” does not yet exist, the loyalties of the Presidential Guard appear somewhat flexible, and the National Guard is simply the armed wing of a pretend government.

Though the LNA may be the leading contender to form a national army, there is still widespread and determined opposition to Haftar’s play for power in Libya; the leader of Libya’s High State Council, Abd al-Rahman Swehli, recently told Reuters that the LNA was an “armed organization outside the state” and rebuked Haftar for seeking a return to authoritarian rule: “The majority of Libyans will not accept the return of dictatorship or the militarization of the country once again… We will not accept another dictatorship in Libya under any circumstances.”[53]

A successful advance on Tripoli by Haftar later this year or in 2018 may render the question of who will form Libya’s national army moot, but it will raise new questions about the military structure of an extended and expected armed resistance to the Field Marshal’s rule.

Notes

[1] Libya Observer, December 26, 2016

[2] Libya Observer, June 7, 2017

[3] 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] Libya Herald, April 19, 2017

[5] Ahram OnlineSeptember 19, 2017

[6] AP, September 19, 2017

[7] Libya Herald, October 28; ICC, August 15, 2017

[8] Libya Observer, November 5, 2017

[9] Libya Observer, May 26, 2017

[10] Libya Observer, June 6, 2017

[11] Libyan Express, October 1, 2017

[12] Libya Herald, January 13, 2017

[13] Digital Journal, January 31, 2017

[14] Libya Herald, October 6, 2017

[15] Libyan Express, December 26, 2016

[16] Libyan Express, May 23, 2017

[17] Libyan Express, August 13, 2017

[18] Libya Herald, August 15, 2017

[19] Libya Herald, August 16, 2017

[20] Libya Herald, September 3, 2017

[21] Libya Herald, November 3, 2017

[22] Libya Herald, November 6, 2017

[23] Libya Herald, July 6, 2017

[24] Libya Observer, July 6, 2017

[25] Libya Herald, September 1, 2017

[26] Al-Ahram Weekly, September 7-13, 2017

[27] Libya Observer, September 4, 2017

[28] Digital Journal, September 1, 2016

[29] Libyan Express, October 16, 2016

[30] Jeune Afrique, October 16, 2016

[31] Gulf News, November 17, 2017

[32] Xinhua, June 19, 2017

[33] Libyan Express, July 24, 2017

[34] Libya Observer, June 21, 2017

[35] Xinhua, June 19, 2017

[36] AFP, July 14, 2017

[37] Libya Observer, August 21, 2017

[38] Libya Herald, September 27, 2017

[39] Xinhua, June 19, 2017

[40] Al-Araby, February 12, 2017

[41] Libya Observer, February 13, 2017

[42] Al-Araby, February 12, 2017

[43] Libya Herald, February 12, 2017

[44] Libyan Express, February 11, 2017

[45] Libya Herald, February 11, 2017, February 12, 2017; Digital Journal, February 12, 2017

[46] Libya Herald, April 16, 2017

[47] Libya Observer, April 16, 2017

[48] Xinhua, November 2, 2017; Libya Herald, November 2, 2017; Middle East Monitor, June 5, 2017

[49] Libya Herald, November 8, 2017

[50] Libya Herald, July 6, 2017

[51] Libya Observer, September 11, 2017

[52] Middle East Eye, September 5, 2017

[53] Reuters, November 9, 2017

Rebel or Mercenary? A Profile of Chad’s General Mahamat Mahdi Ali

Andrew McGregor

September 7, 2017

In April 2017, the foreign minister of Libya’s Tripoli-based Presidency Council estimated the number of Chadian mercenaries operating in Libya to be 18,000, with another 6,000 hailing from Sudan (Libya Herald, August 23). The numbers emphasized the growing problem of mercenary activity in Libya as well as other parts of Africa.

FACT commander Mahamat Mahdi Ali (Taha Jawashi/Libération).

The first of the Chadian armed groups began operations in Libya’s lawless southern Fezzan region in 2014. Though most of these groups presented themselves as rebels opposing the regime of Chadian president Idriss Déby Itno (who himself took power in a 1990 coup), they shared the common inability to take on Chad’s formidable military. In the meantime, these groups have obtained arms and funding by renting themselves out as mercenaries in Libya’s internal conflict as well as trafficking in people and narcotics through their knowledge of border smuggling routes.

In 2016, Chadian dissident General Mahamat Mahdi Ali gathered many of these groups together under his leadership in the Front pour l’alternance et la concorde au Tchad (FACT – Front for Alternation and Concord in Chad). Operating out of bases south of the Fezzan capital of Sabha, FACT became allied to the powerful Misratan “Third Force militia” (recently renamed the “13th Brigade”), an Islamist group supporting the UN-recognized Presidency Council/Government of National Accord (PC/GNA) administration in Tripoli. In this capacity, FACT became the enemy of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA), a coalition of militias supporting the rival House of Representatives (HoR) government in Tripoli. Despite Haftar’s steady stream of anti-mercenary invective directed at the GNA, most of the Chadian and Sudanese mercenaries in Libya operate alongside forces under his command.

Early Career

The 48-year-old Mahamat Mahdi is a Daza Tubu of the Kecherda sub-group from the Bahr-el-Ghazal region of northern Chad. The Tubu are a nomadic group of roughly 550,000 black Africans speaking a Nilo-Saharan language and sharing cultural similarities with their Tuareg neighbors to the west. The Muslim Tubu are divided into two main groups according to dialect — the northern Teda found in southern Libya, northern Chad and Niger, and the much larger Daza group (also known by their Arabic name, Gura’an) found in Chad and Niger. Clan rivalries have traditionally played a negative role in Tubu attempts at political unification.

The Teda Tubu (Joshua Project)

Mahamat Mahdi was a leading member of the rebel Mouvement pour la Democratie et la Justice au Tchad (MDJT – Movement for Democracy and Justice in Chad), which operated in Tibesti and other parts of the northern Borku-Ennedi-Tibesti (BET) region of Chad from 1998 to 2003. A ceasefire agreement with N’Djamena provided for positions within the government for leading rebels, and Mahamat Mahdi was accordingly made Inspector of the Ministry of Infrastructure. However, he thought better of remaining in N’Djamena when a wave of assassinations began to strike Déby’s political opponents and joined General Mahamat Nouri’s Sudanese-backed Union des Forces pour la Démocratie et le Developpement (UFDD – Union of Forces for Democracy and Development) (Libération, May 29; PANA, December 16, 2003; Le Visionnaire, June 28, 2016).

The Daza Tubu (Joshua Project)

Nouri, a Daza Tubu of the Anakaza sub-group was the defense minister in the government of President Hissène Habré, a fellow Anakaza who ruled Chad from 1982 to 1990 before being deposed by General Déby (from the Zaghawa, a group closely related to the Tubu). [1] In 2009, Mahamat Mahdi became secretary-general of the group, mainly composed of Daza Tubu from the Tibesti Mountains, with the Anakaza sub-group as Nouri’s core supporters. [2]

In February 2008, the UFDD reached the Chadian capital of N’Djamena from its bases across the border in Darfur, but was repelled in violent street fighting by forces personally led by President Déby, a reminder that political life had not dulled the ex-general’s tactical edge (TchadActuel, February 17, 2008; Jeune Afrique, February 11, 2008; Le Nouvel Observateur, March 6, 2008).

A 2010 rapprochement between Chad and Sudan put an end to their mutual support for cross-border rebel groups such as the UFDD. Mahamat Mahdi eventually joined Mahamat Nouri in French exile (Chad is a former French colony), but Nouri ordered him to Libya in 2015 in an attempt to revive the UFDD.

The Creation of FACT

Most of the prospective fighters for the revived group came from the Kreda and Kecherda sub-groups of the Daza Tubu. Mahamat Mahdi used his influence, particularly among his fellow Kecherda, to bring these fighters under his personal control rather than that of Mahamat Nouri, who could exert little control over the process from his Paris exile. [3] Following a clash between Mahamat Mahdi’s supporters and Nouri’s Anakaza supporters that left 20 of the latter dead, Mahamat Mahdi declared the formation of a new rebel movement, FACT, in March 2016 (VOA/AFP, April 8, 2016). The movement established an operational base inside Chad at Tanoua, a region close to the Libyan border.

Now with a movement of his own behind him, Mahamat Mahdi pointed to the Chadian elections that followed a few weeks later as proof that political change in Chad was impossible through the ballot box:

At the beginning, we hoped that there would be a political change at the end of the presidential election. But it was well known that Déby would not give up power. We saw the result: the real winner was robbed of his victory, the ballot boxes were stuffed, the opposition activists were intimidated… The regime has also tried to divide our movement. Only force will make Déby leave, it is our conviction. Slowly but surely, we are preparing to reach our goal… to put an end to this anarchic regime dominated by a small group of men. We have no personal ambitions. We will not fight to retain power. It is no longer possible nowadays to take power with some 4x4s [as Déby did in 1990] and to keep it (Jeune Afrique, December 21, 2016). [4]

Mercenary Activities

FACT quickly split in June 2016, when its Kreda clan fighters followed former UFDD spokesman Mahamat Hassani Bulmay into a new group, the Conseil de Commandement Militaire pour le Salut de la République (CCMSR – Military Command Council for the Salvation of the Republic), which later allied itself with the Islamist Libyan militant group Benghazi Defense Brigades (BDB).

FACT Fighters in Libya (Tchad Convergence)

Unlike the Chadian armed groups that sold their services to Haftar’s LNA, FACT’s alliance with the Misratan Third Force and the BDB brought it unwanted attention from the LNA air force. The group’s base at Doualki, near Sabha, was attacked by LNA aircraft on April 14, 2016. [5] FACT’s rear base at Jabal Saoudah near the Chadian border was attacked by LNA aircraft in mid-December 2016, a strike the movement blamed on collusion between the HoR government in Tobruk and the administration in N’Djamena (Tchadconvergance/AFP, December 13, 2016).

LNA warplanes also bombed FACT positions in Jufra. Mahamat Mahdi claimed the attack took him by surprise: “We thought it was an error at first, until Haftar’s entourage asserted that the purpose was to annihilate any rebellion that might destabilize a neighboring state” (Jeune Afrique, December 21, 2016).

According to the UN, FACT participated in the BDB’s March 2017 attack on the LNA-held Ras Lanuf and Sidra oil facilities on the Mediterranean coast, losing a senior commander in the process. [6] FACT was also reported to be involved in clashes with the LNA around the important Tamenhint airbase northeast of the Fezzan capital of Sahba in mid-April, though Mahamat Mahdi denied involvement (RFI, April 16). In retaliation, the LNA’s 116th Battalion shelled the Chadian camps south of Sabha in June after driving the Misratans from Tamenhint (Facebook in Arabic, June 15, via BBC Monitoring).

Despite much evidence of involvement, General Mahamat Mahdi maintains that FACT has a neutral stance in the Libyan conflict: “It is a position of principle and common sense: we are Chadian rebels, we have no reason to interfere with the Libyan problems” (Jeune Afrique, December 21, 2016). The General claims Haftar is colluding with Déby against him.

Chad closed its border with Libya in early January, fearing infiltration of its borders by Tubu rebels and Libyan Islamic State (IS) fighters fleeing northern Libya after the loss of their stronghold at Sirte (Reuters, January 5). France also imposed financial sanctions on Mahamat Mahdi Ali and his rival Mahamat Nouri on January 19. Nonetheless, Mahamat Mahdi claims that FACT has actually helped prevent the southwards penetration of IS fighters: “We oppose groups like the Islamic State that deny human rights. Our presence is a bulwark to their advance towards Libyan south” (Jeune Afrique, December 21, 2016). Two months later, he emphasized: “Today the only concern is how to contain the Islamic State” (RFI, February 27, 2016).

Chadian Mercenaries and Qatar’s Diplomatic Crisis

Chad announced on August 23 that it was suspending diplomatic relations with Qatar over “the continued involvement of the state of Qatar in attempts to destabilize Chad from Libya” (La Tribune Afrique, August 23; Reuters, August 23). N’Djamena insists it has “irrefutable proof” that Qatar supports and finances Chadian opposition groups based in Libya, despite denials from Doha (RFI, August 26). Chadian Foreign Minister Hissein Brahim Taha stressed that his government’s dispute with Qatar is strictly a bilateral issue and “not the continuation of the diplomatic crisis” in the Gulf region (La Tribune Afrique, August 24).

N’Djamena claims the Qatari financing is funnelled through long-time Chadian rebel leader Timan Erdimi, who has made Doha his home since 2009. (RFI, August 26). [7] Chad has sought Erdimi’s extradition for several months (La Tribune Afrique, August 24). Erdimi is Déby’s nephew and leader of the Union des forces de la résistance (UFR), a Libyan-based Chadian rebel movement that has provided mercenary support for Haftar’s LNA in the battle for Benghazi and was attacked by the Subul al-Salam Brigade for its involvement in criminal activities around Kufra. Subul al-Salam is a Salafist unit affiliated with Haftar’s LNA and composed largely of Zuwaya Arabs, the dominant Arab group in the Kufra region.

A Libyan-based Chadian rebel group was reported to have crossed the border on the weekend of August 19-20, killing a number of Chadian government troops in a surprise attack. UFR spokesman Yusuf Hamid insists his group was not responsible for the attack: “I categorically deny the accusations of the Chadian government. We did not get anything from Qatar, not a single penny, not a small piece of equipment. Nothing.” (RFI, August 24). If true, this leaves the possibility that the strike was undertaken by Mahamat Mahdi’s larger FACT movement (though there remains a chance it could have been the work of one of the lesser Chadian armed groups active in southern Libya).

Two members of the Kufra-based Subul al-Salam Battalion in southeastern Libya were killed during a clash with Chadian gunmen on August 26. The clash occurred in the Hanagar region some 300 kilometers southwest of Kufra, where the same two groups battled last February. Subul al-Salam claimed to have killed seven Chadians, whose identity cards suggested they were mercenaries working for the LNA-affiliated Ali al-Thumin Brigade (Libya Herald, August 26; Libya Observer, August 26; Libya Observer, February 2; Libyan Express, August 26). The Battalion has also engaged several times in the last few years with Darfur rebels now operating in the region as mercenaries or highwaymen.

Conclusion

Mahamat Mahdi Ali is a strong irritation for the Déby regime in Chad but a constant source of destabilization in Libya. Despite Mahamat Mahdi’s frequent assertions that times have changed, it seems difficult to identify any other plan for him to achieve regime change in N’Djamena other than “to take power with some 4x4s.” Beyond his core group of up to 1500 fighters (some of whom may be in it strictly for the money), there is little evidence of popular support for Mahamat Mahdi’s movement within Chad, where both government and opposition continue to be dominated by the Tubu and related groups, a tiny minority of Chad’s total population. In addition, President Déby’s authoritarianism is overlooked by France and the United States, which value him as a partner in the War on Terrorism. Mahamat Mahdi Ali is thus an important example of a new type of African mercenary ready and willing to exploit regional conflicts for profit while using the cover of legitimate political resistance.

Notes

[1] After a long legal odyssey, Habré was sentenced to life in prison on May 30, 2016 by a Special African Tribunal in Senegal for mass-torture, rape and the murder of 40,000 Chadians during his time as president.

[2] Final report of the Panel of Experts on Libya established pursuant to resolution 1973 (2011), United Nations Security Council, S/2017/466, June 1, 2017, http://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/N1711623.pdf

[3] Jérôme Tubiana and Claudio Gramizzi, “Tubu Trouble: State and Statelessness in the Chad-Sudan-Libya Triangle,” Small Arms Survey, Geneva, 2017, http://www.smallarmssurveysudan.org/fileadmin/docs/working-papers/SAS-CAR-WP43-Chad-Sudan-Libya.pdf

[4] The tactics of using 4×4 trucks equipped with anti-tank missiles and heavy machine guns were perfected by General Hassan Djamous (Bidayat) during the 1987 “Toyota War” between Chad and Libya and have been used in a variety of military campaigns in the Sahara/Sahel region since.

[5] Final Report, op cit.

[6] Ibid.

[7] For a profile of Timan Erdimi, see “A Family Affair: The Erdimi Twins and the Zaghawa Battle for Chad,” Militant Leadership Monitor, July 30, 2010, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=2263

This article first appeared in the September 7, 2017 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Militant Leadership Monitor.

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

Andrew McGregor

AIS Special Report, August 24, 2017

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

(Libya Observer)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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