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

Andrew McGregor

AIS Special Report, August 7, 2019

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

Bloodbath in Murzuq

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

Chinese Drones over Misrata

Chinese Wing Loong II Drone (Dafz.org)

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

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

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

New Turkish Drones

Bayaktar TBII Drone System

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

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

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

Al-Jufra Region and Airbase (Libya Observer)

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

Italian Commandos in al-Jufra

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

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

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

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

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

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

Outlook

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

Note:

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

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

Andrew McGregor

AIS Special Report, August 4, 2019

RSF Patrol (al-Jazeera)

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

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

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

Mercenaries for Sale

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

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

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

The New Qaddafi? Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar (Reuters)

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

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

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

The Montreal Connection

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

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

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

Hemetti’s Revenue Streams

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

An RSF Column in the Desert (AFP)

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

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

Notes:

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

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

Andrew McGregor

AIS Special Report, July 20, 2019

Tubu Rider in Murzuq

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

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

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

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

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

(Nationalia.Info)

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

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

Haftar’s Offensive in Fezzan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Struggle for the Oilfields

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

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

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

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

Battle for Murzuq

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

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

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

LNA Brigadier ‘Abd al-Salim al-Hassi

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

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

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

Evacuation and Return

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

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

Tubu Folk Festival in Murzuq

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

Notes

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

Who Attacked the Libyan National Army in Southern Libya?

Andrew McGregor

AIS Special Report

May 4, 2019

The attackers emerged out of the desert darkness at dawn on May 4, quickly springing on a Libyan National Army (LNA) training base near Sabha, the capital of Libya’s southwestern Fazzan region. A firefight of several hours ensued before the attackers melted back into the desert. The number of dead LNA troops range from seven to 11; one soldier was beheaded, another showed signs of burning and the others all appeared to have perished from close-range execution-style shots to the head or chest. The dead belonged to the 160th Battalion, part of the loose alliance of militias that compose the LNA under the command of “Field Marshal” Khalifa Haftar. The former CIA asset and Qaddafi-era general has tried to secure the Fazzan in recent months as part of his efforts to expel the UN-recognized government in Tripoli, arrest his political and military rivals, and seize power before elections scheduled for later this year.

An LNA spokesman blamed the attack on an unlikely combination of Islamic State terrorists and Chadian mercenaries operating in south Fazzan. The Islamic State issued a claim of responsibility that insisted 16 soldiers had been killed or wounded, describing the victims as “apostates” who had fallen to the “soldiers of the caliphate” (al-Arabiya, May 4, 2019; The Address [Benghazi], May 4, 2019; Reuters, May 4, 2016). Chadian mercenaries and exiled Chadian rebels (often the same thing in southern Libya) have worked for both the PC/GNA and Haftar’s LNA, but are typically not jihadists and are not known to collaborate with the Islamic State.  The Islamic State claimed an earlier attack on the LNA near Sabha on April 11, insisting six soldiers had been killed. The LNA confirmed the attack but claimed to have suffered no casualties (Reuters, April 11, 2019).

Al-Sumud Front Leader Salah Badi

However, another claim of joint responsibility for this latest attack was issued by two militias operating in Tripoli but originally from the northwestern city of Misrata. The two include the 166th Battalion led by Muhammad Omar Hassan and the Sumud Islamist militia led by warlord Salah Badi, the subject of UN sanctions. The 166th Battalion supports the GNA, but, until recently, Badi’s al-Sumud opposed it, favoring, not Haftar and the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR – a rival government to the PC/GNA with ties to Haftar), but yet another rival government, Khalifa Ghwell’s Government of National Salvation (GNS).

Now, with Haftar’s LNA battling to force their way into the southern suburbs of Tripoli, al-Sumud appears to have joined in a common cause against Haftar, who is widely disliked in the capital. The militias denied carrying out any beheadings and claimed that the LNA was using the Islamic State as a tool in its propaganda (The Address [Benghazi], May 4, 2019; Anadolu Agency, May 4, 2019).

The attack may have been designed to exploit an LNA weakness, as Haftar’s southern-based forces move north to bolster the LNA assault on the national capital. With the LNA assault bogged down in Tripoli’s southern outskirts, there is increasing pressure on Haftar to transfer forces to the Tripoli battlefront. If defeated, Haftar is unlikely to be able to take another shot at replacing Libya’s UN-backed administration, the Presidency Council/Government of National Accord (PC/GNA).

Cauldron of the Wau al-Namus Volcano in the Haruj Region

Haftar’s need for troops in the offensive on Tripoli has already had tragic consequences as Islamic State forces mount violent assaults on desert communities abandoned by the LNA. Al-Fuqaha, 100 km north of Sabha, has been the target of two carefully orchestrated attacks since last October. With little in the way of defense after the most recent attack in April, the town is quickly clearing out, leaving it open to IS occupation (Middle East Eye, April 10, 2019). Al-Fuqaha is on the edge of central Libya’s forbidding Haruj volcanic field, a challenging environment of 150 dormant volcanoes and their blackened lava flows. The region was being used for shelter and refuge by Chadian mercenaries last year and it appears that Islamic State forces may now be using the same region.

There are signs the Islamic State may be trying to take advantage of the turmoil in Tripoli; on April 13, the Rada Special Deterrence Force (a militia acting as Tripoli’s unofficial Islamist police under ‘Abd al-Ra’uf Kara) arrested a Libyan IS member who had arrived from Sabha with the alleged intention of carrying out terrorist acts in the capital (Libya Observer, April 14, 2019).

General ‘Ali Kanna Sulayman

The LNA launched its military offensive in Fazzan in mid-January with the stated goals of driving out jihadists and bandits, securing oil facilities, ending vandalism of stations of the Man-Made River (MMR) project and ending uncontrolled migrant flows across Libya’s southern border. In response, PC/GNA leader Fayez al-Sirraj appointed Tuareg Lieutenant General ‘Ali Kanna Sulayman the commander of the Sabha military zone on February 6 (Libya Observer, February 6, 2019). A former supporter of Mu’ammar Qaddafi during the 2011 Libyan Revolution, ‘Ali Kanna is a fierce opponent of Haftar and is seeking the unification of the armed Tuareg and Tubu opposition to the Cyrenaïcan warlord. [1] ‘Ali Kanna is also believed to have strong ties to Qatar, which, along with Turkey, supports the PC/GNA against the LNA and its Egyptian, Saudi and UAE supporters.

Whether IS or PC/GNA-aligned forces carried out the attack (both detest Haftar and are in need of a victory somewhere in Libya), the Libyan south will present a security threat in Haftar’s rear if he is forced to further reinforce his stalled offensive in the northwest with troops now tasked with securing the south.

Note

[1] For ‘Ali Kanna, see: “General Ali Kanna Sulayman and Libya’s Qaddafist Revival,” AIS Special Report, August 8, 2017, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=3999

 

War in the Tibesti Mountains – Libyan-Based Rebels Return to Chad

AIS Special Report, November 12, 2018

Andrew McGregor

Tibesti (SVS Chad)

Relative peace has reigned in northern Chad’s arid Borku-Ennedi-Tibesti (BET) region since 2009, when most of the insurgents seeking to end President Idris Déby Itno’s 28-year rule were driven north across the border into Libya. Some 11,000 Chadian rebels have worked as mercenaries for both sides of the Libyan conflict, accumulating arms, cash and military experience as they prepared to make their eventual return to Chad.

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). [1] The first formation to return to Chad is the Conseil de Commandement Militaire pour le Salut de la République (CCMSR – Military Command for the Salvation of the Republic), founded in March 2016 as a split from FACT. The CCMSR claims to have 4500 fighters, mostly Daza Tubu, with smaller numbers of Zaghawa, Arabs and Maba (the latter hailing from the east Chadian province of Wadai).

Chad, with Tibesti in the North-West (Ezilon.com)

President Déby, a skillful desert fighter and former Chadian Army commander, took power in a coup in 1990 and has been re-elected five times in disputed elections. Rebellions have been frequent, but in recent years Chad has become a major regional ally of France and the United States in the struggle against terrorism in the Sahara/Sahel region. It is a member of the French-sponsored G5S counter-terrorism alliance along with Mauritania, Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, as well as the Multi-National Joint Task Force (MNJTF), fighting Boko Haram terrorists in the Lake Chad region. With its headquarters in the Chadian capital of N’Djamena, other MNJTF members include Cameroon, Nigeria, Benin and Niger. On October 10, Boko Haram elements crossed the border into Chad and attacked an ANT base at Kaiga Kindji, killing eight soldiers before being driven off with a reported loss of 48 militants.

In a November 2016 statement, CCMSR secretary-general Mahamat Hassane Boulmaye described the Déby regime as “a perfect illustration of clan despotism in its most pernicious and most abject form.” After outlining the administration’s corruption and use of violence against its opponents, Boulmaye justified the CCMSR’s insurrection: “Ours is the armed struggle. The vulgar despot of Chad maintains power by force; why is it so bad to drive him away by force? The path of armed struggle is the only one left, and it will overcome by the grace of God.” As for Déby, “He will have a double choice, the grave or the prison” (Lepythonnews, November 27, 2016).

The rebel leader also noted that many Zaghawa (Déby’s ethnic group) were abandoning the president; Boulmaye’s strategy was to encourage other Zaghawa to do the same by creating “a situation of insecurity” for members of the ethnic group. [2]

Return to Chad

CCMSR Column in Northern Chad (Tchad Convergence)

The CCMSR began to probe Chadian defenses in April 2017 with an attack inside Chad that killed 12 soldiers (RFI, August 14, 2018). A further clash with the Armée National du Tchad (ANT) took place on August 18, 2017, when a CCMSR column moving from Libya to Darfur ran into a Chadian Special Forces patrol at Tekro in the Ennedi region of northern Chad. Though small and without a permanent population, Tekro’s wells and airstrip make it strategically important. The Chadian unit suffered casualties, including the deaths of two colonels, while the survivors fled into the mountains (TchadConvergence, October 19, 2017).

Imprisoned Leadership

The movement has managed to survive despite the arrest of three leading members in Niger in October 2017, allegedly at the request of N’Djamena. Boulmaye, CCMSR spokesman Ahmat Yacoub Adam and CCMSR external affairs secretary Dr. Abderahman Issa Youssouf were extradited to Chad, where they were charged with the capital offense of terrorism and transferred to the notorious desert prison at Koro Toro. Supporters of the men appealed unsuccessfully for France to intervene against the extradition. France had previously granted refugee status to Boulmaye and Youssouf. Adam has refugee status in Egypt.

Mahamat Hassane Boulmaye (left), Ahmat Yacoub Adam (center) and Dr. Abderahman Issa Yousouf (right) (Tchad Convergence)

Fearing the three would meet “certain death” if extradited to Chad, the CCMSR threatened to attack Niger in an October 25, 2017 statement, though the promised strike did not materialize (Tchad Convergence/Deutsche Welle, October 27, 2018).

Boulmaye’s temporary replacement as secretary general was Colonel Mahamat Tahir Acheick. The colonel was succeeded in 2018 by Hissène Habré loyalist Michelot Yogogombaye (a.k.a. Kingabé Ogouzeïmi de Tapol), who works from exile in Paris (Tchad Convergence, August 17, 2018; Tchad Convergence, April 3, 2018).

The Battle of Kouri Bougoudi

Chad closed its border with Libya in January 2018, but stood little chance of avoiding infiltration by the CCMSR along a lengthy and lightly inhabited stretch of inhospitable desert.

CCMSR militants attacked a military outpost at Kouri Bougoudi (35 km from the Libyan border) in the volcanic Tibesti region of northeastern Chad on August 11, 2018. The Tibesti Mountains, a picturesque but physically challenging area, is regarded as the ancestral homeland of the Tubu people of northern Chad, southern Libya and northeastern Niger. The discovery of gold in Tibesti has brought artisanal gold miners from Niger, Sudan and other parts of Chad. Many are based around Kouri Bougoudi.

CCMSR Fighters

Arriving in over one hundred trucks at 2:23 AM, the assailants were armed with DShK “Dushka” 12.7 mm heavy machine guns and ZPU-4 quadruple barrel anti-aircraft weapons systems, using 14.5 mm KPV heavy machine guns. Both these Soviet-era designs are commonly mounted on the beds of 4×4 pick-up trucks in Libya and Chad.

A CCMSR statement released after the battle claimed 73 government troops killed and 45 taken prisoner (including three officers) against a cost of four CCMSR dead and seven wounded (Al Wihda [N’Djamena], August 19, 2018).

The attack was initially denied by the Minister of the Interior and Security, Ahmat Mahamat Bachir, who mocked CCMSR claims: “No attack on our position took place. I don’t know – did they attack the pebbles, the mountains?” (RFI, August 24, 2018). N’Djamena eventually acknowledged the death of Colonel Tahir Oly and two other soldiers in the clash (Al-Wihda [N’Djamena], August 12, 2018; Le Monde, September 14, 2018).

Reluctant to admit the political context of the attack on the village and its garrison, a Chadian security source told French media only that the army had been confronted by “coupeurs de route” (highwaymen) and “drug traffickers” (RFI, August 11, 2018). Two days later, the government ordered all gold miners to leave Kouri Bougoudi within 24 hours or face removal by force (Tchad Convergence/Xinhua, August 13, 2018). Chadian forces were ordered to destroy all the miners’ goods and equipment in land and air attacks (AFP, August 16, 2018).

A CCSMR statement released on August 17 suggested that the movement was willing to consider releasing their prisoners (including three officers identified by rank and name) to the Red Cross or Red Crescent once the three imprisoned CCSMR leaders were released “immediately, unconditionally [and] safe and sound” (RFI, August 17, 2018). According to the statement, three columns of CCSMR forces were now in Chad to end “its economic crisis and dictatorship” (Tchad Convergence, August 12, 2018). Minister of Public Security Ahmat Mahamat Bachir in turn rejected the possibility of making any kind of deal with “savage mercenaries, bandits [and] thugs” (Tchad Convergence, August 22, 2018).

The Tibesti Mountains (Sakhalia.net)

The CCMSR claimed to have routed Chadian troops in a second attack in the same area on August 22, but local sources claimed the government forces had evacuated quietly, leaving the region open for the return of illegal gold-miners (Tchad Convergence, August 22, 2018). Reports of this second attack were again refuted by the Interior Minister, who described them as “the false reports of mercenaries” (TchadInfo, August 22).

President Idriss Déby declared on August 20 that “the era of seizing power by arms” was forever over, adding that “clinging to warlike rhetoric” was “a suicidal option” (RFI, August 23, 2018). The CCMSR’s spokesman responded by noting that Chad had enjoyed ten years of relative peace since the last major effort to overturn Déby’s regime, but in that time the president had done nothing to establish an effective administration or improve the lot of Chadians: “[The president] thinks himself powerful, invincible, untouchable. But we will prove the opposite to him” (RFI, August 23, 2018).

On September 13, two Chadian helicopters bombed Kouri Bougoudi, where a number of miners had failed to obey the evacuation order (Le Monde, September 14, 2018). Retaliatory government bombing raids in Tibesti are alleged to have killed civilians while cluster bombs are reported to have been used to devastate the camel herds on which the traditional local economy is based (La Croix, September 6, 2018). The bombing did not prevent another attack on ANT forces at Tarbou on September 21.

Battle at Miski

The ANT clashed with insurgents again on October 24 at a place called Miski, which has only recently been administratively detached from Tibesti region and made part of the Borku region, to the great displeasure of many of Miski’s residents (Jeune Afrique/AFP, October 25, 2018). Responding to reports of civilian casualties, Chad’s Defense Minister, Bishara Issa Jadallah, insisted that there were no civilians left in Miski and that the attack had been entirely initiated by “drug traffickers” and “traffickers of human beings” (RFI, October 25, 2018).

In reaction, CCMSR spokesman Kingabé Ogouzeïmi de Tapol said his movement was “determined to drive these Mafia criminals [i.e. the Déby regime] out of Chad” and called for “a total and widespread popular insurgency” in Chad (CCMSR Press Release no. 0033, Facebook, October 24, 2018).

Driving the CCMSR from Libya

Residents of southern Libya Fezzan region have grown impatient with promises to clean up the south from both the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), its Tobruk-based rival, the House of Representatives (HoR) and “Field Marshal” Khalifa Haftar’s so-called Libyan National Army (LNA). Armed locals have at times joined under-manned security operations in the south, most recently in mid-September when they joined an attack by the Salafist Khalid bin Walid Brigade on Chadian militants, freeing two hostages and killing six Chadians (Libya Herald, October 24, 2018; October 15, 2018).

The Khalid ibn al-Walid Brigade (aka the 104th Brigade), a mostly Tubu unit under the command of Yusuf Hussein Salah, has suffered recent losses fighting the Chadians; four fighters were killed in a clash on October 14, while a further six fighters who had been abducted were found dead four days later (Libya Observer, October 18, 2018; Libya Herald, October 15, 2018). In late October, the brigade was forced to abandon a siege of Chadian militant groups at a Chinese-built factory in the Fezzan’s Umm al-Aranib district, conceding that without further support from the LNA, the brigade was outmatched by the Chadians’ superior manpower and weaponry (Libya Observer, October 28, 2018).  Qatar, a supporter of anti-Khalifa Haftar militias in Libya, has been accused of helping to finance the CCMSR (RFI, August 14, 2018).

Shortly after discussing security cooperation with President Déby in N’Djamena on October 16, Haftar launched a new LNA operation in the Fezzan’s Murzuq Basin in October to “cleanse the south of the country from criminal gangs and terrorist groups.” To accomplish this, he assembled a joint force of LNA units that included the 10th Infantry Brigade under Colonel Muhammad Baraka, the 181st Infantry Battalion under Tariq Hasnawi, the 116th Infantry Battalion and the Kufra-based Subul al-Salam Brigade (mostly Salafist Zuwaya Arabs) (Libya Herald, October 24, 2018; Libyan Address, October 19, 2018). A UN Security Council report recently claimed Subul al-Salam has defied its mandate to control human trafficking on the southern border to engage in the traffic themselves, holding migrants at the Himmaya forced-labor camp in Kufra. [3]

Logo of the CCMSR

Forecast

Chad is undergoing a massive economic crisis based on the decline in oil prices in recent years. Opposition leaders are regularly detained, as are the leaders of a civil opposition movement, “Iyina” (Arabic – “We are tired”). While the defense budget was largely untouched, there have been cutbacks nearly everywhere else and civil servants have gone for months without wages. With Chad’s citizens asking what happened to all the oil revenues already received in what remains one of the world’s most poorly developed nations, Déby’s regime may find itself vulnerable to an armed movement seeking an end to the Déby government. Should the CCMSR gain traction in the north, a desperate N’Djamena might be forced to withdraw MNJTF forces from the Lake Chad Basin to tackle a more immediate threat to the capital.

Notes

  1. For Mahamat Mahdi Ali, 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
  2. Blog of Mahamat Hassane Boulmaye, “Peuple tchadien meurtrie et inoffensive,” November 27, 2016, http://lepythonnews.over-blog.com/2016/11/peuple-tchadien-meurtrie-et-inoffensif.html
  3. UNSC: “Letter dated 5 September 2018 from the Panel of Experts on Libya established pursuant to resolution 1973 (2011) addressed to the President of the Security Council,” September 5, 2018, p.15.

 

Italy and Russia: Rivals or Partners in the ‘Enlarged Mediterranean’?

Andrew McGregor

Integrity Initiative, Institute for Statecraft (UK), November 12, 2018

The approach of the Italian-hosted November 12-13 Palermo Conference on Libya has seen dire but largely unsubstantiated reports of Russian Special Forces, mercenaries and intelligence officers arriving in eastern Libya, together with advanced weapons systems aimed at NATO’s soft southern underbelly. Their alleged intention is to control the flow of migrants, oil and gas to Europe as a means of undermining European security. The full accuracy of these reports is questionable, but there is little question that Russia is deeply engaged in reasserting its influence in Libya, as well as other North African nations that once had close ties to Soviet Moscow.

Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar (Algeriepatriotique)

The task is far from simple; in Libya, Russian emissaries must deal with Libya’s competing governments, the Tripoli-based and internationally-recognized Presidency Council and Government of National Accord (PC/GNA) and the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR). In practice, Moscow has dealt most closely with a third party, the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by “Field Marshal” Khalifa Haftar. Though nominally at the service of the HoR, the LNA is actually a coalition of former revolutionaries, mercenaries and Salafist militias under the independent command of Haftar and his family. The LNA controls eastern Libya (Cyrenaïca) and much of the resource-rich south.

While the Trump administration has indicated its disinterest in Libya in particular and Africa in general, Italy is also trying to reassert influence in its former Libyan colony, a project that is made more difficult by the contradictions created by the pro-Russian sympathies of the Italian government.

Russian Interests in Libya

Russia’s point man in Libya is Lev Dengov, a Chechen businessman and head of the Russian Contact Group for intra-Libyan settlement. According to Dengov, Moscow’s interaction with Libyan leaders is only part of an effort to restore economic ties with Libya. He denies that Russia supports any one side in the ongoing conflict.

Lev Dengoov (Russarabbc.ru)

Moscow does not deny the presence in Libya of Russian private military contractors (a modern euphemism for organized mercenary groups), but insists their presence is for legitimate security reasons unrelated to Russian foreign policy objectives.

Russia’s Tatneft oil and gas company is in talks with the Libyan National Oil Corporation (NOC) to resume operations within Libya that were brought to a halt by the 2011 revolution. The NOC operates independently of Libya’s rival governments but its facilities are often targeted by a broad variety of armed groups. Russia is also in talks to resume construction of the Sirte-Benghazi railway, a $2.5 billion project that was brought to an abrupt halt by the 2011 revolution.

A potential means for Russia to wield influence in Europe could come through domination of the Greenstream natural gas pipeline that carries 11 billion cubic meters of gas per year from Libya to Europe. Russia is already the largest exporter of oil and natural gas to the European Union; further influence over energy flows to Europe would place Moscow in a strong position in its dealings with Europe.

According to LNA spokesman Ahmad al-Mismari, Libyans admire Russia as a “tough ally.”  Al-Mismari also noted that most senior officers in Libya were trained in Russia and that Moscow was providing medical treatment for at least 30 injured LNA fighters.

Haftar has visited Moscow three times and was welcomed off Libya’s coast for talks with the Russian Defense Minister aboard Russia’s sole aircraft carrier in January 2017. Haftar is eager to have the 2011 UN arms embargo removed in order to resume shipments of Russian arms as part of a $4.4 billion contract signed before the revolution.

Italian Relations with Russia

Italy is increasingly at odds with its EU partners over sanctions imposed on Russia in 2014 after the Russian annexation of the Crimea and its support for ethnic-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. The partners in Italy’s governing coalition are the League (Lega) Party and the Five Star Movement (Movimento 5 Stelle). Both are broadly pro-Russian and Euro-skeptic.

In a mid-October visit to Moscow, Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini denounced the sanctions as “social, cultural and economic madness.” Prime Minister Giusseppe Conte is in agreement, calling the sanctions “an instrument that would be better left behind.” Salvini’s League Party is close to Moscow, having signed a cooperation deal last year with United Russia, Russia’s ruling party.

However, the Italian government is not blindly pro-Moscow or oblivious to its own interests; on October 26, Prime Minister Conte gave the long disputed go-ahead to the Italian portion of the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline, a $5 billion project designed to relieve Europe’s dependency on Russian natural gas.

Italian Forces on the Libyan Border

Il Mediterraneo Allargato (Riccardo Piroddi)

Italy’s January decision to reassign troops from its missions in Iraq and Afghanistan to Niger and Libya is, in part, a reflection of a new emphasis on what Rome calls il Mediterraneo allargato, “the enlarged Mediterranean.” According to Defense Minister Roberta Pinotti, in this reshaping of strategic interests, “the heart of our interventions is the enlarged Mediterranean, from the Balkans to the Sahel, to the Horn of Africa.”

Italian Troops in Niger (RSI)

Italy has a small military presence in Libya, consisting of support elements for the Libyan Coast Guard (at least the part under the authority of the PC/GNA) and a military hospital in Misrata also acts as a military observation post. The Italian military presence in Italy was the subject of protests in several Libyan cities in July 2017.

After an eight-month delay, Italian defense minister Elizabetta Trenta announced the Italian mission to Niger, Operation Deserto Rosso, was ready to implement its mandate of stemming illegal migrant flows to Europe by providing training to Nigérien security forces patrolling the routes used by human traffickers and terrorists. Trenta added that, “for the first time, we in Italy begin to calibrate our own missions according to our own interests.”

Colonial Era Fort at Madama, Niger (Defense.gouv.fr)

At full strength, the Italian mission will consist of 470 troops, 130 vehicles and two aircraft. The mission is intended to be divided between Niger’s capital of Niamey and Madama, site of a colonial-era French Foreign Legion fort close to major smuggling routes near the Libyan border. There is no combat element to the Italian mission, which will focus on training Nigérien personnel rather than acting as “sentinels on the borders.”

Does Russia Intend to Control Migration Flows through Libya to Europe?

Rumors of Russian intention of building a naval base at the LNA-controlled deep-water ports of Tobruk or Benghazi began to circulate in January. Russian experts were reported to have visited the port several times to check conditions there. Initial Russian denials were followed in February by Lev Dengov’s claim that documented evidence existed at the Russian Defense Ministry proving Haftar had asked Russia to construct a military base in eastern Libya.

On October 8, the Sun, a UK tabloid better known for its “page 3” girls than cutting edge coverage of international issues, published an article claiming British Prime Minister Elizabeth May had been warned by British intelligence chiefs that Russia intended to make Libya a “new Syria.” Without revealing its source, the tabloid further claimed that members of the GRU (Russian military intelligence), Spetznaz Special Forces and private military contractors from the Russian Wagner Group were already on the ground in eastern Libya, where they were alleged to have set up two military bases. The Sun claimed their primary goal was “seizing control of the biggest illegal immigration route to Europe.”

Arriving with the military personnel were Russian-made Kalibr anti-ship missiles and S-300 air defense missile systems. The Russians were said to be providing training and “heavy equipment” to Haftar’s LNA.  An unnamed senior Whitehall source warned that the UK was “extremely vulnerable to both immigration flows and oil shock from Libya,” calling the alleged Russian deployment “a potentially catastrophic move to allow [Vladimir Putin] to undermine Western democracy.”

The Sun report emerged only three days after the UK’s Sunday Times revealed that the British military was war-gaming a cyber-attack on Russia based on a scenario in which Russia seizes Libya’s oil reserves and launches waves of African migrants towards Europe.

The deployment of advanced weapons systems in Libya in defiance of the UN arms embargo and in full knowledge that such a deployment would be regarded by NATO as a major provocation makes that part of the Sun story unlikely. Such systems would only have value as protection for a Russian base that, as of yet, does not exist. Haftar’s LNA is not under threat from either the sea or the air and has little need for such weapons.

Some of the Sun’s account appears to follow from an earlier but unverified report that dozens of mercenaries from the Russian RBC Group had been operating in eastern Libya since March 2017. This account appeared (without sources) in the Washington Times, a daily owned by Reverend Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church. The article claimed the mercenaries were doing advance work for the establishment of a Russian military base in either Tobruk or Benghazi.

Lev Dengov suggested the Sun’s report could be an attempt to undermine the Palermo Conference, noting that “all reports about the Russian military presence in Libya, without exception, come from non-Libyan sources. How can it happen that no Libyan has ever noticed their presence?”

The deputy chair of the defense committee of the Russian Federal Assembly’s upper house described the Sun’s report as an attempt to discredit Russia’s war on terrorism: “There are no [Russian] military servicemen [in Libya] and their presence is not planned. How could they be there without official request by the country’s authorities?” Asharq al-Awsat, a prominent London-based Arabic daily, said that a number of Libyan deputies had told them there were no Russian bases in Benghazi or Tobruk.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said the Sun’s article was “written in a glaringly alarmist style, with the aim to intimidate the common British reader [with] a mythical Russian military threat.” Nonetheless, Russia’s RBC Media said a source within the Defense Ministry had confirmed the presence in eastern Libya of troops from elite Russian airborne units, though their numbers and mission was unclear.

Conclusion

Manipulating migration flows would require a continuous state of insecurity in Libya. A unified Libyan state could not possibly benefit (as militias and armed gangs do) from allowing mass migration from sub-Saharan states into Europe via Libya. As noted in the HoR agenda for the Palermo conference, illegal migration has led only to “the spread of organized crime, terrorism, looting and the smuggling overseas of the country’s assets.”

The 75-year-old Haftar, a US citizen, long-time CIA asset and alleged war-criminal who has spent much of his life outside of Libya, has had major health issues in the last year and is far from a secure bet to take power in Libya. Haftar has tried to devolve power onto his sons, but they enjoy little popular support. The LNA, a loose coalition or militias rather than an army, is likely to dissolve upon Haftar’s death into battling factions. This is factored into Moscow’s cautious approach in Libya, which is carried out simultaneous with probes (possibly including disinformation) to determine what activities the Western Alliance will tolerate there. Russia’s affinity for strongman types suggests that Moscow may have quietly thrown its support behind the aging Haftar while still keeping channels open with the ineffective but internationally recognized PC/GNA government in Tripoli.Italian and Eritrean colonial troops celebrate a victory in the conquest of Libya

Sovereignty is, and will remain, a sensitive issue in Libya, which suffered through brutal and exploitative occupation by Italian imperialists and later by Italian fascists. Even the Soviet Union was unable to get Mu’amar Qaddafi to agree to allow a Soviet naval base in Libya. Any perception that Haftar is willing to sacrifice Libyan sovereignty without legal authority for the benefit of himself and his family will do little to broaden his support in Libya.

Italy’s decision to work counter to the sanctions applied against Russia by the West will in turn encourage greater Russian expansion into Italy’s strategically defined “Enlarged Mediterranean.” Russia intends to build a sphere of influence extending through Libya, Egypt and Sudan, a strategic feat that is being accomplished through the disinterest of the United States and the acquiescence of NATO partners like Italy, which continues to struggle to reconcile Russian interests with its own.

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.