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

Andrew McGregor

June 2, 2017

Insignia of the Benghazi Defense Brigades

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

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

Political Background

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

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

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

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

Affiliation to Dar al-Ifta and the Grand Mufti

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

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

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

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

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

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

BDB Leadership

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

The BDB leadership includes the following individuals:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Operation ‘Volcano of Wrath’

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

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

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

Failed Attack on Sidra and Ras Lanuf

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

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

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

UAE AT-802 (WS-Clave)

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

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

Operation ‘Return to Benghazi’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Massacre at Brak al-Shatti

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

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

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

Misratan Third Force Insignia

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

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

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

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

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

Ahmad al-Hasnawi

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

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

Libyan MiG-23 “Flogger” (Wings Palette)

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

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

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

Dangerous and Unpredictable

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOTES

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

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

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

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

Andrew McGregor

Terrorist Research & Analysis Consortium

July 17, 2016

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

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

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

The Situation in Benghazi

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

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

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

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

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

Who is Omar al-Mukhtar?

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

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

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

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

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

Al-Qaeda and Anti-Colonialism

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

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

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

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

The Italian Legacy

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

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

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

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

Trac 3 - GrazianiNew Mausoleum of Marshall Graziani

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

Operation Volcano of Rage

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

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

trac sharkasiBDB Leader Brigadier Mustafa al-Sharkasi

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

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

Trac 2 - Usama JadhranUsama Jadhran (al-Jazeera)

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

Conclusion

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

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

NOTES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Strategic Topography of Southern Libya

Andrew McGregor

Countering Terrorism Center Sentinel

Volume 9, Issue 5 (May 2016)

West Point, N.Y.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Geographic Considerations

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

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

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

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

The Tribal Situation

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

Strategic Sites in Southern Libya

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

GhatThe Ottoman/Italian Fortress in Ghat on Koukemen Hill

Ghat

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

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

Hun

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

Jalu and Awjala

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

Kufra

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ma’atan al-Sarra

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

Castle - MurzuqOttoman-era Fortress, Murzuq

Murzuq

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

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

Qatrun

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

Rabyanah Oasis and Sand Sea

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

Castle - SabhaElena Castle, Sabha

Sabha

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

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

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

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

Salvador Pass

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

Sarir

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

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

Sharara

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

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

Tazirbu

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

Tummo Pass

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

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

Ubari

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

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

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

Al-Uwaynat

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

Al-Wigh Air Force Base

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

Southern Libya’s Borders

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

 

Citations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[18] Lacher.

[19] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ahmad Qadhaf al-Dam and the Qaddafist Shadow over Libya

Andrew McGregor  

Militant Leadership Monitor, September 2015

Given that many might think Qaddafism as a political ideology died along with Mu’ammar Qaddafi in his hometown of Sirte at the hands of Libyan revolutionaries in October 2011, the announcement of a neo-Qaddafist Nidal (“Struggle”) Front by pro-Qaddafist exiles in Cairo on September 20 was not as surprising as it might seem, given the strong financial basis and apparent political protection that this group currently enjoys in al-Sisi’s Egypt. Though nominally led by former Libyan ambassador to Saudi Arabia Muhammad Sayyid al-Qasbat, the new movement’s driving force is Ahmad Qadhaf al-Dam, a cousin of the late Libyan leader who serves officially only as a member of the Front’s central committee despite being the leader of the pro-Qaddafist community in exile (Libya Herald, September 20, 2015).

Qadhaf al-Dam ((Qadhaf al-Dam with strategically placed portrait of Libyan anti-colonial hero Omar al-Mukhtar (Reuters)

Qadhaf al-Dam has summed up the revised approach of the neo-Qaddafists (though they do not refer to themselves as such): “We do not desire a Libya governed by Islamists… but we reject also the idea of a return to the past” (L’Express, September 25, 2014).

Though other factions now dominate Libya’s internal agenda, the deposed Qaddafists have demonstrated they still have some bite, as seen in the September 9 car-bombing of Tripoli’s Hadba prison where eight condemned Qaddafists (including Qaddafi’s son Sa’adi and former Libyan intelligence chief Abdullah Sanusi)) are being held. News of the death sentences issued against the men on July 28 were met by protests by pro-Qaddafists in Cairo (Libya Herald, July 29, 2015). The prison is run by Islamist militant Khalid Sharif and the bombing followed the release of videos showing a blindfolded Sa’adi being beaten by prison staff as well as other Qaddafist prisoners being tortured (Libya Herald, September 9, 2015; September 10, 2015).

Early Career

Ahmad Qadhaf al-Dam was born in the Mediterranean coast town of Mersa Matruh inWestern Egypt in 1952 to a family of Libyan Bedouin who, like most of their formerly nomadic neighbors, had roamed on the Egyptian side of the Libyan/Egyptian border for hundreds of years. Ahmad and his brother Sayyid began long and powerful careers in Libya after their cousin Mu’ammar Qaddafi seized power in 1969, with Ahmad serving at times as Qaddafi’s personal envoy, chief bodyguard and international fixer. Qadhaf al-Dam resembles the late Libyan leader so much that he was frequently mistaken for his cousin at international gatherings (RFI, February 25, 2011).

During the 1973 Ramadan War with Israel, Qadhaf al-Dam was a senior officer alongside Khalifa Haftar in a Libyan contingent that failed to arrive in Egypt in time to take part in the main campaign, mostly due to Egypt’s decision not to inform Qaddafi in advance of the Egyptian plan to cross the Suez Canal and retake Sinai from Israeli occupation (Middle East Monitor, May 21, 2014).

Following a series of attempts on his life by Libyan Army officers, Qaddafi began in 1978 to place important military commands in the hands of his extended family and fellow members of the Qaddadfa tribe. Among those benefitting from the new arrangements were his cousins, the brothers Ahmad and Sayyid Qadhaf al-Dam, by now prominent members of Libyan military intelligence. [1]

By the mid-1970s Qaddafi had become obsessed with eliminating opposition to his rule within the Libyan exile community. Pledging to pursue these “stray dogs” to the North Pole if necessary, Qaddafi launched his intelligence services and revolutionary committees on an often inept but frequently deadly campaign of murder abroad. The campaign intensified in 1983 as Qadhaf al-Dam and four other senior intelligence figures were entrusted with eliminating Libyan dissidents abroad under the oversight of intelligence chief Younis Bilgasim. [2]

As a Brigadier Qadhaf al-Dam was appointed commander of the Tobruq military region, then commander in Cyrenaica, and later as Qadhafi’s special representative for relations with Egypt, a role that brought with it control of vast sums of Libyan oil cash being invested in Egypt, making Qadhaf al-Dam an influential player in Egypt as well as Libya. [3] For a time after 1995, Qadhaf al-Dam was also commander of a battalion of troops detailed to provide security for Qaddafi while still playing an important role in the direction of external operations of the Jamahiriya Security Organization (Hai’atamn al-Jamahiriya). [4]

The Sarkozy Controversy – 2007

One of the lasting controversies of the NATO intervention in Libya revolves around the personal relationship between Mu’ammar Qaddafi and former French president Nicolas Sarkozy (2007-2012), who was responsible for rallying NATO to help overthrow Qaddafi. As one of Libya’s leading diplomats, Qadhaf al-Dam met Sarkozy in person in Tripoli in 2005 (“he came to sell us arms and surveillance equipment”) and again during Qaddafi’s visit to Paris in 2007 (Le Monde, March 15).

According to Qadhaf al-Dam, Qaddafi believed the creation of a “United States of Africa” could never be completed without French cooperation and thought that Sarkozy was “a friend at the Elysée” who could help the project, telling Qadhaf al-Dam that “We must help Sarkozy become president” (Le Monde, March 15). Qadhaf al-Dam claims that Qaddafi provided Sarkozy’s successful presidential campaign with “tens of millions of Euros,” a charge vehemently denied by Sarkozy’s camp (L’Express, September 25, 2014).

A story that persists in Libya concerns allegations that Qaddafi sexually harassed Sarkozy’s ex-wife Cécilia (a former fitting model for a French fashion house) when she went to Libya to appeal on behalf of the one Palestinian and five Bulgarian nurses sentenced to death for allegedly infecting Libyan babies with the HIV virus. When questioned during a television interview, about the possibility of a personal motive for Sarkozy’s military intervention in Libya, Qadhaf al-Dam described the allegation as an obvious “fabrication”: “This Cécilia… she looks like a ghoul… This is not even a woman, so how could anyone desire her?” (Dream2 TV [Cairo], January 17, 2015). Qadhaf al-Dam did not comment on his late cousin’s well-established propensity for sexual harassment and worse.

The Revolution: Playing Both Sides

Only days after the start of the Libyan Revolution Qadhaf al-Dam made a stunning resignation from all functions within the Libyan regime on February 24, 2011 that took many observers by surprise, though the ambivalent statement from his office announcing the resignation (merely calling it a protest “against the handling of the crisis”) led some to question whether this was simply a tactic to assist the establishment of a Qaddafist support group outside Libya (RFI, February 25, 2011). It was reported that Qadhaf al-Dam’s defection was spurred by news that he was to be included in a travel ban associated with an International Criminal Court (ICC) investigation into possible war crimes. After the “defection,” Qadhaf al-Dam’s name was dropped from the list of those named for a travel ban (The Guardian, March 3, 2011).

Qadhaf al-Dam I

Sunny Days: Qadhaf al-Dam with Cousin Mu’ammar

There were numerous reports that Qadhaf al-Dam had initially gone to the Egyptian/Libyan borderland that was his family home to recruit members of the cross-border Awlad Ali tribe to help repress the Libyan revolutionaries. Qadhaf al-Dam was reported to have gained influence within the tribe through his involvement in local real estate and tourism investments (al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], February 25, 2011). The Awlad Ali were regarded with suspicion by successive Egyptian governments as possible Qaddafists, being essentially Libyan Arab tribesmen living in the Libyan Desert region of Egypt (known better to Cairo as the “Western Desert,” a region only effectively occupied by Egypt in the 19th century). Qaddafi’s promotion of a small-scale revolutionary movement amongst the border Bedouin tribes in the 1970s did nothing to alleviate government suspicions.

Unfortunately for Qadhaf al-Dam, the leaders of the Awlad Ali and other cross-border Libyan tribes quickly declared in favor of the revolution despite reported offers of millions of dollars and called for the Qadhaf al-Dam’s expulsion from Egypt (al-Arabiya, February 24, 2011). With a disapproving Egyptian intelligence establishment fully aware of his activities in the Western Desert, Qadhaf al-Dam headed for more favorable surroundings in Cairo, the center of the Qaddafist financial empire in Egypt.

Qadhaf al-Dam claims to have urged Qaddafi to enter a dialogue with the Libyan rebels, but the latter refused until French fighter jets began to hit Tripoli on March 19, 2011. Qadhaf al-Dam says he called Qaddafi from Egypt and now received a green light to negotiate with Qaddafi promising to withdraw from power if the bombing was stopped (L’Express, September 25, 2014). The account remains unconfirmed.

Qadhaf al-Dam’s financial establishment in Egypt allowed the alleged defector to live comfortably and surrounded by bodyguards under the name of Ahmad Muhammad al-Kazim on Hassan Sabry Street near the Marriot Hotel in Cairo’s fashionable Zamalek district, an island in the Nile that is home to many embassies, Egyptian officers’ clubs and some of Cairo’s wealthiest residents (Egypt Independent [Cairo], September 6, 2012). In August 2011, Qadhaf al-Dam emerged to deny speculation that he had not actually defected but was working as an agent of the Qaddafi regime in Egypt. Qadhaf al-Dam maintained his ambiguous “neutral” stance on the revolution, claiming that he had defected as a protest against both sides in the civil war (al-Arabiya TV, August 25, 2011).

While insisting that Qaddafist Libya was stable, safe and prosperous, Qadhaf al-Dam has suggested that Libyans had a right to rebel against the regime if they did not share the dreams and vision of Mu’ammar Qaddafi, “But what happened in Libya – and this is a shameful thing in our history – is that treachery became a legitimate point of view. All of a sudden, we sought help from foreigners. We befriended the Jews and the Christians – like Bernard-Henri Levy [a French and Jewish philosopher who played an important role in convincing his friend Nicolas Sarkozy to intervene in the Libyan Revolution], France and Italy…” (Dream2 TV [Cairo], January 17, 2015).

Post-Revolution Political Activism in Egypt

Following his “defection,” Qadhaf al-Dam’s Cairo home became a hub for Qaddafists in exile and various tribal leaders disenchanted with the results of Libya’s Revolution. Many of the exile community were major figures in the police, intelligence groups and the powerful Revolutionary Committees, numbering about 200 persons in all.

A significant scandal broke out in Tripoli in June 2012 when members of Libya’s ruling Transitional National Council (TNC) learned that TNC chairman Mustafa Abd al-Jalil had sent an envoy to Cairo to explore reconciliation efforts with the exiled Qaddafist community, most notably Qadhaf al-Dam, whom several sources identified as the initiator of the talks (AFP, June 7, 2012).

Qadhaf al-Dam’s Zamalek residence was raided by Egyptian police in March 2013. The police were fired on from within the residence, leading to the wounding of one officer before Qadhaf al-Dam and his entourage were disarmed (Daily News Egypt, December 9, 2013).

The raid, part of a Qaddafist round-up by the Islamist government of Egyptian president Muhammad Mursi, led to Qadhaf al-Dam being charged with attempted murder of police officers, resisting arrest and possessing unlicensed weapons, as well as being faced with a Libyan request for extradition.

In March 2013, Libyan authorities decided to essentially purchase the extradition of the detained Qaddafist leaders, depositing $2 billion in Egypt’s central bank as a kind of open loan during a foreign currency reserves crisis affecting Muhammad Mursi’s government. Libyan officials apparently understood that a reciprocal decision had been reached to extradite Qadhaf al-Dam, but they were to be sorely disappointed (al-Arabiya, March 25, 2013; AFP, March 23, 2013).

Cairo’s Administrative Court brought an end to Qadhaf al-Dam’s extradition proceedings on April 3, 2013, partly through his lawyer’s claim that Qadhaf al-Dam had Egyptian citizenship through his Egyptian birth, though former ambassador to Egypt Ali Marya and pro-Qaddafist Libyan businessman Muhammad Ibrahim Mansour were less fortunate, being returned to face Libyan corruption charges on March 19 and 26 respectively (al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], April 3, 2013). In the meantime, Qadhaf al-Dam remained in the notorious Tora prison just south of Cairo to face charges related to the raid on his apartment.

Despite the apparent seriousness of the charges, Qadhaf al-Dam was acquitted on all counts on December 9, 2013 to the applause of relatives and supporters after the prosecution’s main witness (the police officer wounded in the raid) testified he was unable to identify the shooters (al-Masry al-Youm, December 9, 2013). Qadhaf al-Dam’s lawyer claimed that his client had been the victim of a deal between Libya and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood organization during the rule of deposed Egyptian president Muhammad Mursi (June 30 2012 to July 3, 2013) (Youm 7 [Cairo], December 10, 2013). The decision shocked Libyan political leaders and a major political spat followed.

Qadhaf al-Dam’s extensive media activities in Egypt were also condemned by Libya’s GNC government in December 2013. The GNC described Qadhaf al-Dam’s frequent television appearances as “unacceptable behavior” and a “provocation” that threatened relations between Libya and Egypt (PANA, December 17, 2013).

The European Union’s General Court lifted the sanctions against Qadhaf al-Dam in September 2014 on the grounds that the regime which had led to the imposition of the sanctions no longer existed and that even though the EU maintained that Qadhaf al-Dam continued to “represent a threat to restoring civil peace” it had provided no proof for the claim (AFP, September 24, 2014). The next day a statement from the Libyan Embassy in Paris asserted that Qadhaf al-Dam had “continued to destabilize Libya since the period of the Revolution,” adding that he had also participated in inciting murder and the misuse of public funds (L’Express, September 25, 2014).

Qadhaf al-Dam and the Islamic State

In a January 2015 television interview, Qadhaf al-Dam expressed support for the Islamic State organization despite the protests of an astonished interviewer who expressed his surprise at Qadhaf al-Dam’s support for a “Satanic terrorist organization” and offered his interviewee numerous opportunities to retreat from his position: “I support Daesh (the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State organization). I support its establishment…. This enterprise should have been carried out 50 years ago… [young men] had nowhere to go, so they fled to Allah… I am blaming our governments, not the boys. We did not offer another way of confronting the West” (Dream2 TV [Cairo], January 17, 2015).

Elsewhere, Qadhaf al-Dam has claimed that the West and NATO created the Islamic State organization, adding: “There was no extremism in Iraq, Syria or Libya before the NATO intervention in these countries… [The extremists] came from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh and several other countries and foreign states provided them air support… Their main objective was to kill Muammar Qaddafi, because he wanted to unify the continent” (Sputnik News, June 18, 2015). In yet another interview, Qadhaf al-Dam insisted that the Islamic State organization was a conspiracy against the Libyan nation and Islam itself (Assarih [Tunis], June 3, 2015).

Though General Khalifa Haftar, Qadhaf al-Dam’s former military colleague and now the leader of the internationally recognized Tobruk government’s “Operation Dignity,” is generally viewed by the Qaddafi clan as a traitor turned CIA asset, Qadhaf al-Dam has expressed support for Haftar’s campaign against Islamist factions and the rival General National Congress (GNC) government in Tripoli:  “Thanks to these heroes, we shall soon crush the NATO revolution and all those claiming to be Islamists” (Middle East Monitor, May 21, 2014).

Conclusion

A savvy and experienced political operator with a great instinct for self-preservation and a Qaddafi-like ability to catch his opponents off-guard, Ahmad Qadhaf al-Dam is at the center of a neo-Qaddafist movement poised to exploit any available opening in the political chaos that has enveloped Libya. There remain pockets of Qaddafi loyalists in many parts of Libya, though in the current environment they have typically kept their heads down. An exception is the city of Sabha in the Fezzan, where Qaddafists have made repeated and often provocative demonstrations that occasionally deteriorate into violence, most recently in August (Libya Herald, August 7, 2015).

The Nidal Front calls for a truth-and-reconciliation program (perhaps conveniently, given the record of human rights abuses by its proponents), the reformation of the security establishment, including the army and a rejection of violence, terrorism and religious extremism (Libya Herald, September 20, 2015). What is implied by their founding statement is that ruling Libya would be best left to the experienced hands of the Qaddafists, who, with a little democratic polish, might one day be acceptable to Libya’s war-weary populace. Having survived a number of critical legal challenges, Ahmad Qadhaf al-Dam now appears secure in his Egyptian base where he will continue to attempt to insert himself back into Libyan divided political structure in the name of Libyan reconciliation.

While Qadhaf al-Dam now serves up counter-extremism rhetoric he hopes will find resonance in both Libya and the West (where he remains relatively unknown), his ambivalent and at times self-contradicting views on the desirability of the Islamic State organization and his record of eliminating Qaddafi-era dissidents will prove a hard sell within Libya. However, as Libya’s economy and security enter a phase of near-total collapse, Qadhaf al-Dam may find that both time and the substantial funds under his control are on his side as he attempts to restore Cairo’s exiled Qaddafist community to power in a politically volatile Libya.

Notes

  1. David Blundy and Andrew Lycett: Qaddafi and the Libyan Revolution, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1987, p.127.
  2. Ibid, p.163.
  3. M. Cherif Bassiouni, Libya: From Repression to Revolution: A Record of Armed Conflict and International Law Violations, 2011-2013, Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 2013, p.69.
  4. Official Journal of the European Union, “Judgment of the General Court 24 September 2014 – Kadhaf Al Dam vs Council,” http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/PDF/?uri=CELEX:62013TA0348&rid=2

This article first appeared in the September 2015 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Militant Leadership Monitor

A Mediterranean Presence: The Islamic State’s Sirte Strategy

Andrew McGregor

AIS Tips and Trends: The African Security Report

June 30, 2015

Libya’s Islamic State (IS) group exploited its seizure of the Mediterranean port city of Sirte in May by moving south from the city to Ghardabiya to claim Libya’s largest air-base and one of its largest reservoirs of fresh water.  A one-time Qaddafist stronghold some 450 kilometers east of Tripoli, Sirte has seen many of its residents flee to evade the IS takeover, a repetition of the 2011 exodus when the city was under attack by revolutionary anti-Qaddafi forces.

SirteWeeks of fighting around Sirte preceded the Islamic State’s mid-May breakthrough. The decisive action was the result of an IS counter-attack that overran the 166 Brigade’s camp in Sirte following the collapse of a Misratan offensive against IS forces (libya-analysis.com, May 25, 2015).

166 Brigade, part of the Libya Dawn coalition of militias supporting the Islamist-dominated General National Congress (GNC) government in Tripoli, arrived in Sirte from Misrata in March in an effort to expel an estimated 500 IS fighters from the city but encountered stiff resistance almost immediately, beginning with a deadly ambush (al-Jazeera, March 18, 2015).When the 166 Brigade withdrew from Sirte on May 28, IS forces moved quickly to take the military prize, the Ghardabiya airbase, a joint military/civilian facility that Libya Dawn was using to mount airstrikes on the Libyan National Army (LNA). The base was badly damaged in a March 2011 airstrike by U.S. B-2 Spirit stealth bombers during the Libyan revolution.

It is uncertain whether any military or civilian aircraft were still present at the airbase when it was abandoned, though a 166 Brigade spokesman insisted that only a single “non-functioning and unrepairable warplane” remained when IS forces moved in. Misratan officials blamed the withdrawal on the GNC, claiming the rival government had failed to provide the necessary support to the Misratan militia (Libya Herald, May 29, 2015).

Great Man Made River MapIS also succeeded in seizing al-Gardabiya Reservoir, a vast water storage facility of 15.4 million cubic metres roughly a kilometer wide. The second-largest in Libya, the reservoir forms a terminus point for Libya’s Great Man-Made River (GMMR), an underground network of pipes that pumps water from sandstone aquifers beneath the desert to coastal cities where most of the population is concentrated.

A Libya Dawn spokesman explained the differing approaches of Libya Dawn and General Khalifa Haftar’s Operation Dignity forces supporting the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR, the internationally recognized government of Libya): “We are against terrorists in all forms, but not to do it Haftar’s way, which is to destroy a city and make families flee, all to end a couple of hundred terrorists” (al-Jazeera, March 18, 2015). Libya Dawn’s approach has led to accusations from Operation Dignity supporters that Libya Dawn is not serious about countering the Islamic State threat. However, Libya Dawn’s approach to IS underwent significant changes after the May 31 IS suicide bombing at the Dafniyah checkpoint outside Misrata that killed five Libya Dawn security personnel (Libya Herald, May 31, 2015). The attack followed a May 21 IS suicide bombing at another Misratan Libya Dawn checkpoint that killed two guards.

Sirte 2Much of Sirte was destroyed in the 2011 fighting.

These attacks appear to have shattered any perception within Libya Dawn and the GNC that a more tolerant approach to the Islamic State would allow the Libya Dawn coalition to concentrate their forces against the HoR and Operation Dignity. Libya Dawn aircraft have sought revenge for the IS suicide bombings by striking a former Qaddafi regime security headquarters in Sirte used by IS fighters on June 22, followed by another raid on IS positions in Sirte by aircraft from Misrata on June 24 (Reuters, June 22, 2015; Libyan Herald, June 24, 2015).

Projections

Rampant insecurity, inability to market Libya’s much-diminished oil production, an absence of central financial control, electricity shortages, labor unrest, the flight of foreign workers and the destruction or incapacitation of necessary infrastructure has led Libya to the brink of full economic collapse, with the accompanying collapse of Libya’s last remaining civil institutions not far behind.

The West continues to decline any role in expelling or otherwise defeating Islamic State forces that threaten Western interests daily, a curious contrast to the rapid mobilization of Western military forces in 2011 against the regime of Mu’ammar Qaddafi, which no longer posed any threat to the West. NATO air power was decisive in Qaddafi’s overthrow by a mish-mash of poorly-organized militias without any cohesive ideology other than hatred of Qaddafi. Europe must now deal with the prospect of the IS using its control of a major port and a significant portion of coastline to launch overloaded boats full of African migrants, achieving the dual purpose of financing the IS while destabilizing European security.

The seizure of Sirte has enabled the Islamic State to achieve several strategic objectives, including the seizure of a small port, a military airbase and a massive reservoir of fresh water. Besides dealing their Misratan and Libya Dawn opponents a devastating blow, control of Sirte has also allowed IS to cut the vital coast road at a point almost in the middle of the country. Though it is possible the airbase no longer had any aircraft at the time it was abandoned to IS, the ineffectiveness of General Haftar’s LNA air-force and the absence of a Western no-fly zone (as was implemented during the anti-Qaddafist revolution) leave open the possibility that new aircraft could be flown in by IS operatives, giving the extremists an air element for use in combat operations or suicide bombings against civilian targets, possibly even beyond Libya’s borders.

French Foreign Legion Operation in the Strategic Passe de Salvador

Andrew McGregor

Tips and Trends: The AIS African Security Report, May 2015

The Passe de Salvador runs past the northwest side of north-eastern Niger’s Plateau du Manguéni, near the frontier between Libya, Algeria and the Agadez region of Niger. On the Niger side, the pass connects to the smugglers’ route running across the Ténéré du Tafassâsset desert parallel to the Algerian border in northern Niger, a route used by veteran Algerian jihadist Mokhtar Belmokhtar when he withdrew his forces from northern Mali to southern Libya in early 2013. The Passe de Salvador has traditionally been controlled by Adrar Tuareg centered on the south-western Libyan town of Ubari, unlike the Passe de Toummo on the southern side of the Plateau du Manguéni, which is controlled by the Tuareg’s traditional nomad rivals, the Tubu, who operate on both sides of the Libya-Niger border.

Salvador Pass 2Passe de Salvador, top left; Fort Madama, bottom right.

The 2e Régiment étranger de parachutistes (2e REP) was originally raised from Foreign Legion troops in 1948 for use in the French colonies of Indochina. Few members of the regiment survived the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 (in which the “paras” played a prominent role) and the subsequent imprisonment of the survivors by the Viet Minh. Since then, the rebuilt airborne unit has served on numerous operations in the Balkans, Afghanistan and across a host of Middle Eastern and African countries. Now based in Corsica, 2e REP is likely to be the first unit deployed in foreign operations as the lead unit of France’s Rapid Reaction Corps and is kept at a stage of alertness that allows it deploy within 24 hours of receiving orders.

In a world where helicopter-borne air assault operations have largely replaced airborne operations and there is criticism in some Western nations that paratroopers are expensive and little-used, France continues to be an exponent of airborne operations, though it has not carried out such an operation during hostilities for over 35 years (the last being at Kolwezi, Zaïre, in 1978). Since that time, two French airborne divisions have been reduced to a single brigade, the 11e Brigade Parachutiste, consisting of roughly 8500 men organized into eight regiments, only one of which is composed of Legionnaires. Participation in hard fighting in Afghanistan helped sharpen the combat skills of the 11th Brigade and other French military units. [1]

2e REP arrived in northern Mali from a French base in Côte d’Ivoire in dramatic fashion on January 28, 2013 with a parachute drop of a company-size unit into the region just north of Timbuktu to cut off retreating jihadists being pushed north by French armor, marine infantry and Chadian forces during Operation Serval (in the event, no jihadists were encountered by the 2e REP). [2] An unidentified French Special Forces unit (possibly elements of the Commando parachutiste de l’air n°10 (CPA 10 – No. 10 Air Parachute Commando) carried out another drop on northern Mali’s Tessalit Airport on the evening of February 7, 2013 as part of a complex land-air operation involving Chadian troops and helicopter-borne French troops of the 1er régiment de chasseurs parachutistes (1er RCP) and the 21e Régiment d’Infanterie de Marine (21e RIMa – actually a light armored unit despite its name) as well as elements of other units formed into a combined-arms tactical battle group (L’Express, February 21, 2013). [3] Since then, 2e REP has continued operations in northern Mali as part of France’s military strategy for northern Africa, Operation Barkhane.

Operation Kunama II

In mid-April, perhaps as much in an attempt to engage in high-level training in oppressive conditions as from operational concerns, 2e REP made a daring night jump into the unfamiliar terrain of the Salvador Pass linking Libya to Niger, a desolate but strategically important site frequently used by Saharan smugglers, terrorists and insurgents. [4] There are unconfirmed reports that French Special Forces were inserted into the Pass in the early days of Operation Serval and even mounted cross-border operations against jihadists who had fled to the ungoverned regions of south-western Libya.

Rather than drop the paras into the Pass itself, it was decided to land them on the adjacent Manguéni Plateau five kilometers from the Pass. There they were met by their operational partners, 50 men of the much lower-budget Nigerien Army who were forced to drive rather than fly to the rendezvous. Food and water were supplied to the French troops on pallets dropped by C-130 cargo aircraft.

After consolidating control of the Salvador Pass, the French and Nigerien troops left on a long and challenging drive to the old colonial-era Legion fort at Madama on the Djado Plateau, near which French forces set up a forward operating base and airstrip in October 2014.  The fort still has a garrison of Nigerien troops tasked with controlling the smuggling and trafficking routes that run through the area, some of which are used by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the related al-Murabitoun.

Salvador Pass 1French Legionnaires and Nigerien Troops at Fort Madama

The drive to Fort Madama exposed some weaknesses in the six-wheeled Panhard ERC 90 Sagaie armored all-terrain vehicles used by the French in northern Mali, as they began to quickly break down in the harsh conditions and terrain; according to the unit’s colonel, “Our vehicles are designed for Europe. Here, we are left with temperatures rising to 40-45 degrees maybe even 50 degrees. Our tanks are not designed for that and also suffer from the sand. It creeps everywhere and everything deteriorates” (RFI, April 23, 2015).

While no contact was made with jihadist forces or the region’s elusive smugglers during Operation Kunama II, it provided necessary field experience, training opportunities and logistical support practice for French military forces in some of the world’s most hostile terrain. Though jihadist activities were not interrupted by the operation, it nevertheless sent a clear signal to jihadis and smugglers alike that powerful French forces can be deployed in the Niger-Libya border region within hours if the presence of armed groups in the area is detected by French Harfang drones based in the Nigerien capital of Niamey.

Notes

  1. Pp. 38-39, http://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/research_reports/RR700/RR770/RAND_RR770.pdf
  2. Footage of the drop shot from a Harfang drone can be viewed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1ElySEd8MOw . Footage of an airdrop of heavy equipment the next day at Timbuktu Airport by the 17e Régiment du Génie Parachutiste (17e RGP – 17th Parachute Engineer Regiment) can be viewed at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u8vDElXEMWw
  3. These improvised formations with integrated fire support are known in the French Army as Groupement tactique interarmes (GTIA). French troops typically train and operate in such formations.
  4. Video of 2e REP in the Passe de Salvador can be seen at: https://www.youtube.com/user/FORCESFRANCAISES

The Battle for Tripoli: Can it bring Libya’s Civil War to an End?

Andrew McGregor

Tips and Trends: The AIS African Security Report

May 30, 2015

Armed groups supportive of Libya’s internationally recognized House of Representatives (HoR) government in Tobruk are slowly closing in on positions around Tripoli defended by armed groups supportive of the Tripoli-based General National Congress (GNC), an Islamist-dominated rival government formed by parliamentarians who did not accept the results of Libya’s June 2014 elections. However, real military progress is still impeded by factionalism and tribalism in the pro-HoR Operation Karama (“Dignity”) military coalition that opposes the Islamist and pro-GNC militias gathered under the Fajr Libya (“Libya Dawn”) umbrella.

Tripoli MapThe military pressure on Tripoli appeared to be working in terms of eliciting a more conciliatory approach from the GNC to a UN-recommended unity government (Anadolu Agency, April 17; April 18, 2015). However, hardliners in the GNC seem to have come out on top after quickly rejecting a UN peace plan that was eight months in the works but heavily favored the HoR in its details. Part of the plan called for the replacement of local militias by Libyan National Army (LNA) units currently under the command of General Khalifa Haftar, who is widely distrusted in Tripoli.

The HoR launched an offensive designed to retake Tripoli in mid-March. By April 3, pro-government forces were struggling to take control of Aziziya, 35 kilometers south-west of Tripoli (AFP, April 3, 2015). LNA forces under the command of Colonel Idris Madi (the commander of LNA operations in western Libya) claimed to have taken Aziziya by April 5, with the LNA’s use of superior French-made guided missiles cited as playing a major role in the victory (Middle East Eye, April 5, 2015).

Tripoli 1Fighting Southwest of Tripoli

Fighting inside Tripoli proper began in mid-April in two anti-Libya Dawn districts, the central Fashloum district and the eastern suburb of Tajura. The HoR claimed that authorities in Tripoli were using power and water cuts to pressure the residents of the two districts (Reuters, April 18, 2015; AFP, April 18, 2015). A pro-HoR rising in Fashloum lasted several days before it was smashed by Libya Dawn forces. Abdullah Sassi, the leader of the rising and commander of Tajura’s 101 Brigade, was captured and apparently killed – photos of a bloodied and seemingly lifeless Sassi with Libya Dawn slogans and insults such as “Dog of Karama” crudely written on his face with markers appeared widely on social media, though Libya Dawn leaders later claimed he was still alive and had simply had a “fit” (Libya Herald, April 19, 2015). A Twitter message allegedly sent by Sassi on April 19 accused General Haftar, Colonel Madi and the Zintanis of having “duped” the Tajurans by failing to provide promised military support.[1]

The central district of Fashloum endured three days of fighting in which Libya Dawn forces emerged victorious after destroying much of the district. According to GNC Interior Minister Muhammad Shayter, the destruction of Fashloum was the responsibility of supporters of the HoR: “In the Fashloum district, murderers and criminals who support [LNA commander General Khalifa] Haftar and Operation Dignity closed roads and started shooting workers and simple people, including revolutionaries” (Middle East Eye, April 23, 2015).

With Tripoli’s International Airport out of action since July 2014, control of Tripoli’s Mitiga International Airport, a former airbase lying between the city center and Tajura, has become of major importance for the continued existence of the GNC and Libya Dawn. It was struck by a mortar on April 3 and was the target of an airstrike by LNA forces on April 15, though, typically, little damage was done by the airstrike. The airport has been used by Libya Dawn to launch its own (generally ineffective) airstrikes on LNA targets, including an April 15 airstrike on a military base in Tajura, east of Tripoli (for Libya’s “air war,” see Tips and Trends for March, 2015).

The Role of the Warshefana

A surprising development in the struggle for the capital was the withdrawal of the Misratan pro-Libya Dawn Halboos Brigade from western Tripoli sometime between April 22 and April 25 after reaching an agreement with Warshefana elders, a move that angered the brigade’s Libya Dawn allies in Janzur, the Mobile Forces and the Janzur Knights militias. Once the Misratan forces had pulled out of the region south-west of Tripoli, Warshefana militias assisted by pro-HoR militias from Zintan began to make solid gains, working themselves closer to the western Tripoli suburb of Janzur. The Warshefana generally occupy the region south of Tripoli and are regularly identified by their rivals as having pro-Qaddafist tendencies. The Misratans may have decided to focus on defeating the Islamic State extremists with which it is clashing in both Misrata and in Sirte, east of Tripoli (Reuters, March 25, 2015).

Warshefana military leader General Omar Tantoush had earlier announced “all of Warshefana and the surrounding villages will be under official Army control and the capital’s city center will be only 13 kilometers [away] with all of the main entry points surrounded.”[2] However, Tantoush has stated that his forces have no intention of entering the capital and seek only to consolidate control over traditional Warshefana territory (which could include Janzur) (Libya Herald, April 29, 2015). On April 29, armed men kidnapped Tantoush’s cousin Mohamed Tantoush in Tripoli as retaliation for Warshefana advances (Libya Herald, April 29, 2015).

For now, the offensive seems to have slowed; further progress into Janzur will likely be met by heavy resistance from Libya Dawn-allied militias still occupying the district (Libya Herald, April 30, 2015). Warshefana militias may decide to postpone an attack on Janzur until it can be mounted as part of a broader offensive on the Tripoli region coordinated with the Libyan National Army (LNA) and its allies. The LNA is also active in the Warshefana region, advancing on Tripoli’s international airport and fighting battles for control of the coastal highway between Zawia and Tripoli (Libya Dawn, April 22, 2015). Control of the road means control of petroleum supplies to the capital, where power cuts are already common due to the Warshefana clashes. Water is also in short supply since the power cuts have affected the pumps on the Man-Made River that supplies water to Tripoli. In the meantime, Warshefana elders appear to have had several successes in negotiating the withdrawal of various Libya Dawn militias from Warshefana communities.

Tripoli 2Bombing Damage inside Tripoli’s al-Quds Mosque (Reuters/Ismail Zitouny)

The Role of Islamist Extremists

Islamist extremists seeking to disrupt ongoing Libyan peace negotiations in Morocco are now targeting foreign embassies in Tripoli, though most missions are empty due to the instability in Tripoli:

  • The Islamic State organization used social media to claim responsibility for an attack by gunmen on the South Korean embassy that killed two Libyan security guards (Reuters, April 12, 2015).
  • The Islamic State organization used Twitter to claim responsibility for an April 13 bombing of the Moroccan embassy (AP, April 13, 2015).
  • Social media accounts again claimed responsibility for the bombing of the Spanish embassy on April 20 (Reuters, April 20, 2015; IBT, April 21, 2015).

Earlier this year, Islamic State militants carried out bomb attacks on the Iranian and Algerian embassies. Islamists are also believed to be responsible for the bombing of Tripoli’s al-Quds Mosque, a leading place of worship for Tripoli’s many Sufi Muslims, whose religious sites are frequently targeted by Salafist extremists (Andolu Ajansi, April 23, 2015).

PROJECTIONS

The threat of urban warfare and its attendant civilian suffering and damage to buildings and infrastructure is becoming particularly acute in Tripoli, one of the world’s oldest cities, founded by Phoenician traders in the 7th century BC to take advantage of its natural harbor. With clashes already breaking out in the city center, public life and the local economy are both suffering from bombings, blockades and roaming gangs of masked gunmen seeking out opponents of Libya Dawn.

For Libya Dawn, the successful defense of Tripoli is an imperative. While keeping control of the city will not ensure Libya Dawn’s eventual victory on the national stage, its loss is a virtual guarantee of the collapse of the GNC and the dispersion or surrender of Libya Dawn militias, some of which might decide coming to a negotiated arrangement with the LNA/HoR that will allow them to retain their arms and some continued measure of self-importance would be the best way to survive. While sparing Tripoli, such an arrangement will only postpone an eventual reckoning between the emerging LNA and the unruly but well-armed militias. Integration of most Libya Dawn fighters in a unified LNA seems unlikely due to the polarizing presence of LNA commander-in-chief Khalifa Haftar, who is commonly described by Libya Dawn commanders as “a terrorist.”

Notes

[1] https://twitter.com/Liberty4Libya/status/589870760942051328

[2] https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?id=1649305608630612&story_fbid=1664134897147683 (April 15, 2015).

Are Sudanese Arms Reaching Libyan Islamists through Kufra Oasis?

Andrew McGregor

From Tips and Trends: The AIS African Security Report

Aberfoyle International Security, April 2015

Once again, Khartoum has been accused of supplying arms and transport to Islamist militias in the ongoing struggle between rival Libyan pro-Islamist and pro-secular governments based in Tripoli and Tobruck respectively. The latest accusations by a spokesman for the Libyan army claim that Sudan sent a convoy of 70 trucks of ammunition and 60 SUVs carrying Misratan Islamist fighters through Darfur and across Libya’s southern border to take the strategic south-east Libyan desert community of Kufra  (Asharq al-Awsat, March 7, 2015). However, Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) spokesman Colonel al-Sawarmi Khalid Sa’ad insisted that foreign militants had no presence in Darfur while Egyptian military intelligence said it had no information regarding the passage of such a large convoy close to the border it shares with Libya and Sudan (Sudan Tribune, March 7, 2015; SUNA, March 7, 2015).

Kufra Oasis 1Kufra, the pre-colonial headquarters of the Libyan Sanusiya Order that led resistance to Italian, French and British imperialists, consists of a 50km by 20km basin containing a town and a half dozen oases. Sand seas on both sides of the basin force all traffic coming north from Sudan to pass through the region, giving it strategic importance. Kufra is inhabited mainly by local Tubu tribesmen and their rivals, the Zuwaya (or Zwai) Arabs that seized the region from the Teda Tubu in 1840. The two communities have clashed repeatedly since the collapse of the Qaddafi regime, requiring deployments of northern government-allied militias to restore order. In May 2014, Tubu leaders denied bringing Sudanese Tubu mercenaries north via the route to Kufra to help establish an ethnic-Tubu state in south-east Libya (al-Jazeera, May 9 2014).

Sudanese authorities have a special dislike of the new commander-in-chief of the Libyan National Army (LNA), General Khalifa Haftar, who is regarded in Khartoum as an agent of American influence in Libya due to his long-standing ties to the CIA and as an enemy of the Islamist movement due to his close relationship with Egyptian president Abd al-Fatah al-Sisi, whose hard-line on the Egyptian Brotherhood has led to the loss of hundreds of lives. Haftar has likewise accused Sudan (along with Chad and Egypt) of infiltrating armed Islamists into Libya and has expressed his dislike of Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir (Washington Post, May 21, 2014).

Kufra Oasis 2Jabal Uwaynat: Where Three Borders Meet

LNA officials have made it clear they regard they regard the Sudanese regime as one dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and thus ready to aid the Muslim Brotherhood elements based in Benghazi (the Sudanese regime is in many ways a collaborative effort between the Sudanese military and various Islamist factions, including some former and current members of Sudan’s independent branch of the Brotherhood, popularly known in Sudan as the Ikhwan [brothers]). In response, Khartoum has emphasized the indigenous nature of its own Islamist movement while distancing the regime from the Egyptian Brotherhood and its Gulf-state counterparts. The Haftar-aligned commander of the Libyan Air Force, Brigadier General Saqr Jeroshi, is a major proponent of the Sudanese arms to Libyan Islamists scenario, describing it as a “hellish” scheme overseen by Ahmed al-Zaway, a Libyan Muslim Brother with alleged tribal links in the Sudan (Sudan Tribune, September 7, 2014).

In June 2014, Khartoum declined to comment on reports the Sudanese capital had been visited by veteran jihadist Abd al-Hakim Belhaj, the Tripoli-based leader of the Libyan al-Watan Party. These reports were soon followed by accusations from Haftar’s LNA that Sudan was using its air force to deliver Qatari arms to Belhaj’s fighters (Youm al-Sabaa [Cairo], June 6; Sudan Tribune, June 6, 2014).

Libyan authorities were reported to have seized a Sudanese military plane carrying ammunition during a refuelling stop in Kufra on the way to Tripoli’s Matiga Airport in September 2014, a story that originated with a Haftar-supported Libyan satellite TV channel and soon gained currency in government quarters, with LNA spokesmen going on to accuse Khartoum violating Libya’s “national sovereignty” by flying military supplies to “terrorist groups” (al-Jazeeea, September 8, 2014). Sudan claimed the incident was a “misunderstanding,” saying that the plane had only carried equipment needed by the joint Libyan-Sudanese border force tasked with tackling cross-border smuggling and human trafficking. This explanation proved unacceptable and an international spat followed, with Sudan demanding an apology and the Libyan government reportedly expelling the Sudanese military attaché (Sudan Tribune, September 7, 2014).

However, Khartoum pointed out that no communications were received regarding this expulsion and noted that the attaché was in Khartoum at the time and had since returned to Tripoli. The Sudanese government further produced documentation and a recording of the plane’s radio exchange with the tower at Kufra Airport showing that the end destination of the flight was Kufra, not Tripoli. The story received a final blow when Lieutenant Sulayman Hamid Hassan, the Libyan commander of the joint Libyan-Sudanese border force, confirmed sending a request to Khartoum for “ammunition, arms, an ambulance, a water tanker and fuel” for the force and stated that the plane’s cargo had been unloaded in Kufra in the full view of local officials and national security personnel. These observations were confirmed by a letter from the Libyan Minister of Defence (Sudan Vision, September 28, 2014; Sudan Tribune, September 7, 2014). The joint border patrols were established by an August 9, 2012 bilateral protocol and play an important role in intercepting human-smuggling operations despite underfunding and political chaos in Libya.

After Qaddafi’s Libya used the Kufra to Darfur route to supply anti-Khartoum rebels of the Darfur-based Justice and Equality Movement (which nearly toppled the regime in 2006), Khartoum is wary of militants of any stripe using the traditional desert route to infiltrate the Sudan or supply Darfur-based insurgents. In the midst of Libya’s anti-Qaddafi rebellion, a Sudanese column was reported to have crossed into Libya to briefly seize Kufra and its nearby military base to secure its northern border (Telegraph, July 1, 2011).

The route passing from Sudan into Kufra has a history as an arms conduit, being used in World War One in largely unsuccessful attempts to supply the Sultan of Darfur in his battle against the British-led Egyptian Army, and again in World War Two, when the route was heavily used by the British-led Sudan Defence Force (SDF) to supply the Free French garrison in Kufra after the French combined with the British Long-Range Desert Group (LRDG) to expel the Italian garrison in 1941. [1] Besides commercial traffic, the route is now most commonly used by smugglers and human-traffickers shipping refugees to the Libyan coast for onward transport to Europe. In the meantime, while unverified reports abound of Sudanese arms shipments to Libya’s Islamists, most of these claims appear to originate with Khalifa Haftar’s LNA, no friends of the Bashir regime in Khartoum.

Note

  1. For SDF activities on the route in WWII, see “The Kufra Convoys,” http://www.fjexpeditions.com/frameset/convoys.htm

Egypt, the UAE and Arab Military Intervention in Libya

Andrew McGregor

September 5, 2014

A pair of recent airstrikes against Islamist-held targets in the Libyan capital of Tripoli have raised questions about Arab military intervention in Libya after reports emerged claiming the strikes were conducted by United Arab Emirates (UAE) aircraft using Egyptian airbases. The first strike, on August 17, hit up to a dozen sites in Tripoli held by the Misratan militia and their Islamist allies, killing six people and destroying a small arms depot. A second wave of attacks on August 23, struck numerous military targets shortly before dawn in southern Tripoli, but failed to prevent the Islamist-allied Libyan Shield militia (dominated by Qatari-backed Misratan fighters and allied to the Muslim Brotherhood and Ansar al-Shari’a) from seizing Tripoli’s airport and most of the capital only hours later (Middle East Monitor, August 27; New York Times, August 25).

UAE FighterUAE F-16 Fighter Jet

Though anti-Islamist commander General Khalifa Haftar attempted to claim responsibility for the attacks, their precision, the distance covered by the aircraft and the night operations all precluded the participation of Haftar’s small air element. The U.S. State Department initially said the airstrikes were conducted by UAE aircraft operating from an Egyptian airbase, but later issued a type of ambiguous retraction that suggested further questions should be addressed to the parties involved (Ayat al-Tawy, August 29; Ahram Online [Cairo], August 29). The participation of Egypt and the UAE was confirmed, however, by Pentagon spokesman Admiral John Kirby (Financial Times, August 21; Reuters, August 26). On August 26, a U.S. official said Washington was aware the UAE and Egypt were preparing an attack on Tripoli, but had warned against carrying out the operation (AP, August 26). When the two Arab militaries took the decision to strike Tripoli, they failed to inform their long-time military patron, possibly marking some dissatisfaction with Washington’s reluctance to take more decisive action in Libya and elsewhere.

An Arab Military Solution?

The apparent failure of General Haftar’s “Operation Dignity” has led his Arab backers in Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia to consider more direct approaches to re-establishing security in Libya, where both of the nation’s major cities (Tripoli and Benghazi) have been effectively seized by Islamist militias, forcing the national government to move to Tobruk, close to the border with Egypt.

Rumors of an Algerian-Egyptian invasion of Libya circulated throughout August, though a prolonged Algerian military intervention would risk inflaming social and economic tensions within Algeria (Middle East Eye, August 21). The lack of military cooperation between Algeria and Egypt would also seem to argue against a joint operation.

Qatar supports the Islamist faction in Libya and hosts leading Islamist politician Ali Muhammad al-Salabi, an associate of former Libyan Islamic Fighting Group commander Abd al-Hakim Belhadj, now a prominent Islamist militia commander in Tripoli. Both the Algerian and Egyptian militaries are involved in ongoing counter-terrorism campaigns; the question is whether these nations view Libya as an unwanted second front or as an integral part of a wider international anti-terrorist campaign.

The UAE Adopts a More Muscular Foreign Policy

The UAE’s approach to regional security has been described by UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Dr. Anwar Gargash:

Arab affairs should be settled within the framework of the Arab world because the Arab arena then becomes [accessible] to many regional players. I think this is a risk that threatens all Arab countries… There must be strong and effective police and military forces because not every threat faced by countries is international. There are many regional challenges so we should have the potential to face these threats. As [much as] the UAE and other countries need regional allies, we have to start with our own self-power and potential (The National [Abu Dhabi], March 31).

Gargash later said that allegations of UAE interference in Libyan affairs were merely an attempt to divert attention from Libya’s parliamentary elections, in which the Islamists fared poorly: “The people have spotted [the Islamists’] failure and recognized their lies. Disregarding the results of the Libyan parliamentary election is nothing but an indication of the isolation of the group, which is seeking a way out of their segregation, and [to] justify their mismanagement… Since their seven percent does not form a majority, Islamists in Libya resorted to violence and spread chaos across the country” (Khaleej Times [Dubai], August 27).

UAE pilots certainly know the way to Tripoli; during the NATO-led intervention in 2011, the UAE Air Force (UAEAF) deployed six F-16s and six Mirage fighter jets during the anti-Qaddafi campaign (AP, April 27). The UAE has used some of its considerable oil wealth to obtain a modern and well-trained air arm to help ensure the security of the Emirates in an increasingly unstable region. Many of the pilots and technicians are Pakistani ex-servicemen serving the UAE on private contracts. With the Mirage jets being phased out in favor of American-built F-16s, many of the pilots are not trained in the United States or by American trainers in the UAE. The UAE is also one of the few nations in the region to have mid-air refueling capabilities for long-distance operations thanks to its recent purchase of three Airbus A330 Multi Role Tanker Transports (MRTT). In recent years, the UAE has been improving its military capabilities to take a greater role in foreign affairs (particularly in the Arab world) and regional counter-terrorism efforts under the direction of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Zayid al-Nahyan.

The Egyptian Perspective

Although a cursory examination of a map of North Africa would seem to indicate Libya and Egypt are close neighbors, in reality, their interaction has been historically limited by distance, topography and culture. A brief 1977 border war that ended in disaster for Mu’ammar Qaddafi’s poorly trained Libyan forces marked the last military encounter of any significance between the two nations.

UAE - Egypt Libya Border WarLibyan Troops Celebrate Downing of an Egyptian Fighter by Libyan Mirage Jets during the 1977 Border War. (Tom Cooper Collection)

Egyptian president Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi told a U.S. congressional delegation on August 29 that Egypt respected Libyan internal affairs, but noted that democracies cannot be built on ruins: “Despite Egypt being one of the most harmed parties from the deteriorating political and security situation in Libya, it is committed to non-interference in internal Libyan affairs” (Egypt State Information Service, August 29; Ahram Online [Cairo], August 29). While Egypt has been reluctant to admit any involvement in the airstrikes, there are reports that its newly formed Rapid Intervention Force, a group of some 10,000 commandos with airborne capability dedicated to counter-terrorism operations, has been involved in intelligence collecting operations in eastern Libya focused on Ansar al-Shari’a activities (AP, August 26; Cairo Post, May 8; al-Bawaba, March 30).

Egyptian foreign minister Sameh Shoukry was adamant that Egypt was not involved in “any military activity and does not have any military presence on Libyan territories,” all of which might be technically true if Egypt only provided use of an air base to a UAEAF mission (al-Jazeera, August 26). UAE officials were more reticent, noting at first only that the Emirati authorities had “no reaction” to reports of UAEAF activity in Libya (al-Jazeera, August 26).

The day after the attack, the Egyptian and Libyan Foreign Ministers announced a bilateral initiative to restore security in Libya without military intervention by non-Arab (i.e. Western) nations. The plan calls for the disarmament of Libya’s militias with the aid of regional and international partners, but depends largely on commitments from international arms suppliers to halt sales to the militias after disarmament. Though well-intended, neither the Egyptian nor Libyan armed forces have the ability or will to further this initiative (Ahram Online [Cairo], August 25).

Egypt’s Concerns

The political chaos in neighboring Libya is the source of a number of security concerns being examined by Cairo. These include:

  • Contacts and arms trading between Libyan Islamists and Salafi-Jihadist groups operating in the Sinai;
  • Harassment and assaults on Egyptian nationals working in Libya could lead to the return of hundreds of thousands of workers who would become reliant on a state already experiencing its own economic and unemployment crises for their welfare. Other economic impacts have been slight so far, as there is little trade between Libya and Egypt and only a small degree of Egyptian investment in Libya;
  • The absence of state control over Libyan borders, seaports and airports raises a host of security concerns;
  • New armed Islamist groups operating in the greater Cairo region and the Nile Valley (possibly including returnees from the fighting in Syria and Iraq) may seek arms supplies from Libya transported over the largely defenseless southern region of the border between Libya and Egypt. Gunmen and smugglers operate openly in the region and in July attacked an Egyptian base for counter-smuggling operations in the western desert oasis of Farafra (Wadi al-Jadid Governorate), killing 22 soldiers. Securing this region with some type of permanent military presence would require an expensive and logistically difficult deployment of officers and troops, most of whom (despite Arab stereotypes) have little to no experience of the desert and share a great aversion to serving in the Libyan desert in any prolonged capacity;
  • Libya could provide a rallying point for Egyptian jihadists, likely in the newly-declared “Islamic Emirate of Benghazi” (see Terrorism Monitor, August 7). Though the anti-Sisi “Free Egyptian Army” with supposed Qatari-Turkish-Iranian backing appears to have a greater presence in the virtual world than the battlefield, a small number of Egyptian extremists have taken refuge in Libya and could attempt to form new armed opposition groups there (al-Ahram Weekly [Cairo], April 24; al-Akhbar [Beirut], April 10). Working in favor of the Egyptian government is the relative difficulty of mounting operations of any size in Egypt from Libyan bases.

Egyptian Options

Among the options available to Egypt to impose a political/security solution in Libya are the following:

  • An air campaign of limited or sporadic intensity targeting Islamist bases in Libya;
  • Securing the length of its 700 mile border with Libya (a near physical and financial impossibility aggravated by the lack of credible partners on the Libyan side);
  • A limited incursion into Libya establishing a secured buffer zone in the northern reaches of the Libyan-Egyptian border (a move of dubious international legality that would invite Islamist attacks, inflame relations with some Arab nations and drain Egyptian resources better used in the Sinai);
  • A broad multi-year military occupation (with or without allied Arab contingents) designed to disarm militias and support a new government that is likely to be viewed in many quarters as an Egyptian proxy (diplomatically provocative, militarily risky and financially draining);
  • Covert military/logistical/intelligence support for new anti-Islamist factions (created with the help of Egyptian military intelligence) or existing militias. This has been the Egyptian strategy so far, but its support for the “National Libyan Army” forces of Khalifa Haftar and their allies has failed to yield results so far. Cairo may look elsewhere in Libya for someone with greater credibility in Libya to lead anti-Islamist forces – Haftar’s long American exile and CIA associations have worked against him in Libya;
  • Training and arming Libyan nationals to form a new national Libyan army with some limited political direction from Cairo. According to Libyan Army chief-of-staff Major-General Abdul Razzaq al-Nazhuri, Egypt has offered military training for Libya’s new army, an important consideration given that both NATO and the United States have backed off from earlier pledges to provide training due to the continuing unrest in Libya (Stars and Stripes, August 28);
  • Continuing its policy of cultivating tribal elites in the border region for intelligence gathering and counter-terrorist operations. These elements will not work for free, however; they are seeking development projects and legal concessions in return for their cooperation. The tribes that straddle the modern border now control much of the smuggling of arms and other contraband from Libya to Egypt.

Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood responded to the airstrikes by issuing a statement warning of the “disastrous consequences” of an intervention in Libya and calling for the expulsion of Khalifa Haftar from his Egyptian residence:

Forcing the Egyptian army into this war to achieve foreign powers’ goals and agendas represents the biggest threat to Egypt’s national security and tarnishes the reputation of the Egyptian army, making it look like a group of mercenaries. It also weakens its capabilities when it comes to face real enemies, which brings to mind painful memories of the intervention of the Egyptian army in the war in Yemen, which later led to a disastrous defeat in 1967 in the war against the Zionist entity [i.e. Israel] (Ikhwanweb [Cairo], August 24).

Libya’s branch of the Brotherhood, which fared badly in the elections last June, is now setting up a rival regime in Tripoli to that of the elected parliament.

Conclusion

The lack of consensus in the Arab world regarding the direction of Libya’s future precludes military intervention by an allied force under the direction of the Arab League. Any Arab attempt to impose order in Libya with a military presence on the ground would rely overwhelmingly on forces from Egypt, the Arab world’s largest military power and Libya’s neighbor. However, there are long memories in Egypt of the nation’s last major foreign adventure, the disastrous 1962-1967 Egyptian military intervention in Yemen, which disrupted the Arab nationalist movement, diminished Egyptian influence and weakened its military in the lead-up to the 1967 war with Israel. [1]

The turmoil in Libya strengthens al-Sisi’s posture as the Egyptian and even regional defender of Arabs from religious-political extremism, giving him the freedom to impose stricter security regimes designed to eliminate the Islamist opposition. The question now is whether Qatar will step up its military support of Libya’s Islamists to counter the UAE’s and Egypt’s support of anti-Islamist factions. The August airstrikes on Tripoli suggest that this distant arena is gradually becoming a battleground in the struggle between pro-Islamist states such as Qatar and Turkey and their more conservative opponents – the UAE, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Note

  1. See Andrew McGregor, A Military History of Modern Egypt: From the Ottoman Conquest to the Ramadan War, Praeger Security International, Westport CT, 2006, Chapter 19.

This article first appeared in the September 5, 2014 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Libya’s Ansar al-Shari’a Declares the Islamic Emirate of Benghazi

Andrew McGregor
August 7, 2014

Only weeks after Sunni jihadists in Iraq declared the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate covering parts of Syria and Iraq, Libya’s Ansar al-Shari’a movement has declared an Islamic Emirate in eastern Libya after driving government forces and their allies from the city of Benghazi. The defeat of the strongest pro-government forces in eastern Libya has provided the Islamists with an impressive victory, but Ansar al-Shari’a and its allies are still struggling to obtain the support of Benghazi’s urban population and the powerful tribes dwelling in its hinterland.

The Libyan Emirate in the Modern Era

As the provinces that eventually formed modern Libya began to fall to British and French military forces following a string of defeats suffered by Italy, the colonial power in Libya, there were several abortive attempts to create a modern Emirate in eastern Libya. In anticipation of post-war independence in return for supporting the Allied cause, the Libyans agreed to the formation of a joint Tripolitanian-Cyrenaican Emirate with Sayyid Idris al-Sanusi as leader in 1940 (the third province, Fezzan, remained under French military administration from 1943 to 1951). This plan, however, began to disintegrate after liberation from Italian occupation in 1943 as the two Libyan provinces jostled for control of the new state. Sayyid Idris foresaw the emergence of Britain as the main power-broker in a post-colonial Libya (unlike the Tripolitanian leaders, who had incorrectly foreseen an Axis victory) and raised five battalions of the “Libyan Arab Force” to assist Allied operations in the North African desert campaign. A 1945 U.S. plan for a Cyrenaican emirate under British and Egyptian supervision failed to gain support, but in 1949 Britain decided unilaterally to create a Cyrenaican emirate under the leadership of Sayyid Idris, with foreign affairs, defense issues and military bases all remaining under British control. By the time independence arrived in 1951, plans for an emirate had been abandoned in favor of a federal constitutional monarchy with a bicameral parliament. [1]

Ansar al-Shari’a in Libya

The Islamist militia, established in post-revolutionary Libya in 2012, has a power-base in the eastern cities of Derna and Benghazi. It was in the latter city that the movement was deeply implicated in the September 11, 2012 attack on the American consulate. Ten days later, the group was driven from Benghazi by mass protests, but by March 2013 it was back in Benghazi, this time with a greater emphasis on providing social services to city residents.

New tensions began to arise in Benghazi in June, when General Haftar’s forces began launching attacks on armed Islamist militias in Benghazi and Derna and preliminary results of the parliamentary election revealed a massive rejection of Islamist candidates (all seats were contested on an individual rather than party basis). Afraid of being shut out of the political process, the Islamist militias in Benghazi (including Ansar al-Shari’a, the Libya Shield Brigade no. 1, the 17 February Brigade and the Rafallah Sahati Brigade) united under an umbrella structure known as the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries (Daily Star [Beirut], August 1). Many of these groups are affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood stronghold in Misrata. The restructuring at first helped limit Haftar’s successes in the region before allowing the united Islamists to push back against Haftar’s outnumbered “National Army” and its allies.

In June, Ansar al-Shari’a leader Muhammad al-Zawahi reasserted his movement’s opposition to both the government and democracy in general, while warning the United States to forget about military intervention in Libya in view of America’s “despicable defeats in Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia,” promising it would “face worse from Libya” (BBC, June 13).

Wanis Bu KhamadaColonel Wanis Bu Khamada

Expelling al-Sa’iqah

On July 29, Ansar al-Shari’a and its allies in the Shura Council mounted a bold attack on the Benghazi base of the pro-government al-Sa’iqah (Thunderbolt) Special Forces, an elite unit led by Colonel Wanis Bu Khamada that is allied to Libyan Major-General Khalifah Haftar, but not under his direct command. Haftar’s ongoing Operation al-Karamah (Dignity) is an attempt to eliminate Islamist militias in Libya and restore order in the lawless cities. The Islamist attack succeeded in taking the main camp of al-Sa’iqah, located in the Bu-Atni district of Benghazi.

With the capture of most of the city (excluding a part of the airport still controlled by Haftar’s forces), Ansar al-Shari’a leader Muhammad al-Zahawi declared on July 30 that “Benghazi has now become an Islamic Emirate” (Radio Tawhid, July 30; al-Jazeera, July 31). Haftar insisted that his forces had only conducted a “tactical withdrawal” from parts of Benghazi and that the Islamist claimi to control the city was “a lie”: “There is a difference between control and looting and thefts. After the Special Forces withdrew from the Special Forces’ camp, [the Islamists] tried to steal what they could steal” (al-Arabiya, July 30; July 31). Since mid-July, the Shura Council has taken five military bases in the Benghazi region, including the main Special Forces camp in Benghazi, overcoming strikes from Libyan jet-fighters and helicopters in their advance (al-Jazeera, July 31). Benghazi’s main police station was also abandoned after being shelled by Shura Council forces.

Ansar al-Shari'a FightersAnsar al-Shari’a Fighters Pose After Taking the Libyan Special Forces Base

Losses were heavy, with at least 78 soldiers killed in the assault on the base. Large quantities of arms, rockets, ammunition and even armored vehicles were seized from the stockpiles of the Special Forces, AFP/al-Akhbar [Beirut], July 30; Daily Star [Beirut], August 1). A video released soon after the battle showed Ansar al-Shari’a commander Muhammad al-Zawahi touring the battered Special Forces camp with Libyan Shield Brigade commander Wissam Bin Hamid, who declared: “We will not stop until we establish the rule of God.” [2] Bin Hamid no doubt took satisfaction in having expelled al-Sa’iqah, having been driven from his own headquarters in June 2013 by Special Forces units.

A Libyan National Army spokesman, Colonel Muhammad Hijazi, denied rumors of differences between Colonel Bu Khamada and General Haftar, adding that the withdrawal of al-Sa’iqah from its Benghazi base was “a military strategy. We are fighting against international intelligence organs like the Qatari and Turkish intelligence services” (al-Sharq al-Awsat, August 1).

Following the Islamist victory, Muhammad Sawwan, the leader of Libya’s Hizb al-Adala wa’l-Bina (Justice and Construction Party, the political arm of Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood), condemned Haftar’s Operation Dignity as armed interference with the political process and insists the poor showing by Islamists in parliamentary election results has nothing to do with the violence in Benghazi and Tripoli: “The parliamentary elections were held on the basis of the individual system. Therefore, talking about progress of one current and the defeat of the other is baseless” (al-Sharq al-Awsat, August 1).

A Libyan National Army spokesman, Colonel Muhammad Hijazi, denied rumors of differences between Colonel Bu Khamada and General Haftar, adding that the withdrawal of al-Sa’iqah from its Benghazi base was “a military strategy. We are fighting against international intelligence organs like the Qatari and Turkish intelligence services” (al-Sharq al-Awsat, August 1). There is a general belief in the forces allied to Haftar that the Islamists are materially and politically supported by Qatar and Turkey. However, despite the defeat, Colonel Bu Khamada insisted that his forces “still have the capacity to repel any attack on state institutions” (Al-Ahrar TV, August 2).

The Fallout

The Shura Council’s offensive forced the cancellation of a meeting of the new parliament to be held in Benghazi on August 4, forcing it to meet in Tobruk instead (BBC, July 30; AP, August 6). The new parliament immediately issued an order for an unconditional ceasefire in Benghazi and Tripoli (where similar clashes are underway) and promised, without the force to carry it out, that action would be taken against any group that failed to observe the ceasefire (Libya Herald, August 7).

While Haftar’s ground troops failed to reoccupy military facilities that had been abandoned after looting by the Islamists, his air assets launched air strikes against the compound of a Chinese construction company in Ajdabiya that had been taken over by Ansar al-Shari’a forces (Libya Herald, August 1). Haftar’s National Army has offered to protect further civilian demonstrations in Benghazi, though it is not clear how this would be possible without a presence in Benghazi (Libya Herald, August 1).

While there is some consensus that foreign jihadists are arriving in Libya in substantial numbers, exact figures are impossible to obtain. According to General Haftar, the Islamists “are aided by renegade groups like them from all around the world. Unfortunately, in the absence of a government or police, those groups use this opportunity to come from Algeria, Mali, Niger, and even elsewhere. They even come from overseas. Many of them came from Afghanistan and many other areas” (al-Arabiya, July 30).

For now, the oil-fields of eastern Libya remain in production, but as part of a much diminished national rate of 500,000 barrels per day (b.p.d.), as opposed to a normal 1.4 million b.p.d. (Reuters, July 29). Oil accounts for some 95% of state revenues in Libya.

Conclusion

Ansar al-Shari’a’s declaration of an Emirate was met with popular anger rather than acclaim, with large crowds of angry civilians taking to the streets of Benghazi. The protesters ignored a pair of warning volleys from Ansar militiamen and forced the gunmen from the Jala’a hospital it occupied in Benghazi, tearing down the black-and-white rayat al-uqab banner also used by the Islamic State and al-Qaeda and replacing it with a Libyan flag (Libya Herald, July 30). There were also reports that the demonstrators torched the home of Ansar al-Shari’a leader Muhammad al-Zahawi (al-Sharq al-Awsat, July 31). The failure of forces belonging to Haftar’s Operation Dignity to capitalize on this unexpected civilian triumph allowed the Islamists to re-assert themselves in an even stronger position in Benghazi by July 31.

Haftar’s National Army, still without official recognition from the government, has managed to gain the allegiance of a number of pro-government armed groups (some of which are probably reconsidering their position at this point), but has failed to get the all-important support of Libya’s tribes, which continue to withhold their commitment to one side or the other of the ongoing conflict. For now, both Ansar al-Shari’a and Haftar’s National Army claim to be receiving new weapons, promising another round of the urban warfare that is beginning to inflict severe damage on some neighborhoods of Benghazi (Libya Herald, July 29). Unless and until General Haftar and/or the new Libyan government can bring both trained troops and the nation’s influential tribes on board with the anti-Islamist program, Libya will remain a gathering point for international jihadis and Libyan fighters returning from the battlefields of Syria and Iraq, something the defeated forces allied to the national government may find themselves powerless to prevent.

Notes

1. Alison Pargeter, Libya: The Rise and Fall of Qaddafi, Yale University Press, 2012, Chapter 1; John Oakes, Libya: The History of a Pariah State, History Press, Stroud, Gloucestershire, 2011, Chapter 6.
2. See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YHUDbffJloo

This article first appeared in the August 7, 2014 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.