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

Andrew McGregor

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

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

Mozambican Troops Inspect Terrorist Damage in Cabo Delgado (PetroleumEconomist)

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

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

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

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

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

LNG Fields in Mozambique’s Rovuma Basin (BankTrack)

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

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

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

Port of Nacala (MacauHub)

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

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

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

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

Andrew McGregor

October 8, 2019

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

Russian Mercenaries in Southern Tripoli (Libya February TV)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Citeam.org)

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

 Vadim Bekshenyov (Citeam.org)

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

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

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

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

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

Andrew McGregor

AIS Special Report, August 4, 2019

RSF Patrol (al-Jazeera)

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

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

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

Mercenaries for Sale

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

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

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

The New Qaddafi? Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar (Reuters)

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

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

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

The Montreal Connection

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

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

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

Hemetti’s Revenue Streams

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

An RSF Column in the Desert (AFP)

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

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

Notes:

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

Russian Mercenaries and the Survival of the Sudanese Regime

Andrew McGregor

February 6, 2019

Less noticed but no less important than the reported arrival of Russian mercenaries in Venezuela has been the influx of Russia Wagner Group “private military contractors” (PMC) in Khartoum to help local security forces shore up the embattled regime of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. The leader of this northeast African state is clinging to power in the face of nation-wide protests against his rule.

Russian Mercenaries in Syria

The demonstrations started on December 19, 2018, over a three-fold increase in bread prices after a shortage of foreign currency forced the government to cancel foreign wheat purchases. Accusations are rampant that some of the hundreds of arrested protesters have been tortured and compelled to confess membership in terrorist groups (Middle East Monitor, January 14; Sudan Tribune, February 3).

Over forty protesters have been killed in the demonstrations, with the president blaming the deaths on “infiltrators” from the Sudan Liberation Movement of ‘Abd al-Wahid al-Nur (SLM/A-AW), a Darfur rebel movement active since 2003. National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) chief General Salah ‘Abdallah Gosh accused Israel of recruiting the Darfuris to disrupt the Sudanese state (Sudan Tribune, January 21).

Al-Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) on charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity related to his repression of the revolt in Darfur. Russia was a signatory to the treaty that created the ICC but never ratified the agreement. In November 2016, Russia withdrew its signature, ending its involvement with the court (TASS, November 16, 2016). Ignoring the ICC travel ban on al-Bashir, Russia has hosted the Sudanese head of state twice: once in November 2017 and again in July 2018. When al-Bashir made an unannounced visit to Damascus last December, he travelled by a Russian military aircraft (RT—Arabic service, December 18, 2018). Russia is interested in the oil, mineral and financial sectors of the Sudanese economy and the establishment of a naval facility on Sudan’s Red Sea coast (see EDM, December 6, 2017).

Photos of alleged Russian mercenaries in Khartoum (The Times)

In January 2019, The Times published photos of men alleged to be Russian mercenaries being transported through Khartoum in a Ural-4320 utility truck, widely used by the Russian military and Russian PMCs. The report also cited witnesses who claimed Russians forcibly dispersed protesters (The Times, Newsru.com, January 10). Local sources state that the Russian contractors are training the special operations forces of the NISS, Sudan’s powerful secret police organization (Sudan Tribune, January 8).

Vasyl Hrytsak, the chief of the Security Service of Ukraine (SSU), claimed that his agency had obtained the travel documents and passport data of 149 Wagner Group personnel who “directly partook in suppressing democratic protests in Sudan in early 2019.” The SSU alleged that Wagner mercenaries had been transported to Sudan on Tu-154M airliners belonging to the Russian Ministry of Defense (Unian.info, Gordonua.com, January 28). The deployment was arranged by Yevgeny Prigozhin’s M Invest LLC, which obtained gold mining concessions in Sudan during al-Bashir’s 2017 visit to Sochi (Government.ru, November 24, 2017; The National, December 17, 2018).

A spokesperson from the Russian embassy in Khartoum declared that the Russian “experts from non-government structures” were not involved in suppressing the protests, adding that reports to the contrary in Western media were “outright fakes seeking to demonize our country and its foreign policies” (Reuters, January 15).

Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed, on January 23, that Russian military contractors “who have nothing to do with Russian state bodies” were operating in Sudan. According to the foreign ministry, their work was confined to “training staff for the military and law enforcement agencies of the Republic of Sudan” (Reuters, January 23). The statement contradicted an earlier one by Sudanese Interior Minister Ahmad Bilal Osman, who described reports of Russian mercenaries in Khartoum as “completely false… a mere fabrication intended to offend the government” (Middle East Monitor, January 14).

In late July 2018, there were reports of a group of 500 Russian mercenaries operating in a camp some 15 kilometers south of the Darfur town of Um Dafug, close to the border with the Central African Republic (CAR) (Radio Dabanga, July 31, 2018). Russian mercenaries were reported to have spent five months in the area training both Muslim Séléka rebels from the CAR and Sudanese troops. The bulk of these forces were said to have departed from the region in late July 2018 (Radio Dabanga, August 1, 2018).

‘Abd al-Wahid al-Nur (BBC)

‘Abd al-Wahid al-Nur, the veteran leader of Darfur’s SLM/A-AW, expressed his concern with the Donald Trump administration’s “decoupling” of human rights issues from foreign policy and the opening this is providing to Russia in Sudan at the expense of the United States:

What is most astonishing in the context of the Kremlin’s hostile action against the U.S. and deliberate sabotage of your electoral process… is the soft pedaling towards al-Bashir’s overtures to Moscow… When Russian mercenaries fresh from Syria and Ukraine now have a foothold in both Darfur and the Central African Republic, with a mission agenda entirely contrary to that of U.S. Africa Command… your ill-considered policy towards Sudan is self-evidently not serving you well (Sudanjem.com, December 19, 2018).

Major General Al-Hadi Adam Musa, the head of Sudan’s parliamentary defense committee, said that a draft military agreement made with Russia in early January “will pave the way for more agreements and greater cooperation… possibly a Russian base on the Red Sea” (Sputnik, January 12; Sudan Tribune, January 13). The general noted that Russian naval visits could provide the sailors of Sudan’s tiny navy of Iranian and Yugoslavian-built patrol boats with training and “first-hand experience of Russia’s cutting-edge military equipment…” The agreement will allow for shore leave by unarmed naval personnel, but it forbids visits by ships carrying nuclear fuel, radioactive substances, toxic material, drugs, biological weapons or weapons of mass destruction (Sputnik, January 12).

Since its 1971 show trial of German mercenary Rolf Steiner, Sudan has maintained strong opposition to the presence of European mercenaries in Africa. While al-Bashir appears to have reversed Sudan’s position, it seems unlikely that the regime would squander what is left of its political capital by deploying white mercenaries against unarmed Sudanese on the streets of Khartoum. Such direct intervention could set back Moscow’s growing role in Africa, though Russia will likely do all it can behind the scenes to preserve a regime that has proved highly accommodating to Russian interests.

This article was first published in the February 6, 2019 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor.

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

Andrew McGregor

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

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

Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar (Algeriepatriotique)

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

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

Russian Interests in Libya

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

Lev Dengoov (Russarabbc.ru)

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

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

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

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

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

Italian Relations with Russia

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

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

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

Italian Forces on the Libyan Border

Il Mediterraneo Allargato (Riccardo Piroddi)

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

Italian Troops in Niger (RSI)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

How Russia is Displacing the French in the Struggle for Influence in the Central African Republic

Andrew McGregor

May 15, 2018

Sudden Russian interest in the resource-rich Central African Republic (CAR – the former French colony of Oubangui-Chari) has raised questions regarding Moscow’s intentions in the violence-plagued nation.

French Patrol in Bangui, CAR (AFP/Getty)

As much as 80% of the CAR is not under government control. A new burst of violence earlier this month included attacks on churches and mosques that resulted in 19 deaths and left over 100 wounded (AP, May 2). Thousands have been killed and nearly half a million people displaced since 2013.

Fighting has escalated since the French ended a three-year military mission (Operation Sangaris) in October 2016. The operation, the seventh French military intervention in the CAR, ended amidst accusations of sexual violence by French troops, though Paris pledged to keep 350 troops inside the CAR as a “tactical reserve” while remaining ready to intervene with a larger force “at very short notice” (Deutsche Welle, October 31, 2016). Responsibility for security was turned over to the Mission multidimensionnelle intégrée des Nations unies pour la stabilisation en Centrafrique (MINUSCA), a 13,000 man UN peacekeeping mission which has struggled to restore order while being accused of large-scale sexual abuse of local women.

Deeply impoverished, the CAR has endured massive exploitation by Chadian Muslims in the 19th century, French imperialists in the 19th century and neo-colonialists working with corrupt CAR politicians since independence in 1960.

Russia appears ready to join this game, exchanging arms and cash for access to oil, minerals, strategic bases and rare earths, materials vital to modern electronics but a market almost entirely dominated by China. Moscow is trying to trade on Russia’s lack of colonial history in Africa (overlooking failed attempts to establish Russian colonies in the 19th century), its Cold War assistance to various bastions of Marxism in Africa and its military performance in Syria.

The CAR has been under a UN arms embargo since civil war broke out in 2013. Pleas from CAR president Faustin Archange Touadéra for arms and training to reinvigorate the shattered CAR military found a sympathetic ear in Moscow last year. An exemption to the embargo was granted only after Russia agreed to supply secure storage and serial numbers for the weapons. The US, UK and France were concerned the arms could disappear soon after delivery; in 2013 the armories were looted and weapons belonging to the Forces armées centrafricaines (FACA) have a habit of turning up on the black market. Aside from the Russian arms supplies, the UN embargo has been renewed through to February 2019. The exemption allowed CAR chief-of-staff Firmin Ngrebada and special adviser Fidèle Gouandjika to arrange an agreement for arms and training with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, signed in Sochi on October 9, 2017.

Firman Ngrebada

Ngrebada, nicknamed “Foccart,” after Jacques Foccart (1913-1997), the French special advisor on African affairs in the 1960s and 70s, insists it was French president Emmanuel Macron who sent the CAR delegates to Russia after a French attempt to supply FACA with arms seized off Somalia failed following Russian objections (Jeune Afrique, May 3; CorbeauNews [Bangui], January 16).

Among the weapons delivered in this year are 900 Makarov pistols, 5,200 Kalashnikov assault rifles, 140 sniper rifles, 840 Kalashnikov PK 7.62 mm machine guns, 270 RPGs, 20 man-portable anti-air defense systems, hand grenades, mortars and millions of round of ammunition (The Nation [Nairobi), December 14, 2017). Russian arms and parts are compatible with what Soviet-era arms remain in the CAR armories.

While the Russian arms are a donation rather than a sale, the Sochi agreement contains provisions for Russian exploitation of minerals, resources and energy sources as well as the development of infrastructure and enhanced commercial relations (Defenceweb, February 19; Russia Today, April 3). Though French Ambassador to the CAR Christian Bader has stated France does not perceive a problem with the Russian military agreement, France has traditionally resented the intrusion of other nations into its African “backyard” (CorbeauNews [Bangui], April 21, 2018). One French diplomat has complained of the “shameless” bribes paid by the Russians for access to CAR governing bodies (Le Monde, April 23). Russians in civilian garb have also appeared in poor neighborhoods of Bangui, handing out various essentials (RFI, April 25). Local reports suggest that among the newly arrived Russians are disinformation experts who have started an anti-French media campaign (MondeAfrique.com, May 9).

The arms are intended for use by two battalions (1300 men) of FACA trained by the European Training Mission (EUTM RCA), beginning in mid-2016. Training was initially inhibited by a shortage of arms. EUTM’s mandate is expected to be renewed in September.

The Russians are reported to have had talks with the Russian-educated former Séléka rebel leader and CAR president Michael Djotodia (2013-2014), though Ngrebada says he has no reason to doubt the sincerity of his new Russian friends (Jeune Afrique, May 3). Witnesses also described a Russian Cesna aircraft with three or four Russian soldiers visiting the compounds of Muslim rebel leaders Nourredine Adam and Abdoulaye Hissene in the northern CAR (Monde Afrique, May 4; RFI, May 1).  During Operation Sangaris, the French made similar efforts to contact rebel leaders to persuade them to refrain from attacking Bangui; Russian intentions are still unknown, but may have something to do with threats of a rebel “march on Bangui” in response to the military cooperation with Russia (L’Obs, May 5). Russian interest in the rebel-occupied goldfields of northeastern CAR may provide another reason.

Russian Mercenaries and CAR Troops at Béréngo Palace (Le Monde)

The 175 Russian trainers have established a base at Béréngo palace, the abandoned home of psychopathic CAR “emperor” Jean-Bédel Bokassa (1966-1979). Only five of this group are members of the Russian Army; most of the others are mercenaries working for private Russian military contractors (Le Monde, April 23). The palace’s 100 acres are only 35 miles from Bangui and include a firing range and airstrip that can easily be expanded and modernized to handle large Russian aircraft, enabling the Russians to avoid using the French-controlled airport in Bangui. One estimate suggests that there are now 1400 armed Russians in the CAR, most of them employees of private military contractor Sewa Security Services (Le Tchadantrhropus Tribune [N’Djamena], May 14).

Grave of Emperor Jean-Bédel Bokassa at Béréngo Palace. Bokassa’s family objects to the Russian presence there, claiming it is still family property. (AFP)

Some 40 members of the Russian Special Forces have been assigned as a security detail for President Touadéra, work that used to be done by Libyans, Chadian mercenaries or, most recently, Rwandans attached to MINUSCA. Valeri Zakarov, a Kremlin insider, is the new presidential security adviser. The CAR presidency is now concerned that the military agreement with Russia will encourage Western attempts to overthrow Touadéra, prompting even greater reliance on Russian security personnel.

This article first appeared in the May 15, 2018 issue of Eurasia Daily Monitor.

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

Andrew McGregor

April 6, 2018

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

Tubu Tribesmen in Sabha, southern Libya (Libyan Express)

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

The Madkhali Infiltration

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

Rabi bin Hadi al-Madkhali

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

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

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

Body-Snatching at Kufra Oasis

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

Sayyid Muhammad al-Mahdi al-Sanusi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Operation Desert Rage

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

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

Sudanese Forces at Jabal ‘Uwaynat (Libya Observer)

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

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

The ‘Invasion’ of Sabha

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

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

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

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

Damage to Sabha Castle from shelling (Libya Observer)

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

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

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

Roadblock to Political Resolution

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

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

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

 

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

November 27, 2017

Andrew McGregor

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

Libya (Rowan Technology)

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

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

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

Competing Governments, Competing Armies 

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

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

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

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

Fezzan’s Tribal Context 

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

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

The LNA’s Campaign in Jufra District

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

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

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

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

An Opening for Islamist Extremists

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

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

Masa’ad al-Sidairah (Sudan Tribune)

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

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

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

Securing the Southern Borders

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

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

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

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

Sukour al-Sahra leader Barka Shedemi

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

Foreign Fighters in Fezzan 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Efforts to Restore Border Security in Fezzan 

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

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

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

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

A Failed Experiment

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

Fighting in Sabratha, September 2017 (Libya Observer)

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

The Fezzan Qaddafists 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion 

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

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

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

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

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

Substantive Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Citations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[34] Lacher.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Andrew McGregor

September 7, 2017

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

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

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

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

Early Career

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

The Teda Tubu (Joshua Project)

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

The Daza Tubu (Joshua Project)

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

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

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

The Creation of FACT

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

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

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

Mercenary Activities

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

FACT Fighters in Libya (Tchad Convergence)

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

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

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

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

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

Chadian Mercenaries and Qatar’s Diplomatic Crisis

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

Notes

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

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

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

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

[5] Final Report, op cit.

[6] Ibid.

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

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

Islamic Kingdom vs. Islamic State: Assessing the Effectiveness of a Saudi-led Counter-Terrorist Army

Andrew McGregor

April 16, 2016

After taking the throne in January, the new Saudi regime of King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud seems determined to shake off the perceived lethargy of the Saudi royals, presenting a more vigorous front against a perceived Shi’a threat in the Gulf with the appointment of former Interior Minister Muhammad bin Nayef as Crown Prince and Salman’s son Muhammad as Minister of Defense and second in line to the throne. To contain Shiite expansion in the Gulf region, the Saudis created a coalition of Muslim countries last year to combat Yemen’s Zaydi Shiite Houthi movement, which had displaced the existing government and occupied Yemen’s capital in 2014. Assessing the military performance of this coalition is useful in projecting the performance of an even larger Saudi-led “counter-terrorist” coalition designed to intervene in Syria and elsewhere.

Saudi Border PostSaudi Border Post Overlooking Yemen

As a demonstration of the united military will of 20 majority Sunni nations (excluding Bahrain, which has a Shi’a majority but a Sunni royal family), the Saudi-led Operation Northern Thunder military exercise gained wide attention during its run from February 14 to March 10 (Middle East Monitor, March 3, 2016).[1] The massive exercise involved the greatest concentration of troops and military equipment in the Middle East since the Gulf War. However, Saudi ambitions run further to the creation of an anti-terrorism (read anti-Shi’a) coalition of 35 Muslim nations that is unlikely to ever see the light of day as conceived. Questions were raised regarding the true intent of this coalition when it became clear Shi’a-majority Iran and Iraq were deliberately excluded, as was Lebanon’s Shi’a Hezbollah movement.

Coalition Operations in Yemen

A Saudi-led coalition launched Operation Decisive Storm in Yemen on March 26, 2015 as a means of reversing recent territorial gains by the Zaydi Shi’a Houthi movement, securing the common border and restoring the government of internationally recognized president Abd Rabu Mansur al-Hadi, primarily by means of aerial bombardment.

Nine other nations joined the Saudi-coalition; the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Sudan, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and Senegal, the latter being the only non-Arab League member. Senegal’s surprising participation was likely the result of promises of financial aid; Senegal’s parliament was told the 2,100 man mission was aimed at “protecting and securing the holy sites of Islam,” Mecca and Madinah (RFI, March 12, 2015).

Despite having the largest army in the coalition, Egypt’s ground contributions appear to have been minimal, with the nation still wary of entanglement in Yemen after the drubbing its expeditionary force took from Royalist guerrillas in Yemen’s mountains during the 1962-1970 civil war, a campaign that indirectly damaged Egypt’s performance in the 1973 Ramadan War against Israel. The Egyptians have instead focused on contributing naval ships to secure the Bab al-Mandab southern entrance to the Red Sea, a strategic priority for both Egypt and the United States.

With support from the UK and the United States, the Saudi-led intervention was seen by Iran, Russia and Gulf Shiite leaders as a violation of international law; more important, from an operational perspective, was the decision of long-time military ally Pakistan to take a pass on a Saudi invitation to join the conflict (Reuters, April 10, 2015).

Operation Decisive Storm was declared over on April 21, 2015, to be replaced the next day with Operation Restoring Hope. Though the new operation was intended to have a greater political focus and a larger ground component, the aerial and naval bombing campaign and U.S.-supported blockade of rebel-held ports continued.

The failure of airstrikes alone to make significant changes in military facts on the ground was displayed once again in the Saudi-led air campaign. A general unconcern for collateral damage, poor ground-air coordination (despite Western assistance in targeting) and a tendency to strike any movement of armed groups managed to alienate the civilian population as well as keep Yemeni government troops in their barracks rather than risk exposure to friendly fire in the field (BuzzFeed, April 2, 2015).  At times, the airstrikes have dealt massive casualties to non-military targets, including 119 people killed in an attack on a market in Hajja province in March 2016 and a raid on a wedding party in September 2015 that killed 131 people (Guardian, March 17, 2016).

While coalition operations have killed some 3,000 militants, the death of an equal number of civilians, the use of cluster munitions and the destruction of infrastructure, mosques, markets, heritage buildings, residential neighborhoods, health facilities, schools and other non-military targets constitute a serious mistake in counter-insurgency operations. Interruptions to the delivery of food, fuel, water and medical services have left many Yemenis prepared to support whomever is able to provide essential services and a modicum of security.

A Muslim Army or an Army of Mercenaries?

When the population of Germany’s small states began to grow in the late 18th century, the rulers of duchies and principalities such as Hesse, Hanover, Brunswick found it both expedient and profitable to rent out their small but highly-trained armies to Great Britain (whose own army was extremely small) for service in America, India, Austria, Scotland, and Ireland. Similarly, a number of Muslim-majority nations appear to be contributing troops to the Saudi-led coalition in return for substantial financial favors from the Saudi Kingdom.

Khartoum’s severance of long-established military and economic relations with Iran has been followed by a much cozier and financially beneficial relationship with Saudi Arabia (much needed after the loss of South Sudan’s oilfields). Sudan committed 850 troops (out of a pledged 6,000) and four warplanes to the fighting in Yemen; like the leaders of other coalition states, President Omar al-Bashir justified the deployment in locally unchallengeable terms of religious necessity – the need to protect the holy places of Mecca and Madinah, which are nonetheless not under any realistic threat from Houthi forces (Sudan Tribune, March 15, 2016).

Khartoum was reported to have received a $1 billion deposit from Qatar in April 2015 and another billion in August 2015 from Saudi Arabia, followed by pledges of Saudi financing for a number of massive Sudanese infrastructure projects (Gulf News, August 13, 2015; East African [Nairobi], October 31, 2015; Radio Dabanga, October 4, 2015). Sudanese commitment to the Yemen campaign was also rewarded with $5 billion worth of military assistance from Riyadh in February, much of which will be turned against Sudan’s rebel movements and help ensure the survival of President Bashir, wanted by the International Criminal Court for genocide and crimes against humanity (Sudan Tribune, February 24, 2016). Some Sudanese troops appear to have been deployed against Houthi forces in the highlands of Ta’iz province, presumably using experience gained in fighting rebel movements in Sudan’s Nuba Hills region (South Kordofan) and Darfur’s Jabal Marra mountain range.

The UN’s Somalia-Eritrea Monitoring Group (SEMG) cited “credible information” this year that Eritrean troops were embedded in UAE formations in Yemen, though this was denied by Eritrea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. (Geeska Afrika Online [Asmara], February 23). The SEMG also reported that Eritrea was allowing the Arab coalition to use its airspace, land territory and waters in the anti-Houthi campaign in return for fuel and financial compensation. [2] Somalia accepted a similar deal in April 2015 (Guardian, April 7, 2015).

UAE troops, mostly from the elite Republican Guard (commanded by Austrian Mike Hindmarsh) have performed well in Yemen, particularly in last summer’s battle for Aden; according to Brigadier General Ahmad Abdullah Turki, commander of Yemen’s Third Brigade: “Our Emirati brothers surprised us with their high morale and unique combat skills,” (Gulf News, December 5, 2015). The UAE’s military relies on a large number of foreign advisers at senior levels, mostly Australians (Middle East Eye, December 23, 2015). Hundreds of Colombian mercenaries have been reported fighting under UAE command, with the Houthis reporting the death of six plus their Australian commander (Saba News Agency [Sana’a], December 8, 2015; Colombia Reports [Medellin], October 26, 2015; Australian Associated Press, December 8, 2015).

There is actually little to be surprised about in the coalition’s use of mercenaries, a common practice in the post-independence Gulf region. A large portion of Saudi Arabia’s combat strength and officer corps consists of Sunni Pakistanis, while Pakistani pilots play important roles in the air forces of both Saudi Arabia and the UAE. As well as the Emirates, Oman and Qatar have both relied heavily on mercenaries in their defense forces and European mercenaries played a large role in Royalist operations during North Yemen’s 1962-1970 civil war.

Insurgent Tactics

The Houthis have mounted near-daily attacks on Saudi border defenses, using mortars, Katyusha and SCUD rockets to strike Saudi positions in Najran and Jizan despite Saudi reinforcements of armor, attack helicopters and National Guard units. Little attempt has been made by the Houthis to hold ground on the Saudi side of the border, which would only feed Saudi propaganda that the Shiites are intent on seizing the holy cities of the Hijaz.

When Republican Guard forces loyal to ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh joined the Houthi rebellion, they brought firepower previously unavailable to the Houthis, including the Russian-made OTR-21 mobile missile system. OTR-21 missiles have been used in at least five major strikes on Saudi or coalition bases, causing hundreds of deaths and many more wounded.

Saudi ArtillerySaudi Artillery Fires on Houthi Positions (Faisal al-Nasser, Reuters)

The Islamic State (IS) has been active in Yemen since its local formation in November 2014. Initially active in Sana’a, the movement has switched its focus to Aden and Hadramawt. IS has used familiar asymmetric tactics in Yemen, assassinating security figures and deploying suicide bombers in bomb-laden vehicles against soft targets such as mosques (which AQAP now refrains from) as well as suicide attacks on military checkpoints that are followed by assaults with small arms. With its small numbers, the group has been most effective in urban areas that offer concealment and dispersal opportunities. Nonetheless, part of its inability to expand appears to lie in the carelessness with which Islamic State handles the lives of its own fighters and the wide dislike of the movement’s foreign (largely Saudi) leadership.

War on al-Qaeda

With control of nearly four governorates, a major port (Mukalla, capital of Hadramawt province) and 373 miles of coastline, al-Qaeda has created a financial basis for its administration by looting banks, collecting taxes on trade and selling oil to other parts of fuel-starved Yemen (an unforeseen benefit to AQAP of the naval blockade). The group displayed its new-found confidence by trying (unsuccessfully) to negotiate an oil export deal with Hadi’s government last October (Reuters, April 8, 2016).

Eliminating al-Qaeda’s presence in Yemen was not a military priority in the Saudi-led campaign until recently, with an attack by Saudi Apache attack helicopters on AQAP positions near Aden on March 13 and airstrikes against AQAP-held military bases near Mukalla that failed to dislodge the group (Reuters, March 13; Xinhua, April 3, 2016).

Perhaps drawing on lessons learned from al-Qaeda’s failed attempt to hold territory in Mali in 2012-2013, AQAP in Yemen has focused less on draconian punishments and the destruction of Islamic heritage sites than the creation of a working administration that provides new infrastructure, humanitarian assistance, health services and a degree of security not found elsewhere in Yemen (International Business Times, April 7, 2016).

Conclusion: A Saudi-led Coalition in Syria?

The Saudis are now intent on drawing down coalition ground operations while initiating new training programs for Yemeni government troops and engaging in “rebuilding and reconstruction” activities (al-Arabiya, March 17, 2016). A ceasefire took hold in Yemen on April 10 in advance of UN-brokered peace talks in Kuwait to begin on April 18.  Signs that a political solution may be at hand in Yemen include Hadi’s appointment of a new vice-president and prime minister, the presence of a Houthi negotiating team in Riyadh and the exclusion of ex-president Saleh from the process, a signal his future holds political isolation rather than a return to leadership (Ahram Online, April 7, 2016).

If peace negotiations succeed in drawing the Houthis into the Saudi camp the Kingdom will emerge with a significant political, if not military, victory, though the royal family will still have an even stronger AQAP to contend with.  Like the Great War, the end of the current war in Yemen appears to be setting the conditions for a new conflict so long as it remains politically impossible to negotiate with AQAP. However, AQAP is taking the initiative to gain legitimacy by testing new names and consolidating a popular administration in regions under its control. Unless current trends are reversed, AQAP may eventually be the first al-Qaeda affiliate to successfully make the shift from terrorist organization to political party.

The cost to the Saudis in terms of cash and their international reputation has been considerable in Yemen, yet Hadi, recently fled to Riyadh, is no closer to ruling than when the campaign began. Sana’a remains under Houthi control and radical Islamists have taken advantage of the intervention to expand their influence. Perhaps in light of this failure, Saudi foreign minister Adl al-Jubayr has suggested the Kingdom now intends only a smaller Special Forces contribution to the fighting in Syria that would focus not on replacing the Syrian regime but rather on destroying Islamic State forces “in the framework of the international coalition” (Gulf News, February 23, 2016). Introducing a larger Saudi-led coalition to the anti-Islamic State campaign in Syria/Iraq without a clear understanding and set of protocols with other parties involved (Iran, Iraq, Russia, Hezbollah, the Syrian Army) could easily ignite a greater conflict rather than contribute to the elimination of the Islamic State. Saudi Arabia is not a disinterested party in the Syrian struggle; it has been deeply involved in providing financial, military and intelligence support to various religiously-oriented militias that operate at odds with groups supported by other interested parties.

The Saudi-led intervention in Yemen has left one of the poorest nations on earth in crisis, with 2.5 million displaced and millions more without access to basic necessities. With Yemen’s infrastructure and heritage left in ruins and none of the coalition’s strategic objectives achieved, it seems difficult to imagine that the insertion into Syria of another Saudi-led coalition would make any meaningful contribution to bringing that conflict to a successful or sustainable end.

Notes

  1. Besides Saudi Arabia, the other nations involved in the exercise included Egypt, Jordan, Senegal, Sudan, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritania, Mauritius, Morocco, Pakistan, Chad, Tunisia, Djibouti, Comoro Islands and Peninsula Shield Force partners Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
  2. Report of the Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea pursuant to Security Council resolution 2182 (2014): Eritrea, October 19, 2015, 3/93, http://www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=S/2015/802

 

An edited version of this article appeared in the April 15, 2016 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor under the title: “Saudi Arabia’s Intervention in Yemen Suggests a Troubled Future for the Kingdom’s Anti-Terror Coalition,” http://www.jamestown.org/programs/tm/single/?tx_ttnews[tt_news]=45324&tx_ttnews[backPid]=26&cHash=e2d5de949e926ff3b5d9228dc4b96af7#.VxfvSkdqnIU