February 23, 2012
An escalating tribal conflict in the strategic Kufra Oasis has revealed once more that Libya’s Transitional National Council (TNC) is incapable of restoring order in a nation where political and tribal violence flares up on a regular basis, fueled by a wave of weapons liberated from Qaddafi’s armories. Though this is hardly the first clash between the African Tubu and the Arab Zuwaya tribe that took control of the oasis from the Tubu in 1840, it is certainly the first to be fought with heavy weapons such as RPGs and anti-aircraft guns, an innovation that is reflected in the various estimates of heavy casualties in the fighting.
Map illustrating the strategic position of Kufra (lower right)
Fighting began on February 12 and has continued to the present. Well over 100 people have been killed in less than two weeks, with many hundreds more wounded (Tripoli Post, February 22). Tensions had been running high between the Arab and Tubu communities throughout last year’s political turbulence and the current fighting appears to have been sparked by the alleged murder of an Arab by three dark-skinned men the Zuwaya believe to have been Tubu. The latter have also been affected by a canard promoted by Qaddafi that suggests the Tubu only arrived in southern Libya during the Italian occupation of Libya or later, an assertion that could easily lead to efforts to expel the Tubu from the region. A newly formed goup called the National Rally of Tubus has issued alarming warnings that the clashes in Kufra were part of an effort to cleanse the region of its traditional Tubu presence: “Kufra is a disaster area and what is happening in the town is genocide and the extermination of the Tubu” (AFP, February 15).
The Tubu fighters are led by Isa Abd al-Majid Mansur, who backed the rebel forces in last year’s revolution. Isa Abd al-Majid is head of the Tubu Front for the Salvation of Libya (TFSL), founded in June, 2007. The TFSL confronted Libyan security forces in a five-day battle at Kufra in 2008 during which the movement threatened to sabotage the important Sarir oil fields in southeast Libya (Al-Sharq al-Awsat, November 11, 2008). The Zuwaya claim that al-Majid is now supported by mercenaries from Chad and Darfur (Reuters, February 13). Despite playing an important role in the Libyan revolution, the Tubu have experienced little change since the Qaddafi regime, when the Tubu were subject to loss of their Libyan identity cards and were denied access to health and education facilities. Isa Abd al-Majid denies that the TFSL seek to divide Libya: “We are not seeking a separation; we are like all other Libyan opposition movements. We are calling for the restitution of our rights” (al-Alam TV [Tehran], August 15, 2007).
During the Libyan insurrection, the Tubu formed the rebel-allied “Desert Shield Brigade” under veteran Tubu militant Barka Wardougou, conducting long-range raids on Murzuk and al-Qatrun (Ennahar [Algiers], August 20, 2011; AFP, July 23, 2011). Wardagou is the former leader of the Niger-based Tubu movement Front armérevolutionnaire du Sahara (FARS).
Having already been active in armed opposition to the Libya government for some years prior to the 2011 revolution, Isa Abd al-Majid foresaw a time when the rest of the Libyan people would join the struggle against the Qaddafi regime: “We claimed our rights, but [Qaddafi] marginalized us and denied our rights. He even said [the Tubu] are all foreigners. Even when al-Qaddafi visited Qatrun, he said we should be distributed over Bengazhi and the coastal regions and we should leave the border areas [in southern Libya]” (al-Alam TV [Tehran], August 15, 2007). Today, most Tubu live in northern Chad, ranging through the deserts and seasonal pastures surrounding their headquarters in the Tibesti Mountains. Much smaller communities live in eastern Niger and southeastern Libya. Though the latter is a traditional part of the Teda Tubu homeland, some Chadian Tubu have arrived in recent decades and live in shantytowns around Kufra.
In 1895 the leadership of the Sanussi Brotherhood relocated to the oasis to avoid entanglements with the Ottoman authorities in northern Libya. The Sanussis transformed the oasis into an anti-colonial bastion until its conquest by a massive column of heavily armed Italian troops in 1931. Kufra’s strategic importance and airstrip meant that Italian occupation was short as Free French colonial troops and British forces from the Long Range Desert Group took the oasis in 1941, transforming Kufra into a base for long range strikes across the desert on Italian and German forces in northern Libya. Though the Libyan garrison declared itself for the rebels early in last year’s revolution, loyalist forces retook the oasis at one point during its campaign to establish control over the all-important oil and water resources of Libya’s southern deserts (see Terrorism Monitor Brief, May 8, 2011). Some 40,000 people live in Kufra (roughly 10% of them Tubu), which dominates a number of trans-Saharan trade routes.
The Zuwaya claim the Tubu are being helped by hundreds of “mercenaries from Chad” – one local government official described 40 4X4 vehicles full of soldiers attacking the “May 5 military camp” at Kufra and warned that if military aid from Benghazi was not forthcoming, Kufra would be forced to declare independence (Reuters, February 13).
General Yusuf al-Mangush
TNC military chief General Yusuf al-Mangush has denied reports of foreign fighters in the region and urged elders from the Zuwaya and Tubu to meet (Reuters, February 18). TNC chairman Abd al-Jalil, a former Qaddafi loyalist, has claimed that the fighting in Kufra was started by Qaddafi regime loyalists who were “seeding sedition” (AFP, February 21). Sources within the Zuwaya have confirmed the TNC has been shipping arms and fighters to the Kufra Arabs to combat what a TNC spokesman described as “smugglers helped by foreign elements” (Daily Star [Beirut], February 15). A Zuwaya source confirmed that a plane carrying weapons and fighters had landed at Kufra airport on February 13 to aid the Arab fighters there (AFP, February 14).
The Libyan Defense Ministry has promised military intervention if the fighting does not end soon, but has otherwise taken no action to end the conflict so far (Reuters, February 20).
This article first appeared in the Jamestown Foundation’s February 23, 2012 issue of Terrorism Monitor.