Security of Libyan Interior Challenged by Struggle for Smuggling Routes

Andrew McGregor

June 14, 2012

A new round of inter-tribal clashes in southern Libya has drawn in northern militia units loyal to Libya’s Transitional National Council (TNC) in the latest episode of the struggle to control Libya’s borders in the absence of a centralized, national army.  

Isa Abd al-Majid Mansur

At least 29 people are dead and scores more wounded after two days of intense fighting in the strategically important Kufra Oasis in southeastern Libya, near the borders with Chad, Egypt and Sudan. Fighting began on June 9 when members of the indigenous African Tubu ethnic group clashed with members of the Kata’ib Dera’a al-Libi (Libyan Shield Brigade) commanded by Wissam Ben Hamid. As fighting spread power was cut to the desert city and water was reported to be in short supply (Tripoli Post, June 11; Libya Herald, June 10). The Libyan Shield Brigade had been sent to Kufra earlier this year to stabilize the Oasis after a vicious round of fighting that left over 100 dead took place between the Tubu and the Arab Zuwaya tribe, who have contested control of the Oasis for over 170 years.

There were also battles in April between the Tubu and Arabs of the Qaddadfa and Awlad Sulayman tribes in Libya’s southwestern Oasis city of Sabha in April. Though the violence in Kufra was brought under control in March, tensions remained high between the Tubu and the Zuwaya, who claimed the Tubu were cooperating with their cross-border cousins in Chad to take control of important smuggling routes that pass illegal immigrants, cigarettes, drugs and various other types of contraband through Kufra from the African interior. In response to the tribal violence, Tubu military leader Isa Abd al-Majid Mansur revived the dormant Tubu Front for the Liberation of Libya, complaining that TNC militias and the Zuwaya sought to “exterminate” the Tubu (AFP, June 10).  Abd al-Majid said the Tubu neighborhood in Kufra was shelled by the Libyan Shield Brigade on June 10 (El Moudjahid [Algiers], June 10; L’Expression [Algiers], June 10).

In mid-May, fighting broke out in the ancient Saharan city of Ghadames along the border with Algeria, some 600 km south of Tripoli. The conflict began over control of a desert checkpoint along a traditional smuggling route used by Tuareg tribesmen (al-Jazeera, May 16; Reuters, May 16). Nine people were killed in the fighting, including Libyan Tuareg leader Isa Talaly (Libya Herald, May 18). Local Tuareg have been at odds with local Arab tribes since the Tuareg were expelled from the city in September 2011 following allegations the Tuareg were supporting the late Libyan president Mu’ammar Qaddafi against rebel forces. TNC mediation efforts have been unsuccessful and local Arabs have burned the homes of Tuareg residents to prevent their return. Some Tuareg are planning to build a new settlement at the nearby Oasis of Dirj, while others remain across the border in Algeria, vowing to return to Ghadames (Libya Herald, April 7).

The inability of both Libyan and Tunisian security forces to rein in rampant smuggling across their mutual border has forced the closure of the most important border crossing between the two nations in recent days. Libya’s TNC again turned to the Libya Shield Brigade to bring the situation under control at the Ras Jedir crossing point, where members of the Brigade forced out Libyan border police who are accused of assisting the smugglers (Libya Herald, June 10). Tunisian border guards complain they are forced to give way to Libyan smugglers who are highly armed with RPGs and automatic weapons (Reuters, May 2).

Smugglers on both sides of the border have become incensed with recent efforts to crack down on the illegal trade, leading to attempts to physically smash their way through the border with groups of as many as 150 vehicles at a time. Food from Tunisia is a major form of contraband, as is subsidized petrol from Libya and subsidized phosphates from Tunisia. Tunisian smugglers are known to resort to violence when their trade is interfered with by authorities. So deeply ingrained is smuggling in the border regions (which suffer otherwise from high unemployment), that the military was recently forced to fire into the air to subdue an angry mob in the southeastern town of Ben Guerdane unhappy with a new anti-smuggling campaign (, May 14). Tunisia is now planning to build a fence along the border with Libya to halt the smuggling trade and the influx of illegal refugees (Libya Herald, June 3). South of Tunisia, Algerian authorities have recently arrested seven Libyans transporting two vehicles loaded with arms including assault rifles and Katyusha rockets. The arms were believed to be on their way to al-Qaeda elements (El Khabar [Algiers], June 12).

Arab Militia Checkpoint in Kufra Oasis

Egypt has become especially alarmed with the scale of smuggling along its border with Libya, where large quantities of arms have been intercepted, most of which are believed to be on their way to fuel a simmering insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula. Aggressive bands of smugglers are reported to have set fire to farms in Egypt’s western Siwa Oasis in retribution for local cooperation with security forces (Middle East News Agency [Cairo], May 10). Egyptian security forces have suggested the smuggling of arms may be funded by Iran in the hope of sparking a confrontation with Israel in the Sinai that could bring Egyptian and Israeli military forces into conflict (al-Sharq al-Awsat, May 9).

The collapse of internal security in Libya has also led to the smuggling of a new commodity – Roman-era antiquities which are found in abundance throughout Libya but are no longer protected by government security forces (The National [Abu Dhabi], May 28).

This article was first published in the June 14, 2012 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.