Berbers Seize Libyan Oil Terminal to Press Demand for Recognition

Andrew McGregor

November 14, 2013

The ongoing and economically crippling occupation of Libya’s Mellitah gas and oil terminal (63 miles west of Tripoli) by armed Berber protesters actually became worse on November 12, when workers at the terminal launched a 72-hour strike to protest the occupation, leaving open the possibility of major power cuts to Libyan coastal and mountain communities (Libya Herald, November 12).

The Mellitah oil terminal, which has a capacity of handling 160,000 barrels per day (bpd), is one of several major terminals in Libya suffering blockades by armed gunmen; others include the 340,000 bpd al-Sidr and the 220,000 bpd Ras Lanuf terminals (for the broader implications of the various blockades, see Terrorism Monitor, October 31). The Berber protests at the terminal began on October 26, when armed men gave the ruling General National Congress (GNC) energy committee a one-week ultimatum regarding language rights and increased representation on Libya’s constitutional committee before they would shut the terminal down.

Libya’s constitutional committee has allotted six seats of 60 to Libya’s minorities; two for the Berbers (the self-called Imazighen), two for the Tuareg and two for the Tubu of southern Libya. The method of assembling the committee has been a source of intense disagreement over whether members should be selected or elected directly, with the latter choice eventually prevailing, even though it has meant further delays in beginning the committee’s work. In the meantime, much of the country is at a standstill until the new Libyan state is defined and organized.  Berber representatives to the GNC resigned in July after failing to persuade the Congress to make Amazigh, the language of the Berbers, an official language of Libya.

Berber anger at the constitutional process has been building for several months. In mid-August, Berber protesters demanding recognition of minority rights forced their way into the Libyan parliament in Tripoli, smashing furniture and breaking windows (Reuters, August 14). In late September, Berber youth from the western Jabal Nafusa region cut off a gas pipeline to protest the absence of the Amazigh language from the proposed constitution (Middle East Online, September 30; AFP, October 1).

Prime Minister Ali Zeidan has warned of serious consequences if the oil blockades are not removed soon, including impediments to Libya’s ability to cover its budget expenditures, beginning in December. The GNC’s inability to pay nearly $100 million owed for earlier imports of wheat now threatens the ability of Libyan wheat importers to make further purchases for the heavily subsidized bread industry (Reuters, November 6). Zeidan specifically mentioned the blockage of the Mellitah terminal as having the potential of forcing Italy to seek its oil and gas elsewhere (Reuters, November 10). The Mellitah terminal is owned jointly by Italy’s Eni Petroleum and the Libyan state-owned National Oil Corporation (NOC). According to Eni CEO Paolo Scaroni, the Berber occupiers are pressuring the company to cut gas supplies to Italy (Reuters, November 6). Eni is the largest foreign oil company operating in Libya and was responsible for producing some 270,000 bpd before the fall of Qaddafi.

The Berber gunmen are led by Adel al-Falu, a former Libyan army officer once tasked with protecting the Mellitah terminal. With oil exports from the terminal halted, al-Falu is now seeking to halt gas exports through trans-Mediterranean pipelines to Italy, with the objective of pressuring Italy and the European Union to force Libya’s GNC to recognize the Amazigh language (Reuters, November 8). Most of the 50 to 75 gunmen occupying Mellitah arrived from the nearby town of Zuwara in coast-guard boats the Berbers seized during the 2011 revolution. Many of the occupiers are veterans of the revolution. Zuwara has been in the midst of a revival of Berber culture and language since the launch of the revolution (Agence de Presse Kabyle, September 19, 2011). The Amazigh name for Zuwara incorporates the name of the Berber group that lives in the area, Tamurt n Wat Willul (Town of the Ait Willul) (for Berber communities in Libya, see Terrorism Monitor Brief, Pt. 1, May 5 2011; Pt. 2, May 12, 2011). Zuwara is the hometown of Nuri Abu Sahmain, the chairman of Libya’s ruling body, the Tripoli-based GNC. The largest concentration of Libya’s approximate 600,000 Berbers (roughly 10% of the population) reside around the western town of Jadu in the Jabal Nafusa region, the home of a Berber militia that played a vital role in the overthrow of the late Mu’ammar Qaddafi.

The International Berber Flag Flies outside the Mellitah Terminal (AFP)

The Libyan protests are part of a larger movement to revive the Berber language and its dialects in North Africa after centuries of official and unofficial repression designed to replace Amazigh with Arabic. The problem now, however, is finding qualified instructors of Amazigh. Few such exist in Libya, meaning that only one school in southern Libya will begin teaching Amazigh next year (The National [Abu Dhabi], November 5). In Zuwara, some primary schools have succeeded in hiring Amazigh language teachers from Algeria and Morocco (Reuters, November 8).

There is little consensus on the exact extent of the blockade at the Mellitah terminal, in terms of both oil and gas exports. Even as the Prime Minister warns of the long-term impact of the blockade, NOC spokesmen have maintained that the occupiers are limited to a small part of the terminal and that “the complex is working as normal,” with ships loading oil and gas continuing to flow through the Greenstream pipeline to Sicily. On the same day, however, Eni CEO Paolo Scaroni said the Mellitah terminal was “under attack” (Libya Herald, November 6). The Mellitah occupation does not appear to have affected gas flows to Italy through the Greenstream pipeline from the offshore al-Bouri field. The Berber occupiers announced on November 6 that they would cut off the Greenstream gas pipeline (AFP, November 6). On November 8, however, the militants said they would restore gas glows on November 10 as a “good-will gesture,” but with the warning that the pipeline would be cut if the number of seats allotted to the Berber community on the constitutional committee was not increased (Libya Herald, November 8).

Unable to enforce the writ of the central government anywhere in Libya without the cooperation of local armed militias, the Libyan Prime Minister has also warned recently of the possibility of foreign military intervention unless the nation rallies to eliminate the armed groups: “The international community cannot tolerate a state in the middle of the Mediterranean that is a source of violence, terrorism and murder” (al-Jazeera, November 10).

This article first appeared in the November 14, 2013 issue of Terrorism Monitor.