Since the 11th century the nomadic and semi nomadic Bedouin tribes of Libya lived out their traditional lives on land they owned by right of conquest. They moved their tents, their animals and their goods about their homelands according to the seasons. The Libyan Desert and the Sahara are reluctant to yield food and water to those who choose to live in them. Libyan tribes, therefore, protected their water sources, their plough land, their seasonal grazing lands and their date palms. They won a frugal living from a harsh environment with which they remained in a finely balanced equilibrium. Consequently the appearance of strangers in their homelands was treated with a degree of suspicion which underlay traditional desert hospitality.
The Bedouin humour needs a practiced ear to appreciate it. You can hear it in the phrase they used when strangers overstayed their welcome amongst them. They would say, ‘The camel has got its nose in the tent’.
In the middle of the last century oil was found in abundance in Libya’s tribal lands. Tribesmen found employment in the oil industry and the old pastoral life faded. For more than 40 years Libya was ruled by the eccentric Muammar Gaddafi, a man born in a Bedouin tent near Sirte. His rule was despotic and he was removed from power in 2011. Since his demise Libya has been wracked by strife and armed discord. The seed of religious extremism, ruthlessly suppressed throughout Gaddafi’s rule, has germinated in the Arab Spring and now threatens to overwhelm Libya.
The brutal Caliphate which calls itself ‘The Islamic Sate of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)’ exploded out of Syria and seized territory and minds in Iraq with bewildering speed. It has become a de facto state with much of the apparatus of statehood. It is expanding rapidly and has looked for vulnerable and profitable places into which it might expand. It clearly has a greedy eye on Egypt which it threatens from the Sinai Peninsular.
Egypt’s western neighbour, Libya, became a magnet for ISIL. It harbours rich reserves of oil. It is a very large country and thus hard to police. It has fallen into armed discord since the demise of Gaddafi. Gaddafi’s huge stockpiles of arms have been looted and the country is awash with weapons. The armed militias which fought to topple Gaddafi have remained in being and are vying for power. There are two governments which are unable to reconcile their differences and one of them, that which is based in Tripoli, has Islamist leanings. Neither government has, so far, been able to exercise control over the numerous armed militias many of which are led by militant Islamists. There is no effective national police force or judiciary. The militias have assumed both of these roles from which they enrich themselves.
In the near anarchy of Libya, the ‘Islamic State’ was guaranteed a ready source of recruits and also a sufficiency of fellow travellers in positions of power. Now it has a foothold in Derna and Behghazi and is in complete control of the coastal city of Sirte and its neighbouring town of Al-Nawfaliyah.
Sirte was Gaddafi’s home town and he poured a great deal of money into it. He was killed trying to escape from it in 2011 and the city of Sirte has been a pariah ever since. It was thus virtually outlawed and an easy target for IS. It lies between the de facto government based in Tripoli and the internationally recognised government based in the eastern city of Tobruk. These ‘governments’ as so badly at odds that they are unable to combine to root IS out of Sirte. The Islamic State is thus safe in Sirte until a government of national unity exerts sufficient force to attack and eliminate it.
I vividly recall making the journey from Tripoli to Benghazi by road in the 1960s. The Tripoli oasis ends as the road turns south east at Misrata and dives into the desert through which it continues with little let up but for the towns and oil ports for more than 650Kms until it reaches Ajdabia. It is hard to convey in a few words how daunting that desert journey was in the mid twentieth century. It may have become somewhat easier now but is clear – to me at least – how difficult it would be to mount an attack on IS in its stronghold in Sirte.
So safe does IS feel in Sirte that it is from there that it now operates ISIL’s satellite TV station Al Bayan on which it broadcasts the brutal Islamic State propaganda.
There is one other major factor which has not so far been emphasised. Sirte lies to the west of the major oil ports which are spread along the southern shore of the Gulf of Sirte. This is significant in the light of this report by Maha Sulaiman which appeared in the Libya Herald on 3rd November 2015.
‘There has been another assassination attempt in Ajdabiya. Gunmen last night attempt to kill a local imam, Salem Rahil. Several shots were fired at his car as he was leaving his home. Rahil, who is also a member of staff at the University of Benghazi’s Islamic Studies Department, was unhurt.
Ajdabiya is currently the most dangerous place in Libya in terms of assassinations and attempted assassinations, which are on the rise.
Last week, a Salfist imam was murdered when a car bomb exploded beneath his vehicle. Ten days earlier the local army intelligence chief Colonel Ataya Al-Arabi died in a hail of gunfire as he drove up to his home. The day before that there was an attempt to kill another Salafist imam in the town in a similar car bomb attack. Sheikh Mohammed Bodiam escaped serious injury but his nephew was killed.
At the beginning of October, Hassuna Al-Atawish Al-Magharbi, the commander of the LNA’s Brigade 302, which is currently fighting in Benghazi, was shot dead in the town. In September, local militiaman Nasser Al-Rugaieh and political activist Belgassem Al-Zwai were killed in separate incidents and there was an attempt to kill local journalist Usama Al-Jarred.
Almost all the attacks have been blamed on Islamic State (IS) forces or the Islamist Ajdabiya Revolutionaries’ Shoura Council.’
The Islamic State is bidding to take over Ajdabia. Why is this significant? Ajdabia is a strategic city in Libya. It lies to the east of and very close to the oil ports on the southern shores of the Gulf of Sirte. I have already pointed out in earlier blog posts that Adjdabia lies at the point where the coastal road from Tripoli around the shores of the Gulf of Sirte branches north east for Benghazi, almost due east for Tobruk and south east for Kufra. It is a hub for people trafficking from the Sudan. It is also the base of Ibrahim Jhadran who commands the Central Petroleum Facilities Guard and has the power to shut down the oil ports in the Gulf of Sirte.
It is not difficult to see what would happen if IS controls Ajdabia as well as Sirte. It would lie across the sole road access to Libya’s major oil terminals which lie between Sirte and Ajdabia at Marsa Brega, al-Sidr and Ras Lanuf. It would also command the hub of Libya’s eastern highway system. That would not be desirable. The IS camel would have its nose firmly in the Libya tent.
6th October 2015
Update 16th November 2015
According to the Libya Herald Islamic State fighters from Sirte have this morning launched an attack on Brega.
Also this published today is worth reading:
In Libya the Tebu people of Kufra have long been marginalised. For many years, Gaddafi’s people pursued a program of ‘arabiseation’ which effectively meant the persecution of the Tebu as this report by the Human Rights Council makes clear: “Some 4,000 Toubou [Tebu] people are living in the town of Kufra, an oasis city of 44,000 inhabitants some 2,000 kilometres from Tripoli. In the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya [Gaddafi’s Libya], they were treated as foreigners by the authorities. In December 2007, the Libyan Government withdrew citizenship from members of the Toubou group, stating that they were not Libyans but Chadians. Furthermore the local authorities issued decrees barring Toubou from access to education and health care services. The armed movement “Front for the Salvation of the Toubou Libyans” …. opposed these measures. Up to 33 people died in Kufra, during five days of fighting between the official security forces and the Toubou in November 2008. Despite public criticism, the government of the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya [continued] to expel Toubou people from their residential areas in Kufra. Since November 2009 dozens of families lost their homes due to forced destruction by bulldozers supervised by state security forces.”
The hostility between the black Tebu people and the white al Zawiya tribe has long been endemic in Kufra and has escalated into open warfare since the heavy hand of the Gaddafi regime was lifted after the 2011 civil war. Here are some notes which may help to understand the long running enmity between the ethnic Tebu people and the Zawiya tribe in Kufra. (A note here about transliteration and the Zawiya tribe. The tribal name may appear in a number of spellings. Rosita Forbes, who is quoted below, used Souais. Nowadays Libyans often use the name Sway as the Zawiya are known thus locally. Also the Tebu are often honoured with a number of spelling variations, such as Toubu and other near approximations)
The Tebu people of Kufra, Sebha and Muzuq are part of a wider ethnic group called the Teda, desert warriors living in the eastern and central Sahara and, effectively, a black people without nationality. The majority of them can be found in the Tibesti Mountains on the Libyan-Chad border. Their harsh environment, extreme poverty, and remote location make them a very tough people. They have often clashed with the neighbouring tribes and with the Tuareg and, like the gypsies in Great Britain, are despised by the dominant communities who see them as petty thieves and liars.
Traditionally, the Teda controlled the caravan trade routes that passed through their territory. They were widely known in the past for plundering and salve trading. Their language is Tebu and their basic social unit is the nuclear family, organized into clans. They live by a combination of pastoralism, farming, subsistence smuggling and date cultivation.
The Zawiya is a ‘client tribe’ which owes allegiance to the aristocratic Magharba tribe with which it shares a border in the north. This client relationship goes back into antiquity and the Zawiya ignore it at best and resent it at worst. Desert traders and nomadic pastoralists the Zawiya conquered Kufra in 1840 subduing the indigenous Tebu, the non-Arab pan- Saharan ethic group which, at some time in the distant past, maintained a notable presence there. The remnants of their dwellings and forts are still visible. Some suggest that Kufra was the ancient centre of the whole Teda people and even in the late 18th and early 19th centuries they had been in contact with the oases of Egypt and Cyrenaica. The literature is full of stories of their ability to travel between widely dispersed water sources on their special breed of camel and of their lawlessness and sometimes harsh treatment of slaves.
Since 1840 or thereabouts the Zawiya tribe has owned most of the date palm groves of the Kufra oases, employing the Tebu as labourers and extending its trading route into the last African Sultanate to fall to western imperialism, the Wadai, now part of Chad. It is said that Kufra under Zawiya rule was the most noted centre of brigandage in the Sahara. Plus ça change – plus c’est la même chose.
The Zawiya leadership promised the Grand Senussi, Mohamed Ben Ali as-Senussi, a liberal donation of dates and water if he would establish a religious community in Kufra. This he did and the Senussi order eventually moved its headquarters to Kufra from whence it exercised its moral and temporal suasion and commercial competence over the hitherto predatory Zawiya, establishing a profitable trans-Saharan trade in slaves and arms.
Unlike other trans-Saharan routes the Senussi control over the Wadai to Benghazi road via Kufra reduced the costs to slave merchants who were not, therefore, obliged to pay tolls even though their caravans passed through a number of tribal territories. However, the Senussi theocracy and the slave trade through Kufra were under threat from the French who were advancing their empire towards Chad and from the Italians who had commenced to colonise north eastern shore of Libya. Thus the slavers were losing access to the Mediterranean ports in the north and the supply of slaves from the south.
It was in 1910 that the Italians launched their colonial occupation of Libya and gradually extended their dominance over the country. In the east they met resistance from the Libyan tribes on whose most profitable land they had established Italian agricultural settlements and whose migratory life they restricted and disrupted. The logistical problems posed by the huge distance and lack of fodder and water between the Italian bases on the Mediterranean coast meant that the Senussi theocracy based in Kufra was for many years beyond their reach. What is more the Italians became embroiled in World War I and had little time or resources with which to mount an attack on Kufra, protected as it was by distance and an arc of impassable sand seas. In 1920 they adopted the pragmatic policy of appointing the future King of Libya, Mohamed Idris es Senussi, Emir of Cyrenaica with his capital at Kufra. .
In the early years of the 20th Century there were a number of blank areas on the maps of the Libyan Desert. For some time stories circulating about three lost or ‘forbidden’ oases, Kufra, Jebel ‘Uwainat and Zazura, had been circulating amongst geographers. Even the Royal Geographical Society published a paper about Zazura, which turned out to be a mythical place.
In 1921/22 a remarkable expedition to the hitherto closed oasis of Kufra was made by two colourful travellers. One was the Oxford educated Egyptian civil servant and explorer Hassanien Bey and the other an intrepid adventuress, travel writer and novelist, Rosita Forbes. By virtue of Hassanien Bey’s considerable influence with the Emir, Idris es Senussi, they acquired permission to visit the Senussi lodge and mausoleum in Kufra and overcame opposition amongst the Zawiya tribesman to visit the villages in the vicinity. Rosita Forbes managed to conceal a camera about her person with which she managed to take some unique photographs. (In doing this the she was risking her life. Even in 1960s I would not have dared to use my camera freely in much of Libya). The pair found evidence of a continuing, though by now clandestine, slave trade. The odd couple’s considerable journey by camel to the forbidden oasis is described in Forbes’ book ‘The Secret of the Sahara, Kufra’. At one point in their return journey they were under the impression that a band of Tebu was stalking them with malign intent. This may have been why Forbes described the Tebu as ‘the Berber aborigines of Libya. They wear only sheep skins and eat a mixture of powdered dates and locusts’. Some of her photographs appeared in ‘The Illustrated London News’ dated 21st May 1921. One of the photographs is of ruined stone dwellings which, she asserted, were built at some time in antiquity by the Tebu. Forbes estimated that ‘the population of Kufara and Buseima is about 3,000 Zouais (Zawiya) and 100 to 150 Tebu. In addition to these there are a large number of Negroid slaves from Wadai and Darfur’.
On 28th December 1930 the Italian colonial power in Libya was sufficiently strengthened and equipped to launch an attack on the Emir’s Sothern oasis stronghold of Kufra. For the first time the Italians used self contained motorised columns supported by aircraft which traversed the Libyan Desert to project overwhelming power across huge waterless distances and over hitherto impregnable sand seas. The Italian mechanised attack, supported by aerial bombardment and strafing, was quick to reduce Zawiya resistance in Kufra and forced the Senussi family to flee to Siwa in Egypt.
Those inhabitants who made a living on the land watered by Kufra’s springs remained behind but the proud Arabs of the Zawiya tribe decided to escape. They had no time to make long preparations or to feed their camels up for a journey over waterless and fodder-less terrain to the South East. Even so, a party estimated to have been five hundred strong including women and children set out in that direction for the Jebel ‘Uwainat, known as ‘the mountain of springs’, on the border of Libya with Egypt and the Sudan.
For some time there had been no rain at ‘Uwainat and whilst there was still water in the main spring, Ain Dua, the vegetation had withered away and the ill prepared camels could find no sustenance. Some groups elected to move on but many succumbed to starvation and perished. Around four hundred Zawiya eventually reached the Dakhla oasis in Egypt having covered more than 400 miles between water sources over arid desert, a feat with few parallels in non mechanised desert travel.
With time the Zawiya returned to Kufra and their numbers grew substantially as did those of the Tebu. During the early years of World War II Kufra became the base of the British Long Range Desert Group which perfected the use of mechanised transport in the Libyan Desert and the wider Sahara.
After the Italian defeat by the British 8th Army, Libya was administered by British and French Military governments until 1952 when it received its independence and the sometime Emir of Cyrenaica, Idris es Senussi, became its king. Oil was found to be abundant below the desert homeland of the Zawiya. The need for imported labour grew and workers from the Sudan and Chad flocked into Libya via the old slave trading routes, but now in motorised transport. Kufra became a hub for migrants. The number of ‘travel agents and vehicle repair shops’ proliferated. Competition for control of the people trafficking and smuggling business grew between the Zawiya and the Tebu.
The water which supplies the Kufra oasis is from the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System, the world’s largest fossil water aquifer which underlies North Western Sudan, North Eastern Chad, Much of Egypt and some of the South of Libya. One of the notable public works projects funded by revenue from Libya’s oil was to tap the aquifer and pipe fossil water to Benghazi and Tripoli. A centre point irrigation scheme, extracting the fossil water through artisan wells, was also set up near Kufra with the intention of developing a flourishing agriculture, hampered, however, by its remoteness and consequent cost of bringing the fresh produce to market.
Independence came to Libya in 1953 which then became ‘The United Kingdom of Libya’ with the sometime Emir of Cyrenaica, Idris es Senussi as its monarch. The search for oil quickened until the country became a major oil producer. The great wealth which followed attracted numerous economic migrants for sub-Saharan Africa. Many Tebu migrated into Libya from their homeland in the Tibesti Mountains. The Tebu population in Kufra grew apace as did tension between Tebu and Zawiya.
King Idris, always a reluctant monarch, abdicated in 1969 and Muammar Gaddafi mounted a pre-emptive coup whilst the old King’s favoured successors were still abed. His rule, which lasted until 2011, was erratic and autocratic. He stirred up enmity between the Zawiya and the Tebu by means of a classic disinformation ploy. He implied that the Tebu were brought into Kufra by the much hated Italians.
Gaddafi’s grandiose ambitions were directed towards Africa and in particular Chad. Between 1968 and 1987 Gaddafi launched a number of military incursions into Chad and for a while maintained a military occupation of Chadian territory. One of the results was a further increase of Tebu in Kufra. Gaddafi’s forces were roundly defeated in the so called Toyota Wars and left Chad in 1987. One of the cruel outcomes of Gaddafi’s occupation of northern Chad was the large numbers of land mines his forces left behind in the Tebu homelands. They interrupted migratory patterns and made swaths of the country uninhabitable. There followed a further increase in the Tebu population in Kufra. In addition, the uneasy relationship between the Zawiya and the Tebu was exacerbated during Gaddafi’s war with Chad. Since the majority of the Tebu live in Chad those who established in Kufra were perceived to be 5th Columnists
In 2011 the uprising against Gaddafi commenced. France, the UK and the Arab League became involved and matters fared badly for Gaddafi who was forced to employ mercenaries. Many of them were recruited in Chad. Since the Tebu homeland is mainly in the Tibesti mountain region of northern Chad it was an easy propagandist ploy to label all Tebu as mercenaries.
In 2011 the Tebu formed an armed militia called the Desert Shield Brigade and joined the anti-Gaddafi forces. The Zawiya appear to he been divided in loyalty. The Gaddafi regime was toppled and the proliferation of arms from the looting of Gaddafi’s considerable arms dumps has resulted in the breakdown of law and order.
There are now two rival governments in Libya which are in bitter and often armed opposition to each other. Neither has the will nor the wherewithal to control the remote south and consequently old enmities are now pursued with deadly consequences. These reports in the Libya Herald illustrate the point:
Dated 27 July 2015: ‘Despite reports of a ceasefire agreed yesterday in Kufra between Zawia and Tebu fighters, with a promise to hand over prisoners, there has again been heavy fighting in the town today, for the third day in succession. Continued intermittent clashes between the two communities re-erupted into full-scale violence on Friday since when at least 14 people have been killed two dozen wounded.
“Nine Zwai members and five Tebu people have been killed and the number of casualties is over 25, from both communities” Salah Al-Sanussi, a Tebu elder living in Kufra, told the Libya Herald today.
“Mortar and heavy artillery fire is being exchanged and there is absolutely no safe police left,” he said.
Most of the current fighting is around the Tebu district of Gadarfai, which separates the two Zwai areas of Bu-Shoug and Al-Harah, as well as at the Al-Khadrah roundabout in the south of the town.
Tebu fighters are also reported to have fired mortars at the Kufra airport, located at Zwai area of the town, forcing its closure.
A week ago, when five people, including two Bangladeshi workers, were killed in a Zwai-Tebu shootout, the town’s National Security Directorate spokesman warned of rising tension between the two communities. Lieutenant Mohammed Khalil said that the main streets of the town were closed because of sniper activities by both sides and that the Directorate did not have the power to put a stop to the clashes.
Zwai and Tebu elders and other local leaders were trying their best to contain the situation, he said, but it was deteriorating fast………..31 July 2015: Communal clashes in the south-eastern oasis of Kufra have now continued for just over a week, with the government and the Libyan National Army (LNA) still unable to control the conflict.
Tebu-Zwai tit-for-tat killings over the last month once again exploded into bloody armed clashes between the two tribes on Friday last week. In the past couple of days, some 15 people are said to have been killed.’
This is an unfinished story with an unpredictable outcome. The troubles in Kufra are far from over. Both the Tebu and Zawiya are in competition for the lucrative people trafficking, drug and arms smuggling trade centred on Kufra. There are also rumours of foreign interference, particularly from the Sudan. I believe that Ansar Sharia, the Salafist-Jihadist group which has been listed by the USA as a terrorist organisation, has a foothold in Kufra where it seems to control the road to Jalo, and thus of most of the northbound traffic.
Around 17% of Libya’s oil reserves lies in the Zawiya homeland as do the source wells for the Great Man Made River carrying water from the Nubian Sub-Saharan Aquifer to the coastal cities. The Zawiya have sometimes threatened to cut off both of these vital resources.
For more contemporary background this paper is worth reading:
10th September 2105
NOTE – HASSANIEN BEY AND ROSITA FORBES
The achievements of Hassanien Bey who was accompanied by Rosita Forbes on the epic journey to Kufra in 1922 (mentioned above) were overshadowed by Forbes who rushed into print with her book ‘The Secret of the Sahara: Kufra’. Hassanien Bey made a further and more extensive expedition into the Libya Desert. An article about his travels, with photographs of Kufra, Zawiya sheiks and a Tebu woman, appeared in the National Geographic Magazine in September 1924 and may be accessed here.
Update 23rd September 2015
Reports from Kufra on 20th September 2015 suggest that some30 have recently been killed and dozens wounded in fresh fighting and that the town council is threatening to seek foreign help in the absence of support from ether the Tripoli or Beda governments.
When drought hits the people of Northern Niger they often say ‘it is time to sell the children’. Sometimes they do just that. It is little wonder that so many people of the Sahel now set out on the long and dangerous journey to Europe where the streets seem to be paved with gold. Many of them travel the old trans-Saharan slave trafficking routes through Libya. There are few people writing about Libyan people trafficking with real experience of living there. Without that experience it is difficult for observers to understand the great distances and physical hazards migrants must overcome to reach the Mediterranean shore and embark on the hazardous sea crossing. Libya is a very large country much of which is inhospitable. I lived and worked there for more than eight years and drove my less than reliable British motor car over its roads. It was in the middle of the last century admittedly. Libya was just then emerging from being one of the poorest countries in the world into oil rich nationhood and Gaddafi was still training in the Royal Libyan Military Academy. Tribes still migrated with their flocks and telephone communication was sparse and intermittent. King Idris was still nominally in charge but he was a reluctant monarch who attempted to abdicate at least twice whilst I was there. I have not driven but have flown over some of the other countries the migrants traverse such as Chad and Niger. From the air the Libyan Desert and the Sahara look forbidding enough but the view through an aircraft widow is a privileged one and not shared by an impoverished migrant riding the roads and tracks in an overloaded Toyota half truck. We have no real data about the number who die on the land leg of their journey but I suspect there are many. The simplest of the long road trips I made regularly was from Tripoli to Tobruk along the old military road constructed by the Italians when they occupied Libya. They built rest stations along the way but in my day these had been abandoned. The last remnant of the Italian colonial way stations was Mamma Rosa’s bar at Ben Juade. Mamma Rosa’s daughter had acquired somewhat overrated popularity born of long periods of life without women amongst those who drove supplies to the oilrigs deep in the hinterland. At Mamma Rosa’s one could purchase a cold drink, admire her daughter and watch camels replenish their capacious water storage organs at the drinking troughs. The distance by road from Tripoli to Tobruk via Misrata, Sirte, Ajdabia, Benghazi and Derna is approximately 1,460 kilometres and the journey should take around 19 hours if you drive without stopping at Libya speeds. Few would attempt to do so, even today. The road was not in good repair in the middle years of the last century when I travelling around Libya. On one notable occasion I was met and summarily forced off the road a few kilometres west of Ajdabia by a motor convoy conveying King Idris from Tripoli to Tobruk. The poor king, who was not in robust health, was so shaken up by the numerous potholes in the road that he caused them to be repaired by a Greek construction company. The Greeks succeeded in replacing the potholes with lumps which were almost as destructive. Land travel in Libya is hazardous for a number of reasons. Libyan drivers are rather reckless and are not keen on being overtaken. Wrecked cars are not uncommon, even on long strait roads. Also it gets very hot indeed during the day in the summer but the temperature dips steeply at night. As I write the temperature in Ajdabia is 40C and is forecast to drop to 23C tonight. High winds can make life very difficult. I drove through a gale whilst near Marsa Brega when the sand blast raised by the wind was so severe it stripped paint off the front of my car and polished its sump to a high shine. Water is not readily available and dehydration can be lethal. Vehicles which overheat are not recommended. A real, but fortunately infrequent, hazard is the hot wind which rolls up from the deep south. These winds are known as Khamseens in Egypt. In Libya they are called Ghiblis and they are formidable and can kill. The sight of a Ghibli as it approached me over the Red Plane west of Benghazi frightened me a great deal. These awful sandstorms suffocate one in dust. There is only one thing to do and that is to stop and sit it out in the hope that one does not dehydrate and that the motor engine will not have seized up with sand when the storm has passed. They can last up to four days and they are hot. Nowadays enterprising militias set up roadblocks to augment their fighting funds and it is fatal for Christian migrants to meet Islamic State fanatics who kill them brutally. Their default method is beheading. Islamic Sate is in control of the city of Sirte on the Tripoli to Benghazi road. I knew the city of Ajdabia well enough. I would stop there on my regular journeys from Benghazi to the developing oil ports on the shores of the Gulf of Sirte. I often ate a late breakfast in one of its cafes of a boiled egg and a cup of very strong and very sweet coffee, known in Libya as ‘Ghid Ghid’. So strong and addictive is ‘Ghid Ghid’ that it may account for the lack of harmony which besets Libya today! It is an interesting town. It has strategic value today because it is here that members of two major Libyan tribes, Al Magharba and Al Zuweya, live in a wary coexistence. The Magharba now exercises a great deal of influence over the oil terminals on the shores of the Gulf of Sirte and the Zuweya tribe’s homeland includes a major section of Libya’s oilfields. It is at Ajdabia that the coastal road from Tripoli now branches in three directions, one branch goes north east across the white and red plains to Benghazi, a second strikes out eastwards across the southern foothills of the Jebel Akhdar, roughly following the old Trig al Abd camel track to Tobruk, and a third takes the hazardous route going SSE in the direction of Kufra and, even further south, to the Jebal Uweinat. This is one of the main roads for people trafficking. The distances are enormous. For example the Jebal Uweinat is around 1,200 kilometres from Ajdabia. Ajdabia is now one of the northern hubs on the people trafficking routs from East Africa and the Horn of Africa via Khartoum and Dongola in the Sudan and Kufra in Libya’s Deep South. From Ajdabia traffickers often take their human cargo westwards to Tripoli to find the fragile and unstable boats in which they are packed to hazard the Mediterranean crossing to Lampedusa, Malta, Sicily and mainland Italy. Kufra is an oasis town which is now Libya’s the south eastern hub for people trafficking. The route through Kufra to Ajdabia is favoured by refugees from Eritrea and Somalia. Data from the International Organization for Migration shows that these two countries are large contributors to the tide of human migration into Southern Europe. Many of the young migrants from Eritrea appear to be escaping military conscription and Somalia has long been a failed state, a veritable model of anarchy. Recently a number of refugees from Syria have been using this route. They are escaping the Syrian misery and finding their way to Turkey from whence they fly to Khartoum and travel thence by land to Kufra. That would be complicated enough but they still have to get to the Mediterranean coast from Kufra and then make the parlous crossing to a European shore. It is a demonstration of the lengths human beings will go to find a future for themselves and their progeny. It is also a demonstration of the firestorm of warfare, religious intolerance, corruption, grinding poverty and racial hatred which blights a great swathe of the Middle East and Africa. For those who make it as far as Kufra the journey to Europe would be hard enough but Libya is a failed state. Civil society is near nonexistent and corruption is rampant. The economy is collapsing as Libyans fight each other, the oil revenue diminishes and trade dries up. The people traffickers are growing ever more callous and brazen. Human trafficking from Libya across the Mediterranean was a $170 million business last year. Some Sudanese traffickers are taking their clients on a new route westward from Dongola and Khartoum to Quatrun and Sebha in the Libya’s Fezzan. Here the migrants from East Africa join those from the Sahel and West Africa who trek eastwards via Bamako in Mali and Naimy, Agadez and Dirku in Niger. This is the route followed by drug smugglers carrying their lethal mind altering chemicals shipped into corrupt West African states by the South American drug cartels. A substantial number of the ‘western’ migrants originate in Mali, Nigeria, Senegal and the Gambia. Once in Quatrun the migrants face a 1057 kilometre road trip to Tripoli before they embark on the lethal sea crossing to Lampedusa, Malta, Sicily or mainland Italy. Libya is shouldering the blame for the tide of economic migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean. There is no doubt that unscrupulous people traffickers are making money out of human misery and that Libya is disintegrating into chaos. The migrants are following tracks made by their ancestors who were sold into slavery by unscrupulous Sultans in Darfur, Wadai and Kano and trafficked across the Sahara. Even today they may see the skeletons of those who were left to die for the desert is slow to recycle bones. It is time to question the resounding silence of the Africa Heads of States from whose lands the tides of migrants have their origin. John Oakes 25th June 2015
BOOKS BY JOHN OAKES For books by John Oakes see… (USA): http://www.amazon.com/John-Oakes/e/B001K86D3O/ref=ntt_athr_dp_pel_1 ….. (UK): http://www.amazon.co.uk/John-Oakes/e/B001K86D3O/ref=ntt_athr_dp_pel_pop_1
Update 30th June 2015
From the Libya Herald 28th June 2015:
The EU states also have to contend with the attractive business and economic model of people smuggling. An illegal migrant worker is charged between a low of US$ 1,000 and US$ 3,000 per crossing with some boats carrying up to 700 people. The average Libyan border guard or policeman gets paid US$ 1,000 /month. The lure of people smuggling is very strong and a weak Libyan state, barring a return to dictatorship, will struggle to counter this lure for a few years to come.
Update 9th July 2015
This from Amnesty International can not be ignored:
Update 19th September 2015
A graphic piece about the perils of the land leg of the trans-Saharan migrant journey:
LIBYA – THE ISLAMIC STATE IS MEETING RESISTANCE AND REACTING BRUTALLY. WILL IT MOVE SOUTH? (UPDATE 25TH JULY 2015)
There are reports emanating from Derna, the port on the north east coast of Libya, that the gang calling itself the ‘Islamic State’ is murdering members of prominent families in a bid to retain control of the town with a show of ruthless brutality. There is a horrific photograph currently circulating on the internet showing the dead and brutalised bodies of three man hung by their wrists in a simulated crucifixion. The victims are said to be members of the Harir Al-Mansouri family. There are reports of armed clashes between ‘IS’ and the Harir family which have lasted for 12 hours or more. It seems that the leaders of local families and tribes have met to plan a way of eliminating the IS gang. The Islamic Sate leadership in the town are clearly rattled. Despite its alarming reputation for the ruthless and rapid exploitation of much of Iraq and Syria, ‘IS’ has experienced some unexpected barriers to its expansion in Libya. There are for four main reasons for this. Firstly, as a late comer, it has not made much progress against the numerous powerful Libyan militias which have their own powerbases and ambitions. In particular Islamic State in Derna and Sirte is in competition with the militant Islamist group called Ansar Sharia currently under attack by the Libyan National Army in nearby Benghazi. Secondly there is no Sunni-Shia sectarian divide which it can exploit in Libya as has with success in Iraq and Syria. Thirdly, the ancient and powerful Libyan tribes have proved resistant to its blandishments. Fourthly, and perhaps crucially, it has not been able get its hands on some of the oil revenue. It has thus only been able to make a lodgement in Derna and in Sirte which is somewhat remote from the military powers centred in Tripoli and Tobruk. It is notable that both of the IS lodgements have so far avoided a major confrontation from either of Libya’s rival governments. That it is meeting resistance to its expansion in Libya may be the reason for its notable brutality in Derna and also for the publication of a video of the execution of 30 Ethiopian Christians in two locations in eastern and southern Libya, two months after it beheaded 21 Egyptian Copts. The video is clearly meant to imply that the Islamic State has managed to expand in Libya from its limited presence in the eastern towns of Derna and Sirte. The west has much to fear from Islamic State attempting to infiltrate the throngs of migrants crossing the Mediterranean from Libya in order to export ruthless terrorists to Europe’s vulnerable cities. However, there is another threat which needs attention. It is the purpose of this blog to warn against ‘Islamic State’ exploitation of the lawless southern regions of Libya (by which I mean the old province known as the Fezzan). These regions, which border on the Sudan, Chad, Niger, Mali and Algeria, would offer a haven for IS and allow it to exercise a perceived influence far in excess of its real power. Should they fetch up there they would find a source of revenue in the trafficking of drugs, arms and people. They would also make formidable ally for Nigerian based Boko Haram which is currently attempting to expand into Mali. It could also exploit the unrest amongst the Tuaregs and to this end has begun to post propaganda in Tamahaq. Once established in southern Libya the ‘Islamic State’ could threaten to mount attacks on the Algerian natural gas complex, Libyan oil installations and the Nigerian yellow cake Uranium mines. Perhaps a lodgement of Islamic State in southern Libya would prompt an intervention by the Sahel states and would, no doubt, disturb the Algerians and bring the French, who have troops stationed in the Sahara, into play. Possibly one of the reasons IS has not so far appeared in southern Libya is that it is within the bailiwick of Mokhtar Belmokhtar also known as Khaled Abou El Abbas or Laaouar, Algerian terrorist of the Chaamba tribe, leader of the group Al-Murabitoun, sometime Al-Qaeda Amir and kidnapper, smuggler and weapons dealer. Mokhtar Belmokhtar has gone suspiciously quiet recently. John Oakes 26th April 2015
BOOKS BY JOHN OAKES For books by John Oakes see… (USA): http://www.amazon.com/John-Oakes/e/B001K86D3O/ref=ntt_athr_dp_pel_1 ….. (UK): http://www.amazon.co.uk/John-Oakes/e/B001K86D3O/ref=ntt_athr_dp_pel_pop_1
Update 17th June 2015 Mokhtar Belmokhtar has escaped death so many times. Perhaps he has escaped again? Read these:- http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/06/15/us-usa-libya-idUSKBN0OU0ZJ20150615 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-33146555
Update 25th July 2015
The Islamic State (IS) in Derna has outlived its welcome. Sometime in early July an IS preacher at the Derna mosque stated the Islamic State supporters were the only true Muslims. He declared all other Islamist militias in Derna ‘murtad’ or, in English, apostate. In this he revealed the true Takfiri nature of IS and its franchises.
The rival Islamist grouping in Derna, the Shoura Council of Mujahideen in Derna immediately issued an ultimatum telling IS to renounce Takfiri extremism and to stop its brutal murders or face the consequences.
The Shoura Council of Mujahideedn in Derna was formed in May 2015 to oppose General Khalifa Hafetr’s Operation Dignity. It then consisted of four Islamic militias; Ansar al-Sharia in Derna headed by Sufian Ben Qumu, the Abu Sleem Martyrs brigade headed by Salem Derbi, Islamic Army headed by Amin Kalfa and the Islamic Fighting group headed by Nasser Akkar. All of these militias have Al Qaeda links and strongly opposes General Hafter. There are reports that Ansar Sharia has since left the group.
It is now clear that IS has been expelled from Derna by the Mujahideen. It was reported to have taken refuge in Ras Hilal in the Jebel Akhdar and to have clashed with units on the Libyan National Army. The Shoura Council of Mujahideen is now in control in Derna.
According to recent reports the Libyan Air Force has made a number of precision bombing raids on Islamist Militia bases in Derna.
These two links are pertinent:
(A UN sponsored meeting of key political figures from Libya is scheduled for today, Thursday 5th March 2015, at a venue in Morocco. Will it result in a government of national unity with sufficient resolve to save Libya?) ‘The sense of fear and concern within Libya regarding the threat of terrorism is very palpable. In meetings I have had over the past week, Libya’s counterparts have expressed grave concern about the danger that terrorism poses to Libya’s security and stability, and of the very limited capacities of the Libyan State to effectively confront this challenge. It is crucial to create the right conditions to address this threat, while at the same time we should be ready to support Libyan efforts to tackle terrorism and extremism. We should be careful to not underestimate the sense of urgency and alarm underpinning this request for international support on addressing the threat of terrorism.’ From the briefing by the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Libya to the Security Council Mr Bernadino Leon, on 4th March 2015
On the eve of the crucial meeting in Morocco of the opposing factions in Libya’s disintegrating state the UN Support Mission in Libya has stated that -‘’The Libyan people have paid a huge price and have suffered much over the past months. At this critical juncture in Libya’s transition, and in view of rapidly diminishing window of opportunity for a peaceful resolution of the conflict in Libya, UNSMIL appeals to all parties to approach the next round of talks with a spirit of constructive engagement and strong sense of national responsibility’’……“As difficult as the past few years may have been for their country, the Libyan people have not given up on their hopes and aspirations for a modern Libyan democratic state based on the rule of law and respect for human rights,”
There must surely be sense of urgency about the proposed talks. In stark and simple terms Libya now has two governments, two legislatures and two armies. The elected government is based in Beida and Tobruk and is headed by Abdullah al-Thinni whose tenure is not all that secure. The unelected Tripoli-based government is led by Omar al-Hassi is backed up by the military might of the Misratan Militias. Both governments are unable to protect their ordinary citizens or maintain the supply of essential services. So busy have they been trying to maintain some semblance of government that they failed to stop the Islamic State (ISIS) establishing foothold in Derna, Sirte and elsewhere. News is leaking out of Libya that the ‘Islamic State’ has attacked the Shara and Bahi oil fields in the Sirte Basin. Whilst the raid was short lived and curtailed on 3rd March for lack of ammunition much damage was caused. The oil terminals at Es Sidra and Ras Lanuf, which contribute half of Libya’s oil output when operating normally, shut down in December due to the conflict. Libya currently produces around 400,000 barrels of oil per day, compared to 1.6 million bpd before Gaddafi was toppled. What is more the desalination plants which supply water to Tobruk are becoming unserviceable for want of maintenance, the fall in oil revenues has led to a run on Libya’s foreign exchange reserves and is threatening to weaken the exchange rate of the Libyan dinar, the Misratan steel works has been forced to cut production for lack of gas and the Misrata Free Port is not attracting business because ships are no longer docking there. From Benghazi we hear that that there is an acute shortage of bottle gas, frequent power cuts, little fuel at the filling stations, the hospitals are running out of supplies and staff, random rocket and artillery fire is making the streets hazardous, many schools are closed and the port is a battleground.
Writing about a recent visit to Libya in the New Yorker Magazine John Lee Anderson states – ‘Many shops are closed during the day, opening for a few hours after evening prayers; there are no women to be seen on the streets. There are sporadic bursts of gunfire and explosions, and it is impossible to tell whether someone is being shot or someone is cleaning a gun on a rooftop. Nobody asks; Libyans have become inured to war, and, in any case, decades of secret-police surveillance (under Gaddafi) have conditioned them not to inquire into the causes of violence.’
More important in my view is this, written by Mustafa Fituri in a piece for Al Monitor dated 14th February 2015 – ‘Libyan society has been more divided than it ever has been. It will take years to get back the social harmony and peaceful way of life Libyans enjoyed before February 2011, as the war has wreaked havoc on daily life of almost every Libyan family. The tribal society used to have a well-entrenched frame of reference, where religious and social norms were observed and respected by all. Disputes and quarrels used to be settled amicably outside the court system thanks to wise elders who were respected and enjoyed high esteem. This unwritten code of conduct has disappeared and is being replaced by another in which groups without social roots and lacking any social cohesion dominate. They are mostly armed gangs and social outcasts who call themselves “thawar” and have arms ready to use whenever they like. Libyan social life itself has been badly hit, as reflected in the increasingly weak family relations, even within the same family.’
There are those who argue that the efforts of the United Nations to bring a government of national unity together in Libya is doomed to failure and we must wait for a military solution. There are two major military forces in Libya. Both appear to have political objectives. In the west, and centred on the two major cities of Tripoli and Misrata, are the forces of Libyan Dawn. These are principally made up of the battle hardened Misratan militias and have the political support of war lords who have seats in the unelected General National Congress in Tripoli. The Libyan Dawn forces are said to have Islamist leanings and are opposed to two tribal armies, the Zintanis and the Warsifana, who are fighting in loose cooperation with the Libyan National Army of Lt. General Khalifa Hafter of whom more later. In the east, the old province of Cyrenaica, Lt General Khalifa Hafter has just been confirmed as Commander General of the Libyan National Army by House of Representatives President Ageela Saleh Gwaider. His forces are in alliance with the Petroleum Facilities Guard led by the young military entrepreneur, Ibrahim Jadhran, and units of the Libyan Air Force recently strengthened by the arrival of an Ilyushin-73 cargo transporter and – some sources are reporting – four Russian made Sukhoi SU-27 fighter jets. It is said that Lt General Hafter is now exercising considerable influence over the internationally recognised government of Abdulla al Thinni. It is not unusual to suggest that no political settlement will survive without the agreement of General Hafter on the one hand and the leadership of the Misratan Militias on the other.
John Oakes 5th March 2015
Update 6th March 2015
This from the Libya Herald today. It is a warning from the Libyan National Oil Corporation following a series of attacks on oil fields –
‘The NOC warned that if the poor security situation continues it will be forced to close all oilfields and oil terminals with all the resulting deficit in state revenues and the direct effects on the lives of Libyans in the form of power cuts as a result of cuts in gas supplies and liquid fuel and shortages in fuel, if the interest of the country are not put first.’
See this from Reuters today for the full story:-
Update 6th March 2015
This from the Libya Herald dated 6th March 2015 must surely concentrate the minds of all Libyans and of the international community:-
Islamic State militants this afternoon attacked another oilfield (Ghani) killing eight people and damaging equipment and installations before apparently withdrawing. There are unconfirmed reports that a Filipino and an Austrian worker were abducted by the attackers.
Update 7th March 2015
This series of photographs is of children playing war games in Benghazi. A more chilling set of pictures would be hard to find. It is clear that the effects of the conflict in Libya will have repercussions for many years to come:-
Update 9th March 2015
Arms shipments to Libya are embargoed by the UN Security Council. In view of the deteriorating security situation Libya has sought U.N. permission to import 150 tanks, two dozen fighter jets, seven attack helicopters, tens of thousands of assault rifles and grenade launchers and millions of rounds of ammunition from Ukraine, Serbia and Czech Republic. However, the UN Security Council has received a report on the matter part of which states:- “While the threat posed by terrorist groups in Libya is a major challenge for the authorities, the panel is concerned about the possible use of this materiel in attacks on areas and installations under the control of rival militias, which are not terrorist groups.”
It is important to note, however, that the Libyan Sanctions Committee named Libya as the primary source of the illegal weapons trade that is fuelling conflicts in at least 14 countries around the world according to a report to the UN Security Council in March 2014.
The panel noted that ‘the control of non-state armed actors over the majority of stockpiles in Libya as well as ineffective border control systems remained primary obstacles to countering proliferation and that Libya had become a primary source of illicit weapons, including MANPADs [portable air defence systems]. Unable to secure its borders, Libya has let weapons fall into the hands of radical elements on several continents. “Transfers to 14 countries reflected a highly diversified range of trafficking dynamics; and that trafficking from Libya was fuelling conflict and insecurity – including terrorism – on several continents.’
As though to prove the point the Libya Herald reported today that an arms cache had been found in near Moussarref, 15 kilometres from Ben Guerdane and 45 kilometres from the Tunisian-Libyan border. It contained 24 RPG shells and rockets, 40 anti-tank landmines, 23,000 cartridges, as well as 30 electric fuses and a quantity of fuse detonators.The cache is believed to have been for radical groups in the Chaambi Mountains, on the Tunisian-Algerian border.
On 2nd August 2014 I wrote this in a post called ‘Can Libya’s neighbours remain on the sidelines much longer? ‘Libya is in a parlous state and her neighbours and allies are deeply concerned for the stability of the region. The insipient civil war is leading to fears that a connection between Libyan Islamists and ISIS in Iraq, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Al Shabaab in Somalia and Kenya and Boko Haram in Nigeria is a likely and undesirable outcome.
Awful events in Sirte have tested the patience of Libya’s neighbour, Egypt, beyond braking point and should evoke a wider international response. The 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians held by supporters of the Islamic State in Sirte are believed to have been murdered by their captors. A video has been released which shows a number of men wearing orange execution suits being killed on a beach and their heads cut off. Sirte, the city close to which Muammar Ghaddafi was born, is situated in central Libya where the Gulf of Sirte meets the desert. It is now said to be dominated by ISIS.
Reuters reports today [16th February 2015] that Egypt’s air force bombed Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) targets inside Libya [in Derna] on Monday, a day after the group released a video showed the beheading of 21 Egyptians there, marking an escalation in Cairo’s battle against militants. It was the first time Egypt confirmed launching air strikes against the group in neighbouring Libya, showing President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi is ready to expand his fight against Islamist militancy beyond Egypt’s borders. Egypt said the dawn strike, in which Libya’s air force also participated, hit ISIS camps, training sites and weapons storage areas in Libya, where civil conflict has plunged the country into near anarchy and created havens for militia.
A Libyan air force commander said between 40 to 50 militants were killed in the attack. “There are casualties among individuals, ammunition and the [ISIS] communication centres,” Saqer Al-Joroushi told Egyptian state television. “More air strikes will be carried out today and tomorrow in coordination with Egypt,” he said. The 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians, who had gone to Libya in search of work, were marched to a beach, forced to kneel and then beheaded on video, which was broadcast via a website that supports ISIS. Before the killings, one of the militants stood with a knife in his hand and said: “Safety for you crusaders is something you can only wish for.”
Reuters also reports; ‘Egypt is worried about the rise of Islamic State, especially in areas near its border. It called on Monday for the U.S.-led coalition that has been bombing Islamic State in Syria and Iraq to confront the group in Libya as well.’
The Libya Herald, in a report dated 16th February, states; ‘This morning’s Egyptian airstrikes against the Islamic State (IS) in Derna hit targets mainly outside the town, the Libya Herald has been told. These included military camps to the south and southeast set up during the Qaddafi regime but now used by IS. Other targets are reported as Ansar al-Sharia’s headquarters in the Bomsafr forest between Derna and Ain Mara, the Abu Salim brigade headquarters and the Jebel Company buildings serving as the IS headquarters and ammunitions store. The one exception appears to have the targeting of the home in central Derna’s Bab Al-Shiha area of Bashar Al-Drissi, one of the IS leaders. There were reports he had been killed two months ago but it is now said that he was injured in today’s action and taken to hospital.’
On 4th November 2014 I wrote this in a post entitled ‘The Islamic Caliphate of Eastern Libya and its Implications’ ; Those who advocate dialogue with the Islamic extremists may find little enthusiasm for their position in Libya’s eastern neighbour, Egypt, which is fighting a bloody war in Siani. According to Egyptian government figures, more than 500 people, most of them military and security forces personnel, have been killed across Egypt in militant attacks in the past year. The extreme Islamist group Ansar Bayt al Maqdes has claimed responsibility for many of these attacks. Ansar Bayt al Maqdes may hope to establish a Provence of the Islamic State in the Sinai Peninsula. Should this happen Egypt would be threatened by IS/ISIS on its eastern and western flanks.
In a particularly bloody attack Bayt al Maqdes militants detonated a truck bomb in Sinai at the Karm al-Qawadees military checkpoint Oct. 24, killing 30 military personnel and wounding 27. Karm al Qawadees is near northern Sinai’s biggest town, el-Arish, and not far from Egypt’s border with the Gaza Strip. Another three soldiers were killed in a fire-fight hours after the initial explosion. Egyptian sources have said that initial investigations of the Sinai massacre have thrown up the unwelcome news that a number of the terrorists are undergoing training in eastern Libya. It is also being claimed that the weapons and munitions used in the attack bore Libyan serial numbers. It would not be too difficult to see these attacks in the Sinai as an attempt to destabilise Egypt.’
Reports from Libya today [16th February] suggest that a growing number of Egyptian nationals have been kidnaped in some sort of reprisal for the air strikes
Libya’s hopes of a democratic future may have been beheaded along with 21 Coptic Christians by ISIS in Sirte.
16th February 2015
Some further thoughts on the implications of the Sirte massacre:-
Speaking at Kings College London on 16th February 2015, Sir John Sawers, sometime head of MI6, suggested Britain should consider putting troops on the ground in the wake of the beheading of 21 Coptic Christians by ISIL. He said that Britain needs to hold a debate on whether it is better to intervene, as in Iraq and Afghanistan, or to “pull back” from international intervention. Both approaches, he said, carry “huge risks”.
Another view is expressed by Deborah K. Jones, US ambassador to Libya when she says in her ’17th February address:-‘It is time for Libyans to realize that only they can build a new Libya; only they can save their country. Those who continue to fight, those who refuse to engage in dialogue, must be sanctioned by the international community – and we are prepared to do that.’
It is clear that the UK and the US have no appetite, at the moment anyway, for committing ground troops to deal with the ISIS crisis. However, there appears to be a full blown ‘four front’ war in prospect in which Boko Haram threatens to destabilize Nigeria and is encroaching on Chad, the Houthis crisis in the Yemen is escalating and is hardly noticed outside the Middle East, the Libyan debacle adds a foothold for ISIS on the Mediterranean shore and ISIS in the Levant threatens Lebanon. Egypt is at the focal point of all these conflicts and the recent reduction in US aid for its military is significant.
17th February 2015
Update 18th February 2013
A warning of the threat to Europe posed by IS in Libya
Update 20th February 2015
Was Egypt too quick to respond? This is a thoughtful opinion piece by a notable writer on Middle East affairs.
“The (ISIS) jihadists are already here (in Libya). If a real political dialogue does not start in Libya soon, there is only one thing that will be certain: the country will be an open field for Isis”. Bernardino Leon, the head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya……..‘There are a number of lessons to learn from the events in Libya, which apply to other countries in the region. The world cannot afford to ignore the fate of Libya and it hangs in the balance.’ Admiral Lord Alan West – former UK Chief of Defence Intelligence.
It is likely that the Libyan National Army General, Sulaiman Mahmoud Al-Obeidi, will have to fight yet one more battle to save his country from danger. By all accounts he has been chosen to lead the fight to restore democracy to the eastern Libyan city Derna which the armed Ansar Al Sharia militia and its allies have declared to be the Whilaya Barca fil ad-Dawlah al-Islām – that is the ‘Provence of Cyrenaica within the Islamic State’. For them this means that Derna is no longer a part of Libya but owes it allegiance to the brutal Caliphate led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and based in Iraq and Syria. According to sources in Cairo this move follows a visit by fifteen members of Islamic State, led by an Egyptian and a Saudi national, who travelled to Derna from Syria in September.In the Spring of last year, hundreds of Isil veterans, known as the Battar Group or Brigade, who had been fighting in Deir Ezzour in eastern Syria and Mosul in northern Iraq decamped to Derna, aligning themselves to another group. A Yemeni militant later arrived from Syria, in September, to become their leader.
Put simply Sulaiman Mahmoud Al Obeidi, the man who conducted the battle to free Tripoli from Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, has been chosen to lead the new Libyan National Army to fight the difficult battle to root out the ‘Islamic State’ (IS) from its Libyan stronghold. Some Derna residents believe that his forward units are now only 40 kilometres or so east of Derna, awaiting orders to attack.
The magnitude of General Sulaiman Mahmoud’s task should not be underestimated. The Islamic State fights dirty. Its ruthless soldiers embed themselves and their armouries amongst the civilian population so that an invading force must proceed with great caution and implacable discipline. This ‘human shield’ tactic was employed by Hezbollah in Gaza to great effect and resulted in the dreadful civilian causalities caused by the Israelis.
It should be clear that Ansar Al-Sharia has not achieved power in Derna democratically. When Libya elected a House of Representatives this year, Ansar Al-Sharia would not allow the citizens of Derna to vote. They eliminated their opposition by shooting some and terrifying others. They argue that “The goal of Ansar Al-Sharia brigade is to implement the laws of Allah on the land, and reject the human implemented laws and earthly made constitutions. There will be nothing ruling in this country (Libya) other than the laws of Allah.” The Libya Herald reports, they have ‘banned the teaching of foreign languages, mathematics and science and closed both the local Higher Education Institute and the law department at the town’s Omar Mukhtar University, the later because it was not teaching Sharia law, the former because of gender mixing among staff and students’.
The Derna Caliphate has imported foreign judges, one of whom is from the Yemen, said to be versed in Sharia law to preside over new courts. They have already sentenced some youths to a public flogging for drinking alcohol. The sentence for this crime, which in this case was carried out in the courtyard of an old mosque, is 40 to 80 lashes with palm branches stripped of their leaves.
The Libyan government of Abdulla Al-Thini recognises that dialogue with the newly declared Islamic Caliphate of Derna is likely to lead nowhere. The Libyan National Army has already embarked on a battle to free neighbouring Benghazi of Islamic militias. It is clear that Al-Thinni thinks that Derna must be liberated next. In this context his statements in a recent press conference are important; “There are (IS/ISIL) groups located in the city of Derna and other Libyan cities …..Also, even the group Boko Haram from Nigeria is present……Terrorism has no specific place and we have to recognize the seriousness of the existence of these groups to destabilize the security of the country….They will destabilize the country until the state breaks down and Libya becomes divided into a diaspora”.
Those who advocate dialogue with the Islamic extremists may find little enthusiasm for their position in Libya’s eastern neighbour, Egypt, which is fighting a bloody war in Sinai. According to Egyptian government figures, more than 500 people, most of them military and security forces personnel, have been killed across Egypt in militant attacks in the past year. The extreme Islamist group Ansar Bayt al Maqdes has claimed responsibility for many of these attacks. Ansar Bayt al Maqdes may hope to establish a Provence of the Islamic State in the Sinai Peninsula. Should this happen Egypt would be threatened by IS/ISIS on its eastern and western flanks.
In a particularly bloody attack Ansar Bayt al Maqdes militants detonated a truck bomb in Sinai at the Karm al-Qawadees military checkpoint Oct. 24, killing 30 military personnel and wounding 27. Karm al Qawadees is near northern Sinai’s biggest town, el-Arish, and not far from Egypt’s border with the Gaza Strip. Another three soldiers were killed in a fire-fight hours after the initial explosion. Egyptian sources have said that initial investigations of the Sinai massacre have thrown up the unwelcome news that a number of the terrorists are undergoing training in eastern Libya. It is also being claimed that the weapons and munitions used in the attack bore Libyan serial numbers. It would not be too difficult to see these attacks in the Sinai as an attempt to destabilise Egypt.
These heartfelt words of despair written by Osman Mirghani in Ciaro’s Asharq Al-Awsat dated 1st November 2014 are worth noting by all who care for the future of the Arab world; ‘Over the past few decades we have witnessed the systematic destruction of the region and its states—by terrorism, conflict or civil wars—to the point that many people in the region have completely forgotten the very taste of stability and security. Iraq was destroyed and is now facing the likelihood of partition and division. Syria today more closely resembles Berlin after the Second World War in terms of the extent of the destruction and displacement that has been visited on its population. Libya is drowning in destructive wars following the proliferation of arms and militias on the ground. Yemen is reeling from the advance of the Houthis and their control of key state institutes. Lebanon has suffered one setback after another and is beset by fears of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) advancement. The list goes on.’
Libya is indeed ‘drowning in destructive wars.’ Reports from the eastern city of Benghazi, where the Libyan National Army is fighting to remove Islamist militias, indicate that 283 people have been killed since the operation began on Wednesday 15th October. Fighting there is still fierce and centred around the dock area.
John Oakes 4th November 2014
Update 5th November 2014
France, the UK and the US have just petitioned the UN Security Council to add Ansar Sharia in Benghazi and Derna to the UN terror list. According to the Libya Herald they do so because, amongst other reasoms; there is evidence that the Benghazi branch operates several training camps whose recruits feed mainly into Syria and Iraq, with some going to Mali.
Twelve of the 24 jihadists who attacked the In Amenas gas complex in Algeria in 2013 trained in the Ansar Al-Sharia camps in Benghazi…..The Derna branch also played a role in the 2012 attack on the US mission in Benghazi and is known to operate camps in Derna and Jebel Akhdar for training jihadists bound for Syria and Iraq.
Update 14th November 2014
The dreadful brutality shown by the ‘Islamic State’ has not, so far, deterred numerous recruits to their colours from Europe, the US and Australia. It is hard to see how they can rationalise this appalling news. During the past week four young men have been beheaded by ‘IS’ in Derna and their executions filmed and posted on social media. Three of them were killed for blogging criticism of the Islamic State in Derna and the fourth appears to be a soldier from the army of Khalifa Hafter’s Operation Dignity which is poised to retake Derna on behalf of the internationally recognised government.
Update 26th November 2014
This appeared in the Libya Herald on 20th November 2014 and I take the liberty of quoting it in its entirety here. It needs some further thought.
‘General Sulaiman Mahmoud Al-Obeidi, was in charge of the revolutionary army forces in Tobruk during the revolution, has again said that he is ready to lead a force to wrest Derna from the control of Ansar Al-Sharia. He says he is awaiting authorisation from the Chief of Staff, the House of Representatives and the government. He also says that he has been asked by tribes in the Jebel Akhdar (the Green Mountains) to head an attack and was on a reconnaissance visit to the area yesterday.
Last month, he announced that he was ready to surround Derna and was awaiting final instructions from the Chief of Staff
It appears, however, that the authorities are not particularly keen for him to take on the task, especially after he reportedly said that he would “clear Derna without damaging it” – a claim seen as a deliberate criticism of Khaled Hafter, whose Operation Dignity to remove Ansar Al-Sharia and associated Islamist forces from Benghazi has lasted six months, with hundreds dead and considerable damage to the city
According to Saqr Adam Geroushi, the commander of Operation Dignity air forces fighting as part of the Libyan National Army, Obeidi has been given no green light to launch an offensive against Derna – and is unlikely to be given it.
The current military and political leadership are said to be nervous about Obeidi’s relationship with the Qaddafi regime before the revolution. Additionally, he is accused of retaining links with the sacked Chief of Staff, Major-General Abdussalam Jadallah Obeidi, as well as with another military leader the Tobruk-based authorities regard with some suspicion, Colonel Mohamed Bughafir. The latter, who leads the Beida-based Ali Hassan Al-Jabber Brigade, is regarded with some considerable hostility by Ibrahim Jadhran who is now an ally of the House of Representatives and the Thinni government. The two fought each other in Ajdabiya earlier this year
As a result, Geroushi said, the Obeidi tribe had stated that it would not support any action unless the general had prior approval from the Chief of Staff.
If Obeidi tried to undertake any military action against Derna by himself, Geroushi added, there would certainly be no air support from him.
For the time being, remains blockaded to the east, west and south. Its only free access is by boat. Local families, however, are still managing to flee the town. Many have been accommodated in Marj, Beida and Tobruk. Some have gone to the safer parts of Benghazi’.
Update 7th December 2014
(Reuters 19th November 2014) – The U.N. Security Council on Wednesday blacklisted two branches of the Islamist extremist group Ansar al-Sharia in Libya, which Washington says was behind the 2012 Benghazi attack that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.
(Derna should be well known to US citizens. It was defended briefly by the US Navy and US Marines in 1805 during the Barbary wars when the sailors from the USS Philadelphia were incarcerated in the dungeons of Tripoli castle. They, and any others with an interest in Libya or US history, will find this source fascinating; http://www.history.navy.mil/library/online/barbary_derna.htm )