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 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 $170 million business last year. Some Sudanese traffickers are taking their clients on a new route westward from Dongola and Khartoum to Quatrun and Sebha in the Libya’s Fezzan. Here the migrants from East Africa join those from the Sahel and West Africa who trek eastwards via Bamako in Mali and Naimy, Agadez and Dirku in Niger. This is the route followed by drug smugglers carrying their lethal mind altering chemicals shipped into corrupt West African states by the South American drug cartels. A substantial number of the ‘western’ migrants originate in Mali, Nigeria, Senegal and the Gambia. Once in Quatrun the migrants face a 1057 kilometre road trip to Tripoli before they embark on the lethal sea crossing to Lampedusa, Malta, Sicily or mainland Italy. Libya is shouldering the blame for the tide of economic migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean. There is no doubt that unscrupulous people traffickers are making money out of human misery and that Libya is disintegrating into chaos. The migrants are following tracks made by their ancestors who were sold into slavery by unscrupulous Sultans in Darfur, Wadai and Kano and trafficked across the Sahara. Even today they may see the skeletons of those who were left to die for the desert is slow to recycle bones. It is time to question the resounding silence of the Africa Heads of States from whose lands the tides of migrants have their origin. John Oakes 25th June 2015
Update 30th June 2015
From the Libya Herald 28th June 2015:
The EU states also have to contend with the attractive business and economic model of people smuggling. An illegal migrant worker is charged between a low of US$ 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.
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
Update 17th June 2015
Mokhtar Belmokhtar has escaped death so many times. Perhaps he has escaped again?
(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 )
BENGHAZI LIBYA – The Libyan National Army has entered the city in force to eject the Islamist Militias.
By Wednesday 15th October large units of the Libyan National Army commanded by the Chief of Staff Abdul Razzaq Nazhuri and including Major General Hafter’s troops from Operation Dignity had entered Benghazi. As they did so they were joined by 204 Tank Brigade which had, until Wednesday, remained neutral in its barracks within the city. It seems that the combined force has taken over the extensive barracks of the 17th February Brigade in the centre of the city. The 17th February Brigade has been an ally of the Islamist Ansar Sharia Brigade and Raafallah Al-Fahati Brigade which have dominated Benghazi for some considerable time.
Speaking on Sky News (Arabia) on 15th October the Libyan Prime Minister, Abdulla Al-Thinni, stated that the successful routing of Benghazi’s Islamist Militias which had combined under the banner of the Benghazi Revolutionaries’ Shura Council (BRSC) was ‘part of a plan, devised by the state and executed by the Chief of Staff Abdul Razzaq Nazhuri’. It is clear that this is the first attempt by the elected government of Libya to assert its control over Benghazi which has hitherto been dominated by Militias.
Reuters reports today that ‘Special forces commander Wanis Bukhamda told Reuters the area of the [Benina] airport was under full army control after Ansar al-Sharia – blamed by Washington for an assault on the former U.S. consulate in 2012 which killed the American ambassador – fled.’ There was still some fighting in the city according to sources but it seems that the Islamist forces may have been overwhelmed. Large numbers of Libyan National Army units were still entering the city on Thursday 16th October.
There are reports of Sudanese fighters amongst the Islamist militias some of whom may have entered Libya via Darfur and Kufra in the south east. Reliable eyewitness reports are awaited but it is interesting to note that Bernardino Leon, the head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya, has stated that Isis jihadists are already present in the country and awaiting their opportunity. Major General Khalifa Hafter, the leader of Operation Dignity, has also indicated that his intelligence people have confirmed that there are numerous foreign jihadists present in Libya.
There were a number of air strikes in support of the Libyan National Army and it has been rumoured that they were carried out by the Egyptian Air Force. This has been denied by officials of both the Egyptian and the Libya governments. However a member of the House of Representatives for Benghazi has told the Associated Press that Egyptian warplanes were being used in raids over Benghazi but that they were being flown by Libyan pilots. In the last few weeks there have been a number of accurate air strikes on military targets in Libya and speculation about who carried them out is rife. The United Arab Emirates have been implicated in the past but its warplane would have needed logistical support and air to air refuelling to attack Libya targets. John Oakes 16th October 2014
In the Italian newspaper Republica, Bernardino Leon, the head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya, has warned that Isis jihadists are already present in the country and awaiting their opportunity. He is quoted as saying; “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”.
East Libya’s Jebel Akhdar is a potential paradise on the southern shore of the Mediterranean. It has provided the rich pastures which sustained the aristocratic tribes of Libya and before them the five ancient Greek cities of Libya Pentapolis. The Greek cities were supported by a flourishing agriculture and a fruitful horticulture. The Greek colony was taken over by the Romans and given by Mark Anthony to Cleopatra the Great as a wedding present. The Byzantines ruled it a while but it became the homeland of the nine Saadi tribes of Arab descent from 1050 onwards interrupted only in 1938 by an influx of Italian colonist who were planted in the best agricultural land in the Jebel, pushing out the Arab tribes and earning the enmity of most Libyans ever since. The Italian colonists were evicted after the British and Commonwealth 8th Army destroyed Mussolini’s Italian empire in 1943. The Italians expanded the small port of Derna situated on coast and surrounded by the lush highlands of the Jebel to promote trade between its Italian colonists in the Jebel and nearby Crete and Cyprus. Gaddafi neglected Derna and it became a hot bed of Islamist opposition to his regime. It sent a number of Islamist recruits to fight the Russians in Afghanistan and later to support Al Qaeda in its confrontation with the USA. Its geographical isolation restrained its prosperity but protected it from invasion. Nowadays its most notable export is militant Islam.
Today, barring an unforeseen accident, Derna is the lair an Islamist warlord called Sufian Ben Qumu. Ben Qumu’s ‘private’ militia amalgamated with two other radical Islamist armed groups, the Army of the Islamic State of Libya and the Derna branch of Ansar Sharia, to form the Shoura Council of Islamic Youth. There are strong elements within this amalgamated group which have ties to Al Qaida. The Shoura Council of Islamic Youth has gained a reputation for violence and militancy. It has carried out at least two public executions in the Deana which have been condemned by Amnesty International. This from the Libya Herald dated 20th August 2014; ‘The Shura Council of Islamic Youth in Derna has killed an Egyptian man it accused of murder in what is reportedly the second public execution carried out by the group in the town…….[A resident] said the execution took place at a football ground in western Derna. He added that the execution began at around 5 pm, just after Asr prayers. The execution was the second such public killing in Derna. On 27 July, Islamic Youth put to death two men, one Egyptian and another Libyan, for an alleged murder. This most recent killing has received wide-spread attention after a video of the proceedings was uploaded to the internet. The veracity of the video has been confirmed and shows one man, apparently Ahmed, killed by a single gunshot to the head. He is surrounded by around 40 members of the Islamic Youth most of whom carry Kalashnikov rifles and wear face masks and military fatigues of one kind or another. One member holds the black flag of Al-Qaeda at the centre of proceedings. There are a large number of spectators present in the stands at the football ground but they cannot be seen in the video. The execution is met with the sounds of chanting and applause.’
However, there is another very powerful Islamist militia in Derna. It is the Abu Saleem Martyrs’ Brigade which is said to hold the balance of power in the town. There have been turf wars between the Abu Saleem Martyr’s and ‘Islamic Youth’. Here is part of a report carried in the Libya herald on 23rd September 2014; ‘At least six members of rival Derna Islamist brigades were killed in fighting on Sunday as tensions flared between the town’s Abu Saleem Martyrs’ Brigade and the Islamic Youth in Derna. The town today appears to have returned to what has become normality there for more than a year. Over the past twelve months, its radical Islamist brigades have effectively closed the local council, taken control of the court building and liquidated whatever remnants of the town’s security forces remained. Four members of Abu Saleem Martyrs’ brigade, one Islamic Youth in Derna militiaman along with a civilian perished in the clashes which began on Sunday evening and continued into the early hours of yesterday the morning, Bowabat Al-Wasat reported.’
There have been reports of an Al Qaeda training camp in Derna for some time. Intelligence from Sebha in Libya’s south suggest that there is a constant flow of recruits from the Sahara and Sahel countries passing through on their way to Derna for training and on their way back to stiffen Al Qaeda units in their own countries. On 27th September 2014 this appeared in the British Daily Telegraph; ‘A former UK resident once arrested and detained but then freed by the British authorities has been identified by the US government as one of the world’s most dangerous terrorists, The Telegraph can disclose. Abd al-Baset Azzouz, a father-of-four from Manchester, was able to leave Britain to join a terrorist network run by Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s successor as leader of al-Qaeda. Last week, Azzouz was named officially by the US State Department as one of just ten “Specially Designated Global Terrorists”. Azzouz, 48, an expert bomb-maker, is now accused of running an al-Qaeda network in eastern Libya…… Azzouz allegedly runs a training camp in Darnah in eastern Libya.’
It is hard to see how the ordinary residents of Derna will benefit from this manifestation of extreme Islamism.
Update 7th October 2014
Some reports are suggesting that the Shoura Council of Islamic Youth in Derna has declared its allegiance to the Islamic State of Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi (ISIS).