LIBYA – CAN LIBYA’S NEIGHBOURS REMAIN ON THE SIDELINES MUCH LONGER?
Cairo’s Asharq Al-Awsat dated 4th August states ‘Veteran Egyptian politician and former Arab League chief, Amr Moussa, called for a public debate in Egypt on the possibility of using military force against Islamist extremists in Libya on Sunday. Moussa issued a statement over the weekend saying that Egypt’s “right to self-defence” against extremists in Benghazi and eastern Libya should be considered, as the situation in the country was a cause of great concern for Egypt and other neighbouring states’.
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. Here are some short notes on the state of play as of 2nd August 2014.
A large majority of the newly elected House of Representatives has arrived in the city. (Notably absent are the Representatives from Misrata). The House intends to meet on Monday for the first time in the Dar es Salaam Hotel despite the efforts of a rump of the now discredited General National Congress to deny it legitimacy. The Libya Prime Minister is present with some of his cabinet as is the Army Chief of Staff.
The city is in the hands of the Islamist Ansar Sharia militia and its allies who have declared that it is now an Islamic Emirate. It was impossible to hold elections for the Libyan House of Representatives in the city which is now out of control. Ansar Sharia and its allies have been receiving weapons by sea from Misrata.
The battle for Benghazi, Operation Dignity, has taken an alarming turn. The Libyan Army’s Special Forces operating against the Islamists under the overall command of Major General Hafter have been forced to abandon Camp Thunderbolt in Benghazi and are in tactical retreat from the city. It is reported today as being at Benina Airport. The leaders of Ansar Sharia and its allies have posed in triumph at the gates of Camp Thunderbolt and declared that the city is now an Islamic Emirate. However, a large demonstration of citizens gathered in the city after Friday morning prayers demanding the removal of Ansar Sharia and Libya Shield militias and the return of law and order.
Operation Dignity has taken a drubbing. Its leader, Major General Khalifa Hafter, is consistently called a renegade by the media and also by some expert western observers. Since I am neither of the media nor likely to be an expert I risk a considerable drubbing myself from some quarters when I suggest that Hafter is not a renegade. He might well be arrogant and smell a little of the CIA but it is clearly time for Libya’s government to decide what to do about him. At the moment he looks like the only man courageous enough to face down the Islamists. There are unsubstantiated rumours of a rift between Hafter and his top commanders.
Efforts during the past few days by a Council of Tribal Elders may have arranged a truce but there were explosions in the city this morning.
This is Libya’s third largest city and it was badly mauled during the 2011 ‘ousting’ of Gaddafi. It has established itself as a near autonomous city state and Islamist powerhouse. The Misratan Union of Revolutionaries oversees some 200 militias and has 800 tanks and more than 2,000 ‘Technicals’ at its disposal. It has despatched its forces to Tripoli and is attempting to limit, or suppress, the power of the elected House of Representatives. Its own elected Representatives are notably absent from todays gathering in Tobruk.
Tripoli is in the grips of a war between Islamist leaning Libya Shield Central forces from the city of Misrata and two major Zintani militias loosely associated with Operation Dignity. The Zintanis in Tripoli comprises the Al Quaaqa Brigade and the Al Sawaiq Brigade both of which recruit men who come mainly from Tripoli who have connections with Zintan and the Jebel Nefusa in Libya’s south west. It is noted here that the Zintan Military Council oversees around 23 militias from the western mountains.
Battle has raged for some days around Tripoli’s International Airport. The key air traffic control unit has been destroyed and an Airbus damaged beyond repair. Tanks in the Brega oil storage depot on the road from Tripoli to the airport have been set alight.
The near total breakdown of security has forced embassies to close. The British ambassador left for Tunis today. Only and Italian and Maltese diplomatic staff remain in post as of today.
Amidst the chaos in Tripoli Sami Zaptia has just written this for the Libya Herald: ‘Both the outgoing GNC and the Caretaker government of Abdullah Thinni seem impotent to do anything to stop the paralysis, terror and destruction of Tripoli which continues to suffer rotational electricity cuts leading to internet cuts, as well as cooking gas and petrol and diesel shortages’.
An interesting alliance between old enemies, the Arab Sway tribe and the Tebu, has been formed recently and they may join forces on the side of Khalifa Hafter against the Islamists.
One side effect is that the Tunisians have been inundated by some 5,000 to 6,000 refugees per day fleeing the warfare, most of whom are Libyans but there are a number of Egyptians and Tunisians amongst them. The Tunisian government protests that it cannot cope much longer with the refugee crisis and has today closed its border with Libya.
In addition – according to the International Crisis Group’s Middle East and North Africa Report No. 148 – ‘the aftermath of the Tunisian uprising and of the Libyan war has provoked a reorganisation of contraband cartels (commercial at the Algerian border, tribal at the Libyan border), thereby weakening state control and paving the way for far more dangerous types of trafficking.
Added to the mix is the fact that criminality and radical Islamism gradually are intermingling in the suburbs of major cities and in poor peripheral villages. Over time, the emergence of a so-called islamo-gangsterism could contribute to the rise of groups blending jihadism and organised crime within contraband networks operating at the borders – or, worse, to active cooperation between cartels and jihadis’.
Arms and drug smuggling across the southern border between Libya and Egypt has accelerated and is difficult to control. The slim possibility that the Misratans may have captured aircraft from Tripoli International Airport which they indent to use as suicide weapons against Egypt was apparently mooted in Cairo and Egypt’s air traffic controllers have been put on alert for aircraft entering their airspace without flight plans. This is an unlikely outcome but the Egyptian reaction demonstrates the raised level of anxiety amongst Libya’s neighbours.
The Egyptians are fighting Islamic militates in Sinai which, they fear, will make common cause with Libyan Islamists should the latter gain the upper hand. It is noted the Muslim Brotherhood is designated a terrorist group in Egypt. The presence of Jihadists in Libya is, therefore, alarming the Egyptian security services.
There are strong indications that the sometime Al Qaeda ‘Emir of the Sahel’, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, has moved his headquarters into lawless southern Libya near the Algerian border. He is a notorious smuggler, arms trafficker, hostage taker and opportunistic Islamist. He is a Chaamba Arab and has mounted high profile attacks on petroleum installations in Algeria.
Mali is troubled with a potential breakaway Tuareg state in it’s arid north. The unrest is a magnet for Al Qaeda and instability in neighbouring Libya exacerbates the problem, not least because of the flow of illegal arms from Gaddafi’s huge stockpiles.
Niger’s long borders with Libya are porous and dangerous. The Tebu militias are the only control in the region and they are likely to be engaged in subsistence smuggling. The presence of Mokhtar Belmokhtar in Libya is disturbing the government of Niger. He led an attack on Niger’s uranium mining facilities recently.
Nigeria and Kenya
Both are troubled by Islamists; Boko Haram in Nigeria and Al Shabaab in Kenya. Should Libya become an Islamist Emirate both countries would see an increase in terrorism which would find ready support and shelter there.
The African Union
The AU has expressed its unease to the Libyans. The Islamist threat to sub Saharan Africa is growing. Drug, arms and people smuggling is facilitated by Libya’s anarchy and consequent lack of control over vast regions of the Sahara and the Libyan Desert.
2nd August 2014
UPDATE 4th August 2014
Even now the rump of Libya’s General National Congress is attempting to deprive the newly formed House of Representatives of its legitimacy by insisting that the handover of powers is to be in Tripoli. Representatives are gathered 1,000 kilometres away in the eastern city of Tobruk for their inaugural meeting today. The near total breakdown of security in Libya has rendered travel by air very difficult indeed. Many Representatives have travelled to Tobruk by road. I have driven from Tripoli to Tobruk and it was not easy, especially in August.
What lies behind this brinkmanship? Is it so that the Islamist can claim the House of Representatives has no legal powers to legislate if there is no handover ceremony? Is the outgoing head of the GNC playing for time so that the Islamist militias can consolidate their grip on the main cities? Whatever the reason it poses great dangers for Libya and the region.
The GNC has hitherto claimed that it, and not the Prime Minister, is in command of the Libya armed forces. In this way it can claim that the Islamist militias are legitimate member of Libya’s armed forces. The Chief of Staff is in Tobruk at the moment. What advice will he give to the House of Representatives? It looks like showdown time.
Update 4th August 2014
The latest news is the GNC has recognised its own demise and ceded power to the House of Representatives without a ‘hand over’ ceremony.
Update 5th August 2014
This has just appeared in the Libya Herald. Note that the Justice and Construction Party is the ‘political arm’ of the Muslim Brotherhood.
‘The political department of the Justice and Construction Party has likewise said in a statement that because it had not received power at a ceremony organised to occur yesterday in the capital, the House of Representatives did not have the authority to operate.’
Follow events from the GNC point of view……www.facebook.com/LibyanGNC
4th August 2014
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Update 3rd August 2014
A good survey of the opposing forces within Libya;
Update 8th August 2104
This piece by a prestigious journalist argues for Egyptian intervention in Libya;
Update 18th August 2014
From The Libya Herald today
‘In a dramatic overnight development in the conflict in Tripoli between Misrata-led Operation Libya Dawn forces and those from Zintan, the Warshefana and their allies, positions held by the former at Mitiga Airbase and Wadi Rabia have been bombed. The government has confirmed the attack, noting in a statement that two “unidentified” aircraft had been involved……..This afternoon [Air Force Brigadier-General Saqr Adam Geroushi, the commander of Operation Dignity’s Air Force] told the Libya Herald that a Sukhoi 24, under his control but provided by a foreign air force, which he would not name, had been in action in Tripoli “to protect civilians”.’
I note that the Algerian Air Force has 34 SU-24MKs. Algeria has been contemplating intervention in Libya since May this year. The Algerian military establishment has been in favour of intervention but the politicians have been cautious.
Update 19th August 2014
One of the bombs used with precision in the air to ground attack on the Misratan Grads and howitzers in Tripoli is said by someone to have been a US made type 83 general purpose bomb. This type of bomb is ‘typically’ used together with a precision guidance package by the US Navy. It is not listed, as far as I know, amongst the armaments in use by the Algerian Air Force. The accuracy of the bombing clearly indicates a high level of aircrew training and that the target coordinates were given by observers on the ground. It would only be possible for well equipped air force to carry out a raid on Tripoli which might have involved in-flight refuelling. Carrier based aircraft could, of course, be brought into range.
No doubt more reliable information will emerge soon.
An AP report carried by the Huffington Post indicates that the attack was made at night and may have been carried out ‘to protect civilians’ and in response to a request made by Libya’s new House of Representatives.
Update 24th August 2014
A further strike early Saturday morning by ‘foreign’ warplanes on Misratan positions around Tripoli has been reported by the Libya Herald, Reuters, the British Sunday Telegraph and others.
‘Fajr Libya [The Misratans] on Saturday accused the United Arab Emirates and Egypt of involvement in the Friday night air raid and an earlier strike when two unidentified aircraft bombarded Islamist positions on Monday night.
“The Emirates and Egypt are involved in this cowardly aggression,” the coalition said in a statement read out to Libyan journalists in Tripoli.’
So far, Italy, Egypt and Algeria have denied armed intervention in Libya’s internecine battles.