Berenice Stories

Short Stories by John Oakes

LIBYA – DANGEROUS STILL (A work in progress commenced 19th September 2018)

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SOME NOTES ON LIBYA’S LAWLESS SOUTH

Units from the Special Forces of the Libyan National Army (LNA) left the city of Benghazi a few nights ago to commence operations in the south of Libya. They are under the command of Major General Wanis Bukhamada who has been tasked by the Libyan National Army Commander to open an ‘Operations Room’ at the Tamanhint Air Force base a short way south east of Sebha in the Fezzan. Field Marshal Khalifa Hafter has instructed him to ‘secure the south of Libya and eliminate terrorist gangs, criminals and mercenaries, and to combat smuggling of arms and drugs and people trafficking’. Bukhamada is a formidable fighting soldier who was prominent in the recapture of Benghazi from Islamist militias and the near complete clearance of Jihadists from Derna. (News about him is occasionally found here.) Formidable as he may be, there is no doubt that he has a very tough job to do. To project military power over long distances is not easy, especially in Libya.

Not the least of his problems is the geography. Libya may be on the coast of North Africa but much of it is in the Sahara. For a country with a landmass of 679,500 or so square miles it has a small population. In 2011 it was estimated to be 6,276,632 most of whom live on the Mediterranean coast. Libya borders Tunis and Algeria to the west, Chad and Niger to the South and Egypt and the Sudan to the East. Clearly it is a big country not much of which is hospitable. Since the fall of Ghaddafi in 2011 the south has been largely out of control.

Field Marshal Haftar has made progress in the south eastern city of  Kufra which is some 1020 kilometres from Benghazi and where units associated with the Libyan National Army have been for some months under the command of the Kufra Military Zone Commander, Brigadier Belgasim Al Abaj. Brigadier Al Abaj took up his post there on 16th April 2018. I believe he is a member of the Zawiya tribe  which has dominated the Kufra oasis complex for a very long time indeed. He was also Gaddafi’s Chief of Intelligence in Kufra which makes him a particularly interesting character.

We know that the factors which attract al Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State are a weak or remote central government, a divided national army, a weak and corrupt police force, intertribal strife, a safe haven in remote and rough terrain, access to criminal enterprises such as smuggling and capturing foreigners for ransom, poverty, neglect and native Salafist sympathisers. The fall of Gaddafi’s dictatorship in 2011 followed by political instability offers armed and ruthless groups a perfect place to laager in the ungoverned vastness of Southern Libya. The Tibesti Mountains of northern Chad and Southern Libya may be particularly tempting for hardcore Jihadists and rebel groups with malign intent who seek remote bad lands in which to hide and thrive.

What do we know about Bukhamada’s enemies? Very little but we can make inferences from the scarce evidence available in the public domain. In April 2015 I wrote this. (The full version can be found here.)

‘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. 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 could bring the French, who have troops stationed in the region, into play.

It is significant – but somewhat late in the day – that on 5th September 2018 the United Nations representative in Libya, Ghassan Salame, addressed the UN Security Council. He was unhappy about the security situation in Libya. Here is what Mr Salame told the UN Security Council:

‘In recent weeks, Chadian Government and Chadian opposition forces have been fighting, operating from Southern Libya. Over 1,000 fighters have been involved in the hostilities, risking the South becoming a regional battle ground and safe haven for foreign armed groups, including terrorist organizations. The recent agreement signed between Chad, Sudan, Niger and Libya needs to be implemented so Libya does not also become an alternative battleground for others. The signatories have asked for support from the International Community for the implementation of these agreements, and I hope that Council members will positively consider their request.’

On 24th August Reuters was reporting: ‘Rebels in northern Chad attacked government forces this week at the border with Libya, the fighters and two military sources said on Friday, although the government denied an attack had taken place.’ The rebel force appears to be the Military Command Council for the Salvation of the Republic [of Chad] (CCMSR), which seeks to overthrow President Idriss Deby. The CCMSR claims to have 4,500 fighters and was founded in 2014. It is said to include former rebels from the Darfur region of neighbouring Sudan. Some background on this group can be found here.

What can the redoubtable Major General Bukhamada and his special forces do to clear the region of IS, Al Qaeda, CCMSR fighters, people traffickers and other malign groups? I suspect he will commence by recruiting the Tebu militias in the region.

Firstly, therefore, a word about the Tebu. The Tebu people who live in the vicinity 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, substance smuggling and date cultivation. They have formed a number of militias some of which have joined Field Marshall Hafter’s Libyan National Army, but others operate in their own interests in the region. This map will serve as a good guide to the parts of Libya occupied by the Tebu and the Tuareg and a fair idea of the tribal homelands of the Arab and Berber tribes of Libya.

The Tebu know, and have recently been in control of, much of Southern Libya and it is why it might be amongst Bukhamada’s first tasks to recruit the Tebu militias. In this he has a troublesome obstacle to overcome in the shape of mercenaries from neighbouring Chad, Niger and the Sudanese province of Darfur all of whom have their own agendas and are now operating in Libya’s south. They have been taking control of the Tebu clans and the municipal councils of the Tebu towns such as Qaroon, Murzuq, Traagin, and Um Aramyb. They are clearly attracted by the lucrative people trafficking business and the smuggling opportunities presented by the open borders.

Sources amongst Field Marshal Hafter’s enemies are suggesting that irregular units attached to his Libyan National Army contain fighters from the Sudan province of Darfur who may have been part of the ruthless Justice and Equality Movement (JEM). I am unable to corroborate this, but should it be true they might provide Major General Bukhamada with some useful insights. He may have other contacts from Chad and Niger ‘up his sleeve’.  Loyalties amongst entrepreneurial Militias are fluid in Libya today.

(There are other significant groups operating in Libya’s lawless south of which the two most important are the Aulad Sulieman and the Tuaregs of which more later).

John Oakes

28th September 2018

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