Archive for the ‘AL Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’ Category
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.
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
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 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.
American readers my recall learning that the Battle of Derna (27th April to 13th May 1805) was the first recorded land battle the United States fought overseas and is now always associated with the heroic actions of US Marine Corps First Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon. They will know that it was this battle that gave rise to the famous line ‘From the Halls of Montezuma to the Shores of Tripoli’.
They may not know that there is a new battle being fought in Derna. Secure as they are in the power of their inspirational Constitution they may also be unaware that the effort to forge one in Libya may be sabotaged by events in Derna.
There are Salafists in Libya – and in Egypt and Tunisia – who hold that the principles and practice of early Islam should govern the social and political life of the people. They believe that the true Islam, that of the Prophet Muhammad and the first, second and third generation of his followers, has been obfuscated, contaminated and watered down by constant amendments to its fundamental principles.
The Salafists are sect of Sunni Muslims who have thus far preferred to infiltrate their doctrine into local mosques and schools without violence. They abhor the Sufi sects and destroy the tombs of revered holy men holding that no one person can reinterpret the word of Allah as revealed in Arabic to the Prophet Mohammad and written in the Holy Koran – with the exception of themselves of course, a strange paradox which is not uncommon amongst zealots of any creed.
The more extreme Salafists, some authorities have called them Salafist Jihadists, refuse to become involved in elections because they perceive politics to be anti Islamic. In their view the will of god supersedes the will of the people. In practice this faction would impose its interpretation of Sharia law at the point of a gun. For them, to borrow a phrase, the automatic rifle outranks the ballot box.
The Salafist trend has been revitalized across the Arab world since the Arab Spring and the fall of dictatorships. In its militarized manifestation it has emerged as ‘Ansar al Sharia’ which roughly translates as ‘Partisans of Sharia Law’. A number of armed Ansar al Sharia groups have emerged in Libya, Yemen, Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco. In Libya the groups trace their origin to Islamist militias formed to topple Gaddafi in the civil war of 2011.
This recently appeared on the twitter feed of the Ansar al Sharia Brigade based in Benghazi; “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 other than the laws of Allah.” This was clearly intended to threaten the new Libyan Constitutional Assembly formed by a national election which took place the 20th February 2014 and tasked with the job of writing a constitution for the new Libya. The election was successfully completed throughout Libya with the notable of exception Muzurk, Kufra and Obari where ethnic minority issues are unresolved and Derna where the polling stations were closed by violence or the fear of violence by armed Islamist militias. Unless these elections are complete the Constitutional Assembly is unable to function.
Fifty years ago it took me somewhat more than four hours to drive eastwards from Benghazi, up the Tochra pass and through the lush country of the Jebel Akhdar (the Green Mountains) to the little Mediterranean port of Derna. In those days it was a good place to stop for a rest on the way to or from Tobruk, even though it meant a diversion down to sea level via the notorious hairpin bends from the high plateau of the Jebel.
For a number of years I worked with a talented native of Derna whose abilities as a linguist were extraordinary. He was a near native speaker of English and was fluent, as far as I could judge, in French, Italian and Greek. I cannot imagine that he, or the other Derna residents I met in the course of my duties, could become ruthless killers or adopt a form of Islam which rejects both the democratic process and liberal education.
Today no European would hazard his life to stop for a coffee in Derna and it is hard to reconcile my memory of those talented and hospitable colleagues and their well managed town with the stories of murder now emerging there from. What has happened?
We might hark back to the Gaddafi inspired propaganda during the Libyan uprising in February 2011 when it was asserted that an ‘Islamic Emirate of Derna’ had been declared under the leadership of one Abdul-Hakim al Hasadi who was said to be a Guantanamo returnee. Al Hasadi denied having been incarcerated in Guantanamo and stated that there was no Islamic Emirate. This led some observers to assume that Gaddafi’s propagandists had raised the spectre of an al-Qaeda linkage with Derna in order to legitimise his military response to the uprising in the Eastern cities. However, a captured Al Qaeda list of foreign fighters in Iraq contained the names of more Jihadists from Derna than any other city. That, and the subsequent history of Islamist activity in Derna, led some of us to revise this view. Recent events may explain why.
Earlier this April (2014) three of Derna’s Islamist armed militia, the Army of the Islamist Sate of Libya, the Derna branch of Ansar Al-Sharia and the supporters of Sufian Ben Qumu the sometime Guantanamo detainee, formed themselves into a single unit called ‘The Shoura Council of Islamic Youth in Derna’ and paraded unopposed through the town in their ‘Technicals’ and other armed vehicles. A photograph which appeared on 6th April 2014 in Asharq Al-Awsat showed militiamen raising the flags of Al-Qaeda during this parade.
It is not surprising that the presence of Ben Qumu and the show of Al Qaeda flags in Derna leads us to wonder if there are active connections with ‘Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)’ which operates in Algeria, Mali, Mauritania and Niger and aims to replace their ‘apostate’ governments with Islamist regimes. AQIM is a militant group with great regional – and international – reach. Its criminal activities have made it al-Qaeda`s richest franchise. What is more there are those who suggest potential connections between the Derna Islamists and other like organisations such as Boko Haram in Nigeria and Al Shabaab in Somalia.
There are clear signs that disputes have arisen between Islamists in Derna. This report appeared in the Libya Herald on 8th April 2014:
‘One of the leaders of the newly formed Derna Islamist militia, the Shoura Council of Islamic Youth in Derna, has been found murdered. According to security sources, the body of Ali Abdullah Ben Tahir, known as Al-Far (the “Mouse”), was discovered very early this morning riddled with bullets at Karsa, outside the town. He was one of the leaders of the Army of the Islamic State of Libya.
It is not known who killed Ben Tahir, a member of a prominent local family other members of which are involved in the Islamist cause. However, the same security sources say there has been infighting among Derna’s Islamists both on ideological grounds and over who should lead the movement……
Three weeks ago, Mohammed Al-Douri, said to have been close to Ben Qumu was shot dead. A few days earlier four other men, also said to be Islamists, were shot dead by gunmen who attacked the farm near Derna where they were staying.’
The battle for control of post Gaddafi Libya is beginning to focus on the wording of a new constitution. Some time ago I wrote ‘There are three major currents within the Islamic world today – modernism which calls for a contemporary interpretation of Islam, secularism which calls for the separation of religion and politics and fundamentalism which is unwavering in its adherence to traditional Islam and strongly anti-western. We will see these three currents in play should the Libyan Constitutional Assembly be able to function and accommodate all the various factions now competing to get their hands on the levers of power.
I also wrote ‘Seeds of religious intolerance have germinated in the Arab Spring. Are the shoots about to bear fruit and multiply?’ It would seem that they are in Derna.
24th April 2014
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Update 27th April 2014
In the light of Libya’s efforts to form a democratic government this piece by Youssef Cherif is worth reading.
Update 7th May 2014
I am still reading this long and detailed paper on the ‘Sufi v Salafi’ struggle. It is worth the effort in the light of events in Libya and Nigeria.
CHAD. ‘Will Chad, a sometime client state of Muammar Gaddafi, find itself once again a target for al Qaeda?’ Update 3rd March 2013
Chad is one of a group of so called Sahel countries which include Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso and Mauritania having their northern Islamic provinces in the arid southern ‘shore’ of the Sahara. Their Christian and animist provinces lie in the richer, sub tropical regions. This split ethnicity and religiosity was manageable in French colonial times but is less so nowadays when the rise of militant Islamism threatens stability. Nigeria shares a similar problem stemming from the British colonial period.
In 2004 elements of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) entered Chad but were beaten off by Chadian forces. This group is now known as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and was ejected by French forces in January 2013 from Gao and Timbuktu in Mali. Where will AQIM go next?
The English Cuckoo lays its egg in the nest of another species of bird which then proceeds to hatch the egg and raise the chick. Al Qaeda seeks out failed states and settles on them like cuckoos, imposing strict sharia law and creating terror and misery. Waziristan, Somalia, Iraq, Yemen, Northern Nigeria and Mali are hosting substantial numbers of these ferocious extremists. Small but active al Qaeda franchises exist in the Philippines and Indonesia. There are those who argue that al Qaeda may have established a franchise in Benghazi and Derna in Eastern Libya.
As the French and the British direct their attention to the possible knock on effect of the crisis in Mali this post asks the question ‘will Chad, a sometime client state of Muammar Gaddafi, find itself once again a target for al Qaeda?’
The factors which attract al Qaeda seem to be a weak or remote central government, a weak 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 a military dictatorship followed by political instability offers it a perfect nest in which to lay its parasitical egg. Will the Chadian president, Idriss Déby, survive in power now that Gaddafi has gone must now be a crucial question. The Tebesti Mountains of northern Chad and Sothern Libya may be particularly tempting for hardcore al Qaeda fighters seeking remote badlands in which to hide and thrive.
In 1960 Chad gained independence from France after sixty years of colonial rule. It is a vast, landlocked and ethnically diverse country in which the French failed to promote a sense of national unity. That is no surprise because there are a number of national cultures and religious affiliations, some of which have their roots in pre-colonial days. It follows that since independence Chad has suffered from deep religious and ethnic divisions. The struggle for power amongst the elites resulted in periods of armed rebellion and destructive civil war in which the meddlesome role of Gaddafi was notable.
In Chad there is the constant danger that the divide between the Arabised ‘Islamic’ north and the ‘Christian’ south will result in polarisation between the two, this inhibiting the formation of a democratic government and the sharing of resources. The government of Chad, which is formed from members of the northern and eastern Islamic groups, is becoming more Islamist in orientation. Chad, thus far, is a secular state, but the strengthening of Islam in public life and the friction between the faiths will threaten long term stability.
In Chad the use of armed force has been the means of establishing power. The current president, Idriss Déby, came to power by force of arms in 1990 and has since held on with the support of the national army which numbers around thirty thousand men. There is also Déby’s elite Republican Guard which is under his personal control and numbers around 5,500 personal. President Déby’s greatest external ally, France, maintains a military base there also. This last may be a lone guarantee of stability for Déby as things stand in the Sahel today.
AL Qaeda will have noted that the Tebesti region, bordering on Libya, is still an insecure area made the more unsafe by the large number of land mines laid by the Libyans when they occupied the Aozou Strip from 1973 to 1994. Chad has a unique position as it bridges sub Saharan and North Africa and also east and west Sahel. It also has long boarders with Sudan’s unstable and remote Darfur province and in the south with the troubled Central African Republic. Another hostage to fortune for Chad lurks in the north where its border with Libya lies somewhere within the Aozou Strip the ownership of which the two countries disputed violently between 1973 and 1994.
Muammar Gaddafi reigned in Libya for more that forty years during which he meddled too often in the affairs of his southern neighbour Chad. Gaddafi and President Idriss Déby of Chad were particularly close, a relationship with inevitable consequences for the future of the two countries. France has been Idriss Déby’s main source of external support during his twenty years reign but Libya was ally number two, financially and politically.
Libya has enough to do to establish a democratic government and recover from its recent civil war. The northern regions of Chad, previously totally dependent on trade with Libya, will take time to re-establish relations with a neighbour troubled by intertribal strife and lack of border control. Relations with Libya are made the more difficult because a large number of Chadians accused of being Gaddafi’s mercenaries remain incarcerated in jails maintained by Libya militias. There are persistent rumours that they are being tortured.
The instability which followed Gaddafi’s summary execution in his home town of Sirte on 29th October 2011 has affected the nations of the Sahel and catalysed the Tuareg rebellion in Northern Mali followed by the disastrous rise of an al Qaeda franchise. This undesirable outcome threatened the stability of not only Mali but also neighbouring Niger, the source of yellow cake uranium which supplies French nuclear power stations. If the domino effect is valid Chad, France’s other ex-colonial ally in the Sahel, was in line for an al Qaeda takeover bid. France was, therefore, forced to intervene when the al Qaeda become overconfident and threatened the Mali government in Bamako.
The mobility of the al Qaeda leadership can be in no doubt. The bad lands of the deep Sahara have long been traversed by the Tuareg and the Tebu, people for whom the artificial borders resulting from old colonial acquisitions have little meaning. They are able to traverse great arid regions which they know as well London Taxi drivers their own perplexing city. They share this talent with a number of Bedouin tribes who have traded across the Sahara from time immemorial. Thus it is possible for the al Qaeda franchises and the smuggling and the criminal bands to vanish into inhospitable and inaccessible country only reappear elsewhere to cause trouble. Rebellion and criminality is thus likely to pop up at any place in this vast arena to destabilise fragile economies and make refugees of hordes of people.
The French may dread the possibility of a successful coup against the Déby regime precipitated by the fall of Gaddafi and the instability in the Sahel region. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb must anticipate the possibility with increasing confidence.
Update 2nd March 2013
Al Qaeda leader probably killed by Chadian forces
Update 3rd March 2013
More on the possible killing of an al Qaeda leader by Chadian forces:
Yesterday was the anniversary of the execution of Libyan hero Omar Mukhtar. This is a short note in memoriam.
The Italian occupation of Libya, which commenced in 1911, entered an aggressive phase during Mussolini’s Fascist regime. Then Italians colonists launched a campaign of ‘re-conquest’. They began to pacify the defiant tribes with no little brutality.
Organised resistance by the tribes was impossible so they pursued a classical guerrilla war where Italian sentries were shot, supply columns ambushed, and communications interrupted. There was a succession of small actions and acts of sabotage in different parts of the country.
At first the Italians responded by courting the favour of those tribes, or parts of tribes, near the towns. By offering employment, subsidies and arms, they hoped to turn them against the rebels. In their minds there were two types of tribe, the sottomessi, that is the submitted, and the rebelli,
They thought they had gained the loyalty of the sottomessi to support them against the rebelli. They were to be constantly disappointed. The sottomessi supplied arms, ammunition, food, intelligence, shelter and funds to the rebelli. Sometimes the tribal sheiks would arrange amongst themselves who would submit and who would take the field.
To their consternation, the Italians had overlooked or misinterpreted, as many do, the powerful Bedouin law. The nine Sa’adi tribes of East Libya and their clients were all Bedouin, jealous of each other and hostile to tribes other than their own. The males of each tribe were duty-bound to avenge a slain kinsman. The group of males within the tribe who shoulder this collective responsibility is called the amara dam. The other side of this coin is the duty to protect and aid a living kinsman. This is at the root of Bedouin values. The common ancestry and the kinship of the Sa’adi tribes overrode the lesser demands. The tribes were united by blood, Islam and a common way of life against the Italians.
As the Italian proconsul Graziani wrote of the Second Senussi War. “The entire population thus took part directly or indirectly in the rebellion.” However the guerrilla war was led by some notable families who have received less attention than they deserve. They were the Abbar and the Kizzih of the Awaquir, the Saif al Nasr of the Aulad Suliman, the Bu Baker bu Hadduth of the Bara’asa, the Lataiwish of the Magharba, the Abdalla of the Abaidat, the Asbali of the Arafa, the Suwaikir and the Ilwani of the Abid and the Bu Khatara bu Halaiqua of the Hasa. The homelands of the tribes which these families led stretched from the desert south of the present city of Sirte to the Marmarica in the east around the city of Tobruk. All of this territory was ideal for guerrilla warfare.
The tribal leaders were formidable but they needed the coordinating hand of a leader. They found it in the person of Omar Mukhtar who brought not only his considerable energy and talents into the field but also the network of Senussi lodges and intelligent personnel stretched throughout the tribal homelands. The Islamic Senussi order had for a long time planted seminaries amongst the Bedouin tribes of Eastern Libya. They were staffed by a leader or sheik and a band of the Ikwan (brothers) who educated the young and gave religious and practical leadership.
In the Senussi sheik, Omar Mukhtar, they had a leader who, though he was more than sixty, was an experienced soldier, a talented tactician with an almost unique ability to keep the peace between the fractious tribal detachments which he commanded, perhaps because of his Bedouin birth. His parents were members of a Minifa (Marabtin al-sadqan) tribe from the Marmarica. Between 1912 and 1931 he planned all the gruella operations, gathered and evaluated the intelligence, organised the logistics and finance and led a band of his own.
The Italians response grew more heavy handed as the war progressed. They found that the sottomessi were supplying the rebellei, so they commenced by disarming the non-combatant tribesmen. They went on to harsher methods to stop the flow of rebel volunteers, ammunition and weapons, money and food from the sottomessi. They used the well tried methods of arrests, restricting civilian movements, deportations, aerial bombardment and strafing of recalcitrant tribes. They blocked and poisoned desert wells, confiscated precious livestock and barbed wire was liberally strewn around to restrict the seasonal migrations. The rate of executions was alarming but it was in concentration camps that the sottomessi who were much depleted in health, morale and numbers.
They went after the Senussi lodges, destroying them and deporting their leaders. They captured Omar Mukhtar in September 1931 when he was ambushed near Baida. He was wounded in an arm. His horse was shot and pinned him to the ground. He was taken prisoner and tried in a hurry. The Italians made a spectacle of his final moments. He was hanged at a place called Suluq before an audience of 20,000 Libyans assembled there by their colonial masters. The rebellion was ended. A number of tribal leaders attempted to escape to Egypt.
The work of British WWI leader of the Arab Revolt against Turkish rule, T.E. Lawrence, is now studied by military personnel as the consummate strategist of guerrilla warfare. He was, first and foremost, an intellectual soldier. He wrote this in his ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’.‘Suppose we were an influence (as we might be), an idea, a thing invulnerable, intangible, without front or back, drifting about like a gas? Armies were like plants, immobile as a whole, firm-rooted, and nourished through long stems to the head, we might be a vapour, blowing where we listed. Our kingdoms lay in each man’s mind, as we wanted nothing material to live on, so perhaps we offered nothing material to the killing. It seemed a regular soldier might be helpless without a target. He would own the ground he sat on, and what he could poke his rifle at.’
Omar Mukhtar’s most formidable enemy the Italian proconsul Graziani wrote this: ‘[the situation was] like a poisoned organism which sets up at one point of the body, a poisoned bube. The bube in this case was the fighting band of Omar al Mukhtar, resulting from the entire infection,.. the entire population took part in the rebellion.’ Guerrilla warfare is most successful when these conditions prevail but in the end the Italians intimidated, decimated and bribed the population into submission. Omar Mukhtar was an octogenarian and still fighting when others of that age are hors de combat! There is a lesson in this for soldiers and geriatrics!
So was Omar Muhktar or T.E. Lawrence the best guerrilla leader?
Omar Mukhtar coordinated and led the Cyrenaican tribes in a guerrilla war against the Christian Italian occupiers of their homelands. The Italians had displaced the tribes from the more fertile regions in the Gebel Akhdar and replaced them with Italian colonists who were given plots of land on which on which to farm.
Whilst giving proper weight to the tribal leaders already mentioned above, it is clear that the overall strategy and coordination of the long and brutal battle to regain their land was exercised by one charismatic and talented man in the person of Omar Mukhtar. He was able to use the extensive network of Senussi Ikwan who were trusted by the tribal leaders.
It is clear that the Senussi leadership brought the tribes together in a battle against a common enemy but it must not be forgotten that the sense of kinship amongst the nine Sa’adi tribes of Cyrenaica was a major factor in keeping the revolt going. Nor should we forget that Omar Mukhtar was able lead a legitimate jihad against the Christian colonists. His rebellion was crushed and he was hanged before a crowd of 20,000 Libyans assembled by the Italians in September 1931.
To criticise T.E. Lawrence is unpopular, especially in Britain. He was elevated to hero status after the Great War for his role in the Arab Revolt against the Turks which supported the British and Commonwealth armies in the capture of Damascus in October 1917. Lawrence was, in fact, a British Liaison Officer attached to the Sherifan leader, Emir Feisal.
Lawrence was not the only British officer involved in the affair but he was notably influential, not least because he was the conduit through which the large British subsides reached the key players in the Arab Revolt. He was able to persuade the British to wager huge amounts of money on the Sherifan leadership of whom they knew very little.
After the war he gained what we now call ‘celebrity status’ as the ‘Uncrowned King of Arabia’ through the person of an American showman called Lowell Thomas who toured around the UK and USA with a slide show in which he portrayed Lawrence as a romantic hero. After World War One there was a deep need amongst the British to find an individual war hero to offset mass slaughter of trench warfare in which individuality was destroyed.
John Oakes (with thanks to the historian and anthropologist E.E. Evans-Pritchard)
Update 22nd January 2013
An Omar Mukhtar museum is planned for Benghazi according to the Libya Herald
Update 12th November 2014
It is reported that the statue of Omar Mukhtar has disappeared from Tripoli.