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Short Stories by John Oakes

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LIBYA – DANGEROUS STILL (A work in progress commenced 19th September 2018) (Updated 12th April 2019)

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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. 

‘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

UPDATE 8TH FEBRUARY 2019

HAFTER STIRS UP A HORNET’S NEST IN THE FEZZAN

These three reports (see below) demonstrate how Hafter’s Libyan National Army has pushed its way into a hornet’s nest of tribal and ethnic rivalries and drawn the Tripoli based Government of National Accord into a conflict around the old provence of the Fezzan and the South Western oil fields. Hafter has clearly been unable to reach an accord with the Tuareg military leader Ali Kanna who appears to be opposing him with the support of the Tripoli based government. The Arab tribes are also engaged in the conflict including the Awlad Suleiman and the Zawia. The Tebu are at odds with each other and the remnants of the Islamic State are clearly making mischief. Thrown into the conflict are militias attempting to destabilise Chad and thus the conflict may draw the French into the mix.

 

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/feb/08/conflict-erupts-for-control-of-libyas-largest-oil-field

https://www.libyaherald.com/2019/02/08/tensions-rise-in-south-as-multiplicity-of-forces-enter-the-power-play/

http://www.smallarmssurvey.org/fileadmin/docs/R-SANA/SANA-Dispatch3-Libyas-Fractious-South.pdf

 

HAFTER’S PROGRESS

Updated 2nd April 2019

An excellent piece of journalism by a trusted Libyan academic which tells us much about Field Marshall Hafter’s relationship with the Aulad Suleiman tribe and his occupation of Sebha, the capital of the Fezzan, can be found here. I will later argue that there are hazards in relying on the Aulad Suleiman tribe not the least of which is its bad relationship with the Tuareg. Hafter appears to have been wrong footed by his rivals in Tripoli and the Tuareg General Ali Kanna and thwarted in his efforts to dominate the oil fields in the Merzuq Basin in South West Libya.

Updated 14th April 2010

There are two major oil fields in the Muzurq basin, El Fil (The elephant) and the Sharara.

According to Bloomberg, Hafter’s forces took over the Sahara oil filed peacefully from a group which had closed the field down in a protest about their wages.  Here is part of Bloomberg’s report updated 12th February 2019;

Forces loyal to Libya’s eastern leader Khalifa Haftar have taken control of the country’s biggest oil field and say the deposit is secure and ready to resume production.

Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army fanned out in the southwestern Sharara field, people with knowledge of the matter confirmed. Armed protesters had closed down the 300,000 barrel-per-day deposit in December, demanding more money and investment in the remote region.

“Sharara is completely secure and ready to resume pumping,” LNA spokesman Ahmed al-Mismari said Tuesday in a telephone interview. “The guards at the field handed over the field to our forces peacefully.”

The LNA had pledged earlier to hand the field over to the National Oil Corp. once it was fully secured.

It is said that forces loyal to Hafter are in control of the El Fil field but some reports suggest that their tenure is disputed. He has trusted the Tariq ibn Ziyad Battalion of the Libyan National Army to take El Fil (El Feel) and hold it against determined opposition.  Hafter must hope the battalion is as formidable as its name implies. Tariq ibn Ziyad was a famous military commander who conquered southern Spain from the Visigoths in the 8th Century. Gibraltar is named after him. The name is an Anglicization of Jebel Tariq. 

In this context it would be interesting to know what the Tuareg militias controlled by Ali Kanna are planning to do.  

 

SOME NOTES ON SEBHA

The modern town of Sebha has developed from the three oasis settlements of Jedid, Quatar and Hejer and now houses a population of around 200,000. It is the seat of the Saif al Nasr family, the most prominent and revered leaders of the Awlad Sulieman tribe and its historic allies and clients. The Saif al Nasr family gained heroic status in its wars with their Ottoman Turk overlords in the early 19th century and with the Italian colonists in the early 20th Century.
Gaddafi’s father migrated from Sirte to Sebha to take menial employment with the Saif al Nasr family, something which his son was said to resent. Gaddafi attended secondary school in Sebha and staged his first anti government demonstration as a school boy in the city. He also held a demonstration in the lobby of a hotel owned by the Saif al Nasr family, thus ensuring his expulsion from school. The relationship between Sebha and Gaddafi was ambiguous!
The Saif al Nasr family and the Awlad Suleiman tribe it led were the dominate force in Sebha and in much of the Fezzan throughout the Ottoman Turkish regency (1551 – 1911), the Italian colonial period (1911 – 1943), the short period (1943 – 1951) of French military government after WWII and the Kingdom of Libya (1951 -1969). During the forty or so years of the Gaddafi era the dominance in the Fezzan of the Awlad Suleiman was reversed in favour of his own tribe, the Gaddadfa and that of his closest supporters, the Maqarha tribe. This process has been dubbed ‘tribal inversion’ by Jason Pack and his colleges writing in their book ‘The 2011 Libyan Uprisings and the Struggle for the Post-Qadhafi Future’. This book is essential reading but somewhat expensive.
Apart from a number of so called al Ahali, the name given to long time town dwellers, Sebha offers a home to people from other tribes such as the Gaddadfa, Muammar Gaddafi’s tribe, which is based near Sirte but ranges south towards Sebha. There are also colonies of the Maqarha from the Wadi Shati to the north, the Awlad Abu Seif and the Hasawna tribe who, in the past, were the true nomads of the south and allies of the Awlad Suleiman.
There is one district of Sebha which has been a source of discord for some time. It is the Tauri district which is colonised by some Tuareg and many Tebu. The Tebu people are part of a wider ethnic group called the Teda, desert warriors living in the eastern and central Sahara and, effectively, a black people without nationality. The majority of them can be found in the Tibesti Mountains on the Libyan-Chad border. Their harsh environment, extreme poverty, and remote location make them a very tough people. They have often clashed with the neighbouring tribes and with the Tuareg and, like the gypsies in Great Britain, are despised by the dominant communities who see them as petty thieves and liars.
Traditionally, the Teda controlled the caravan trade routes that passed through their territory. They were widely known in the past for plundering and salve trading. Their language is Tebu and their basic social unit is the nuclear family, organized into clans. They live by a combination of pastoralism, farming, subsistence smuggling and date cultivation.
Since the fall of Gaddafi, Tebu militias have come to dominate the South and Libya’s borders with Chad and Niger. They are perceived by the majority of the inhabitants of Sebha to be non Libyans trying to control the city. In particular they now dominate the majority of the trade (legal and illicit) routes between Sebha and the Chad basin. Thus they have a firm grip on the regional arms and drug trade and on people trafficking. The Awlad Suleiman tribesman may still have their own trade routes in this area but perceive the Tebu to be a foreign and ethnically inferior threat to their historic dominance of the region.

HAFER’S LONG SHOT

Updated 5th Apirl 2019

There are some good people writing about Field Marshall Hafter’s recent move into the old province of the Fezzan. I have linked readers to the best in previous blog pieces. In simple terms Haftar has taken the cities of Sebha and Murzuq around the middle of March and pushed his forces forward to threaten or occupy towns of Quatrun, Umm Al Aranib, Ghat, and Awaynat. I so doing he has placed himself in a dominant position across the main trans Saharan roads leading from western Chad and eastern Niger to the Mediterranean ports. In so doing he is in a dominant position to control or eliminate much of the people trafficking, smuggling and legitimate business traffic from the Sahel countries. He also threatens the oil fields in the Murzuk Basin to his north and should he succeed in dominating them he would gain control nearly 90% of Libya’s oil riches. His advance forces are at least 965Kms from his main stronghold in Benghazi!

 

 

BOOKS BY JOHN OAKES For books by John Oakes see… (USA): http://www.amazon.com/John-Oakes/e/B001K86D3O/ref=ntt_athr_dp_pel_1 ….. (UK): http://www.amazon.co.uk/JohOakes/e/B001K86D3O/ref=ntt_athr_dp_pel_pop_1