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Short Stories by John Oakes

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LIBYA – IS FIELD MARSHAL KHALIFA HAFTAR STRONG ENOUGH TO RULE ?

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There is an intense diplomatic effort underway to settle Libya’s brutal and persistent civil war. The Egyptian President, who has much to lose if it fails, has led the charge. The Gulf States and Tunisia are playing prominent roles in the negotiations. The Gulf States were deeply involved in the hasty intervention which led to Gaddafi’s downfall but which set off a predictable and bloody civil and religious war. For some time now it has been apparent that Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, and his Libyan National Army, has been gaining control over much of Eastern Libya and he can no longer be referred to as a renegade general. He is now a major, but strangely divisive, factor to be accounted for if Libya is to have a future. The opposing parties in Libya’s armed chaos are weary as are the ordinary Libyans. It is time to sort things out. There are several biographies of the Field Marshal online. The BBC carries  this one on it’s news site. You may wish to read it before proceeding further.

Most of the commentary about Haftar is written from the Tripolitanian, that is Western Libyan, point of view. Tripoli is, and has long been, the major city and political hub of Libya. The UN has focused its attention there as has the EU amongst others. It seems to me that there are few commentators writing today with experience of living in Eastern Libya. Perhaps you will permit me to write a piece about Haftar from a Cyrenaican perspective.

In January 2012, soon after the fall of Gaddafi, I wrote a piece for my publisher’s blog entitled ‘Is a Strongman Necessary in Libya?’ Since then Field Marshall Khalifa Belqasim Haftar, at the head of his Libyan National Army, has dominated the old province of Cyrenaica, now called Eastern Libya.  He now appears to hold sway over Libya’s Oil Crescent around the southern shore of the Gulf of Sirte. In this regard, he has a strangle hold over Libya’s principle, and almost only, source of revenue.

I argue that Haftar’s military campaign to drive out militant Islamists needs the support of tribal leaders and elders. Haftar is a member of the Farjan tribe. His fellow tribesmen can be found from Sirte to Benghazi. Haftar’s brother is the leader of the Benghazi Farjani’s. Why should this matter today? It matters because tribal affiliations are still important in Libya, especially so in Cyrenaica.

There is a tribal hierarchy at the top of which sit the nine Sa’adi tribes, so called after Sa’ada of the Beni Sulaim, their ancestress. (Some sources call her Soada Al Hilaliya). The Beni Sulaim and Beni Hilal tribes migrated into Libya from the Najd in the early part of the 11th Century. The nine Sa’adi tribes hold their territory by right of conquest. Other tribes live amongst the Sa’adi tribes as clients. They are known as Marabtin tribes. The Farjan is a client tribe of a special nature, being classed as one of the Marabtin bil baraka, tribes of the blessing. They, like the Aulad al-Sheik and the Masamir, live amongst the Sa’adi tribes as equals because of their supposed descent from saints. The Sa’adi’s, however, do not regard them as ‘quite like themselves’ as they are not of Bedouin descent, their ancestor having supposedly migrated into Libya from the Maghreb.

In a civil war, and the troubles in Libya are partly that, leaders must watch their backs. In Libya losing the loyalty of leading tribes would be a folly. We may note that Gaddafi tried to maintain some semblance of order by giving senior military posts to leading personages of his favoured tribes. Haftar was recently forced to reinstate Colonel Faraj Al-Barasi after he had sacked him twice from operational posts. He was pressured into doing so by the Colonel’s own tribe, the Bara’asa, and by its allies the Darsa, the Hasa and the Obeidat. To have alienated those tribes would have meant Haftar could suffer a notable loss of support in territory stretching from just north east of his headquarters at al-Marj to the Egyptian border.

It is not without significance that much of Libya’s oil crescent is in the homeland of the al-Magharba tribe, one of the nine Sa’adi tribes. Al-Magharba territory reaches as far eastwards as Ajdabia, Haftar’s place of birth. The support of Magharba tribal elders is crucial factor in Hafter’s all important hold on the oil ports and the strategically important city of Ajdabia. He will make sure, therefore, that he maintains close and cordial relations with the leading families of the Magharba such as the Latiawish.

Haftar’s avowed aim is to rid Libya of militant Islamists. Ranged against him is Dar Al-Ifta head Sheik Sadiq al-Ghariani, Libya’s hard-line Grand Mufti. Sheik Ghariani is based in Tripoli and has his own TV station from whence he preaches recklessly throughout Libya.  He appears to be unassailable and is strongly suspected of supporting Salafist-Jihadist organisation in Eastern Libya. Whilst they vary in influence I find these to be the most interesting at the time of writing.

Derna, the small city and port on the north coast of East Libya, has long been a haven for Salafist-Jihadists. Some three years ago I wrote this in a blog piece about Derna.  ‘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 Shura Council of Islamic Youth. There are strong elements within this amalgamated group which have ties to Al Qaida. The Shura Council of Islamic Youth has gained a reputation for violence and militancy. It has carried out at least two public executions in Derna which have been condemned by Amnesty International’

Since I wrote the above Derna has had the doubtful pleasure of a period of Islamic State rule. The IS folk were evicted and the city is now ruled by the Shura Council of Muhajadeen in Derna. I suggest it is likely that this organisation has evolved from the Shura Council of Islamic Youth and has strong connections with Ansar Sharia and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Derna is geographically isolated and I suspect the Haftar has it well contained and will try to deal with it later, avoiding collateral damage as far as possible. He cannot leave the problem unresolved much longer.

Notable in this regard are the reports coming from inside Libya that the Egyptian Air Force has made two bombing raids on Islamist strongholds in Derna recently. The last was on the morning of the 29th May.  The raids were made in conjunction with Haftar’s Libyan National Army and aimed at strategically important points controlled by Derna’s Mujahadeen Shura Council. The Egyptians had been exasperated by murderous attacks on their Coptic Churches which, they believe, were carried out by terrorists based or trained near Derna. Egypt has now shown its support for Haftar in no uncertain terms

Haftar’s three year long campaign to remove Islamist-Jihadist forces from Benghazi has been successful. It has been protracted because of the nature of guerrilla warfare in cities.Those interested in what is a relatively modern military problem will find this paper worth reading. It has also been hampered by Haftar’s lack of a navy thus allowing reinforcements and supplies to reach the militants from Misrata, across the Gulf of Sirte. Benghazi now has a relatively stable municipal government led by its acting mayor, Abdelrahmen el-Abbar. The Abbar family is prominent in the Awaquir tribe. The Awaquir is one of the nine  Sa’adi tribes and its homeland surrounds Benghazi. Hafter must be concerned that pockets of militants remain in Benghazi’s Sabri and Suq al-Hout districts.  His Libyan National Army spearheaded by experienced special force launched an attack on militants in these two districts on 8th May 2017.

Particularly interesting now is the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries. In my view this body has Ansar Sharia as its mainstay and is likely to be allied to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. It is its connection with the Benghazi Defence Brigades which must trouble Haftar. They were formed under the banner of Sheik Sadiq Ghariani and appear to be based in or near Misrata. This unit was strong enough to take Haftar’s forces unawares and evict them briefly from the important Oil Crescent facilities of Ben Jawad and Nuflia. It is also supported by the Muslim Brotherhood and thus by ‘political Islam’.

Is Khalifa Haftar strong enough to rule Libya? He has repeatedly stated that he does not wish to do so. Should he attempt to do so he may not receive sufficient international support. I have drawn attention to only some of those who pose a danger to him in his own back yard.  There are many more obstacles in the way of a settlement in Libya. However, Haftar must be counted amongst those who may achieve a solution. Of note is the spate of ambassadors who have visited him in recent weeks.  They are Ambassadors Peter Millet of the UK, Brigitte Curmi of France, Guiseppe Perrone of Italy and Eric Strating of Holland. The UN Special Envoy to Libya, Martin Kobler, also visited recently. It is my view that Haftar will not have compromised on  his clear and determined claim to the command of all Libya’s armed forces. We will see how all this works out soon.

WHAT WILL FIELD MARSHAL KHALIFA HAFTAR DO NEXT? (Further notes added 13th June 2017)

Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s forces are now in possession of the Brak Al-Shatti and Jufra airbases in Southern and Central Libya. Effectively they took them from the Misuratan based 13th Brigade and Mustafa Al-Sharksi’s Benghazi Defence Brigade which had deployed ruthless tactics. The 13th Brigade is said to have withdrawn to its base in Misurata and the Benghazi Defence Brigade to Sabratha to the west of Tripoli.

Once Haftar’s advance troops have made the airfields safe, cleared their approaches and organised the logistics, he will be able to position his warplanes within striking distance of Misurata and Tripoli. He can also use his transport aircraft to ferry in material and reinforcements to build up a strong foothold in Central Libya. This shifts his strategic outlook considerably but it gives Haftar a new set of political and tribal considerations peculiar to the South and West of the country.

Let us look at it now from the tribal point of view. Brak al-Shati is in the territory of the Magarha tribe to which belonged Abdulbaset al-Magrahi, the convicted Lockerby bomber. Notable amongst the tribe’s sons is Abdulla Senussi, Gaddafi’s brother in law and intelligence supremo and Major Abdessalam Jalloud, Gaddafi’s sometime second in command.

Jufra is within the tribal homeland of the Aulad Suleiman to which Gaddafi’s tribe, the Gaddadfa, is in a client relationship.  The Gaddadfa is now much diminished in influence in the light of Ghadaffy’s downfall, though it is interesting to note that Gaddfi’s eldest son, Saif al Islam, has just been released from prison in Zintan. His whereabouts are still unknown and speculation is rife at the time of writing. One suggestion is that he has joined Gaddafi’s sometime General, Ali Kana, the Tuareg whose militia controls much of Libya’s south west. There is an interesting paper on the Gaddafists here.

Saif al Islam’s whereabouts are important because they may give us an indication of where support for the old Gaddafi regime is strongest. The Gaddafists are, so far, lying doggo but they oppose Haftar who they consider to be an American with his own agenda. At some time Haftar will have to deal with both the Gaddafists and with Ali Kana’s Tuareg militias. There is something about Ali Kana here.

The Zintanis are Hafter’s allies in the Jebel Nefusa some 180 kilometres south west of Tripoli. They have been preparing to move back into Tripoli for some time. They refer to themselves as the Western Command of Haftar’s Libyan National Army and are well armed and thirsting for revenge having been beaten out of Tripoli in the summer of 2014 by the Misuratan lead forces. They have broken up the Abubakr Al-Siddiq brigade which released Saif al Islam and Haftar can still count on their support.

Misurata, Libya’s third largest city some 210 kilometres east of Tripoli, is in the process of change. The municipal council is beginning to assert itself against the powerful Islamist militias which have dominated the city for some considerable time. The militias are, however, still well armed and Hafter would be wise to outflank them were he to intend to dominate Tripoli. It is perhaps this consideration which has influenced his strategy.

He has indicted that his next step is to move some 300 kilometres north east into Beni Walid. This is particularly interesting. Beni Walid is the stronghold of the Warfella tribe and was one of the last pro-Gaddafi centres to surrender during the 2011 civil war. The Warfella, one Western Libya’s Sa’adi tribes, is also said to be one of Libya’s largest and was greatly favoured by Gaddafi for much of his reign. There are reports that Haftar has already met Warfella leaders to discuss future operations. There are still, it is said, a number of Gaddfists in Beni Walid. Which horse will the Beni Walid leaders put their money on?

Should Hafter achieve a move to Beni Walid he may consider the Warfella’s western neighbour the Tarhuna tribe as the next objective on his road to Tripoli. We will see.

John Oakes

13th June 2017

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