Posts Tagged ‘Egypt’
Since the 11th century the nomadic and semi nomadic Bedouin tribes of Libya lived out their traditional lives on land they owned by right of conquest. They moved their tents, their animals and their goods about their homelands according to the seasons. The Libyan Desert and the Sahara are reluctant to yield food and water to those who choose to live in them. Libyan tribes, therefore, protected their water sources, their plough land, their seasonal grazing lands and their date palms. They won a frugal living from a harsh environment with which they remained in a finely balanced equilibrium. Consequently the appearance of strangers in their homelands was treated with a degree of suspicion which underlay traditional desert hospitality.
The Bedouin humour needs a practiced ear to appreciate it. You can hear it in the phrase they used when strangers overstayed their welcome amongst them. They would say, ‘The camel has got its nose in the tent’.
In the middle of the last century oil was found in abundance in Libya’s tribal lands. Tribesmen found employment in the oil industry and the old pastoral life faded. For more than 40 years Libya was ruled by the eccentric Muammar Gaddafi, a man born in a Bedouin tent near Sirte. His rule was despotic and he was removed from power in 2011. Since his demise Libya has been wracked by strife and armed discord. The seed of religious extremism, ruthlessly suppressed throughout Gaddafi’s rule, has germinated in the Arab Spring and now threatens to overwhelm Libya.
The brutal Caliphate which calls itself ‘The Islamic Sate of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)’ exploded out of Syria and seized territory and minds in Iraq with bewildering speed. It has become a de facto state with much of the apparatus of statehood. It is expanding rapidly and has looked for vulnerable and profitable places into which it might expand. It clearly has a greedy eye on Egypt which it threatens from the Sinai Peninsular.
Egypt’s western neighbour, Libya, became a magnet for ISIL. It harbours rich reserves of oil. It is a very large country and thus hard to police. It has fallen into armed discord since the demise of Gaddafi. Gaddafi’s huge stockpiles of arms have been looted and the country is awash with weapons. The armed militias which fought to topple Gaddafi have remained in being and are vying for power. There are two governments which are unable to reconcile their differences and one of them, that which is based in Tripoli, has Islamist leanings. Neither government has, so far, been able to exercise control over the numerous armed militias many of which are led by militant Islamists. There is no effective national police force or judiciary. The militias have assumed both of these roles from which they enrich themselves.
In the near anarchy of Libya, the ‘Islamic State’ was guaranteed a ready source of recruits and also a sufficiency of fellow travellers in positions of power. Now it has a foothold in Derna and Behghazi and is in complete control of the coastal city of Sirte and its neighbouring town of Al-Nawfaliyah.
Sirte was Gaddafi’s home town and he poured a great deal of money into it. He was killed trying to escape from it in 2011 and the city of Sirte has been a pariah ever since. It was thus virtually outlawed and an easy target for IS. It lies between the de facto government based in Tripoli and the internationally recognised government based in the eastern city of Tobruk. These ‘governments’ as so badly at odds that they are unable to combine to root IS out of Sirte. The Islamic State is thus safe in Sirte until a government of national unity exerts sufficient force to attack and eliminate it.
I vividly recall making the journey from Tripoli to Benghazi by road in the 1960s. The Tripoli oasis ends as the road turns south east at Misrata and dives into the desert through which it continues with little let up but for the towns and oil ports for more than 650Kms until it reaches Ajdabia. It is hard to convey in a few words how daunting that desert journey was in the mid twentieth century. It may have become somewhat easier now but is clear – to me at least – how difficult it would be to mount an attack on IS in its stronghold in Sirte.
So safe does IS feel in Sirte that it is from there that it now operates ISIL’s satellite TV station Al Bayan on which it broadcasts the brutal Islamic State propaganda.
There is one other major factor which has not so far been emphasised. Sirte lies to the west of the major oil ports which are spread along the southern shore of the Gulf of Sirte. This is significant in the light of this report by Maha Sulaiman which appeared in the Libya Herald on 3rd November 2015.
‘There has been another assassination attempt in Ajdabiya. Gunmen last night attempt to kill a local imam, Salem Rahil. Several shots were fired at his car as he was leaving his home. Rahil, who is also a member of staff at the University of Benghazi’s Islamic Studies Department, was unhurt.
Ajdabiya is currently the most dangerous place in Libya in terms of assassinations and attempted assassinations, which are on the rise.
Last week, a Salfist imam was murdered when a car bomb exploded beneath his vehicle. Ten days earlier the local army intelligence chief Colonel Ataya Al-Arabi died in a hail of gunfire as he drove up to his home. The day before that there was an attempt to kill another Salafist imam in the town in a similar car bomb attack. Sheikh Mohammed Bodiam escaped serious injury but his nephew was killed.
At the beginning of October, Hassuna Al-Atawish Al-Magharbi, the commander of the LNA’s Brigade 302, which is currently fighting in Benghazi, was shot dead in the town. In September, local militiaman Nasser Al-Rugaieh and political activist Belgassem Al-Zwai were killed in separate incidents and there was an attempt to kill local journalist Usama Al-Jarred.
Almost all the attacks have been blamed on Islamic State (IS) forces or the Islamist Ajdabiya Revolutionaries’ Shoura Council.’
The Islamic State is bidding to take over Ajdabia. Why is this significant? Ajdabia is a strategic city in Libya. It lies to the east of and very close to the oil ports on the southern shores of the Gulf of Sirte. I have already pointed out in earlier blog posts that Adjdabia lies at the point where the coastal road from Tripoli around the shores of the Gulf of Sirte branches north east for Benghazi, almost due east for Tobruk and south east for Kufra. It is a hub for people trafficking from the Sudan. It is also the base of Ibrahim Jhadran who commands the Central Petroleum Facilities Guard and has the power to shut down the oil ports in the Gulf of Sirte.
It is not difficult to see what would happen if IS controls Ajdabia as well as Sirte. It would lie across the sole road access to Libya’s major oil terminals which lie between Sirte and Ajdabia at Marsa Brega, al-Sidr and Ras Lanuf. It would also command the hub of Libya’s eastern highway system. That would not be desirable. The IS camel would have its nose firmly in the Libya tent.
6th October 2015
Update 2nd December 2015
This, in the British Daily Telegraph today, makes disconcerting reading:
Update 5th January 2915
IS has launched an attack on the Libyan oil terminal at Sidra. This from the BBC is worth noting as it has a useful map showing the various ‘power bases’ in Libya.
The Libya Herald is today carrying a report listing the names of the IS fighters killed in the attack. They are all Sudanese:
‘As with almost all other IS suicide attacks, there are no Libyans involved. All four were Sudanese. IS names them as Abu Muad Al-Ghurhani, Abu Hamam Al-Ansari, Abu Abdalla Al-Ansari and Abdulrahman Al-Mohajer.’ ……….. ‘At least two members of the Petroleum Facilities Guard were killed this morning during a two-pronged attack by IS on the Sidra and Ras Lanouf oil export terminals.
It appears that IS launched two suicide car bombers at the security gate guarding Sidra in a diversionary strike while another force of up to a dozen vehicles looped south and attacked Ras Lanouf, 32 kilometres further east. In this assault one of the storage tanks in the tank farm was set ablaze.’ From Libya Herald, Tripoli, dated 4t January 2015.
Update 6th January 2015
This by Mustafa Fetouri, a Libyan academic, makes the case for intervention:-
Update 24th April 2016
This from the Libya Herald.
Tripoli, 23 April 2016:
The head of the central region Petroleum Facilities’ Guards (PFG), Ibrahim Jadhran, was injured this morning in fighting with convoy of vehicles from the so-called Islamic State. According to a PFG source, one guard was killed and, in addition to Jadhran, three others wounded. He claimed that a number of IS fighters had been killed and six of their vehicles captured.
Jadhran was not seriously wounded, the source stated and, after treatment at Ajdabiya’s Imhemed Al-Magarief Hospital, returned to the fighting.
The convoy of around 100 vehicles was spotted around dawn this morning south of Brega. PFG forces from Ajdabiya were called in and engaged them some 50 kilometres from Brega. Fighting continued until around midday.
According to the source, the convoy was not that of the IS fighters who retreated from Derna on Wednesday. With less than 40 vehicles, it was reported to have reached Sirte on Thursday.
The PGF source was unable to say where today’s convoy was heading, although with 100 vehicles it was thought to be taking part in a fresh military operation, possibly an attack on the oil facilities in Brega itself. In January, IS attacked the Sidra and Ras Lanuf export terminals and then attempted an attack on the Zuetina terminal.
Meanwhile there are separate reports of IS fighters pulling out of the village of Ben Jawad, 170 kilometres west of Brega and returning to Sirte, but these have not been confirmed.
Ben Jawad was captured by IS in January.
Update 27th April 2016
It is clear that a concerted attempt to deal with the IS lodgement in Sirte is underway as this in the Libya Herald shows:
Tripoli and Khartoum, 26 April 2016.
There are reports of the movement of two groups of Libyan National Army troops towards Sirte from the south-west and east. Meanwhile at least one Misratan brigade has announced it is moving eastwards toward the 200 kilometre-long coastal strip controlled by IS terrorists.
An army source told this newspaper that a force of more than a thousand men had left Ghabghab, the main army base at Marj and was heading for Sirte. It seems likely that the convoy will include some of the armoured personnel carriers and pickups delivered to Tobruk from the UAE on Saturday.
It is also being reported that the LNA commander in the west, Colonel Idris Madi, is pushing towards IS territory from the south-west. He is said to be accompanied by Colonel Mohamed Ben Nail, the commander of 241 Brigade and Colonel Ali Seedi Al-Tabawey, commander of the Tebu 25 Brigade. This unit, which fought against IS and Ansar Al-Sharia forces in Benina in Benghazilast year is based around the Sarir/Messla oil fields, the Sarir power station and the Shula oil compound.
On its social media site today Misrata’s Marsa Brigade has said that forces belonging to the city’s Military Council were concentrating before advance eastwards toward Sirte.
It is unclear if the Misratan move is being made in coordination with the Armed Forces Commander-in-Chief Khalifa Hafter.
It is significant that the army has named its part of the move against Sirte “Qurdabiya 2” after a battle near Sirte at Wadi Al-Hamar (The Red Valley) fought against the Italians in 1915. This was notable for the fact that it was the only major occasion on which Libyans from Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and Fezzan fought side by side against the Italians,
An elder of the Magharba tribe said today on 218 TV that his people will do whatever they can to help the movement of army units from the east. Meanwhile, Petroleum Facilities Guard commander Ibrahim Jadhran, a long-standing Hafter opponent, is understood to have agreed not to interfere with the army advance. Jadhran, who is himself from the Magharba, is believed to have sought to extend the PFG’s control over more oil fields to the south.
There has been considerable social media chatter in recent days about an impending operation against IS. A series of pictures has been posted claiming to show various units advancing.
Reports from inside Sirte this evening indicated that the town in unusually quiet and that the local radio station is broadcasting an almost constant diet of IS songs.
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.
“The (ISIS) jihadists are already here (in Libya). If a real political dialogue does not start in Libya soon, there is only one thing that will be certain: the country will be an open field for Isis”. Bernardino Leon, the head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya……..‘There are a number of lessons to learn from the events in Libya, which apply to other countries in the region. The world cannot afford to ignore the fate of Libya and it hangs in the balance.’ Admiral Lord Alan West – former UK Chief of Defence Intelligence.
It is likely that the Libyan National Army General, Sulaiman Mahmoud Al-Obeidi, will have to fight yet one more battle to save his country from danger. By all accounts he has been chosen to lead the fight to restore democracy to the eastern Libyan city Derna which the armed Ansar Al Sharia militia and its allies have declared to be the Whilaya Barca fil ad-Dawlah al-Islām – that is the ‘Provence of Cyrenaica within the Islamic State’. For them this means that Derna is no longer a part of Libya but owes it allegiance to the brutal Caliphate led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and based in Iraq and Syria. According to sources in Cairo this move follows a visit by fifteen members of Islamic State, led by an Egyptian and a Saudi national, who travelled to Derna from Syria in September.In the Spring of last year, hundreds of Isil veterans, known as the Battar Group or Brigade, who had been fighting in Deir Ezzour in eastern Syria and Mosul in northern Iraq decamped to Derna, aligning themselves to another group. A Yemeni militant later arrived from Syria, in September, to become their leader.
Put simply Sulaiman Mahmoud Al Obeidi, the man who conducted the battle to free Tripoli from Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, has been chosen to lead the new Libyan National Army to fight the difficult battle to root out the ‘Islamic State’ (IS) from its Libyan stronghold. Some Derna residents believe that his forward units are now only 40 kilometres or so east of Derna, awaiting orders to attack.
The magnitude of General Sulaiman Mahmoud’s task should not be underestimated. The Islamic State fights dirty. Its ruthless soldiers embed themselves and their armouries amongst the civilian population so that an invading force must proceed with great caution and implacable discipline. This ‘human shield’ tactic was employed by Hezbollah in Gaza to great effect and resulted in the dreadful civilian causalities caused by the Israelis.
It should be clear that Ansar Al-Sharia has not achieved power in Derna democratically. When Libya elected a House of Representatives this year, Ansar Al-Sharia would not allow the citizens of Derna to vote. They eliminated their opposition by shooting some and terrifying others. They argue that “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 (Libya) other than the laws of Allah.” The Libya Herald reports, they have ‘banned the teaching of foreign languages, mathematics and science and closed both the local Higher Education Institute and the law department at the town’s Omar Mukhtar University, the later because it was not teaching Sharia law, the former because of gender mixing among staff and students’.
The Derna Caliphate has imported foreign judges, one of whom is from the Yemen, said to be versed in Sharia law to preside over new courts. They have already sentenced some youths to a public flogging for drinking alcohol. The sentence for this crime, which in this case was carried out in the courtyard of an old mosque, is 40 to 80 lashes with palm branches stripped of their leaves.
The Libyan government of Abdulla Al-Thini recognises that dialogue with the newly declared Islamic Caliphate of Derna is likely to lead nowhere. The Libyan National Army has already embarked on a battle to free neighbouring Benghazi of Islamic militias. It is clear that Al-Thinni thinks that Derna must be liberated next. In this context his statements in a recent press conference are important; “There are (IS/ISIL) groups located in the city of Derna and other Libyan cities …..Also, even the group Boko Haram from Nigeria is present……Terrorism has no specific place and we have to recognize the seriousness of the existence of these groups to destabilize the security of the country….They will destabilize the country until the state breaks down and Libya becomes divided into a diaspora”.
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 Sinai. 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 Ansar 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.
These heartfelt words of despair written by Osman Mirghani in Ciaro’s Asharq Al-Awsat dated 1st November 2014 are worth noting by all who care for the future of the Arab world; ‘Over the past few decades we have witnessed the systematic destruction of the region and its states—by terrorism, conflict or civil wars—to the point that many people in the region have completely forgotten the very taste of stability and security. Iraq was destroyed and is now facing the likelihood of partition and division. Syria today more closely resembles Berlin after the Second World War in terms of the extent of the destruction and displacement that has been visited on its population. Libya is drowning in destructive wars following the proliferation of arms and militias on the ground. Yemen is reeling from the advance of the Houthis and their control of key state institutes. Lebanon has suffered one setback after another and is beset by fears of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) advancement. The list goes on.’
Libya is indeed ‘drowning in destructive wars.’ Reports from the eastern city of Benghazi, where the Libyan National Army is fighting to remove Islamist militias, indicate that 283 people have been killed since the operation began on Wednesday 15th October. Fighting there is still fierce and centred around the dock area.
John Oakes 4th November 2014
Update 5th November 2014
France, the UK and the US have just petitioned the UN Security Council to add Ansar Sharia in Benghazi and Derna to the UN terror list. According to the Libya Herald they do so because, amongst other reasoms; there is evidence that the Benghazi branch operates several training camps whose recruits feed mainly into Syria and Iraq, with some going to Mali.
Twelve of the 24 jihadists who attacked the In Amenas gas complex in Algeria in 2013 trained in the Ansar Al-Sharia camps in Benghazi…..The Derna branch also played a role in the 2012 attack on the US mission in Benghazi and is known to operate camps in Derna and Jebel Akhdar for training jihadists bound for Syria and Iraq.
Update 14th November 2014
The dreadful brutality shown by the ‘Islamic State’ has not, so far, deterred numerous recruits to their colours from Europe, the US and Australia. It is hard to see how they can rationalise this appalling news. During the past week four young men have been beheaded by ‘IS’ in Derna and their executions filmed and posted on social media. Three of them were killed for blogging criticism of the Islamic State in Derna and the fourth appears to be a soldier from the army of Khalifa Hafter’s Operation Dignity which is poised to retake Derna on behalf of the internationally recognised government.
Update 26th November 2014
This appeared in the Libya Herald on 20th November 2014 and I take the liberty of quoting it in its entirety here. It needs some further thought.
‘General Sulaiman Mahmoud Al-Obeidi, was in charge of the revolutionary army forces in Tobruk during the revolution, has again said that he is ready to lead a force to wrest Derna from the control of Ansar Al-Sharia. He says he is awaiting authorisation from the Chief of Staff, the House of Representatives and the government. He also says that he has been asked by tribes in the Jebel Akhdar (the Green Mountains) to head an attack and was on a reconnaissance visit to the area yesterday.
Last month, he announced that he was ready to surround Derna and was awaiting final instructions from the Chief of Staff
It appears, however, that the authorities are not particularly keen for him to take on the task, especially after he reportedly said that he would “clear Derna without damaging it” – a claim seen as a deliberate criticism of Khaled Hafter, whose Operation Dignity to remove Ansar Al-Sharia and associated Islamist forces from Benghazi has lasted six months, with hundreds dead and considerable damage to the city
According to Saqr Adam Geroushi, the commander of Operation Dignity air forces fighting as part of the Libyan National Army, Obeidi has been given no green light to launch an offensive against Derna – and is unlikely to be given it.
The current military and political leadership are said to be nervous about Obeidi’s relationship with the Qaddafi regime before the revolution. Additionally, he is accused of retaining links with the sacked Chief of Staff, Major-General Abdussalam Jadallah Obeidi, as well as with another military leader the Tobruk-based authorities regard with some suspicion, Colonel Mohamed Bughafir. The latter, who leads the Beida-based Ali Hassan Al-Jabber Brigade, is regarded with some considerable hostility by Ibrahim Jadhran who is now an ally of the House of Representatives and the Thinni government. The two fought each other in Ajdabiya earlier this year
As a result, Geroushi said, the Obeidi tribe had stated that it would not support any action unless the general had prior approval from the Chief of Staff.
If Obeidi tried to undertake any military action against Derna by himself, Geroushi added, there would certainly be no air support from him.
For the time being, remains blockaded to the east, west and south. Its only free access is by boat. Local families, however, are still managing to flee the town. Many have been accommodated in Marj, Beida and Tobruk. Some have gone to the safer parts of Benghazi’.
Update 7th December 2014
(Reuters 19th November 2014) – The U.N. Security Council on Wednesday blacklisted two branches of the Islamist extremist group Ansar al-Sharia in Libya, which Washington says was behind the 2012 Benghazi attack that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.
(Derna should be well known to US citizens. It was defended briefly by the US Navy and US Marines in 1805 during the Barbary wars when the sailors from the USS Philadelphia were incarcerated in the dungeons of Tripoli castle. They, and any others with an interest in Libya or US history, will find this source fascinating; http://www.history.navy.mil/library/online/barbary_derna.htm )
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.
A FIRST POST IN AN OCCASIONAL SERIES ABOUT THE FATE OF GADDAFI’S ENOURMOUS STOCKPILE OF ARMS
At the Paris Summit for Security in Nigeria at the Elysée Palace in Paris on Saturday, May 17, 2014. Ashraq Al-Awsat reported:-
“Hours after yet another attack in a Boko Haram stronghold—this time in Cameroon, near the border with Nigeria—the leaders agreed to improve policing of frontiers, share intelligence, and trace the weapons and cash that are the group’s lifeblood.
“This group is armed, with heavy weapons of an unimaginable sophistication and the ability to use them,” said French President François Hollande.
He said the weapons came from chaotic Libya, and the training took place in Mali before the ouster of its Al-Qaeda linked Islamist leaders. As for the money, Hollande said its origins were murky.”
Gaddafi’s appetite for arms was extraordinary and his arms depots have been systematically looted since his downfall. Libyan has become a major source of illegal arms exported eastwards into Egypt and Syria, westwards to arm the al Qaeda franchise fighting in the Chaambi Mountains in Tunisia and southwards into the Sahel countries and Nigeria
We are well into the third year of the post Gaddafi era in Libya. The process of reconstruction and reformation has not, so far, been markedly successful. The level of international support has declined and the loose alliance which is attempting to run the country is under severe strain.
At a London investment conference on 17th August 2013 the Libyan Prime Minister Dr Ali Zeidan stated; “I say frankly that if the international community does not help us collect arms and ammunition, then the return of security is going to take a long time. The (Libyan) government can only do so much”. Amongst the major threats to Libya and her neighbours is the lack of control over the vast amount of weaponry and military hardware which the Gaddafi regime left in its wake. Because of the fractured nature of the rebellion and the chaotic logistic systems employed by both the Gaddafi loyalists and the rebel militias substantial quantities of arms and munitions are unaccounted for to this day.
When it became clear that the NATO and Qatari forces aligned against him had achieved air superiority Gaddafi dispersed vast quantities of mines, mortars, artillery, anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles, tanks and ammunition into abandoned buildings and private properties. These caches were drawn on by both Gaddafi loyalists and rebel militias during the fluid and chaotic civil war.
Few people know how much there was or where it is now. Many are still guessing, including MI6 which the London Sunday Times has quoted as its source for the statement that ‘there is a million tons of weaponry in Libya – more than the entire arsenal of the British Army – most of it unsecured’.
Following Gaddafi’s demise much of the weaponry was seized by revolutionary and post revolutionary militias which are now using it to control regions where the rule of law is weak or absent.
The mercenary army which Gaddafi recruited from neighbouring countries to bolster the defence of his regime dispersed homewards after the fall of Tripoli carrying looted weapons and ammunition. In particular, the exodus of his battle hardened Tuareg warriors with their considerable armoury caused instability in Mali and unrest in the other Sahel.
The remote and climatically unfavourable southern regions of Libya have been declared a military zone and are thus opaque to Libya watchers. This means that the areas around Ghadamis, Ghat, Awbari, Al-Shati, Sebha, Murzuq and Kufra as closed zones of military operations. The long border between Libya and her southern neighbours – Darfur, Chad and Niger – have always been porous and are now more so. The looted arms may be cached in large quantities in this area and moved out by convoy when the opportunity arises or smuggled in small quantities by what is known as ant smugglers, individuals or small groups who make frequent to a fro journeys carrying arms, drugs and migrants.
The near lawless south of Libya has attracted the attention of the Al Qaeda ‘Emir’ Mukhtar Belmukhtar who may have established training base there and who is a notorious trafficker in arms, cigarettes and people. Mukhtar Belmukhtar is believed to have mounted the attack in January 2013 on the BP gas facility in Southern Algeria from Libya and has been seen recently in an Al Qaeda video posing with a anti-aircraft rocket launcher (MANPAD) which may have been looted from Libya. Chad, Niger and Algeria have protested to Libya about the growing security threat posed by the lawlessness in the region.
There are a number of bloggers and some US legislators who are claiming that CIA operatives at the time when US Ambassador Chris Stevens was killed in Benghazi were running arms from Gaddafi’s looted stockpiles in Libya to rebel forces in Syria. Amongst them is Phil Greaves to whose blog is found here http://notthemsmdotcom.wordpress.com/.
There is growing and persistent evidence that ships containing arms and ammunition are plying between the Libyan ports of Misurata and Benghazi and ports in Turkey adjacent to Syria. These shipments are either made with the tacit agreement or the acquiescence of the Libyan Government. It seems to those of us who watch events that both Benghazi and Misurata, Libya’s second and third largest cities, are largely bereft of government control. Misurata is in the hands of well organised militias or ‘Thwars’ and Benghazi has been hijacked by militias with powerful salafist/wahabi/jihadist supporters but little popular appeal.
Arms are also moving illegally towards the escalating rebellion in the Sinai where the Egyptian army is waging a war which is likely to attract Al Qaeda franchises and to destabilise the border with Israel. Hezbollah in the Gaza strip has been seen to display arms which have their origin in Libya and which it may be using in its activities in Syria. The Egyptian military is disconcerted about the distribution of Libyan arms amongst discontented groups west of Suez.
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 27th September 2013
At a meeting on 26th September with five of the G8 foreign ministers in New York, Prime Minister Ali Zeidan repeated his call for international help to stop the plundering of stock piles of Qaddafi-era arms and ammunition.
Update 2nd March 2014
Update 28th March 2014
News of explosions around Sebha indicate that the arms dumps are ungraded still.
Update 19th May 2014
This piece shows that Nigeria’s Boko Haram obtained their considerable and sophisticated weaponry from Gaddafi’s stockpiles in Libya
Update 25th July 2014
Egypt is very concerned about the unprecedented amount of arms and ammunition being smuggled across her long and difficult border with Libya:
On 1st November 2011 the readers of the ‘Sydney Morning Herald’ may have been interested in Nick Meo’s piece headlined ‘Treasure of Benghazi…… theft may be one of biggest in history’. Nick told them; ‘A priceless collection of nearly 8000 ancient gold, silver and bronze coins has been stolen from a bank vault in the Libyan city of Benghazi’.
Since then the story of the ‘Treasure of Benghazi’ has reflected the unforeseen consequences of the Arab Spring and the damaging effects of the illicit trade in antiquities, said to be the third most lucrative crime after drug running and arms smuggling.
It may be useful to add something about the history of East Libya as a background to the Benghazi Treasure story. In 631 BC the fertile land east of Benghazi, known as the Jebel al Akhdar, received a colony from the Greek island of Thera, now Santorini, which had become overpopulated and was in the throes of a famine. The Therans were soon joined by other colonists from Aegean islands. The colony was successful and gave rise to four daughter colonies, Euhesperides (later Berenice and now Benghazi), Appolonia (the port of Cyrene on the coast below the great city itself), Taucheira (now called Tochra, the ruins of which guard the Tochra pass up into the Jebel al Akhdar) and Ptolemais. These five communities together were sometimes known as Libya Pentapolis.
The level of civilisation in Cyrene was notably high as the great ruins, still seen in the Jebel al Akhdar, amply testify. The fertile region, which surrounds it, was brilliantly cultivated and supplied the Greek city states with livestock, wine, apples and olive oil. In 96 BC the Greek influence in Cyrene began to dwindle, and the last Greek ruler, Ptolemy XII Apion, left it to the Romans in his will. It remained a Roman province for around 300 years.
The best inventory of the lost Benghazi Treasure is given by Martin Bailey in his piece entitled; ‘Interpol confirms Libyan treasure was looted’ in ‘The Art Newspaper’, Issue 229 dated November 2011. He states that it consists of three collections of archaeologically excavated material and is thought to comprise ’364 gold coins, 2,433 silver coins, 4,484 bronze coins, 306 pieces of jewellery and 43 other antiquities’. The coins come from the Mieleu collection.
The Benghazi Treasure contained the most important antiquities to be excavated in Eastern Libya during the Italian occupation which lasted from 1911 until 1942. The finest of the items were found in 1917 at the Temple of Artemis in Cyrene. Dating from the fifth and sixth centuries BC, they included gold earrings, embossed heads and a plaque depicting a battle. Other treasures were excavated in 1937 from the Palace of Columns in Ptolemais.
In 1942, when the British 8th Army was advancing on Libya, Italian archaeologists packed up the treasure and sent it to Rome. In 1961, during the reign of King Idris, the collection was returned to Benghazi were a museum to house it was planned. It failed to materialise. In the meantime the sealed boxes containing the treasure were placed in a vault in the National Commercial Bank on Omar al-Mukhtar Street where they remained until the February 2011 revolution when Gaddafi’s forces were removed from the city.
The bulk of the treasure has vanished, though who took it remains a mystery. Details of the robbery are slowly emerging. The Treasure was largely in sealed boxes placed in metal storage cupboards in a strong room at the National Commercial Bank of Benghazi. On 25th May 2011 thieves drilled a narrow hole through the concrete ceiling and entered the strong room. They broke open the metal storage cupboards and the red wax seals on the wooden trunks housing the collection. The thieves made away with all but ten per cent of the objects originally housed in the vault.
The story now takes a sinister turn. The bank officials did not report the theft until October 2011, over six months later. Fadel al-Hasi, Libya’s acting minister for antiquities, told the BBC there were suspicions that the robbery was an inside job. The robbers clearly knew where the boxes were and what was in them. They left other valuable items in the vault untouched. Suspicion falls on employees of the Libyan Department of Antiquities or the bank’s employees. The later have been questioned several times. Mr al-Hasi has, belatedly, alerted Interpol and international antiquities markets are being monitored.
There were a number of possibilities for the disposal of the treasure. If it was an inside job it might have been stolen to order. Looted and illegal antiquities pass from plunderers to dealers who value them and arrange for them to be moved on to the markets. The enormous increase in the volume of this trade over the past twenty years has caused the large-scale plundering of archaeological sites and museums around the world.
There are those, like Paul Bennett of ‘The Society for Libyan Studies’, who are certain that there are organized bands of antiquity thieves going across the Libya border into Egypt. A number of Roman antiquities was recovered last year when a convoy of forces loyal to Qaddafi were intercepted on the road to Tripoli airport. The loot included 17 stone heads and some terracotta fragments.
Rumours are beginning to emerge. Some early reports indicated that 500 coins from the Benghazi Treasure turned up in Egypt and others have appeared on the black market in Libya. Nick Meo (see above) has reported that an Egyptian farmer was caught with over 500 coins and a gold figurine that may to have come from the Benghazi Treasure.
We have a fair idea of what the ‘treasure’ was but not of who took it or where it has gone.
As President Obama strives for re-election, pressures may be mounting on him to strike at those who killed the US ambassador and his colleagues in Benghazi on 11th September. The process of identifying and selecting the possible assassins in Libya is well advanced. The President’s reactions in this matter will be guided by public opinion at home as well as by strategic imperatives. To allow the killer of one of his ambassadors to go unpunished will have both domestic and international repercussions. Whatever the outcome, the killing of Ambassador Stevens will change the way US diplomats conduct their business abroad and security considerations will limit their effectiveness.
There is no shortage of those who suggest that the USA has lost influence in Africa as a result of President Obama’s weakness. There are indications, for example, that the Egyptian army is ‘retiring’ many officers suspected of being too close to the USA. The al Qaeda led destabilisation of Mali is likely to affect Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso and Mauritania. The tension between the Muslim north and the Christian south of Nigeria will open up many opportunities for the promoters of violence, notably the al Qaeda franchise Boko Haram.
The US policy in Libya must be seen in the wider context. ‘Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’, now in de facto control of much of Mali, has been seeking a foothold in Libya and has found friends in the Salafist ‘Ansar al Sharia’ militia brigade in Benghazi and Derna. The US has long been interested in Derna, the seaport some miles to the east of Benghazi, where a number of young men were recruited to fight with the Taliban in Afghanistan and some have been returned to Libya by way of Guantanamo.
One Derna resident in particular has a most interesting profile according to Wikileaks. He is Abu Sufian Ibrahim Ahmed Hamuda Bin Qumu who was a prisoner in Guantanamo Bay for six years. He was a member of the ‘Libyan Islamic Fighting Group’ and later trained in an al Qaeda camp in Afghanistan and fought there as a commander of Arab volunteers. When in 2007 the Guantanamo Bay issue became and embarrassment to the Obama administration Bin Qumu was released and returned to Libya where the Gadaffi regime agreed to keep him in prison. However, in 2010 he was released from the notorious Abu Salim jail as part of an amnesty for anti-regime prisoners. He is one of founders of the ‘Ansar al Sharia’ militia in Derna and Benghazi and it is this group which is suspected of the attack on the US embassy on 11th September. A 30,000 strong street protest in Benghazi led to the disbandment of ‘Ansar al Sharia’ but there have recently been a series armed attacks in Benghazi which indicate that many militiamen have gone to ground, taking their arms and ammunition with them.
The investigation which followed the killings on 11th September is not yet complete but an interesting hypothesis is developing along the following lines. Soon after the civil war in Libya got underway the US established a CIA post in an annex near the US embassy in Benghazi. From here signals traffic between Libyan suspects and al Qaeda units were monitored. It is probable that the location and function of this annex became known to the Ansar al Sharia militia. It is also supposed, on good grounds, that this militia was recruited by ‘Al Qaeda in the Arab Maghreb’.
It is argued that ‘Ansar al Sharia’ made a plan to attack the embassy and the annex which were surrounded by high walls and guarded by some US security specialists and some locally employed contract personnel. The plan was left ‘on the vine’ to await an opportune moment for its execution.
That came on 11th September when angry crowds demonstrated outside the US embassy against a now notorious and ill-conceived anti-Islamic video. Ambassador Stevens was also visiting the embassy on 11th September, apparently to interview a Lebanese contractor. Did Ansar al Sharia have foreknowledge of the ambassador’s presence in Benghazi?
When the protest started outside the embassy ‘Ansar al Sharia’ militiamen launched their attack. They were appropriately armed and used mortars to lob bombs over the high walls. The nature of the attack in which weapons were used skilfully means that experienced fighters were involved. It was well planned operation which took the form of two assaults, the first on the embassy and the second on the so called annex situated about half a mile distant.
US drones launched above Benghazi and Derna soon after the attack picked up telecoms between ‘Ansar al Sharia’ operatives in Benghazi and known al Qaeda units. It is, therefore, likely that the attackers were linked with ‘Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’. Among the American personnel evacuated from Benghazi after the attack were about a dozen C.I.A. operatives and contractors whose presence may have been betrayed to ‘Ansar al Sharia’. There are few foreigners in Benghazi at the moment and the presence of so many Americans must have been obvious. It is has always been a city where news spreads rapidly by word of mouth. Unless the US personnel lived without locally employed domestic servants their lives would have been subject to the closest scrutiny.
President Obama will have a number of options to consider. He has, however, made it clear that the US will punish the killer of Ambassador Stevens and his colleagues. What will he do?