By – Ahmed Atta:
Writer and political analyst
Political divisions and armed strife continued to plague Libya as two governments vied for legitimacy and control of the country, and United Nations’ efforts to unify the feuding parties flagged. The UN backs the Government of National Accord (GNA), based in Tripoli, in the west, but not the rival Interim Government based in the eastern cities of al-Bayda and Benghazi.
Clashes between militias and forces loyal to these rival factions decimated the economy and public services, including the public health system, law enforcement, and the judiciary, and caused the internal displacement of over 200,000 people.
Armed groups throughout the country, some of them affiliated with one or the other of the competing governments, executed persons extrajudicially, attacked civilians and civilian properties, abducted and disappeared people, and imposed sieges on civilians in the eastern cities of Derna and Benghazi.
The extremist armed group Islamic State (also known as ISIS) lost control of its Libya “capital” Sirte in December 2016. In January 2017, remaining ISIS forces in Benghazi fled the city. ISIS-affiliated fighters remained present in areas south of Sirte and Bani Walid.
Most of the more than 200,000 migrants and asylum seekers who reached Europe by sea in 2017 departed in boats from Libya. Migrants and asylum seekers who ended up in detention in Libya faced beatings, extortion, sexual violence, and forced labor in unofficial and quasi state-run detention centers, at the hands of guards, militias, and smugglers. Coast guard forces also beat migrants they intercepted at sea and forced them back to detention centers with inhumane conditions. Between January and November, 2,772 migrants died during perilous boat journeys in the central Mediterranean Sea, most having departed from the Libyan shore.
The problem of armed militias
One cannot discuss the future of the Libyan crisis without speaking about the militias and armed factions, which pose a serious obstacle to any possible political solution. Spreading like a wildfire, these militias are the natural outcome of the militarisation of the Libyan revolution, which Al-Alawi said was a grave mistake from the beginning. He gave several reasons for their increase in strength and number, including:
The former regime’s collapse helped these formations capture the country’s facilities and institutions along with enormous wealth.
Some militias have become havens for illegal profitable activities, such as drug and human trafficking and even prostitution.
The militias and armed brigades offer school dropouts an opportunity to prove themselves, acquire power and wealth, and cope with unemployment. As a result of these factors, many of the youth are joining the armed brigades, especially given the large salaries relative to those of governmental jobs.
Consequently, the numbers of armed actors in Libya have increased. Al-Alawi mentioned that at the end of October 2011, after Gaddafi’s demise and the celebration of what is known as Libya’s total liberation, National Transitional Council records listed 25,000 rebel fighters who fought the regime forces. However, by mid-2012, their number had become over 200,000. Al-Alawi also spoke about the map of armed militias in Tripoli, which includes about twelve large armed groups in addition to dozens of small militias. Some of these factions are loyal to the Government of National Accord, while others are loyal to the National Salvation Government, which share control of the city of Tripoli.
Al-Alawi upheld that no political effort will succeed unless it takes the armed militias and their supporters into account. For instance, the Skhirat Agreement has failed because it does not include the main constituents of Libya’s political scene i.e. the leaders of the armed groups and brigades. Libya is now experiencing a civil war, and its resolution must bring together all the parties in the conflict. However, the Skhirat Agreement, between the constituents of the February Revolution, excluded the military forces and militias that are in control as well as about half of the Libyan population, who remain loyal to the former regime.
Revolutionary Shura councils
In Benghazi, the Islamist armed groups have organized themselves into the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries. These are:
February 17th Martyrs Brigade
Rafallah al-Sahati Brigade
The Shura Council of Benghazi has been strongly linked with ISIS as they fought together against Hafter in Battle of Benghazi. Yet, the Shura Council never pledged allegiance to ISIS.
Meanwhile, in Derna the main Islamist coalition Shura Council of Mujahideen which was formed in 2014 is an al-Qaeda-affiliated group. The coalition has been in fight with ISIS in 2015 and drove them out from the city.
Ajdabiya had its own Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries, which is the most ISIS linked among the three Shura councils. Its leader Muhammad al-Zawi and a number of the council pledging allegiance to ISIS played a major role in strengthening the Islamist group grip on Sirte
Benghazi Defense Brigades
was formed in June 2016 to defend Benghazi and the Shura Council from the Libyan National Army, the Benghazi Defence Brigades (BDB) included various Libya Dawn militias and was organized under the banner of the former Grand mufti Saddiq Al-Ghariyani. Even thought it pledged to support the GNA  and apparently working under Mahdi Al-Barghathi, the Defence Minister of the GNA. The GNA never recognized the BDB with some members calling for it to be demarcated as a “terrorist organization”.
Even though the Amazigh militias mainly situated in Zuwara and Nafusa Mountains fought alongside Libya Dawn, they consider themselves pushed towards that because Zintan brigades and the rest of their enemies has been sided with HoR. Still though, the Amazigh main motivations for fighting against Haftar is his Pan-Arabic ideas which is conflicting with their demands of recognition their language in the constitution as an official language. While keeping their enmity towards Haftar, the Amazigh militias mostly became neutral later in the war especially since the formation of GNA.
Khalifa Haftar: Saviour or part of the crisis?
One cannot address the Libyan crisis without discussing General Khalifa Haftar, the leader of Operation Dignity, who has become a critical figure and cannot be overlooked in the search for a comprehensive political settlement. Thus, we wonder if he is part of the problem or part of the solution?
Bsaikri said that General Haftar is a controversial person seeking a leadership role. As a military leader who joined the revolution in its early days and sought to play a crucial role in the revolution, he led the opposition’s ground forces. However, after the revolution ended, the political equation had changed, and he could not obtain a key position for himself. Therefore, ever the adventurer, he turned to the idea of a military coup, which he announced in 2014. In turn, the National Congress government sought to legally prosecute him. As a result, he fled to the eastern region and launched ‘Operation Dignity’, which included remnants of the army and security forces as well as volunteers. Haftar benefited greatly from the security breakdown and popular resentment in these areas due to continuous assassinations and bombings. He exploited this security chaos and popular anger using two main slogans: building the army and the police, and fighting terrorism. Libyans welcomed these slogans, especially as the National Congress government had failed to develop these security bodies from the outset. Bsaikri admitted that a considerable number of Libyans back Haftar for many reasons, including the fact that the image of an arbitrary military political leader still occupies Libyan minds after forty years of Gaddafi’s rule. Another reason is the failure of Libya’s democratic transition after the revolution, as well as the conflict among the constituents of the General National Congress and the resulting security and economic crises and the failure to establish the country’s institutions. All this convinced the public that democracy does not work in Libya and that a return to despotism is the solution, as a dictator would be capable of providing safety and stability. However, Haftar, who presented himself as an alternative to the armed militias, which are a source of concern to the public, has not achieved great success. Instead, he currently faces fundamental challenges in enacting his slogans, Bsaikri added. A large segment of the Libyan public has become aware of the horrifying incidents of exhumation, killing of civilians and corpse desecration committed by Haftar’s forces in Benghazi. As a result, the operation has lost its moral justification and brought into question Haftar’s ability to restore safety and stability. Additionally, Haftar’s rejection of the Libyan political process makes him a real obstacle in the face of efforts to achieve a Libyan national accord. This was made clear when he refused to meet Fayez al-Sarraj, head of the Government of National Accord, in February 2017 in Cairo. Haftar is betting on a military approach that would enable him to resolve the situation militarily in his favour and repeat the Egyptian scenario in Libya, which seems impossible given the current balance of power on the ground.
Nevertheless, Haftar remains an important figure in the Libyan political landscape. According to French writer Patrick Forestier, Haftar controls about half of Libya, including the oil regions; and unlike al-Sarraj’s supporters, he has a strong and organised army. Haftar also has regional and international support, with many players believing that he must be part of a political solution. However, the problem is that Haftar believes he has such a strong position and thus can impose his own conditions on the other parties, which is not the case. Although the balance of power is currently in his favour, this will not last forever, and he cannot resolve the situation militarily to his advantage. Therefore, pressure must be exerted to convince him to join efforts towards a political solution to the crisis rather than hinder them. The international parties have some leverage that can be used to convince Haftar, said Taguia, such as the oil markets and international sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council against any party that rejects a political settlement. The problem is that international parties are not willing to use this leverage against Haftar. For example, Europe is threatened by the rise of extremist right-wing movements and thus is unable to take a unified position. To Haftar’s advantage, the European positions diverge about the crisis, especially between France and Italy. On the other hand, the regional parties that support the Skhirat Agreement are powerless, while other parties that support the agreement as
well working against it by providing Haftar with weaponry and logistics.
The anti-Islamist Operation Dignity forces are built around Haftar’s faction of the Libyan National Army, including land, sea and air forces along with supporting local militias.
The Libyan National Army formally known as “Libyan Arab Armed Forces”. It was formed by General Khalifa Haftar gradually as he fought in what he named Operation Dignity. On 19 May 2014, a number of Libyan military officers announced their support for Gen. Haftar, including officers in an air force base in Tobruk, and others who have occupied a significant portion of the country’s oil infrastructure, as well as members of an important militia group in Benghazi. Haftar then managed to gather allies from Bayda, 125 miles east of Benghazi. A minority portion of the Libya Shield Force is reported to have not joined the Islamist forces. It is not clear if this means they have joined the LNA forces.
Since then Haftar continued to strengthening his LNA by recruiting new soldiers along with the advancements he made in the ground. In 2017 Haftar said that his forces are now larger by “hundred times” and now they are about 60 thousand solders
Salafists, called Madkhalis by their enemies fought alongside Haftar LNA since the beginning against the Islamist militias especially Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries and ISIS whom they considered Khawarij after a fatwa from Saudi Rabee al-Madkhali.
Wershefana tribal and mainly Gaddafi loyalists armed groups, from the area immediately south and west of Tripoli, has played a big role in Haftar forces west of Libya, On 5 August, they have captured Camp 27, a training base west of Tripoli. Wershefana armed groups have also been involved in a long-standing tribal conflict with the neighbouring Zawia city since 2011. Zawia has been allied to Libya Dawn since August 2014, although its commitment to Libya Dawn is reportedly wavering.
After being accused of kidnapping and ransoming and other criminal deeds, a GNA joint force made mostly from Zintan brigades who were former allies of Wershefana defeated them and seized Wershefana district. “Joint forces seize control of Wershiffana district”. The Libya Observer. Retrieved 8 November 2017.
Effects of the war
As of February 2015, damage and disorder from the war has been considerable. There are frequent electric outages, little business activity, and a loss in revenues from oil by 90%. Over 4,000 people have died from the fighting, and some sources claim nearly a third of the country’s population has fled to Tunisia as refugees.
A recent announcement from the company said the company aims 900,000 barrels per day in the next year. Oil production has fallen from 1.6 million barrel per day to 900,000 in four years
Evacuations neighboring countries
Early in May 2014, the Algerian military said it was engaged in an operation aimed at tracking down militants who infiltrated the country’s territory in Tamanrasset near the Libyan border, during which it announced that it managed to kill 10 “terrorists” and seized a large cache of weapons near the town of Janet consisting of automatic rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and ammunition boxes. The Times reported on 30 May that Algerian forces were strongly present in Libya and it was claimed shortly after by an Algerian journalist from El Watan that a full regiment of 3,500 paratroopers logistically supported by 1,500 other men crossed into Libya and occupied a zone in the west of the country. They were later shown to be operating alongside French special forces in the region. However, all of these claims were later denied by the Algerian government through Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal who told the senate that “Algeria has always shown its willingness to assist [our] sister countries, but things are clear: the Algerian army will not undertake any operation outside Algerian territory”.
On 16 May 2014, the Algerian government responded to a threat on its embassy in Libya by sending a team of special forces to Tripoli to escort its diplomatic staff in a military plane out of the country. “Due to a real and imminent threat targeting our diplomats the decision was taken in coordination with Libyan authorities to urgently close our embassy and consulate general temporarily in Tripoli,” the Algerian Foreign Ministry said in a statement. Three days later, the Algerian government shut down all of its border crossings with Libya and the army command raised its security alert status by tightening its presence along the border, especially on the Tinalkoum and Debdab border crossings. This also came as the state-owned energy firm, Sonatrach, evacuated all of its workers from Libya and halted production in the country. In mid-August, Algeria opened its border for Egyptian refugees stranded in Libya and said it would grant them exceptional visas to facilitate their return to Egypt.
Egyptian authorities have long expressed concern over the instability in eastern Libya spilling over into Egypt due to the rise of jihadist movements in the region, which the government believes to have developed into a safe transit for wanted Islamists following the 2013 coup d’état in Egypt that ousted Muslim Brotherhood-backed president Mohamed Morsi. There have been numerous attacks on Egypt’s trade interests in Libya which were rampant prior to Haftar’s offensive, especially with the kidnapping of truck drivers and sometimes workers were murdered. Due to this, the military-backed government in Egypt had many reasons to support Haftar’s rebellion and the Islamist February 17th Martyrs Brigade operating in Libya has accused the Egyptian government of supplying Haftar with weapons and ammunition, a claim denied by both Cairo and the rebel leader. Furthermore, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who has become increasingly popular among many Libyans wishing for stability, has called on the United States to intervene militarily in Libya during his presidential candidacy, warning that Libya was becoming a major security challenge and vowed not to allow the turmoil there to threaten Egypt’s national security.
On 21 July, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry urged its nationals residing in Libya to adopt measures of extreme caution as it was preparing to send consular staff in order to facilitate their return their country following an attack in Egypt’s western desert region near the border with Libya that left 22 Egyptian border guards killed. A week later, the ministry announced that it would double its diplomatic officials on the Libyan-Tunisian border and reiterated its call on Egyptian nationals to find shelter in safer places in Libya. On 3 August, Egypt, Libya and Tunisia agreed to cooperate by establishing an airbridge between Cairo and Tunis that would facilitate the transfer of 2,000 to 2,500 Egyptians from Libya daily.
On 31 July, two Egyptians were shot dead during a clash at the Libyan-Tunisian border where hundreds of Egyptians were staging a protest at the Ras Jdeir border crossing. As they tried to cross into Tunisia, Libyan authorities opened fire to disperse them. A similar incident occurred once again on 15 August, when Libyan security forces shot dead an Egyptian who attempted to force his way through the border along with hundreds of stranded Egyptians and almost 1,200 Egyptians made it into Tunisia that day. This came a few days after Egypt’s Minister of Civil Aviation, Hossam Kamal, announced that the emergency airlift consisting of 46 flights aimed at evacuating the country’s nationals from Libya came to a conclusion, adding that 11,500 Egyptians in total had returned from the war-torn country as of 9 August. A week later, all Egyptians on the Libyan-Tunisian border were evacuated and the consulate’s staff, who were reassigned to work at the border area, withdrew from Libya following the operation’s success. Meanwhile, an estimated 50,000 Egyptians (4,000 per day) arrived at the Salloum border crossing on the Libyan-Egyptian border as of early August.
Post-revolutionary Tunisia also had its share of instability due to the violence in Libya as it witnessed an unprecedented rise in radical Islamism with increased militant activity and weapons’ smuggling through the border.
In response to the initial clashes in May, the Tunisian National Council for Security held an emergency meeting and decided to deploy 5,000 soldiers to the Libyan–Tunisian border in anticipation of potential consequences from the fighting. On 30 July, Tunisian Foreign Minister Mongi Hamdi said that the country cannot cope with the high number of refugees coming from Libya due to the renewed fighting. “Our country’s economic situation is precarious, and we cannot cope with hundreds of thousands of refugees,” Hamdi said in a statement. He also added that Tunisia will close its borders if necessarry.
A writer and political analyst in international terrorism – Member of the Union of Egyptian Writers – Participated in the presentation of a number of regional and international research related to the file of international terrorism in several research centers, most recently Tut Center in Egypt.
Among these researches – the armed militias in the Levant and Iraq – the proxy war – the terrorism industry in Europe – Mosul’s Christian war of annihilation.