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StrategyPage.com: Libya: The Enemy Within

Posted by: Berhane Habtemariam

Date: Monday, 05 February 2018

Libya: The Enemy Within



February 5, 2018: The July 2017 peace plan the UN sponsored and still supports is still serving as an outline for national unification. This is supposed to be accomplished by national elections before the end of 2018. The UN backed GNA (Government of National Accord in Tripoli) has become less able to compete in those elections than the technically outlaw (according to the UN) HoR (House of Representatives government in Tobruk) which now controls or contests control in most of the country. The July 2017 agreement has been amended and extended several times and that has delayed plans for a nationwide ceasefire, an exact date for national elections and UN recognition of the LNA (Libyan National Army). The current understanding is that that elections will be held in 2018 and that the HoR is recognized as the major political player in the country. In late 2017 the HNEC (High National Elections Commission in Libya) began registering voters and by 2018 had determined that there were about 1.8 million potential voters and had shown that it was possible to register nearly all of them by mid-2018. Most local leaders agree that elections should be held this year and that there should be no foreign military intervention. The Libyans do welcome foreign investment and the improved security situation has more nations (like Germany) announcing that they will soon reopen their embassies in Tripoli.

Currently the only two people likely to win a fair national election for president is Seif al-Islam Kaddafi (a son of the former dictator) and Khalifa Hiftar. This would be an ironic match because Hiftar was once a general in Kaddafi’s army, but disagreed with the dictator and fled to the United States in 1990 with the help of the CIA. When the Libyan revolution broke out in 2011 Hiftar returned to Libya and joined the rebels. The first post-Kaddafi elections in 2012 had nearly three million people voting. But since then many Libyans have fled the country or have given up on elections and just want peace. They might even elected Seif Kaddafi, who never held a government job and was considered the “good son” of the former dictator. Nevertheless he is still wanted by the ICC for war crimes (during 2011) and was convicted by a GNA court but later freed and granted full amnesty by HoR (at the behest of Hiftar). The UN now admits that they ignored the complexity of local politics in Libya and the ability of many local groups to block a nation-wide deal. It turned out that the HoR and their military leader Khalifa Hiftar had a lot more nationwide support than the UN or GNA realized or wanted to admit. HoR also had the LNA which has been demonized by many Europeans for a number of reasons most Libyans and Arab nations disagree with. The LNA was created by Hiftar and is the only organized and disciplined military force in the country. The LNA was initially founded to shut down Islamic terrorist groups and Libyan militias that supported them in eastern Libya. In contrast the GNA tried to build a national government with the support of militias, many of them supporting a new government using Islamic (Sharia) law and most Libyans had had enough of that because it was a tactic the former dictator Kaddafi has used to rule the country for decades until the 2011 revolution killed him and destroyed his hated government.

The UN and EU (European Union) were also appalled by Hiftar’s harsh tactics against the people smuggling gangs that were responsible for most illegal of the illegal migrants arriving in Europe. Some EU countries (like Italy and France) backed Hiftar early on but more importantly so did most Libyans. Hiftar has said that because of national support the LNA could easily take Tripoli, the traditional capital if the UN negotiations failed. But Hiftar also pointed out that Tripoli was not a priority, dealing with smuggling gangs, Islamic terrorists and corruption in general was.

Another advantage Hiftar had was that he was from eastern Libya and neighboring Egypt was keen to support his counterterrorism efforts. In contrast the GNA in the west had tiny Tunisia and mighty Algeria as neighbors. While Tunisia was where the 2011 Arab Spring revolution began (and one of the few places where it succeeded) Tunisia had all it could handle fighting local Islamic terrorists and those coming from Libya. Despite all this experience in fighting Islamic terrorism Algeria refuses to send troops to support any military operations outside Algeria, particularly in Libya or Mali. One can understand the reluctance to get involved with the civil war in Libya. Algeria does take sides. For example Algeria continues to side with Qatar in its feud with the other Gulf Arab oil states (and their allies, like Egypt and Israel). That means Algeria backs the UN faction in Libya while the UAE and most other Arab states back the HoR/Hiftar group. Actually Algeria was reluctant to back the UN approved government for Libya and that proved to be warranted when Hiftar rejected the UN proposal and demanded a more practical solution. This is a big deal for Algeria because of the long border they share with Libya. It is also a big deal for the UN, which considers Algeria the most successful North African nation when it comes to dealing with Islamic terrorism. Algeria has done well at guarding its Libyan (and Mali) borders but is keeping its troops at home no matter what. That means the Tripoli government got no help from Algeria.

Egypt was quite different and became a major foreign participant in unifying the Libyan armed forces under the command of general Hiftar. Israel is not involved but approves of anyone who is active fighting Islamic terror groups and especially ISIL. This puts Israel at odds with some of its Western allies. In Libya there is an Arab preference for LNA commander Hiftar, which a growing number of Western leaders want to prosecute as a war criminal. That has not stopped Hiftar from travelling regularly to Europe, Russia, Egypt and the UAE to negotiate and plan how to bring peace and unity to Libya. Hiftar visited the UAE early in January (to discuss military aid) and Egypt later to discuss what can be done to improve security along the Libyan-Egyptian border. Egypt and UAE have always been the primary supporters of the LNA and Hiftar. The UAE has supplied both Egypt and the LNA with AT-802U manned aircraft and Chinese UAVs (similar to the American Predator) for surveillance and missile attack. The AT-802U is an armed version of a popular AT-802 crop duster. The LNA controlled Marj airbase in eastern Libya has played a major role in keeping Libyan based Islamic terrorists away from Egypt. This material support from Egypt and the UAE is increasing.

Gang Wars

After nearly a year of declining activity the people smuggling gangs have reorganized and are moving more people across the Mediterranean from Libya. Last year European nations paid off local officials in Libya to cease allowing people smuggling gangs to operate. That worked for a while until smuggling gangs moved or otherwise got around the impact of the European bribes.

Despite improved police work in parts of Libya, Italy and some of the other areas (like India) where many of the illegal migrants come from, the business to too lucrative to eliminate by crippling some of the gangs. The big problem is the long Libyan coast has a lot of towns and cities where the smuggling gangs can buy enough cooperation to operate. The people smuggling operations can revive the economies of many coastal towns and heavily influence how some coastal cities (particularly their port operations) are governed. Italy is threatening to change its laws this year and forcibly expel back to Libya or their homeland over half a million illegal migrants.

There are over 600,000 illegal migrants stuck in Libya and over 90 percent of them are African. For all of 2017 6,000 Nigerians were flown back to Nigeria. These Nigerians had used people smugglers in a failed effort reach Europe illegally. Another few thousand have returned so far in 2018. The Libyans and the EU (European Union) finally managed to disrupt many of the smuggling operations and persuaded (threatened, bribed, embarrassed and so on) the countries the illegals came from to take them back. This process has intensified during 2017 and has reached the point where so many illegals are being returned that fewer people are willing to risk the cash, and their lives, to make the trip. But the illegals are still coming, even though Libya is even more dangerous for illegal migrants. But now this effort is falling apart as the smuggling gangs are again able to get boatloads of illegal migrants to Italy.

There is also a problem with Libyans displaced by fighting seeking to return to their homes. As peace returns to major coastal cities like Misrata in the west and Benghazi in the east. Militias that control these cites refuse to let some refugees return, usually because the refugees are related to militias or Islamic terror groups that were defeated to pacify the cities or were from pro-Kaddafi neighborhoods where civilians fled the rebels in 2011.

Oil And The Economy

Corruption is a major problem that has crippled the oil industry and government in general. The theft (of oil, refined products, payrolls and supplies) not only makes it difficult to keep oil production going but discourages foreign oil companies from investing billions of dollars to find and drill for new oil deposits and make needed repairs and upgrades on existing fields. Libya has lost over $140 billion in the last four years because of damage to the oil industry and lost production.

Although Libya tripled its oil income (to $14 billion) in 2017 that achievement has attracted a lot of corrupt officials. This threatens the ability of the oil industry to function. Despite the chaos since 2012 the National Oil Corporation (NOC) and Libyan Central Bank (LCB) were generally left alone to deal with essential matters like importing food and other necessities that Libya does not produce itself. The NOC has managed to increase production for 2017 to record (since 2011) levels; about a million BPD (barrels per day, including natural gas equivalents). That was up from 250,000 BPD in mid-2016 and, 800,000 BPD in April 2017. Now production growth is stalled because of the lack of foreign firms willing to work in Libya to repair and expand Libyan oil facilities. The chaos created by all the militias and lack of a reliable central government means foreign firms rate Libya as one of the least reliable places to operate and opt for working in other areas, even though the profits are lower. Risk is a big deal in the oil industry because huge amounts (often billions of dollars) are often required to get new (or refurbished) oil facilities producing.

There are still occasional disruptions because of all the independent minded factions. Despite that the NOC still hopes to reach 1.25-1.5 million BPD by the end of 2018 and 2.1 million BPD by the early 2020s. This is far in excess of pre-2011 levels (1.6 million BPD) but is necessary because of the need to finance reconstruction and adapt to the fact that the world price for oil keeps falling, despite OPEC (the Arab dominated oil cartel) efforts to reduce overall production and drive up the price. The problem is that the United States and Canada are producing a lot more due to new technologies (like fracking) that open up huge new sources that were long known but not reachable. A more immediate problem is the growing government corruption in Libya which is increasingly hurting employees of the National Oil Company.

Since 2011 Libyan oil exports have shrunk and the Libyan Central Bank cash reserves are dangerously low. These reserves stood at $124 billion in 2012 and now only $67 billion remain. If peace and unity are not achieved soon no government would be able to buy and import food and other essentials. Even by Middle Eastern standards Libya was setting new records in self-destructive behavior. By 2017 more Libyans were agreeing that the situation was indeed becoming desperate and a lot more compromise was the only solution. Even with the current national compromise the tribal (Arab, Berber and black African) and religious differences (Islamic radicals versus everyone else) plus epic levels of corruption and entitlement keep peace and prosperity out of reach. At this point it was believed that most Libyans would settle for survival especially since living standards continue to decline each year. But there are still militia and Islamic terror group leaders who are unwilling to cooperate. In addition a growing number of senior officials are plundering the increased oil income and threatening revival of the national economy. The sad fact is that there is a Libya and a huge oil industry but there are not enough people native to Libya who act like Libyans. Instead they put personal, family or tribal welfare and consider theft of government resources a legitimate activity even though their public statements denounce this sort of thing.

ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant)

ISIL continues to operate in south central Libya (Jufra/Jofra province, 770 kilometers south of Tripoli) where LNA forces have been fighting various Islamic terror groups since late 2016. General Hiftar saw Jufra turning into a sustained campaign because some Jufra militias that will tolerate Islamic terrorist groups and are generally wary of what the coastal militias are up to. The presence of ISIL remnants in Jufra encourages fighting down there as well.

Egypt has become a favorite, if dangerous, route for ISIL survivors from Syria and Iraq to reach Libya. Added to this is the growing number of new ISIL recruits who deserted Hamas and other Islamic terror groups in Egypt to seek something more hard core. All this has brought hundreds of ISIL survivors to Sinai and other parts of Egypt looking for a new base area. They are not finding it in Sinai or western Egypt, where they are under constant attack and are heading for the Libyan border via the west Egypt desert between the Nile River and the Libyan border.

February 4, 2018: In central Libya (south of Sirte) ISIL gunmen made three attacks on the Waha oilfield in the last 48 hours. The attackers failed to inflict damage and lost at least four dead. But the LNA troops defending the area lost four dead and nine wounded.

February 1, 2018: In the south (Sabha) fighting, apparently between Tabu and Zaghawah tribesmen broke out again. There was a lot of shooting but no reports of casualties. Tribal violence down there is usually over who controls smuggling routes and has been flaring up regularly since the 2011 revolution. Most of this violence has been in or near the town of Sabha, which is 770 kilometers south of Tripoli and astride the main road going to the Niger border. It is the biggest city in the largely desert south. The fighting is a continuation of ancient animosities between tribes divided by ethnicity as well as loyalty to the former dictator Kaddafi, who used tribal loyalties to maintain power and favored certain tribes. Some of the pro-Kaddafi Tuareg tribes kept fighting after Kaddafi died in 2011. The violence is not so much about putting Kaddafi followers back into power, but holding on to Kaddafi era privileges and avoiding punishment for crimes committed to support Kaddafi’s rule. After 2011 violence continued on the southern border in part because the pro-rebel Tabu (or “Tebu”) tribesmen were put in charge of border (with Sudan, Chad and Niger) security. There they constantly skirmished with the Tuareg tribes over control of the smuggling business. Another element of this rivalry was that the Tabu are black African while the pro-Kaddafi tribes are Arab. Kaddafi tended to support Arab domination over black Africans, something many Arabs still prefer. However, in some cases Kaddafi favored black tribes in the north, and used them to keep the population in line. By 2015 the Tabu were still technically in charge of the border but mostly concerned with their control over smuggling (of fuel, drugs and people). The Tabu and Tuareg leaders have worked out agreements on dividing smuggling business but discipline in the tribes is not all that tight and fights keep breaking out.

January 27, 2018: LNA warplanes attacked Islamic terrorist militias in Derna (200 kilometers east of Benghazi). This is the only eastern coastal city not under LNA control but has been under siege by the LNA since 2017. Since early 2017 LNA forces from further east followed the ISIL and other Islamic terrorist remnants to Derna. Some ISIL men managed to establish a presence there and have been seeking to carry out bombings and other terror attacks on the coastal areas (where most of the people are). Derna remains a problem as this city is about the same size (100,000 population) as the former ISIL “capital” Sirte. Earlier ISIL failures in Derna were the result of stubborn local militias who disliked outsiders in general. Hiftar was not popular with some of the Derna militias, especially those composed of Islamic conservatives and these groups were not cooperative. Now they are under attack by Hiftar forces and being pushed out of the area. The UN opposes the LNA tactics because it cuts many civilians off from essential supplies. The LNA points out that the Islamic terrorists control who gets what when supplies get through the current blockade.

January 24, 2018: In the east (Benghazi) two car bombs exploded outside a mosque leaving 37 dead and over a hundred wounded. The second car exploded after first responders had arrived to treat the wounded. This was the first such terror attack in Libya this year and accounted for nearly all the civilian deaths from Islamic terrorism in January.

In the west, 180 kilometers southeast of Tripoli outside Bani Walid a convoy carrying senior government officials but there were no casualties.

January 15, 2018: In the east (Benghazi) two pro-government militias fought near the airport when negotiations to exchange prisoners broke down. In too many areas local security is still controlled by militias. There was similar fighting in Tripoli, where at least twenty died as the militiamen fought to gain control of airport access (and the fees that generates).

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