Snapshots of Sirte, Libya after the Islamic State

Over the past few months, several very strong pieces have come out on Sirte, Libya. The Islamic State controlled parts of the town from very early 2015 until December 2016, when an offensive led by Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA) broke their control.

In July, Oliver Imhof and Osama Mansour of Airwars described “The Last Days of ISIS’ Libya Stronghold” in the Daily Beast. The piece focuses on harm to civilians during the months-long battle for the city:

The battle for Sirte again makes clear why tracking harm from the perspective of affected civilians themselves is so important. Local reporting clearly suggests that non-combatants weren’t just trapped in the city, but were actively held hostage in besieged neighborhoods by ISIS. Even so, the U.S. still conducted 495 airstrikes at Sirte, while its ground allies the GNA also conducted airstrikes as well as intense artillery shelling during the siege.

See also Airwars’ project on Libya.

At Carnegie last month, Frederic Wehrey and Emad Badi looked at the aftermath of the Islamic State’s expulsion from Sirte:

More than a year after this liberation, Sirte has again faded to the margins, to the chagrin of its war-weary inhabitants. Vast sections of its downtown have been reduced to rubble, schools and universities have been closed, and mines and dead bodies still litter its streets and alleyways. More important than this physical devastation, however, is the damage to the city’s political institutions and communal fabric. To be sure, much of this damage was rooted in the Islamic State’s violent rule. While providing some degree of sought-after order and service provision, the Islamic State accelerated the erosion of tribal authority, upended social norms, and caused widespread displacement and trauma. Yet in many respects, Sirte’s current afflictions are also a continuation of its unbroken history of exclusion in the post-2011 order and deep political wounds that have yet to heal.

Wehrey’s book The Burning Shores: Inside the Battle for the New Libya, also came out this year.

Also in August, Tom Westcott reported from Sirte in a piece for IRIN:

There are still skeletons amongst the rubble, mines and unexploded ordnance have not been cleared, and 3,000 people are registered with local authorities as homeless.

Most of the people displaced from the city centre, like AbuBaker, are living in rented homes elsewhere in the city, unable to return home. According to the UN, 20,000 people are displaced in the city as a whole, and more than half of Sirte’s residents are still shuttling between temporary residences and their homes, while they rebuild. The three central districts of Campo (where AbuBaker’s house is), Giza, and Sirte 3 remain empty.

A grim picture comes through in all three pieces. And one gets the stark sense that most of the international actors who were hyper-concerned about the Islamic State’s presence in Sirte are not nearly so concerned about what happens to people there now.

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Theresa May and Angela Merkel in Africa

This week, UK Prime Minister Theresa May and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have both done multi-country trips to Africa.

Here are their respective itineraries.

May (find the official roundup of her speeches, press conferences, and announcements here):

  • South Africa, 28 August
  • Nigeria, 29 August
  • Kenya, 30 August

Merkel:

  • Senegal, 29 August
  • Ghana, 30 August (see a Ghanaian government press release here)
  • Nigeria, 31 August

I do not think the trips are meant to compete with one another – the fact that both leaders put Nigeria on the itinerary simply reflects Nigeria’s importance, I suspect.

Thematically, the trips had different emphases – May’s trip was a multi-pronged effort that touched on trade, investmentsecurity (including a “first ever UK-Nigeria security and defence partnership…[in which] the UK has also offered to help Nigeria – for the first time – train full army units before they deploy to the North East”), and financial crimes. The UK also announced that new embassies will open in Chad and Niger.

Meanwhile, migration seemed to dominate the agenda for Merkel. From Al Jazeera:

On her tour, Merkel is expected to discuss migration prevention with the leaders of Ghana, Senegal and Nigeria, where a large portion of African migrants arriving in Germany originate from.

The chancellor hopes to find a way to prevent them from starting their journeys, including providing more development aid to their countries.

In terms of how the trips are going, I should confess that I’m not the biggest fan of May, but I’m not alone in thinking that there have been a few sour notes.

May’s interlocutors, meanwhile, are openly concerned about Brexit’s global impact:

Merkel’s trip has also come in for its share of criticism, especially from those who raise doubts about the feasibility and moral status of the European Union’s approach to African migration. Here is an excerpt from the Al Jazeera piece linked above:

George Kibala Bauer, a Congolese-German contributing editor at Africa is a Country online publication, told Al Jazeera that Merkel’s recent interest in Africa was the result of a considerable political pressure against her, including from her own political allies, for her perceived open-migration policy.

“This is not only morally questionable but also practically misguided,” he said.

[…]

Bauer said the EU has increasingly empowered third countries, and effectively outsourced certain tasks to states in the Sahel region and the Horn of Africa.

We’ll see whether anything else comes of the trips.

Libya Roundup, 6/8

Here are a few items on Libya that caught my eye this week:

  • Jacob Mundy in The Conversation: “Libya’s transitional leaders, some of whom will be presidential candidates, are entangled in – and benefit from – the country’s war economy. So do various armed factions that may view the vote as a threat to their interests and disrupt the process before it begins.” See also Tarek Megerisi.
  • Al Jazeera on Khalifa Haftar’s forces entering into Derna. More at The Independent and Al Arabiya.
  • Reuters: “The United States said on Wednesday [June 6] it had conducted a precision air strike near the Libyan town of Bani Walid, killing four Islamic State militants…One of those killed in the strike was Abd al-Aati Ashtaiwy, a Libyan who had traveled to Syria and had previously been based in Sirte, which Islamic State controlled from 2015-2016, according to the Bani Walid source and local reports.” Here is AFRICOM’s statement.
  • RFI (French) on allegations that various (non-Libyan) African rebels are training in southern Libya.

Libya: Press Roundup, Key Documents on the Sarraj-Haftar Meeting in Paris

On July 25, two of the most important figures in Libyan politics – Fayez al-Sarraj, head of the United Nations-backed Government of National Accord, and Khalifa Haftar, head of the Libyan National Army – met in Paris and agreed on a ceasefire.

Here are a few a relevant statements:

  • The joint declaration by Sarraj and Haftar.
  • The speech by President Macron (French).
  • United Nations Security Council: “The members of the Security Council welcome the meeting of Fayez Al Sarraj, President of the Presidency Council of Libya, and General Khalifa Haftar, Commander of the LNA, hosted in Paris by the President of the French Republic on the 25th of July, and the Joint Declaration issued after the meeting. Council members urge all Libyans to support a negotiated political solution, national reconciliation, and an immediate ceasefire, as called for in the Joint Declaration.”
  • U.S. State Department: “We welcome the Joint Declaration from the July 25, meeting between Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj and General Khalifa Haftar, hosted outside of Paris by French President Emmanuel Macron. We call on all Libyans to support political dialogue and adhere to a cease-fire, as stated in the Joint Declaration.”

Here’s a roundup of some press coverage. Much of the coverage has been quite critical, including when it comes to assessing the role of French President Emmanuel Macron:

  • L’Express (French): “If the initiative seems praiseworthy, nevertheless the hardest [part] remains to be done.”
  • Bloomberg: “A French-led effort to reunify fractured Libya failed to consult powerful local forces and risks achieving little beyond boosting the legitimacy of a renegade general who has recently racked up significant battlefield gains.”
  • The Economist: “The deal is but a small step. More agreements are needed before elections can be held and the fighting, which now involves myriad groups, is likely to continue. As it is, the LNA, which backs a separate government in the east, rarely battles the forces aligned with Mr Serraj. But General Haftar is free to keep pummelling terrorists, which is what he labels most of his opponents. The country’s powerful militias were left out of the talks in Paris, which were chaired by the newly appointed UN envoy for Libya, Ghassan Salamé. So like previous deals brokered by the UN, this one lacks widespread support, at least for now.”
  • VOA: “The meeting…was not coordinated with the Italian government. [Italian Prime Minister Paolo] Gentiloni’s ministers took the unusual step of openly criticizing the French president this week, voicing their frustration with Macron’s efforts, which they argue distract from a coordinated U.N. and European Union effort to engineer a political deal in Libya between three rival governments and dozens of militias.

Libya: A Controversy Around an Anti-Ibadi Fatwa

Libya has multiple governments and as such it has multiple poles of would-be official religious authority. One such body is the Supreme Committee for Issuing Fatwas (Al-Lajna al-‘Ulya li-l-Ifta’) connected to the Libyan Interim Government. That government is based in the northeastern city Al-Bayda and is associated with Khalifa Haftar, commander of the Libyan National Army.

Earlier this month, the Supreme Committee kicked off a tremendous controversy by issuing a fatwa (Arabic) that denounces the Ibadis, a non-Sunni, non-Shi’i Muslim sect prevalent in Oman and with a small but significant presence in parts of North and East Africa. The fatwa comes in response to a question about the permissibility of praying behind an Ibadi imam – effectively, a question about whether Ibadis should be considered genuine Muslims or not. The response reads, “Ibadism is a deviant, misguided sect. They are Kharijite Batinists. They hold infidel beliefs, such as their belief that the Qur’an is a created object, and their belief in denying that we will see [God in Paradise], so do not pray behind them and don’t esteem them.”

For context, “Kharijites” is a pejorative term that can refer to a specific early Islamic sect but that also can be used widely as a term of abuse. Describing the intricacies of the historical relationships between Ibadism and Kharijism is, I think, a task best left to specialists, so I won’t attempt it here. “Batinism,” meanwhile, is used here as a pejorative term meaning people who claim to see hidden messages in the Qur’an.

Turning back to the fatwa’s reception, negative reactions came immediately from Libyan Amazigh/Bergers, who saw the fatwa not just as a religious provocation but an ethnic one. Ibadism is sometimes associated with the Amazigh in Libya and vice versa. The Amazigh Supreme Council called the fatwa “a direct incitement for a genocide of the Amazigh people in Libya.” (Read a little background on the Ibadis in Libya here.)

Another negative reaction came from a rival governmental religious body, the Dar al-Ifta’ (House of Issuing Fatwas), whose legal status under the Government of National Accord is now somewhat unclear (it’s been reportedly shut down, but it’s still issuing statements). Although the Dar al-Ifta’ and Grand Mufti Sadiq al-Gharyani have a reputation in many quarters as divisive and even extremist, in this context the Dar al-Ifta’ presented itself as a non-sectarian force working for Libyan unity. In a statement (Arabic), Dar al-Ifta’ denounced the “sectarian chaos that simple-minded idiots and youngsters are trying to ignite among the Muslim citizenry.” (See also here.)

Other Libyan commentators have seen the fatwa as evidence of creeping Salafism/Wahhabism (Arabic) in Libya – for all that the eastern Libyan government and the forces of Haftar are often seen as anti-Islamist and even “secular,” there is a strong Salafi influence on those bodies.

Those are just a few of the reactions in an ongoing domestic controversy. It will be interesting to see whether the pressure and criticism elicit any changes on the part of the Supreme Committee or the eastern government.

New Blacklists, External and Local, Clarify Faultlines in Libyan Politics

Amid the dispute between Qatar and a group of Arab countries (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain), Qatar’s opponents released a list last week of fifty-nine individuals and twelve charities accused of involved in terrorism and extremism. The United Nations, which operates its own influential blacklist of proven and alleged terrorists (as does the United States), has essentially rejected the list, and so the list’s influence may have real limits. Nevertheless, it is interesting to see who made the list, and it is notable that the list is already being amplified by those on one side of Libya’s complex civil war.

First, I think it’s worth noting the breakdown of the fifty-nine individuals by nationalities:

  • 26 Egyptians (of whom the most famous is Yusuf al-Qaradawi, arguably the most famous living Sunni Muslim scholar)
  • 18 Qataris
  • 5 Libyans
  • 3 Kuwaitis (counting 1 Saudi-Kuwaiti)
  • 2 Saudis (counting 1 Saudi-Kuwaiti)
  • 2 Bahrainis
  • 2 Jordanians
  • 1 Emirati
  • 1 Yemeni

Here are the Libyans:

  • Al-Sadiq al-Gharyani, Libya’s Grand Mufti
  • Ali al-Sallabi, a religious leader from Benghazi strongly associated with Qatar and with political Islamism
  • Ismail al-Sallabi, Ali al-Sallabi’s brother and a leader in the Benghazi Defense Brigades/Companies for the Defense of Benghazi*
  • Abdelhakim Belhadj, a former jihadist in the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and currently an Islamist politician
  • Mahdi Harati, a former militia commander who served as mayor of Tripoli in 2014-2015

There is no question that these individuals are connected to Qatar, but the question of whether they are “terrorists” or not is essentially political.

The blacklisting has already evoked complex responses inside Libya. One major response has come from the House of Representatives, the internationally recognized, anti-Islamist parliament in eastern Libya. The House of Representatives is aligned with Khalifa Haftar, a retired general who commands the would-be Libyan National Army, a major force in northeast (and increasingly, southern) Libya. The House of Representatives and Haftar strongly oppose a variety of Islamist and jihadist-leaning currents in Libya; Haftar considers all of them “terrorists,” even figures and movements (such as the Muslim Brotherhood) that have participated in mainstream politics in Libya. In terms of how these sides line up with the political splits in the Gulf, the House of Representatives and Haftar receive strong backing from the UAE, Egypt, and to some extent Saudi Arabia, while many Libyan Islamists receive backing from Qatar.

Given that context, it is perhaps no surprise that the House of Representatives’ National Defense and Security Committee not only welcomed the Saudi/Emirati/Egyptian/Bahriani list, but also issued its own list (Arabic) of 75 Libyan individuals and 9 institutions that it alleges are associated with terrorism and with Qatar. The list includes numerous Muslim Brotherhood leaders, various figures associated with Qatar-backed media channels, individuals close to the Grand Mufti, people in the anti-Haftar Benghazi Defense Brigades, and prominent members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group.

If the list, as proposed, were accepted by the Government of National Accord (the GNA, the internationally recognized executive government backed by the United Nations, although not yet endorsed by the House of Representatives), then the resulting designations would effectively ban Islamism as a mainstream political force in Libya. I do not expect the GNA to accept the list, but its circulation gives a very clear snapshot of whom the House of Representatives and Haftar consider their main political enemies. The list also gives an initial sense of how the Qatar/Saudi split (to use a shorthand) is playing out even more explicitly in Libyan domestic politics now than it was before.

*I’ve written about the Brigades here.

Libya: LNA Captures Ganfouda, Looks Toward Sabiri and Suq al-Hout

Last week, the forces of Khalifa Haftar, leader of the unrecognized Libyan National Army (LNA), made advances in the eastern city of Benghazi against various jihadists, including the Benghazi Revolutionaries’ Shura Council (BRSC). The LNA recaptured the Abu Sneib district and surrounded another, Ganfouda/Qanfouda, both on the western side of the city. Yesterday, the LNA took Ganfouda. Reuters:

“The liberation of Ganfouda is complete,” LNA spokesman Ahmed al-Mismari told Reuters. He added however that the army was yet to secure a separate area known as the “12 Blocks” which lies between Ganfouda and Bosnaib, another neighborhood recently taken by the LNA.

[…]

The fate of civilians trapped in Ganfouda had been a major point of contention, with the United Nations and international human rights groups calling for them to be granted safe passage amid allegations of human rights abuses by both sides.

Here is Human Rights Watch, back in November, on the civilians trapped in Ganfouda:

Ganfouda is one of the few remaining holdouts of militant Islamist groups in Benghazi. The LNA, which has Ganfouda under siege, has said it will not allow any evacuation of males between ages 15 and 65 and has set a series of other conditions. The Islamist coalition controlling the neighborhood has also set conditions for evacuation of civilians.

[…]

Human Rights Watch spoke by cellphone with six Ganfouda residents, as well as with relatives abroad, activists, commanders, and representatives of the LNA and the BRSC. Residents said they live in constant fear of air strikes and have had no access to fresh food for months, no access to medical care with exception of one doctor with limited capacities, and limited drinking water. Electricity had been cut off for months, and only those residents who had a generator and fuel had access to some electricity. They said the intense fighting made them afraid to try to leave their neighborhood to get food and other necessities. They said they could not use a sea route in the coastal city, due to the LNA’s expansion of the siege to include coastal areas.

Turning back to the military struggle, what happens next? As the LNA’s Special Forces commander, Colonel Wanis Boukhamada (Arabic), explained, the LNA now plans to pursue the jihadists in three zones of the city: the “twelve blocks” area, the Suq al-Hout neighborhood, and the Sabiri neighborhood. These areas have been in the LNA’s sights since last summer. At that time, “The LNA has been quoted saying that it would not make its final move against the militants holed up in Suq Al-Hout and Sabri until the battle for Gwarsha and Ganfouda were over.” Gwarsha was captured in November. The LNA’s plan is proceeding slower than it had hoped, but is proceeding nonetheless.

Meanwhile, a car bombing occurred elsewhere in Benghazi yesterday, adding to “fears…that cells of militants still in the city would continue their fight with assassinations and car bombs.”