Libya: What Next for Derna?

With a near-complete victory in Benghazi, Libya’s eastern strongman Khalifa Haftar is “eyeing” Tripoli. But he and his Libyan National Army (LNA) are also eyeing other sites closer to Benghazi, among them Sirte (to Benghazi’s west) and Derna (to Benghazi’s east).

Sirte is where the Islamic State was defeated in a long campaign waged in 2016, waged primarily by forces from the western city of Misrata rather than by the LNA.

Derna was partly controlled by the Islamic State in 2014-2015 (which was finally forced out in 2016), but since then the most prominent force there has been a jihadist, anti-Islamic State coalition called the Consultative Council of the Mujahideen of Derna (Majlis Shura Mujahidi Darna, often abbreviated DMSC in English sources).

The state presence there is weak and may consist effectively of freelancers: One security official recently described Derna, as paraphrased by a reporter (Arabic), as “outside of the legal authority of the state,” and added that “a number of officers in Derna conduct their affairs without a tasking from the Ministry of the Interior or any legitimate section of the state.”

With regard to Derna, here are a few developments worth noting from May-July:

  • Airstrikes in May: The most recent airstrikes I’ve heard about on Derna were by Egypt (the Egyptian government is an ally of Haftar’s) in late May, in response to an attack inside Egypt. “Libyan National Army spokesman Colonel Ahmad Messmari told reporters in Benghazi…that Haftar’s forces were coordinating with Egypt’s military in air strikes and the weekend raids targeted ammunition stores and operations camps.” The DMSC, at the time, denied (Arabic) that the airstrikes were targeting them specifically, and also denied any involvement in the attack in Egypt.
  • Haftar’s/LNA’s advance (reported July 17): “Units of the Libyan National Army led by Khalifa Hafter claim to have moved to within 20 kilometres of Derna, removing earth barriers mounds and cement blocks at Kirissah, west of the Mujahideen-controlled town…The commander of the Omar Mukhtar Operations Room, Brigadier Salim Al-Rafadi, announced that talks were taking place with elders from the town over surrendering it without bloodshed. As a result operations were temporarily being delayed. However, he insisted that one way or another, the army would enter the town.”
  • The possibility (Arabic) that the DMSC will join the LNA (reported July 20): According to one of Derna’s members of the House of Representatives, the eastern-based Libyan parliament, the DMSC “wants to dissolve itself and join the army.” Alongside possible discussions between the DMSC and the LNA, discussions are also reportedly occurring (Arabic) between the DMSC and various notables within Derna, who are keen to avoid a full-scale war with the LNA for control of the city. The city is also suffering from various shortages of electricity, food, and other essentials. For now, however, the DMSC and the LNA remain enemies, and the DMSC continues to accuse the LNA of having abetted (Arabic) the Islamic State’s flight from the city.

It will be interesting to see whether this standoff over Derna is resolved politically or military. A political resolution allowing the LNA to take control might be a bigger sign of Haftar’s power than a pitched battle for the city – if various eastern factions are putting their fingers to the wind and deferring to Haftar’s growing strength, he would gain more momentum than if he has to fight for every inch of territory.

Libyan National Army Slowly Conquering Benghazi

Back in January, I wrote about the Libyan National Army (LNA)’s slow territorial conquest of Benghazi. The LNA is the military force commanded by Khalifa Haftar, an ex-Qadhafi general turned eastern Libyan warlord (and recently profiled by Mattia Toaldo here). As of January, two main neighborhoods in Benghazi remained outside the LNA’s control: Suq al-Hout and Sabiri/Sabri.

Over the weekend, the LNA took much of Suq al-Hout. The slow speed of the advance is partly due to the numerous land mines (Arabic) and improvised explosive devices in the remaining neighborhoods. The LNA has launched numerous airstrikes targeting both Suq al-Hout and al-Sabiri (Arabic).

Haftar’s military enemies in eastern Libya appear to be weakening. Inside Benghazi, jihadist groups like the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council are losing territory and fighters. Meanwhile, as Reuters notes, the anti-Haftar Companies for Defending Benghazi/Benghazi Defense Brigades, a force based outside Benghazi, are now stating their willingness to “disband and be integrated into national security forces.” Al Jazeera (Arabic) adds that the Companies are accusing France and the United Arab Emirates of pressuring the United States government to declare the Companies a foreign terrorist organization, i.e. to blacklist them. (I’ve explained, here, why I think it’s simplistic to consider the Companies a part of al-Qaida.)

With the Companies unable to mount a successful offensive against the LNA in Benghazi and with the LNA slowly expanding its control of the city, Haftar’s position there – and in eastern Libya generally – is looking stronger and stronger.

Libya: On al-Qaida and the Benghazi Defense Brigades

I have a post at Lawfare examining the Benghazi Defense Brigades*, a Libyan militia with very loose ties to al-Qaida. I make a broader point about how analytically sloppy, and politically misguided, it is to interpret these kinds of loose ties as evidence for the claim that al-Qaida core is somehow brilliantly controlling all kinds of essentially local armed groups around the world. I welcome your feedback on the piece in the comments section below.

*Probably better translated as “the Companies for Defending Benghazi,” but the name above has stuck in English.

Khalifa Haftar Launches “Operation Moving Sands” in Southern Libya

Al Jazeera (Arabic) reports that Khalifa Haftar, leader of the so-called Libyan National Army (LNA) and rival of the United Nations-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), has launched a new military campaign in southern Libya. The campaign is called “Operation Moving Sands.” It will target militias around Sabha (map). Leading the campaign is the LNA’s 12 Brigade under Colonel Muhammad bin Na’il. Their immediate goal is to capture the air base at Tamanhint (map), slightly northeast of Sabha.

“Operation Moving Sands” represents a continuation, and probably an escalation, of a series of conflicts between the LNA – including the 12 Brigade – and the GNA-aligned Third Force, a southern-based militia originally from Misrata, the economic hub on the coast. The conflicts between the Third Force and bin Na’il’s men date to early 2015, according to one account. Most recently, Al Jazeera says, the Third Force repelled an LNA attack on the air base on March 23. Each side depicts itself as a force for stability in the south and accuses the other of causing chaos in the region.

Something like 90% of Libyans live in northern coastal cities, but what happens in the south matters a great deal: southern towns are key nodes in commerce, smuggling, and migration, and the south has significant security infrastructure. Observers are also warning that the so-called Islamic State is attempting to regroup in southern Libya after its recent defeat and expulsion from Sirte. Finally, it’s worth adding that some southern politicians are frustrated with the GNA: Musa al-Koni, representative of the Tuareg (a major ethnic group in southwestern Libya) on the GNA’s Presidency Council, resigned in disgust in January. It’s not surprising that Haftar sees an opportunity, politically and militarily, in the south.