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.

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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.

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.”

 

Recent Fighting in Benghazi Between Khalifa Haftar’s LNA and the Benghazi Revolutionaries’ Shura Council

The eastern Libyan city of Benghazi is the site of an ongoing battle with wider ramifications for Libya’s future. On the one side are the anti-Islamist leader Khalifa Haftar and his would-be Libyan National Army (LNA). On the other side is an alliance of jihadist groups called the Benghazi Revolutionaries’ Shura Council (BRSC, Shura meaning consultation). The battle for Benghazi, in which Haftar has the upper hand, is part of his broader campaign to control Libya and impose an anti-Islamist, anti-jihadist politics on the country.

Haftar and his rivals have been trading control over areas of the city for over two years now – and as recently as September, Al Jazeera (Arabic) was reporting gains for the BRSC.

The past few days have seen fierce fighting in Benghazi. AFP:

“We now control the district of Abu Sneib” in the southwest of the city, said a commanding officer in the army headed by Haftar, who backs the parliament in the country’s east.

“Our forces now completely surround the Qanfuda area” nearby, the same source said.

The source said 52 troops had died in fighting since January 1 in and around Benghazi.

[…]

Jihadists still control the central districts of Al-Saberi and Souq al-Hout.

Al Jazeera (Arabic) provides more details, especially about the costs of the operation for the LNA: two field commanders killed, along with several other deaths. The trigger for the latest fighting was apparently an attempt by the BRSC to advance on LNA positions in the neighborhood.

Air power is a major factor in Haftar’s advances against the BRSC, although there are reports (Arabic) that an LNA plane was shot down over eastern Benghazi by a rocket on January 15. The BRSC has claimed responsibility (Arabic). Even though Haftar has the upper hand, the BRSC’s resistance make it seem as though the LNA’s total conquest of Benghazi is still a ways off.

 

Libya: Mahdi al-Barghathi Is the Man to Watch

The international media has, at most, the attention span for two stories about Libya: (a) the battle against the Islamic State there, and (b) the existence of different would-be governments and rival militias. Typically, the central characters in storyline B are:

  • Fayez al-Sarraj, Prime Minister of the United Nations-backed Government of National Accord (GNA)
  • Khalifa Haftar, commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA), the official fighting force of the House of Representatives (HOR), the internationally-recognized parliament that has yet to fully endorse the GNA
  • Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni and President Aguila Saleh of the HOR government
  • Prime Minister Khalifa Ghwell and President Nouri Abusahmain of the General National Congress (GNC)/National Salvation Government, the Tripoli-based, Islamist-dominated and non-internationally-recognized government.

These six names are the main ones you might see in day-to-day coverage of Libya. Then there are other layers and names you would encounter – deputy prime ministers of the GNA, for example, such as Ahmed Maiteeg.

If you’re a relative newcomer to studying Libyan politics, as I am, it might be a while before you run across the name Mahdi al-Barghathi. But increasingly I think he is the man to watch in Libya today.

Al-Barghathi is the Minister of Defense in the GNA, and he is important for what he represents: the possibility of a GNA that would achieve truly national reach without submitting to Khalifa Haftar’s will. Briefly, the GNA’s central political problem is bringing enough people under its umbrella to become a functional, national government. One big obstacle to that goal is Haftar, who hopes to be the equivalent of Egypt’s Abdul Fattah al-Sisi: a military strongman who treats all Islamists, even the Muslim Brotherhood, as terrorists. So Haftar either won’t come under the GNA’s umbrella unless he gets to hold the umbrella, or he would kick out a lot of people already under the umbrella (i.e., anyone who likes the Muslim Brotherhood), or he wouldn’t ever be willing to come under the umbrella at all. Haftar’s support comes from eastern Libya, al-Barghathi is from eastern Libya, and so if the GNA can rally enough easterners around al-Barghathi, it might be able to marginalize Haftar. For his own part, Haftar was displeased by al-Barghathi’s selection.

To some extent, this is about the personalities, but on another level this is about resolving deep-rooted, structural tensions in Libyan politics. If we look at those tensions in terms of political geography, we might say the following: Libya’s main cities in terms of population are Tripoli (the capital, in the west), Benghazi (in the east), and Misrata (a commercial hub in the west). To speak crudely, Benghazi and the east do not want to be dominated by a Tripoli-based government or by Misrata’s powerful politicians and militias: hence (and drawing on a long history, including the east’s marginalization under Muammar al-Qadhafi), we see repeated expressions of resistance to centralized rule by eastern politicians. The GNA’s career so far might even reinforce eastern fears of western domination: the battle to retake Sirte from the Islamic State, for example, could be described simplistically as a Misratan military effort overseen by politicians in Tripoli. But some people in the east are willing to participate in national projects such as the GNA, especially if they can be convinced that those projects will be truly inclusive. This brings us back to what al-Barghathi represents: an easterner, not Haftar, who has been given a major portfolio in the GNA; a symbol of a Libyan security sector where the east has a big say, and is not just under Misrata’s thumb.

A bit more on al-Barghathi himself – and why he was a brilliant pick for the position:

  • He is from Benghazi
  • He commanded the Benghazi-based 204 Tank Brigade, which ultimately became part of Haftar’s Operation Dignity (an anti-Islamist offensive launched in 2014). As the example of al-Barghathi himself illustrates, Operation Dignity is not an army of soldiers, all of them personally loyal to Haftar, so much as it is a coalition of units whose commanders have allied with Haftar for different reasons. Rather than engaging in a head-to-head conflict with Haftar, the GNA can attempt to peel away segments of that coalition and cut Haftar’s support out from under him. As the UK’s ambassador to Libya recently said, “[Al-Barghathi’s] relationship with General Haftar is not good, and General Haftar does not accept him as Minister of Defence, but he has good relations with many of the officers in the Libyan National Army. He is quietly trying to work with them to bring the very many groups into one structure” (.pdf, p. 3).
  • Despite being part of Dignity, he reportedly has good relations with a wide variety of important actors, including some who are opposed to Haftar. These actors include Ibrahim al-Jadran, who commands an important militia in the east, the GNA-aligned Petroleum Facilities Guard-Center. One Algerian source (Arabic) makes the highly interesting claim that al-Barghathi has respect among Islamists and even jihadists: “During the [2011] revolution he fought side by side with the revolutionaries of Benghazi and with the fighters of Ansar al-Shari’a [a jihadist outfit]…And when Haftar launched Operation Dignity, al-Barghathi did not join either of the two sides in the conflict, and chose neutrality…The appearance of the Islamic State in Benghazi and its attack on the camp of the 204 Tank Brigade was the reason that al-Barghathi joined Operation Dignity.” According to the source, al-Barghathi maintains goodwill with Libyan Islamists (minus, of course, the Islamic State). Hence al-Bargathi is a consensus figure of sorts in the security sector, except of course with Haftar.
  • As noted above, he has strong credentials as a revolutionary, which can help assuage Islamists’ and revolutionaries’ fears that the HOR and Operation Dignity have become de facto strongholds for members of the Qadhafi regime.
  • He has strong backing from one of the east’s most powerful tribes, the Awaqir (of which I believe his own tribe, the Baraghatha, is a sub-unit, though I’m still seeking confirmation). The tribes, including the Awaqir, have been major public supporters of Haftar and the HOR – but as one source (Arabic) puts it, “any clash between al-Barghathi and Haftar will make the Awaqir tribe stand with al-Barghathi.” Another source (Arabic) notes that the Awaqir have given “6,000 of its sons to Operation Dignity,” and that the Awaqir have maintained public support both for the HOR’s right to endorse or reject the GNA and for al-Barghathi’s appointment as Minister of Defense. All of this puts Haftar in a deeply awkward position: if he comes to be seen as not just anti-GNA but as specifically anti-al-Barghathi, he could find himself losing the tribal support that he cannot do without. Haftar himself is from the Firjan, a significant tribe but by no means the largest tribe in the east.

Put all of this together and it’s no surprise that al-Barghathi was reportedly the target of a car bombing in Benghazi on July 13. It is dangerous work attempting to be a unifying figure in post-Qadhafi Libya – as we learn from the example of Abdul Fattah Younes, another prominent easterner, who defected from Qadhafi’s government to the revolutionaries’ side in February 2011 only to be assassinated (most likely by hardline Islamists) in July 2011. Younes’ assassination left lasting bitterness and contributed to post-revolutionary fragmentation.

Again, the personalities involved are important, but even more important is what each one represents. At the risk of being hyperbolic, I would say that al-Barghathi now represents the relationship between the GNA and the east, as well as the prospects for unification of the security sector. With the HOR’s leadership recently sounding even more reluctant to endorse the GNA, and with hints circulating about the possibility of a formally fragmented security sector, al-Barghathi’s position is becoming even more tense. Live or die, succeed or fail, I think he is the man to watch in Libya right now.

Africa Blog Roundup: Benghazi, Oil, Achebe, Kismayo, and More

Josh Rogin:

The State Department’s Accountability Review Board (ARB), meant to review the circumstances surrounding the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, met for the first time at the State Department Thursday.

[…]

The ARB is charged with determining the extent to which the incident was security-related, whether the security systems and procedures at that mission were adequate and were properly implemented, the impact of intelligence and information availability, and any other facts and circumstances that might be relevant to the appropriate security management of the United States missions abroad.

Roving Bandit on the oil deal between Sudan and South Sudan:

Whilst this seems like a good deal for North Sudan in the short run and a good deal for South Sudan in the long run, my main concern is the hold-up problem. What is stopping North Sudan ripping up the agreement in 3 years, demanding a higher cut, and just confiscating oil (again)?

Texas in Africa on child soldiers:

The dilemma in the Congo is this: while everyone agrees that the use of child soldiers is a horrible, inexcusable human rights violation, it is far from clear that disengaging from the Congolese government on military issues will end those abuses.

Loomnie excerpts two reviews of Chinua Achebe’s There Was a Country.

Emeka Okafor on hip hop in Nigeria.

Baobab on the potential impact of debt forgiveness on Guinea, and on cultural differences between Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone.

Somalia Newsroom: “Al Shabaab, Jubbaland, and the Future of Kismayo.”

At Focus on the Horn, Dr. Samson Bezabeh discusses Djibouti’s politics with reference to Sasha Baron Cohen’s “The Dictator.”

An Update on the Flood of Refugees from Libya into Niger

As Libya’s civil war goes on, West African refugees are fleeing the country. Some have left by boat, sometimes with tragic results. Some have reached Europe. Tens of thousands, meanwhile, have crossed south in Niger. Many of these are nationals of Niger, so their trip is a homecoming of sorts. Estimates of the human stream into Niger vary, but several tallies place the number at around 60,000 persons who have traveled from Libya to Niger since February. AFP puts the number of refugees who have entered Niger from the Libya and Cote d’Ivoire crises combined at 93,000. Another source puts the estimate differently: 1,000 people are coming into Niger every day, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Some sources say the arrivals are now decreasing somewhat, but that the demographic profile of the refugees is changing: men are now bringing their wives and children with them, indicating a more permanent return.

Whatever the number of refugees is, it’s large, and it’s placing major strains on Niger’s goverment and on the refugees themselves.

The newly elected civilian regime of President Mahamadou Issoufou took office in early April, and they entered power with a full plate. Needed aid has arrived for some communities in the southern part of Niger, but in the north, where refugees are concentrated, the government is struggling to deal with the influx. The arrivals also compound Niger’s recurring struggles with food insecurity, making life harder for the country’s permanent residents as well.

In late April, the Nigerien cabinet called for international aid to help them deal with the crisis. Last week, top Nigerien leaders reiterated the call:

“I appeal to all your countries and organisations to help us cope with this situation,” Niger Foreign Minister Mohamed Bazoum said to foreign diplomats and UN representatives in comments broadcast on state television.

He said that of 1.7 million euros ($2.4 million) requested, only 496,000 euros had been received and the country “may face a famine” if a remedy is not found.

Food insecurity is already growing in Zinder and Diffa in the east and Tahoua in the west, ahead of the new crop year beginning in June.

These three areas are home to most of an estimated three million people left under-nourished since drought last year led to food shortages, according to the agriculture ministry.

Appeals for aid by the national government are echoed by officials at the local level:

Adamou Habi, a member of a refugee management committee representing the governor of Agadez, told IRIN: “These are very, very difficult times. We are overwhelmed by the influx of people. We are doing our best with the help of a few individuals who have helped people return to their homes, but I don’t think we can hold up for much longer.”

“We really need aid,” he added.

The refugees themselves are experiencing severe hardships. The journey is difficult, the arrival no less so. In addition to food shortages, the economy has been affected in other ways, as refugees have lost their incomes and their families in Niger have lost needed remittances. The economic woes of refugees are causing crime:

Migrants who have fled the conflict in Libya to return to Niger say they are having to beg, steal, or sell off remaining animals or plots of land to survive, so as not to burden their already impoverished families, most of whom are struggling with food insecurity.

These hardships help explain why some refugees still inside Libya do not want to go home, even though their conditions in places like Misrata and Benghazi have been bad.

The desperation of the situation in Niger is a reminder of how much, and for how long, Libya’s civil war will affect the Sahel, and Africa as a whole. Even if the war ended tomorrow, countries like Niger would still need months, if not years, to rebuild and to deal with thousands of displaced persons. I hope the international community will heed Niger’s call for aid and devote substantial resources to helping with refugee resettlement, because the situation in Niger represents a humanitarian and a political risk of large proportions.

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A final note on numbers: the BBC writes, “The UN believes at least 335,000 people have fled Libya since the beginning of the conflict, including at least 200,000 foreign nationals.” If 60,000 nationals of Niger have fled Libya during this time, that makes them almost 18% of the total refugees.