Libya Roundup for June 12, 2020

There was a moment around 2016-2017 where I felt like I almost understood a bit of what was happening in Libya…that moment has since passed. But I’d like to get back to following the country a bit more closely. Obviously, what happens in Libya affects the Sahel in various ways.

Here are a few things that caught my eye recently.

First of all, several notable books on Libya have come out this year. Here are two:

Second, here are some recent articles and posts on different key topics:

Reuters Libya Newsroom, “Libya’s Haftar Pulls Back East as Tripoli Offensive Crumbles,” June 5. The lede:

Forces loyal to Libya’s internationally recognised government took the last stronghold of eastern commander Khalifa Haftar near Tripoli on Friday and advanced further south, capping the sudden collapse of his 14-month offensive on the capital.

Military sources in Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) said their forces had withdrawn from the town of Tarhouna towards Sirte, far to the east, and al-Jufra airbase in central Libya.

The discovery of mass graves in Tarhouna (map) is a story worth following closely. Here is an Amnesty researcher:

Wolfram Lacher, SWP Berlin, “The Great Carve-Up: Libya’s Internationalised Conflicts after Tripoli.” From the introduction:

The yearlong offensive on Tripoli by Khalifa Haftar’s forces has suffered fatal setbacks, and Libya’s conflicts are changing shape. Russia’s and Turkey’s attempts at carving out spheres of influence are bound to collide with the interests of other foreign powers and with the fluidity of Libya’s political landscape. Haftar could face increasing challenges to his authority over eastern and southern Libya. Rivalries within the anti-Haftar alliance will also return to the fore. Foreign intervention and the deep rifts that the war has inflicted on Libyan society will be the key obstacles to a political settlement. Western states should focus on preserving Libya’s unity and countering Russian influence as a matter of priority.

Alison Pargeter interviewed by Michael Young, “Haftar and the Tribes,” Carnegie Endowment, May 28 (see also here, for more on this topic from Pargeter). From early in the interview:

Although by no means the sole actors in Libya’s complex and fragmented landscape, in the face of a near absent state, tribes are dominating certain towns and areas, are engaging in fighting, and are having a direct impact on the conflict through their alliances with key power brokers. At the same time they are also important social actors, providing refuge and protection while also pushing for reconciliation, especially at the local level. While they may be complex entities whose functions cut across the political, security, economic, and social realms, they still play an important role and will be critical to any future solution for the country.

Rema el-Fellani and Waleed Khaleefha, “Political Divisions in Libya’s Epicentre Impede the Fight Against Covid-19,” MEDirections Blog, June 10. One portion:

The current situation in Sebha is considered critical because of the poor health infrastructure in the southwest and a lack of well-equipped hospitals. There is a risk of overcrowding the Sebha Medical Centre, the region’s only medical facility equipped to receive and treat coronavirus patients, in the event that the pandemic enters the fourth phase and the Barkuli Centre is full. Furthermore, Sebha’s location 750 km from Tripoli and a lack of transport infrastructure make it logistically difficult for the city to receive aid and medical supplies from other regions in a time of war.

Abigail Corey and Esra Elbakoush, “Amid Libyan Crisis, Two Hostile Towns Build a Basis for Peace,” United States Institute of Peace, June 1. A quote:

The need to work through civil society, and from the grass roots, is amplified by Libya’s lack of a truly national government, El-Kebir says. The grassroots progress between Batn al-Jabal and Nalut is just the latest in a string of cases in which activist Libyan citizens, many of them women and youth, have organized to solve problems and build peace in divided localities.

Finally, who can resist sharing this?

A Libyan Arrest Warrant for Chadian and Sudanese Rebels

In early January, the Libyan Attorney General’s office issued arrest warrants for twenty-one Chadian rebels, eight Sudanese rebels, and six Libyan nationals in connection with attacks in eastern and southern Libya. The full list of Chadian and Sudanese names is available here (Arabic) while the Libyan names are available here (also Arabic). The warrants have widely been depicted as an anti-Qatar move, and in fact it’s challenging to find straightforward reporting on the list. This is a decent English-language explainer, though.

In terms of the Libyan names, they include some very prominent figures, such as Abdelhakim Belhadj and Ibrahim al-Jadran. One figure I was unfamiliar with before this is Abu ‘Ubayda al-Zawi/Shaaban Hadia, whom you can read about here and here. The others are Ali al-Huni, Mukhtar Rakhis, and Hamdan Ahmad (my transliterations). Belhadj has already denounced the warrant against him as a political stunt.

On the Chadian side, figures such as Mahamat Mahdi Ali, leader of the Front pour l’alternance et la concorde au Tchad (Front for Regime Change and Harmony in Chad, FACT)*, have also protested the warrants. Ali said that his organization is uninvolved in Libya’s problems and does not act as mercenaries.

Here are the names of the Chadians, although my transliterations may not completely line up with how these names are rendered in the Anglophone and Francophone media:

  • Ali Ahmad Abd Allah
  • Hamid Juru Mariqi
  • Muhammad Musa Adam
  • Muhammad Ahmad Nasr
  • Adam Husayn
  • Muhammad Abd Allah Ahmad
  • Umar Abkar Tijani
  • Bashara Hajar Ayibu
  • Muhammad al-Mahdi Ali (Mahamat Mahdi Ali)
  • Abu Bakr Tuli
  • Al-Ashi Warduqu
  • Barki Yusuf
  • Timani Erdimi
  • Hammad Hasan Abd al-Rahim (name appears twice)
  • Musa al-Hajj Azraq (name appears twice)
  • Muhammad Nuri
  • Muhammad Hasan Balmay
  • Mas’ud Jiddi
  • Kanqabi Tabul
  • Muhammad Hakimi
  • Musa Muhammad Zayn

And the Sudanese:

  • Hasan Musa Kali
  • Jabir Abu Bakr
  • Arkumi Minawi
  • Abd al-Karim Shuli
  • Abd Allah Janah
  • Uthman al-Quni
  • Musa Hilal
  • Ali Umar Takadim

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.

Khalifa Haftar’s Visit to Niger

On 6 August, Libya’s Khalifa Haftar – head of the Libyan National Army, the most prominent politician in northeastern Libya, and a key rival of Libya’s Government of National Accord – visited Niger. There, he met Nigerien President Mahamdou Issoufou as well as senior Nigerien military officers.

Haftar is not Libya’s head of state, but as one observer commented, it looked a bit like “head of state protocol” for Haftar in Niger, or at least a very respectful welcome. See this official tweet from the Nigerien presidency:

Similarly, Libya analyst Jalel Harchaoui took issue with RFI’s headline calling the visit “discreet/low profile.”

No news reports that I have seen, nor the Nigerien presidency’s website, have given an official readout of what was discussed at the meeting. Various analyses have placed the visit in the context of Haftar’s ambitions to dominate/conquer southern Libya, and the corresponding need to coordinate to some extent with Libya’s southern neighbors.

I am aware of at least one past visit by Haftar to Chad, in September 2016, but I am not aware of him paying another diplomatic visit like this to another Sahelian country (and no, I am not counting his capture in Chad in the 1980s as a “visit” in this sense) since he returned to Libya in 2011.

Libya: How Much Local Support Did the Islamic State Have in Sirte?

The Intercept is out with an article that compiles and cross-references various estimates of how many armed drone strikes the United States has conducted in Libya. The authors assess that the number is somewhere around 550 strikes since 2011, although the authors also note that the U.S. government frequently contradicts itself on drone strike numbers, and the various think tanks and non-profits that keep count also produce varying (although not that disparate) figures.

The Intercept’s count of 550 U.S. drone strikes in Libya over the last seven years is based primarily on five U.S. military sources. The first is a retired Air Force squadron commander who said his unit executed 241 drone strikes out of a U.S. base in Sicily in 2011, when the air campaign in Libya began. The second is an Air Force wing commander based in Nevada who told the audience of the Air Force Association’s Air Warfare Symposium that drones conducted approximately 300 strikes in the second half of 2016, when the U.S. was attacking the Libyan city of Sirte to oust Islamic State militants. The third is a 2017 Air Force news story that provided roughly the same figures. The fourth and fifth sources are AFRICOM and Pentagon officials, who confirmed that 11 strikes carried out in Libya during the Trump administration involved remotely piloted aircraft.

The Intercept article also builds on a new report from the New America Foundation and Airwars that counts 2,158 airstrikes (manned and unmanned) by “at least four foreign countries and three domestic Libyan factions” between September 2012 and June 10, 2018. The New America/Airwars report focuses heavily on civilian casualties, an area where the U.S. government figures and the independent estimates are quite different.

In any case, what stood out to me from the Intercept’s article is that figure about drone strikes in Sirte, where the Islamic State exercised substantial control beginning in early 2015. U.S. airstrikes in 2016 were supporting Operation Bunyan Marsus under the auspices of Libya’s Government of National Accord, which succeeded in largely expelling the Islamic State from Sirte by December 2016.

It’s become a stock phrase of mine in presentations and a few current paper drafts to say that when jihadists control territory, particularly urban territory, it is only a matter of time before more powerful actors line up to expel them from that territory – see Mosul, Gao/Timbuktu/Kidal, Damboa, Mogadishu, etc. I still think that’s true, but the Sirte campaign shows just how many resources those other actors sometimes need to mobilize. Operation Bunyan Marsus lasted from May 2016 to December 2016. AFRICOM’s “Operation Odyssey Lightning,” targeting the Islamic State in Sirte, ran from 1 August 2016 to 19 August 2016 and entailed “495 precision airstrikes against Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Devices, heavy guns, tanks, command and control centers and fighting positions.”

The Intercept adds

Of those 495 strikes, more than 60 percent — approximately 300 — were carried out by MQ-9 Reapers, with the balance conducted by manned Marine Corps aircraft flown from Navy ships off Libya’s coast, according to Col. Case Cunningham, the commander of the 432nd Expeditionary Wing at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, the headquarters of the Air Force’s RPA operations.

That’s a lot of strikes. And to me, the immediate inference is that the Islamic State must have enjoyed some significant popular support in Sirte. Other sources suggest a similar conclusion. The reasons are too complicated to fully examine here, but a crude version would posit that in Sirte, Muammar Qadhafi’s hometown (of sorts), the Islamic State assembled a coalition that was unhappy with the 2011 revolution’s aftermath, including tribes (Qadhadhfa), local jihadists (Ansar al-Sharia defectors), former regime loyalists, people aggrieved by the conduct of Misratan militias who wrested Sirte from regime control, etc. Here is one journalist’s account (Arabic) from February 2015:

[In 2011] I saw Qadhafi’s green flags in Sirte, and in Neighborhood Number 2, the biggest of the city’s neighborhoods that became famous for its legendary endurance against the forces of Misrata. Whoever goes now to that neighborhood will find the black flags of ‘the Islamic State’ having replaced Qadhafi’s green flags.

The Islamic State in Libya had a significant foreign contingent, including hundreds of Tunisian fighters and a handful of prominent leaders from Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere in the mashriq. But to control Sirte and to hold parts of it for as long as they did against major firepower, they must have had some significant local support.

Now, I want to be careful with arguments like this – I am not saying that ordinary Muslims, in Libya or elsewhere, are crypto-jihadists, eager to raise the black flags whenever they get half a chance. That would be morally offensive and analytically wrong.

I am saying that the way analysts and policymakers talk about jihadism often discounts local agency. There were very particular circumstances in Sirte that facilitated whatever popular support the Islamic State found or built there, but I think analysts (including me!) have more work to do in figuring out why ordinary people in those very particular circumstances might support jihadist projects. A lot of the existing analytical paradigms – “they’re rational actors,” “they’re radicalized,” “jihadists exploit local chaos” – don’t really cut it for me anymore.

A Quick Note on Banditry and Counterterrorism in Niger

RFI (French) reports that over the weekend, Nigerien soldiers in the northeast of their country clashed with armed Chadian bandits. The bandits reportedly fled toward the Nigerien border.

The incident reminds me of a quote (French) I’ve come back to again and again, from Mohamed Anacko, president of Agadez’s regional council. This came in the context of discussing France’s Sahel-wide counterterrorism program, Operation Barkhane, in a 2015 interview:

First of all, I should say that if Barkhane had not been there, the last Nigerien lock would have been forced open during the war in Mali. The national army would not have been able to prevent the terrorists from coming to set up shop in the north. But it is true that from the start, Barkhane suffered from a lack of communication. When you send helicopters and planes into the desert, without having created an information mechanism, you should expect that the populations will see a new form of colonialism in it…The inhabitants do not understand that Barkhane only takes action against certain armed groups. There are gangs, coming from Chad or Sudan for example, that practice looting, particularly since gold panning became important. But Barkhane, because that is not its mission, does not take an interest in them. Neither do the Nigerien security forces, moreover. However, these are the persons who create conditions propitious for the installation of terrorism. The risk is that the population will create militias to defend itself. What’s more, the struggle against terrorism, it’s first of all about intelligence. There must be collaboration with the inhabitants, who know the region. If not, Barkhane will have to content itself with doing tourism in the desert.

Words worth reflecting on.

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: 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.

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.