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.

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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: On the Resignation of Musa al-Koni from the Presidency Council

In December 2015, the United Nations and a host of foreign countries helped to create Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA), meant to serve as a unity government for the country. The most important organ of the GNA is the Presidency Council, a nine-member body headed by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, who hails from a prominent Tripoli family. The Council is meant to reflect Libya’s diversity, and so its members came from different parts of the country – for example, one prominent member is Ahmed Maiteeg of Misrata, a key western coastal city, while another member is Ali Faraj al-Qatrani, who hails from the east.

The Council and the GNA have struggled to impose their authority on Libya, to say the least. The GNA’s greatest success has been the campaign to retake the coastal city of Sirte from the Islamic State, but the near-total conquest of Sirte has not left the GNA in a stronger bargaining position vis-a-vis its most formidable rival, Khalifa Haftar of the Libyan National Army (based in the east).

Now the Council has another problem. On January 2, one of its three deputy prime ministers, Musa al-Koni, resigned (French), publicly saying (Arabic) that the Council has failed to “unite the institutions of the state.” Al-Koni is a Tuareg from Libya’s sparsely populated south, and so one might argue that his departure does not indicate the loss of a major constituency for the Council, but I think that would be wrong. The Council needs to appear, and to be, representative of all of Libya in order to claim the mantle of “unity government.”

Is al-Koni’s departure temporary or permanent? Several other members of the Council – including al-Qatrani and Fathi al-Mijibri – have suspended their membership only to rejoin the Council after a period of weeks or months. A temporary walk-out can be a negotiating tactic.

Al-Koni’s Twitter account (in Arabic, here) gives the impression of someone who is fatigued with politics. A pinned Tweet from early December reads, “How wretched these political conflicts seem, which weigh upon the back of the country, before the pain of a fighter who lost his limbs in battles for the sake of Libya’s unity.” The attached picture shows al-Koni visiting an amputee in the hospital. Unless al-Koni is being deeply cynical, he gives off the impression of someone who is genuinely throwing up his hands.

Two Recent Items of Interest on Libya

Two very interesting reports on Libya came out in December.

The first, by the International Crisis Group, examines the unsuccessful attempt in early December to take back oilfields in the Gulf of Sirte from Khalifa Haftar and the Libyan National Army, who had themselves seized the oilfields in question back in September. Haftar is an anti-Islamist warlord, based in eastern Libya, who is aligned with the internationally recognized legislature of Libya, although not with the UN-backed national unity government (the Government of National Accord or GNA). Much of Crisis Group’s piece deals with the economic stakes of the struggle for the oilfields, but the report also addresses the politics of the situation, especially the power struggle between Haftar and the Presidency Council of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord.

The rump government in Tripoli, the Presidency Council headed by Prime Minister Faez Serraj and backed by the UN and several Western powers, has distanced itself from this operation and stated it played no role in mobilising this force. Crisis Group warned in September and November that such an attack would be perilous.

 

Yet many Libyans, including members of units who launched the assault, claim the operation was carried out under the leadership of al-Mahdi al-Barghathi, the defence minister in Serraj’s government. Tripoli-based officials have been sounding the alarm for months about preparations for such an assault, alleging that Barghathi was providing legal cover and funds for the operation, and also coordinating the recruitment of men and provision of weapons.

These developments take me back to this post from July, where I probably overstated al-Barghathi’s importance but where I tried to say that if anyone could successfully undermine Haftar, it was probably him. If al-Barghathi was behind the early December attacks, then his current anti-Haftar moves are failing. Some of al-Barghathi’s rumored allies in eastern Libya, the Benghazi Defense Brigades, now appear to be on the defensive in the east, as Haftar’s forces attack them in the Jufra region. The Brigades were, as you can read in the Crisis Group piece, one of the key militias involved in the effort to retake the oilfields from Haftar. With the assault rebuffed and the anti-Haftar forces on the defensive, the momentum seems to be decisively with Haftar and his Libyan National Army.

That brings me to the second report that caught my eye in December, which highlights a different but ultimately related aspect of Libyan politics: Haftar’s relationship with Russia. Writing for the Carnegie Endowment, Tarek Megerisi and Mattia Toaldo argue that “Russia’s support for Khalifa Haftar in the name of countering terrorism could instead escalate Libya’s conflict and undermine the UN-sponsored political process.” The report details how Russian support to Haftar grew during the second half of 2016, extending a pattern of Russian support for authoritarian, anti-Islamist figures in the Middle East. For further reading on Haftar and Russia, see two recent Bloomberg articles here and here. Haftar has the strength he does in large part because of his domestic relationships, but foreign backing has also been key, especially from Egypt, the Emirates, and now Russia.

 

On the (Most Recent) Reported Death of Mokhtar Belmokhtar

Late last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that a French airstrike in southern Libya likely killed the jihadist commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar. The reports have been met with some skepticism, given that Belmokhtar has been reported dead numerous times. For example, American authorities believed they had killed Belmokhtar in a June 2015 airstrike in Ajdabiya, northeasterrn Libya (map).

Belmokhtar was born in Ghardaïa, Algeria in 1972. He traveled to Afghanistan in the late 1980s, and then participated in Algeria’s civil war in the 1990s as a member of the Armed Islamic Group (French acronym GIA) and the Salafi Group for Preaching and Combat (French acronym GSPC). The GSPC affiliated with al-Qaida in 2006-2007, and Belmokhtar was one of the most senior commanders in the rebranded al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). To a certain extent, he broke away from AQIM from roughly 2012-2015, although his forces were effectively reintegrated into AQIM by late 2015.

It is not easy to determine exactly where the most recent strike occurred. There was a reported airstrike on November 14 on the outskirts of the southern Libyan city of Sabha (map). That strike may have claimed the lives of AQIM’s Abu Talha al-Hassnawi and six others. One wonders whether Belmokhtar was among them – he and al-Hassnawi were reportedly close, and had allegedly been seen together after returning to Sabha from the coastal city of Sirte. Another source (French), however, says that the airstrike occurred in the Bani Walid region (map) south of Tripoli, or in other words in northwestern rather than southern Libya. I favor the first account, but the second is worth considering.

It is possible that Belmokhtar has been using Libya as his main base of operations since the fall of the jihadist territory that AQIM and allied factions controlled in northern Mali in 2012-2013. Although Belmokhtar’s forces have claimed responsibility for major attacks beyond Libya, he has been (accurately or otherwise) sighted there many times since 2013. AQIM is a player in intra-jihadist politics in northeastern Libya and has a presence, although its size is difficult to determine, in southwestern Libya. Regarding the northeast, it is worth noting that when Belmokhtar was targeted in the June 2015 strike on Ajdabiya, he was possibly there to help aid some anti-ISIS jihadis planning to expel ISIS from another northeastern coastal city, Derna. Regarding the southwest, it is worth noting that there are murky connections between AQIM and smugglers in towns such as Sabha and Ubari.

Alongside reports of Belmokhtar’s death, there are reports that one of his wives was arrested in Derna when she went there to give birth. The woman, a Tunisian national, reportedly gave birth in mid-October after Belmokhtar sent her from southern Libya to Derna. She believed at that time that Belmokhtar was alive, although she parted company with him well before the latest reported strike. AQIM (French), for its part, has denied that Belmokhtar has a Tunisian wife at all. But even the rumor of a senior jihadist’s wife being arrested makes me think that wives are a double-edged sword. On the one hand, marrying into local communities can help jihadists forge important ties. But on the other hand, wives can be a security and intelligence risk. I doubt that she provided intelligence that led directly to Belmokhtar’s targeting, but it’s quite possible that she did provide actionable intelligence about other jihadi camps, leaders, etc.

If Belmokhtar is indeed dead, then all the familiar debates about decapitation can be rehearsed. The argument for assassination is that it removes key decision-makers, disrupts organizational cohesion and operational planning, and weakens networks. The argument against assassination is that leaders are often quickly replaced, that organizational fragmentation can be dangerous, and that successors are sometimes more reckless, competent, or brutal than their predecessors. I tend to think the benefits of decapitation are exaggerated; your mileage may vary.

 

Links Roundup on the Battle Against the Islamic State in Sirte, Libya

In May of this year, the Islamic State’s Libya affiliate controlled a strip of coastal Libya that extended from Abu Ghrein in the west to Bin Jawwad in the east. Early 2016 had seen advances by the Islamic State that made Libyan and international authorities quite nervous. In the west, the Islamic State was harassing the outskirts of Misrata, Libya’s third-largest city, and in in the east it was attacking major oil infrastructure, including the country’s two largest oil terminals, Ra’s Lanuf and Al-Sidr. These and other factors contributed to the launch of a multi-pronged offensive against Sirte, the epicenter of the Islamic State’s Libyan territory. The main assault is being conducted by mostly Misratan forces aligned with Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA), a United Nations-backed, would-be unity government. Those forces, coming from the west, reached Sirte in June. But since then, the GNA’s fighters have been engaged since then in a difficult battle against die-hard Islamic State fighters holed up in central Sirte, at sites such as the Ouagadougou Conference Hall (one of the Islamic State’s original bastions in the city). The battle for Sirte has importance not just for the campaign against the Islamic State, but also because the campaign itself is shaping Libyan politics and will help determine the fate and nature of the GNA.

For day-to-day coverage, I recommend following Daniele Ranieri, Mary Fitzgerald, Mattia Toaldo, Frederic Wehrey, Mohamed Eljarh, Francesca Mannochi and, for those who read Arabic, the official account of Operation Al-Bunyan al-Marsus (Operation Solid Structure), the GNA’s campaign.

Here are a few links that will take you deeper into both the campaign and the politics surrounding it.

On the Islamic State’s rise in Libya and in Sirte specifically:

On the campaign (in roughly chronological order):

  • Patrick Markey, “Libyan Forces Battle Islamic State Street-to-Street in Sirte”
  • Frederic Wehrey: “Libyans Are Winning the Battle Against the Islamic State”
  • Patrick Markey, “Sirte Battle Risks Widening Libya Political Splits”
  • Amanda Kadlec, “All Eyes on Sirte: Beating the Islamic State, But Losing Libya”
  • Libya’s Channel, “In Depth: Oil Guards Seize IS-Held Territory, Join Unity Government Coalition”
  • AFP, “ISIS Tries to Break Siege in Libya’s Sirte”
  • Missy Ryan, “In a Pivotal Battle, Libyan Forces Laying Siege to Islamic State in Sirte”
  • Aidan Lewis, “Libyan Forces Report Gains Against IS in Battle for Sirte”

On what might come next:

And finally, some sage notes of anti-alarmism from Geoff Porter, written before the current campaign began, about the barriers to expansion that the Islamic State faces in Libya.