Libya: Where Have All The ISIL Gone

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June 23, 2016: While most of Libya is focused on survival in the face of growing shortages or food, fuel and much else, the one thing most Libyans, and the world, can agree on is the need to destroy ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and that Islamic terror group’s effort to establish a new base in Libya. The campaign against the main ISIL base in Sirte, which began in late May, has succeeded in getting to Sirte and taking most of it from ISIL and apparently killing or dispersing most of the ISIL defenders. While the Misrata militias advanced from the west tribal militias that had been defending oil facilities advanced from the east. Other local militias came up from the south and other areas around Sirte. Earlier in 2016 ISIL had been trying to move east and seize oil facilities but that advance was halted and reversed by early May because local militias resisted and then counterattacked. The most prominent of these eastern militias were the ones paid to guard the oil facilities. These local militias are designated as PFGs (Petroleum Facilities Guards) and if they lose control of the facilities they protect they lose their jobs. Most of these pro-GNA (Government of National Accord) militias agreed to join the effort to liberate Sirte from ISIL.

By early June pro-GNA militias from Misrata had pushed ISIL forces back to within 15 kilometers of Sirte. Some of these militiamen were among those ISIL forced out of Sirte in mid-2015 but now they are advancing on Sirte from the south and west. ISIL used suicide car bombers to cause over a hundred casualties among the advancing militias but the militias kept coming. Refugees from Sirte indicate there are fewer ISIL men there because of all the fighting. ISIL men were noted shaving off their beards and behaving like civilians. As they have done in Syria, Iraq Afghanistan and elsewhere harsh ISIL rule has enraged many of the locals. In Sirte ISIL punishes or executes people for minor infractions of what ISIL considers proper Islamic lifestyle. ISIL definitely believes that if you can’t be loved by your subjects than fear is an acceptable substitute. The PFG militias advancing from the east have stayed outside the city so far.

By early June a major offensive was organized that pushed into Sirte itself. About a hundred American and British commandos (SAS, SBS, SEALs) helped organize a coordinated attack. Using aerial surveillance (by satellites, manned aircraft and UAVs) the commandos located key ISIL positions in Sirte, especially around the port area, and helped plan an attack by local militias (most from Misrata) that killed or wounded over a thousand of the Islamic terrorists and drove most of the survivors into a few Sirte neighborhoods. The militias suffered fewer casualties, mostly from suicide bombers ISIL sent out to try and stop the offensive. There was some air support and pro-GNA militias now claim there are only 500 ISIL fighters left in Sirte, trapped in one area of the city and using local civilians as human shields to protect themselves from NATO air strikes.

The presence of foreign commandos was no surprise to the locals but was only in late April that the United States confirmed that there have, since late 2015, been two teams of American Special Forces troops stationed in Libya. Locals soon confirmed that. Totaling 25 operators, the American commandos are split between the coastal cities of Misrata in the west and Benghazi in the east. There are also lots of French and British commandos in the area as well and these are reinforced as needed from nearby NATO bases. Unofficially there have been American commandos in Libya since 2011 and by 2016 it was rumored that at times there were over a hundred foreign commandos operating in Libya. The American Special Forces were officially in Libya to monitor ISIL but it soon became obvious that these commandos were working closely with Libyan forces advancing on Sirte. This included acting as ground controller for NATO air strikes. This foreign participation is unofficial and kept out of the news. There have been few casualties among the commandos so far and apparently no deaths. The air strikes are reported by locals but never the nationality of the aircraft. If smart (GPS guided) bombs are being used (which is apparently the case) the warplanes would be too high (over 6,000 meters) for people on the ground to easily see or identify. The commando are indeed there mainly to keep track of ISIL and if most of the 3,000 ISIL men believed to be in Sirte a few months ago are gone the commandos, and their growing list of local contacts, want to find out what happened to the missing ISIL men. Apparently no more than a third were killed or incapacitated by wounds. Most of the rest either fled to other areas or deserted (especially if they were Libyan). ISIL deaths may have been higher than estimated, especially if smart bombs hit buildings or bunkers were lots of them were. Until Sirte is cleared of ISIL and all the bomb sites can be examined, the precise ISIL death toll remains an unknown. Everyone, including GNA, wants to find out what happened to the lost ISIL.

Smaller ISIL outposts in the east (Benghazi) and west (Sabratha) have also suffered losses in the last month. This has been especially true in Benghazi.

The Other War

Despite the establishment of a UN sponsored unity government (GNA, Government of National Accord) in early April the country is still divided. GNA controls the traditional capital (Tripoli) and most militias in western Libya are pro-GNA. But in the east there is dissent. GNA was meant to replace two former governments, which were deadlocked over how to establish a new national government. The divisive issues are mainly money (from oil) and power (personal, tribal or political). Since the Kadaffi dictatorship was overthrown in 2011 there has been progress as more and more of these factions agree that unity is the only way to avoid economic and social collapse. This disunity is being solved one faction at a time but that is proving to be too slow. So no matter what any faction thinks, the country is approaching total collapse and widespread starvation and violence unless effective unity can be achieved.

At this point the main rebellious factions are;

The Libyan Armed Forces and its charismatic commander general Khalifa Belgacem Hiftar. He is backed by one of the two previous governments, the one in Tobruk.

ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) that still controls some of Sirte and smaller areas elsewhere. Sirte is a coastal city 500 kilometers east of Tripoli and 560 kilometers west of Benghazi and the main ISIL base in Libya since early 2015. ISIL first showed up in late 2014 and recruited many of the most radical men from existing Islamic terrorist militias.

PFGs (Petroleum Facilities Guards), which are tribal militias hired (or bribed) by previous governments to keep oil fields, pipelines and port facilities secure. A growing number of PFGs went rogue, shut down the facilities they guarded and, in effect, tried to blackmail the government into paying them more. This was driven by tribal feuds over how oil revenue should be allocated. Libya has always been very corrupt and Kaddafi remained in power for decades by playing the tribes off on each other with oil income. Those who cooperated got more, those who caused trouble got less. With Kadaffi gone many tribes want payback for past injustices (real or imagined). Many of the PFGs have now backed the GNA but as long as some of them continue to resist oil income is crippled and the much feared food crises is still approaching.

Hiftar has supporters all over the country but most of them are in the east around Benghazi. Hiftar is gradually losing his support outside of eastern Libya. In large part that is because most of the pro-Hiftar factions are not very mobile. Like most militias in Libya these factions exist largely to provide local security, These groups supported Hiftar because he seemed most likely to establish a powerful mobile force that could eventually come to the aid of each local militia and restore national unity and prosperity. The inability of Hiftar to work with the GNA has led many pro-Hiftar factions to either become neutral or support GNA.

These factional disputes are nothing new in Libya and have resisted several major attempts at national unity. This began with the first post-Kaddafi national government; the General National Congress (or GNC). It was formed after the 2011 revolution to create a new constitution for the voters to decide on. The GNC was to rule until the constitution was approved and government elections held. GNC failed to attract all factions or agree on a new constitution. In late 2013 the GNC illegally extended its power for another year. Despite that scheduled national elections were held in 2014. GNC did not like the composition of the new House of Representatives (HoR) government. The UN recognized the HoR but most of the GNC members (who tended to be more tribal and religiously conservative) refused to give up power, seized control of Tripoli and became known as “the Tripoli government”. The HoR and the government it had formed fled east to Tobruk and became known as “the Tobruk government”. The HoR rallied most of eastern Libya behind them. The UN recognized the H0R and condemned the GNC.

Now the UN only recognizes the GNA and the Tobruk government has become the biggest obstacle to unity. Most GNC factions now support the GNA or are neutral. The HoR has also lost some factions but has one major asset; the Libyan armed forces and its commander general Hiftar. The possibility that Hiftar’s forces could gain control of the oil fields and ports in the east is a long shot but the only chance the HoR has of surviving. Even then there is UN opposition and an effective embargo of illegal oil exports. What to do with Hiftar and widespread distrust of the West (and everyone else) in Libya and throughout the Middle East is preventing an end to the chaos in Libya.

The problem with Hiftar is that he wants to remain head of the armed forces and many factions in the GNA oppose that. The UN and the West want to limit Hiftar’s authority. Thus another former officer (and recent subordinate of and rival to Hiftar) was named GNA Defense Minister. Since 2014 Hiftar has had the support of many Arab nations who see him as the kind of “strong man” who could unify Libya. But many Western nations (and the UN) disagree and fear that Hiftar intends to become another dictator like Kaddafi. Most Libyans feel this is absurd as while Hifar was once a general in Kaddafi’s army he turned on Kaddafi in the late 1980s and was forced to flee the country. After that he was openly critical of Kaddafi and risked his life to return after the 2011 revolution to rally the eastern tribes against the Islamic terrorist groups that were blocking formation of a national government. Unfortunately the same qualities that make Hiftar an effective military leader are interpreted by many militia leaders as a threat to their power.

Then there is the fact that many Libyans accuse the GNA of being “imposed on Libya by the UN and the West”. While this is all theoretical (as are most of the conspiracies Libyans use to blame their problems on) ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and a growing economic crises are very real and immediate threats and is doing more to unite Libyans than anything else.

General Hiftar was recognized (by the HoR) as head of the Tobruk military in early 2015 and was expected to continue under the GNA. Before 2015 Hiftar was, technically, just another self-made warlord. Because he was a former Kaddafi general and long-time Kaddafi opponent Hiftar managed to create a coalition of tribal militias and army units in late 2013 and proved to be very effective fighting the Islamic terrorists in eastern Libya. Since early 2014 Hiftar has managed to get most of the post-Kaddafi armed forces under his control and backed Tobruk pleas for foreign assistance in obtaining more weapons and other military supplies. Hiftar has been effective but not as much as he could have been, at least according to some Western military officials. He is a career military man and one big advantage Hiftar has is that he takes care of his troops and uses tactics that minimize casualties among his followers. This makes Hiftar very popular with forces he controls and makes it easier to attract new factions (usually tribal militias). Hiftar has launched a new offensive to destroy the ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) base in Sirte but is not attacking any pro-GNA factions.

The Hiftar problem is more complicated because many Arab government have been unofficially supplying him with military equipment and weapons. The main supporters (since 2014) are Egypt and the UAE (United Arab Emirates). Although there is a UN arms embargo on all factions in Libya the UAE (and some other Arab states) have always backed the more secular Libyan rebels and recognized (along with Egypt and the UN) the HoR government. But these Arab states also back the GNA while still believing that Hiftar is best suited to continue as military commander. Despite an internationally recognized government the arms embargo the UN never made much noise about the UAE and Egyptian shipments because the vehicles, weapons and ammo go to what is left of the Libyan Army, which Hiftar has turned into the most effective counter-terror force in Libya.

Disunity persists as a problem major problem in Libya and it is mostly about greed, tribal loyalty and corruption. Many members of the GNC and HoR did not want to lose power and income (largely because of the opportunities for corruption). The GNA and the UN continues brokering deals with major GNC and HoR factions to gain their support, or at least prevent armed opposition. This nasty business continues as quietly and discreetly as possible and may take some time to be completed. Failure to bribe (convince) enough holdouts to switch could lead to another civil war because most Libyans have made it pretty clear that they support the GNA.

June 21, 2016: In the west (Tripoli), a group of militiamen sought to loot shops in a neighborhood (a not uncommon event) and armed locals resisted. During this fighting one of the rogue militiamen fired an RPG at a local weapons storage warehouse, which set off a large explosion. Before the violence was over nearly 30 were dead and even more wounded. The defenders were supporters of the GNA and the attacking militiamen were not. This sort of thing increases support for the GNA.

June 20, 2016: In the east (150 kilometers southwest of Benghazi) HoR forces tried to seize oil facilities in Ajdabiya, a port town that normally loads oil tankers with oil produced in large oil fields to the south. The PFGs (oil facility guards) defeated several attacks over the weekend. The local PFGs support the GNA.

June 14, 2016: In Sirte ISIL organized and launched a major counter-attack on the pro-GNA militias. These attacks, which were mainly directed at the port area, were repulsed. Apparently ISIL sees the port as their only escape option as they are now surrounded by pro-GNA militias and for over a hundred kilometers in every direction there are no substantial ISIL forces to help. The airport is heavily defended by the militias and smugglers can be hired, if the price is right, to come into an ISIL controlled port areas to take ISIL men out at night. This is not a sure thing, but with all the people smuggling going on in Libyan waters and NATO warships there with orders to rescue, not open fire, a lot of illegal maritime traffic is being tolerated right now.

June 12, 2016: In Sirte ISIL defenders were pushed out of most of the port facilities by pro-GNA militias. Most important areas outside the city, like the airport, have already been cleared of ISIL gunmen.

 

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