Libya: An Expensive And Thankless Job

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September 13, 2014: Libya is falling apart as a nation. The key element now is the oil money, which pays for most everything. The cash from oil sales is going into the Central bank, which has not said which of the two parliaments it will answer to and is waiting for a court order. The various factions are pressuring the Central Bank and courts to favor them. All this is complicated by the fact that most of the armed groups cannot agree with each other. Most fight for their tribe or hometown. Some, especially in Benghazi, are Islamic radicals seeking a religious dictatorship that few Libyans want. There are Islamic radical groups all over the country, but mainly in Benghazi (and nearby towns) as well as (to a lesser extent) Tripoli. Many militias say they are fighting to prevent pro-Kaddafi (largely Arab) groups from taking back power. There are some pro-Kaddafi militias but they are very much a minority.

It is generally believed that Libya is becoming a failed state, similar to what happened to Somalia after the 1990 anti-government rebellion and in Afghanistan after the Russians left in 1987 and cut off support (in 1991) for the Afghan government they left behind. In Somalia Islamic terrorist groups (mainly al Shabaab) eventually tried to take over, but failed. In Afghanistan it was the Taliban, which took over most of the country in the late 1990s, but was overthrown in late 2001 when the U.S. came to the aid of the tribes that were still fighting the Taliban. The clear lesson here is that someone will have to intervene to prevent the Islamic terrorists from gaining too much control over the country, or simply to stop the violence before the economy (oil industry) is destroyed. Somalia and Afghanistan did not have oil, or much of anything else worth exporting (except goats in Somalia and heroin in Afghanistan). At the moment no one is stepping forward to intervene, mainly because it is an expensive and thankless job. Someone may still intervene to back the government and that is what the government is hoping for.

The main cause of this is disunity is the inability of the various factions to cooperate in forming and running a national government. The GNC (General National Congress, originally formed in mid-2012 to create a new constitution for the country to vote on and rule until that was done) became popular with Islamic terrorist militias and some tribal and more secular groups. The GNC has long had the support of most Islamic radical groups, especially Ansar al Sharia in Benghazi. The radicals believed they could manipulate the GNC to form a religious dictatorship. Many of the militias from Misrata (east of Tripoli) support GNC, but many also back rebel general Hiftar or are neutral. Because the GNC has been hijacked by the Islamic radicals Hiftar sees it as illegitimate. Even many Islamic terrorists don’t trust the new parliament or the GNC either. The Hiftar coalition of tribal militias and army units is not large enough to take on all the Islamic terrorist militias but continues to battle Islamic terrorist groups in Benghazi. Hiftar supports the new parliament and rule of law.

The two largest cities (Tripoli and Benghazi) are still being fought over, but the real prize is the oil. At the moment the new parliament controls the oil fields and the oil export terminals. Production is growing and is expected to reach a million barrels a day by the end of the month and 1.5 million by the end of the year. If the oil facilities are damaged in the fighting it could take a year or more to restore production. Oil revenue is what keeps the economy going, which is one reason the oil industry has not suffered much battle damage since the original 2011 revolution. But if the oil income is interrupted because of combat damage most Libyans would be dependent on foreign charity to just survive until the repairs were made and the oil was flowing again. That could take years. All over the country local militias and tribal leaders are deciding which parliament to support. It is believed that most will follow the money, the oil money.

The main problem in Libya is many (over 1,500) armed groups that formed during the 2011 rebellion and refused to disband later. Most are local and exist mainly for self- defense. Only a minority (under ten percent) of these militias are involved in the current violence in Tripoli and Benghazi. Most of the militias are organized into coalitions, mainly for mutual support and because of some shared beliefs. The largest of these is the Fajr Libya Misrata militias. This group has over 30,000 armed members and about 200 different militias in and around the city of Misrata. Many of these men are now fighting in Tripoli. Then there is Ansar al Sharia, the largest Islamic terrorist group in Benghazi. This group was responsible for the 2012 attack that killed the American ambassador and has most of its strength in the east. The al Zintan Revolutionaries Military Council is based in the mountains southwest of Tripoli in and around the Berber town of Zintan. The LROR (Libyan Revolutionary Operations Room) is a pro-government militia that has been trying to maintain control in Tripoli and Benghazi. The February 17 Martyrs Brigade it the largest and most dangerous Islamic terrorist coalition in and around Benghazi. In theory February 17 Martyrs Brigade works for the government as they are on the government payroll. At the moment this coalition has divided loyalties. Most militias are not associated with a coalition and primarily involved with local matters.

The recently (June) elected (and much more anti-Islamic terrorist) parliament is now operating in Tobruk, far away from the violence in the two largest cities; Tripoli (the capital and 1,600 kilometers west of Tobruk) and Benghazi (470 kilometers to the east and long dominated by Islamic terrorist groups.) Parliament has condemned the militias, especially the Islamic terrorist ones and called for NATO (or any international body, like the UN) to come back and help impose peace. The parliament has singled out Islamic terrorist groups Fajr Libya and Ansar al Sharia as most responsible for the current violence. In August Fajr Libya took control of most of Tripoli. However the situation in Tripoli chaotic with dozens of militias seeking just to defend parts of the city. Fajr Libya is using terror and intimidation to get their way and this approach is turning a lot of potential allies into enemies. Many militias are “living off the land” because so many Tripoli residents have fled since 2011. This left a lot of property behind and available for looting.

Fajr Libya also asked the Islamic terrorist dominated GNC to reform and meet in Tripoli to run the country. The revived GNC has declared itself the legitimate parliament, insisting that the June vote was invalid. Only 19 percent of eligible voters and 27 percent of registered voters showed up for the June 25th parliamentary elections (the first since Kaddafi was overthrown in 2011). Voters were discouraged by all the violence, factionalism and poor performance of those elected the first time around for the GNC. But the June vote was accepted by most Libyans and the GNC was officially replaced by a new parliament. This was largely because at the end of 2013 the deadlocked GNC extended its power for another year. This was seen by many Libyans as an illegal act. The GNC pointed out that separatist activity in the east prevented any national vote and that had to be dealt with before a constitution could be completed and approved. This was an impossible situation for the GNC and the Islamic radicals were hoping to take advantage of it.

Meanwhile the commission established to create a new constitution continues to work from the eastern city of Bayda (still controlled by the new parliament) and still plans to complete their work in December and the government plans a national vote on the new constitution in March 2015. All this assumes that the Islamic terrorists and separatist tribal, ethnic and regional militias can be brought under control by then.

The fighting in Benghazi is stalemated with Ansar al Sharia unable to defeat the various anti-Islamic terrorist groups. The fighting is largely confined to Tripoli and Benghazi, and has forced over 100,000 people to flee their homes in the last few months to escape the shooting and shelling. Benghazi is in some ways more important than Tripoli because it contains the headquarters of the state owned oil operations. The government still controls this but that could change quickly.

Since 2011 over 30 percent of the population has fled Libya, most of them to neighboring Tunisia. That was easy to do because about 85 percent of Libya's six million people live along the coast. All the fighting in the last two months has left at least a thousand dead, many of them civilians caught in the crossfire. This is not as violent as Syria or Iraq, but more like what is going on in Nigeria and Somalia, which also suffer from Islamic terrorist violence (Boko Haram and al Shabaab respectively).

Most large militias have a lot of Kaddafi era mortars, artillery and rocket launchers and like to use this stuff to fire in the general direction of whoever they are fighting. This poorly aimed fire often lands on nearby residential areas forcing civilians to flee. The fighting is not conventional, as in “front lines”, clearly identified (by uniforms and symbols) fighters (especially with the militias) and a sense of an overall plan. Most militias act like criminal gangs and their main motivations are controlling their territory and extracting cash and goods from others to sustain the militia members. Turf defense is a major source of fighting. It is all rather primitive and chaotic. The government, such as it is, at least tries to address the needs of all the people. This includes many of the militia members. The Islamic terrorist militias doing the fighting have largely (as in not always) been cut off from their government benefits (like regular pay). In most of the country the local militias are what passes for police and their government pay is what keeps most of the militiamen on the job and quiet.

The inability of the Islamic terrorist militias to run a government (in Libya and elsewhere) limits their popularity. But there are enough young men with guns who believe, at least for the moment, in Islamic radicalism to keep the Islamic terrorist militias a threat to the country. In Tripoli and Benghazi the Islamic terrorist militias still favor ambushes, assassinations and kidnappings as opposed to attacks on organized forces (the military or some of the better run militias).

Joining the civilian refugees are (so far) over 150,000 foreign workers, who do a lot of the technical work (especially medical or oil related) and some of the harshest manual jobs. This has caused the government to become even more unresponsive.

What remains of the pre-June government has moved from Tripoli to Tobruk. The parliament is meeting on a 17,000 ton Greek ferry tied up in the port. Only 52 percent of the parliament members are in Tobruk. Most of the missing are either on their way or boycotting the new parliament for one reason or another. Other government offices are finding space where they can.

Despite all the chaos in Tripoli and Benghazi the government has managed to get oil exports going again. Oil production has increased to over 700,000 barrels a day which is about half normal output. This is a high for 2014 and is threatened by various militias talking about blocking production in order to get a larger share of oil money. In June production was closer to 100,000 barrels a day but government negotiators have had a lot of success since then getting various militias to stop blockading production and shipping facilities. Unfortunately these deals often collapse later and new pressure groups decide to try and blockade something and succeed at it. 

A widely circulated rumor that Islamic terrorists had seized and removed eleven airliners at Tripoli airport proved to be false. The story speculated that the Islamic terrorists could use the airliners for suicide attacks somewhere, somehow.

September 12, 2014: In Benghazi general Hiftar warned the Islamic terrorist militias to disarm or face destruction as the Hiftar forces are readying a major offensive. Hiftar does have some better armed, trained and led fighters, as well as a number of militias. Hiftar also has some helicopters and warplanes. It is unclear if Hiftar has enough to really defeat the Benghazi militias. Most of the fighting recently has been around the Benghazi airport, which some Islamic terrorist militias are trying to seize.

September 11, 2014: The government denied that the UAE had carried out air attacks in Libya during August. There were no more such attacks and the UAE supports the new Libyan parliament and has arrested Libyans in the UAE who support Islamic terrorist groups in Libya.

September 9, 2014: The Tobruk parliament passed an anti-terrorism law which basically made the militias currently fighting the government illegal. The parliament is debating whether to do the same with the rival GNC parliament.

September 8, 2014: In Tripoli the reconvened GNC formed its own government led by Omar al Hassi. Now the country has two prime ministers.

September 6, 2014: In the southeast (Kufra) police seized a Sudanese transport when the cargo was found to be weapons and ammo. The aircraft had landed to refuel before it continued on to Tripoli. The government accused Sudan of backing the Islamic terrorists in Tripoli. Sudan has supported many Islamic terrorist groups in the region, but always denies it when caught.

The Algerian border remains closed and despite that Libyan Islamic terrorists and smugglers are still trying to move people and goods in and out. The increased Algerian border security recently led to the discovery of a Libyan Islamic terrorist group that had turned to people smuggling. Some 200 Syrians were arrested near the Libyan border, along with the Libyans they had paid to get them to the Algerian coast and onto a boat that would take them to Europe and salvation via refugee status. This smuggling has become big business and most of it was coming via Libya because there the border security was the weakest in North Africa. But now the Libyan coast is more heavily patrolled and many Libyan coastal towns are unsafe because of the militia violence. So Algeria becomes an attractive conduit for the smuggling, despite better border security and policing in general. Algerian police have also discovered another people smuggling operation, apparently related to the one that gets economic refugees to Europe. This one involved recruiting young men fighting for ISIL in Syria and moving them to Libya for more terrorist training and then through Algeria to southern Europe (as refugees) to carry out terror attacks. In some cases the terrorists are accompanied by wives and children. Police arrested 160 Syrians believed associated with this network.

September 2, 2014: A warplane crashed outside Tobruk, killing three and wounding nine. Most of the injuries were on the ground. The crash occurred during a ceremony to honor an air force pilot killed in a crash last week.

September 1, 2014: The government admitted that it had lost control of the capital (Tripoli). Efforts are still being made to get government employees and records out of Tripoli to Tobruk. The situation in Tripoli is chaotic with no one group in control of the entire city, or even major parts. There is no law and very little order.

August 31, 2014: The U.S. denied reports that militiamen had taken over the abandoned American embassy in Tripoli. Photos showing up allegedly showing such a takeover were misleading and were of the adjacent residential compound, not the embassy compound itself. The U.S. says the embassy is being guarded and so far is secure.

August 30, 2014:  Niger has allowed the United States to establish a surveillance base in the north, where Niger has borders with Algeria, Libya and Chad. This area has long been a key transit route through the Sahara Desert and is heavily used by smugglers and Islamic terrorists. The United States has been operating UAVs out of Niger for several years now and some of these are now believed operating over Libya. 

August 29, 2014: In the east (Baida) a Libyan warplane crashed. Islamic terrorists took credit but the government said the aircraft came down because of a technical problem. The warplane was supporting the forces of general Hiftar in Benghazi.

August 28, 2014: Prime Minister Abdullah al Thinni and his cabinet resigned. This was in accordance with the constitution and allowed the new parliament to select new ministers and form a new government. Thinni was the leading candidate to be the next prime minister and was reappointed to that position after a few days discussion with the new parliament. Thinni has the support of the UN and most foreign nations.

August 26, 2014:  Those behind the mysterious nighttime air strikes against Islamic terrorists in Libya were finally revealed (by the U.S.) as coming from Egypt, using American built UAE F-16Es. The last of these attacks occurred on August 24th as “unidentified” jets again bombed Islamic terrorist positions in Tripoli. A local leader, general Hiftar, who has long had the support of what’s left of the Libyan Air Force, claimed responsibility for these attacks. No one else (NATO or Arab) had taken responsibility. Foreign aviation experts doubted that the Libyan air force could have made these quite accurate night attacks. The Libyan Air Force never demonstrated this degree of competence when it was fighting the rebels who overthrew Kaddafi in 2011. This may have prompted the U.S. to reveal, two days later, who was behind the attacks, which began on August 21st. This was not the first time UAE F-16Es had flown over Libya. They did so in 2011, but did not drop bombs. The West has long pressed Arab states to use their extensive air power resources to attack Islamic terrorists in the region, rather than keep asking Western countries to do it for them. The problem here was always that the idea of “Arabs bombing Arabs” was very unpopular. Apparently fear of Islamic terrorism in the neighborhood has changed a lot of minds. Even so the UAE and Egypt kept insisting they were not behind the air attacks.

August 25, 2014: In Egypt the foreign ministers of Libya, Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, Sudan, Chad and Niger met to discuss what to do about the growing chaos (and apparent civil war) in Libya. About the only thing everyone could agree on was to not get involved. Egypt proposed forming an armed intervention force and soon discovered that no one else was interested. 

 

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