The coastal city of Sirte (500 kilometers east of Tripoli and 560 kilometers west of Benghazi) is now largely controlled by Islamic terrorist groups affiliated with ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). Sirte had a population of 100,000 in 2011 and was former dictator Kaddafi's birthplace. Before 2011 it was full of his well-cared for Kaddafi supporters. Sirte was heavily damaged, and looted, during the 2011 rebellion. Most of the population fled the fighting and when they returned they found a much less prosperous lifestyle. This caused some of the locals to arm themselves and misbehave. The continued anarchy in Sirte made it possible for many Islamic terrorist groups to establish themselves there. Until 2014 there was nothing to unify these groups but then ISIL came along and more and more Sirte based Islamic terrorist militias have pledged allegiance to ISIL. Further east Derna (200 kilometers east of Benghazi) came under the control of ISIL affiliate Islamic terrorists in late 2014. Derna is a little larger than Sirte and has long been a commercial center. ISIL also controls Sabratha, which is 66 kilometers west of Tripoli and about the same size as Sirte. Some Islamic terrorist groups still hang on to parts of Benghazi despite a year of fighting with pro-Tobruk government forces.
Another factor contributing to the growth of ISIL is the people smuggling, which has grown enormously, from practically nothing in 2011 to over thousand paying illegal migrants a day. This really began in 2013 when criminal gangs (often tribe or militia based) connected with Italian gangsters and organized the illegal movement of African and Middle Eastern illegal refugees to Europe via Libya. Kaddafi never tolerated this sort of thing, but Libya is, next to Morocco, the closest to Europe. By the end of 2013 some 500 people a day were illegally crossing the southern border of Libya in an effort to make it to Europe. That number appears to have nearly tripled since then. Since 2000 over 250,000 illegal migrants have reached Europe, mainly through Italy. Most of these illegals have arrived since 2013 and over 80 percent moved via Libya. A recent spike in deaths at sea has always been part of the risk the illegals endure and the rate of deaths rose early in 2015 from about one percent of the migrants to nearly eight percent. That comes to over 2,000 dead so far this year. For the smugglers this is bad for business but it won’t stop the flow of illegals, just reduce it a bit. For ISIL, taking control of people smuggling was a natural as it brought in cash and so much money was being made (over a thousand dollars per passenger) that there was enough profit for the gangsters (in Libya and Italy and elsewhere) as well as ISIL. The cash (several hundred thousand dollars a day for ISIL) pays smugglers to bring in food and equipment, as well as weapons and explosives that cannot be obtained (stolen or bought) locally. ISIL also finds that it can send ISIL men to Europe in the refugee boats and European counter-terrorism agencies are beginning to detect this. ISIL also steals oil in Libya as well as kidnapping locals and foreigners for ransom.
Joining ISIL is an attractive option because ISIL is an attractive brand and pledging allegiance does not oblige the affiliates to become subservient to some ISIL leader in Iraq or Syria. Many of the new ISIL members in Libya wear their Islamic radical beliefs lightly and regard Islamic terrorism as a convenient cover for all sorts of anti-social behavior. Thus both the Tripoli and Tobruk government find themselves battling these ISIL groups. The anti-ISIL actions include disrupting people smuggling operations by attacking the gangs that do most of the work and arresting the illegal migrants who pay for it. Meanwhile Tripoli combat forces are concentrating on ISIL groups between Sirte and the Tunisian border while the Tobruk government concentrates on the remaining Islamic terrorists in Benghazi and other eastern ports. While the two governments do not coordinate their anti-ISIL operations nor do the many ISIL affiliated groups cooperate much either. For many Islamic terrorists pledging loyalty to ISIL is just another way to justify even more savage and anti-social behavior.
The UN believes that the growing ISIL threat will make it possible to work out a peace deal (and merger agreement) between the Tripoli and Tobruk government by the end of June. That is probably too optimistic, but then any peace efforts in Libya can be described as too optimistic. Yet there is a dangerous situation as the growing chaos has interfered with oil exports and the ability to purchase food and other necessities abroad, import the goods and then distribute them. A final peace deal between the Tripoli (a more pro-Islamic terrorist group in the west) and Tobruk (elected, recognized by the UN, anti-Islamic terrorist and based in the east) governments is essential.
Meanwhile the Tripoli government coalition is falling apart and they are losing territory to better organized and led Tobruk forces. The big problem with the Tripoli government is that many of their factions are Islamic terror groups and some have switched to ISIL, which is at war with all non-ISIL Islamic terror groups (who are not considered Islamic enough). The lack of UN recognition hurts Tripoli quite a bit. For example the fact that the Central Bank and National Oil Company are still based in Tripoli has not helped the Tripoli government as much as expected. These two institutions insist on being neutral and exporting oil and collecting payment to pay salaries for government workers and buy food and other essentials for all Libyans. This arrangement is encouraged (and occasionally enforced) by the UN and the major international banks. So far the UN and foreign banks are satisfied with this arrangement. But the corruption in Libya is epic and constant monitoring is required. Without unity and the ability to control the oil and major ports millions will be in danger of starvation. The UN uses this very real and rapidly approaching threat to motivate various factions to unite.
All this is driven by some basic historical, demographic and geographic facts. Libya has three distinct physical regions: the northwest coast, the northeast coast, and the Sahara Desert southern region that covers more than 90 percent of the nation. The northwest coastal region (the old Roman province of Tripolitania) consists of the narrow coastal plain and the Jaffara Plain inland. The northeastern Libyan coastal region (roughly the old Roman province of Cyrenaica) lies to the east of the Gulf of Sidra. About 85 percent of Libya's six million people live along the coast. About five percent are still nomadic and are in the interior. About 90 percent of Libyans are Arabic-speakers of mixed Arab-Berber ancestry. Berbers who retain their ancient language and culture comprise only four percent of the population and most of them live in small villages in the western hill country south of Tripoli. Other minorities comprise about six percent of the population. Nearly 100 percent of the population speaks at least some Arabic and 97 percent are Sunni Moslems.
Islamic conservatives appeal to about 20 percent of the population and that has been enough to sustain the growth of Islamic terrorist groups. This is what the majority of Libyans feared the most; a replay of the Islamic terror that has already occurred in Egypt and Algeria in the 1990s and Iraq a decade later. Al Qaeda, ISIL and their ilk may only appeal to a minority, but the fact that these groups even exist in Libya is alarming to nearly all Libyans. Most of the Islamic conservatives openly denounce terrorism, but some groups do not. The appeal of Islamic conservatism is that they will be less corrupt than more secular rulers. However, the experience is that the Islamic conservatives quickly become corrupt once they gain power, and are more inclined to oppose elections and retain power indefinitely.
May 28, 2015: Near the coastal city of Sirte a local tribal militia (loyal to Tripoli) withdrew from the al Qardabiya air base outside the city. A local ISIL group then took the air base after several days of heavy fighting. The militia defending the air base had called for reinforcements but none arrived.
In Egypt, a four day meeting of 150 Libyan tribal leaders resulted in the formation of a national Tribal Council, which will work with the more recently elected parliament (in Tobruk) to unite all the tribes to stop the civil war. This unification would not include any Islamic terrorist groups, including the Moslem Brotherhood (which presents itself as non-terrorist but does have an Islamic terrorist faction). The tribal leaders insisted on the Islamic terrorist ban but also backed UN efforts to achieve peace in Libya and rejected any foreign military intervention. This conference was organized by the Egyptian government without the cooperation of the Tobruk or Tripoli governments. Egypt backs the Tobruk government and encouraged all tribal leaders at the conference to do so as well. Apparently most did.
May 25, 2015: The National Oil Company (NOC) and Central Bank are proposing a cut in the subsidized (much lower than market) prices of food and fuel. Libyans have enjoyed these subsidies for decades but the NOC points out that oil shipments are now a quarter of what they were before 2011 and that is not bringing in enough cash to cover the subsidies. So the price of fuel will go up as will the cost of state supplied food. The Central Bank adds that the cash reserves are rapidly shrinking and at the current rate will be gone within a year. At that point most Libyans will be dependent on charity since Libya has long imported most of its food, and paid for that with oil revenue.
May 24, 2015: For the second time this month a Tobruk government warplane attacked a ship docked at an ISIL controlled port. This time it was a tanker tied up near a power plant on the outskirts of Sirte. The Tripoli controlled National Oil Cooperation said it had paid for the ship to bring 40,ooo liters (10,000 gallons) of diesel fuel from Greece to Sirte, parts of which are still controlled by pro-Tripoli militias. But Tobruk air force officials said the tanker, which belongs to the state owned shipping company, was not flying a flag and was believed to be smuggling items in for local ISIL forces and others. On the 10th a Turkish ship was attacked as it approached Derna. Corruption and smuggling are big business in Libya and it’s hard to know who to trust.
May 20, 2015: In the south (Ubari) another battle between local Tuareg and Tabu tribesmen left 17 dead and 16 wounded. The fighting is a continuation of ancient animosities between tribes divided by ethnicity as well as loyalty to the former dictator Kaddafi, who used tribal loyalties to maintain power and favored certain tribes. Some of the pro-Kaddafi tribes kept fighting after Kaddafi died in 2011. The violence is not so much about putting Kaddafi followers back into power, but holding on to Kaddafi era privileges and avoiding punishment for crimes committed to support Kaddafi’s rule. In this case violence continued on the southern border where the pro-rebel Tabu tribesmen were put in charge of border (with Sudan, Chad and Niger) security. There they constantly skirmished with the pro-Kaddafi tribes. Another element of this rivalry was that the Tabu are black African while the pro-Kaddafi tribes are Arab. Kaddafi tended to support Arab domination over black Africans, something many Arabs still support. However, in some cases Kaddafi favored black tribes in the north, and used them to keep the population in line.
May 19, 2015: Some Islamic terrorist groups in neighboring Tunisia have declared allegiance to ISIL. Tunisia has been much more successful at containing and defeating Islamic terrorists and the Tunisian ISIL groups are much smaller than their Libyan counterparts and unable to operate openly.
May 18, 2015: In Algeria officials met with the commander of AFRICOM to discuss cooperation with American efforts to deal with Islamic terrorism in North Africa and especially Libya. While Egypt is willing to intervene militarily in Libya, Algeria is not and is something of a veto.
May 16, 2015: Southern neighbor Mali signed a peace deal with Tuareg rebels. These Tuareg rebels and Islamic terrorists (from Mali and neighboring countries) took over most of northern Mali in 2012 and remained in control until a 2013 French-led invasion restored government control. Most of the Islamic terrorists were killed or fled to Libya and Niger. Algeria beefed up its security on its Mali border and hosted several rounds of peace negotiations between the government and the rebels. Not all rebels signed the peace deal and some are still fighting.
May 14, 2015: The Tobruk government warned commercial ships to enter Libyan territorial waters (anything 22 kilometers from shore) without permission from the Tobruk government.