Libya: Where ISIL Men Go To Die

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July 5, 2015: The UN sponsored peace negotiations have the two rival governments talking but the renegade Tripoli government does not appear willing to give up its claims to be the only true government. Now it is feared that this stalemate will go on until the end of the year, at which point the money shortage will trigger a major decline in imports, especially food and medicine. The only thing the two governments can agree on now is the need to cooperate in destroying the upstart ISIL faction. Most Libyans also seem to understand that the past has caught up with Libya and the “country” is being torn apart by a civil war. In 2015 that civil war went from a two way (Islamic radical groups versus more moderate ones) to three way with the addition of the ultra-radical ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). The 2011 revolution overthrew longtime dictator Moamar Kaddafi but it did not change the tribalism that Kaddafi used for decades to keep potential threats from replacing him. It was only when most of the tribes (and two-thirds of the population) united to overthrow Kaddafi that his divide and rule technique failed. Now the tribes are each out to grab what they can. By early 2015 most tribes had joined the UN recognized elected government in Tripoli. The previous selected (to arrange elections and write a constitution) council in Tripoli staged a coup after the mid-2014 elections and, backed by many Islamic conservative groups, declared itself still in power. To further complicate matters in early 2015 many pro-Tripoli Islamic terror militias declared allegiance to ISIL and soon both Tripoli and Tobruk governments had formed an uneasy anti-ISIL alliance.

The old national assembly the 2014 elections were held to replace is based in Tripoli and represents tribes and cities in the west that feel they deserve to run the country as they long did under Kaddafi. The old assembly was also dominated by Islamic conservative and Islamic terror groups that had fallen from favor since 2011 but refused to admit that and give up any power. Another problem with the Tripoli government is that it is dependent on nearly 40,000 armed men belonging to over 200 militias. As formidable as that force once was by mid-2015 the Tripoli forces have split into three or more factions. About 20 percent now belong to ISIL. Another 30 percent have become semi-autonomous with the largest faction being the Sumood Front. These factions are largely composed of Islamic radical militias who are not as extreme as ISIL. About half the militias still obey the Tripoli leaders while the renegades like the Sumood Front have to be persuaded to cooperate. Most of the time the renegade factions will just defend its own territory against all comers.

The other coalition is the Tobruk government which has international recognition mainly because it won the 2014 national elections and is generally hostile to Islamic terrorist groups. The Tobruk government is backed by many tribal organizations (and their militias) and most of the more secular Libyans (who tend to live in cities or along the coast). Thus the current situation has the Tripoli government coalition falling apart and losing territory to ISIL, dissident factions and the better organized and led Tobruk forces. But the Tripoli forces are still strong enough to hang onto most of western Libya.

The main source of losses for the Tripoli government is the many factions who are already Islamic terror groups but are snow witching allegiance to ISIL, which is at war with all non-ISIL Islamic terror groups (who are not considered Islamic enough). Al Qaeda (AQIM, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb or AQIM) represents most of the non-ISIL Islamic terror groups and is trying to organize a major effort to crush ISIL in Libya. This is fine with the less (or non) religious factions (from both the Tripoli and Tobruk coalitions) who tend to step back and prepare to take on whoever wins this civil war within a civil war. The problem is that the there are four main groups (the two governments, AQIM and ISIL) who believe they alone should be running the country and are still willing to fight for that. Egypt has noted, however, that a growing number (so far fewer than a hundred) ISIL men have become discouraged with the endless fighting in Libya and have moved into Egypt. Then again, the original ISIL members in Libya were largely composed of ISIL veterans from Syria and Iraq who thought Libya showed more promise (as a permanent home for ISIL). That has not worked out and many are discovering that for Libya ISIL is the last frontier and where the most fanatic Islamic terrorists go to die.

The U.S. led Arab coalition fighting ISIL in Syria and Iraq knows about the personnel pipeline from Syria to Libya and the Americans recently revealed that a June 16 UAV missile attack in Syria killed the man (Tahar al Awni al Harzi) who was in charge of recruiting, as well as moving ISIL men to Libya and Tunisia. Al Harzi is also believed to be responsible for setting up recent ISIL attacks in Tunisia and handling most of the weapons smuggling and cash transfers to ISIL groups in North Africa. Before al Harzi was killed the U.S. had a $3 million price on his head, which may have played a role in finding out precisely where al Harzi was. The loss of al Harzi is expected to disrupt the flow of ISIL men to North Africa, at least until hid replacement can gain control of the sprawling organization al Harzi created and ran.

Meanwhile the lack of UN recognition hurts the Tripoli government 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. The very real prospect of mass starvation is not having the desired effect.

By May the UN believed that the growing ISIL threat and the increasing risk of mass starvation would make it possible to work out a peace deal (and merger agreement) between the Tripoli and Tobruk government by the end of June. That turned out to be overly optimistic. Then again any peace efforts in Libya can be described as too optimistic. Yet the armed chaos has created a dangerous situation that is getting worse as all the violence interferes with oil exports (down over 60 percent from pre-2011 levels) and the ability to purchase food and other necessities abroad, import the goods and then distribute them. A final peace deal between the Tripoli and Tobruk is essential. As the violence continues and escalates it becomes more difficult to feed the people everyone says they are fighting for. The deadline for the peace talks keeps getting pushed back because there is no agreement. The Tobruk government objects to UN proposals that the unelected Tripoli parliament be given some power. At the same time the Tripoli government is literally falling apart and this makes UN moderated peace talks with Tobruk a much lower priority for Tripoli officials than trying to maintain the coalition. Efforts to make individual deals with some of the 200 or so Tripoli militias has had limited success. The Tobruk government noted that as their military forces move closer to the territory of a Tripoli militia the leaders of that militia are more willing to make a deal. There is even more willingness to make a deal if ISIL is active in the area. This approach is tedious and often unpredictable and disappointing. Many of the militia leaders are unrealistic and not concerned with the coming economic collapse because they simply don’t believe it could happen.

For many militias joining ISIL is an attractive option because ISIL is a widely known brand and pledging allegiance does not oblige the affiliates to become subservient to some ISIL leader in Iraq or Syria but simply to cooperate with fellow ISIL groups. 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.

At the moment 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.

During the first week of June AQIM officially declared war on ISIL. AQIM then massed gunmen near the cities of Sirte and Derna and is fighting ISIL forces for control of the area. By late June it was thought that AQIM had pushed ISIL out of Derna, but that turned out to be an exaggeration. Both sides are using gunmen and suicide bombers against each other. AQIM has allied itself with local militias who have tasted harsh ISIL rule and want ISIL gone as quickly as possible. AQIM has also called back members who were fighting in Syria. There may only be a hundred or so of these men but they have combat experience, often against ISIL.

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. 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. The EU (European Union) has helped out here by organizing a naval rescue force that has prevented most of the drownings and delivered the illegal migrants safely to Italy. During one 48 hour period in early June this task force rescued over 6,000 people. But Italy is fed up with all the illegal migrants and the cost and other problems they bring with them.

Both the Tobruk and Tripoli government warn that any EU warships or rescue vessels entering territorial waters (within 22 kilometers of the coast) risk being fired on. These threats came into response to a late June EU decision to have its naval forces off Libya more aggressively go after people smugglers on the refugee boats. Because of this some refugee boats turn back to Libya if they spot an approaching warship. The EU is also putting pressure on gang members or associates in Italy and other EU countries. As more of these gangsters are captured, identified and interrogated more details of the gangs involved is obtained.

For ISIL, taking control of people smuggling was a natural as it brought in cash that 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. In part because ISIL profits most from the people smuggling the Tripoli and Tobruk both now interfere with the smuggling operations more frequently. This forces some of the smuggler operations to move to ISIL controlled ports. There aren’t too many of those, but enough to keep the smuggling going. Because so many areas of Libya have no government presence Libya has become a favorite hideout for Islamic terrorists, especially if they are willing to swear allegiance to ISIL. Despite the profits to be made from smuggling ISIL will still occasionally seize non-Moslem migrants and try forcing them to convert. Non-Moslem foreign workers still in Libya are more frequently the target of harassment (including murder) by ISIL.

July 4, 2015: In Derna the major fighting is between AQIM and ISIL and today ISIL attacked key AQIM leaders in the city using three suicide care bombs that killed at least ten people. AQIM and ISIL have a bigger problem in that Tobruk forces have largely surrounded the city and are preparing (by moving in more men and supplies as well as conducting more training) to go into the city. Waiting makes sense as long as the AQIM and ISIL men are eagerly killing each other. Meanwhile AQIM and ISIL forces in Derna are running out of things like ammo and weapons. The Tobruk forces let in food for the remaining civilians (which the Islamic terrorists then seize most of for themselves) but anything else has to be smuggled in and that limits quantities. The Tripoli forces are hunting down and attacking ISIL forces elsewhere.

July 3, 2015: The UN and the Tobruk government made a comprehensive peace offer to the Tripoli government. Some of those involved in the negotiations say there is a small chance that what is left of the Tripoli government will accept, but most believe today’s proposals will be rejected. Meanwhile the UN points out that the number of internal refugees the UN is trying to care for inside Libya has doubled, to nearly 500,000 since September 2014. These people are living in camps or doubled up with friends and family. A growing number simply break in and occupy the homes of the many Libyans who have fled the country.

The UN also estimates that about 2,400 have died in the last year from the fighting throughout Libya. Most of the fighting has been along the coast, especially in and around Derna Sirte and other areas between Tobruk and Tripoli. Fighting continues in Benghazi, but the government forces move slowly, or keep their own losses down (and morale of their forces high) against remaining Islamic terrorists in the ruins of the city.

June 26, 2015: In Tunisia a university student smuggled an AK-47 (hidden in a folded beach umbrella) onto a popular tourist beach and killed 38 people before police shot him dead. Police later arrested several local ISIL members who helped plan and carry out the attack. The investigation found that the shooter had recently received several months of weapons training in western Libya (Sabratha).

June 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 has expressed some interest in intervening militarily in Libya, Algeria is not and is something of a veto to any such intervention.

June 17, 2015: Al Qaeda announced that their second-in-command in Libya, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, was not killed by a recent American air strike. Mokhtar Belmokhtar (the planner of the January 2013 natural gas facility attack in southern Algeria that got 37 workers killed) has survived several attempts to kill him and has a reputation for being elusive. He survived such attacks in 2013 and 2014. Belmokhtar is elusive within AQIM as well. He split from the organization in 2012 and founded another Islamic terrorist group (Al Mourabitoun). After about two years of this he rejoined AQIM but did not disband Al Mourabitoun. For over two years Al Mourabitoun has been operating from a base in southern Libya and found operating in northern Mali and Niger. The U.S. is offering a $5 million reward for information that would lead to the death or capture of Belmokhtar. AQIM admits the death of seven Islamic terrorists during the American attack and named them. In Libya the Tobruk government forces are cooperating with Americans to confirm if Belmokhtar is alive or dead and that may take weeks.

 

 

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