Libya: The New Unite Or Die Government

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January 20, 2016: There is now a unified government, in theory at least. The former Tripoli and Tobruk governments control most of the militias in the country and fear of endless fighting and the growing threat from ISIL (al Qaeda in Iraq and the Levant) and starvation helped overcome remaining differences to achieve agreement. The main problem with ISIL is not the few towns it controls and the large numbers of ISIL fighters in those places. The greater danger is the large number of Libyans (several percent of over four million people left in the country) who still believe Islamic terrorism will fix all the problems in Libya and that ISIL is best practitioner of this savage and ultimately futile strategy. Nearly all older Libyans realize ISIL is a dead (and deadly) end but many teenagers are still believers. These pro-ISIL teenagers are often found at the many mosques in the country run by radicalized clergy. In some areas the radical clergy have been arrested or killed and radical mosques turned into moderate ones or destroyed if conversion was difficult. Islam is still important for most Libyans but there is a growing intolerance of the more radical forms. The continued presence of ISIL supporters throughout Libya makes it possible to carry out terror attacks wherever there are ISIL supporters. This has encouraged a growing number of local militias to create a hostile atmosphere for any form of Islamic radicalism. This means a lot of police state tactics. Stuff like more unannounced searches of homes and businesses based on slender evidence or just gossip or rumors. Some arrests are made the same way and there have been injuries and deaths as well when there is any resistance. Thus ISIL can be a threat even when it isn’t present but is suspected of being somewhere nearby.

ISIL is directing many of its new recruits to Libya, where the Islamic terror group apparently senses an opportunity to establish another relatively secure base. ISIL is under increasing threat in Iraq and Syria. It recently lost Ramadi (western Iraq), one of the three cities in controls. Northeast of Ramadi Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq and held by ISIL since mid-2014 is being surrounded and will soon be attacked. Even the ISIL capital Raqqa (eastern Syria) is under attack by Kurds raiding the outskirts. Apparently ISIL sees Libya as a backup base if the core of the current “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria is lost. ISIL also has franchises in Libya and nine other countries but none as vulnerable as Libya.

So far ISIL succeeded mainly because they had cash and no scruples and that appealed to enough local thugs to make recruiting possible. The international coalition of Western and Moslem states fighting ISIL has greatly reduced ISIL cash flow and this has reached crises levels in some parts of Syria and Iraq, where ISIL members are seeing pay cut up to 50 percent and delays of more than a month in getting any pay. In Libya ISIL is still finding wealth to loot and lucrative sources of income (like smuggling illegal migrants to Europe). ISIL uses that cash, and their fearsome reputation to attract the more fanatic men from other Libyan militias. ISIL has concentrated its forces a few places like Sirte, Derna, Ajdabiya, Benghazi, Bin Jawad and at least 300 kilometers of the coastal road it is active on. From these places ISIL continues to make attacks and expand its presence. ISIL is having a difficult time advancing because many local militias will not surrender. ISIL is believed to have more than 4,000 armed men in Libya. While there are far more (over 100,000) armed men in other Libyan groups who oppose ISIL nearly all these other gunmen are only concerned with defending the area they live in. Thus ISIL can expand by concentrating on a few targets at a time and attacking with their usual ruthless and fearsome tactics. In 2016 ISIL appears to have modified their strategy and is now going after oil fields and export facilities. ISIL believes this will weaken the opposition (the new coalition government) and give ISIL an opportunity to produce and smuggle oil. That will be more difficult to do than in Syria and Iraq, where Turkey was nearby and many smugglers were available to get oil from ISIL controlled oil fields to criminal gangs in Turkey that would pay cash for the heavily discounted oil. The resistance around the Libyan oil facilities is a lot more steadfast and smuggling any oil out is much more difficult. Libyans are concerned that the ISIL attacks on the oil facilities will damage them and further reduce the ability to increase production to pay for essential imports (like food and medicine).

ISII forces have advanced from Sirte as far as Bin Jawad which is 626 kilometers east of Tripoli and 30 kilometers west of the port of Es Sider and its facilities for loading oil tanker ships. ISIL attacks against oil facilities near Es Sider have killed at least 18 of the defenders so far this year and apparently about as many ISIL men. Es Sider has been closed since December 2014. In normal times Es Sider and Ras Lanuf (21 kilometers further east) can ship 600,000 barrels a day but will remain shut down until the attacks cease. ISIL attacks in 2016 have hit some of the oil storage tanks at Es Sider and Ras Lanuf destroying over 800,000 barrels of oil (worth about $25 million). Another oil shipping port at Brega (115 kilometers further east) is still operational and nearby are still functioning oil fields producing most (60 percent) of the 400,000 barrels a day Libya is still able to export. ISIL has been going after oil facilities south of Sirte as part of a strategy to conquer functioning oil fields and ports to ship oil from.

ISIL is telling its followers that the plan is to eventually use Libya to launch an invasion of Europe, This sounds rather fanciful but ISIL has already gotten several known ISIL members across the Mediterranean among the continuing floor of refugees. Europe is not doing much to screen these refugees and ISIL apparently senses an opportunity. In the meantime ISIL still faces a lot of active opposition in Libya. There is still fighting in Ajdabiya but ISIL is facing the most opposition in Benghazi where the more effective forces of the Tobruk government quickly go after any ISIL activity. In Derna ISIL has been largely chased out but is still on the outskirts trying to fight its way back in. In Sirte the local militias, some of them rival Islamic terrorists, are less effective defending against ISIL. Thus in Sirte ISIL is able to use its terror tactics (public executions and beatings) for force civilians to submit to ISIL rule.

The forces defending against ISIL are receiving some help from air strikes delivered by the handful of Libyan Air Force warplanes the Tobruk government has operational. NATO has offered to provide air support, and already has some commandos on the ground. But the Tobruk government is in the process of carrying out the recently signed peace deal with the rival Tripoli government and some of the Tripoli factions oppose a return of NATO air power. So it appears that permission for NATO to hit ISIL from the air in Libya will have to wait until the political differences there can be sorted out. There is some urgency about this because ISIL is concentrating on Tobruk

January 19, 2016: The Tobruk government (recognized by the UN) and the rival (not UN recognized) Tripoli government agree on how to implementing the peace deal both signed last December 17th. A new government with 32 key officials from both the Tobruk and Tripoli factions will run all the territory now administered separately. This comprises most of Libya but implementation may be difficult because both governments are coalitions of many more (hundreds) of factions and not all these factions fully endorse the details of the unification deal. The threat of starvation (because of the chaos and inadequate oil exports) and ISIL (which wants to turn Libya into a religious dictatorship) means most of the factions are willing to cooperate, for a while at least. More peace could result in renewed conflict later as factions seek to settle unresolved disputes. The new coalition government is supposed to be operational by February.

January 15, 2016: ISIL forces attacked and captured the coastal town of Bin Jawad. Because of the threat from nearby ISIL forces most of the normal civilian population of 8,000 had already fled, along with the armed militiamen in the vicinity. ISIL promptly murdered several civilians who were still there and later broadcast videos of ISIL men driving through the deserted town holding the heads of executed residents. This is meant to discourage defenders of other towns and this sort of thing often works.

January 14, 2016: South of the Ras Lanuf oil export terminal ISIL apparently blew up part of an oil pipeline that has not been used since 2014.

January 13, 2016: In the eastern city of Benghazi ISIL attacks on a major power plant caused damage that have meant many parts of the city are without power four or more hours a day.

January 12, 2016: In Mali officials believe AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) affiliate al Mourabitoun was mainly responsible for the November hotel attack in the Mali capital. Al Mourabitoun and AQIM continues to survive in Libya because of the chaos there. Using bases in southern Libya Al Mourabitoun carries out operations in Mali and Niger. The U.S. is offering a $5 million reward for information that would lead to the death or capture of Al Mourabitoun founder and leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar.

January 11, 2016: Unidentified jets bombed ISIL facilities in Sirte. Some ISIL leaders blamed Egypt and in response Egypt sent more troops to the Libyan border to guard against any ISIL retaliation.

January 8, 2016: The National Oil company moved over 400,000 barrels of oil from storage tanks near the port of Ras Lanuf to a safer (and undisclosed) location. This was done as the last of the fires were put out. This fires were started by an earlier ISIL rocket attack that destroyed two storage tanks and set their contents ablaze.

January 7, 2016: In Zliten (60 kilometers west of Misarata and 130 kilometers from Tripoli) an ISIL truck bomb killed over 47 students and staff at a police training center. Later in the day an ISIL suicide car bomber killed six militiamen outside the port of Ras Lanuf.

January 4, 2016: ISIL attacked the Tobruk controlled oil export port of Es Sider using two suicide car bombs. The attacks were against several road checkpoints. ISIL also fired unguided rockets at oil storage tanks setting several of the tanks on fire. At least nine of the militiamen guarding Es Sider were killed and about thirty wounded. The attackers suffered heavy losses. One of the attackers was later discovered to be a 15 year old boy who had been radicalized at one of the many pro-Islamic terror mosques in Tripoli. The boy went to Sirte four months ago, where ISIL has been active for over a year, and volunteered.

January 3, 2016: In 2015 nearly 4,000 illegal migrants and a few of the people smugglers died at sea trying to reach Europe from Libyan ports. This is about 20 percent more deaths than in 2014. Most of the 2015 deaths occurred early in the year because by mid-2015 there was a major effort by European nations to find and rescue smuggler boats that were sinking, or already sunk, and rescue the passengers and crew and take them the rest of the way to Europe. If smugglers could be identified they were usually arrested but otherwise the rescue service made the smugglers a lot more money because they could use cheaper and less reliable boats for the trip and raise their fees because the trip was now safer (fewer than four out every thousand people on the boats died in 2015). ISIL gets a cut of smuggler profits and tolerates and protects smugglers who operate from ISIL controlled ports. The smugglers got about a million people into Europe via the sea route during 2015.

January 2, 2016: The eastern (Tobruk controlled) branch of the National Oil Company announced that in 2015 it had exported 175,000 barrels of oil a day and refined another 36,000 barrels a day for local use. The western branch, controlled by the Tripoli government) exported more than 200,000 barrels a day but refined less for local use.

 

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