Libya: Never Underestimate The Power Of Fantasy

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February 8, 2016: There is now a unified government, in theory at least. Representatives of the various factions are currently meeting in Morocco to try and reach an acceptable compromise on who the 32 new ministers should be. Many of the initial candidates were rejected because they lacked experience in the jobs they were being appointed to. Two things that are settled is the primacy of the last elected parliament (which fled to Tobruk after the older assembly disagreed with the vote) and that key members of the old assembly are now in a “High Council of State” which must agree on laws developed and passed by the parliament. So while there is a peace agreement the former Tripoli and Tobruk governments both have factions that are fine with continued deadlock. In theory the new government controls most of the militias in the country but until there is a defense minister and acknowledgement by key militias and warlords that they will obey the nation remains mired in a violent chaos. The fighting continues to be low key and mainly territorial defense. Only some of the Islamic terror factions, mainly ISIL (al Qaeda in Iraq and the Levant) are on the offensive. That is difficult to sustain because many of these local militias are full of men who have combat experience and the willingness and ability to kill those who threaten his home.

It was hoped that fear of endless fighting, the growing threat from ISIL and starvation would spur everyone to cooperate in getting a functioning government operational. That may happen eventually, perhaps quite soon, but it hasn’t happened yet. A new incentive is Western (and a few Arab) nations openly discussing another air campaign in Libya, mainly against ISIL targets. At the moment Tunisia and Egypt both oppose another Western air campaign but you cannot get anyone to speak for Libya until the new government is functioning. It is known that there are many in the Tobruk government who have called for a return of Western air power. But there has to be a unified government before that government can formally ask for, or reject, such an air campaign.

The problem with the ISIL threat is that it is confined to a few towns along the coast and most Libyans only hear about ISIL and have never run into them. Moreover Libyans who have fled ISIL controlled areas tend to leave the country or go to a nearby area where everyone already knows about ISIL This general lack of direct exposure to ISIL allows many Libyans to play down the threat ISIL poses. Libyans prefer to believe that all their problems are the result of foreign (Western and Israeli) plots. Never underestimate the power of fantasy, especially in the Middle East. Libyans who are realists tend to be living outside Libya these days, along with over a million other Libyans who chose flight over fantasy.

The main problem with Islamic terrorism in Libya is not ISIL. After all this group only controls a few towns and has about 6,000 fighters in those places. A greater danger is the large number of Libyans (several percent of some four million people left in the country) who still believe Islamic terrorism will fix all the problems in Libya and that ISIL is the 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.

Nevertheless the continued presence of Islamic radical supporters throughout Libya makes it possible to carry out terror attacks wherever there are enough of these Islamic terrorism supporters. This has encouraged a growing number of local militias to create a hostile atmosphere for any form of Islamic radicalism. Despite that a sizable minority (up to 20 percent) still back Islamic conservatism. Most of these people don’t support Islamic terrorism but they do raise their kids as Moslems and that exposes teenage boys to Islamic terrorist recruiters who hang out in many mosques. Defeating ISIL will not eliminate Islamic terrorism from Libya.

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 attack in Iraq and Syria. 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 nine other countries but none as valuable as Libya.

Analysts at the National Oil Company calculate that Libya has lost $68 billion in oil income since 2011. Currently only about 400,000 barrels a day is being refined for local use or exported. That is a quarter of what production was in 2011. ISIL is trying to seize oil fields and export terminals so that it can try and raise cash by smuggling oil out. Actually doing that is highly unlikely but ISIL needs the money.

Tunisian police recently arrested some smugglers and found they were sneaking some key oil drilling items (oil drill bits, expensive and expendable items needed for well drilling). It is believed that the customer for these items was ISIL as the Tobruk and Tripoli governments had legitimate sources for this stuff. Tunisia has been particularly alert for signs of ISIL presence and has been able to detect and arrest Tunisians planning to sneak into Libya to make contact with ISIL. Most Tunisians are hostile to Islamic terrorism and quick to report suspect activity. There are plenty of ISIL supporters in Tunisia but most have already gone to Syria or Libya. To make illegal border crossing more difficult Tunisia recently completed a 200 kilometers long security fence along the Libyan border. Western countries are contributing electronic sensors for the fence and training on how to use and maintain the sensors.

Many, if not most, of these Tunisians have ended up in Sirte, a Libyan city largely controlled by ISIL. There some 70 percent of ISIL force are foreigners and most of those are Tunisians. Most of the remainder are from Egypt, Sudan and Algeria. About half the 6,000 ISIL men in Libya are in Sirte where most of the 2011 population of 100,000 has fled. Libyans remaining in Sirte are subject t0 savage, and usually public punishment for disobeying ISIL lifestyle rules. ISIL men who get caught trying to desert are also executed before locals. Sirte is 500 kilometers east of Tripoli and 560 kilometers west of Benghazi and is used by ISIL as their main base in Libya.

Intelligence analysts have noticed that in the last year ISIL strength in Iraq and Syria has declined about 20 percent (to some 20,000 members) while in Libya strength has doubled to 6,000. The losses in Iraq and Syria are from casualties, desertions and fewer foreign volunteers. There is less of that in Libya because there are very few air attacks and less combat. Moving even more men to Libya is difficult for ISIL because it is more expensive to get people in and out of Libya and there are fewer income producing opportunities in Libya. The big earner now comes from the people smugglers, who pay ISIL for security services (mainly keeping anyone from interfering with getting the migrants on small boats headed for Europe). ISIL only controls a few of the ports used by people smugglers and many locals (including the two governments) disapprove of the smuggling although some groups will tolerate it if paid enough.

February 7, 2016: In the southeast, along the Sudan border, local tribal militias clashed with Sudanese rebels for two days leaving at least 30 dead. The Sudanese rebels had taken refuge in Libya after 2011 because no one was guarding the border. But the Sudanese eventually became a problem because some of them turned to banditry and other bad behavior. When local tribal leaders ordered the Sudanese to leave that led to fighting and now most of the Sudanese appear to be gone. Locals also disliked the Sudanese because some of them used to work for former Libyan dictator Kaddafi.

In the coastal city of Derna (200 kilometers east of Benghazi) an unidentified jet bombed a residential area killing four civilians. ISIL has been unsuccessfully trying to take Derna which is about the same size (100,000 population) as the ISIL “capital” Sirte. But the offensive against Derna has been largely unsuccessful and unlike Sirte Derna still has most of its 2011 population. There have been several mystery air attacks against ISIL in Derna, but these do not appear to have done much damage.

February 5, 2016: Libya has lost its voting rights in the UN because it has not paid its membership fees for two years. Once the $1.4 million debt is paid Libya can vote again. Libya could have paid these fees on time but the chaos over who was actually in charge and who would actually do the voting prevented that.

January 31, 2016: In the east (near Sirte) ISIL is believed responsible for using explosives to damage an oil pipeline 75 kilometers from the coast (and the oil export terminal at Zueitina). This Tobruk government controlled oil port resumed operations in October 2015. Zueitina had two million barrels in storage and can ship 70,000 barrels a day (about a billion dollars’ worth a year at current prices). It is only receiving 30,000 barrels a day from oil fields in the south but work is under way to increase that. It took a few days for repair crews from Zueitina to fix the pipeline damage.

January 25, 2016: The parliament rejected some of the people proposed to fill the 32 new cabinet posts. The most common reason for rejection was lack of experience in the area the cabinet post covered. There was an agreement that negotiations would resume right away to come up with 32 people who are generally acceptable.

 

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