Libya: Where Has All The ISIL Gone

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September 10, 2016: Sirte is no longer controlled by ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) but the city still has several dozen ISIL men fighting to the death in one neighborhood where they are using a hundred or more women and children as human shields. In the rest of the city government forces are carefully searching for bombs, landmines and other deadly traps ISIL tends to leave in areas it expects to lose control of. These bombs have been causing most of the casualties lately. ISIL stored ammo and explosives in dozens of hidden locations. For most of these ammo stockpiles there are no ISIL men left alive who know the locations. Then there are all the mass graves of deal ISIL members as well as those they killed for resisting ISIL rule.

Forces loyal to the GNA (Government of National Accord) did most of the fighting in Sirte and are now looking to GNA for resources (food, medical supplies, fuel, and building materials) to make the city livable once again. Neighboring countries are allowing in the seriously wounded fighters for medical treatment. The U.S. continues to provide air support as it has since August 1st. This has consisted of an average of three or four attacks a day using smart bombs, missiles or AH-1W helicopter gunships armed with autocannon and missiles. The targets are usually ISIL fortifications, armed vehicles and car and truck bombs (hit before they could be used). The AH-1Ws showed up in mid-August and are from a U.S. amphibious assault ship off the coast. Since early June GNA forces have suffered nearly 3,000 casualties (dead and wounded) fighting to drive ISIL out of Sirte.

The American air attacks have saved hundreds of lives among the attackers and speeded up the advance. ISIL adapted. For example in late August GNA forces and ISIL observed an unofficial ceasefire while the remaining wives and children (most of them widows and orphans) of ISIL fighters were allowed to leave the city (and be checked for weapons or any other contraband). The remaining ISIL fighters were blocking the exit of some of the few remaining city residents, apparently so they can be used as human shields. Some of these human shields were later found to be ISIL family members who refused to leave. If any women and children are left in the open near ISIL positions the American aircraft will not attack them. The GNA ground forces have to go in with small arms, RPGs and grenades to get the ISIL fighters. Foreign commandos, who call in the air strikes, are also helping with these ground attacks.

Most of the wounded are treated in Sirte but the more badly hurt are driven west 190 kilometers to the main hospital in Misarata. The city has a port and airport and foreign aid brings in the needed medical supplies or flies out the most severely injured treatment at a hospital outside Libya. The U.S. and other Western nations are providing GNA forces in Sirte with intel gleaned from aerial surveillance and electronic monitoring. This intel indicated that ISIL was going to try and reassemble outside Sirte and either retake the city of carve out an area on the coast they can use as a base. That did not happen, in part because the GNA forces receive enough air and intel support to disrupt ISIL efforts to reassemble anywhere nearby. It is still unclear how many ISIL men were in Sirte or the rest of Libya. Early estimates were as high as 7,000 but now it appears that actual ISIL strength in Libya was about half that and most of them were in Sirte. A lot of the “ISIL activity” elsewhere in Libya was a few ISIL leaders working with local gangs to carry out smuggling operations. These mainly sent illegal migrants to Europe but also moved drugs north and weapons to neighboring countries.

Many ISIL men from Sirte have been showing up elsewhere in Libya and it appears ISIL ordered some of its personnel out of Sirte so they could go set up ISIL groups in other North African and European nations. With enough cash ISIL men can hire people smugglers to get them to any of those places. A few of these ISIL Sirte veterans have been caught in Libya or detected in Tunisia and Egypt. European police have been finding ISIL men among the hundreds of thousands of illegal migrants but none that appear to be one of Sirte operatives.

To most Libyans destroying the ISIL presence in Sirte and elsewhere in Libya rids the country of a major problem and also gains friends abroad and that makes it easier to make deals to get oil production going. If the corruption does not get out of hand (which it probably will) the oil income will make it possible to revive the economy. Many Libyans believe that driving ISIL out of Sirte will make the West obligated to reward those that did it. That would be local militias from western Libya, particularly the city Misarata. Libyans, like most Moslems, see ISIL (and Islamic terrorism in general) as a creation of the West and believe the West should generously compensate Libyans who defeated ISIL. This attitude sounds absurd to most Westerners but it is very real in the minds of Middle Eastern Moslems. This complicates Western efforts to help Libya with its largely self-inflicted problems.

What Unites Libya

The UN backed GNA government is gaining support but losing some popularity because it can’t quickly reverse the damage five years of fighting and chaos have done to the welfare state former (until 2011) dictator Kaddafi created to keep himself in power. As many rulers, particularly in the Middle East, have learned is that if you devote enough oil income to provide some kind of welfare state you can easily stay in power for a long time and still steal billions for yourself and your closest associates. This method usually includes, as it did in Libya, exploiting tribal, religious and ethnic differences when allocating the oil wealth. In tolerating that for so long Libyans now find themselves unable to create of a functioning national government and restore their cherished (especially now that it is gone) Kaddafi era welfare state. More and more Libyans are accepting the idea that their problems are basically one of bad attitudes. The only thing many Libyans can agree on is that most other Libyans are corrupt and can’t be trusted and foreigners, especially Westerners, are worse. These toxic attitudes were exploited by former Libyan dictator Kaddafi but he is now gone while the bad attitudes he fostered remain. Too many Libyans insists that the GNA will never be considered a success until it can restore the lost paradise.

September 9, 2016: In Tripoli fighting broke out between men of the Presidential Guard (mainly men from Misarata who act as a police force) and a Tripoli based militia that disagreed with attempts to curb illegal behavior by some militia members.

In the east (Benghazi) one of the main obstacles to national unity, Khalifa Belgacem Hiftar, is meeting with GNA representatives to work out a peace deal. Since March Hiftar has been abandoned by his supporters in the West. Hiftar is the most powerful man in eastern Libya because for several years he rebuilt and still commands what is left of the pre-2011 the Libyan Armed Forces. Hiftar has refused to recognize the GNA in large part because of mutual distrust. Many Libyans fear Hiftar could turn into another military dictator, like the late Kaddafii. Libyans note that next door in Egypt another general recently got elected president and is trying to make his rule permanent. Hiftar is aware of that and despite his longtime support for democracy in Libya he cannot escape the fact that he is a military man and a very effective one. But over the last few months Hiftar has come under local and international pressure to support the GNA. He may do that, especially since Benghazi has finally been cleared of Islamic terrorists, something Hiftar can take a lot of credit for. Hiftar still has allies among powerful Arab nations, like Egypt and several Gulf oil states. In late July Hiftar was told by Egyptian and the UAE (United Arab Emirates) backers that continued support from them (and France) was contingent on his destroying the remaining Islamic terrorist groups in Benghazi by the end of August. Hiftar got that done and now a settlement is being made. In part this is because former Hiftar associates have gone public with secret deals Hiftar made with Egypt to finance his military operations in eastern Libya and assure Egyptian cooperation. By Libyan standards these deals were not particularly corrupt but they were illegal and unpopular with most Libyans (who see Egypt as a traditional enemy). In this case Egypt was looking for someone in Libya to help them with border security and keeping Libya based Islamic terrorists out of Egypt. With ISIL defeated in Sirte and no widespread opposition to the GNA, Hiftar is expected to make a deal. But this is Libya, where good things rarely happen.

September 8, 2016: In Tripoli car bombs went off near the GNA Foreign Ministry compound and a naval base on the coast. There was some property damage but no casualties. It is unclear who was responsible but ISIL is suspected.

In Sirte two cars filled with explosives and rigged to be detonated remotely exploded but did not injure any of the nearby GNA forces.

September 7, 2016: The five GNA and UN approved members of a caretaker committee finally took control of the LIA (Libya Investment Authority) and the $67 billion it controls as the largest asset of the Libyan sovereign wealth fund. This is money put aside by the pre-2011 Kaddafi government for emergencies. Most of that money has been unavailable for use because of UN sanctions imposed to prevent the fund from being stolen. Corruption by government officials is a major problem in Libya and the UN and the major Western banking nations (France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Britain and the United States) had to agree on the five members of the caretaker committee and the rules they would operate under. That took years and the work of the caretaker committee will be monitored and audited as well. Donor nations take a keen interest in this because if the fund were looted they would be called on to provide financial aid for Libya.

September 6, 2016: Tunisia hosted two days of UN sponsored talks between various major Libyan political factions in an effort to achieve more nationwide cooperation in Libya. These particular discussions have been taking place for several weeks appear to have made some progress.

August 31, 2016: Fayez Serraj, the GNA prime minister, visited GNA forces fighting in Sirte. This was mainly for the media and boost morale among the thousands of pro-GNA militiamen still in and around Sirte. The visit also helped Serraj, who was persuaded to take the prime minister job in March and, as he expected, has not been able to gain enough agreement from all political factions to form a proper government (appoint other Libyans to head ministries). The main problem is greed and envy with too many factions believing everyone else is getting more than they should. Compromise is seen as surrender not wisdom.

The United States extended its military support of the GNA another month. The initial commitment was one month and at the request of the GNA to assist in defeating ISIL in Sirte. That is taking longer than hoped and at least one more month of air support is needed. Many Libyans are still hostile to foreign military involvement but the Libyans doing the fighting against ISIL and other Islamic terrorists are nearly unanimous in their support for the foreign military assistance.

Algeria began construction of a 350 kilometer long barrier along some of the borders with Tunisia and Libya. Algeria has a 1,034 kilometer border with Tunisia and 989 kilometers with Libya. The new barrier only covers the most active (for smugglers of all sorts) areas. The new battier will consist of a three meter (10 foot) high earthen wall topped by a barbed wire fence. This barrier is mainly to reduce arms smuggling into (mainly) and out of Algeria.

August 30, 2016: In the east PFG (Petroleum Facilities Guards) militias have shut down two oil fields because they say the GNA has not paid them. GNA says they have delivered the cash but that it is being stolen by PFG leaders who deny they are stealing. Now the GNA has to collect and publicize enough evidence of the theft to convince other militias and tribal leaders in the east that the corrupt PFG men must be replaced. While the Misrata militias are the main military support of the GNA, there are many other militias GNA depends on. Misrata militias are the most numerous and experienced in Libya and did most of the fighting and took most of the casualties during the 2011 rebellion. They are doing the same now in Sirte. Most other militias in the country are for local defense and often run by men who see this as an opportunity to steal. The PFGs are eastern militias paid to guard the oil facilities. These local militias are designated as PFGs and if they lose control of the facilities they protect they lose their jobs. Most of these pro-GNA militias agreed to join the effort to liberate Sirte from ISIL and some PFG forces advanced from the east but most of the fighting in Sirte is by militias from or allied with Misrata.

August 28, 2016: In Sirte ISIL used five suicide car bombs to try and stop the GNA forces who today captured the main mosque in Sirte as well as the prison used by ISIL. The GNA fighters are now in an area where senior ISIL men lived and worked. One of the car bombs was stopped by gunfire and the other four went off adding to higher than usual (37 GNA fighters dead and 150 wounded) casualties for one day. Yesterday ISIL used two suicide car bombs which killed or wounded nearly 30 GNA fighters. Most of the 80,000 residents of Sirte have fled but there are still a few around either waiting for GNA forces to reach them or moving towards advancing GNA forces. The use of seven suicide car bombs over the weekend appeared to be a desperate measure by ISIL, recognition that these car bombs would otherwise soon be captured or destroyed by an air strike. From here on most ISIL resistance was landmines, remotely controlled bombs and suicidal snipers.

August 22, 2016: In Sirte GNA forces captured the ISIL headquarters for their Sirte and Libyan operations. American special operations troops were seen in the area, as some the ISIL headquarters buildings were intact and full of cash, weapons, communications equipment and documents (paper and electronic). The Americans were there to help with the search and gather documents that will show more of what is actually going on inside ISIL. The headquarters facilities were in one of the last two Sirte neighborhoods ISIL had forces in. With the loss of “Neighborhood 1” all ISIL has left are some buildings in nearby “Neighborhood 3”.

 

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