Libya Becoming Hot Spot for Foreign Fighters
by Jeff Seldin January 09, 2015
Efforts by the Islamic State group to make its presence felt in Libya came as no surprise to the United States, with military officials warning last month that fighters are training at IS camps there. Intelligence officials say there’s been no letup, but they caution it doesn’t mean the jihadist group sees Libya as part of its expanding caliphate — at least not yet.
The smoke rising from a recent bombing aimed at Libya’s elected parliament in Tobruk was a signal of the chaos in the country and, according to analysts like Jason Pack of Libya-Analysis.com, an invitation to jihadists and foreign fighters.
“Being on the global jihadi circuit, fighting in Afghanistan, then being holed up in a cave or something in Iraq, it’s a tough job,’ he said. ‘You know, you could go to Libya and there’s no state authority. No one’s hunting you there. You can hang out. You can rest and recoup.”
As Libya reels from clashes between factions vying for power, Pack says terror groups are trying to seize the moment.
“They don’t want to carry out attacks inside Libya, and they really haven’t done that,’ he said. ‘What they do want to do is to keep the Libyan government weak, and that’s the reason they have targeted assassinations against key Libyan government officials.”
At the forefront of these groups is the Islamic State, parading its success on social media. Its claims cannot be independently confirmed, but it has the attention of the United States’ Africa Command.
“We’re watching it very carefully to see how it develops and everything,’ said the command’s General David Rodriguez. ‘Right now, it’s just small and very nascent. And we’ll just have to see how it goes.”
U.S. military officials believe there are a couple hundred Islamic State fighters training at camps in eastern Libya. A senior intelligence official says it’s clear the group is trying to leverage the permissive environment to rest, train and recruit.
But the official says despite claims by Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi that several Libyan groups have pledged their loyalty, the affiliation is “nebulous.”
Analyst Daveed Gartenstein-Ross at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies calls it “resume inflation.”
“They’ve been able to utilize their core proficiency in social media to broadcast their successes in a conflict where social media has not penetrated to the same degree that it has in, let’s say, Syria,” he said.
Still, experts warn the situation in Libya is becoming more dangerous, even a force for destruction across the Middle East.
Intelligence officials also worry about the easy availability of weapons, some of which are flowing back with foreign fighters to fronts in Iraq, Syria and even Yemen.
Libyan Civil War – 2014
By 2014 the civil war in Libya had been transformed into a proxy war, which pitted Islamist forces supported by Qatar, Sudan and Turkey, against more secular forces supported by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt [and probably the United States]. This became clear after Egypt and the United Arab Emirates launched airstrikes against Islamic militants in the Libyan capital starting on 17 August 2014 and continuing into September.
Subsequently, the United States along with Britain, France, Germany and Italy, issued a statement saying actions by outsiders exacerbate divisions in Libya and undermine democracy. On 18 September 2014 Libya’s struggling elected government and representatives of 15 neighboring nations unanimously rejected the idea of military intervention as a way to restore stability. On 22 September 2014 a group of 13 countries released a communique at the UN calling for non-interference in Libya. The countries are Algeria, Egypt, France, Germany, Italy, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Tunisia, Turkey, the UAE, UK, US.
In a scenario reminisent of Somalia, by late 2014 the internationally recognized “government” of Libya controlled little more than a resort hotel in the far eastern Libyan city Tobruk, near the Egyptian border. In early September the legal government hired a Greek car ferry, the Elyros, moored in Tobruk harbor to house officials, activists and their families [by one account these were ejected when the ferry’s fees went unpaid]. The Elyros charter might have fetched about $25,000 per day.
Since 2012 the Government sought to bring under the authority of the State the armed brigades which emerged during the 2011 armed conflict, and which are in control of most detention facilities where torture takes place. Fighting between militia groups increased significantly in 2012. According to International Crisis Group, over 600 people were killed during the year 2012. Over time, different groups have associated themselves with different political currents, primarily nationalists and Islamists, and that automatically pits one against the other. Each of them has represented an autonomous power center and has been very unwilling to share power with other groups. On top of all that, there is the question of the regional and tribal identities of the groups involved.
The Government had affiliated brigades to specific ministries, even though in many cases the brigades have retained actual control of the detention centers. In April 2013 Libya also adopted a law criminalizing torture, enforced disappearances and discrimination and in September 2013 a new law on transitional justice required all conflict-related detainees to be released or referred to the public prosecutor within 90 days of the promulgation of the law. the number of fatalities has dropped significantly, to fewer than 300 in 2013.
George Joffe, a Libya expert and lecturer at the University of Cambridge, estimated that around 350 different militias were operating in Libya by 2014. Other analysts estimated in 2014 there were up to 1,700 armed groups operating in Libya, where the central government has struggled to impose order since the 2011 ouster of Moammar Gadhafi. The groups are divided ideologically. Egypt’s 1049 kilometer border with Libya is controlled by three main groups, two of which are close to the Muslim Brotherhood and one of which has ties to al Qaida. Some have battled each other. The government has formed security alliances with others.
Fajr Libya, or Libya Dawn, which is said to be backed by Turkey, is an Islamist militias which seized control of the capital Tripoli in 2013. Those militias have set up their own government which is not recognized internationally. Libya Dawn is linked to Misrata.
Misrata Brigades: More than 200 militias are part of the heavily-armed Misratan Union of Revolutionaries, based in the coastal city of Misrata. The group, which has about 40,000 members, is regarded as a revolutionary militia.
Ansar al-Shari’a – Benghazi: An al-Qaida-linked Islamist group that gained prominence in 2012, the Salafist militia believes all authority comes from the Prophet Mohammed. Ansar al-Sharia formed during the Libyan Revolution of 2011 that ousted Libyan leader Muammar Gadaffi. The Ansar al-Sharia group, which is trying to control Benghazi, is extremely fanatic and believes in aggression and killing people. The group is blamed for the attack on the US consulate in 2012 killing the US ambassador and 3 more Americans. The group advocates the implementation of strict Sharia law.
Ansar al-Shari’a – Darnah / Derna : In 2008, Chris Stevens wrote a remarkably perceptive profile of Derna, a town of some 50,000 people, where an increasingly conservative religious atmosphere that had prevailed since the 1980s. A number of Libyans who had fought and in some cases undergone “religious and ideological training” in Afghanistan, Lebanon and the West Bank in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s had returned to eastern Libya, including Derna.
Al-Zintan Revolutionaries Military Council, based in the western Nafusa mountains near the town of Zintan, is an umbrella group of militias. The group, which controlled the Tripoli airport until late August 2014, had been battling Islamic militias which finally gained control of the facility. The Zintan militias, for example, were tasked by the government with guarding Tripoli’s international airport since taking control of it in 2011. But they refused to leave.
Libyan National Army : A nationalist armed group led by former Libyan general Khalifa Haftar. Haftar promotes himself as a nationalist who is trying to save Libya from Islamic extremists. In May 2014, his forces overran parliament and vowed to fight against what they called an illegitimate government.
Libyan Revolutionary Operations Room (LROR): An alliance of pro-Congress militias that was used by the government to protect Tripoli. Until October 2013 it was tasked by the government with protecting the capital. However, LROR was stripped of that responsibility after some of its members briefly kidnapped then-Prime Minister Ali Zeidan last year. A LROR branch had been dealing with security in Benghazi.
The February 17 Martyrs Brigade: The armed Islamist group is one of the largest and best armed militia groups in the eastern Benghazi region. The Islamist group is funded by the defense ministry. It has carried out various security and law and order tasks in the region.
The Al-Saiqa militias, made up of remnants of Libya’s special forces, has been fighting Ansar al-ShariaIn the east in the city of Benghazi.
The leader of the Petroleum Facilities Guard (PFG), Ibrahim Jadhran, controlled Libya’s vast, oil-rich south. The PFG was tasked by the government with protecting the country’s crucial oil installations. But Jadhran accused the government of corruption and blocked Libya’s oil-export terminals.
The strongest militias included the Islamist camp of the Muslim Brotherhood and Loyalty to Martyrs blocs, centered in Misrata, Libya’s third-largest city, and the so-called “liberal” militia of Zintan, a city of 40,000 people. The withdrawal of several major armed revolutionary groups from the capital followed a series of clashes between rival brigades from Tripoli and Misrata on 4 and 7 November 2013, the deadliest since the end of the armed conflict in 2011. The fighting triggered a wave of popular anger against the continued presence of armed brigades in the capital, with demonstrators taking to the streets in Tripoli and other cities in the country.
By early 2014 the security environment continued to deteriorate, and there was no significant progress in integrating members of brigades into an effective national army and police force or in the disarming of other armed groups. In addition, the management of the transitional period by the General National Congress and the Government was widely criticized within Libya.
Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan and military officials spoke out 14 February 2014 to dispel rumors of a possible coup after retired general Khalifa Haftar posted a video statement calling for a “road map” to a new government. Insisting his government and national assembly remain in control of the country, the prime minister criticized Haftar’s “coup-like” comments. Haftar led all ground forces in the 2011 ouster of longtime dictator Moammar Gaddafi. Haftar commanded respect among the former Gadhafi-era military. He was a field commander in Gadhafi’s failed expansionary war in Chad in the late 1980s.
It was not immediately clear who may have been behind the retired general’s call to oust Libya’s current rulers, but one Arab analyst claimed Egypt and Saudi Arabia may be trying to encourage a more stable government in Libya to stanch the flow of arms across North Africa. Haftar’s extended life in the United States and the West’s apprehension of fundamentalist groups fueled speculation that the retired general enjoys Western support.
The government said in March 2014 it had ordered special forces to deploy, within a week, to bring all rebel-held ports back under government control. The standoff had cut Libya’s oil exports by more than 80 percent. Militias based in Misrata in northwestern Libya, known for their violence and independence, launched an offensive against the eastern rebels which could be regarded as the beginning of a civil war between western and eastern Libya.
Libya’s electoral commission announced 20 May 2014 that it would hold national parliamentary elections on June 25. The announcement came as days of clashes between government forces and those loyal to a rogue general renewed fears of a descent into civil war. General Khalifa Haftar touts himself as a nationalist who is waging a war to save Libya from Islamic extremists. Fighting between his forces and their rivals has killed at least 70 people in recent days. Forces loyal to Haftar, which overran parliament days earlier, vowed to press their fight against what they call an illegitimate government, its Islamist allies as well as regional and al-Qaida-affiliated militias.
Haftar’s forces declared Libya’s interim government dissolved, sparking fears of a widespread civil war. Libya’s army chief ordered the deployment of Islamist-led militias to secure the capital, but Haftar remained defiant.
The status of the country’s interim government remained uncertain. Heavy clashes between rival factions erupted in May 2014 in Benghazi and other eastern cities. In Tripoli, armed groups contested territory near Tripoli International Airport since July 13, rendering the airport non-operational. State security institutions lack basic capabilities to prevent conflict, and there remains a possibility of further escalation.
By mid-2014 many military-grade weapons remained in the hands of private individuals, including antiaircraft weapons that may be used against civilian aviation. Sporadic episodes of civil unrest have occurred throughout the country and attacks by armed groups can occur in many different areas; hotels frequented by westerners have been caught in the crossfire. Armed clashes have occurred in the areas near Tripoli International Airport, Airport Road, and Swani Road. Checkpoints controlled by militias are common outside of Tripoli, and at times inside the capital.
Rival militias battled for control in Tripoli at a time when a weak central government is riven by divisions between Islamist, tribal, and nationalist factions. July 2014 saw some of the country’s deadliest fighting since former leader Moammar Gadhafi was ousted in 2011. Over 150 people were killed during clashes between Islamist-led fighters from Misrata and Zintan rebels as the groups fought for control of the airport. On 25 July 2014 the Turkish Foreign Ministry announced it had suspended operations at its embassy in Tripoli and moved more than 500 Turkish nationals to Tunisia. On 26 July 2014 the United States temporarily closed its embassy in Libya and evacuated the staff to neighboring Tunisia because of heavy fighting near the embassy site in Tripoli.
On 27 July 2014 Egypt and several Western states urged their nationals to leave Libya amid spiralling violence. Cairo called on “all Egyptian nationals in Tripoli and Benghazi to immediately leave and save themselves from this chaotic internal fighting.” There were an estimated 1.5 million Egyptians in Libya before Qadhafi’s ouster. About two-thirds left during the war but many returned in 2012. In addition to the US and Egypt, Belgium, Malta, Spain and Turkey previously urged their nationals to leave.
Clashes were far heavier in Benghazi, where regular army and air force units had joined with the ex-army general who has launched a self-declared campaign to oust Islamist militants from the city. The Islamist militant group Ansar al-Sharia declared Benghazi an ‘Islamic Emirate’ on 31 July 2014 after claiming to have taken total control of Libya’s second largest city, seizing military barracks with rockets and ammunition. The official spokesperson of the extremist group told local Radio Tawhid that “Benghazi has now become an Islamic emirate.”
The announcement was denounced by pro-government militia forces. “The national Libyan army is in control of Benghazi and only withdrew from certain positions for tactical reasons. The claim that Benghazi is under the control of militias is a lie,” Khalifa Haftar, a former army general, who launched a self-declared offensive against militants in May.
Libya was engulfed in new