15.10.2014 Alessandro Di Maio

Libya, a February report before the summer war

Libya, a country situated in the central-northern coast of Africa. 1,759,541 km2 of land, mostly deserted, in the grip of chaos since the events that followed 2011 revolution against Muammar Gaddafi's regime. Between January/February 2014, while moving again to Jerusalem, after a period of 6 months spent between Italy and Kosovo in order to complete a course for journalists in conflict zones, I was asked to make a political analysis on the deterioration of the security status in Libya. Today, while reviewing all my datas, I found it and read it again, realizing that in the report, written in February 2014, I was already able to draw the lines of the chaotic situation (Civil War?) that characterized the North-African country in the months that followed increasing the power of the Islamist forces, even though the military participation of foreign powers lie Egypt and UAE. I wanted to share it with all of you. Thanks for reading it.

Despite the nation-wide euphoria stemming from the victorious Libyan national soccer team in the 2014 African Nations Cup Championship, the country appears divided in tribal, ethnical, religious, and regional disputes. Without the monopoly of force, the central government faces daily resistance from armed rebel groups of various types. Heavy clashes recently took place in Fezzan (in the southwest) and in Cyrenaica (in the east). On February 14, Mayor General Khalifa Haftar, one of the commanders of the Libyan Army, appeared on video, calling for the suspension of the interim parliament and the formation of a presidential committee to govern until new elections are held. On the same day, Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zidan denied that there had been any coup-d’état.

On February 7 the mandate of the General National Congress expired and was extended for a few more months. Weakened by internal divisions between nationalists and Islamists, and accused of being unable to shape the special committee that would draft the National Constitution, the Congress received threats from various armed groups, in particular from the Zintan Brigate - a well-armed Berber militia active on the mountains south of Tripoli.

In the last few months, various kidnappings of foreign civilians and the first suicide terrorist attack in the country were reported. However, in the last few days explosions and gunfights took place all over Libya. These acts of violence have been targeting civilians, judges, military personnel and institutions considered close to or opposed to, according to the case, the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as Nationalists, Berbers and Gaddafi loyalists. On February 4, a small commando of gunmen opened fire against Benghazi’s al-Jalaa hospital; the day after a private school for teenagers in Benghazi has been attacked with a grenade injuring twelve students. On February 6, an unidentified armed group tried to storm into the Libyan army command headquarters in Tripoli in order to obtain weapons and ammunition supplies. On February 8, a former judge was shot dead in the city of Derna, and on February 12, the headquarters of Libya’s Alassema private TV channel in Tripoli was attacked with three rocket-propelled grenades.

Weak government in a divided country
Three years after the fall of the Gaddafi regime, Libya has entered a chaotic phase that could easily escalate to a civil war. The country is in the hands of armed groups of differing ideology and aim, while the central government - weakened by harsh internal political confrontation and lack of experience - has serious difficulty in controlling the vast national territory.

Historically, at the behest of Gaddafi, the Libyan Army has never been a strong institution. In the absence of a central political power, it is even weaker today and not able to manage and monopolize the use of force in the country. It is held hostage by groups, clans, families, regional and ethnic claims, and political and religious groups. International organizations and countries like Italy, France, and the USA are training various units of the Libyan Army, but if the international community will not increase its support to the Libyan government, the situation could to degenerate to a large scale military confrontation between armed groups and descend into chaos.

The Supreme Security Committee (SSC), an organization dependant on the Ministry of Interior, formed mixed brigades in order to put together the various militias and break the tribal and family bonds of each katiba. However, each militia is still independent from the central command and the risk of clashes between themselves – and with other groups - remains extremely high.

If the central government does not find a way to control the independent armed groups, they will be able to quickly improve their position and their military equipment by obtaining taxes and bribes from local citizens, as well as foreign and national companies and from the issuance of visas at checkpoints, airports and seaports. This is already a reality in those areas in which active groups are claiming regional autonomy and shares in the revenues of the oil industry.

Given the events of February 7 and 14 – when the Berber armed group Zintan Brigate threatened the national government of a military intervention, and when Khalifa Haftar, one of the commanders of the Libyan Army, called for a coup-d’état and for the suspension of the interim parliament – it is highly realistic that, in the long term, Libya will experience new tentative of coup-d’état.

The extreme state of weakness suffered by the central government and its military forces, in contrast with the military strength of the various local armed groups, creates space for illegal activities and criminality, ranging from small crimes to kidnappings of local and foreign citizens – generally embassy-consulate personnel and foreign workers in the oil industry. Evidence of this can be found in the case of two Italian citizens who were kidnapped in January and released on February 7. However, the prime examples of the lawlessness in the country are the kidnappings of Prime Minister Ali Zeidan and Muhammad al-Thani - son of the Minister of Defense Abdullah al-Thani. In both cases, armed groups seized their targets in the center of Tripoli. Events like this could often be repeated in the future, especially if the polar political parties will not be able to achieve a political agreement that would establish the organization that will draft the new constitution, even considering the extension of the mandate of the General National Congress. Additionally, kidnappings of national political figures should be expected in the initial phase of a possible political, structural and military confrontation between the central government and the armed local groups.

Infiltration of foreign armed groups
The weakness of the central government in controlling territory and borders facilitated the infiltration of weapons, armed groups, mercenaries and terrorist organization cells from the neighboring countries, particularly from Sudan, Chad, Niger, Algeria and Egypt.

African mercenaries supporting the central government and jihadist groups could continue crossing the border from Niger, Algeria and Chad. Meanwhile, new routes between Egypt and Libya could be found in order to support the Islamist groups active in Cyrenaica and the local groups seeking the autonomy/independence of the region.

The repression carried out by the Egyptian government against the Muslim Brotherhood is bringing in the Cyrenaica Islamist supporters, militants and weapons favoring the local groups seeking auto-determination from Tripoli. Small cells of qaedist and jihadist terrorist groups responsible for both the 2012 attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi, and for the 2013 suicide terrorist attack in Benghazi as well as for other explosions and attacks throughout in the last few months in the northern part of Cyrenaica, are also active in the region.

Following the destruction of a portion of the material belonging to Gaddafi’s chemical military program, Americans, French, and British military advisers are training units of the Libyan Army mainly in the eastern part of Cyrenaica and in the deep Fezzan. Activities like this – plus other possible addition military collaborations - are expected to increase in the next months in order to avoid Islamists groups based in different areas of the country to grow their military capabilities and geographical control. The situation can't be definied "under control" because eventual others MENA security crisis could detach West's attention to Libya and allow Islamist militias to gain ground against the weak regular Libyan military forces.

Alessandro Di Maio
Jerusalem, February 2014.
Photo: AP Photo/Altaf Qadri