Written by Dr. Sasha Toperich for USMilitary.com
February 17 will mark seven years since popular revolt broke out in Libya toppling the 42-year Gaddafi regime. Two car bombs in Benghazi (on January 23rd) that killed 35 and an attack on Mitiga airport in Tripoli (a week earlier) that killed 16 and injured many more (including civilians), speak volumes of Libya’s lack of stability, an instability which has persisted since the turbulent outbreak of the 2011 Arab Spring revolt.
Mitiga airport was originally built by the US air force in the 1950s as part of Wheelus air base but vacated in 1970 after Gaddafi took over in a military coup. For Tripoli, Mitiga became the only international airport, after Tripoli International Airport was destroyed, along with nearly 20 passenger aircrafts, in an attack by radical Fajr Libya militias (mainly from Misrata) in August 2015, ending international flights to Libya. Six months ago, these militias were finally driven out from Tripoli by other militias supporting the Government of National Accord (GNA) established as the result of UN sponsored Accord signed in Skhirat, Morocco, on December 17, 2015.
The attack on Mitiga airport was an attempt of the Bugra Militia to free their own and radical (mostly ISIS and Ansar Al-Sharia) prisoners held in the base near the airport, where 2,600 prisoners live in overcrowded conditions. Recognized by the Ministry of Defense, the Bugra Militia is officially called Brigade 33, received weapons and stipends from the ministry, all funded by the GNA. Its leader is Basheer Khalfallah, (known as Bugra), originally from Misrata but his current base is the city of Tajura just east of Tripoli. Tajura is a known home to Islamists with links to the firebrand Mufti of Libya, Alsadeg Algheriani and some members of Ansar Al Sharia who escaped from Benghazi. The attack was repelled by the Al-Radae militia, in charge of the prison and loyal to the Presidential Council who, after the attack, moved quickly to disband the Bugra brigade having its members join the Ministry of Interior as individuals.
Militias Still Rule in Libya
The airport attack is worth analyzing since it uncovers many aspects of the security situation in Libya. The Bugra Militia had demanded that Al-Radae either turn over the prisoners to the attorney general for trial or to release them, protesting that after months of incarceration no charges were filed against them and their fate remained unknown. Al-Radae did not respond despite many calls for negotiations. Prior to the attack, an ultimatum was given to release these prisoners, but was ultimately ignored. Defenders for Al-Radae praise their successful fight against crime and drug trafficking, significantly improving Tripoli’s security and reducing thefts and kidnappings. Crime levels are down, especially after the GNA Defense Ministry spread its control over Wirshifana, a troublesome region west of Tripoli, home to some criminal gangs taking advantage of the security vacuum. So why did Al-Radae fail to respond to demands for negotiations? Why did it fail to order an evacuation of civilian aircraft from the Mitiga airport to the functioning runways at the still-crippled Tripoli International Airport, some 20 miles away? Why were both the prison and the prisoners not under the control of a civilian authority with legal procedures and due process? And above all, why has Libya continued to be under the protection and mercy of militias two years after UN sponsored peace agreement called for them to be dismantled?
Under the UN sponsored accord, a Presidential Guard was formed but their role continues to be limited to militias guarding the Presidential Council members and facilities, with its budget misspent mainly on high salaries and pricey four-wheel drive vehicles. The Presidential Guard failed to incorporate existing militias in the city, but the Ministry of Defense managed to extend control westward from Tripoli to Ras Ejdair on the Tunisian border.
Smuggling and illegal immigration continue especially in the west, near the Tunisian border. It has made young, uneducated militia members very rich through their smuggling of heavily subsidized fuel such as gasoline and diesel to Tunisia where prices can be as much as ten times higher. Illegal trafficking of African immigrants to Europe, mostly to Italy, continues. Some European countries are even calling for a construction of more refugee camps in Libya to house those stopped as they try to get on boats across the Mediterranean to Europe. Libyans vehemently reject settling any refugees on their soil as this would disturb their country’s fragile demography. The Italian policy, which has focused primarily on training the Libyan coast guard and improving its capability to stop refugees, in Libyan waters, had some success in reducing illegal immigration in 2017 compared to previous years. However, this was accompanied by a high human cost, since illegal immigrants are forced back to Libyan shores and placed in over-crowded centers where they hang in limbo. Part of the solution is to fund more development in the source countries of illegal immigrants, enhance border security, and fund development of border areas to provide alternative income to tribal members now engaged in smuggling activities as the main source of income in this impoverished region.
Three Polarized Governments Functioning in Libya
Three and half years have passed since the GNC refused to cede power to the newly elected House of Representatives (HoR), forcing it to convene 1500 km east in Tobruk rather than the capital, Tripoli, effectively bifurcating the country. The country became polarized with two governments and two central banks. The differences between the eastern region of Barqa and the western region of Tripolitania have become too deep and the UN Sokhayrat Accord of December 2015 created a third government, the GNA. While the GNA became the only internationally recognized government (under the Presidential Council), it failed to unite the country and the two previous governments continue to operate, adding to divisions and confusion not only within Libya but in its diplomatic missions and institutions, like the Central Bank and the Libyan Investment Authority that manages tens of billions of dollars in Libyan investments abroad.
This confusion over the legitimate government of Libya, along with a lack of strong oversight and poor judicial authority, has provided fertile grounds for rampant corruption and the theft of state assets. Corruption continues to be a major problem, with government posts now possessing a “license to steal”. Tribal or regional relations serve as pressure tools to acquire government positions, at all levels. Appointments are meant to appease these groups that apply pressure, especially in the foreign service, where salaries and benefits are very lucrative. This has caused the bloating of appointments in embassies and consulates. In some positions, such as the military attaché, it is not unusual to find as many as ten appointees, even in a country where there is no need for a military attaché at all, further draining foreign currency reserves.
Violence Returns to Troubled Benghazi
The recent twin car bombs in Benghazi were followed by a brutal retaliation when about 10 prisoners were executed by Mahmoud Wirfally, a commander in the General Hafter’s army. Wirfally had been indicted by the International Criminal Court for mass crimes he allegedly committed previously. The bombings gave some spotlight to the role of General Hafter who is militarily and financially supported by the UAE, Egypt, and to some extent, France.
However, there is serious concern about his iron-fisted control and intolerance to any opposition. Hafter’s sons have enjoyed the same free reign in security and many other matters, reminding Libyans of Gaddafi’s rule, when his sons held huge unchecked power in the country. Hafter removed Mayors who were elected by the popular vote in territories under his control, replacing them with military commanders. Of greater concern is the powerful influence of the Madakhla, a radical Islamist Wahabi sect who some consider to be worse than ISIS. Their numbers are in the thousands, forming the backbone of the so-called National Army.
The Human Tragedy of Tawergha
One of the bright accomplishments of GNC President Fayez Al Sarraj is succeeding in reaching a peace agreement between the cities of Misrata and Tawergha, allowing for the safe return of the 35,000 Tawerghan people, to their hometown about 20 miles from Misrata. Tawergha has become a ghost town since 2011 after its people were forced out by neighboring Misrata in retribution for alleged atrocities committed against Misrata by forces from Tawergha loyal to Gaddafi. The painfully negotiated peace agreement called for the Tawerghan people to return to their cities on February 1st but they were denied access by Misrata, leaving families stranded on the roads. The municipal and military councils of Misrata issued declarations rejecting the return of the displaced Tawerghan people to their city. The wounds from a brutal three-month siege of Misrata in 2011, in which some troops from Tawergha took part, have not healed. But collective punishment of an entire population for the crimes of a few cannot and should not be tolerated further by the international community.
Could a Bloody Invasion of Tripoli be Coming Soon?
The recent attack on Mitiga airport may not be the end of the violence, but a prelude to a larger conflict brewing in the region. In fact, it could escalate into an all-out invasion of Tripoli by the Bugra militia in alliance with some powerful militias from Misrata (such as Al Halboos), 301 Brigade, Sharakhan Militia and Tarhuna (Al Kaniyat), Sug Al Juma to the east, (even Zintan from the southeast), and Zawia from the west. These are powerful militias, formerly allied with Misrata, with heavy weaponry such as tanks and anti-tank rockets. Also, a group from the defunct General National Congress is reported to be holding strategy meetings in Istanbul. This group was excluded from the National Council (SC), a consultative body formed under the UN Accord, led by an ambitious but widely rejected GNC former member from Misrata, Abdurrahman Swehli. The supposed invasion of Tripoli is rumored to take place soon after the 7th anniversary celebration of the February 17 revolt that toppled Gaddafi. If this happens, this could be the bloodiest violence in Tripoli yet.
UN Mediated Effort – Its Complicated – But It Is the Best Hope for Libya Ahead
Ghassan Salama, the UN special representative to Libya, has been working to improve the situation in Libya since July 2017. He is a very capable and experienced diplomat, but has found the path to resolving Libya’s political problems and divisions to be rockier than he probably anticipated. He speaks the same language and is more familiar with the culture than his European predecessor. He travelled to most parts of Libya and met with Libyans of various walks of life, including intellectuals who were previously ignored. Yet trying to bring together the two councils proves to be difficult: the House of Representatives (HoR) in Tobruk in the East and the State Council (SC) were created from the remnants of the General National Congress (GNC) in Tripoli, elected in 2012 but remained in power through force well beyond its expiration term of 2014. The GNC has been later on recognized by the Skhirat Accord made in December 2017. Salama tried to forge a new agreement between the HoR and SC but with no success. The HoR in Tobruk is under the control of General Hafter who aspires power for himself and does not want to cede control to a civilian authority under the Presidential Council. The SC sits in the West in Tripoli, under the tight control of Abdurahman Swehli, who maintains presidential aspirations. Negotiations started last July called for 20 representatives from each side to meet, but getting them to agree on a new accord that would unite the country, choose a new Presidential Council, a single government, and lead to national parliamentary and presidential elections, proved to be rather elusive.
UN Representative Salama’s plan calls for municipal elections, possibly in April, a referendum on the constitution to be called for by the HoR, an Election Law, also to be enacted by the HoR, and national elections for the House of Representatives and presidential elections to be held later in 2018. This is going to be difficult to accomplish, given the fragile security conditions all over Libya and also due to lack of cooperation from the HoR, which has shown considerable intransigence with the UN sponsored accord of 2016. Salama will need pressure from the UN, and particularly the United States, on HoR and SC, as well as general Hafter and the key militias, especially from Misrata. He must achieve cooperation from the regional and European players in Libya, mainly Turkey, Qatar, the UAE, Egypt, Italy and France, but also support from the European Union, the African Union, the Arab league and neighboring countries; Algeria, Tunisia, Chad, Niger and Sudan. At this critical time, the United States fully stand behind Dr. Salama’s effort to get these parties, both within and outside Libya, to cooperate and achieve a lasting stability that has been so elusive since 2011.