Libya: Another Violent Reminder


May 25, 2017: The UN recognized GNA (Government of National Accord) has occupied the capital (Tripoli) since early 2016 but has been unable to gain the loyalty or cooperation of the many factions that have been keeping the country, especially western Libya, in chaos since 2012. Worse, neighboring countries see Libya as a source of Islamic terrorism and criminal activity of all sorts. Within Libya he major obstacle to peace and prosperity are other Libyans.

GNA controls all the government ministries located in Tripoli but the rival HoR (House of Representatives) government based in Tobruk controls eastern Libya and, more importantly, most of the oil export (and many oil fields) facilities. HoR is better organized, united, less corrupt and more hostile to Islamic radicals and terrorists of any sort. Most other nations in the region agree with the HoR and are not optimistic about the success of the GNA.

The GNA made a major mistake early on by underestimating the revived Libyan Armed Forces and its leader general Khalifa Belgacem Hiftar. HoR and Hiftar gained allies throughout Libya while the GNA proved itself indecisive and ineffective. For example, Hiftar has the support of many of the Berbers who tend to live in western Libya. Since then more militias in western Libya are reconsidering their loyalties. This dispute is mainly about terms for transferring power (now held by tribes, militias and powerful men like Hiftar) to a new national government.

The basic problem is that the UN and most Western nations continue to back the GNA despite the fact that the GNA relies too much on Islamic conservative militias and senior Libyan Islamic clerics who favor imposing Islamic law on Libya, something most Libyans don’t want. The GNA is also more tolerant of corruption, in part because GNA is the conduit for most foreign aid and thus there is more to steal. Western groups are pressuring the UN to concentrate on prosecuting militia leaders, especially those loyal to Hiftar, for war crimes. But most Libyans note the majority of alleged war crimes being committed by militias aligned with the GNA and rarely criticized by the UN. This reinforces Libyan distrust of the UN as a foreign force trying to impose itself on Libya. This is one of the best recruiting tools for Hiftar who, so far in 2017, has gained the allegiance of a number of tribes who see Hiftar as decisive, organized, reliable and very opposed to Islamic terrorists of any kind. That appeals to other Arab states in the region. The West tends to see Hiftar as another Kaddafi (a military officer who staged a coup to replace the Western backed Libyan monarchy). The Arabs and most Libyans don’t see a similarity between Hiftar and Kaddafi and are mystified that so many in the West do.

The chaos that has crippled Libya since 2011 is not resolving itself quickly enough to prevent widespread hunger and privation throughout the country. This is not acceptable to the UN and the West but no one has a quick solution. Russia is openly backing the HoR faction that is opposed by the UN but is gaining support within Libya. Most Libyans have concluded that if they don’t establish some form of national government (or “understanding”) soon the country will literally starve. Libya has depended on oil income for decades and the current population cannot feed itself without oil money to pay for the food and other necessities. Worse, most Libyan have a sense of entitlement because of all the oil wealth and resist taking responsibility for all the corruption and factionalism that is keeping the country in chaos and broke. Without a central government Libyans have fallen back on tribal or clan leaders. There are over a hundred recognized (even by Kaddafi) tribes and major clans. With Kaddafi gone it took a while for many of these tribes to rebuild their leadership capability and ability to serve tribal members. About a third of these tribes are large enough, and well led enough to be treated as a separate entity (usually because of a tribal militia) and it is these tribes that are now willing to work with Hiftar but not the GNA.

Dirty Oil

The National Oil Corporation (NOC) revealed that production had risen to a record (since 2011) 800,000 BPD (barrels per day) in April. This is largely the result of much less fighting near the main eastern oil ports. Between February and March this violence had reduced production to about 600,000 BPD but now the NOC sees production hitting a million BPD (a quarter of it natural gas equivalents) by the end of August and continuing to increase into 2018. But it all depends on an end of fighting over oil facilities. Meanwhile there are technical problems, mostly the result of years without proper maintenance that cause production to occasionally dip. For example, that happened recently when production fell to 788,000 BPD. In theory the oil is exported and the cash received buys essential items like food, medicine and other consumer items. In practice there is still a problem with corruption and a lot of the oil money disappearing before the needed imports can reach most Libyans.

One thing the GNA and HoR eventually agreed on was to cooperate when it comes to the Central Bank and NOC (National Oil Company). Both these institutions are essential to pay for needed imports. With this understanding, and the more capable Hiftar forces controlling most of the oil facilities the NOC sees an opportunity to get production from 650,000 barrels a day at the end of 2016 to a million barrels a day by the end of 2017 and double that by 2022. Pre-2011 production was 1.6 million barrels a day. One thing that all Libyans can agree on is that the standard of living has declined sharply since 2011. Per capita income is about 30 percent of what it was in 2011 and that will further decline until oil shipments get back to pre-2011 levels. Mass starvation is no longer a theoretical threat or conspiracy theory. It is happening and that is causing many factions to become cooperative, for now.

The GNA is still trying to deal with a massive corruption scandal and determine how 44 percent of oil revenue for the first three months of the year disappeared. There was supposed to be $3.87 billion but the Ministry of Finance can only account for $2.2 billion of it. The GNA has been trying to get foreign loans and the potential lenders wanted to see the financial records. That did not end well but it is no surprise as Libya is one of the ten most corrupt nations on the planet.

Another seemingly permanent form of corruption is the PFGs (Petroleum Facilities Guards). These are tribal militias hired (or bribed) by previous governments to keep oil fields, pipelines and port facilities secure. Soon many, if not most, PFGs went rogue, shut down the facilities they guarded and, in effect, tried to blackmail the government into paying them more. This was driven by tribal feuds over how oil revenue should be allocated. Libya has always been very corrupt and Kaddafi remained in power for decades by playing the tribes off on each other with oil income. Those who cooperated got more, those who caused trouble got less. With Kaddafi gone many tribes want payback for past injustices (real or imagined). Many of the PFGs have now backed the GNA but as long as some of them continue to resist oil income is crippled and the much feared food crises is still approaching. General Hiftar and the HoR government have been successful negotiating with the PFGs and offering a better deal (larger share of oil income) and less corruption. Hiftar has a reputation for being much less corrupt. PFGs often shut down oil fields and ports because GNA has not paid them. In these cases GNA has often delivered the cash but some or all of it was stolen by PFG leaders who deny they are stealing. The GNA has to collect and publicize enough evidence of the theft to convince other militias and tribal leaders that the corrupt PFG men must be replaced. This is difficult to do and meanwhile PFGs are constantly demanding “adequate compensation” before they will allow oil to be pumped, moved via a pipeline to the export facilities or loaded on tankers. The details of how much “adequate compensation” any PFG is paid is usually kept secret because in Libya the feeling is that no one group is getting their fair share of the oil wealth that has kept the country functioning since the 1970s. Without the cash provided by oil exports Libya could not import enough food and other essentials to keep the population alive. PFGs are acutely aware that if they lose control of the facilities they protect they lose their jobs so there are extremely defensive and paranoid. The overall problem is that PFG compensation has little relationship to how dangerous the work is but rather is more a matter of tribal politics. It has taken several years for tribes in areas where there are oil facilities to realize that it they do not cooperate everyone will suffer, which is what has been happening and is getting worse.

May 24, 2017: In south central Libya (770 kilometers south of Tripoli) Hiftar forces carried out at least a dozen airstrikes on pro-GNA militias seeking to establish control over Jufra and Sabha. Russia and Egypt are making an issue of pro-GNA militias carrying out massacres recently against civilians deemed “un-Islamic. In 2016 this area became a destination of Islamic terror group refugees from Benghazi and other coastal cities. Some have called this loose alliance the “Third Force” because groups from Misrata have been sending reinforcements to allied Jufra militias since late 2016 in an effort to gain control. Hiftar saw this as an effort by the Misrata militias that were used to drive ISIL out of Sirte to extend their power to central Libya. The Misrata groups have a lot of members who support Islamic conservatism (but not ISIL). For this reason Hiftar accues the Jufra “Third Force” as being Islamic terrorists. That’s sort of true but this is mostly about Misrata warlords looking to expand their power. Problem is there is no unity among the Jufra factions. Some of the groups from Benghazi still call themselves the Benghazi Defense Brigades while those from other coastal cities have similar affiliations with where they came from.

May 22, 2017: In Britain (Manchester) a known (t0 Libyan and British police) believer in Islamic terrorism wore a suicide bomb vest to a concert hall and detonated it. This killed 22 civilians and wounded over 60. The bomber was a 23 year old Libyan whose family received refugee status in Britain back in 2006 after having fled Libya because of their anti-Kaddafi views. The bomber had just (a few days earlier) returned from a three week visit to Libya. There he and his brother were known to be associating with Islamic terror groups and his brother was being sought for being involved in an effort to carry out similar attacks in Tripoli. British police had about 500 similar local Moslems identified as potentially violent. This is especially true of those who have visited areas (Libya, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan) where Islamic terror groups can operate openly and run training camps for foreign recruits and then returned. Many Middle Eastern nations (UAE, Egypt, Algeria, Israel, Morocco, Tunisia for example) recognize this sort of thing and outlaw it within their borders and that includes refusing to take refugees from these nations. Many in the West see this as an over-reaction and another form of oppression. This lies at the center of the dispute between the GNA and the pro-Hiftar groups.

Britain has had corruption and violence problems with Libyans before. A notorious (at least in the mass media) example occurred in 2014. Late that year Britain began flying home nearly 300 Libyan officer trainees before their 24 week training was completed. Five of the Libyans did not leave as they were being held on rape charges. Three of these Libyans were charged with raping women and two of raping a man. The Libyans had arrived in June and within a month locals were complaining of Libyans coming into nearby communities and behaving badly. This was not supposed to happen as the Libyans were selected to receive combat and leadership training so they could better train and command troops back in Libya. British authorities were surprised by the bad behavior and responded by ordering the Libyans restricted to the 80 hectare (200 acre) base where they lived and trained. In August this led to a mutiny among some of the Libyans after British officers in charge of the training put three of the trainees under guard after police picked them up for being off base without permission. Then twenty other trainees went and threatened the British soldier guarding the three Libyan trainees. The British guard let the three go free rather than risk violence. Senior officers were uncertain about how to handle this insubordination. The situation went downhill from there. The Libyans were not only undisciplined but also unreliable. They would agree to certain conditions (as in how they behaved towards civilians on and off the base, especially women) and then ignore those agreements. When confronted they would plead ignorance of British customs and refused to accept responsibility. The Libyans also constantly fought among themselves. Although depicting themselves as devout Moslems many of them would go to the village, get drunk and commit crimes. Some blamed the British for making alcohol too easy to obtain. The British tried to cope with all this by stationing hundreds of armed soldiers in nearby communities and on the base to prevent the Libyans from getting out of hand. This did not work either. At least twenty of the Libyans tried to apply for political asylum. This was denied after the rape incidents in late October and the decision was made to send all the Libyans home. Not all the trainees misbehaved and some of them were hastily given a graduation ceremony even though the training was a few weeks short of completion. This group of Libyans, selected from many pro-government factions, gave Britons an up-close exposure to the kind of thinking and behavior that is tearing Libya apart. Now there is another, much more violent reminder.

May 20, 2017: In the south (Sabha) Hiftar warplanes bombed several pro-GNA forces that had participated in what Hiftar supporters are calling the May 18th Brak al Shati Massacre.

May 18, 2017: In the south (Sabha) pro-GNA Third Force militias from Jufra and Sirte launched a surprise attack on a Hiftar garrison at Brak al Shati and killed over 140 people. Survivors reported that the attackers shouted slogans favored by Islamic terrorist groups and seemed to be killing civilians as well as armed personnel. The airbase facilities (which were used infrequently) were destroyed.

May 17, 2017: General Hiftar met with the head of the Egyptian military in Benghazi to discuss joint operations against Islamic terrorist groups in Libya (many of them allied with the GNA).

May 12, 2017: In Tripoli clashes between pro-Misrata Islamic terrorist groups and pro-GNA groups flared up again. While the Misrata militias are the main military support of the GNA, there are many other militias GNA depends on that are considered less religious. During the 2011 rebellion the Misrata militias were the most numerous and experienced in Libya and did most of the fighting and took most of the casualties. In 2016 they did the same against ISIL 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. There is a major problem in that the Misrata militias contained a lot of people who supported an “Islamic government”. For many Libyans that meant a religious dictatorship similar to the Kaddafi government that was overthrown in 2011. Kaddafi was a dictator but he always invoked Islam to justify whatever he did. There is a similar divide in the pro-GNA forces and that is the cause of the current violence in Tripoli.

May 8, 2017: In western Egypt, ground troops and warplanes have been searching for and destroying a large number of 4x4 vehicles from Libya that were trying to move weapons and ammunition into Egypt. Over the weekend 15 of these vehicles were destroyed, apparently by air strikes. The operation continues.

May 2, 2017: In Abu Dhabi senior officials from the GNA met with general Hiftar to work out a compromise. This meeting was the result of the UN changing its attitude towards Hiftar and spending several months meeting with Hiftar and HoR officials to try and work out the disputes with GNA. The meeting today considered a compromise that would recognize Hiftar as head of the GNA forces as well his own. At the same time Hiftar and his supporters would merge with the GNA and submit to its authority. Elections would be held in 2018 and groups (mainly from Misrata) that refused to accept this deal as rebels. So far this is only a proposal but some of the Misrata militias are reacting violently in Tripoli and elsewhere.

April 25, 2017: Algeria announced that on May 8th Algeria it will host another meeting of nations neighboring Libya. This is not just for the neighbors but also for the major factions inside Libya. Algeria is seen as the major reason why the main factions in Libya are still talking to each other. Algeria has not provided any material support to any faction and provides a convenient and safe place to hold the frequent meetings between faction officials and diplomats from the UN and neighboring countries. Algeria has provided similar assistance for Mali.




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