Libya: Tripoli Trembles


May 31, 2019: In Tripoli the LNA (Libyan National Army) forces are methodically eliminating militia fortifications in the southern suburbs of the city. This has been unnerving for the many Islamic militias that have controlled Tripoli since 2011. They are in a panic because of the LNA advance and use of tactics the militias had never encountered before. Adding to the panic has been another LNA attack from the east, which the militias were not really prepared for. They believed the bulk of the LNA forces available for the Tripoli operation were stalled south of the city. The LNA took their time and quietly assembled a mobile force for a move against the eastern approaches to Tripoli. The LNA kept an eye on militia deployments and apparently has a reliable network of informants inside the city. The LNA continued to offer amnesty to militiamen who surrendered with their weapons. More and more of the militiamen are quietly doing this. LNA officials are still taking to the UN about a ceasefire but point out that the militias have been unreliable in the past, especially the Islamic and Islamic terrorist ones. That is why the LNA demands verifiable disarmament of the militias before they agree to a ceasefire

The Tripoli fighting has been going on since April 4th. There have been over 2,500 dead and wounded so far, and more than 80,000 civilians have fled their homes to avoid the fighting. The LNA can only bring up a limited number of reinforcements without risking problems elsewhere in Libya. Currently, most of Libya and all the oil production and export facilities are safe because of LNA operations since 2014. That is the main reason the LNA has not gone after Tripoli until now.

The LNA showed UN intelligence about the activities of Islamic militias in Tripoli and how some had welcomed veteran Islamic terrorists from Syria and other Middle Eastern nations. That’s another reason why LNA will agree to a ceasefire only if the militias disarm first, something even the GNA (Government of National Accord) has been trying to achieve since 2015.

LNA commander Khalifa Hiftar has been traveling abroad to discuss his plans and needs with foreign supporters in Europe, the Middle East and Russia. Some Russian diplomats do not believe the LNA can take Tripoli and then bring long-term peace to the entire country. This despite the fact that the LNA has been systematically pacifying the entire country since 2014. Hiftar did it by being professional about it. He trained his troops and saw that they were well taken care of. His tactics emphasized keeping LNA casualties low. This was not spectacular but it worked. More and more militias and individual Libyans joined the LNA after agreeing to operate by LNA rules. Meanwhile, the large militias that dominate politics in the two largest cities (Tripoli and nearby Misrata) were chaotic, unreliable and often violent towards each other and civilians in general. Western special operations troops sent in to work with (and observe) the LNA reported all this back to their governments. Meanwhile, the UN-backed GNA government was increasingly seen as corrupt and ineffective. Some GNA leaders noticed that as well and were willing to negotiate a merger with the LNA and its eastern sponsor the HoR. Senior UN officials opposed that sort of thing and demanded that the international government unite to destroy the LNA.

The same rivalry between Turkey and most Arab states in Syria is now becoming more visible in Libya. Turks in Libya is nothing new but now Turkey is increasing the shipments of military aid and apparently sending some advisors as well. The UN and some Western nations want the two rival Libyan government to merge but the Turks prefer the more terrorist-friendly GNA even though GNA forces are much less militarily effective than the LNA. Turkey has been pushing its agenda in Libya since 2012, with little effect.

Back in early 2015, Turkey warned all Turkish citizens to get out of Libya because of growing violence and anti-Turk sentiment. Turkey also warned all Turkish airlines to stay out of Libyan air space. This came after the eastern HoR government warned that it would shoot down any Turkish airliners or cargo aircraft entering Libya. This is all the result of the pro-Islamic radical Tripoli government having support from Turkey, Sudan and Qatar. Turkey said it supports the Islamic forces in Libya but that coalition includes many Islamic terror groups that the Turks insist they do not back. At the time the HoR government had most of the world recognizing it, along with most of the Islamic world. Turkey was under growing international pressure to support the HoR government and refused to do so. Instead, Turkey accused its foreign critics of conspiring against Turkey. This paranoia continues and since 2015 more evidence has surfaced of Turkish willingness to cooperate with some Islamic terror groups. This apparently includes the ones now defending Misrata for the UN backed GNA. There are some serious problems with that. Sudan is no longer backing the GNA because a recent uprising replaced the pro-GNA government. Iran is preoccupied with its own economic and political problems. So the only militarily significant supporter the GNA has is Turkey and the Turks are still unpopular with most Libyans.

Heavily influenced by Islamic groups, the GNA militias are hostile to ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) but not to less extreme Islamic terror groups like al Qaeda and the Moslem Brotherhood. The problem with the Tripoli militias is that they refuse to submit to any national government, including the one the LNA represents. Self-preservation keeps them going and that has forced the major militias to cooperate to prevent Tripoli from being taken by the LNA, which controls the rest of Libya and has always been hostile to Islamic militias in general and Islamic terrorists in particular. The LNA was founded in 2014 to do two things; bring peace to Libya and eliminate Islamic terror groups from Libya.

The LNA and its commander Khalifa Hiftar are seeking to take the capital and end eight years of factional fighting that has left Libya broke and chaotic. While Hiftar is eager to take the capital and finally unite all of Libya and end the war, he has always been a methodical commander and avoided tactics that caused high casualties to his forces. The LNA forces are better trained and led but the Tripoli militias are putting up some opposition. Despite the LNA advantages, the militias are aware that they are out of business once the LNA controls the city. Many of those militias are involved in people smuggling and various other illegal activities. It was that realization that led to more and more European nations to switch their support from the UN created GNA to the LNA.

Hiftar has the support of most Libyans along with Russia, most Arab states, especially Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE and now the United States as well. The UN opposes Hiftar, as does ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), the Moslem Brotherhood and pro-Moslem Brotherhood nations like Turkey, Qatar and Iran. The main argument against Hiftar is that he could turn into another dictator like Kaddafi, who was overthrown in 2011. Hiftar had been an early supporter of Kaddafi and was a colonel in the Libyan army when, in the late 1980s, he and Kaddafi became enemies and Hiftar was declared a traitor. Hiftar got support from the CIA to form an opposition force (the first LNA) but no African nations were willing to host it for long and by 1990 Hiftar was living in the U.S. and seeking citizenship. Hiftar became a U.S. citizen and spent 20 years living in the West before returning to Libya after Kaddafi was overthrown in 2011. By 2014 he realized that Islamic terror groups and independent militias were preventing the formation of a new government. His solution was to form the LNA in the east (Benghazi) and take on all the warring factions, especially the Islamic terror groups. Five years later the LNA, the only remaining organized military force in Libya, is closing in on the last concentrations of militias in Tripoli and Misrata.

Hiftar is unlikely to become another Kaddafi or ruler of Libya. Hiftar is 75 and in declining health. He is a Libyan patriot who wants to leave a legacy of a unified, peaceful and prosperous Libya. All the Middle Eastern dictators took over when they were much younger than Hiftar and did not spend two decades living in the West and witnessing what peace and prosperity looks like. More UN members are realizing that, as were a growing number of senior GNA officials. That popular support has played a major role in the LNA effort pacify the entire country. Hiftar was trusted to do what he said he would do; shut down the outlaw and Islamic terrorist groups and restore peace.

There have been two rival governments in Libya since 2015. The GNA has since late 2018 become more amenable to working with Hiftar. But the many militias the GNA presides over wanted nothing to do with losing their power to a unified government. Currently, Hiftar forces control nearly all of the country, including most of the coastal areas (except Misrata, Tripoli and the coastline west of the city to the Tunisian border). The LNA has occupied and pacified most of the areas where oil production, refining and export facilities are. Before moving on Tripoli from the south the LNA had pacified the Fezzan region in southwest Libya. At that point, it was noticed that many prominent militia leaders in Tripoli are leaving the country with their families. The LNA was expected to move into Tripoli at the request of the GNA government but when the GNA leaders proved unable to do that the LNA acted anyway. The UN, which played a major role in creating the GNA (and deciding that LNA was a threat to Libya despite most Libyans believing otherwise) also became less hostile to the LNA.

The 2015 deal the UN brokered, backed and pushed through to create the GNA was a mistake and the UN later admitted they ignored the complexity of local politics in Libya and the ability of many local groups to block a nation-wide deal. The UN also played down the power many Islamic militias in Tripoli (and Misrata) retained while pretending to support or tolerate the GNA. Meanwhile, these militias refused to halt their private feuds and wars.

Armed and Dangerous in Libya

There are several hundred thousand armed men in Libya. These men belong to the LNA, militias or Islamic terror groups. Despite all those armed men, Libya remains a fairly low-level conflict because most of the armed men are just about defending themselves and their neighborhood. While there are many organized factions the largest one is the LNA, which comprises about a third of the organized armed personnel in the country. That only comes to about 25,000 trained men who can be moved around the country. More than half of these armed men are militias that have accepted training, weapons and the leadership of the LNA. The most reliable LNA units are those organized along military lines (brigades, battalions and so on). The LNA is a disciplined force that takes care of its personnel and does that risk their lives needlessly.

Most of the non-LNA armed men are operating as local defense units and the large ones (like many in Tripoli) support themselves via extortion or voluntary support from a clan or tribal organization. Casualties come from feuds between militias (usually over territory and/or access to resources) and fighting against Islamic terrorists or other militias that are interfering with national resources (mainly oil). During 2018 the area with the most casualties (30 percent) was the coastal city of Derna where local militias inside the city (and more mercenary or Islamic terrorist groups south of the city) had been fighting each other and the LNA for over a year. About half the casualties in the last year were from half a dozen hot spots in the desert south where groups fought (and ultimately lost to the LNA) for control of oil or border control (smuggling routes). One reason for the success of the LNA is that it has become widely known that when the LNA moves in there is a lot less violence and general chaos. The LNA is the only armed group in the country that can do this on a large scale. All this violence is largely the result of there being no national government since the 2011 revolution.

May 30, 2019: The UN is not optimistic. In early May the UN had called for a ceasefire in Tripoli to coincide with the holy month of Ramadan that began on May 5th. That did not happen. Hiftar responded that he had not halted operations in the past because of Ramadan and won’t now. Many of the LNA opponents have been Islamic terror groups, including ISIL, and they prefer to intensify their violence during Ramadan. After that UN officials admitted that despite all their efforts they were having little success in solving the violence and lack of unity in Libya. UN officials observed that this is often the case, in part because not all UN members will get behind UN peacekeeping efforts.

May 29, 2019: The LNA turned over to Egypt Islamic terrorist Hesham Ashmwai. Egypt has wanted custody of Ashmwai since he was captured by the LNA seven months ago. Back in October 2018, the LNA did quietly turn over to Egypt the widow of Egyptian Islamic terrorist Omar Rifai Sorour. The widow and her daughters are Egyptian. This was not considered unusual because the LNA has been supported by Egypt for years. The LNA held on to their other Egyptian prisoner, Hesham Ashmwai, who had been captured at the same time as the Sorour family. The Sorour widow confirmed that her husband had died of wounds suffered from an airstrike in Derna and revealed his burial site. Raids like this were, in 2018, capturing a lot of key Egyptian and Libyan Islamic terrorists or their families and that resulted in a lot of useful information on past, current and future Islamic terrorist operations in North Africa. This operation was considered a major event because Ashmwai, a former Egyptian special operations officer, had been a notably effective Islamic terrorist leader in Libya and long sought. Ashmwai continued to organize attacks in Egypt after he moved to Libya in 2014 (to recover from wounds). Ashmwai was the most wanted Islamic terrorist in Egypt. Ashmwai agreed to provide LNA interrogators with information on what he knew of current and past Islamic terrorists operations he was involved with. Egypt wanted Ashmwai returned immediately for interrogation and prosecution. The LNA may have agreed to keep him away from Egypt in return for information. Western and Russian intel agencies wanted a chance to interrogate Ashmwai and Egyptian intel officers were also allowed to participate. Egypt has long cooperated with Western (including American), Russia and even Israeli intelligence when it comes to counterterrorism operations. Press releases are rarely issued to explain these multinational intel cooperation. The return of Ashmwai was different because his return to Egyptian custody had become a major issue inside Egypt.

May 28, 2019: In Tripoli, LNA forces penetrated the GMA southern defensive line for the first time. This demoralized defenders on either side of the breach and forced the militias to rush what few reserve units they had to prevent LNA forces from advancing towards the city center.

May 27, 2019: In Tripoli, LNA forces continued attacking the GNA fortified positions south of the city while a new LNA force was sent to enter the city from the less defended eastern side. The eastern force made quick progress and was soon within a few kilometers of the city center.

May 24, 2019: Inside Tripoli, pro-LNA flyers appeared in many parts of the city. These called for resistance to the GNA and a general uprising throughout the city on June 1st.

May 23, 2019: The LNA announced a naval blockade of major ports in western Libya. This is to discourage Turkey, or anyone else, from delivering military aid to the GNA forces in Tripoli or Misrata.

May 18, 2019: A shipment of 40 Turkish Kipri MRAPs (armored trucks) arrived in Tripoli from Turkey. These were sent to the GNA and promptly distributed to Islamic militias fighting to maintain GNA control of the capital. Several militia websites subsequently showed off these new vehicles. The LNA released a video found on a GNA prisoner that showed a man speaking Turkish to a militia member about how to operate the vehicle. In addition to the armored trucks, the shipment contained a lot of other military equipment.

In the southwest (760 kilometers from Tripoli), Islamic terrorists attacked the entrance to the Zill oil field. Two guards and a soldier were killed as the attack was defeated. But the attackers took four captives with them. ISIL took responsibility for this attack and oil operations at Zill were not disrupted.

May 16, 2019: In western Libya, UAE and LNA negotiators obtained the freedom of four foreign (three Filipino and one South Koreas) engineers who had been kidnapped ten months ago by a militia.

May 9, 2019: The GNA canceled all contracts with foreign oil companies to operate Libyan oil and gas facilities. This was a desperate move because all those oil facilities are now under the protection of the LNA. The foreign oil companies refuse to obey GNA orders to oppose the LNA and the GNA cancellation of their contracts was seen as a desperate gamble by the GNA. The LNA has proved capable of protecting the oil facilities and the GNA has not. France is the major target for this threat as a French firm, Total, is the foreign company with the largest presence in the Libyan oil industry. France has been supporting the LNA lately and seems unwilling to change that support.




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