Libya: The Civil War Within The Civil War


June 17, 2015: Since the beginning of the year the military and political situation has gotten worse. In January there were two warring coalitions and they were willing to negotiate. One coalition was the Tripoli government. This is the old national assembly the 2014 elections was to replace but that assembly, based in Tripoli, refused to step down. The Tripoli group also represents tribes and cities in the west that feel they deserve to run the country as they long did under Kaddafi. The old assembly was also dominated by Islamic conservative and Islamic terror groups that had fallen from favor since 2011 but refused to admit that and give up any power. Another problem with the Tripoli government is that it is dependent on nearly 40,000 armed men belonging to over 200 militias. So far this year the Tripoli forces have split into three factions. About 20 percent now belong to ISIL. Another 30 percent have become semi-autonomous Sumood Front. This is largely composed of Islamic radical militias who are not as extreme as ISIL. About half the militias still obey the Tripoli leaders while the Sumood Front has to be persuaded to cooperate. Mainly the Sumood Front says it will defend its own territory against all comers. Meanwhile ISIL is fighting and defeating Tripoli militias in Derna and Sirte and threatening other Tripoli controlled areas.

The other coalition is the Tobruk government which has international recognition mainly because it won the 2014 national elections and is generally hostile to Islamic terrorist groups. The Tobruk government is backed by many tribal organizations (and their militias) and most of the more secular Libyans (who tend to live in cities or along the coast).

Thus the current situation has the Tripoli government coalition falling apart and losing territory to ISIL, dissident factions and the better organized and led Tobruk forces. A growing problem for the Tripoli government is that many of their factions are Islamic terror groups that are more frequently switching to ISIL, which is at war with all non-ISIL Islamic terror groups (who are not considered Islamic enough). Al Qaeda (AQIM, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb or AQIM) represents most of the non-ISIL Islamic terror groups and is trying to organize a major effort to crush ISIL in Libya. This is fine with the less (or non) religious factions (from both the Tripoli and Tobruk coalitions) who tend to step back and prepare to take on whoever wins this civil war within a civil war.

The lack of UN recognition hurts the Tripoli government quite a bit. For example the fact that the Central Bank and National Oil Company are still based in Tripoli has not helped the Tripoli government as much as expected. These two institutions insist on being neutral and exporting oil and collecting payment to pay salaries for government workers and buy food and other essentials for all Libyans. This arrangement is encouraged (and occasionally enforced) by the UN and the major international banks. So far the UN and foreign banks are satisfied with this arrangement. But the corruption in Libya is epic and constant monitoring is required. Without unity and the ability to control the oil and major ports millions will be in danger of starvation. The UN uses this very real and rapidly approaching threat to motivate various factions to unite. The very real prospect of mass starvation is not having the desired effect.

A month ago the UN believed that the growing ISIL and starvation threat would make it possible to work out a peace deal (and merger agreement) between the Tripoli and Tobruk government by the end of June. That turned out to be overly optimistic. Then again any peace efforts in Libya can be described as too optimistic. Yet the armed chaos has created a dangerous situation that is getting worse as all the violence interferes with oil exports and the ability to purchase food and other necessities abroad, import the goods and then distribute them. A final peace deal between the Tripoli and Tobruk is essential. Yet as the factionalism grows and the violence escalates it becomes more difficult to feed the people everyone says they are fighting for. The UN has tried to use the rapidly approaching economic crises to encourage the Tripoli and Tobruk coalitions to unite. The deadline for the latest effort (being held in Germany) was today and there was no agreement. The Tobruk government objects to UN proposals that the unelected Tripoli parliament be given some power. But the Tripoli government is literally falling apart and this makes UN moderated peace talks with Tobruk a much lower priority for Tripoli officials than trying to maintain the coalition. Efforts to make individual deals with some of the 200 or so Tripoli militias has had limited success. The Tobruk government noted that as their military forces move closer to the territory of a Tripoli militia the leaders of that militia are more willing to make a deal. There is even more willingness to make a deal if ISIL is active in the area. This approach is tedious and often unpredictable and disappointing. Many of the militia leaders are unrealistic and not concerned with the coming economic collapse because they simply don’t believe it could happen.

For many militias joining ISIL is an attractive option because ISIL is a widely known brand and pledging allegiance does not oblige the affiliates to become subservient to some ISIL leader in Iraq or Syria but simply to cooperate with fellow ISIL groups. Many of the new ISIL members in Libya wear their Islamic radical beliefs lightly and regard Islamic terrorism as a convenient cover for all sorts of anti-social behavior. Thus both the Tripoli and Tobruk government find themselves battling these ISIL groups. The anti-ISIL actions include disrupting people smuggling operations by attacking the gangs that do most of the work and arresting the illegal migrants who pay for it. Meanwhile Tripoli combat forces are concentrating on ISIL groups between Sirte and the Tunisian border while the Tobruk government concentrates on the remaining Islamic terrorists in Benghazi and other eastern ports. While the two governments do not coordinate their anti-ISIL operations nor do the many ISIL affiliated groups cooperate much either. For many Islamic terrorists pledging loyalty to ISIL is just another way to justify even more savage and anti-social behavior.

During the first week of June AQIM officially declared war on ISIL. AQIM then massed gunmen near the cities of Sirte and Derna and is fighting ISIL forces for control of the area. Both sides are using gunmen and suicide bombers against each other. AQIM has allied itself with local militias who have tasted harsh ISIL rule and want ISIL gone as quickly as possible. For example ISIL replied to anti-ISIL demonstrators by firing on the unarmed people and killing at least seven. AQIM has also called back members who were fighting in Syria. There may only be a hundred or so of these men but they have combat experience, often against ISIL.

The coastal city of Sirte (500 kilometers east of Tripoli and 560 kilometers west of Benghazi) is now largely controlled by Islamic terrorist groups affiliated with ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). Sirte had a population of 100,000 in 2011 and was former dictator Kaddafi's birthplace. Before 2011 it was full of his well-cared for Kaddafi supporters. Sirte was heavily damaged, and looted, during the 2011 rebellion. Most of the population fled the fighting and when they returned they found a much less prosperous lifestyle. This caused some of the locals to arm themselves and misbehave. The continued anarchy in Sirte made it possible for many Islamic terrorist groups to establish themselves there. Until 2014 there was nothing to unify these groups but then ISIL came along and more and more Sirte based Islamic terrorist militias have pledged allegiance to ISIL. Further east Derna (200 kilometers east of Benghazi) came under the control of ISIL affiliate Islamic terrorists in late 2014. Derna is a little larger than Sirte and has long been a commercial center. ISIL also controls Sabratha, which is 66 kilometers west of Tripoli and about the same size as Sirte. Some Islamic terrorist groups still hang on to parts of Benghazi despite a year of fighting with pro-Tobruk government forces.

Another factor contributing to the growth of ISIL is the people smuggling, which has grown enormously, from practically nothing in 2011 to over thousand paying illegal migrants a day. This really began in 2013 when criminal gangs (often tribe or militia based) connected with Italian gangsters and organized the illegal movement of African and Middle Eastern illegal refugees to Europe via Libya. Kaddafi never tolerated this sort of thing, but Libya is, next to Morocco, the closest to Europe. By the end of 2013 some 500 people a day were illegally crossing the southern border of Libya in an effort to make it to Europe. That number appears to have nearly tripled since then. Since 2000 over 250,000 illegal migrants have reached Europe, mainly through Italy. Most of these illegals have arrived since 2013 and over 80 percent moved via Libya. Early in the year there was a spike in deaths at sea has always been part of the risk the illegals endure and the rate of deaths rose early in 2015 from about one percent of the migrants to nearly eight percent. That comes to over 2,000 dead so far this year. For the smugglers this is bad for business but it won’t stop the flow of illegals, just reduce it a bit. The EU (European Union) has helped out here by organizing a naval rescue force that has prevented most of the drownings and delivered the illegal migrants safely to Italy. During one 48 hour period in early June this task force rescued over 6,000 people. But Italy is fed up with all the illegal migrants and the cost and other problems they bring with them. Many officials in northern Italy are trying to prevent any of these illegals from entering their territory. Most of the illegals land in Sicily and other parts of the far south and are then moved to other parts of Italy.

For ISIL, taking control of people smuggling was a natural as it brought in cash and so much money was being made (over a thousand dollars per passenger) that there was enough profit for the gangsters (in Libya and Italy and elsewhere) as well as ISIL. The cash (several hundred thousand dollars a day for ISIL) pays smugglers to bring in food and equipment, as well as weapons and explosives that cannot be obtained (stolen or bought) locally. ISIL also finds that it can send ISIL men to Europe in the refugee boats and European counter-terrorism agencies are beginning to detect this. ISIL also steals oil in Libya as well as kidnapping locals and foreigners for ransom. In part because ISIL profits most from the people smuggling the Tripoli and Tobruk both now interfere with the smuggling operations more frequently. This forces some of the smuggler operations to move to ISIL controlled ports. There aren’t too many of those, but enough to keep the smuggling going.

Despite the profits to be made from smuggling ISIL will still occasionally seize non-Moslem migrants and try forcing them to convert. Non-Moslem foreign workers still in Libya are more frequently the target of harassment (including murder) by ISIL.

Al Qaeda announced that their second-in-command in Libya, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, was not killed by a recent American air strike. Mokhtar Belmokhtar (the planner of the January 2013 natural gas facility attack in southern Algeria that got 37 workers killed) has survived several attempts to kill him and has a reputation for being elusive. He survived such attacks in 2013 and 2014. Belmokhtar is elusive within AQIM as well. He split from the organization in 2012 and founded another Islamic terrorist group (Al Mourabitoun). After about two years of this he rejoined AQIM but did not disband Al Mourabitoun. For over two years Al Mourabitoun has been operating from a base in southern Libya and found operating in northern Mali and Niger. The U.S. is offering a $5 million reward for information that would lead to the death or capture of Belmokhtar. AQIM admits the death of seven Islamic terrorists during the American attack and named them. Tobruk government forces are cooperating with Americans to confirm if Belmokhtar is alive or dead and that may take weeks.

June 15, 2015: ISIL claims to have full control of Sirte, but that is being disputed by AQIM. The pro-Tripoli militia that ISIL forced out of Sirte after weeks of fighting is seeking help from other Tripoli militias to drive ISIL out of the city.

June 13, 2015: U.S. warplanes bombed a site near Benghazi where a meeting of Islamic terrorist leaders was taking place. The U.S. believed much wanted Islamic terrorist leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar was there and that he was killed.

June 12, 2015: In Tripoli gunmen stormed into the Tunisian consulate and seized ten Tunisian consular staff. Three of them were freed three days later and negotiations continue to release the other seven. The kidnappers apparently belong to a local militia that is trying to get one of their leaders out of jail. Kidnappings like this are still common, which is one reason why most diplomats have left Tripoli.

June 11, 2015: ISIL reported that it had blown up two military jets it found at an airbase outside Sirte the Islamic terrorists captured in late May.

June 8, 2015: Another round of UN sponsored peace talks between the Tripoli and Tobruk governments began in Morocco. This one also failed.





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