By Bernhard Schell
A new report paints a rather gloomy picture of post-Gaddafi Libya: fighting between tribes, ethnic groups and rival militia has accounted for instability at a local level; and flare-ups continue to occur in the country’s hubs of Benghazi and Tripoli. This has made travel more dangerous and the risk of assets being damaged or looted greater.
Reports gathered by the UK-based risk analyst Maplecroft, point to “a noted increase in violent incidents” in recent weeks in both Tripoli and Benghazi. Also, serious clashes have in the meantime broken out in recent months in the west of the country around the Nafusa mountain areas and in the south-eastern Kufra basin.
The proliferation of heavy and light weapons continues to undermine stability and the prevalence of unexploded ordinance (UXO) poses a risk to business operations when travelling in the country.
A report published in August 2012 by Harvard University’s International Human Rights Clinic, described the country as being “awash in weapons, ranging from bullets and mortars to torpedoes and surface-to-air missiles”. It also describes how much of the ordinance left over from the uprising is “often unsecured and unstable.”
Given that there remains insufficient capacity to tackle the problem and government coordination still remains weak, the risk to the security of Libyans is described as “significant”. Moreover, oil and gas companies in particular are said to be facing the potential security risk of UXO in and around their operations and may have to embark on costly de-mining programmes,
Moreover, many militias and individual Libyans are unwilling to part with their arms. As such, disputes can rapidly turn violent with the use of heavy weaponry. Such escalation poses a particularly high human security risk in more densely populated urban areas.
For instance, on August 4 a gun battle took place between market vendors in Tripoli who were vying for selling space. A car bomb was also widely reported to have exploded in the same area, although local reports claim that the car exploded after being hit by TNT (of a type frequently used in fishing) which was hurled by individuals involved in the dispute and was therefore not a separate incident. One Tunisian national is reported to have been severely wounded.
According to the report, concern persists that Libya’s still embryonic security forces are ill equipped to tackle the variety of challenges they now face, making the security outlook for the country uncertain in the short to mid-term. Libya’s police do not have the capacity to patrol the streets, and the incidence of petty crime is on the rise. Many also lack professionalism and awareness and the case in early July 2012 of 140 Libyan police trainees rioting in Jordan and setting fire to an aircraft hangar over their flight being delayed may be indicative of this. Efforts, such as the recent agreement with Turkey to provide training to security forces to address these shortcomings are notable steps forward though.
At the same time, security forces are likely to be challenged by militias who may be reluctant to cede to their authority. Although militias have in some cases been critical in keeping the peace and in areas such as Misrata helped restore order and helped challenge corruption in and around the ports, they nevertheless remain unaccountable.
There are multiple examples submitted by human rights organisations of militias contributing to instability and carrying out human rights abuses. Equally, although the Libyan army has played a key role in rooting out groups suspected of carrying out or planning bomb attacks and intervened in violent inter-communal disputes, much work needs to be done before it becomes a unified national army. In addition to the army there exists the Supreme Security Committees (SSC) and the Libyan Shield Forces (LSF), the former falling roughly under the auspices of the Ministry of Interior and the latter the Ministry of Defence.
Nevertheless, there are encouraging signs that tribal and community leaders are lending their support to the army and the fact that the July National Assembly elections – which saw some 13,000 soldiers and tens of thousands of security personnel successfully organised – were carried out peacefully is a positive sign.
However, oversight of the operation was entrusted to the SSC, an organisation which comprises between 90,000 and 100,000 former revolutionary fighters. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace describes the SSC (alongside the LSF) as having ‘rapidly become a force unto themselves’ which ‘overshadow the regular police and national army’. Research by the University of Oxford published in July 2012 argues that between 75-85% of the weapons stockpiles and ‘seasoned fighters’ in Libya are not controlled by the government. The research note points out that in Misrata for instance, ‘236 distinct armed groups are registered with the Misratan Union of Revolutionaries, accounting for almost 40,000 brigade members’.
“Whilst helpful in stabilising the country in the short term, the spread of parallel security institutions whose relations to the army and police remains ambiguous could develop into a more profound issue in the future,” says Maplecroft, adding: “This will likely lead to rivalry and a lack of cooperation that will hinder regular security forces’ ability to operate effectively.”
Indeed, a cause for concern is that the SSC has incorporated brigades such as the Salafi-linked Abu Salim Martyrs’ Brigade which is enforcing security in Derna. The latter is perceived as being a ‘thuggish’ group well known for carrying out vendetta attacks against security officials linked to the former regime. The LSF, which is mandated to quell tensions in the Zintan, Kufra and Sabha areas, is also accused of ‘inflaming tensions in these areas, either through heavy-handedness, such as its indiscriminate shelling of Kufra and its forced evictions of ethnic Tabu from that city in April’. In many cases, commanders’ also have family and affiliated tribal members directly involved the conflict and are therefore far from impartial peacekeepers.
Benghazi: Increasingly volatile
According to the report, recent attacks against Western targets in the city of Benghazi are nevertheless a clear cause for concern, although it is too early to tell whether this marks the beginning of a sustained campaign of attacks against ‘Western’ targets. Incidents include the U.S. diplomatic mission office being attacked with a home-made bomb on June 5 in response to the killing of al-Qaeda leader Abu Yahya al-Libi (a Libyan citizen) in Pakistan.
A convoy carrying the British ambassador to Libya was also hit by a rocket propelled grenade on June 11. Two attacks against the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) – with the latest occurring on the May 22 – have also taken place in Benghazi. However, attacks against the IRC have not been limited to Benghazi and have also taken place in Misrata. Following the latest rocket and grenade attack on August 5, 2012 – though none were harmed – the IRC declared that it is suspending operations in Benghazi and Misrata.
The recent string of kidnappings, small bomb explosions, grenade attacks and discovery of explosive devices in Benghazi underscore the dangers inherent to travelling to this part of the country at present, says the report.
For instance, on July 29 a large bomb was discovered and diffused near the Tibesti Hotel – a hotel popular with visiting foreign dignitaries and businessmen. On July 31, gunmen kidnapped a seven member delegation of individuals from the Iranian Red Crescent who were heading to the Tibesti. Although alarming, there have been a string of bomb discoveries recently and locals claim that they were not detonated on purpose. As such it is widely thought the intention is to provoke fear and undermine security forces, rather than to carry out mass casualty attacks.
Nevertheless, attacks witnessed in recent months against members of the security forces and judiciary clearly demonstrate the existence of several armed militant group willing and able to carry out attacks. Recent incidents include several assassinations (in addition to unsuccessful attempts) against leaders within the security forces, the storming of Kowaifiyah prison on July 31, 2012 which freed the suspected killer of former rebel leader Abdel-Fattah Younis and several incidents involving small arms fire and grenades near security buildings. The uptick in violence has led residents of Benghazi to take to the streets in protest, demanding that security improve and the militia demobilise.
In the meantime, high-profile assassinations remain a key source of instability and exacerbate security concerns. Historic rivalries and jockeying for power is claimed to be behind a string of assassinations, with recent cases including a candidate for the Constituent Assembly, Khaled Abu Salah, who was assassinated near the oasis town of Ubari in the south-west of the country on May 15, 2012.
Then on May 26 Head of the Military Council for the Western Region Mukhtar Fernana survived an attempt on his life. Both incidents come shortly following the killing of former military governor of Tripoli General Albarrani Shkal on May 2, 2012 in an attack claimed by the pro-Gaddafi ‘Green Resistance’ militia.
The multiplicity of armed groups with various and competing agendas in Benghazi makes determining the motives behind the attacks difficult. However, inter-militia rivalries and the presence of dissident pro-Gaddafi supporters seeking revenge against defectors are plausible causes. Islamist groups are known to have a ‘hit list’ of 106 individuals who were linked to Gaddafi’s regime and further such attacks are therefore likely.
A clear precedent was set with the killing of former Gaddafi loyalist turned rebel military commander Abdel-Fattah Younis in July 2011. On June 22, 2012, the judge investigating the death of Younis was himself assassinated in Benghazi. Claims by the Libyan Observatory for Human Rights that the NTC itself was behind the killing would prove highly damaging if proved to be true. More recently, on July 28, 2012, former military intelligence officer Col. Suleiman Buzraidah was killed en route to a mosque in Benghazi, with commander of the Libyan ground forces General Khalifa Hafter narrowly surviving an attack on his life only a day later. This was most likely part of a string of ‘revenge’ attacks led by Islamist militias, with fingers pointing towards the Abu Salim Martyrs’ Brigade.
Long-standing disputes over land, family feuds and latent inter Arab/ Berber communal tensions have now become meshed with the corrosive issue of which side various tribes and towns took during the revolution, thereby locking communities into cycles of violence. Indeed, the rivalry between the Zintani and Mashashia long precede the uprising and centres on issues such as land disputes and the perception that the Mashashia benefitted from Gaddafi’s patronage and that they supported the former dictator during the revolution. Whilst the situation had, for a while, been brought under control on August 5, 2012, armed clashes left a further seven people dead following a heated argument in a market that had escalated out of control. As such, a climate of insecurity prevails in some locations and outbreaks of violence are likely to occur in an unpredictable and spontaneous fashion.
Tension in the south
The report says: “The violence in the south of the country in the Fezzan region and the Kufra basin has been underpinned by rivalry over smuggling routes. Such rivalries are unlikely to abate soon. The prevalence of heavy weaponry has nevertheless given such ‘turf wars’ a new intensity. In a similar manner to the tensions between Zintan and the Mashashia, the hostility between the sub-Saharan African Tebou tribe and the Arab Zaway tribe in and around Kufra precedes the Libyan revolution. The Tebou – widely considered to be the ‘original’ inhabitants of Libya supported the anti-Gaddafi movement given their history of oppression under Gaddafi.”
However, the report adds, efforts by the NTC to re-assert security and control in the south have been largely unsuccessful and arguably backfired somewhat. For instance, in a bid to resolve the security issue in the south, as well as reward the Tebou for their support in the revolution, the NTC appointed a Tebou leader to oversee border security with Chad and Sudan and implicitly the contraband networks. This has angered the Zaway tribe, and re-ignited latent rivalry.
Other hotspots in the south ‘Fezzan’ region include the southern capital of Sabha and the ancient trading post of Ghadames. Foreigners travelling in this area could be targeted for kidnap to ransom given widespread poverty in the region. This risk is particularly elevated given the prevailing sense of lawlessness reported in the area and the proximity to Mali where a Tuareg rebellion has raised fear that a similar push for secession could occur.