The so-called Islamic State (IS) group has built a base in Libya, from which to exploit tribal conflicts and expand across Africa, though experts have said that the jihadists remain vulnerable even if the West’s attention is elsewhere.
Since the overthrow and death of dictator Moamer Kadhafi, Libya has collapsed into a chaotic country, which has seen militias competing against one another for control. The country’s current insecurity has made it an ideal place for IS to expand into. While Libya not only offers an alternative base for the group, if it is forced out of its current territory in Syria and Iraq, many experts fear that it could also take advantage of the ongoing tribal conflicts and could expand southwards into the Sahel desert region of central Africa, particularly Chad, Niger and Sudan. According to one expert, “IS is provoking tensions and making alliances,” particularly between the competing Tuareg and Toubou tribes.
While for now, IS has only a limited foothold in Libya, it is enough to project violence into neighbouring states, particularly Tunisia, where the group has already claimed three deadly attacks this year. Furthermore, Libya lies just 800 kilometres (500 miles) across the Mediterranean from Italy, and is a route for thousands of refugees, which is another weakness that IS militants could exploit.
Within Libya, IS jihadists have gradually built up control of several towns that were of minimal interest to other militias already operating in the country. Most notably is Kadhafi’s coastal home town of Sirte, which is located east of Tripoli. According to Geoff Porter, head of the US-based North Africa Risk Consultancy, “Libya without a state is not really a functioning place. IS in Libya would be vulnerable to the same problems as the Kadhafi regime – including the need to import 70 percent of its food – and there’s a much smaller population from which to extort revenue and taxes,” adding, “were they to be eradicated in Syria and Iraq, they could try to relocate the bulk of their activities to Libya, but they would be a potentially more manageable threat.” The country’s long coastline and desert plains effectively leaves IS vulnerable to outside attack. However as in Syria and Iraq, the major problem for the West will be finding partners on the ground to fight IS militants. Libya currently has two governments who are vying for power: a militia alliance, which includes Islamists, that overran Tripoli in August 2014; and the internationally recognized administration that fled to eastern Libya. While Western efforts have focused on fostering a reconciliation between the tow sides, hoping that they will then turn their firepower on IS and other jihadist groups that operate in the country, months of UN-brokered talks have made minimal regress. For now, IS has been held in check by the armed opponents that operate in the country. IS was driven out of the city of Dernam in June by an al-Qaeda affiliate. It is also jostling for control in other areas.
Despite the threat that IS could take over Libya, there is little chance that the West will intervene in Libya any time soon as its attention is almost entirely focused on Syria. However there have been some international leaders who have warned of the growing threat. Amongst the few leaders to focus on Libya is Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who warned last week that it could be the “next emergency.” The Untied States has also been quietly targeting IS in the country. It has claimed to have killed its Libyan leader, Abu Nabil, with a drone strike that targeted a compound in Derna on 13 November.
Tunisia’s foreign minister confirmed Friday that ten Tunisian diplomats, seized by Libyan gunmen linked to the Tripoli government, have been released and have flown home. The foreign minister has denied that the diplomats had been traded for a militia leader and announced that Tunisia is closing its consulate in Tripoli because of the Libyan authorities’ inability to ensure diplomats’ security.
On 12 June, the Libyan Dawn militia stormed the Tunisian consulate in Tripoli and seized the diplomats. Mokhtar Chaouachi, a spokesman for the Tunisian Foreign Ministry, disclosed at the time that it remained unclear whether the attackers were holding the hostages on site or had taken them elsewhere, adding that he did not know whether the attackers had opened fire or had made any demands in exchange for the captives. On Saturday, the interior minister for Libya’s self-declared government indicated that ten Tunisan counsellor staff kidnapped in the country’s capital city are in good condition and that contact has been made with their captors. According to Interior Minister Mohamed Shaiteer, “I am in contact with the group who abducted the Tunisian staff and hopefully the staff will be freed soon.”
Early last week, a Libyan official and Tunisian source reported that three of the ten Tunisian consular staff had been freed, adding that negotiations over the remaining hostages were continuing. Speaking to reporters, Faraj Swahili, a Libyan diplomat police official, disclosed “three diplomats have been freed…after they were kidnapped in the capital Tripoli,” adding “the other seven diplomats will be released when the Libyan detainee in Tunis, Walid Kalib, is released by Tunisian authorities.” Last month, Tunisian authorities arrested Kalib, who is a member of Libya Dawn. A Tunisian court has refused to release Kalib, who faces kidnapping charges in Tunisia.
Pentagon officials have indicated that they believe they hit their target – an al-Qaeda-linked commander who led a deadly attack on Algerian gas facility in 2013. However uncertainty surrounds the US airstrike on eastern Libya, and whether Mokhtar Belmokhtar was actually amongst the militants said to have been killed in the bombing, as al-Qaeda and other militants deny that Mokhtar Belmoktar was killed in the US airstrike.
Libyan officials have reported that Sunday’s airstrikes hit a gathering of militants on a farm outside Ajdabiya, a coastal city located about 850 kilometres (530 miles) east of the capital, Tripoli. A US official has indicated that in the airstrikes, two F-15 fighter jets launched multiple 500-pound bombs, with authorities confirming that there were no US personnel on the ground for the assault. However since these reports emerged, there have been conflicting reports on how many were killed, and whether Belmokhtar was amongst them.
An initial assessment indicates that the bombing that targeted Belmokhtar was successful, with Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, disclosing that “post-strike assessments” were still underway on Monday in order to determine whether the Algerian militant was in fact killed. Maj. Mohammed Hegazi, a military spokesman for Libya’s internationally recognized government based in the eastern region of the country, also disclosed Monday that further tests were needed in order to identify the dead, which numbered at least seventeen. He added that amongst those killed were three foreigners – a Tunisian and two unidentified militants. While Hegazi criticized his own government for rushing to confirm late Sunday that Belmokhtar was amongst the dead, he disclosed that the raid was based on solid intelligence, which indicated that militants forced out of the eastern city of Benghazi by fighting there had taken refuge in Ajdabiya. While both the Libyan and US government are leaning towards Belmokhtar having been killed in the strike, conflicting reports from al-Qaeda and Islamists operating in the region have emerged in recent days.
A Libyan Islamist with ties to militants indicated Monday that the airstrikes missed Belmokhtar but that they had killed four members of a Libyan extremist group that is linked to al-Qaeda, Ansar Shariah, in Ajdabiya. The group has been tied to the 11 September 2012 attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi that killed US Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. Another militant has also reported that Belmokhtar was not at the site of the airstrike. However a news website, which has previously carried statements from Belmokhtar, indicated that he was in Ajdabiya, meeting with affiliates. The Mauritanian website quoted informed sources in Libya stating that six people were killed in the raid and that a Tunisian and Yemeni were wounded.
On Tuesday, Ansar al-Shariah denied that Belmokhtar was killed in the US airstrike. In a statement, the group named seven people it said were killed in the US strike in eastern Libya, however Belmokhtar was not among them, with the statement indicating “no other person was killed.” A second statement released by an umbrella group for militias called the Shura Council of Ajdabiya and its Surroundings also did not list Belmokhtar among the dead.
If officials do confirm Belmokhtar’s death, this would be a major success for US counterterrorism efforts as he is one of the most-wanted militants in the region, with a US $5 million reward for information leading to his capture. However this is not the first time that authorities have claimed to have killed him. He was previously though to have been killed in Mali, however security sources disclosed last year that he had moved to Libya.
Belmokhtar, who is believed to be 43 years old, fought in Afghanistan, where reports emerged that he lost his eye in combat. He was one of a number of fighters who have been battling Algeria’s government since the 1990’s. He later joined al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), before forming his own group, which led the January 2013 attack on Algeria’s Ain Amenas gas complex that killed at least 35 hostages, including three Americans. Reports later emerged that he was in Libya, with US officials believing he was based in the western and southern parts of the country. The US has filed terrorism charges against Belmokhtar in connection to the attack in Algeria, including conspiring to support al-Qaeda, use of a weapon of mass destruction and conspiring to take hostages. Officials maintain that he remains a threat to US and Western interests.
AQAP Confirms Death of Leader
Meanwhile in Yemen, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has confirmed that Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the leader of the offshoot militant group, has been killed in a US drone strike in Yemen, in what is the heaviest blow to the jihadist network since the death of Osama Bin Laden in 2011.
His death was announced by AQAP in an online video, with prominent al-Qaeda militant Khaled Omar Batarfi, a senior member of the group, stating Wuhayshi “was killed in a US drone attack that targeted him along with two other mujahedeen,’ who were also killed. The video statement was dated 15 June. The militant group, which has been behind several plots against Western targets including the deadly attack on French magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris earlier this year, indicated that it has named its military chief Qassem al-Rimi as its new leader.
Confirmation of Wuhayshi’s death comes after US officials had earlier reported that they are reviewing intelligence to confirm that he was killed in a CIA drone strike that was carried out on 9 June. Yemeni officials have reported that Wuhayshi was believed to have been killed last week in a raid in the al-Qaeda-held Mukalla, in the southeastern Yemeni province of Hadramawt. A Yemeni official further disclosed that last week, a drone had fired four missiles at three al-Qaeda militants, including an unnamed “leading figure,” near Mukalla port, adding that all three were killed on the spot. Witnesses also reported an explosion that killed three men on the seafront last Friday, adding that al-Qaeda gunmen had quickly cordoned off the area and gathered the remains, leading them to believe that a leader was amongst those killed.
Wuhayshi, a Yemeni believed to have been in his 30’s, travelled to Afghanistan in the late 1990’s where he attended al-Qaeda’s Al-Farouk training camp, and fought alongside Bin Laden. He would later become Bin Laden’s close confidante. As US forces closed in the battle of Tora Bora in late 2011, he escaped to Iran, where he was later arrested and extradited to Yemen, where he was jailed until escaping in February 2006. He became head of AQAP in 2007. US officials have indicated that he built one of the most active al-Qaeda branches, with Washington considering AQAP to be al-Qaeda’s deadliest branch. As well as the Charlie Hebdo attacks, which killed 12 people, AQAP was also behind an attempt to blow up as US commercial airline on Christmas Day 2009.
The US State Department had previously offered a US $10 million (£6.4 million) reward for anyone who could help bring Wuhayshi to justice, adding that he was “responsible for approving targets, recruiting new members, allocating resources to training and attack planning, and tasking others to carry out attacks.”
Since late January 2015, AQAP has lost a number of high profile figures in US strikes, including religious official Harith al-Nadhari, ideologue and spokesman Ibrahim al-Rubaish and religious and military official Nasser al-Ansi, along with several other lower ranking figures.
Libya’s ambassador to the United Nations indicated Tuesday that his government is refusing to give its consent for UN action, which is aimed at endorsing Europe’s military plan to fight migrant smugglers in the Mediterranean.
According to Ambassador Ibrahim Dabbashi, “the position of Libya is clear: as long as the European Union and some other countries are not dealing with the legitimate government as the sole representative of the Libyan people, they will not get any consent on our part.” The remarks come after EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini appeared before the UN Security Council last month to request UN backing for Europe’s plan to confront the migrant crisis by using military force against smugglers. The Security Council’s EU members – Britain, France, Lithuania and Spain – are currently working with Italy on a draft resolution that would effectively endorse the EU naval force, authorizing the use of force in Libyan territorial waters. However the resolution requires the Libyan government to first give its consent for the operations, which could also take place on its costal territory.
While Libya’s internationally recognized government has been driven out of Tripoli, it is now based in the eastern city of Tobruk. The UN has been for months working to broker an agreement on a new national unity government. Last week, the Tobruk government sent an envoy to Brussels. Foreign Minister Mohamed al-Dayri was at the EU’s headquarters this week, where he attended talks on the EU plan. Despite these meetings, however Dabbashi has made it clear that a letter of consent was not forthcoming, stating, “I think the resolution will never come out.” While the Ambassador did acknowledge that the new EU naval force can act in the Mediterranean without Security Council endorsement, he warned “there are consequences,” adding “I don’t think they will go too far without the Security resolution.”
Since the fall of Moamer Kadhafi in 2011, Libya has been engulfed in fighting and over the past several years, the country has developed into a staging ground for smugglers who load rickety boats with refugees and migrants desperate to reach Europe. So far this year, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) has indicated that some 1,770 migrants have perished on the hazardous journey to Europe, effectively a 30-fold increase on the same period in 2014. Over the past eighteen months, more than 5,000 people have died. Security Council diplomats have privately admitted that European efforts to present a resolution on the migrant crisis have hit a wall over Libya’s refusal to grant them approval. Sources have disclosed that European governments had instructed their diplomats, most of home are based in Tunis, to reach out to the various Libyan factions in a bid to try to get them onboard the plan prior to formally presenting the draft resolution at the Security Council.
On Sunday, a Turkish dry cargo ship was shelled as it approached the Libyan city of Tobruk. The ship was then attacked from the air as it tried to leave the area, according to the Turkish Foreign Ministry. The attack left the ship’s third officer killed and other crew members wounded. The Turkish Ministry maintains that the ship was in international waters at the time.
The Turkish-owned and Cook Islands-flagged ship, Tuna-1, was about 13 miles off the coast of Tobruk where it was carrying cargo from Spain. In a statement released on Monday, the Ankara government said, “We condemn strongly this contemptible attack which targeted a civilian ship in international waters and curse those who carried it out.” Turkey reserves its legal rights to seek compensation, the ministry said. The Turkish statement did not specify who launched the attacks, however a spokesman for the Tobruk-based Libyan National Army (LNA) says the vessel was bombed as it was warned not to approach the Libyan port of Derna.
The attack is not the first to occur in the Libya, where two opposing governments have been fighting to gain power in the country for over a year. On 4 January, a Libyan warplane bombed a Greek-operated oil tanker anchored off the eastern port of Derna, killing two crewmen. Military officials from the Tobruk government said the vessel had been warned not to enter port. Days later, on 9 January, the Commander of the Libyan Air Force announced that airstrikes will be carried out against any ships calling at militant-held Misrata port. A week later on 16 January, an oil tanker approaching the port of Benghazi was bombed. The Tobruk-led Libyan National Army claimed responsibility for the attack, saying the unnamed vessel was attempting to deliver petrol to a radical Islamist group Ansar Al-Sharia.
In February, internationally recognized Prime Minister, Abdullah al-Thani, said his government would stop dealing with Turkey because it was sending weapons to a rival group in Tripoli so that “the Libyan people kill each other.”
The internationally recognised House of Representatives operates out of Tobruk. Its forces, the LNA, have been battling against Fajr Libya, a coalition of militias supporting the Tripoli-based government, the General National Convention (GNC). Amid the chaos, radicalised elements have sought to gain a foothold in the land. The continued conflict has hindered the ability of government forces to differentiate between legitimate threats and innocent vessels.
MS Risk continues to advise merchant vessels to be aware of the threat to ships entering Libyan ports. Commercial vessel operators are urged to notify their insurers prior to sailing into Libyan coastal waters.