19 November– Fighters loyal to the extremist group ISIS have taken control of Derna, Libya. The city, with a population of nearly 100,000, rests near the Egyptian border and approximately 200 miles from the EU border with Greece.
The Libyan wing of ISIS refers to itself as the “Barqa” provincial division of the Islamic State. Sources believe that there are approximately 800 ISIS affiliates in the region, operating from six camps and a facility in the Green Mountains. It is believed that at least 300 among them are Libyan fighters who left for Syria and formed part of the al-Battar Brigade which fought in Deir Ezzor, Syria and Mosul, Iraq. The group is believed to be operating a training facility in the Green Mountains for extremists in North Africa. Evidence suggests that fighters have also expanded their presence westward along the Libyan coast. Chapters are known to exist in al Bayda, Benghazi, Sirte, al-Khums and Tripoli.
ISIS supporters have taken advantage of the sustained chaos in Libya that has been unchecked since the 2011 removal of Moammar Gadhafi. Currently, two governments operate in the country and battles regularly erupt between extremist groups and Libyan security forces throughout the nation.
The Barqa branch of ISIS has administrative control over Derna, including controlling the courts, education, and the local radio. In September, ISIS leader Abu Bakar al Baghdadi deployed senior aide Abu Nabil al Anbari to Derna to orchestrate the takeover. In Libya, Anbari enlisted the help of Abu al-Baraa el-Azdi, a Saudi imam who is one of Derna’s top religious judges. In early November a group called “Mujahideen of Libya” swore allegiance to Baghdadi, and intend to operate across the nation. Baghdadi called upon supporters to join the “newest administrative region of the Islamic caliphate.” An audio message released by the group last week threatened the “the secularists and parliamentarians and their pillars from the police and army,” adding, “We have prepared for you from the most bitter of cups, and the worst of deaths.”
The Derna group has already been believed to be active in the region. Last week, the bodies of three known anti-ISIS activists were found beheaded in the region, and the group is suspected of a suicide bombing in Tobruk, where the internationally recognised Libyan government has made its temporary home. The bombing killed one and wounded 14. It is believed that the ISIS supporters also conducted a car bombing near Labraq Air Force base in Al-Bayda, killing four. An ISIS-linked Twitter account indicates that the Tripoli chapter of ISIS supporters was responsible for car bomb attacks last week near the Egyptian and UAE embassies.
Analysts believe ISIS control in Derna could be viable in the short term. Smuggling and trafficking routes known to be operational in Libya could provide them with the ability to fund themselves. Derna, has been known to be a stronghold for Islamic extremism. It is unlikely that residents will push back against ISIS without support, particularly as tribal members in the region have affiliated themselves with the group.
However Libyan security forces are battling the stronghold. Last week, Libya’s air force conducted bombings over ISIS held zones in Derna, striking five positions, including a command centre and training camp. It is believed that six were killed and 20 injured. It is likely that regional forces will take action in limiting the threat from permeating their borders.
3 November– Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait are in discussions to develop a military agreement to combat Islamic militants, with the possibility of a joint force to intervene around the Middle East. The Sunni-dominated nations share a view that the region is threatened by Sunni Islamic militants and Islamist political movements. The military pact goes beyond the current engagements in Iraq and Syria as part of the US-led coalition; aiming to target additional hotbeds of extremist activity. The alliance would focus on Libya and Yemen, where radicalised militants have seized control of territories from their respective governments. Egyptian President Abel Fattah el-Sisi has warned that extremists must be dealt with in several places, and that would require “a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy in the region.” Jordan and Algeria have also been approached to join the alliance.
While the talks remain secret, unnamed Egyptian officials have reported that the discussions are in advanced stages. The alliance is considering the establishment of a core force made up of elite troops, aircrafts, and an intelligence service comprised of members of the alliance. The nations have already held bilateral and multilateral war games the past year in advance of an alliance. Reportedly, there remain differences regarding the size of force, funding, location of headquarters, and whether to seek Arab League or U.N. political cover for operations. If the joint forces cannot be agreed upon, the alliance still aims to coordinate military action for pinpoint anti-militant operations. It is thought that actions such as these have already taken place; Egypt and the UAE are believed to have conducted targeted airstrikes in Libya over the summer, and Egypt has reportedly carried out unilateral strikes in Libya; although the Egyptian government denies involvement in either operation.
The alliance is being discussed as violent clashes intensify in Benghazi as the Libyan army attempts to retake areas seized by Islamist militants. On Monday, extremist fighters hit an oil tanker with a rocket propelled grenade, causing fire and major disruption at Benghazi’s port. The Libyan army asked residents in the central al-Sabri district to evacuate ahead of a major military operation. Over 200 people have been killed and several homes destroyed since the Libyan army began its offensive in October, yet residents are fearful of getting caught in crossfire while travelling.
Libya is currently divided by rival governments. The internationally recognized and recently elected government has taken shelter in Tobruk; Islamist militias that overran Tripoli during the summer have reinstituted the previous Islamist government in Tripoli. The nation is also facing a surplus of warring militias and militant groups, and has become a safe-haven for radicalised fighters.
In Yemen, where the government has been battling one of al-Qaeda’s most active branches for years, the government is also contending with Houthi Shiite rebels. The Houthis successfully overran Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, last month. Saudi Arabia has offered support against the Houthis in 2010, believing that the Shiite Houthis are serving as proxy fighters for Iran.
Pan Arab alliances in the past have not succeeded. However the impetus is strong for the coalition. Saudi Arabia and Egypt face a growing militant threat within their borders, and Gulf nations are eager to keep militant threats away from their borders and foreign interests. The multi-national alliance is also intended to serve as a symbol of unity and strength against the perceived influence of Iran. The nations will seek a nod of approval from the US, however Washington has not yet been privy to the talks.
Libya has fallen into chaos since the 2011 overthrow of long time dictator Moammar Gadhafi. On 15 October, Egyptian warplanes bombed positions in Benghazi, citing a request by the Libyan administration in Tobruk to assist in battling the militias that have overrun the country. One senior Egyptian official said, “This is a battle for Egypt not Libya.” The fear of the chaos in Libya spreading beyond its borders has caused neighbouring countries to initiate a series of defensive actions, from strengthening border patrols and evacuating citizens, to engaging in attacks. Inside Libya, the country remains paralysed as the country continues its third year of battles.
Failed states often have certain key characteristics:
- A weakened central government
- Little central control over the nation
- Rampant corruption or crime
- Involuntary movement or displacement of the population
- Economic instability or decline
- Failure to provide public services
In light of these characteristics, is it fair to argue that Libya has become a failed state?
It can easily be argued that Libya has a weak central government. On 4 September, the newly elected Libyan government announced that it no longer had control of Tripoli. Militant group Fajr Libya took control of the nation’s capital after several weeks of fighting, and recalled the outgoing government, the Islamist dominated General National Congress (GNC) to resume operations. Meanwhile, the elected government, the House of Representatives, is currently conducting operations from within a 1970s hotel in Tobruk, a thousand miles from the capital. Attempts by the United Nations to negotiate peace talks between the two rival governments came to a standstill in early October. Earlier this week, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon arrived in Tripoli to hold talks with the warring factions. A UN statement on Twitter said Ban “will urge Libyan parties to push forward with political dialogue to restore stability to (the) country.”
Currently, neither of the rival governments carries significant central control over the nation. The country has been divided along tribal groups and militia loyalties. In the east, Ansar al Sharia and other organisation have engaged in battles to create an autonomous region. General Khalifa Hifter has engaged in numerous battles to ‘eliminate’ the radicalised elements that are working to destabilise the nation’s unity. In the west, the region is battling between supporters of the outgoing GNC and the House of Representatives. In the south, clashes between clans have dominated the battles; in April, France referred to the region as a “viper’s nest” of Islamist militants.
The battles among the armed militias and their attempts to enforce dominance in various regions, has led to rampant corruption and crime. The nation has seen an uptick in kidnapping (including the kidnapping of government officials), assassination attempts, offices of businesses and the government held hostage, rampant shootings. Activist group Human Rights Watch has observed that in 2014, there have been at least 250 politically motivated assassinations in Benghazi and Derna alone. They add, “No one has claimed responsibility and there have been no known arrests for the killings. Libyan authorities have failed to conduct investigations, or prosecute those responsible for any of the unlawful killings since 2011, fostering a culture of impunity that has fuelled further abuses.” The lawlessness and clashes in major cities, has caused many residents involuntarily relocate their families to safer regions. This is particularly true in Tripoli and Benghazi. The United Nations Human Rights Council has estimated that 287,000 people in 29 cities and towns countrywide have been displaced.
Libya has suffered steady economic decline in recent years. Several militias, as well as the rival governments are battling for control of the nation’s vast oil reserves. In 2013, the economy was frozen by blockades of oil export terminals in the East. Last month, ship operators announced that cargo imports into Libya have dropped by an estimated 75%, in large part due to the closure of banks in the nation. These closures affected the ability of Libyan importers to make payments or open letters of credit. Further exacerbating the imports are violence at ports and destinations, the absence of inland transportation, damage to warehouse facilities and the increasing cost of insurance premiums for operations in Libya. It is estimated that Libya’s budget deficit could more than double to 19 billion Libyan dinars ($15 billion) in 2014.
Finally, Libya is struggling to maintain public services including water and electricity. In August, power was cut across most Libyan cities and towns, including Benghazi and Ajdabia. Libya’s General Electricity Company said the blackouts were due to “the acute shortage of fuel supplies to generating stations in the southern areas. Major power transmission circuits which supply Tripoli and neighboring areas have been damaged as well. Other major circuits are also out of service in the eastern area.” Meanwhile, last month leaders in Sirte held an emergency meeting to discuss the shortage of drinking water.
Libya currently has a number of worrying factors, suggesting that if it is not a failed state, it could certainly become one. The UN is currently working to reignite talks between warring factions in hopes of creating a smooth transition of power between the GNC and the House of Representatives. The House of Representatives, for its part, is working to cut the budget deficit for 2015, establish a strong and loyal army, and ensure an increase of public services and a decline in crime and corruption. However, these endeavours may only become successful in the absence of armed militias and radicalised groups. Libya may lean heavily on outside support to bring it back from the brink.
2 October– The group Fajr Libya (Dawn of Libya) has rejected UN-led talks that have called for a cease-fire in the struggling nation. Fajr Libya, an Islamist group based out of Misrata, took control of Tripoli and the country’s top religious body, Dar al-Ifta, in September. The battle for Tripoli caused nearly 25,000 residents to flee their homes and caused foreign nationals to evacuate the nation. Fajr Libya reinstated the outgoing government– Islamist dominated General National Congress (GNC) – forcing the House of Representatives, the newly elected and internationally recognised government, to operate from Tobruk. The move created two rival and hostile centres of government power, both of whom consider the other to be illegitimate.
Fajr Libya’s rejection of UN-brokered talks came after a day or attempted reconciliation on in Monday in Libya’s south-western town of Ghadames. UN mission chief Bernardino Leon described the first day as “positive” and “constructive.” After Monday’s talks, both sides had agreed on the need for a ceasefire, for humanitarian aid for victims of clashes in Tripoli, and to work to reopen airports closed by fighting.
On Tuesday, however, momentum was halted after Dar al-Ifta, led by hard-liner al-Sadek al-Gharyani, announced that Libya’s “clerics demand the suspension of talks with the Tobruk parliament.” The suspension is pending a Supreme Constitutional Court on the legitimacy of the House of Representatives, and whether the Tobruk-based government violated the constitution by calling the militias “terrorists” and asking for international intervention. The body no one has “the right to negotiate” with Tobruk-based lawmakers because they deviated from the principles of Islam and Libya.
The Tripoli-based Supreme Constitutional Court is supposed to rule next month, but diplomats fear it will not be able to issue an independent verdict as it is controlled by Fajr Libya.
The Fajr Libya coalition has since denounced the dialogue and declared that it was continuing with its “military operations.” The group posted on their Facebook page that the way to end the fighting is to “disarm its rivals and hunt down their leaders.” Similarly, the eastern based Shura of Benghazi Revolutionaries issued a similar statement rejecting the initiative as “unfair”.
These moves underscore the polarisation that has divided the nation since the overthrow of Moammar Gadhafi in 2011. From Tobruk, the new government has denounced Fajr Libya, calling the assault on Tripoli an act of terrorism. The group passed a resolution to disarm militias controlling the capital.
In the next move, the UN seeks to meet with the boycotting militias to reignite talks. Bernardino Leon seeks to get militias out of the main cities, and then to “reorganize the security in the country with an army.” Fajr Libya has not made comment on the attempts by the UN, However one Misrata based representative said, “We have to comply to what the Dar al-Ifta has called for.”
Meanwhile, a former Libyan militia leader, Abdelhakim Belhadj, has put himself forward as the “saviour” for Libya. Belhadj is a self-described former jihadi who fought against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan with Osama bin Laden when the group had the backing of the US. Belhadj claims he was later abducted and “rendered” by the CIA, but vehemently disavows any ties to Al Qaeda “as organization or even as an ideology.”
Currently, Belhadj is the leader of Libya’s conservative al-Watan party. While he does not have great electoral success, he does have great influence among the militia groups. He says he supports negotiations between the opposition parties, and backs the exiled government in Tobruk. He states, “We have to unite around one goal, which is a democratic state, and to build relationships with other countries based on mutual trust and mutual respect […] The growth of terrorism now is something that we oppose strongly and we will make every effort to deal with it in a way that is in line with the vision of the majority of Libyans.”
4 September, 2014: On Sunday, the Libyan government announced that it no longer had control of Tripoli. A government issued statement read, “Ministry and state offices in Tripoli have been occupied by armed militias who are preventing government workers from entering and are threatening their superiors.” Fajr Libya has called on the outgoing government– the Islamist dominated General National Congress (GNC) – to resume operations.
The announcement comes nearly two weeks after Fajr Libya (Dawn of Libya), an Islamist militia group from Misrata, announced the capture of Tripoli International Airport after over a month of fighting. Prior to the capture, the airport, and the city of Tripoli were under the control of Al-Zintan Revolutionaries’ Military Council, a pro-government group and one of the largest and most disciplined militia groups in Libya. Fajr Libya’s capture of Tripoli effectively gave the group control of the seat of the nation, which has had serious implications for Libya’s faltering government.
The fighting between Zintan and Fajr Libya, which began in July, has caused significant damage to Tripoli airport and a number of aircraft. The airport has been closed since mid-July. Prior to the fighting at the airport, the Libyan Airlines fleet included seven Airbus 320s, one Airbus 330, two French ATR-42 turboprop aircraft, and four Bombardier CJR-900s. Afriqiyah Airways held three Airbus 319s, seven Airbus 320s, two Airbus 330s, and one Airbus 340.
The oil-rich nation is at risk of becoming a failed state as competing militias and terrorist groups are able to take advantage of the weakened political and security infrastructures. The fighting has caused a number of diplomats, NGOs and foreign nationals to evacuate Libya, often through its borders with Tunisia and Egypt.
Neighbouring countries fear that Libya could become a safe haven for terrorist organisations. Recent airstrikes have been conducted against Fajr Libya, and have been attributed to a joint operation between Egyptian and the United Arab Emirates. The UAE has not commented on the strikes, and Egyptian President Abdel-Fatah al-Sisi has vehemently denied the claims but has suggested that suggested that military action is being considered. US Secretary of State John Kerry announced last week that the US would be delivering Apache attack helicopters to Egypt. The U.S. is taking a more conservative role in the country, but it is not known whether the helicopters would be used on objectives in Libya.
Unconfirmed rumours have gained traction that an Islamist militia group in Libya has reportedly taken control of eleven commercial jetliners in Tripoli. The report was said to have been initially issued by a Moroccan military expert named Abderrahmane Mekkaoui, who reported the airline theft on 21 August. In the report, Mekkaoui states that “credible intelligence” indicated the Masked Brigade “is plotting to use the planes in attacks on a Maghreb state” on the 9/11 anniversary. Rumours of the stolen plains are gaining traction in social media, however neither the US State Department nor any other government has confirmed the reports of the stolen jetliners.