A senior US official disclosed on Friday that there are signs that Nigeria-based Boko Haram militants are sending fighters to join the so-called Islamic State (IS) group in Libya, adding that there is increased cooperation between the two jihadist groups.
According to US Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, there have been “reports” that Bok Harm fighters were going to Libya, where IS has established a large presence, effectively taking advantage of the ongoing security chaos. He disclosed that “we’ve seen that Boko Haram’s ability to communicate has become more effective. They seem to have benefited from assistance from Daesh (IS),” adding that there have also been reports of material and logistical aid. Speaking to reporters in Nigeria, Blinken further stated, “so these are all elements that suggests that there are more contacts and more cooperation, and this is again something that we are looking at very carefully because we want to cut it off.” While little is known about the extent of cooperation between the two radical Islamist groups, Western governments are increasingly becoming worried that IS’ growing presence in North Africa, coupled with its ties to Boko Haram, could herald a push southwards into the vast, lawless Sahel region, ultimately creating a springboard for wider attacks across the region. According to Blinken, the United States is helping Nigeria in its fight against Bok Haram with armoured vehicles. However he declined to comment on a request by the West African nation to sell it aircraft. Earlier this month, US officials revealed that Washington wants to sell up to twelve A-29 Super Tucano light attack aircraft to Nigeria in recognition of President Muhammadu Buhari’s army reforms. Congress however still needs to approve the deal. While under Buhari’s predecessor, Goodluck Jonathan, the US had blocked arms sales, partly due to human rights concerns, Blinken has indicated that Nigeria has made several requests for military hardware, adding, “we are looking very actively at these requests.” Nigeria’s Foreign Minister Geoffrey Onyeama had earlier disclosed that the government had set up reporting mechanisms inside the military to monitor human rights, which should convince the US Congress to approve the sale. Furthermore, while Blinken has indicated that the military under president Buhari has made “important efforts” in order to address human rights, he noted that the US was “troubled” by an Amnesty International report, which was released earlier this month, that children were dying in military detention. The Nigerian army has rejected the report. Blinken disclosed that Washington was also concerned about an alleged army massacre of Shi’ites in northern Nigeria in December, during which, according to residents, hundreds were killed. He added that a state commission to probe the killings should provide a “transparent and credible report.”
A British official has also warned that Boko Haram jihadists are likely to step up cooperation with IS should the latter extremist group gain a stronger foothold in Libya.
IS first seized part of Syria and Iraq, however it later built up a foothold in Libya, exploiting a security vacuum. Speaking at a security conference in Nigeria, British Foreign Minister Philip Hammond stated that “if we see Daesh (IS) establish a stronger presence in Libya, that feels much more to people here like a direct communications route, that is likely to step up the practical collaboration between the two groups.” Hammond added that “the intent is clearly there, the evidence of hard collaboration is still pretty sketchy.”
At the conference, which was attended by Nigeria’s neighbors and Western powers, a number of African leaders also warned that stability in lawless Libya was key to fighting Boko Haram and improvising security in the region.
In a speech, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari stated that the army had almost recaptured all territory it had lost to Boko Haram, noting however that the jihadist group still often stages suicide bombings. He added, “what remains is to dislodge the terrorist from their hideout in the (northeastern) Sambisa Forest and safely liberate the Chibok girls and other victims of abduction,” referring to a group of 219 schoolgirls who were kidnapped by Boko Haram in the Nigerian town of Chibok in 2014. Buhari also stated that Nigeria’s army was respecting human rights when dealing with civilians, a condition from the US to fulfill requests to sell aircraft and other arms.
On 24 August, a group called Fajr Libya (translation: Dawn of Libya) an Islamist militia group from Misrata, announced the capture of Tripoli International Airport after over a month of fighting. The airport’s capture effectively gives them control of the nation’s capital.
Since the 2011 fall of Libyan dictator Moamar Gadhafi, Tripoli and its airport had been under the control of the government-allied liberal Zintan militia, one of the largest and most disciplined militia groups in Libya. The capture of the region served as a huge blow to the Zintan militia and the government. Fajr Libya has also announced their control of cities adjacent to Tripoli, adding that they have pushed Zintan nearly 60 miles out from the capital. The weeks of fighting in Tripoli have seen the worst violence in the country since 2011, destroying large parts of the airport and causing chaos in the city. Many diplomats, NGOs, foreign nationals and Libyan citizens have evacuated the country.
Early on 24 August, fighters from Fajr Libya also attacked the Tripoli-based studios of private television station Al-Assima, which supports the Zintan nationalists. The militiamen destroyed station equipment and kidnapped some of the staff, according to Al-Assima.
Fajr Libya’s capture of Tripoli International Airport effectively gave the group control of the seat of the nation, which has serious implications for Libya’s faltering government. The group has refused to recognize the transitional Libyan government that was elected in June. Rather, Fajr Libya has called on the outgoing government, the Islamist dominated General National Congress (GNC) to resume operations. The militant group summoned the GNC to meet in Tripoli.
This action essentially created two rival and hostile centres of government power, both of whom consider the other to be illegitimate. Mohamed Bouyassir, a senior adviser to the Libyan army, said there could be “two parliaments and two governments.” The western government would be dominated by Islamists, including members the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, a militia group that has been designated as a terrorist organization by the US and was sanctioned by the UN. Supporters of the GNC government have been accused of “rejecting the democratic process,” calling the GNC “remnants of the post Gadhafi leadership who were refusing to surrender their hold on power.” One official adds that under the GNC, state funds were diverted to Syria and Iraq, and that “the whereabouts of huge amounts of money were not known to anyone apart from them.”
In the East, the government would be controlled by the House of Representatives (HoR), which was elected in June to replace the GNC, reportedly to put an end to political dominance by factions linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. The House of Representatives has fled to Tobruk in eastern Libya to conduct government operations; among the first orders of business was their declaration of Fajr Libya as a terrorist organization. The HoR is relying on support from ‘rogue’ General Khalifa Hiftar’s and his Libyan National Army (LNA) to combat the militants in the region. On 24 August, the Tobruk government issued a statement calling the LNA “the official army of the state.” The statement represents a huge shift; the GNC had accused Hiftar’s group of attempting to stage a coup. The LNA has focused primarily on combating militias in Benghazi; however they claim to have launched a series of airstrikes against Fajr Libya fighters. The LNA is reportedly increasing their capabilities in hopes of restoring national security.
Adding to the friction, on 25 August, the GNC appointed a new prime minister over Libya. The group elected Islamist-backed Omar al-Hassi as prime minister, a parliamentary spokesman and lecturer in political science at the University of Benghazi. Hassi has been charged with forming a “salvation government”. Local television stations reported that 94 politicians attended the meeting, a sufficient number for quorum.
Mysterious airstrikes, Egyptian proposal
Further complicating matters, airstrikes by unidentified warplanes have struck the positions of Islamist militias in Tripoli, killing 13 fighters. The Fajr Libya militia accused Cairo and United Arab Emirates of being behind the airstrikes. Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi has vehemently denied those claims, adding, “There are no Egyptian aircraft or forces in Libya, and no Egyptian aircraft participated in military action inside Libya.” Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri echoed Sisi’s denials, calling the accusations “unsubstantiated rumours,” and adding that Egypt “respects Libya’s popular will and elected parliament.” Emirati officials have not commented.
Despite the denials, Western officials believe that the airstrikes were conducted in a joint Egypt-UAE effort. In a joint statement, the United States, Britain, France, Germany and Italy cautioned, “outside interference in Libya exacerbates current divisions and undermines Libya’s democratic transition.” Though the statement did not directly accuse any country of the airstrikes, one anonymous official said that Washington was aware of the plans for an Egyptian-Emirati operation and warned the countries against following through. The US said they had no prior notification of the attacks, nor do they believe it was conducted with authorisation from the Libyan government.
Meanwhile on 25 August, a day after the accusation of airstrikes against Tripoli, the Egyptian government presented a proposal to disarm rival militias in Libya. The proposal was backed in a Cairo-based ministerial meeting with leaders from Algeria, Tunisia, Sudan, Niger and Chad. All attendees agreed to back Libya’s “legitimate institutions, especially the parliament”, including in the rebuilding of the country’s military and police.
In a press conference after the meeting, Shoukri said, “The initiative reached a number of governing principles, the most important of which is respecting Libya’s unity and sovereignty, rejecting any intervention in its domestic affairs, abiding by a comprehensive dialogue, renouncing violence, and supporting the political process.”
The Egyptian proposal, which will be submitted to the United Nations and the Arab League, provides a framework for Libyan militias and armed factions to gradually lay down their arms. It adds that foreign parties should refrain from exporting and supplying the “illegitimate factions” with weapons, and foreign intervention “should be avoided.”
Libyan lawmakers, for their part, have voted to ask the United Nations to intervene in the ongoing militia battles. Libyan Ambassador to Egypt, Faid Jibril said, “Libya is unable to protect its institutions, its airports and natural resources, especially the oilfields.” Leaders in Libya have also added that they do not necessarily require military intervention; Foreign Minister Mohamed Abdelaziz called on assistance in training Libyan troops in order to prepare the Libyan army to combat the armed elements. Further, they seek international assistance in preventing the violence from spreading to other nations.