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.
Amidst Mass Evacuations, Libya Calls for Aid as Oil Depot Fires Rage at Tripoli International AirportJuly 29, 2014 in Libya, Terrorism
29 July – A raging fire has broken out at Tripoli International Airport after continued battles between rival militias. On Monday, an oil depot was struck in the crossfire between the warring groups, causing the depot to catch fire and rage out of control. By Monday afternoon, the blaze had spread to a second depot. According to a spokesman from the Libyan National Oil company, the depot has a six-million litre capacity.
While fire trucks from nearby cities have rushed to Tripoli, Libya’s interim government has appealed for international help to extinguish the fire, fearing it could become a “humanitarian and environmental disaster”. The government has also called upon “all concerned parties to immediately stop firing as the situation has become very grave.” Residents within a five-kilometre radius of the airport have been ordered to evacuate.
The fighting began nearly two weeks earlier, when Islamist militias from Misrata launched a surprise assault on the airport, which is under the control of the liberal Zintan militia. The Zintan militia is one of the largest and most disciplined militia groups in Libya, and has recently allied itself with “rogue” General Khalifa Hifter, a former member of the Gadhafi regime that returned to Libya after the dictator was toppled. Hifter has been conducting an offensive against Islamist militias, mainly in Benghazi, since May.
In Benghazi, clashes between Hifter’s forces and Islamist militias raged throughout Saturday and into Sunday morning, hitting civilian homes and causing a number of casualties and injuries. Officials from Hifter’s forces have stated that four camps captured by the militias were regained in a siege that killed eight militants. Among the militants was Ahmed al-Zahawi, whose brother, Mohammed al-Zahawi, is the leader of the militant group Ansar al-Sharia. It is believed that Ansar al-Sharia was behind the 2012 attacks on the US embassy in Benghazi that left four dead, including US Ambassador Chris Stevens.
As fighting between the groups in Benghazi and Tripoli has escalated, the several nations have warned their citizens to leave. In mid-July, the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) evacuated all remaining staff. On Sunday, the French Foreign Ministry called on all French nationals to leave the war-torn nation. The same day, gunmen fired on a convoy of British Embassy staff, in what Libyan investigators believe was an attempted carjacking. No casualties or injuries were reported, however the UK foreign office has advised all citizens to leave the nation immediately, warning of the likelihood of further attacks on foreign nationals. Similar warnings have been issued by the Dutch, Turkish, German, Indian, Spanish and Italian governments. The Canadian government urged citizens to avoid or leave Libya, and announced that while the consulate is open, consular services are “extremely limited due to continuing political instability and violence.” Egypt has warned all Egyptian nationals to evacuate Tripoli and Benghazi.
Despite the warnings, however, exiting the country has become difficult with the closure of Tripoli International Airport. The airport was shut down on 14 July after intense fighting between the Zintan and Misrata-based Islamist militias. The Islamist groups fired dozens of Grad rockets, and used anti-aircraft guns and other heavy weaponry to target the airport. Reports indicate that up to 90% of the aircraft on the ground were destroyed, along with the airport control tower. A hall used for customs was also hit. Last week, the Libyan Civil Aviation Ministry announced that Al Afriqiya, Tunisair, and Libyan Airlines have resumed limited air operations from Tripoli-based Mitiga airport, as well as Misrata airport, nearly 200 km east of the capital. However, the recommended method of evacuation has been “small batch” exits through checkpoints on Libya’s western border with Tunisia, or through eastern checkpoints into Egypt.
In mid-July, a spokesperson for the Libyan government, Ahmed Lamine, said that the government is “looking into the possibility of making an appeal for international forces on the ground to re-establish security and help the government impose its authority”. The Libyan government is now calling for aid in extinguishing the intense oil depot fires, but sources indicate that the government has made an appeal for international forces to aid in the protection of civilians, prevent anarchy, and allow the government to build up its army and police.
Nations neighbouring Libya, including Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Niger, Sudan and Tunisia, met for a ministerial conference on the Libyan issue on 14 July in Tunisia. The group discussed the dual goals of brokering talks aimed at eliminating the terrorist threat in Libya and preventing violence from reaching their borders. As nations and NGOs evacuate citizens and staff, it is uncertain who will come to Libya’s aid as they step ever closer toward becoming a failed state.
On Sunday May 18, armed gunmen loyal to renegade General Khalifa Hifter stormed Libya’s parliament and announced its suspension. In a televised statement, Colonel Muktar Fernana said, “We, members of the army and revolutionaries, announce the suspension of the General National Congress,” adding that the assembly will be replaced by the 60-member body that was recently elected to rewrite Libya’s constitution. The group then withdrew toward Tripoli’s airport on the southern edges of the city, clashing with rivals and leaving at least 66 dead. By Monday morning, fighting stopped.
Two days prior to the storming of the parliament building, Hifter’s group, using military aircraft and helicopters, targeted armed extremist militias in Benghazi. By Saturday, hundreds of residents fled their homes as clashes escalated. A spokesman for Hifter urged residents in the Benghazi districts of Al-Qawarshah, Sidi Faraj and Al-Hawari to leave their homes for their own safety. In the aftermath, the Libyan Ministry of Health said 70 people had been killed and 141 wounded.
The effort is part of Hifter’s plan, Operation “Dignity of Libya”, which calls for a large-scale campaign targeting militias and suspected extremists in Benghazi. Hifter told a local TV station, “The operation will continue until Benghazi has been cleansed of terrorists.”
Authorities have ordered Hifter to stand down, and consider his actions to be tantamount to a coup. Earlier this year, Hifter called for a military coup against Libya’s interim government but received little support. However, officers loyal to Hifter’s group, called the Libyan National Army (LNA), deny the claim because they do not believe the current Libyan parliament or their newest Prime Minister, Ahmed Maitiq, have legitimacy.
Hifter and the Libyan National Army
Hifter was an army commander under Gadhafi until the 1980s, when he defected and fled to the United States. He stayed in the US for over two decades, leading to accusations that his current actions are being supported, even bankrolled, by Washington. After the death of Gadhafi, the Libyan transitional government appointed Hifter to rebuild the Libyan military; however he was removed shortly after his appointment.
Hifter’s group, the LNA has been comprised mainly of irregular forces, however a number of Libyan army commanders have already defected to join Hifter’s troops. Last week, troops at a military air base in Tobruk reportedly joined Hifter’s forces, and on 19 May, the top commander of the Libyan elite al Saiqa Special Forces announced that his troops had joined forces with the LNA. Some battalions of the border guards have also declared for Hifter. The move is indicative of the rift in the military, with some being loyal to the interim government and others seeking a different solution.
In addition to military support, Hifter appears to have the support of one of the country’s most powerful militias from the western Zintan region. A number of tribes across the east and west have also formed an alliance with Hifter, as have separatists seeking more autonomy for eastern Libya Hifter is seeking support from tribes in the centre and south of the nation in order to succeed in stopping extremists throughout the nation.
In response to the attack on parliament, Libyan head of the legislature Nouri Abu Sahmein ordered the Libyan Army and pro-parliament militias to deploy in Tripoli to resist what he called “the attempt to wreck the path of democracy and take power.” The majority of these militias are based in Misrata. Online footage has depicted hundreds of pickup trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns, tanks and armoured vehicles making their way into the capital.
Also opposing Hifter are extremist groups, including the al-Qaeda inspired militant group, the Lions of Monotheism. In a video posted on extremist websites, a masked militant calling himself Abu Musab al-Arab, vowed to fight Hifter’s troops, saying, “You have entered a battle you will lose.” Some of the extremist groups Hifter is targeting, particularly Ansar al Sharia, are based in the east.
Following the fighting in Benghazi, Benina International Airport, 12 miles east of the city, has been shut down after unknown attackers fired rockets in the area. The head of the Libyan Army’s General Staff issued a ban on flights over the city on Saturday, saying any military aircraft would be fired on by Libyan army units and allied militia. All Egyptian and Tunisian flights to Benghazi have been suspended.
A number of foreign embassies in Tripoli have shut down, including those of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Algeria. Algeria and Egypt have also closed their borders with Libya, and the Egyptian government is contemplating evacuating Egyptian citizens.
New information has revealed that Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the militant leader responsible for the bloody siege on Algeria’s In Amenas gas plant in January 2013, is alive and plotting new attacks from Libya. The report contradicts earlier intelligence suggesting Belmokhtar had been killed in fighting in Mali.
Belmokhtar, a native Algerian, was a key member of Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) until political infighting lead to a fallout with Abou Zeid. Belmokhtar split from the group and formed Khaled Abu al-Abbas Brigade (aka: Masked Brigade, aka: Signatories in Blood). Over the past year Belmokhtar was known to be working with Islamist group MUJAO to drive the Taureg separatist group, MNLA, out of Gao in Mali. His aim was to expand his land base and increase the numbers in his brigade. However a French-led intervention in Mali successfully put down the rebellion, and Chadian troops claimed to have killed both Belmokhtar and Abou Zeid in March of last year. The US however, still offered a five million dollar reward for information leading to his detention.
A security source in Niger and another close to the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Mali (MINUSMA) have confirmed that Belmokhtar has left Mali and taken refuge among armed militias in Libya. Belmokhtar is has evaded detection in Mali where French troops and US drones were searching for him. One source has stated, “From the Libyan territory, he intends to control the entire Sahel,” and many sources beleive that Belmokhtar is planning attacks on Westerners and their interests. Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita believes that if Belmokhtar is in Libya, he posts an “obvious threat” to the entire region.
Malian Analyst El Hadj Konate warns, “Even if he has retreated to Libya, he is still masterminding deadly operations in northern Mali […] he has all the time he needs to regroup his forces because [Libya] is a lawless area.”
Officials in Niger are particularly concerned. On 23 May, 2013, a double attack was carried out on a military base and a French-operated uranium mine in northern Niger, killing several dozen people. Niger shares a long border with the relatively lawless Libya. Southern Libya, according to Niger’s interior minister, “has become an incubator for terrorist groups.”
The Nigerian government is increasing security and development in the north of the country, and focusing on issues including the addressing marginalisation of Tauregs in the area. However, officials fear that the youth of the nation could be influenced by terrorist recruiters.
Niger’s interior minister recently called on France and the United States to help “eradicate the terrorist threat” in Libya. However, the Chief of Staff for the French military has suggested that an international operation in the region could avert the creation “of a new centre of gravity of terrorism”.
On Sunday, Libyan Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thani announced that he would resign from office. He is the second prime minister to step down in two months. Al-Thani, who was named acting prime minister in March of this year, was officially appointed to the role of Prime Minister on 8 April. Less than a week later, he decided to step down following an attack on him and his family.
While the details of the attack have not been released, a neighbourhood resident stated that Al-Thani and his family came under attack by a militia as his convoy neared his home. The family escaped the attack, however when they fled to a neighbourhood near to Tripoli’s airport road, where heavy gunfire broke out. No injuries have been reported. This is the second attack on al Thani’s family. In September 2013, while al-Thani was Defence Minister, his son was kidnapped in Tripoli. He was released earlier this year.
Militias have frequently targeted members of the Libyan government in the chaos following the end of the nation’s civil war. On 6 January, The head of Libya’s parliament, Mohamed al-Magariaf, survived an assassination attempt in his home. Weeks later on 29 January, Al-Sadik Abdel-Karim, Libya’s interior minister, survived a barrage of bullets attacking his car as he travelled to a meeting. In October 2013, then-Prime Minister Ali Zeidan was kidnapped at gunpoint and held by militia members in what Zeidan called “an attempted coup.”
Foreign diplomats are also not immune to abduction. On 15 April, gunman -suspected militia members- abducted Jordan’s ambassador to Libya, demanding the release of a Libyan Islamist militant. In March, unidentified gunmen kidnapped Mohamed bin Sheikh, secretary to the Tunisian ambassador in Tripoli. There are no reports indicating he has been released. In January, gunmen detained six Egyptian diplomats and embassy employees, demanding the release of a Libyan militia commander in Egypt.
In his resignation letter, posted on Libya’s government’s website, al-Thani called the attempt on him and his family a “cowardly attack,” and added, “I do not accept a single drop of Libyan blood be shed because of me and I do not accept to be a reason for fighting among Libyans because of this position […]Therefore I apologize for not accepting my designation as interim prime minister.”
Al-Thani will remain interim prime minster until a replacement can be found to lead the caretaker government.