On 30 March 2016, Libya’s prime minister-designate Fayez al-Sarraj sailed into the capital Tripoli under naval escort and set up the headquarters of his country’s unity government. Now after three months in office, many are asking how has the newly formed Government of National Accord (GNA) fared in tackling the North African country’s ongoing crisis and what more needs to be done to stabilize Libya.
The GNA, which is the result of a UN-brokered power-sharing deal that was reached in December 2015, continues to face a fearsome set of economic, political and military challenges. While its allied militias have made major advances against the so-called Islamic State (IS) group in its stronghold of Sirte, success there would just be the start. The country’s economy, which was hard-hit in the wake of the 2011 uprising, continues to struggle amidst power cuts and a cash crisis at the country’s banks. Furthermore, a rival government based in the eastern city of Tobruk has refused to cede power until the country’s elected parliament passes a repeatedly delayed vote of confidence. Meanwhile neither administration can rein in militias that have fought for control of the country since the 2011 fall of former dictator Moamer Kadhafi.
So what has the GNA achieved?
Within days of its arrival in Tripoli, Sarraj’s government had won the loyalty of the main economic institutions, cities and armed groups based in western Libya. Without waiting for a vote of confidence from Tobruk, the GNA took control of key government ministries in Tripoli, with Sarraj managing to secure a rapprochement between rival central banks and national oil companies. According to analysts, the prime minister-designate has also met with figures from both sides of the country and has continued to stress the need for unity. However the GNA’s biggest achievement to date has been its success in commanding an assault on IS in Sirte, which is located 450 kilometres (280 miles) east of the capital Tripoli. Since 12 May, pro-government forces have cleared IS from 280 kilometres (175 miles) of coastline and surrounded the jihadists inside the city.
In political terms, the GNA’s main challenge continues to be securing a rapprochement with the east. Sources however have disclosed that Easterners are wary of the GNA’s reliance on militias. Furthermore, kidnappings for ransom are on the rise, as are the prices of basic goods. Power cuts are common, long and unpredictable and they sometimes affect the water supplies. Furthermore, foreign airlines are avoiding the country and Libyans have few options to fly out. Also, despite a string of foreign delegations, no foreign embassy is currently present in the capital.
What after IS?
In order to govern effectively, Sarraj will need a vote of confidence from the House of Representatives in Tobruk. The continued fight against IS delays any rapprochement between the East and the West, and is inevitable unless a political solution is reached.
A court in Belgium has approved the extradition to France of Mohamed Abrini, a key suspect in both the Paris and Brussels attacks. Prosecutors however have disclosed that he may not be handed over for some time as he is currently being investigated in Belgium. Mohamed Bakkali, another suspect in the November 2015 attacks in Paris, will also be extradited.
Belgian judges have agreed that both men should be sent to France in order to face questioning over the Paris attacks, which killed 130 people. Prior to the hearing, Belgian prosecutors disclosed that Abrini would not be handed over the French authorities immediately, as he was still being investigated over the bombings at Zaventem airport and at a metro station immediately after. According to a spokesman for the federal prosecutor’s office, “the timeline is not at all fixed,” adding that it was possible that Abrini could stand trial in Belgium first before being handed over to France, or he might be questioned in Belgium by French investigators.
Abrini, a 31-year-old Belgian of Moroccan descent, was identified as “the man in the hat,” seen on CCTV just moments before the explosions at Brussels airport in March. He was also filmed at a petrol station in northern France with fellow suspect Salah Abdeslam, two days before the Paris attacks. He reportedly told investigators that he was at the scene of the 22 Mach suicide bombings in Brussels, which killed 32 people.
Investigators claim that the Brussels and Paris attackers were part of the same network, adding that they were backed by the so-called Islamic State (IS) group. Abrini was said to be part of that cell, and before his arrest in Brussels in April, he was one of Europe’s most-wanted men.
The other suspect who will be extradited, 29-year-old Mohamed Bakkali, is believed to have rented the Brussels apartment where the suicide vests that were used in the Paris attacks were assembled.
On 9 June, unity government force surrounded the so-called Islamic State (IS) group’s Libyan bastion Sirte, where clashes have erupted as the Unity Government attempts to oust the militant group. The jihadist group, which moved into the North African country in 2014 amidst chaos that followed the ouster of Moamer Kadhafi, has become yet another player in the lawless country, where rival authorities and militas are battling for control of territory and major oil reserves.
- 19 November – The United States indicates that it is “concerned” by reports that radical extrmeists with avowed ties to IS are destabilizing eastern Libya, after having already seized vast swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria. News reports emerge indicated that the eastern coastal city of Derna is emerging as an IS stronghold.
- 27 December – A car bomb explodes outside the diplomatic security building in the capital city Tripoli. The attack, which is claimed by IS, causes no casualties.
- 27 January – IS claims responsibility for an attack on Tripoli’s luxury Corinthia Hotel that kills nine people.
- 15 February – IS releases a video showing the beheading of 21 Coptic Christians, all but one Egyptians, that the jihadist say they filmed in January. Egypt carries out air strikes on IS in Derna
- 20 February – IS claims responsibility for suicide car bombings in Al-Qoba, which is located near Derna. Those attacks kill 44 people, with IS stating that the attacks are to avenge losses in the air strikes.
- 19 April – A new video depicts the execution-style killing of 28 Christians originally from Ethiopia.
- 9 June – IS announces that it has captured the city of Sirte, which is located east of Tripoli.
- 12 July – The group acknowledges that it has been pushed out of Derna after weeks of fierce fighting with members of the town’s Mujahedeen Council.
- 13 November – The US bombs IS leaders in Libya for the first time and states that it has killed Abu Nabil, an Iraqi also known as Wissam Najm Abd Zayd al-Zubaydi. Libyan officials later identify him as the head of IS in Derna.
- 7 January – A suicide truck bombing at a police school in Zliten, east of Tripoli, kills more than fifty people in what is the worst attack to take place in Libya since the 2011 revolution. IS claims responsibility for the attack.
- 5 February – US officials disclose that the number of jihadists has almost doubled in Libya to about 5,000.
- 19 February – A US air strike on a jihadist training camp located near Sabratha, west of Tripoli, kills about fifty people.
- 24 February – Some 200 jihadists briefly occupy the centre of Sabratha, however they are later ousted by militas.
- 30 March – The head of Libya’s United Nations-backed unity government, Fayez al-Sarraj, arrives at a naval base in Tripoli, despite the hostility of rival authorities.
- 31 May – UN special envoy Martin Kobler calls on all of Libya’s armed groups to untie against IS.
- 4 June – Unity government forces say that they have retaken a jihadist air base, Al-Gordabyia, which is located south of Sirte.
- 5 June – Sarraj rules out an international military intervention on the ground.
- 9 June – Unity government forces enter the centre of Sirte where clashes continue with IS.
On 17 May, Finland tightened its restrictions on giving residence permits to asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia, stating that it was now largely safe for them to return to their war-torn home countries.
Authorities in Helsinki, where anti-immigration political groups have been on the rise, disclosed that security had improved to such an extent that refugees would generally not be at risk in any parts of the three countries, despite ongoing conflicts. While there was no immediate reaction from refugee agencies, the statement released by the Finnish Immigration Service comes in the face of a string of international assessments of the scale of the ongoing bloodshed and refugee crisis. In its statement, the immigration service disclosed that “it will be more difficult for applicants from these countries to be granted a residence permit,” adding, “it is currently possible for asylum seekers to return to all areas in Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia without the ongoing armed conflicts of such presenting a danger to them only because they are staying in the country.” Under the new rules, asylum seekers will only be allowed to stay if they can prove that they are individually at risk. In 2015, around 32,500 people applied for asylum in Finland. This was up from 3,600 in 2014. Most of those applying for asylum were from Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia. This year, the numbers have declined significantly.
Somalia has been slowly recovering from more than two decades of war. The internationally-backed government, which is based in Mogadishu and which has little control outside the capital, continues to fight an Islamist insurgency by the militant group al-Shabab, which regularly launches gun and bomb attacks in the capital and in other areas of the Horn of Africa country. In Iraq, the so-called Islamic State (IS) group continues to hold key cities and vast swathes of territory in the northern and western regions of the country, which it seized in 2014. Furthermore, despite battlefield setbacks over the past year, IS militants have continued to attack civilians in areas that are under government control. This includes a string of attacks that occurred earlier this month in and around the capital, which killed more than 100 people. In Afghanistan, the Taliban launched a spring offensive last month, vowing to drive out the Western-backed government in Kabul and restore strict Islamic rule.
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.