Written and produced by SF Team: Igor Pejic, J.Hawk, Edwin Watson
Since Roman times Sahara has been a popular route for smuggling various types of goods, with Libya being a key corridor for transit of such illicit goods. Soon after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi security in the country has been seriously deteriorating to a point when there are more militants in the non-state armed groups than soldiers in the officially recognized state security forces. Therefore smuggling and trafficking business are booming, organized crime networks are becoming more complex and are feeding of the instability in the region. Illicit trade and trafficking of goods has financed many paramilitary groups and terrorist organizations which now roam not only in Libya but in Mali as well. In recent years Libya has become a prominent human trafficking hub whose business is valued around 300 million dollars per year. Since human trafficking is much more lucrative than other forms of smuggling it has also attracted many terrorist groups, especially in northern part of the country near coastal cities.
The illicit trade of goods on which many armed groups prosper includes drugs, arms, counterfeit consumer goods, and migrants.The most popular drugs smuggled throughout the region and Libya are cocaine and marihuana. It is estimated that around 20 tons of cocaine enter Europe via this route, and the profit can reach more than 1 billion dollars per year. Marihuana is rather popular in other northern African countries like Morocco and Algeria, which keeps the smugglers busy within the region. Some of these countries produce a lot of cannabis which is later shipped to the Balkans and later to Europe. Many of the armed groups and terrorist organizations can fund their actions off cannabis production or trade.Counterfeit goodstobacco products, medications, and alcohol. States in Maghreb region are heavy consumers of cigarettes, and smuggling of tobacco through Mali, which was mostly done by AQIM, can bring revenue of almost 1 billion dollars per year. Cigarettes and alcohol smuggling are also extensive, and numerous militias and organized groups profit from this trade, though in the more recent years after the uprising in Libya medicines and pharmaceuticals have been becoming more popular. The fall of the Libyan government and the inability of the newly elected government to bring peace and order to the countryhas led to pillage of medical and pharmaceutical storage and production.
Illegal arms trade also sky-rocketed after the fall of Gaddafi regime. According to some estimates, Libyan forces had in their possession 700,000 firearms of which 75% were assault rifles. Army barracks and stockpiles of these arms were looted after the uprising, leading to mass circulation of assault weapons across North Africa. Value of the arms trade is around 30 million dollars annually, and has only increased after the coup. Considerable evidence suggests that separatists in Mali had access to the Libyan firearms in 2011, which triggered the conflict in the north. And finally there is migrant smuggling, the “holy grail” of organized criminal groups and armed groups across Africa in terms of profitability. Human trafficking was always popular in Africa since many countries are in a state of internal war among various groups, or they are simply inherently unstable, which has prompted many people to migrate. After the crisis in Libya and Syria, large numbers of migrants have been heading towards coastal cities like Tripoli, Sirte and Benghazi in order to reach the shores of Europe. Of course these are not only Middle Eastern refugees. Some of them are coming from Eritrea, Somalia, Mali, Niger, Chad and other African countries. But all of them are seeking safe havenin European countries, and their numbers are spiraling out of control. During the Gaddafi, era Libya was effective at controlling the migrant flows from Africa to Italy, though after the fall of the Libyan government the flow of migrants dramatically increased to 170,000 people reaching the coastal cities and heading to Italy. Groups like ISIS, which are now taking hold in cities like Sirte, Benghazi, Al Bayda and Darnah, are making good profitfrommigrant smuggling. Since there are no government forces which can prevent this, and smugglers don’t really care what happens to the refugees on the open sea, smuggling of migrants is becoming a relatively easy way of making large amounts of money. The passage to Libya costs around 1,000 dollars per person, plus another 2,000 for the boat trip to Europe. The migrants are usually exposed to physical and sexual abuse, and they can be compelled to work for several months at intermediate stops along the smuggling routes, a procedure which is quite common.
The illicit trade and smuggling of goods is often underestimated or ignored when discussing armed and paramilitary groups, but in regions such is North Africa these kinds of groups can easily transform into terrorist organizations with political interests and goals once they have sufficient funds. The progressing instability and criminalization of Libyan society is promoted by two factors. The first isthecomplete power vacuum after the fall of the Gaddafi regime and the absence of strong government and security force allowed various armed groups to rise and fill that gap. The second is the unstable situation in the north of Mali and the French operation Serval in that country. Although the operation was conducted to fight terrorism and Salafism, many jihadists managed to flee to Libya and find shelter in the local groups which were willing to hire or recruit them. Beside domestic Libyan terrorist/armed/criminal groups, there is a heavy presence of regional organizations like AQIM and MUJAO. Al Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb is a terrorist organization which dates back to the nineties which relies on criminal activity as one of the main sources of income(AQIM is renowned for their kidnapping actions). Though it was most active in Algeria and later in Mali, the group is now trying to spread its influence in Libya since the situation in the country favors these kinds of organizations. Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) was once part of AQIM until they broke off in 2011. The group currently focuses on Algeria and Mali with the goals of spreading jihadism and salafism and ultimately establishing the rule of Sharia. The new group which broke out from MUJAO in 2013 is Al Mourabitoun, most notorious for their ties to arms and cigarette trafficking with well established routes. In the recent years some reports suggest that Al Mourabitoun is directly connected to drug cartels which they help with cocaine smuggling. Though these groups are not yet established in Libya, in the future their presence will grow in the country just like ISIS is spreading its influence in the northern part of Libya.
Armed groups which emerged in Libya can be classified into four distinct categories: revolutionary brigades, unregulated brigades, post-revolutionary brigades, and militias.
- Revolutionary brigades were formed in the early stages of war and are relatively cohesive with good leadership and allegiance to their leaders. These brigades account for almost 80% of all experienced fighters and weapons not controlled by the state. Most of these groups emerged in the cities where there were strong clashes with the government forces, and most importantly revolutionary brigades posses significant combat experience not only as individuals but as combat units as well.
- Unregulated brigades are the brigades which broke away from the local military councils. They have a relatively cohesive military structure with significant military experience. Although these brigades operate in a lawless environment, they usually submit to the social principals of the communities which they originated from. Also unregulated brigades are mostly responsible for the high amount of human rights abuse.
- Post-revolutionary brigades were made after the fall of Gaddafi forces and power vacuum that ensued. These groups are common in pro-Gaddafi areas, they are also ever increasing in number since the deteriorating situation in the country support for the Gaddafi regime is growing. Although they lack experience and cohesion as previous groups, post-revolutionary brigades are present almost in every communal conflict. As conflicts become more frequent these groups will easily gain cohesion and experience which they lack.
- Militias represent a collection of various armed, criminal and terrorist groups which are gaining traction as the situation in the country is gradually becoming worse. Although these groups are usually made of hardened criminals, bandits and extremists their resilience is not yet tested, since there is no organized state security force. Some analysts suggest that they still don’t represent a major threat, unlike similar groups in Syria, because they lack organizational skills and support of other major criminal groups in the region. Of course this is subjected to change, especially now when there is a heavy presence of ISIS in the north of Libya and other terrorist organizations.
Rebel forces which were participating in the revolution in order to overthrow the regime were highly fragmented, the fall of Muammar Gaddafi also signified the end of any deeper cooperation between these rebel groups. Any idea of unified rebel army which could take hold over Libya proved to be rather fictional. Many of these groups were formed in city areas or suburbs, and estimates of total rebel groups in Libya range from a few hundred to a thousand. All of them were fairly well armed with popular infantry rifles like AK-47, much of this equipment was looted from the military stocks, but external factors like Qatar was also arming some of the groups with more advanced military equipment. Some of the armed groups even managed to acquire tanks like the Soviet era T-55, although the ability to use more sophisticated military technology is limited due to the lack of training and skills. Though many of the rebel groups had more or less good intentions like fighting for democracy and liberty, the groups formed in the east of the country were much more orientated towards salafism and radicalism. In the recent years these groups are much more active with wide support which they get from other regional Salafist organizations and groups, especially the Muslim Brotherhood which even founded a political party, the Justice and Construction Party, in 2012.
Major armed groups in Libya include:
- The Zintan military council is one of the most organized groups in Libya which emerged during 2011 and was involved in the capture of Tripoli. The group represents a more-less loose alliance of Bedouin groups from the desert region. Osama al-Juwaili one of the leaders of this group was also appointed minister of defense by the new government. The group is made out of people who can demonstrate that they are not in any way related to the Gaddafi regime, moreover the mix of civilian volunteers and former members of the Libyan Army which compose the armed group has proven very effective and hierarchical. Zintan group has had its fare share of battles with the islamist groups and militias around Tripoli, but also it is believed that this group is heavily engaged in criminal activities such as smuggling. Beside criminal activities some reports suggest that the group was involved in torture and murder of the former France ambassador Mr Omar Brebesh. The groups strength in numbers is estimated around 4,000.
- The Qa’Qa’ Brigade is considered the most organized and best equipped militia force in Tripoli, mostly this is due to their good connections to the Ministry of Defense. Also most of the members of the group are former combatants or officers of the Gaddafi’s military force. The group is involved in illicit drugs and arms trade despite their pro-government stand point. One of the main missions of this group was border control in the south-west part of the country and providing security on oil installations also in the south-west.
- Al-Sawaiq Brigade originated from Zintan and are one of the most heavily armed groups in Libya. With the newly elected government this group was rapidly incorporated into the security apparatus, it is interesting that this group also uses very similar uniforms as Libyan military. It is believed that they have similar military equipment just like a regular military. Main tasks of this group is to provide security protection to Prime Minister as well as senior political figures. Al-Sawaiq Brigade numbers around 2,000 men.
- Misratha Brigades is composed out of 200 militias with more than 40,000 fighters which makes it the largest armed group in post-war Libya, in their arsenal they also have around 800 tanks, 2,000 light and heavy vehicles and more than 30,000 light weapons. The Misratha brigades were strongly opposing the Gaddafi regime, during the uprising they allayed themselves a couple of times with some islamist groups as well as Muslim Brotherhood. Many of the Misratha militias have joined the ranks of Libya Shield Forces in the west part of the country, and some have been assigned to provide security protection to some government officials. Despite close ties to the new government some parts of the Misratha militias are being accused for war crimes during the siege in BaniWalid.
- February 17 Brigade is based in eastern part of Libya with strong Islamist presence. It is well organized with its own training camps and considerable military equipment. Unlike other Islamist groups February 17 believes in coexistence of Islam and democracy, although their leader FawziBukatef is a member of the Libyan branch of Muslim Brotherhood. The group has around 3,000 fighters financed from domestic sources in the country and government. The group also has relatively good ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, some unconfirmed reports suggest that February 17 had been cooperating with the CIA during the uprising and the diplomatic incident in Benghazi in 2012.
- Ansar al-Sharia is a Salafist group based in Benghazi which gain popularity after the uprising in 2011. This radical/jihadist group is mainly formed out of people from Abu Ubayda al-Jarah militia, the Malik Brigades and February 17 Brigades with estimated 5,000 fighters. The ideology of this group calls for full sharia law implementation in Libya, thus there is animosity between Ansar al-Sharia and other more moderate armed groups. The group doesn’t have a fixed organizations, it usually works as a coalition of various salafist groups based in eastern part of the country. Two major branches of the group are based in Benghazi and Derna, and are led by two prominent islamists who both served in the Afghanistan wars. Benghazi branch is led by Muhammad al-Zahawi, and Derna branch is led by Sufyan bin Qumu (former detainee in Guantanamo). The group uses its ideology to justify their goals and tactics, but also it has managed to spread its local communal ties thanks to a lack of governmental control. In fact the group is providing charity services to the locals and their families like food, medicines, education etc. Despite this “philanthropist” actions Ansar al-Sharia retains strong relationship towards Al Qaeda and AQIM.
- The Libya Shield Force was established in 2012, covering East, West and the Center of the country. The group is made out of 12 divisions which consist out of fragmented islamist groups. It has a military like structure, rather good hierarchy with high positions retaining high salaries. Many young men are led into this group for the sake of good salaries.Groups which join the Shield Force are more or less intact but they need to submit and acknowledge the leadership. Many commanders from other militias managed to enter LSF and undertake this project in order to avoid incorporation into the regular army. Heterogeneous structure of this group leads to disagreements and fissures which are not uncommon, after the internal conflicts are resolved usually new divisions emerge.
Nominal “pro-government” military forces:
- Libyan Army that has risen after the Gaddafi’s fall is partially composed out of former military staff and partially out of new recruits. The level of equipment is something similar to the other armed groups currently operating in the country. The army is under control of National Transitional Council, and has a wide international support. Countries like US, UK, Turkey, France and Italy not only support the army but also provide practical combat training and equipment. The army has around 35,000 servicemen and is rather popular in the eastern parts of Libya. Although big the army is facing some difficulties in other parts of the country, since there are allot of “old regime” soldiers in the military in some parts of Libya people look at them with resentment. The army is led by Abdullah al-Thini and Nouri Abusahmain, also the Libyan Army was most active in fight against Ansar al-Sharia.
- Libya Revolutionaries Joint Operations Room was established in 2013 as a group composed primarily out of islamist militias that were deployed law and order functions. The founder of this group is Libyan General National Congress. This group was accused of kidnapping former Prime Minister Zeidan after which was relived of duty and transferred from Tripoli to Benghazi. The group has around 400 members, also it is suspected that one part of the group gets external support for Al Qaeda. Head of the militia is Adel al-Tarhouni. LROR is under the jurisdiction of Ministry of Defense.
- National Security Directorate is based in Tripoli and acts as a conventional police force. The Directorate has around 9,000 men with rather bad equipment, one of the main reasons for their bad performance in carrying out regular duties. Their weaponry is very similar to the weaponry of guerrilla groups, also their camps and bases have been attacked several times by various armed groups. Leader of the Directorate is Mahmoud Sharif and is under the jurisdiction of Ministry of the Interior.
- Al-Saiqa is an elite force of Libyan military composed out of paramilitary troops and commandos. The group dates back to the sixties so it has had strong ties to the Gaddafi regime therefore is relatively reserved towards foreign actors. The group was involved in heavy clashes against Ansar al-Sharia and it is expected to maintain high level of readiness in order to accomplish counter-terrorist actions and some police duties. The situation after the uprising is making things more difficult for this group and their relations to other islamist armed groups in the country, Al-Saiqa was involved in suppressing the rebellion in the nineties against Libyan Islamic Fighting group and other potential terrorist threats. Al-Saiqa has around 5,000 soldiers and is led by Wanis Bukhamada, the group is under jurisdiction of Ministry of Defense.
- Special Deterrence Force or SDF is primarily involved in preventing drug trafficking, smuggling of alcohol and cigarettes and also in recent times the unit was able to prevent large smuggling operations of medicines and pharmaceuticals. This unit functions under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Interior, exact number of servicemen in the unit is not clear. Some of the major successes of the SDF is the recent capture of the IS commander Muhammad Saad Al-Tajouri in the city of Sirte, the news was published in February this year by Libyan Express.
- Petroleum Facility Guard is a militia force that controls most of the oil and gas infrastructure in the eastern part of Libya. PFG was formed out of Libya’s security national forces due to tribal and regional efforts to preserve the control over eastern Libya’s oil from the central government. This is one of the most supported armed groups in the country, both locally and internationally there is no secret that allot of foreign lobbies are interested in the Libyan oil production. In the post Gaddafi period there were many clashes and attacks on the oil fields conducted by various groups, in many times PFG actively participated with some of the government security forces in order to fight off the islamist fractions. It is presumed that PFG maintains relations with some of the Italy’s oil production companies as well as with some OPEC members. The group has around 20,000 troops, but only a small fraction around 2,000 are trained by the military. The group is led by Rasheed Mohammed Saleh Al Sabri and Ibrahim al-Jathran, the group falls under the jurisdiction of Oil Ministry.
Islamic State and Al Qaeda in Libya
All of the previous mentioned groups are domestic armed militias or salafist organizations which rose to power during or after the uprising in Libya. Although they do have some kind of connections to regional and global terrorist organizations they lack the capacity, experience and infrastructure unlike Al Qaeda and Islamic State. These two terrorist organizations can accomplish important goals and interests by spreading their agenda across Libya, there are at least four goals that they can aim for. Firstly by spreading their influence over Libya and later other parts of Africa they can get new sympathies and ultimately allies, Boko Haram has already expressed their allegiance to the Islamic State. This can be very useful for a terrorist organization/state which is seriously threatened in the Middle East. Second objective is finance. Smuggling networks are well organized and preserved in Africa, terrorist or criminal organizations can easily use them or even take hold of them by force if needed to acquire additional funding. As I previously mentioned things such as arms and drugs smuggling, migrant smuggling and illicit trade of all kinds of goods will provide large amounts of money for anyone who is capable enough to get the job done. In the third place we have recruitment. Poor countries with low standards of living and unstable societies can provide any terrorist organization with fresh blood. People who are stuck between a rock and a hard place can seek solution in these radical groups, reasons for this could be strictly material like money; but for others things like ideology, religion, sense of belonging and power can also be a driving force for joining such radical groups. And finally North African countries are popular tourist destinations which makes them attractive terrorist targets. Besides that, the geographical proximity of these countries to Europe can also mean better positioning of terrorist cells which ultimately leads to more effective terrorist attacks.
Al Qaeda in Libya still doesn’t have a classical affiliate, but groups such are AQIM and Ansar al-Sharia are serious contenders for that position. Main objective of the group is creating some kind of caliphate or emirate with sharia rule as main guidance system for social, political and spiritual aspects of life. Other strategic objective of the group would be a creation of a proxy organization that could execute the orders and be present in Libya, this was also suggested by Ayman al-Zawahiri. Although Libya seems as a secular society, deep fissures and fractionation of the society after the uprising is leading people to believe that a strong leadership, even radical such is sharia, can provide a substantial unifying force and bring back the country together. This religious identity card is exactly what ISIS and Al Qaeda are trying to play. Binding Arabic people with Sunni Islam with a more radical note of course, thus overlapping their cultural, ethnical and national identities and differences. Unlike Al Qaeda, ISIS has a much more active approach especially in Libya. Entrance of the Islamic State in Libya was marked in blood of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians executed in 2015. During the same year ISIS established two main strongholds in the region, one on the Sinai Peninsula and the other in the Libyan town of Sirte. While the Egyptian forces are managing to fight off the Islamic State the situation in Libya favors the jihadists. One of the main goals if IS in Libya is to create some sort of springboard for terrorism and subversion for the North African region, which could later spill over to the rest of the continent and Europe. The Libyan stronghold of Islamic State bears a great potential for this terrorist organizations for a couple of reasons. This is the first base of operations outside the Middle East, it can also serve as a retreat plan if Islamic State losses all of its assets in Syria and Iraq. While controlling Sirte the group also has presence in Sabrata, Tripoli, Misarta, Benghazi, Derna and Ajdabiya all of these cities can be a potential hub for recruiting new members or just spreading control and influence. In a divided society such is Libya, Islamic State can become a homing beacon for different armed groups. Similar scenario happened in Syria when “moderate” groups decided to join ISIS because they saw a good opportunity. Libya can also provide good resources for financing such organizations, rich oil and gas fields can bring allot of profit and large stockpiles of weapons can provide good infrastructure for further development of the Islamic State. Finally Libya’s proximity to Europe and accessibility to Italy will allow ISIS to infiltrate the continent.
As situation in the Middle East becomes harder for the salafists, Libya’s fragile state will become worse overtime. The Islamic State doesnot see Libya as a unitary country but rather a territory with various groups fighting for control. In the future, as their influence and presence grows, Islamic State will ultimately try to overthrow the governments in Tripoli and Torbuk and establish some sort of caliphate like in Syria and Iraq. Although there are allot of moderate/secular armed groups in Libya they won’t be able to take on the Islamic State. All of these groups have criminal background, they lack regional and international support, they are usually focused on a city or a province and don’t have capacity to fight for something bigger than that and lastly they have very shady people in their ranks with questionable allegiance. No one can guarantee that troops from Misarta Brigades or LSF wont defect to Islamic State if given chance. Though many are afraid of Libya collapsing on its self, the real threat will come from an organization that can manage this type of chaos. Just like in Iraq when there is no unified government, security force or any kind of social cohesion; organization like Islamic State with its infrastructure, harsh doctrine and clear goals of creating a caliphate can represent a viable solution not only for criminal/paramilitary/armed/terrorist groups but for a common man as well.