Armed Conflict: Militias clashed south of Tripoli on 27 August 2018, escalating rapidly to a level of violence not seen in the area since 2014-2015, before a UN-brokered ceasefire was signed on 05 September. Various armed groups engaged in open warfare through the less congested terrain south of the capital, with at least one group employing ground-attack aircraft against opposition forces. Details of casualties remain vague, however reports suggested upwards of 70 fatalities occurred due to the fighting. Mitiga airport was closed during much of the violence, effectively preventing mass evacuation.
Isolated attacks have occurred since the 05 September ceasefire, however the situation appears to have stabilised. These attacks have resulted in further intermittent closures of Mitiga airport. In addition to the violence between militia groups, Islamic State claimed responsibility for an attack on the National Oil Corporation (NOC) on 10 September which left at least four dead.
The recent debate on Libya’s governance vacuum has often focussed on the higher-level competition for international recognition between a small number of groups vying for national government. These are, primarily, the UN-supported Government of National Accord in Tripoli and the Council of Deputies in Tobruk, supported by General Haftar. The reality on the ground, however, is that these governments are not discrete groups. Each is supported by a complex network of local militias with competing loyalties and interests. The main groups involved in the recent violence were all notionally under the control of the Government of National Accord (hereafter “government”).
Fighting on 27 August was initiated in a concerted effort by the Kani Brothers and Seventh Brigade militias to seize territory and influence at the expense of 301 Brigade. Success in these efforts may have placed them in a position to rival the Nawasi and Tripoli Revolutionary Brigades, or the Special Deterrence Forces, therefore increasing their influence on the Government of National Accord.
Influence in Libya remains inherently territorial. Groups in control of major infrastructure or natural resources enjoy significant economic benefits from their ability to sell access to these assets. With either governments’ near-total inability to guarantee any formal property rights, simply seizing terrain from rival groups has replaced more conventional commercial practice. With larger industries, such as the oil extraction industry under the National Oil Corporation, where control of one asset is of little value without the supporting facilities, militias operate as protection rackets. In this manner, the militias supporting both the Tripoli- and Tobruk-based governments benefit from the NOC exporting oil from ports under the control of each. Equally, control of essential state assets would almost certainly increase a given group’s standing in the general election planned for 10 December 2018.
Additionally, control of territory has resulted in other nations and international organisations granting de facto legitimacy to a number of groups, further expanding their influence. Libyan militias have played a central role on both sides of the migrant crisis which has plagued the Mediterranean since 2015. The lawless nature of Libya has permitted these militias to exploit the flow of migrants for profit. Numerous groups remain directly involved in the logistics of moving vast numbers of migrants towards the Libyan coast and on to Europe. Additionally, the EU and Italy have directly offered funding and training to militias in control of coastal territories in order to form a “Libyan Coastguard”. The intent of this measure was to reduce the flow of migrants into southern Italy, however, this appears to have had limited impact and several groups participating in the program have continued to be implicated in widespread trafficking.
The terms of the UN-brokered ceasefire were published on 10 September and include a number of short-term, practical measures with longer-term aspirational ones. Initial measures include all groups withdrawing their troops and heavy equipment back to the positions prior to 27 August, and the development of a system to monitor and verify each group’s activities. The agreement also contains clauses calling for the development of a scheme to replace militias with a regular army and police personnel; preventing extortion of state companies by militias, and abolishing the decrees delegating state authority to armed groups. Whilst these terms have been agreed to, there is no clearly identified framework for these processes. The Libyan government’s regular forces remain weak and ill-equipped compared to the militias, and it remains unclear what, if any, incentives there are for militia commanders to lay down their arms. There is no specific mention of the deployment of peacekeepers or economic measures, for example, which may apply the long-term continuous pressure to disarm.
The inherent weaknesses of relying on informal militias for security were highlighted on 10 September 2018 when at least two gunmen conducted an explosive and small arms attack on the NOC headquarters in central Tripoli. Two attackers and at least two staff members were reported killed in the attack, with an undisclosed number of wounded. The attack stands apart from the normal trends of militia violence due to the previously highlighted relationship between the NOC and the key militia groups. Whilst detailed information remains scarce, the Islamic state has claimed responsibility for the attack, a group which remains unaffiliated with the militias attempting to control the area. The lack of formal governance continues to provide a permissive environment for such groups, with no functional information sharing which has proven essential in counter-terror activities elsewhere.
In the immediate term, this ceasefire is highly likely to restore the status quo. Reports from those on the ground in Tripoli have reported numerous minor violations of the ceasefire; however, these align roughly with the normal pattern of life prior to the recent fighting. Due to the informal power structures within Libyan militias, it is highly likely that isolated attacks between individuals and small groups will continue, potentially seeking revenge or restitution for harm suffered during the fighting. The situation is likely to remain highly volatile, the lack of effective rule of law will ensure that crime and violence remain key elements of daily life.
It is likely that efforts to implement measures to curtail militia power and replace them with state forces will result in further violence in the intermediate to long term, particularly heading into the proposed election season. The state presently lacks a meaningful monopoly on violent or non-violent methods of seeking compliance. Any meaningful attempt to expand the state’s security forces is likely to entail a revolving-door situation whereby former militiamen simply swap uniforms and paymasters. Whilst this would rapidly bolster the numerical strength of state forces, it also runs the severe risk of simply importing the factional and tribal tensions of the militias into the Libyan armed forces, setting the stage for further conflict.
Travellers are advised to avoid all non-critical travel to Libya. The situation remains highly volatile and outbreaks of violence occur frequently. Urban areas are typically more secure due to the density of security infrastructure, however recent events in Tripoli have clearly indicated that even in these areas, peace remains fragile. While travellers may not be directly targeted by warring militias, the use of heavy weapons in urban areas makes the risk of collateral damage highly likely. Rural areas throughout the country continue to experience widespread banditry and persistent militia activity. In these environments, foreign travellers may be directly targeted. Islamist groups have also directly targeted foreign employees at major remote infrastructure sites for kidnap.
Solace Global would strongly advise clients to only travel to Libya with pre-arranged security in place. The minimum level of security in the country involves low profile GPS tracked vehicles, close protection teams, and a secondary convoy vehicle in case of an attack or vehicle breakdown. It is also advisable that travellers use a safe house or a well-vetted hotel. Visitors to Libya may wish to receive Libya-specific hostile environment training. Travellers are also advised to use travel-tracking technology with an intelligence feed as well as regularly scheduled check-ins with a 24-hour operations centre. This should enable a traveller to be aware of any security updates within their vicinity and to update others of their movements in case of an emergency.