National Discord: IS, and the international community’s plan to strike Libya

oil depot

On Monday 4th January, IS opened a salvo of attacks on Libyan oil ports and terminals.

The week-long operation (though the vast majority of the activity was finished in the first three days) was the start of what many people have portrayed as – and IS itself would like you to believe is – an ominous and threatening ‘new initiative’ by the terror group.

Though that is, as we shall see, wildly overstating both the operation’s success, and the capacity of IS itself, it certainly signalled a desire by the group to attempt to capitalise on its success and possessions in Libya.

It is tempting to argue that this is exactly what we should have expected when we increased bombing raids in Syria; that IS leaders have been forced to Libya, and are therefore focusing increased efforts and attention there. The fact is, however, that this is almost certainly not the case either.

In fact, it’s an entirely predictable – and indeed widely predicted – result of two things: the international community’s refusal to assist Libya since 2011, and the failure of Libyan warlord and self-proclaimed ‘supporter’ of secular democracy within the state, Khalifa Haftar, to engage IS at any point since it entered and began operations in Libya.

On Monday 4th January (the first Monday of the Western New Year; perhaps an indication that after years of international recruiting, IS is now heavily influenced by Western, rather than Islamic, impulse and priorities) IS in Libya launched simultaneous strikes on Libya’s two largest oil terminals and ports, Ras Lanuf and Es Sider.

The attacks on the ports, which lie 13 miles from one another between Sirte and Ajdabiya, were repelled by the Petroleum Facilities Guard (PfG), a militia led by Ibrahim al-Jadhran.

Jadhran himself has a chequered recent history, having risen to prominence as a leading khetiba commander in the first Libyan Civil War, before using the PfG command role he had been handed as a reward to seize Libya’s major oil ports and attempt to form a breakaway state in its East (the full story is detailed in my book, The Toss of a Coin: voices from a modern crisis).

But at present, he and ‘his’ force are officially supporters of the House of Representatives ‘government’ (one of two illegitimate and powerless political bodies in Libya at present), and the PfG lost 18 members defending the two oil terminals. Thirty IS members were killed, and between 2.49m and 3.2m barrels of oil burned.

The fighting lasted six days, ending on Sunday 10th January when the PfG repelled a three-boat attack on Zuwaytina terminal (North-East of Ras Lanuf, Sider and Ajdabiyah, on the road from Ajdabiyah to Benghazi), striking one with a missile and causing the other two vessels to flee.

It is now believed – though still as yet not fully confirmed – that IS has taken the town of Bin Jawad, between Sirte and Es Sider, where it is rumoured to be detaining police, soldiers and PfG members who have not yet ‘repented’ or sworn ‘Bayah’ (loyalty) to IS. The PfG reports six of its members have been killed in Bin Jawad.

As the attacks took place, IS also exploded a rigged water truck to a police training camp at Zliten, a city West of Misrata. The blast, on Thursday 7th January, was the worst terror attack in Libya’s history, killing more than 80 people, and injuring more than 200.

IS itself claims the attacks were co-ordinated, and certainly seem to be part of a renewed ‘push’ for cash, increased possessions and of course presence and income in Libya.

And the targets were each symbolic, as well as strategic.

As noted several times already on this site, IS requires mayhem and warfare to thrive – to gain vital supplies, it’s important that the state and physical infrastructure in states where it operates is largely uncontrolled, and to gain recruits it must present itself as a strong force in a situation of chaos.

It is also far too weak to withstand the attentions of an organised police force, army and legitimate and strong government supported by its people – which is why IS is capable only of anything other than one-off strikes in all but four states on Earth right now (Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya) – all of them mired in civil war.

In this context, not only does the horrific murder of 80 innocents, and the maiming of 200 more, serve as a notification of strength to potential recruits, and strike at the exact kind of state-building initiative (the recruitment and training of an organised police force) which would threaten IS, it was also intended as a warning to Libyans that any attempt to promote peace and order within the state will be crushed.

The major weakness of this approach is that in rigging explosives to a truck, IS reveals the gaping chasm between its view of itself, and the reality of its position in Libya.

Though it believes itself to be an army, it is nothing of the sort. It is a small terror group, forced to improvise because it has neither the capacity nor the technology to launch a sustained attack against anything approaching state systems and structures. Though Libya has few of these, IS is still forced to improvise explosive devices. It is literally all it is capable of doing.

That is not to pretend that IS does not pose a huge threat in Libya: it does. But that is a mark of Libya’s chaos and weakness, rather than IS’ organisation and strength. And the latter would reduce even further if the other militias in Libya were to stop fighting and start rebuilding their chaotic, battered nation.

In a similar way, the attacks on Libyan oil ports serve more than one function. Many people have noted that were it to actually take even one of the ports, IS would be sitting on millions of pounds worth of oil, and this is certainly a factor in its attacks.

But as Jadhran’s own experience has shown, stealing Libya’s oil is one thing: actually selling it and transporting it to a buyer, quite another. And it is hard to imagine exactly who would publicly buy Libyan oil from IS, as well as almost impossible to see how any vessel would transport it across the Mediterranean, let alone beyond.

So in fact, the strikes are likely to have had slightly different aims, namely once more showing potential recruits a powerful and impressive face (as a group which had stolen and possessed millions of barrels of oil), ‘punishing’ Libya by depriving it of its major source of income, and snatching more strategically-important land within Libya itself, both increasing its own power and making any Libyan initiatives to reorder and rebuild far harder.

Once again, however, there is a major problem with this: IS failed. On all counts. It did not seize any Libyan oil terminals or any of its oil and it suffered far heavier casualties than – and in one case was forced to embarrassingly run from – the PfG; a ‘facilities guard’ which has already been beaten into submission by the Fajr militia which supports one of Libya’s two powerless governments, and has since sworn loyalty to the other.

The attacks were a failure, showing IS as what it is – an extremely nasty, but simultaneously limited, terror group, without the military capacity to do more than scare and murder.

This does not mean we should ignore IS. And in fact, the embarrassment of the first days of January may push it to attempt new atrocities to attempt to make up for its failures.

But it does mean that IS in Libya is not – at least not yet – so strong that it cannot be faced down by the far stronger groups elsewhere in the state. Fajr (which supports the GNC, the powerless, illegitimate government based in Tripoli) has already done so, as have the Ansar al-Sharia militia (aligned internationally with Al Qaeda) and now the Petroleum Facilities Guard. Only the ‘Operation Dignity’ militia, headed by Khalifa Haftar, who claims to support the (equally powerless and illegitimate) HoR, has failed to oppose IS in Libya.

The latter point is vital, because the international community, as noted in previous posts, is gearing up for another round of military intervention – bombing, in other words, with the possibility of NATO troops blowing things up on the ground, this time – to ‘stop’ IS. And the support of Haftar has been vigorously sought to help make this happen. The activity would be misguided, but if it is to happen, we must urgently evaluate exactly who we wish to ally with in Libya, and why.

But an even more important point to consider is this. The attack on Libya’s oil and police facilities was simply the logical progression by IS from a position of small militia clinging to a single stronghold (Sirte, which has been terrorised by IS since February 2015, and where Fajr forces are still fighting the group on a regular basis) to attempt to become a player of force and power in Libya’s bitter four-sided Civil War.

And it failed. Of course, it was only its first attempt, but it failed completely and without consolation. In the absolute optimal conditions (widespread civil war; one of the two most powerful groups in Libya refusing to fight it; chaos and mayhem; no governance and unprotected infrastructure) IS in Libya is as yet incapable of achieving its aims in the state.

We do not need to bomb Libya, and in fact that is likely only to make things worse, to make IS a stronger force in the state.

Rather than adding to the violence and chaos in which it thrives, Libya’s opposing forces and the international community should instead focus on the peace and order which will starve IS of material and recruits, and only then, once a state is back in place, focus on destroying the pieces that remain of IS in Libya.

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One thing the international community should certainly consider if genuinely hoping to oppose IS in Libya is removing itself from Libyan politics.

Until November last year, the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) was a controversial, but on balance slightly positive, presence in the North African state.

As its two powerless and illegitimate governments sat and watched, throwing words of abuse at one another, and as Fajr and Dignity fought one another across the state, with Ansar al Sharia and IS also murdering and maiming people in the name of religion and/or politics, UNSMIL regularly created extra problems for itself, largely by appearing to support the HoR and Dignity and oppose the GNC and Fajr.

But its proposal for a Government of National Accord (GNA), which might bring GNC and HoR politicians together in a single political organisation, was basically sound. It was always likely to face opposition from Fajr and Haftar’s Dignity militia, meaning it may never have succeeded, but the proposal and the negotiations set up to make the GNA were not only the only initiative of their kind in promoting peace in Libya, they were also a sensible step towards it.

But as explained in a previous post, in December the situation shifted. The Presidents of the HoR (Aguila Saleh Issa) and GNC (Nouri Abu Sahmain) met for the first time, and issued a joint statement that the two ‘governments’ intended to create their own political agreement and solution to the second Libyan Civil War (in itself, this was a development from a 6th December announcement by representatives from both Parliaments that they had met independently of UNSMIL and sketched out a new agreement).

This historic announcement was ignored by UNSMIL, under its new Special Representative Martin Kobler, who instead demanded that its own Government of National Accord must be supported by the GNC and HoR.

The major impetus behind this remarkably intransigent and poorly-considered stance is the increasing fear of the international community about IS’ increasing power in North Africa, and the possibility that it might launch strikes against Europe. In the wake of the Paris attacks of November 2015, the French government has led calls for strikes on IS positions in Libya (effectively, Sirte; my former hometown, and a city already devastated by Libya’s first Civil War, as detailed in The Toss of a Coin: voices from a modern crisis), with Italy and the UK believed to be supportive.

But as neither the GNC nor HoR are legitimate governments, it would be extremely difficult for the UN or NATO to present a legal case for making such attacks at either’s request. Far easier would be if a legitimate government – albeit one created by the international community, rather than by Libyans themselves* – was set in place, and made such a request (which of course it would be likely to; how could a Libyan government created by people who want an excuse to bomb Libya not oblige those people by requesting them to bomb?).

*It is worth noting that as stated previously on this site, the UN’s GNA is not in itself a ‘bad’ idea. It is just less desirable than a government formed for Libyans, by Libyans.

The major problem is that of course without the backing of Libyan people, including its politicians and sadly but inescapably also the Fajr and Dignity militias, the GNA itself will lack both power and legitimacy.

And in its desperation to force through the GNA, UNSMIL appears to have created even greater challenges to this. As noted here, Kobler held a meeting with Haftar, who had previously opposed all peace proposals since he had started the second Libyan Civil War in May 2014, which ended with him accepting the GNA initiative.

No-one knows what was discussed at that meeting. But Haftar has insisted that he should be made head of the new Libyan state armed forces when peace is finally allowed to happen in the state he cast into – and has kept at – war with itself.

The problem is that the GNC, whose members have been consistently (and unjustly) accused of being ‘terrorists’ by Haftar, and many of whom were in the (then unified, if also illegitimate) Libyan government Haftar’s allies shot missiles at and bullets in as they attempted to work, will absolutely oppose any agreement which guarantees Haftar that post. If that is the deal Kobler has done, the GNA will be opposed by roughly 50 per cent of Libya, including its strongest military group.

Nor, in fact, has the HoR – whose President announced that the ‘government’ would work with the GNC to solve the Libyan crisis, an implicit rejection of the UNSMIL proposal – yet voted to support the proposal.

Two more major obstacles to the development and success of the GNA were highlighted on Friday 16th and Saturday 17th January.

On Friday 15th, both the supporters of Haftar and the GNC’s Prime Minister and Minister of Defence Khalifa Ghwell rejected a ‘security team’ proposed by the GNA Prime Minister-designate Faiez Serraj.

Serraj had named the 18-member team in the hope that it would enable the GNA to govern from Libya’s capital, Tripoli, where the GNC and Fajr are currently based, as well as to promote ‘security’ in all other Libyan cities (the latter aim is certainly positive, but disappointingly vague, considering the major threat to Libyan security is a civil war now in its 21st month).

But within hours, his own Deputy Prime Minister-designate, Ali Al-Gotrani, a high-profile supporter of Haftar, rejected the team outright, arguing that it had not been voted on by the ‘Presidency Council’ (which Serraj leads and is charged with paving the way for the GNA), that it included men who had led illegal militias in Libya and that instead it must include only officers from the Libyan National Army (LNA – a part of Haftar’s Dignity militia) and the police.

It is, of course, impossible for such a demand to be met. First, because Tripoli itself is run by exactly the kind of illegal militia to which Gotrani referred, meaning it is extraordinarily unlikely a group made up of current and/or former enemies of those militias will be given smooth passage in Tripoli, and second because Dignity itself – and therefore the LNA – is also currently illegal, illegitimate and part of a militia.

For his part, Ghwell was even less malleable. He declared all members of the security team ‘traitors’ and ordered they should be arrested on sight.

There is a certain internal logic to Ghwell’s demand: the security team has been created by a ‘council’ the GNC and HoR agree lacks legitimacy, and is now to be sent to remove the GNC from its base, and replace it there, without consultation with the Libyan people. We should note, however, that the GNC itself is hardly a legitimate government.

The second obstacle, however, is even greater. Serraj was supposed to announce the members of the GNA by the end of Saturday 16th January.

He did not. Instead, he requested an extra two days (he began the task on 1st January) – a development which caused Kobler to tweet ‘Libya cannot afford to wait’, which would perhaps have seemed more reasonable had Libya not already ‘waited’ 19 and a half months.

The House of Representatives is supposed – by 26th January – to vote on whether it accepts the government’s make-up (the GNC has already voted to reject the government out of hand; the HoR has not yet because it has not been quorate since before the proposal was announced in December).

But it is not just that time is running out.

The problem with the entire process so far is that Kobler has effectively worked to marginalise all those who have raised objections to the GNA, as well as forming a secretive alliance with Khalifa Haftar, a warlord, aggressor and leader of an illegal militia whose future role is the major sticking points of any and all peace initiatives so far suggested in Libya.

He is attempting to force onto Libya a government that many do not want, and in the process attempting to strangle Libya’s own peace process, led by Libyan people.

And in doing so, he has damned his own ‘solution’ to failure.

Even when Serraj eventually names his ‘government’, and even if the HoR, whose president has publicly rejected the GNA, votes in favour of the new government, and even if we were to ignore the fact that the United Nations is actively preventing Libyans from shaping their own agreement and future – literally the opposite of what UNSMIL should be doing for Libya – there is one inescapable fact we cannot ignore: regardless of its membership, the Government of National Accord as a concept simply does not have the support of enough Libyans to be able to operate, or to claim any legitimacy within the state.

The UN is simply dropping a third powerless, illegitimate government into a failing state. And it is doing so because the international community wants to strike at IS, and believes it will more easily receive legal permission to do so if this unwanted, powerless body requests it than if either of the already existing powerless and illegitimate governments did so.

And the darkest irony of all is that the bombing campaign the international community proposes is in fact the exact opposite of the initiative which is most likely to destroy IS in Libya – the promotion of peace.

The GNC and HoR’s initiative may not be controlled and shaped by the international community, but should it succeed, it would lay the groundwork for a state in which all Libyans have a stake, in which an organised, loyal police force and army can promote peace, legality and security. Under those circumstances, IS simply cannot survive.

Instead, the international community is killing that process at its birth, in favour of a bombing campaign which will create yet more of the chaos on which IS thrives, and feed its propaganda about a ‘war’ by ‘the West’ on Islam.

The GNA is a mistake, based on an error. In its place, the best way to defeat IS is to enable and encourage the putative peace process begun by Libyans, for Libya.

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In last week’s post, I warned that the EU’s agreement with Turkey – effectively a bribe of €3bn for Turkey to stop Syrians entering Europe (with the implied pay-off sentence of ‘by any means necessary’) – was having the effect of legitimising (indeed encouraging – and we must note that it is the EU fuelling this encouragement) the mistreatment of Syrian refugees by state police, and forcing them to hide.

This is a disaster because this is the coldest period of the year, a time when men, women and children who are forced to shelter in hovels without window panes and in some cases even roofs urgently need to be seen by aid organisations and the Turkish government, and to be provided with warm food, shelter and even basics like blankets and warm winter clothes.

So it was with a grim sense of total predictability that on Thursday 14th January, just four days after that analysis went live, UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond stood up in Ankara and called for the Turkish government to ‘do more’ to prevent Syrian refugees entering the EU.

His choice of language was of particular note: not ‘how can we help refugees?’ or even ‘how can we help you, Turkey, a nation which has so far welcomed 2.5 million desperate Syrian men, women and children who are fleeing death by bullet, missile, fire, torture or starvation at home, to cope?’, but ‘whatever you do, stop them from getting to Europe’.

This should not be a surprise. The UK – with Hammond as its Foreign Secretary throughout, has been one of the worst European responders to the entire international refugee crisis.

Its major contributions so far have been:

  • to put up fences to prevent refugees reaching places from which they could travel to the UK,
  • setting dogs and armed police on those desperate enough to try,
  • ignoring repeated UNHCR appeals (first made in January 2014) to help reduce the humanitarian emergency in Syria and the growing crisis in Lebanon by taking 20,000 Syrian refugees,
  • handing money to regimes including Eritrea and Sudan to stop people fleeing oppression, terror and death in those states,
  • refusing point blank to enter into a Europe-wide ‘quota-system’ of refugees, which would have enabled the EU to at least mobilise as a whole to aid desperate human beings.

It’s a list of abject – and deliberate – failures of humanity, made all the more unacceptable and unjustifiable by the heartfelt and generous response by UK citizens to the crisis itself, including volunteering at the Jungle, Calais.

And though it is not surprising, it is disappointing. Because Hammond must know (if he does not, he is simply not qualified to do his job) that you cannot solve a crisis by putting up walls, or by demanding other people deal with it for you. And he must know that the EU – including the UK, which is the fifth-richest state on Earth – can help provide safety to people who are fleeing death, and that if it refuses to do so, the result will be that those people die or are killed: that he, his government and the EU, by refusing to help when they are more than capable of doing so, have the blood of innocents on their hands.

And he must know also that creating a legal and safe system by which people can reach the safety of the EU in an ordered manner is not just to their benefit, but to everyone’s – because not only will people who have been welcomed to the EU contribute much more quickly to it, but a safe, legal system will at a stroke almost wipe out the chaos and uncertainty felt by refugees and people already in Europe.

Instead, Hammond chose his moment in Turkey – a state far less wealthy than almost all EU members, and which has welcomed 2.5m Syrian refugees, while the UK has so far accepted 1,252 – to announce that Turkey, not the UK or EU, must do more.

It would be laughable, if it were not so cynically awful.

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Another point made in the last two blogs was that to date, the UK, Hungary and Spain have been the three worst EU-member responders to the international refugee crisis (the UK and Hungary for – with help from Spain and Poland – systematically preventing a co-ordinated EU response, while putting up walls and using violence against refugees; Spain for sending back almost all refugees who have arrived on its beaches without time to check their right or need for refuge).

But this week, Denmark has made a late bid to join the roll of abject dishonour.

On 12th January, the Danish government announced it believed it had secured a parliamentary majority for a policy under which refugees’ valuables will be taken from them if they wish to be allowed to shelter (and of course, to work, though that has so far been strangely omitted from the Danish statements on the matter) in Denmark.

Under the new law, which is due to be voted on on 26th January, border police would be expected to search the bags of men, women and children, and take valuable items from them, to ‘pay’ for their accommodation in Denmark.

It is perhaps worth noting that Denmark is an extraordinarily rich state, and that the entire international agreement on human rights is placed at risk by the proposal.

It may be gratuitous to add that John O’Brennan, a professor of European Politics at Ireland’s Maynooth University noted: ‘Well on the way to replicating Nazi policies towards foreigners. Gold teeth, anyone? Good quality hair?’ It would, of course, certainly be gratuitous, were it not true.

The policy has apparently been largely welcomed not only by Denmark’s majority party, Venstre, a right-wing group, but also two smaller right-wing parties in the Danish Parliament, and the main opposition Social Democrat party.

But even within Venstre, it has caused upset. Ten local and regional representatives sent a letter to the Danish daily newspaper Berlingske which included the line: ‘When focusing on symbolic actions rather than real content, you forget that politics is about real people of flesh and blood.’

They, and others in parties across the Danish political spectrum who have expressed alarm and unhappiness at the plan, deserve recognition, and it is to be hoped that they can raise sufficient opposition to it by 26th January.

But they are not alone in speaking to the media.

On Danish TV, immigration minister Soren Pind said: ‘I’m talking about a situation in which a man comes along with a case full of diamonds and asks for protection in Denmark. That’s only fair.’

There are a multitude of potential responses to such a statement. But here are three:

  1. Of course, what the Danish government is talking about is absolutely not ‘a man comes along with a case of diamonds’.

The proposed law orders border officers to search the bags of men, women and children and remove items of value from them.

It does not say ‘this should only happen in the case of men with a bag or bags full of diamonds’.

Pind is either accidentally, or deliberately entirely incorrect to claim that is what he or the policy is talking about.

It is in fact talking about the systematic removal of possessions from desperate people.

  1. ‘A man with a case of diamonds’ is in any case extremely unlikely to require refuge.

It is far more likely that such a man would simply head for the nearest safe state and then use his immense wealth to enter any nation he chose.

Ironically, though he would presumably have to buy a place to live, this would actually mean that the man with a case of diamonds would be able to keep most if not all the contents of his bag.

It is desperate people, with no choice but to flee and beg for a safe place to stay who would lose their possessions, not extremely wealthy ones.

  1. The point of refugee status is the following: the person or persons applying to be allowed to stay – either temporarily or for the longer-term – in your country, has been forced to do so.

They have not turned up because they like Denmark, they are there because they have been chased from their homes, threatened by war, oppression, terror, starvation: death, in other words.

They have not done anything wrong, and have been forced to leave their home against their will.

Therefore, even in the case of the imaginary refugee with ‘a case full of diamonds’, it is not in any way ‘fair’ to charge those people for the privilege of being allowed to live in Denmark.

 

The European Union has failed thousands of refugees. It is failing them still. On 26th January, Danish politicians have an opportunity to prevent their state making an inhuman and unjustifiable new law. It is to be hoped they take that chance.


 

 

Rory O’Keeffe is an International Journalist and the Author of “The Toss of a Coin: voices from a modern crisis” available from Amazon and the  Publishers Website    

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