In Libya, a battle is underway for the capital, Tripoli. On one side is the General Khalifa Haftar-led Libyan National Army (LNA), whose powerbase is in the east of the country, and on the other side is the internationally-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA), formally led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj and propped up by various militias. Ahmed al-Mismari, the spokesman of the LNA, recently stated that terrorist banners belonging to the Islamic State (ISIS) and Al-Qaeda have started to emerge in the GNA-held areas of Tripoli. He even went further, accusing Turkey of meddling in the battle by sending Jabhat al-Nusra extremists from Syria to support the GNA in its fight against the LNA.
This article will try to assess these claims, by analyzing the root causes of the current turmoil in Libya and examining the historical relations between the Turkey-Qatar alliance and the terrorist and extremist groups in Libya.
Tale of Two Governments
In the first democratic elections in Libya in 2012, Islamist parties failed to achieve a majority, and some parties affiliated to extremists, such as the Homeland Party (Hizb al-Watan), founded by Abd al-Hakim Belhaj, a veteran of the Afghan jihad and the former leader of the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIGF), won no seats.
Despite their failure, the Islamist militias, including some linked to terrorist organizations, continued to hold considerable influence. The were able to impose a siege on the elected parliament to demand the passage of laws that suited them and to have prominent leaders appointed to key ministerial posts.
In the United Nations-supervised parliamentary elections of 25 June 2014, the more secular factions won most of the seats and the Islamists took only around 30 seats out of 200. Rather that conceding defeat, the Islamists and their allies on Libya’s west coast formed the Libya Dawn coalition and launched a coup d’état. The Islamists captured Tripoli after a seven-week battle. The newly-elected parliament fled to the eastern town of Tobruk and in time appointed Haftar as its army commander. In Tripoli, a “National Salvation Government” (NSG) was formed, composed of those who had lost the 2014 election. The NSG was backed by the Muslim Brotherhood.
In an attempt to resolve the issue of competing authorities, the U.N. mediated the establishment of the GNA in December 2015. Al-Sarraj was selected to lead the GNA and in April 2016 he returned to Tripoli, establishing some authority. The NSG effectively disintegrated soon after this, though the NSG’s authority was invoked when its former leader, Khalifa al-Ghawil, staged a coup attempt against the GNA several months later, an effort that has resulted in intermittent clashes ever since. Various institutions set up under the U.N. plan have not functioned properly, however. The High Council of State (HCS), an unelected advisory body to the parliament, was supposed to be a short-term compromise between the GNA and the Tobruk government; the HCS now has a significant, unchecked influence over the make-up of the bureaucracy in Tripoli and it is led by Khalid al-Meshri, an ostensibly-former Muslim Brotherhood leader. The Tobruk-based parliament has refused to recognize the GNA, and the U.N.’s role in effectively ratifying a seizure of power by people who lost an election has been controversial. The Tobruk administration has operated with its own Prime Minister, Abdullah al-Thani.
Despite the GNA being recognized by most fact that most international players, including the United States, European Union, and the U.N., it lacks legitimacy and is perceived by some Libyans as a foreign imposition. Furthermore, the GNA has been unable to exercise de facto sovereignty, even over Tripoli, which has become divided between four large local militias that have infiltrated and hollowed out the state institutions.
The Prelude to the Current Battle
In an attempt to end the stalemate between the two governments, several peace proposals have been worked out, most notably at a conference in Paris in the May 2018 and at an international conference in November 2018 organized by the Italian government in Palermo, Sicily. At both conferences, the GNA and LNA agreed to hold elections, which for various reasons were postponed from December 2018 to an unspecified date in 2019.
However, simultaneous with these peace efforts, militias affiliated with the GNA tried to take control of strategic areas from the LNA. For example, on 14 June 2018, a coalition of fighters calling itself the Petroleum Facilities Guard (PFG), led by under Ibrahim al-Jadran, who had controlled the oil crescent between 2012 and 2016, launched an offensive from a base near Bani Walid in western Libya, attempting to seize the oil export terminals and adjoining towns that were under the control of the LNA. The HCS in Tripoli tacitly supported the offensive, which the LNA managed to repel.
Thus, Al-Sarraj recent claims that Haftar’s military campaign against Tripoli is a betrayal of the peace agreements rings hollow. The effort by Haftar now is to bring an end to this squabbling by eliminating the fractured rule of various criminal and extremist militias in Tripoli, and reuniting the country under a single, effective authority.
Ankara’s and Qatar’s Questionable Ties
Since the Arab Spring, Turkey has arguably become one of the main sponsors of radicalism, notably in Syria where its policies bolstered ISIS and Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups. Libya could be considered as another country, where Turkey, and its ally Qatar, have invested heavily in sponsoring groups tied to terrorist organizations.
During the uprising against Gaddafi in 2011, Qatar provided some extremist groups inside Libya, especially those allied to Al-Qaeda, with arms. One of these groups is the faction led by Belhaj. Some of the arms that Doha sent into Libya were later used by militants with ties to Al-Qaeda in Mali.
Qatar has been implicated in funding terrorist organizations in Libya, like ISIS and Ansar al-Shariah, which increased the ability of these groups to pay fighters monthly salaries of $100 or more, and hence increase their recruitment bases.
Turkey has established relations with Al-Qaeda affiliated groups in a number of places throughout the region. One such case was the Libyan-born Irish citizen Mahdi al-Harati, who from April to August 2011 ran the “Tripoli Brigade”, an armed unit that took part in the final battle to push Libyan dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi out of his capital city. Shortly after the fall of Tripoli, Harati was appointed as deputy commander of the Tripoli Military Council (TMC), which at the time was headed by Belhaj. Harati resigned in October 2011 and, with the support from the Qatari and Turkish government, joined the Syrian insurgency. Around this time, Belhaj also went to Turkey and met with Syrian opposition leaders. In April 2012, Harati and his brother-in-law, Houssam Najjair, established Liwa al-Ummah, based in Syria’s north-west Idlib governorate.
Ankara has continued supporting extremist groups in Libya, in Tripoli and Misrata, with weapons, despite the arms embargo imposed by the United Nations. In December 2018, a shipment of arms coming from Turkey was seized at Khoms port near Tripoli. The shipment contained 3,000 Turkish-made pistols, as well as some other pistols, hunting rifles, and ammunition. Turkey pledged stop these shipments and opened a joint investigation with the GNA.
Yet, just two months later, in February 2019, another shipment of Turkish weapons was confiscated at the same seaport. It included nine Toyota Sierra Leone 4X4 armored assault vehicles and Turkish-made combat tanks. These weapons were destined to the Special Deterrence Forces (SDF) and the Nawasi Battalion, which are two of the four main militias that make up the Tripoli Protection Force. It should be reiterated here that Tripoli’s militias are linked to figures from the LIFG.
The U.N. has confirmed the Turkish role in supporting extremist elements of the Libya Dawn coalition, and Qatar has sustained its relations with Belhaj. Furthermore, the LNA has captured some Turkish fighters during the ongoing battles in Tripoli, who confessed to working in behalf of Turkey’s MIT intelligence agency. MIT was responsible for delivering arms to Islamist insurgents in parts of northern Syria in late 2013 and early 2014, according to a Turkish prosecutor and court testimony from gendarmerie officers responsible for border control. The additional outside support to Tripoli militias from Turkey — including groups affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Qaeda — allowed them to infiltrate the city’s security and political administration.
Against this background, the claims of the LNA spokesman that Turkey is sending members of Al-Nusra into Libya to buttress the GNA in the battle for Tripoli cannot be dismissed out of hand. The record shows a clear pattern of support from Ankara to extremist factions in Libya, often with Qatari collaboration.
The fight for Tripoli is key to the entire future of Libya. The GNA’s nominal rule is based on competing, predatory militias in the city, and the end of this situation could restore stability. Nonetheless, the battle will be a long one, particularly since the Islamists can call on support from Turkey and Qatar.
Some critics claims that LNA’s offensive against Tripoli will exacerbate instability rather than bringing order to Libya. However, they ignore the fact that Tripoli is already unstable and precisely because of its current rulers, the various warlords and militias, who benefit from the war economy, with its attendant kidnappings and skirmishes to expand their fiefdoms.
The key interests of neighboring states in North Africa and Europe are counter-terrorism and containing the migrant flows. The GNA is closely aligned with the Benghazi Defense Brigade, a sanctioned terrorist militia by the U.S. and U.N. Salah Badi, an extremist warlord sanctioned for undermining Libya’s stability, has close ties to GNA, as does Abdul Rahman al-Milad, a militia leader sanctioned for migrant trafficking.
In short, the GNA, and the militias on which its authority rests, are a hindrance, rather than a help, when it comes to finding the stability for Libya that can suppress terrorism and the destabilizing flows of people.
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 Ibid., p. iv.
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