ISIS just lost its Libya stronghold

Institute For The Study Of War reports: The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS)’s affiliate in Libya lost control of its eastern stronghold of Derna after tensions with a local Islamist militia escalated into violent conflict on June 9, 2015. Gunmen from ISIS allegedly assassinated Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade (ASMB) leader Nasser al-Aker, who was a senior member of the al-Qaeda-associated Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG).

The Mujahedeen Shura Council of Derna (MSC Derna), an umbrella group controlled by ASMB, released a statement declaring jihad on ISIS in Derna soon after the assassination. Clashes erupted across the city. Anti-ISIS forces cleared ISIS from central Derna and captured ISIS’s headquarters on June 13, despite ISIS’s defensive deployment of multiple SVBIEDs [Suicide Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Devices]. ISIS now holds no territory inside the city.

Social media reports from activists within Derna indicate strong local animosity towards ISIS. Derna’s residents organized demonstrations against ISIS on June 11 and 12, and according to unconfirmed rumors may have been armed by ASMB to participate in military operations against ISIS. [Continue reading…]

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Splitting the Islamists: ISIS’s creeping advance in Libya

Frederic Wehrey and Ala’ Alrababa’h write: Since the Islamic State first announced its presence in Libya in late 2014, it has expanded to attack cities across much of the country, ranging from Benghazi in the east to Misrata and Tripoli in the west, and even in the southern deserts. At this point, the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Libya includes thousands of fighters, possibly 3,000 or even 5,000, with many of them being foreign volunteers from Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, or Saudi Arabia.

Even though some observers tend to portray the rise of the Islamic State in Libya as the result of a ruthless and brilliant strategy, its advance appears to be largely opportunistic, occasioned by the fissures, distraction, and incapacity of rival factions. Where the group senses an opening, it moves, tapping into various kinds of disenchantment to divide opponents and attract potential recruits, whether among disillusioned Islamists, aggrieved tribes, or marginalized minor factions.

While it is hard to speak of a coherent strategy of the Islamic State in Libya, one consistent element of its approach has been to weaken other Islamist groups, in order to present itself as the only viable alternative for Islamists in the country. [Continue reading…]

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Chaos in Libya paves way for ISIS expansion

McClatchy reports: Benefiting from Libya’s political chaos, Islamic State militants are consolidating their base in the city of Sirte and grabbing new territory, pushing back fighters from Misrata.

Libya’s two dueling governments, one based in Tripoli and the other based in Beida and Tobruk in the country’s east, are running dangerously low of cash as they back armed groups against each other, allowing the Islamic State to exploit the rift to grab territory.

The Tripoli-based government, known as Libya Dawn, and its rival, the Dignity coalition based in the east, have yet to come together to target the Islamic State’s growth, even as some commanders for Misrata’s militia, long considered the country’s most adept and a mainstay of Libya Dawn, worry that their city has become an Islamic State target.

“Daash are the biggest enemy,” said one Misratan intelligence official, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State. He declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of his work.

Still, many in the Tripoli-based government view defeating Gen. Khalifa Hifter, who is aligned with the Dignity coalition, as a higher priority.

The Islamic State found fertile ground for development among Sirte’s disaffected, who were on the losing end of the 2011 war that toppled hometown boy Moammar Gadhafi and found their once-favored city devastated by the fighting and the NATO aerial campaign, according to one religious sheikh who fled his house on the outskirts of Sirte after Islamic State devotees moved into the house next door three months ago.

Some unhappy Gadhafi supporters at first had gravitated to Ansar al Shariah, the Islamist militia tied to the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi.

Then about six months ago, foreigners began arriving in Sirte, the sheikh said. [Continue reading…]

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Talking with the wrong Libyans

Brian Klaas and Jason Pack write: In today’s world, internationally recognized governments do not always control their countries. Libya, which is embroiled in a multipolar civil war, is one tragic example.

Rival administrations — one in Tobruk, one in Tripoli — claim to be legitimate nationwide rulers even though neither actually governs the splinters of territory it claims to control. The real power lies with militia commanders and local councils.

All efforts to broker peace have failed. The Tobruk-based administration — having grown spoiled by a surfeit of international support — walked away from United Nations-sponsored negotiations last week, flatly rejecting the latest attempt at a power-sharing plan. Its leaders have hinted that they will resort to a military solution if a political one fails.

Now is the time to play diplomatic hardball; when the Thursday deadline for an agreement passes, the civil war is likely to intensify.

This chaos is dangerous, but not only for Libya. Since late May, ISIS has been on the march — taking over a key airport, overrunning a military base and accepting the surrender of various tribal groups in central coastal Libya. And every day, barely seaworthy boats depart with human cargo toward Europe from Libya’s coastline, which has become an unpatrolled, lawless sieve.

This smuggling of migrants (and, occasionally drugs and jihadists too) is lucrative. It enriches and empowers criminal and militia groups in Libya, which have no incentives to build peace but plenty to prolong the low-level civil war.

Libya’s further collapse is a pressing threat to Western security. But so far, all internationally led diplomatic efforts to stabilize the country have been doomed because they are guided by a narrow anti-Islamist and counterterror ideology.

The political logjam has not been broken because Western diplomacy remains focused on who we want to have in power rather than who actually wields it.

In law enforcement, when hostage negotiators attempt to stave off tragedy, they talk to whoever is holding the hostages, not his distant cousin 500 miles away. Yet Western negotiators in Libya have ignored this approach. [Continue reading…]

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On the ground in Libya there’s a weird kind of stability

Jamie Dettmer reports from Tripoli: The few Western reporters here echo the warnings of U.N. envoy [Bernardino] León and file stories justifiably reporting the country is “disintegrating.” But that word doesn’t quite capture the peculiarly Libyan ambiance and the extent to which the conflict across the country is a very, very Libyan one: earnest and deadly, certainly, but also comical and orderly — yes, orderly. Where else would you find one rival government responding to phone call pleas from the other for its share of the country’s subsidized goods, or one government continuing to transfer salaries to the bank accounts of the rival government’s fighters?

“We provide them with everything,” says Jamal Zubia, a spokesman for the Tripoli-run government’s foreign ministry. A bearded former exile who raised his seven children in Britain, Zubia rubs his hand over his bearded face and chuckles when asked whether he considers it odd for a rival government to fund the activities of the other.

“Yes, we pay the salaries of their fighters,” he says. “We pay the social security payments and child benefits for everyone in Libya. We pay for the schools, we pay the fighters and even the police service, too, in the East. We transfer the money for the fighters because many of them were members of the Libyan armed forces or were warriors in the uprising against Gaddafi.”

The Tobruk government recently published its own budget but it is basically a fiction. Money is disbursed by the central bank and the bank only responds to orders from Tripoli’s Minister of Finance. Like the country’s investment authority, the central bank is now based out of Malta. On Friday Tobruk announced a new central bank under its control but how it will be funded is unclear.

Abdulgader Hwili, a senior member of the mainly Islamist government of the General National Congress (GNC), the parliament in Tripoli, also reacts with a laugh about the cash transfers to fighters loyal to Gen. Haftar. This is a family squabble, he tells me. “I have eight brothers — four of them support Tobruk,” he says. “So they are our family — we have to pay them.”

Hwili says the familial nature of the confrontation between Tripoli and Tobruk is limiting the violence and he hopes it will lead to a deal between the two governments—the one now in Tobruk was a House of Representatives elected last year to replace the Islamist-dominated parliament that is still in Tripoli but has refused to step down.

The stay-put parliament’s partisans, known as Libya Dawn, or Fajr, often are associated with the effort by Turkey and Qatar to spread the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood. Their opponents sometimes fall in line with efforts by the Saudis, Emiratis and Egyptians to crush it. Haftar takes Egypt’s new President Gen. Abdel Sisi as his anti-Islamist role model. But the situation is at once more complicated than that, and, from a Libyan perspective, simpler.

Hwili says that while the U.N. sponsored talks are likely to fail — the next round of negotiations is slated to start this week in Morocco — he has hopes that face-to-face talks between the two sides already being planned for later will succeed in hammering out a peace deal and perhaps a national unity administration.

Like other lawmakers here, Hwili doesn’t think either side can win the war — a point emphasized in a soon-to-be-published study by Libyan academics sponsored by the German think tank Friedrich Ebert Stiftung. “No military action is able to make any territorial gains and end the war in its favor; this paves the way for a political dialogue to end the crisis,” the report argues. [Continue reading…]

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Libyan gains may offer ISIS a base for new attacks

The Washington Post reports: As the Islamic State scores new victories in Syria and Iraq, its affiliate in Libya is also on the offensive, consolidating control of Moammar Gaddafi’s former home town and staging a bomb attack on a major city, Misurata.

The Islamic State’s growth could further destabilize a country already suffering from a devastating civil war. And Libya could offer the extremists a new base from which to launch attacks elsewhere in North Africa.

The Libyan affiliate does not occupy large amounts of territory as the Islamic State does in Syria and Iraq. But in the past few months, the local group has seized Sirte, the coastal city that was Gaddafi’s last redoubt, as well as neighborhoods in the eastern city of Derna.

A key reason for the Libyan affiliate’s expansion is the chaos that has enveloped this oil-rich nation since the 2011 Arab Spring revolt. The country has two rival governments and is rent by fighting between militias that emerged from the anti-Gaddafi struggle.

Although the Islamic State claims allies in many countries, the Libya branch is especially close to the main organization. Its core fighters in Libya are veterans of the Syrian civil war. [Continue reading…]

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Half a million refugees gather in Libya to attempt perilous crossing to Europe

The Guardian reports: Up to half a million refugees are gathering in Libya to attempt the crossing to Europe on the deadly boats that have killed thousands already.

The toll of misery was revealed by senior Royal Navy officers leading Britain’s Mediterranean rescue mission off the Libyan coast. Britain’s amphibious assault ship HMS Bulwark has helped save around 4,000 refugees before they drowned having set sail in unseaworthy boats.

The ship’s 350-strong company of sailors and Royal Marines is bracing itself to rescue a further 3,000. Captain Nick Cooke-Priest said: “Indications are that there are 450,000 to 500,000 migrants in Libya who are waiting at the border.” [Continue reading…]

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ISIS solidifies foothold in Libya to expand reach

The Wall Street Journal reports: Islamic State leaders in Syria have sent money, trainers and fighters to Libya in increasing numbers, raising new concerns for the U.S. that the militant group is gaining traction in its attempts to broaden its reach and expand its influence.

In recent months, U.S. military officials said, Islamic State has solidified its foothold in Libya as it searches for ways to capitalize on rising popularity among extremist groups around the world.

“ISIL now has an operational presence in Libya, and they have aspirations to make Libya their African hub,” said one U.S. military official, using an acronym for the group. “Libya is part of their terror map now.”

Islamic State’s growth as a powerful anti-Western force has militant groups throughout the world trying to latch onto its notoriety. But until recently, affiliates have operated with a great degree of independence and there was little evidence they were taking orders from the group’s core leadership in Syria and Iraq, American officials said.

The core group benefited by pointing to the mushrooming number of affiliates to show its self-styled caliphate was expanding. But the gains in North Africa mark the first expansion of the group’s reach outside the Middle East beyond rebranding efforts by militants trying to secure direct support from the Syrian-based extremists, U.S. officials said. [Continue reading…]

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How chaos in Libya spawned a security nightmare in the Mediterranean

By Ioannis Chapsos, Coventry University

Libya has been in a state of chaos ever since the fall of its former dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, and the situation scarcely seems to be improving. But it’s not just a nightmare on land – Libya is starting to poison the Mediterranean too.

Since a civil war and UN-backed external intervention put an end to Colonel Gaddafi’s regime in 2011, good order and security have never been restored. Libya remains divided, with continuous clashes between rival militia and two internal “governments”.

The attack against the US Consulate in Benghazi was just one incident in a spiral of unrest.

Italian naval forces are back to conducting search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean on a daily basis in order to cope with a massive surge in migrants trying to cross the sea from North Africa, where Libya is the primary transit point. Thousands have died in recent months alone.

But on April 17, they had a very different task: a Sicilian fishing boat had been seized by armed men, 50 nautical miles north of the Libyan Coast, forcing the Italian Navy to board and retake control of the vessel.

And on top of the nascent piracy problem, Libya’s efforts to police its coast are apparently getting more violent.

[Read more…]

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Libyans don’t need more weapons

Claudia Gazzini and Issandr El Amrani write: The United Nations is walking a tightrope in Libya. Last week, the UN Security Council passed a resolution condemning the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the latest non-state actor to emerge in the current chaos. Because of this threat, pressure is mounting on the UN to relax a four-year-old international arms embargo to allow weapons to be delivered to the Libyan military to fight the group.

This would be a terrible move: It almost certainly would scuttle ongoing talks brokered by Bernardino Leon, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative in Libya; dash any hope of a peaceful solution; and create fertile ground for jihadi groups to flourish.

Libya is fragmented between a parliament elected in June 2014, based in the eastern coastal town of Tobruk, and the previous one in Tripoli, each with its associated government and militia forces. There is no Libyan military worthy of the name.

What calls itself the Libyan National Army, loyal to the Tobruk parliament and headed by Khalifa Haftar, a former army general who in early 2014 announced his ambition to stage a coup against the then-unified government, is little more than a coalition of militias just as one finds on the other side.

In this chaos, Islamist militant groups have thrived. Some, like Ansar al-Sharia, were born from the revolutionary groups that took up arms in 2011, received NATO backing and have further radicalised since. [Continue reading…]

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In the chaos of Libya the business of human trafficking has boomed

Ben Wedeman writes: We are at the beginning of a massive and mounting crisis with no solution in sight. Perhaps that’s incorrect. The migrant crisis that has suddenly drawn hundreds of journalists to Sicily has been brewing for years, but in the past 10 days, with as many as 1,600 deaths in the Mediterranean, suddenly minds are focused — for now.

Almost exactly four years ago, in Libya, I caught, perhaps, a glimpse of what was to come.

It was late at night in the besieged city of Misrata. Hundreds of African migrants were caught between the Libyan civil war (back then some optimistically called it a “revolution”) and the deep blue sea. They had come to Misrata from Ghana, Nigeria and elsewhere, hoping to board rickety boats to cross the sea to Europe.

They had been pinned down under sporadic shelling from government forces, but weren’t welcome by the rebels who controlled the city. They appealed to us to help them escape.

We could do nothing, but they may have eventually found their way out when the fighting subsided.

The fall of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s regime, which we reporters covered so avidly, was followed by chaos, which we in the news media largely neglected, focused as we journalists were on the next catastrophe, the Syrian civil war. In that chaos, the business of human trafficking has boomed.

And now that boom in human misery is coming in waves to the shores of Italy. The focus today is on those lost at sea. Aware of the tragedy underway, however, Italians are alarmed at the prospect that this year alone as many as a million migrants could arrive in Europe, according to one European Union official.

That is certainly the case in the Sicilian port of Catania, where many migrants arrive. The city’s mayor, Enzo Bianco, insists city residents bear no ill will toward the migrants, but says Catania, and Sicily cannot absorb the ever-growing numbers. The rest of Europe must help carry the burden. [Continue reading…]

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Mediterranean capsized migrants’ boat’s captain charged

BBC News reports: The Tunisian captain of a boat that capsized off Libya on Sunday, killing hundreds of migrants, has been charged with reckless multiple homicide, Italian officials say.

He has also been charged along with a Syrian member of the crew with favouring illegal immigration.

The two were among 27 survivors who arrived in Sicily late on Monday.

A UNHCR spokeswoman has told the BBC the migrants’ boat capsized after merchant vessels came too close to it.

Carlotta Sami of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Italy was at the Sicilian port of Catania to meet the survivors. Some 800 people are thought to have died in the disaster, she said.

There were nationals of Syria, Eritrea, Somalia, Mali, Sierra Leone and Senegal on board, kept in three different layers in the boat. [Continue reading…]

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Italy cracks down on human trafficking

The Daily Beast reports: Mered Medhanie and Ermias Ghermay are businessmen who apparently take pride in their work. Too bad their jobs are heading up two of the most lucrative and deadly human trafficking rings to ever operate in the waters between Libya and Sicily.

They are now Italy’s most wanted men and prosecutors in Palermo are vowing to find them.

On Monday, police in Palermo said overnight Sunday they issued arrest warrants for 24 men, including Medhanie and Ghermay, and were able to pick up 14 of them in Rome, Milan, Bari, and in refugee camps in Sicily.

In a separate investigation based in Catania, Sicily, authorities there have asked for three Egyptian men to be extradited to Italy to face trafficking charges. Among the arrested and wanted were recruitment specialists who infiltrated large refugee camps looking for new clients who either wished to travel further into Europe or who might have family back in Africa who want to come over, too.

Police had pinpointed the 24 men more than a year ago and have been intercepting their telephone conversations, following their moves and studying the trafficking business ever since. Italy has arrested 976 men involved with trafficking in the last year. Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has promised to bring them to justice. This week, he called on European countries to make fighting trafficking a priority, likening it to a “modern slave trade in which people are bought and sold like merchandise.” [Continue reading…]

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Italy ran an operation that saved thousands of migrants from drowning in the Mediterranean. Why did it stop?

The Washington Post reports: Back in October 2013, more than 300 migrants died near the Italian island of Lampedusa. These men and women had been trying to make the journey across the Mediterranean from Libya to what they saw as a land of opportunity, Europe. Instead, their boat sank and they drowned. The Italian coast guard was only able to save 150 or so passengers on a boat that was carrying around 500.

The Italian public was shocked. Migrants had died in the Mediterranean before, but this was exceptional. Shortly afterwards, the Italian government swung into action and set up Mare Nostrum, a vast search-and-rescue operation aimed at preventing the deaths of the thousands of migrants who make the journey from Africa to Europe every year.

Mare Nostrum – which means “Our Sea” in Latin, the name for the Mediterranean in the Roman era – was a success. With a considerable budget of $12 million a month, it was estimated to have saved more than 130,000 people. It was not only a rescue operation. Italy, a country once known for hard attitudes to migrants, offered medical treatment, shelter and food. Migrants were even offered legal aid that could have helped them gain asylum.

It didn’t last. By October 2014, Mare Nostrum was being wound down. [Continue reading…]

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I was a Lampedusa refugee. Here’s my story of fleeing Libya – and surviving

Hakim Bello writes: The boy next to me fell to the floor and for a moment I didn’t know if he had fainted or was dead – then I saw that he was covering his eyes so he didn’t have to see the waves any more. A pregnant woman vomited and started screaming. Below deck, people were shouting that they couldn’t breathe, so the men in charge of the boat went down and started beating them. By the time we saw a rescue helicopter, two days after our boat had left Libya with 250 passengers on board, some people were already dead – flung into the sea by the waves, or suffocated downstairs in the dark. It’s very difficult for me to think about this, nearly four years after I paid a smuggler to get me out of Libya, but it’s important for people to understand what is happening to us and why.

I’m one of several hundred thousand people who, since the Arab uprisings of 2011, have arrived in Europe across the Mediterranean. It is now the deadliest border in the world. We all have different reasons for doing it: some people think they’ll find a better life in Europe, others just want to get away from a war zone. But everyone feels they have no other option.

I’m originally from Nigeria and I had been living in Libya for five years when the war broke out. I had a good life: I was working as a tailor and I earned enough to send money home to loved ones. But after the fighting started, people like us – black people – became very vulnerable, because all the youth had weapons and they knew we had money in our houses and they could rob us. If you went out for something to eat, a gang would stop you and ask if you supported them. They might be rebels, they might be government, you didn’t know. [Continue reading…]

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Purported ISIS video shows militants killing Ethiopian Christians

Bloomberg: At least two dozen Ethiopian Christians appear to have been executed by the Islamic State Group in Libya, a newly released video shows.

The footage posted on al-Menbar al-E’lamy al-Jihady, a website that reports jihadi news, shows two groups of captives. One was beheaded on a beach said to be in the Barqa region in eastern Libya. The others were shot at point blank range in an area said to be in the southwest. The video said the victims were Christians belonging to “the hostile Ethiopian Church.”

“Muslim blood that was shed under the hands of your religion is not cheap,” an armed masked man said in an American accent. “You will not have safety even in your dreams until you embrace Islam.”

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Risking death in the Mediterranean: the least bad option for so many migrants

Patrick Kingsley reports: Sobbing and shaking, Mohamed Abdallah tries to explain why he still wants to risk crossing the Mediterranean Sea in an inflatable boat. He sits in a migrant detention centre in Zawya, Libya, surrounded by hundreds of fellow asylum seekers who nearly died this week at sea.

They survived only after being intercepted, detained and brought back to shore by Libyan coastguards, ending a week in which they went round in circles, starving and utterly lost. But despite their horror stories, Abdallah, 21, says the journey that his fellow inmates barely withstood – and that killed more than 450 others this week – is his only option.

“I cannot go back to my country,” says Abdallah, who is from Darfur, in Sudan. He left for what is now South Sudan in 2006, after he says his village was destroyed in the Darfur war, his father died, and his sisters raped. But in South Sudan, another war later broke out. So he made his way through the Sahara, a journey that he says killed his brother and cousin, to Libya. And there last year, he was witness to his third civil war in a decade – a war that still drags on, its frontline just a few miles from the camp at Zawya.

“There is a war in my country, there’s no security, no equality, no freedom,” Abdallah says. “But if I stay here, it’s just like my country. There is no security, there is violence. When you work, they take your money.”

He worked in a soap shop, and saved up to pay local smugglers for the boat to Europe. But just as he hoped to complete the payment, he was robbed, and then arrested. The recounting of his ordeal brings out first the tears, and then a conclusion: “I need to go to Europe.” [Continue reading…]

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Pope urges world to act after new Mediterranean tragedy

AFP reports: Pope Francis on Sunday, April 19, urged world leaders to respond “decisively” after 700 migrants were feared drowned in the deadliest migrant shipwreck yet in the Mediterranean.

“These are men and women like us, brothers seeking a better life,” the leader of the world’s Roman Catholics said in his weekly address, urging leaders to “act decisively and quickly to stop these tragedies from recurring.”

Urging the faithful in St Peter’s square to pray for the victims, the pope added: “(They are) hungry, persecuted, injured, exploited, victims of war. They are seeking a better life, they are seeking happiness.” [Continue reading…]

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