Jihadists deepen collaboration in North Africa

The New York Times reports: A group of light armored vehicles skated over the moonscape of the Sahara, part of one of the largest detachments the French military has deployed here since colonial times. Its mission is growing ever more urgent: to cut smuggling routes used by jihadists who have turned this inhospitable terrain into a sprawling security challenge for African and international forces alike.

Many of the extremist groups are affiliates of Al Qaeda, which has had roots in North Africa since the 1990s. With the recent introduction of Islamic State franchises, the jihadist push has been marked by increasing, sometimes heated, competition.

But, analysts and military officials say, there is also deepening collaboration among groups using modern communications and a sophisticated system of roving trainers to share military tactics, media strategies and ways of transferring money.

Their threat has grown as Libya — with its ungoverned spaces, oil, ports, and proximity to Europe and the Middle East — becomes a budding hub of operations for both Al Qaeda and the Islamic State to reach deeper into Africa.

And as Africa’s jihadists come under the wing of distant and more powerful patrons, officials fear that they are extending their reach and stitching together their ambitions, turning once-local actors into pan-national threats. [Continue reading…]

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How to help Libya … before it’s too late

Mustafa Fetouri writes: While the US-led coalition has been busy attacking Islamic State (IS) strongholds in Raqqa, Syria, and Mosul, Iraq, the faraway coastal city of Sirte, Libya, has been seized by the extremist group. Only an hour’s flight from Europe’s southern shores, Sirte fell without a shot of resistance. What began as a small group of locals pledging allegiance to IS has evolved into a sizeable force that has extended its control nearly 40 miles west of Sirte and nearly twice that to the east, threatening the city of Ajdabiya and even Benghazi.

Omar, a civil servant who requested the use of a pseudonym, has lived all of his 30 years in Sirte. He told Al-Monitor by phone, “IS now has full control of the city and all roads leading to Sirte in all directions.” IS has imposed laws banning tobacco sales and smoking and ordering women to cover their hair. “Actually, my own brother was jailed for a couple of days because they caught him smoking in the street,” Omar said. Like other residents, he is extremely worried and is already planning to leave if his mother agrees to go with him.

Sirte is strategically situated at the crossroads connecting Libya’s three regions: Fezzan in the south, Cyrenaica to the east and Tripolitania to the west. In addition, it is close to the country’s main oil terminals at Brega and Ras Lanuf as well as Sidra. Ras Lanuf could well be the next safe haven for IS’ top leaders. On Dec. 9, England’s Daily Mail cited the Iranian news agency, FARS, as reporting that an injured Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had already arrived in Sirte, having fled his headquarters in Mosul with Turkish assistance. [Continue reading…]

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The West in the Arab world and the flight from complexity

Peter Harling and Alex Simon write: To outsiders, the Middle East usually is an intellectual object — a place on a map onto which they project their fears, fantasies and interests. But to many it is a home to live and despair in, to flee and to cling to, to loath and to love. When writing for the truly concerned, commentary has become futile: what is there to say that they do not already know? The ideals and hopes we could once believe in have disintegrated as a bewildering array of players wrought destruction, seemingly teaming up in the region’s devastation rather than fighting each other as they claim—let alone seeking solutions.

With suffering and complexity relentlessly on the uptick, even well-intentioned observers are tempted to simplify what we cannot fully understand, focusing excessively on the distraction of daily news and drifting toward some convenient intellectual extreme. It is a constant struggle to rebalance one’s positions, resume analysis of meaningful, underlying trends, and attempt to contribute responsibly. At the heart of this ambition is a need for honesty and humility rather than partisan hackery and hubris — acknowledging our failures and our limitations and our inability to fully comprehend, let alone effectively correct, the course of events in the Middle East. From there we may step back and appraise how best to play a positive rather than destructive role in shaping the region’s trajectory.

The dominant trend, however, has been in the opposite direction. Most conversations are self-centered and reductive. This reality is starkest in the debate about the Islamic State (hereafter “Daesh”) and the Iran nuclear deal, but the tendency is pervasive: the Russian intervention in Syria, a mushrooming refugee crisis, pulverizing wars in Libya and Yemen, only enter the discussion inasmuch as they disturb our “national interests” as we narrowly and shortsightedly define them. In Washington, the brutal execution of one American journalist has approximately the same galvanizing potential as the large-scale persecution and enslavement of Iraq’s Yazidi minority. Both are more compelling than the arrival of several hundred thousand refugees on the shores of Europe, who are in turn of far greater concern than the millions more stranded in their own countries and those throughout the region who are routinely bombed into nothingness.

More than well-defined interests, the Western response to a given Middle Eastern tragedy is often dictated by knee-jerk, emotional factors — cultural affinities (or lack thereof) with the victims, an enduring obsession with “terrorism”, and sheer visual potency (whether Daesh’s horror-movie barbarism or the occasional heart-wrenching image of a drowned child) are but a few. While understandable, these are not a basis for strategy.

The United States, of course, is not the lone culprit. Key players across the board are acting less on the basis of interest than obsession, pursuing ad hoc and reactive means in support of amorphous and ill-defined ends. While Washington proposes to destroy the mind-bogglingly complex socio-economic-political-military entity that is Daesh through airstrikes (and a dash of social media evangelism and tepid support to whomever appears willing to pitch in), Moscow seeks to restore its prestige and cut Obama down to size by pummeling what remains of Syria’s non-jihadist opposition; Tehran works its way to regional leadership by pumping more weapons, money and hubris into whichever proxy is most expedient at a given moment in a given country; Riyadh clambers to head off presumed Persian scheming by whatever means necessary, while Cairo does the same toward the Muslim Brotherhood bogeyman. And so on and so forth.

Behind of all this posturing are incoherent binaries of good versus evil—typically euphemized in the language of “stability versus terrorism” — whereby states attempt to reduce the pandemonium to one or two irreconcilable enemies, one or two overarching goals and however many direct or proxy wars appear necessary to suppress the former and achieve the latter. In other words, keep it simple: pick your mania, ignore all else, and it will finally make sense. [Continue reading…]

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Libya’s rival governments reject delayed UN-brokered national unity deal

The Guardian reports: Libya’s future is on hold ahead of a national unity agreement brokered by the United Nations but rejected by the rival governments that have presided over months of chaos in a country witnessing the growing strength of Islamic State.

The UN said that the signing had been delayed for logistical reasons but would go ahead in Morocco on Thursday. Libya-watchers expressed doubts that it would happen, but warned that if it did it could mean the country had three governments instead of two.

Britain hopes that a unity government, to be run by a nine-strong presidency, will invite western powers to mount air strikes against Isis positions, allowing David Cameron to avoid another Commons vote before dispatching RAF jets. Agreement, hammered out in Rome last weekend, was hailed as “historic” by the US and Italy.

The long-awaited deal was supposed to have been signed on Wednesday after months of wrangling and opposition from hardliners in the opposing administrations that have claimed power since the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi by Nato-backed rebels in 2011. [Continue reading…]

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Chaos in Libya: It’s the oil, stupid

Issandr El Amrani writes: There seems no end to the bad news coming out of Libya.

UN-led negotiations to unite the divided country — it has two parliaments, two governments, two militia coalitions that have been competing for control of a rapidly failing state since summer 2014 — are stalling. Fighting continues apace in Benghazi, the city that was the first to rebel against the rule of Muammar al-Gaddafi in 2011 and is now a byword for extremism. The Islamic State is growing by the day in the Gulf of Sirte in the center of the country, imposing its cruel dictates and making inroads elsewhere in the country. Criminal gangs – often the same militias that have had the run of the country since Gaddafi’s fall – are doing a brisk trade in people smuggling, sending off desperate migrants and refugees on rickety boats across the Mediterranean.

Oh, and by the way, Libya is also going broke.

That last tidbit should be surprising. Libya has Africa’s largest oil reserves and has long been an important supplier of light sweet crude, the kind made into gasoline and kerosene. It also had tons of money in both hoards of cash reserves and investments across the globe.

But the oil, which used to bring in 96 percent of the country’s income, is not flowing anymore. From a high of at least 1.6 million barrels per day at the beginning of 2011, Libya is lucky to export a fourth of that today. Militias have taken control of oil fields, pipelines and export facilities across the country. At first, they sought to extort the central government to keep the oil flowing. But since the country was divided into two rival governments, they are simply fighting to keep oil revenue from each other: you take over my oilfield, I block your pipeline. Since earlier this year, IS has jumped into the fray, simply destroying facilities to keep any government from getting its revenues — although, in the longer term, it may very well want to control the oil itself. [Continue reading…]

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Libya’s rival factions agree date to sign UN peace deal

Reuters reports: Libya’s rival factions on Friday agreed to Dec. 16 as a target date for signing a United Nations-backed national unity government agreement meant to end their conflict.

The U.N. has been negotiating for a year to get Libya’s two rival governments and armed factions to end their war that has plunged the North African state into chaos four years after rebellion ousted Muammar Gaddafi.

Successfully signing an agreement would open the way for the international community to support Libya in the fight against Islamic State, which has gained ground in the chaos and controls the western city of Sirte.

But hardliners in both camps have been resisting a deal. Several past deadlines to sign have fallen through after opponents balked at details or demanded more concessions from their rivals.

“There was a wide consensus that only through rapid signature of the Libyan political agreement the country can be brought back to unity,” U.N. Libya envoy Martin Kobler said in Tunisia after two days of talks. [Continue reading…]

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The prize: Fighting for Libya’s oil wealth

International Crisis Group reports: Libya’s economic conditions could turn sharply for the worse, as rival authorities vie to control rapidly shrinking national wealth. The struggle affects oil fields, pipelines and export terminals, as well as the boardrooms of national financial institutions. Combined with runaway spending due to corruption and dwindling revenue because of falling exports and energy prices, the financial situation – and with it citizen welfare – faces collapse in the context of a deep political crisis, militia battles and the spread of radical groups, including the Islamic State (IS). If living conditions plunge and militia members’ government salaries are not paid, the two governments competing for legitimacy will both lose support, and mutiny, mob rule and chaos will take over. Rather than wait for creation of a unity government, political and military actors, backed by internationals supporting a political solution, must urgently tackle economic governance in the UN-led talks.

Since the Qadhafi regime fell in 2011, Libya has been beset by attacks on, labour strikes at and armed takeovers of oil and gas facilities, mostly by militias seeking rents from the fledging central government. Initially brief and usually resolved by government concessions, the incidents gradually took on a life of their own, in an alarming sign of the fragmentation of political, economic and military power. They show the power accrued by militias during and since the 2011 uprising and the failure of efforts to integrate them into the national security sector. The dysfunctional security system for oil and gas infrastructure presents a tempting target for IS militants, as attacks in 2015 have shown.

One aspect of the hydrocarbon dispute is a challenge to the centralised model of political and economic governance developed around oil and gas resources that was crucial to the old regime’s power. But corruption that greased patronage networks was at that model’s centre, and corrupt energy sector practices have increased. A federalist movement some consider secessionist controls a number of the most important crude-oil export terminals. It exploits the situation by pursuing its own sale channels, adding to the centrifugal forces tearing Libya apart. [Continue reading…]

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ISIS entrenches in Sirte, Libya

The Wall Street Journal reports: Even as foreign powers step up pressure against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, the militant group has expanded in Libya and established a new base close to Europe where it can generate oil revenue and plot terror attacks.

Since announcing its presence in February in Sirte, the city on Libya’s Mediterranean coast has become the first that the militant group governs outside of Syria and Iraq. Its presence there has grown over the past year from 200 eager fighters to a roughly 5,000-strong contingent which includes administrators and financiers, according to estimates by Libyan intelligence officials, residents and activists in the area.

The group has exploited the deep divisions in Libya, which has two rival governments, to create this new stronghold of violent religious extremism just across the Mediterranean Sea from Italy. Along the way, they scored a string of victories—defeating one of the strongest fighting forces in the country and swiftly crushing a local popular revolt. [Continue reading…]

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Conflict makes countries more vulnerable to climate change

Reuters reports: Syria, Libya and Yemen are among the countries whose ability to withstand climate change shocks and stresses has deteriorated most in the past five years, suggesting conflict makes people more vulnerable to climate impacts, researchers said.

The University of Notre Dame Global Adaptation Index (ND-GAIN), released on Tuesday, uses 46 indicators to measure climate change risks to 180 countries and how ready they are to accept investment that could help them cope with more extreme weather and rising seas.

The main contributing factors to the falling scores of the three fragile states in the Middle East and North Africa, riven by armed conflict, are increases in political instability, violence, corruption and poor rule of law, according to the index. [Continue reading…]

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Leaked UAE emails could threaten peace talks in Libya

The New York Times reports: The United Arab Emirates was shipping weapons to favored belligerents in Libya over the summer in violation of an international arms embargo while simultaneously offering a highly paid job to the United Nations diplomat drafting a peace accord there, leaked Emirati emails show.

The leaked correspondence is threatening to undermine months of Libyan talks by tarring the diplomat with an apparent conflict of interest. The emails also open a new window into the hidden and contradictory machinations of regional players like the United Arab Emirates that have helped inflame the fighting even as their diplomats say they support a peaceful solution.

“The fact of the matter is that the U.A.E. violated the U.N. Security Council Resolution on Libya and continues to do so,” Ahmed al-Qasimi, a senior Emirati diplomat, wrote in an email on Aug. 4 to Lana Nusseibeh, the United Arab Emirates’ ambassador to the United Nations. [Continue reading…]

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America’s myopic view of Benghazi

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Libya: In militia-run camps, refugees are treated like animals

Watch “Libya’s Migrant Trade: Europe or Die (Full Length)” here.

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Is Libya headed for another Qaddafi?

Frederic Wehrey writes: In the crowded trauma room of a threadbare hospital, a procession of bedraggled soldiers files in, bearing a grim catalogue of wounds: shrapnel in the neck, gunshots to the chest, burned legs. Fierce fighting erupted here last week as a coalition of army, police, tribal militias and neighborhood volunteer forces launched a campaign dubbed “Operation Doom” to evict jihadist and Islamic State forces from their strongholds.

It is a battle that many residents say has been largely forgotten and misconstrued by the international community. As Libya’s rival governments — an internationally recognized one based in the eastern city in Tobruk and another in the western capital of Tripoli — debate the final draft of a United Nations-brokered peace plan, the mood in Benghazi is one of skepticism and distrust. People here believe the U.N. talks are meant to legitimize Islamists in Tripoli, whom they accuse of supporting Benghazi’s jihadist forces.

At a rally I attended for two slain activists, the eastern government’s minister for culture and media struck a defiant note, lambasting the United States Navy for waiting offshore but doing nothing against the Islamic State, and accusing Israel of supplying weapons to the jihadists. The audience roared with applause when he mentioned the name of Operation Doom’s architect: Gen. Khalifa Hifter. [Continue reading…]

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As frustrations build in Libya, so do calls for help

The New York Times reports: For more than a year, Libyans have been watching their politicians shuttle between foreign capitals on rounds of peace talks, workshops and conferences in search of a solution to the worsening chaos at home. At one recent event in the Tunisian capital, frustrations at the slow progress were evident in the heartfelt questions and statements from the Libyan refugees in the audience.

“We are a small country, and we need help,” Ahmed Werfalli, a businessman and activist, told the American ambassador during one panel discussion. “We were united against dictatorship, and now we are killing each other.”

Libyans are struggling with a problem that typically emerges after a bloody regime change: how to reassemble a functioning country after its brittle, autocratic and repressive government has been fractured and replaced with warring factions.

Many Libyans have taken refuge in neighboring Tunisia, forced out by the violence and doubting that the main protagonists will end their power struggle, even if a United Nations-sponsored peace agreement is signed soon. They are calling for greater international involvement to help end the conflict. [Continue reading…]

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Lost generation: In war-torn Middle East, 14 million school-age children are not in school

The Associated Press reports: Forty percent of children from five conflict-scarred Middle Eastern countries are not attending school, the United Nations agency for children said Thursday, warning that losing this generation will lead to more militancy, migration and a dim future for the region.

An estimated 13.7 million school age children from Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya and Sudan are not in school, out of a total of 34 million, UNICEF said.

The dropout rate could increase to 50 percent in coming months as conflicts intensify, Peter Salama, the agency’s regional chief, told The Associated Press.

“We are on the verge of losing a generation of children in this region,” he said. “We must act now or we will certainly regret the consequences.” [Continue reading…]

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