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Libya’s track to security challenged by militias and the Mali nexus

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Travel warnings by Western nations on the situation in Benghazi have complicated Libya’s first elected government’s task as it strives to re-establish security that could bring back foreign investors and put citizens back to work.

Last October, Libya’s new Prime Minister, Ali Zeidan, declared security his “top most priority.” The task of dealing with major security challenges, laid bare by the September 11 attack last year on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, was daunting enough. But additional regional and internal developments have pitted him against tougher odds.

The trans-border threat

The sudden escalation of tension after the French military intervention in Mali has been the source of new concerns. Although Libya shares no borders with Mali, the Sahara’s porous borders had allowed well-armed jihadist and Tuareg fighters, after the fall of Muammar Qaddafi regime, to flock out of Libya to northern Mali.

Since then, they have been mostly waging war against the central government of Mali and now against the French-led African force.

After the jihadists, hailing from northern Mali, launched a bloody attack against the In Amenas gas plant, south of Algeria, in mid-January, it has become obvious that radical groups operating in Mali and the Sahel have been boosted by the looted arsenal Libyan weapons. In her latest congressional hearing, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton established a direct connection between the al-Qaeda-connected elements who carried out the Algeria attack and the Libya weapons looting. She said there is “no doubt that the Algerian terrorists had weapons from Libya. There’s no doubt that the Malian remnants of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) have weapons from Libya.”

Western security experts have been speculating about an In Amenas-like terrorist attack against oil-installations in Libya. This has caused tremors throughout the oil- business communities in Libya. Most of the daunting speculations focused on Benghazi, Libya’s largest city, situated not far from many of the major oil installations. Other experts are warning against the risk of extremist elements flowing through the southern borders.

Benghazi as hot-spot

Even before the September 11 attack, which caused the death of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Embassy members, the situation in Benghazi was of concern to Western firms. The recent U.S. Senate report about the Benghazi attack quotes an AFRICOM contractor as complaining of Benghazi’s hostile environment. The Navanti Group complained of the “strong anti-Western sentiments among certain segments of the population” and “the willingness of salafist-jihadist groups in the city to openly engage in violence.”

Despite all street protests against the bloody attack on the U.S. Embassy and the security measures taken by the government after the attack, violence has continued unabated in Benghazi. There has been even another attack on a Western diplomatic target. The failed assassination attempt against Italian consul Guido De Sanctis, on January 12, caused a stir.

“This attack will certainly be a reason of concern for many oil companies who are operating in Libya or planning to return to Libya," the Tripoli-based analyst for the International Crisis Group, Claudia Gazzini, said. "It can have a negative impact on their decision to stay or return.”

With Italy being the number one foreign investor in Libya’s hydrocarbon sector, this attack did not obviously help the Libyan government in its efforts to woo back Western companies. Only two days before the assassination attempt, Mohammed Megarief, President of the Libyan National Assembly, was in fact on an investment promotion trip in Rome. In December, Italy’s ENI was the second foreign oil company, after Algeria's Sonatrach, to announce the resumption of oil exploration in Libya.

The porous southern borders

The country’s 4,000 km desert borders are probably an even greater security challenge.

The Saharan south has been the crossing-point of traffickers of all sorts and the theater of “turf wars” between the Tubus (a tribe of sub-Saharan origin) and other, Arab and Tuareg, tribes. Even senior Libyan officials visiting the southern region have been shot at. To ensure better control of human inflows from the south, Libya has closed its borders with Algeria, Chad, Niger and the Sudan since December 15, declaring many of the regions there as “military areas.”

But not all experts are convinced, in the current circumstances, of the efficiency of such measures. In a recent report, The Jamestown Foundation expressed its view that “the “closed military zones” of the south are little more than a fiction without the resources, personnel and organization necessary to implement strict controls over a vast and largely uninhabited wilderness that is nonetheless the heart of the modern Libyan state due to its vast reserves of oil and gas.”

Westerners spooked

Libya’s security problem extends beyond the the two main hot spots of Benghazi and the Saharan south.

The Libyan authorities have been trying to streamline the multiple and often conflicting, security bodies. Special agencies were created to ensure the security of diplomatic missions and oil installations. Militias are being absorbed by security forces and the army.

But that will take time, while time is short. U.N. special envoy Tarek Mitri, head of the U.N. mission in Libya said Tuesday that while 20,000 revolutionary brigade members have joined the new Libyan army or police forces about 200,000 armed men "are not ready to be absorbed" into the new Libyan institutions. William Lawrence, director of the North Africa Project at International Crisis Group sums up the problem: “Basically in Libya, you've got 1,700 militias running the country still and not much of the police or army infrastructure."

So, it is not surprising as pointed out recently by minister of the Interior, Ashur Shweil, that Libyan authorities are still confronted with bomb-attacks, assassinations and proliferation of all types of weapons. And the war on Mali could stir things further. “The opposition of armed radical groups to the military intervention in Mali may exacerbate the situation given ideological and/or ethnic affiliations as well as porous bordering in Libya," Mitri warned.

Fear of reprisals by jihadists against business interests and foreign expatriates in Libya (especially after the shooting-death of all hostage-takers in the In Aminas attack) has spooked Western governments and businesses. The UK set a trend among European governments after it asked its nationals to leave Benghazi. The Foreign Office’s travel advisory warned against “a specific, imminent threat to Westerners in Benghazi.” It explained that “following French military intervention in Mali, there is a possibility of retaliatory attacks targeting western interests in the region.”

After the In Amenas incident, Libyan authorities took extraordinary measures to try to secure the oil fields. They dismissed Western alarm as unjustified, expressing their readiness to face any contingency. "As a result of the circumstances Algeria and Niger are going through and the fallout from the Mali crisis, we should be completely ready for any urgent situation that could happen in the area," said Col. Ahmad al-Khabasheh, southern regional commander of Libya's Petroleum Protection Faculty. It remains to be seen whether the official Libyan assurances can calm down the fears of the foreign business community.

The big “if”

The future outlook in Libya is mixed. Internal and regional dynamics do put Libyan security at serious risk. Regionally, a lot in fact will depend on the ability of France, and its allies in the war in Mali, to prevent the possible outflow of fighters across the Sahara. “If the French-led offensive in northern Mali succeeds in displacing the Islamist militants, there seems to be little at the moment to prevent such groups from establishing new bases in the poorly-controlled desert wilderness of southern Libya,” recently warned the Jamestown Foundation.

Internally, Libyan authorities have to tend to a lot of unfinished business, beside security reform. Filling a 42-year void in institution-building, achieving national reconciliation and putting the economy back on track will not come easy.

The stakes are high for Libya and its regional and international partners. “If basic security returns,” said recently Bloomberg’s editors, “foreign investors will flood in, attracted by Libya’s bottomless need for construction and ability to pay for it.” A big “if”. Libyan decisions-makers probably would like no more than to meet this challenge. But a lot will depend not just on them but on regional dynamics –often beyond their control.

Oussama Romdhani is a former Tunisian minister of Communication, previously in charge of his country's international image. He served as a Tunisian diplomat to the United States, from 1981 to 1995. He was also a Washington DC press correspondent and Fulbright Research Scholar at Georgetown University. Romdhani is currently an international media analyst.

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