Growing worries about Libya in the Maghreb

Recent bloody clashes in Tripoli have fuelled the concerns of Maghrebi countries

Oussama Romdhani
Oussama Romdhani
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Recent bloody clashes in Tripoli have fuelled the concerns of Maghrebi countries about the possible fallout which could see the whole region suffering as a result of the deteriorating security situation in Libya.

If there was any doubt about how dangerously out of control the situation is, it was dispelled when Misrata militias shot at demonstrators in Tripoli’s Ghargour district, on Nov. 15, killing 47 and injuring scores. Government troops were present but did not deem it “wise” to intervene. Explaining the passivity of regular forces, Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan said police and army officers who were on the scene “could not shoot at people who were exchanging fire. At the same time, they could not separate them,” he said. A more likely explanation is that Libyan regular units where, as usual, outnumbered and outgunned by the militias. A Human Rights Watch report shed some light on the kind of weapons that were at the disposal of the militias. The international human rights organization quoted medical staff at two Tripoli hospitals as saying that “most of the wounds were caused by heavy weapons, including anti-aircraft weapons, Hawn rockets and rocket-propelled grenades. Some injuries were from lighter arms, including Kalashnikov assault rifles and machine guns.”

Huge stocks of weapons and ammunition are still outside the control of the Libyan government. And what concerns neighbouring countries, in particular, are the arms and explosives that are in the hands of Libyan Salafist formations. Algerians and Tunisians suspect al-Qaeda-affiliated groups of working to transform swathes of Libyan territory, especially in the east and south, into terrorism springboards and training grounds.

Both of Libya’s neighbors to the west have in recent weeks have expressed their wariness about the disturbing situation right in their backyard.

An Algerian military source told Reuters agency last month the Algerian army discovered a “large arms cache” near the border with Libya. The arms cache was discovered in the Illizi province south of Algeria, about 200 kilometres from the In Amenas gas plant where terrorists killed 37 foreign workers last January after a hostage-taking operation. The cache reportedly contained about a hundred surface-to –air- missiles, hundreds of anti-helicopter rockets and large quantities of land mines and RPG missiles.

Algerian newspapers also quoted military sources, last month, as saying that Salafist groups were feared to be among no less than 14 armed Libyan militias based on the Algerian-Libyan border. They described the situation on the Tunisian-Libya border as “similar” to that between Libya and Algeria; while the situation on the Libyan-Niger borer was depicted as “catastrophic.”

Tunisian authorities are not concealing their concern that the situation in Libya is complicating their attempts at meeting the challenge of terrorist violence at home. In a recent interview, Tunisian Prime Minister Ali Larayedh described that situation as an ongoing threat. “Extremists in Tunisia have profited from the situation in Libya and they get their weapons from Libya. They have benefited and they have gotten training in Libya,” he said. To prevent arms trafficking, Tunisian authorities have established “buffer zones” along Libyan and Algeria borders.

Tunisian Security officials and terrorism experts see an active complicity between “Ansar al-Sharia in Libya” (ASL) and “Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia” (AST), both supporters of al-Qaeda’s doctrine, in the harbouring and training of Tunisian terrorists on Libyan territory. ASL’s leader, Seifallah Ben Hassine (a.k.a “Abu Iyadh”), is said to have fled to Libya after his formation was accused of involvement in terrorist activities in Tunisia.

“The new development is the stationing of Tunisian terrorists in Libya and the help and protection they are receiving from militias there,” wrote Tunisian analyst Hedi Yahmed. “Recent security reports,” he added, “warn against Libya-based training camps where Tunisians receive and offer training.”

Libya seems to be also the main transit point for Tunisians joining “Jihad” in Syria. A recent example is that of Aymen Saadi, the failed would-be suicide bomber caught on Oct. 30 at the Habib Bourguiba Mausoleum in the Tunisian coastal city of Monastir. The young Saadi is said to have received training near Benghazi, for the purpose of fighting in Syria, but ended up being tasked with a terrorist project in his own country instead.

It is important, however, not to lose sight of the fact that the security concerns of Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt and Morocco are not all Libya-connected. There is no shortage of al-Qaeda affiliated groups, such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, al-Mourabitoun, or Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, that are bent on havoc without support in Libya. Because of its porous borders, Libya itself has reason to be wary about terrorists based in neighboring countries.

The security crisis comes with a huge economic cost to Libya. The continued disruption of oil and gas production threatens the lifeline of the country, almost totally dependent on hydrocarbon exports. Losses are in the billions of dollars. “Various factions are taking advantage of the weakness of the current government to extract various demands by using a most powerful tool: hijacking the oil sector - Libya’s sole substantial source of income,” commented energy economist Carole Nakhle. The “Cyrenaica political bureau,” the self-declared “autonomous” government in Libya’s eastern region, announced the creation of its own oil company and central bank.

Libya’s loss of hydrocarbon revenues is even putting in jeopardy the ability of the Zeidan government to ensure the payment of salaries to employees on its payroll. According to the International Monetary Fund, economic growth in Libya is set to shrink by 5 percent this year.

Economic shockwaves are likely to radiate beyond Libya. For Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt, the unsettled situation in Libya is causing the loss of thousands of job opportunities and many business ventures. The three countries were counting on post-Qaddafi Libya to absorb at least part of their unemployed youth. Terrorism concerns, stemming from developments in the region, are forcing neighboring countries to increase military and police spending at a time when socio-economic pressures are hardly easing. Tunisia’s 2014 budget provides for a 14 percent increase in defense and security spending.

The security crisis comes with a huge economic cost to Libya. The continued disruption of oil and gas production threatens the lifeline of the country

Oussama Romdhani

Prior to the Arab Spring rebellions, the countries of North Africa used to complain about the “cost of the non-Maghreb” (i.e. the economic losses they incurred for of lack of economic integration). Now they have to live with the notion that with “non-stability” in Libya, the task of building the Maghreb will have to take a back-seat for a while.

Priority will have to be given by each country to shoring up its security.

Ironically, it is because it has deteriorated so much, that the situation in Libya is pushing Maghreb countries towards more active security cooperation. The intensifying collaboration between Tunisian and Algeria is a case in point.

But a real pan-Maghreb security strategy is still lacking. The recently resuscitated tensions between Algeria and Morocco over the Western Sahara cast even more doubts about immediate prospects for serious regional coordination.

Because of the perception of Libya as being “on the brink,” the situation is getting closer attention from the Europe Union and the United States. Ali Zeidan was essentially right when he warned last month that “the international community cannot tolerate a state in the middle of the Mediterranean that is a source of violence, terrorism and murder.” The possibility that Libya could become a launch-pad for al-Qaeda activities in the Maghreb and across the Mediterranean is not a far-fetched prospect if current developments there are not reversed. With the already inflammable situation in Mali, Niger and the rest of the Sahel, further Jihadist outflows from Libya could have disastrous effects on sub-Saharan Africa.

Europe is also unlikely to welcome the prolonged disruptions of oil and gas exports from Libya, especially when the frosty days of winter are not very far away. Europeans are also wary of the possibility that Libya could become the main point of departure for thousands of would-be illegal immigrants aiming to cross the Mediterranean.

NATO and the Europe Union are now planning security cooperation programs with Libya. The United States has also announced that it will train 5,000 to 7,000 conventional and counter-terrorism forces. “As we go forward to try and find a good way to build up the Libyan security forces so they are not run by militias, we are going to have to assume some risks,” Adm. William McRaven, head of the U.S. Special Operations Command, has been quoted as saying.

In recent days, General David Rodriguez, the head of the U.S. military’s Africa Command (AFRICOM), visited Tunisia. According to official sources in Tunis, he discussed security cooperation, especially “supporting efforts to combat trafficking, particularly of arms, and on ways of helping Tunisia to secure its borders.”


There is growing consensus that Libya is unlikely to disentangle itself from its current quandary without international support. There are a few caveats though.

First, whatever the fate of the “support programs,” the international community should not pack and go if new complications arise. And there will be complications, even without “boots on the ground.” No one should forget that if Libya is in shambles today it is in great part because foreign powers had no exit plan and much less a reconstruction strategy after the 2011 NATO-backed military campaign. The international community, which had given the “green light” to that military campaign, bears the responsibility today of seeing international support efforts through. In the reconstruction efforts, regional initiatives should also be a crucial component.

Second, The West should not even think that the re-drawing of Libyan or North African borders could be an alternative. Incredibly, some scholars seem to underestimate the potentially destructive implications of such scenarios. Luis Martinez, a political scientist at the Paris-based research institute CERI, sees nothing wrong about helping “find a peaceful way to leave a central, authoritarian state behind and work towards a federal state or several states.” People living in ground zero in North Africa need no re-engineering of their countries’ borders. The territorial fragmentation of Libya or any other Arab country on tribal, regionalist or ethnic grounds, will open a Pandora’s Box beyond anybody’s imagination. To go beyond the “civil war phase,” the last thing Libya needs is to further weaken state institutions already on life-support after four decades of eccentrically-autocratic rule.

Third, encouragement should be given instead to the cause of dialogue and reconciliation in Libya. The message delivered by U.S. secretary of State John Kerry in the aftermath of the Tripoli incidents is a wise message. “We encourage all Libyans to break the cycle of violence through respectful dialogue and reconciliation,” he said.

Without a process of dialogue and reconciliation between Libyans, international support programs have little chance of succeeding. In a recent paper, the “Washington Institute for Near East Policy” (WINEP) argued that a nationwide reconciliation process in Libya is crucial for any U.S. military program there. “Otherwise, American assistance may simply foster a feckless organization in smart uniforms or, worse, another armed faction,” warned the paper’s author Andrew Engel.

More importantly, dialogue and reconciliation will help establish long-term stability. Bridge building, not the large-scale “political exclusion laws” (such as the one passed last May by Libyan legislators), will appease tensions. The displacement and exile of hundreds of thousands Libyans is an additional de-stabilizing factor. According to the Associated Press’ Paul Schemm, “about one million supporters of the Gaddafi regime remain internally displaced; hundreds of thousands more fled for their lives abroad.” The most notorious case of “collective displacement” at home is that of the population of Tawergha, still unable to return home because of its purported role during the 2011 rebellion against Qaddafi.

There are also tens of thousands of Libyan exiles living abroad, especially in neighboring North African countries. “More than anything else, Libya needs brave politicians who can launch a ‘fairness and reconciliation process’ and allow the two million Libyan refugees currently in Tunisia, Egypt and Algeria, to return home,” says Tunisian analyst Kamel bin Younes.

The challenges facing Libya are certainly daunting. But despite all predictions of collapse and implosion, the country has the means of its possible recovery and reconstruction. Its assets include large natural resources, a population that is increasingly taking ownership of its fate, and the determination of its neighbors to stand up to terrorism.


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. A recipient of the U.S. Foreign Service Distinguished Visiting Lecturer Award, he was also a Washington DC press correspondent and Fulbright Research Scholar at Georgetown University. Romdhani is currently an international media analyst.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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