By Frederic Wehrey
Southern Libya remains a region of endemic instability wracked by communal conflict, a shortage of basic services, rampant smuggling, and fragmented or collapsed institutions.
Flashpoints of Communal Conflict in the South
Though conflict and social tensions range far and wide in the south, two locations in particular—Sabha and Ubari—bear watching because of their propensity to draw in other social and political actors from across the region.
Both suffer from a witches’ brew of afflictions: they are ethnically and tribally mixed; they suffer institutional weaknesses, especially in the security and justice sectors; and they are situated near major sources of fixed income, whether smuggling routes or oil fields. In addition, they have been the targets of meddling by northern and external actors.
Sabha has special importance as the provincial capital of the south and a historic hub along north-south supply routes, and, recently, for migrant smuggling. It has always been a contested city. In the 1800s, Sabha had been the seat of a twelve-year sultanate ruled by a local tribe, the Awlad Sulayman, until the Ottomans rallied rival tribes to overthrow it.15
The Italians followed a similar strategy of divide and conquer. After Libya’s independence, the Awlad Sulayman again ascended to power, which they held until Qaddafi’s coup. The dictator broke their reign by putting his own tribe, the Qadhadhfa, in charge of security institutions and key sources of income, such as cigarette smuggling. The Awlad Sulayman suffered a loss in status.
At the end of the 2011 revolution, they saw a window of opportunity, turning on their former overlords. Non-Arab tribes saw their chance too. And in the years that followed, unspoken pacts and power hierarchies collapsed.
Open conflict erupted in Sabha in March 2012, reportedly beginning with a carjacking. A Tabu killed a well-known Awlad Sulayman official from the electric company and stole his four-wheel-drive truck. The situation escalated when a reconciliation meeting at the Qaddafi-era People’s Hall ended in a gun battle.
Militias from the Awlad Sulayman and other Arab tribes descended on the Tabu quarters in Tayuri and nearby Hajara. Five days of clashes followed, with 147 people killed, mostly Tabu, and over 70 homes destroyed.16
Sabha’s weak police force was powerless in the face of the warring militias. The transitional government in Tripoli dispatched the Benghazi-based Special Forces, led by Colonel Wanis Bukhamada, to try and enforce order.
It was a stopgap measure that failed to address the roots of the fighting. The spark of the conflict was a murder and the attendant payback, but that masked something deeper: the fighting was a contest between the Awlad Sulayman and the Tabu, onetime allies during the revolution, for the region’s lucrative smuggling trade and over salaries for their young militiamen.
After the fighting spread to Sabha, the Special Forces imposed a temporary truce.17
But as security in Benghazi worsened in early 2013, Bukhamada pulled his soldiers out, creating a vacuum once more. The Awlad Sulayman stepped in, trying to dominate the city’s nascent police force and control the illicit cross-border trade. By early 2014, the Tabu were pushing back. They assassinated an Awlad Sulayman militia leader as revenge for his role in earlier clashes.
A second round of fighting started. The Qadhadhfa joined with the Tabu, seizing the Tamanhint military air base while the Awlad Sulayman grabbed the city’s Italian-era citadel, Fort Elena, which sits above Sabha. Sabha descended once again into violence. Entire districts were no-go zones, ruled by militias and criminal gangs.
The numbers of murders and kidnappings soared. Schools closed; nobody went outdoors. Young men perished in gun battles for control of a single gas station.18
Ostensibly mandated to restore peace in the area, the Third Force in practice ended up taking sides among the city’s warring tribes and faced recurring protests calling for its departure.
Once again, the Tripoli government responded by deploying a coalition of militias, this time the Misrata-led Third Force.
Ostensibly mandated to restore peace in the area, the Third Force in practice ended up taking sides among the city’s warring tribes and faced recurring protests calling for its departure. It also encountered clear limits on its ability to prevent outbreaks of conflict.
In the summer of 2016, some of its forces redeployed north to assist the Misrata-led assault against the Islamic State in Sirte. In November 2016, fighting broke out again in Sabha after a monkey owned by a Qadhadhfa shopkeeper pulled the hijab off a passing schoolgirl from the Awlad Sulayman tribe, which then retaliated by killing three Qadhadhfa.19
Within days, the incident escalated into a grim battle involving tanks and crew-served weapons. Violent crime remains another serious problem; in 2016 alone, 286 people were killed and 153 were kidnapped in Sabha.20
The southeastern town of Ubari derives its strategic significance from its proximity to the Algerian-Nigerien border and major oil fields. Like Sabha, it holds a mix of tribes and ethnicities.
Most of the population are Arabized Africans, the so-called ahali, who are descended from sub-Saharan slaves. The Tuareg are the next-largest group. The Tabu are a minority.
The Tuareg say that Ubari is firmly in the Tuareg zone defined by the midi-midi, but the Tabu argue they have just as much of a right to be there. And in the months after the 2011 revolution, they started asserting this claim.
Flush with cash from their newfound smuggling profits, they started buying property in Ubari. They also secured access tothe nearby Sharara oil field by serving as guards under the Zintani militias who controlled it.21 The Tuareg, having been already expelled from the border town of Ghadames in communal fighting, grew alarmed at yet another blow to their influence in the area, namely the Tabu’s control of an asset that they believed lay squarely on their turf.
Regional pressures only added to the sense of Tuareg decline vis-à-vis the Tabu. In 2014, Algeria closed its border with Libya, and French patrols in the Salvador Pass in Niger drastically curtailed the Tuareg’s traditional cross-border movement.
The Tuareg accused the French forces based at Madama in Niger—just 100 kilometers (62 miles) from the Libyan border—of turning a blind eye to Tabu smugglers and fighters transiting north. “Madama is the source of our fitna [chaos],” a Tuareg tribal leader told the author.
One afternoon in September 2014, a security force in Ubari tried to arrest some Tabu men who were illegally selling gasoline in the town center. Things escalated, with a Tuareg shooting a Tabu and then vice versa.
A committee of elders arrived and managed to establish a truce. That night, a convoy of sixty or so Tabu fighters arrived from the mostly Tabu town of Murzuq to the east, hitting Tuareg militia compounds in western Ubari with heavy machine-gun fire.
In the week that followed, Tabu militias pushed through Ubari, burning Tuareg homes as they went. Tuareg militias raced to the top of Tende Mountain and started firing on the Tabu neighborhoods below.
The fighting had economic consequences for all of Libya. In November 2014, Misratan militias assisted the Tuareg in seizing the Sharara oil field from the Tabu, who’d been allied with their rivals, the Zintanis. In response, Zintani militias in the north closed off a section of the pipeline that connects Sharara to the port of Zawiya on the Mediterranean Sea.
The fighting in Ubari slowed to a grinding exchange of mortars and snipers. Hundreds of families fled; hundreds of people died. Shelling destroyed entire neighborhoods, schools, and the downtown area. Both the Tripoli government and its rival, in Tobruk, tried repeatedly to end the fighting, enlisting the help of multiple tribal mediators (even though they were both parties to the conflict) before the government of Qatar, with Algerian assistance, stepped in.
Tabu and Tuareg delegates were invited to Doha, where they eventually reached an accord in November 2015.22
A shaky peace is currently holding due to both the mutual restraint of the town’s Tuareg and Tabu brigades and the efforts of Hasnawi brigades, which deployed to the city as peacekeepers in February 2016. Hasnawi soldiers, most of whom hail from Shati, set up checkpoints throughout Ubari and on key approaches to the town.
The Hasawna occupied the Tende Brigade headquarters on the city’s southern flank, as well as nearby Tende Mountain—a strategic vantage point that offers an excellent defilade into the city below.23
There remain rejectionist and revanchist Tuareg figures, who seek either a separate homeland or greater hegemony in the west over cross-border trade.
Recovery has been slow but steady. Fighters from outside Ubari have for the most part departed the area, with the exception of some Tabu units from al-Qatrun who have not returned to their hometown. Although both Tabu and Tuareg interlocutors praised the Hasawna for separating the armed factions, the peacekeeping deployment has done little to heal the deep damage to the town’s social fabric.
The return of displaced families remains a key source of tension. So, too, does the endemic competition for scarce economic resources—black-market petrol sales, smuggling, and oversight of the area’s oil fields—that contributed to the conflict in the first place.
Signatories to the 2015 peace agreement proclaimed it to be a new midi-midi agreement. But there are also rejectionist and revanchist Tuareg figures, who seek either a separate homeland or greater hegemony in the west over cross-border trade.
“When you return to Ubari, God willing, we will be back on Tende Mountain,” one Tuareg activist told the author in early 2016.24
Underlying Drivers of Insecurity Across the South
Aside from these two flash points, the southern region faces a number of structural drivers of conflict related to its weak and fractured security sector; the absence of a meaningful local economy, despite the presence of oil fields, and effective border control; and harmful meddling by northern and outside actors. Jihadi militancy is currently a somewhat marginal threat to the south, but it could find greater social purchase among aggrieved tribes or communities or amid a worsening breakdown of governance.
A Fractured and Tribalized Security Sector
As is the case elsewhere in Libya, the security sector in the south can best be described as a shaky symbiosis between the remnants of the old regime—Qaddafi’s security brigades, police forces, and intelligence units—and newer revolutionary groups composed of untrained youths, as well as informal security actors, such as tribal mediators.
Unfortunately, nearly all of these actors have taken on a highly communal or ethnic character. In many cases, these bonds were solidified by the country’s transitional authorities through the creation of auxiliary security bodies under the Ministry of Interior or Ministry of Defense.
With few exceptions, they have become agents of conflict rather than enforcers of peace. Within cities, they have grabbed assets such as banks, hospitals, public buildings, and arms depots. In neighborhoods beset by crime, they run protection rackets and extort businesses.
They have competed over the south’s limited resources, for example by jostling for border control posts (which allow a monopoly over smuggling) or by seizing airfields and oil fields (which position them to be guards and interlocutors with foreign oil companies).25
Informal social mediators have helped obtain ceasefires. But this is not a durable institutional foundation on which to build a peaceful political order in the south.
But even when they play a beneficial role in policing, they are beset by deficiencies in manpower, equipment, and pay. For example, in the Tuareg town of Ghat, near the Algerian border, a hybrid brigade called the Martyrs of Essene—originally drawn from defected officers, police, and civilians—joined the now-defunct Supreme Security Committees and, by many accounts, played a helpful role in guarding municipal and parliamentary voting polls.26
But its members have said the group’s transition to a more formal police force has been obstructed by the Tripoli-based National Salvation Government’s decision in early February 2015 to link government salaries to national identification cards, which many Tuareg lack.27
Similarly, the role of informal social mediators—hukuma (wise men) and tribal councils—has been beneficial in obtaining ceasefires and separating armed factions. But this is not a durable institutional foundation on which to build a peaceful political order in the south.
Porous Borders and Endemic Smuggling
Border control in the south, even under Qaddafi, was always patchy, with the late dictator devolving oversight of lucrative smuggling routes to tribes to secure their loyalty. In the absence of local income, illicit trade has become a deeply ingrained feature of the south’s socioeconomic landscape.
The south’s security actors are often inextricably complicit in this trade, and when they attempt to combat it, they suffer from shortfalls in equipment, personnel, and pay. This capacity deficit, along with the south’s dire economic situation, has produced a moral calculus among even well-intentioned border actors: arms, narcotics, and militants are intercepted, while fuel, subsidized food, cigarettes, and illegal migrants are allowed to pass, subject to a fee.
A key border-control deficiency is municipal governance capacity. Nowhere in the south is this more apparent than in the town of Ghat. Long cut off from the outside world after the closure of the Algerian border and fighting in nearby Ubari, Ghat’s municipal leadership oversees the Libyan frontier stretching from Algeria to Niger.
The commander of a local border militia, Katiba 411, exclaimed that he was forced to patrol a 230-kilometer stretch of border with Algeria with just 230 men.28
Since the closure of the Algerian border, smuggling traffic has shifted entirely to the Nigerien border into Gatrun, along a Tabu-controlled route—a net loss for the Tuareg.
The commander lamented the draconian punishments Algeria inflicted on Tuareg smugglers who he said were trying to eke out a living. He needed more equipment, body armor, night-vision goggles, and vehicles, sending repeated appeals to Bayda and Tobruk, but to no avail. As in the case of policing bodies elsewhere, the linkage of salaries to national identification cards has severely obstructed border-control capacity.
Ghat’s leaders have long appealed to the Tripoli government and to outside actors like the European Union (EU) and the UN for greater direct assistance to Libya’s border municipalities. “We asked the Europeans to pressure Algeria to open the border to relieve our suffering,” a municipal council member said, lamenting that the area’s Tuareg were cut off from kin across the border, as well as access to medical care and basic goods.29
Ghat’s suffering was somewhat relieved in February 2016 when the first fuel convoys, accompanied by Hasawna guards, made their way along the road from Ubari into the city.30 But as of early 2017, Ghat was still afflicted by widespread power outages, water cuts, money shortages, and isolation.
The weakness of border control is even more apparent in Sabha, a longtime way station for Sahelian migrants moving northward. Here, migrants work as day laborers in impoverished neighborhoods like Ghurda, crowding dozens into single rooms, trying to save the 30 dinars they earn per job for the perilous northward journey; others are coerced into forced labor or prostitution.31
Once they embark on the journey, packed into cargo trucks, these migrants face violent abuse, sexual assault, and abandonment. “If you faint or fall off, they leave you,” one migrant from Nigeria said. “The drivers beat us with long wooden sticks.”32
Underlying the Sisyphean struggle against illicit trafficking is the fact that as long as the local economy remains underdeveloped, any law enforcement and technical and bureaucratic improvements will likely fail. At their core, smuggling and the struggle for resources are deeply entrenched socioeconomic problems.33
The lure of fuel smuggling is especially enticing—a liter of gasoline that costs 10 cents in Libya will fetch a dollar in Chad.34 With the disappearance of tourism—long a source of local revenue—after the revolution, smuggling has become even more endemic. Attempts to curtail this livelihood have produced violent conflict. It was the attempt by an Ubari security committee to stop black-market fuel sales that contributed to the Tabu-Tuareg fighting.
One Tabu notable wondered in 2016: “Yes, smuggling is wrong. But why crack down on it now, especially when alternate means of income have not been developed?”35
More recently, the EU has taken steps to address capacity in southern Libya on the migrant challenge, pledging funds to municipalities for the construction of migrant detention centers. Unsurprisingly, several mayors in the south rejected the plan because it would shift too much of the burden to them in the form of a technical solution, without addressing the push-pull drivers of migrant flows and smuggling—namely, the absence of a local economy.36
Frederic Wehrey – Senior Fellow, Middle East Program. Wehrey specializes in post-conflict transitions, armed groups, and identity politics, with a focus on Libya, North Africa, and the Gulf.
15 For background on Sabha and the role of its tribal rulers, see Habib Wada al-Hisnawi, Fezzan Under the Rule of the Awlad Muhammad: A Study in Political, Economic and Intellectual History (Sabha, Libya: Center for African Research and Study, 1990). For the role of the Sayf al-Nasr family in the history of Fezzan and linkages to Chad, see Faraj Najem, “Tribe, Islam and State in Libya: Analytical Study of the Roots of the Libyan Tribal Society and Interaction Up to the Qaramanli Rule (1711–1835)” (PhD dissertation, University of Westminster, 2004), 224–25.
16 Author interview with municipal leaders and notables in Sabha, February 2015.
17 Author interview with Colonel Wanis Bukhamada, Benghazi, Libya, November 2013.
18 This account is drawn from author interviews in Sabha in February 2015 and a Skype conversation with two Sabha activists, November 2016.
19 “Monkey Incident Sparks Clashes in Southern Libyan City of Sabha, 16 Dead,” Reuters, November 20, 2016, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-libya-security-sabha-idUSKBN13F0PD.
20 “Amn Sabha: Maqtal 286 Wa Khatf 153 Shakhsan Wa 624 Hadeth Haraba Khilala Al Aam 2016” [Sabha Security: 286 Killed, 153 Kidnapped, and 624 Conflict Incidents During the Year 2016], Al-Wasat, January 22, 2017, http://alwasat.ly/ar/news/libya/130791.
21 In addition, the Tabu worked as guards at another field in the Murzuq Basin, El Fil, also under Zintani control.
22 Tuareg and Tabu who were living side by side in Tuyuri, Sabha, briefly fought in the summer of 2015.
23 Author interview with Hasawna notables and brigade leaders, Ubari, Libya, February 2016.
24 Author interview with a Tuareg activist, Ubari, Libya, February 2016.
25 Author interviews with security officials in Sabha, Sharara, and Misrata, Libya, February 2016.
26 Author interviews in Ghat, Libya, March 2016.
28 Author interview with brigade commander, Ghat, Libya, March 2016.
29 Author interview with a member of the Ghat municipal council, March 2016.
30 Author observations, Ghat, March 2016.
31 Author interviews with African migrants in Sabha, Libya, February 2015.
32 Author interview with an African migrant, Zawiya, Libya, July 2016.
33 Ines Kohl, “Terminal Sahara: Sub-Saharan Migrants and Tuareg Stuck in the Desert,” Stichproben: Vienna Journal of African Studies 28, no. 15 (2015): 55–81.
34 Author interview with a Tuareg activist, Sabha, February 2015.
35 Author interview with a Tabu notable, Sabha, February 2015.
36 Ahmed Elumami, “Libya Mayors Say Europe’s Migration Crisis Should Not Be Dumped on Them,” Reuters, February 10, 2017, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-europe-migrants-libya-idUSKBN15P2P7.