The Next Dangerous Move in Libya

The Islamic State is growing in Libya. But to fight it, the Libyan state has to be resurrected. Critical moves are expected in the next few days and weeks.

02.22.16 5:01 AM ET

Almost every day brings a different European leader calling for military intervention to save Libya from the so-called Islamic State—but only once there is a single government in Libya with legitimate claims to control the entire country; one government, that is, to “invite” those foreign troops. And while the Europeans wait, the White House steps back even further, as The Daily Beast reported Thursday, telling the Pentagon to put its plans for a major intervention on hold.

Hence the urgency behind efforts to seat the painstakingly brokered “Government of National Accord” in Tripoli as soon as possible. But politically and militarily, that’s no simple matter, and the question of foreign intervention, seen from the ground in Libya, is even more problematic. The Italians who occupied Italy from 1911 to '43 are believed to have killed or imprisoned a third of the population by 1934, when they declared the country "pacified."

Today, the killing goes on, with supposedly surgical airstrikes by American forces. On Friday, American planes hit the coastal town of Sabratha, reportedly targeting a specific ISIS cell and, in the process, killing some 43 people. Yet there are no plans to move against the ISIS stronghold in the city of Sirte, because, once again, there is no fixed regime with which to coordinate such actions.

Who can trigger the chain of events that just might bring a unified government, foreign stabilization assistance, an end to ISIS and the many, many other things that need doing to resurrect this country?

One important player is Colonel Idris Madi of the Libyan National Army, the commander of the Tripoli manteqah or region, responsible for seating the new national accord government in the old national capital, even though, at the moment, the city is still under the tenuous control of dozens of extremist militia collectively known as Fajr Libya or Libya Dawn.

Like the rest of the national army, the colonel is under the command of the Ministry of Defense in Bayda, in eastern Libya, and this in turn is under the internationally recognized House of Representatives in Tobruk, which governs most of eastern Libya, some of southern Libya, and Zintan, a mountain town that is effectively an island separated from the coast by Libya Dawn territory. Zintan is just a two-hour drive away from the capital, but since August 2014 it’s been cut off by road.

Madi, with silver hair and mustache, glasses, and wearing a uniform with his colonel’s insignia, looks very different from the thuggish Tripoli militia leaders in their  rumpled mercenary chic. He is very close to General Khalifa Haftar, the principle commander of the national army, and he holds the first rank in the Western region. Madi was with Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi until the dictator’s fall at the hands of the European-backed revolution in 2011.

As a Zintani, Madi has a big dog in the fight for Tripoli. The militias that had held the Tripoli airport until August 2014 were from Zintan, and there is no worse blood in Libya than between Zintanis and the Tripoli and Misrata militias that defeated them, destroying the airport in the process.

But Madi commands regular army troops, not militias, and was at pains to emphasize that militias cannot be involved in the process of seating the national accord government, or, “We will be back to square one.” 

We spoke over Skype five years to the day after the Libyan revolution began in Benghazi—a very different time, when hopes were high and a manic idealism pervasive. But in recent times, after a year and a half of slow-boil civil war and economic collapse, Libya’s mood is decidedly grim.

Libya’s two contesting power centers, the one in Tobruk and the General National Congress in Tripoli, which is under the control of the Islamist “Libya Dawn” militias, are now under pressure from the international community to accept the Government of National Accord so that the country can face ISIS with a united front.

So, if all those ducks can be lined up, and the Libyan National Army has the backing of the Government of National Accord, what will it take to defeat the so-called Islamic State in their midst? Can the job be done without a lot of international help?

“Most Libyans don’t accept ISIS”, the colonel said. “But ISIS was a part of the Fajr government or collaborating with them.” The regular Libyan army “is able to defeat ISIS, not through airstrikes but on the ground,” he said.

“We just need international help for monitoring,” Madi continued, meaning intelligence on the wherabouts of militias and combatants.  “We cannot talk about specific numbers. We need support of the international community. We need information—monitoring of borders and the movement of fighters inside the country. ”

The new Government of National Accord is a motley undistinguished group that few Libyans have greeted with enthusiasm, but most probably regard it as better than continued chaos. It was propped up by the United Nations on Dec. 17, 2015. The ministers-designate have spent the last two months in Tunisia and then Morocco trying to name a cabinet that will get the backing of the hitherto legitimate government in Tobruk, the legislature known as the House of Representatives or HoR. (Everything has an acronym in Libya.)

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On Tuesday the 23rd, the HoR is to vote on the latest iteration, a group of merely 18 ministers, down from 30-something, that has to please all the city-states and tribal groupings in the East. This is in itself a tall order, and it’s rumored that some of the names are so controversial that the vote will be name by name rather than for the whole slate.

Meanwhile, it was announced that the GNA has asked for international protection even to go to Tobruk for the vote, given the still very fragile security in the eastern stronghold of the legitimate government. Madi said nothing of this embarrassment, nor would he corroborate rumors that U.S. special operations forces already are in Western Libya cooperating with the national army.

“We don’t have any dealings with any U.S. forces,” he said, “but we will in the future.”

Assuming the HoR approves the new government, the real hurdle is seating it in Tripoli, controlled by the Islamist militias that seized the capital in August 2014. Madi seemed confident as he spoke (in Arabic, using a U.S.-educated translator).

“Two weeks after the House of Representatives approves the cabinet, we can bring them to Tripoli,” he said. “The commanders have lists of the soldiers and we are communicating daily.We will have about 6,000 soldiers and 2,500 policeman. The Libyan National Army has 10 regions. Each has to give 500 soldiers to this operation. In western Libya, there are 500 soldiers from the coast, 500 from the mountains and 200 inside Tripoli. “

The LNA’s plans for Tripoli revolve around the thousands of soldiers who are believed to be still loyal to the LNA but have to keep their allegiances secret because they live in Fajr-controlled towns. (A Libyan friend in that situation introduced me to Col. Madi online.) If you were rash enough to support the Tobruk government, you’d likely get your house burned down for your pains, and that’s the only asset most Libyans possess.

As these numbers suggest, everything military in Libya, a nation of roughly 6 million people, happens on a Lilliputian scale by American standards. Many former combatants estimate that fewer than 10,000 Libyans actually fought in the revolution against Gaddafi and that may be generous.

The problem is that tens of thousands of unemployed young men have joined the government-funded militias that have sprung up since then. One teenager I know has his own truck-mounted KPV 14.5mm heavy machine gun. Luckily he’s a good kid. Spending on these militias and their weapons has crowded out just about everything else, to the extent that Libyan hospitals now lack basic supplies. The country has committed suicide by militia.

Where will these well-paid, well-armed, mainly youthful Islamist militias that currently run rampant in Tripoli go if they are ousted? 

Madi says “they must go to the borders.” Libya’s frontiers have been largely unpoliced for years now, allowing not only the headline-grabbing trafficking in subSaharan Africans en route to Europe, but the smuggling of drugs, alcohol, weapons and terrorists. The problem is that no one in Libya is very keen on being posted to a desolate desert border crossing. The militia members in Tripoli will almost surely say, “Why should I leave to go to the borders? Why can’t the LNA go there?”

And perhaps more importantly, what will make the militia commanders—who have been looting the national wealth for years—leave the big money institutions of Libya in Tripoli like the National Oil Company and Central Bank to the new government? What will make strongman Nuri Abu Sahmein, the president of the current regime in Tripoli, leave?

Here Col. Idris Madi allowed himself  a small smile.

“This is a battle,” he said. “A three-part battle. Part is about dialogue, part is about new choices, and part is fighting. I think he will go peacefully. The Libyan people do not accept political Islam.”

He’s right, if election results are any guide. But Libya’s Islamists have not respected electoral results. How about Abdulhakim Belhaj, the ex-Libyan Islamic Fighting Group fighter whose political party failed to secure even one seat in the 2014 parliamentary elections, but whose fighters were among those who seized Tripoli in August 2014? Is there a role for him in the future?  

“His reputation is very bad,” said Madi. “If it was good, he would have been elected. “

I asked about demands that Belhaj, Abu Sahmein and others be tried for war crimes in the Hague, or in Libya.

Madi said Libyans, “Don’t want to go for accountability at this stage. We need to get the country stable.” He went on to say, “It was a big mistake to disband the Libyan National Army similar to what happened in Iraq. This was because the Muslim Brotherhood wanted to build an army of its own.”

Like most Libyans, even military professionals, Madi emphasizes dialogue. Libyans settle most matters by talking, even in war. One commander I know was on his mobile phone to his opposite number during a “small war” between the Amazigh town of Zwara and its Arab neighbors in the spring of 2012.

Will there be a battle for Tripoli?

“No, I don’t think so. Except small fights in certain areas. There is another threat, which is ISIS.”

But it’s a barely concealed secret that many of the Islamists are willing to tolerate ISIS when it suits them. The colonel is quick to say, “The Fajr government is very weak and has other agendas. The Fajr Libya government includes ISIS, especially in Sabratha. Sometimes they fight ISIS, when it affects their interest, and other times they include ISIS or the LIFG or Ansar al Shariah. “

I asked Col. Madi about a basic logistical issue: the road between Tripoli and Tunisia has been blocked for months by fighting between rival Fajr militias. The condition has come to seem so permanent that an air taxi service now brings people from the furthest west town, Zwara, to Tripoli, and ancient Fajr helicopters ferry people back and forth to Sabratha, just east of Zwara and the reputed home to a sizeable ISIS contingent.

Madi seemed to think that the rival militias would stop fighting in the face of the LNA, and—again—that the real fight would be with ISIS.

The colonel denied that any Zintan militias will be allowed to operate as such in the effort to seat the GNA in Tripoli. But another Zintan source said that he has no doubt that some of the Zintan militia will participate in any operation in Tripoli, and that while Col. Madi has the highest formal military rank in the LNA in the West, he is not the strongest anti-Fajr commander in the West.

That title belongs to Osama Al Juwaili, leader of the military council of Zintan, a former defense minister of Libya circa 2012, who has connections with Misrata’s powerful Halbous and al Mahjoub brigades, currently occupying Tripoli. Supposedly Juwaili supports the Government of National Accord.  

Another Zintan heavyweight is Emad Trabelsi, commander of the As-Sawaiq brigade of Zintan, which has between 300 and 1200 men. As-Sawaiq is rumored to be among the Zintan militias that will enter Tripoli. Some of the Misrata brigades in Tripoli have forged agreements with the Zintan brigades to allow a peaceful entry into Tripoli since the Misrata-Tripoli Islamist alliance has itself fractured, like everything else.

I asked Colonel Madi’s translator, another native Zintani, if there were big celebrations for the anniversary of the February 17 Revolution. (The first demonstrations began with a timid lawyers’ protest in Benghazi on Feb. 15, 2011, and picked up steam nationwide from there.) But this being Libya, it turned out that Zintan had celebrated the anniversary of the revolution on February 16, when the rebellion was said to have begun there.

This is an excellent example of both the beauty and the tragedy of Libya.

It’s a country of free, proud and by-and-large reasonably well-governed city states, where individuals also consider themselves free and equal, paying no deference to birth, rank, or position. (Wealth is another matter). Yet these city states cannot agree on when to celebrate their revolution, much less on a national government, and somehow all this theoretical freedom results in chaos, which doesn’t allow anyone real freedom, like the freedom to drive the coast road from Tripoli to Tunisia, or from Zintan to Tripoli, without dire consequences, or the freedom to not be kidnapped, or assassinated.

Zintan is a stark, bordering-on-grim place, though it has its own beauty, and while the Zintanis criticize the Tripoli militias for embracing political Islam or worse, the town is extremely. Women do not drive there, and indeed are almost never seen in the streets. The translator ended our talk by remarking wistfully that since he left his graduate program in electrical engineering in the U.S., his life has stagnated.

“I can’t even go to Tripoli. I’ve been stuck in Zintan for two years. When you mentioned going to the gym, I remembered so much about the United States. There is nothing to do here.” 

It’s a common sentiment. Libya is not Afghanistan; it’s a wealthy oil state on the Mediterranean. Most Libyans have some experience of the world outside, and want to be part of it. The first step back to being a normal country would be the seating of the GNA in Tripoli. But at the moment, no one can predict when that day will come.