As the security situation in Libya continues to deteriorate, the internationally recognised Government of National Accord in Tripoli is caught between the advancing forces of General Haftar with his power base in the east, and a series of extremist jihadist militia groups who largely control the west of the country. Unfortunately, that apparently neat description of the division of the country disguises Libya’s descent once again into near anarchy.
General Haftar, seen by some as a military strongman who could impose order from the chaos, has a long history in modern Libya. He was one of the group of military officers under Colonel Gaddafi who deposed the Libyan King in 1969. Blamed unfairly by Gaddafi for a military adventure in Chad that went disastrously wrong, he went into exile in the USA, only returning to Libya at the start of the uprising in 2011 which eventually toppled the Libyan dictator.
Appointed by Libya’s Parliament as Head of the Army, and recently promoted to Field Marshal, he secured military successes in the east against the Islamist militants. It now appears that he and his backers, including President Trump, have decided that the only way to secure Libya’s future is for him to take control of the entire country.
Ranged against him are an alphabet soup of militia gangs who are bound together by their common belief in a hard line, Islamist ideology and their apparent funding from abroad, most notably from Qatar and Turkey. They are united as well in their opposition to General Haftar and their support for much of the extremist ideology espoused by the Islamic State.
There is no doubt that in the areas they have controlled in the west of Libya, their rule has been characterised by the harsh brutality that was a feature of the IS occupation of parts of Syria and Iraq. As a stark example, the town of Tawerga was cleared after the kidnapping of 77 men and a young boy, leaving the inhabitants with nowhere to go. Elsewhere, the Al-Nawasi Militias have been described as led by “pro-Jihadi Islamists”, with sources inside the organisation claiming it had been recruiting extremists advocating the imposition of Sharia law across Libya.
Whilst much of the international focus and scrutiny has understandably been centred around General Haftar’s forces and their military advance, comparatively little attention has been given to these militias, whose association with the GNA grows looser by the day. By effectively enacting a hostile takeover of the region’s police and security apparatus, they have been able to put this brutal Islamism into action. The shutting down of the world famous ‘Comic Con’ convention and arrest of participants by the Special Deterrent Force in 2017 is a taster of what can be expected in a Libya under their control.
What is increasingly apparent is that these militias have come to depend on the support – financial and otherwise – of foreign powers; primarily Qatar and Turkey. It has been suggested that Qatar has provided as much as $890 million to various extremist militias between 2011 and 2017. Exactly why Qatar and Turkey should support such extremist forces is lost in the fog of Middle Eastern religious politics. But what is not in doubt is the danger that a power vacuum in Libya, with these groups running riot, poses to the West.
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Libya is a short sea journey across the Mediterranean to Italy. It has long been a jumping off point for migrants desperate to get to Europe. Indeed, some of these groups have their origins in profiting from people trafficking; overloading unsuitable boats in their greed, leading to countless tragic deaths by drowning. Moreover, if the militias are successful Libya could become a safe haven for terrorist training, posing a threat to Western safety and security right on our doorstep.
Geoff Hoon was an MP for Ashfield from 1992-2010. He was Defence Secretary from 1999-2005. He was also a former Transport Secretary, Leader of the House of Commons and Government Chief Whip.