The Libyan Southern Front: Between Conflict and Dialogue

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Analysis of Libya’s security crisis has largely centered on the country’s northern coastal cities, where the issue of rogue militias challenging the government is well known. What is often overlooked—and much less understood—is the security situation in the south. This vast, underpopulated territory has become a gateway for many of the security problems Libya and the region face today. Well-documented infiltration of jihadist terrorists; illegal weapons and mercenaries; criminal organizations smuggling drugs and other goods; and human trafficking all pass through Libya’s southern border. Gaining control of this territory is an important priority for the Libyan central government, but it cannot be done at the expense of the local communities, or without taking into account their specific identities. Any national security strategy must take into account an understanding of the territory and should incorporate all Libyan communities into an effective national dialogue. Simply imposing the central government’s authority with force will not work.

The strategy adopted at the national level of blindly incorporating militias into the national army structure has produced mixed—and mostly unsatisfactory—results. Applying this strategy to the southern province would be particularly problematic, where regional tensions and prejudices among communities would complicate efforts to create a sense of common identity and purpose.

In this vast region Tebu tribal forces control much of the remote borderland to Niger and Algeria. Numbering between fifteen and sixty thousand (the most recent national census dates back to 2006 and figures are disputed for political reasons), the Tebu are an ethnic minority native to southeast Libya, as well as to northeast Chad and Niger. Former Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi marginalized their community, forging temporary alliances with some of its leaders during the war against Chad, and later stripped many of its members of their Libyan citizenship. Due to Tebu’s cross-border family ties and darker complexion, many Arab Libyans consider them foreign intruders. Combined with conflicting territorial claims, latent racism has taken its toll on community life in the south, especially in the town of Kufra, where Tebu and Arab tribes have recently waged bloody battles, indiscriminately shelling each other’s neighborhoods.

Filling the power vacuum left by retreating Qaddafi regime troops, Tebu fighters from around Kufra seized large parts of the Murzuk governorate during the revolution, transcending their usual sphere of influence. Covering an area larger than Italy with nearly 80,000 inhabitants, Murzuk is of major strategic importance in the wider region.

Murzuk is Libya’s main gateway to sub-Saharan Africa and a regional hub for illegal trade and northbound migration, and has recently become a focal point for national security. In December, the General National Congress (GNC) surprisingly declared the entire southern region from Algeria to Egypt a military zone subject to the authority of Military Governor Ramadhan Al-Barassi. Although locals welcomed the conciliatory tone of the governor’s speech on the occasion of a Tebu festival that took place in Murzuk last month, they are skeptical of the central government’s approach to securing the south. Stationed at remote desert outposts, Tebu border guards in ragged uniforms complain about the lack of support from Tripoli, adding that they would much rather receive additional equipment than the occasional army unit sent down from the coastal areas. The men from the north, they claim, are unprepared for the harsh conditions and are of little help to the experienced desert fighters. The Tebu are not the only ones present in this area; further west, Tuareg also control checkpoints and oases. Whether Tebu or Tuareg, the Saharans see themselves as the rightful gatekeepers in an inhospitable land in which the outsiders rarely set foot.

Although these Saharans feel they are not given enough credit for their unremitting presence, some Libyans believe they are undermining state power and thus part of the security conundrum. In the words of a Benghazi reporter, the southern fighters are “green at heart,” or nostalgic for the old days. In present-day Libya, using the loyalist (pro-Qaddafi) argument comes in handy when seeking to blame others for what has gone wrong during the transitional period. But it is no secret that Qaddafi successfully co-opted some southern communities by giving them a free hand on cross-border smuggling. Yet Sebha, the capital of the southern province of Fezzan, has recently become the scene of violent attacks that seem to be primarily about border control. Residents of Libya’s main southern town speak of a “smuggler-war” splitting their community, which is also unsustainable.

Since it established the military zone, the national army has increased its presence in the south, monitoring the porous borders (mainly by air) thanks to material support from the international community. Occasionally it intercepts armed convoys, proving what many in Libya initially disputed and what is now considered a fact: weapons are being smuggled out of the country to Algeria, Niger, and likely to Mali, where Islamists are fighting the French army. Meanwhile, foreign militants are seeking refuge in the Libyan Sahara. Libyan officials are still trying to play down the problem, disputing the recently published United Nations report on arms proliferation as “exaggerated”.

The Tebu in Murzuk have their own reading of events, which puts them at odds with most other Libyans. They think the south is being infiltrated by radicals, allegedly with support from elements within the government and the GNC. Islamist groups linked to outside networks are setting up bases, they say, financing their operations by selling drugs to Europe via Kufra and Tobruk. For the time being, local forces have cut off this route (or so they claim) leaving many to wonder who is now profiting from the lucrative drug business. The “black men from the south,” as some northerners refer to them, are clearly very protective of their newly-acquired territory, and are quick to justify their presence on the ground.

Although their arguments may be as faulty and biased as those of other Libyan interest groups, the Tebu are definitely part of the ‘Libyan political puzzle’ and need to be taken into account in any national security strategy. Whether the central command likes it or not, the southerners control large swaths of the Libyan desert and no one else is currently capable of taking their place. The only effective national security strategy is one that takes into account all the major players, including the southern communities whose contribution is essential to address border issues and to strengthen the fragile Libyan state.

Valerie Stocker is a freelance political analyst and occasionally contributes to media outlets. Karim Mezran is a senior fellow with the Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. Photo credit.

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