Throughout their history (see “Tribal Dynamics and Civil War (1)“), Libya’s tribes have not been based exclusively on systematic tribalism, but rather on a flexible tribal ideology that is grounded in identity and shifts according to circumstances and practical opportunities. This shifting tribal ideology makes the non-Arab tribes different from the majority of the actors in Northern Libya, who are more or less bound by religious or political ideology – and thus ally with similar groups.

Furthermore, tribalism naturally produces “nepotism and favoritism” amongst tribal groups and families (Varvelli, ISPI, May 2013), but Libya’s minority tribes have also shown that they can unite to protest shared grievances, as we shall see below. The Amazigh (Berber), Toubou, and Tuareg tribes have been culturally marginalized, denied citizenship rights, and lack political representation, which remain sources of contention (see Toubou media Facebook page, February 19, 2015, March 24, 2015 posts; and Tuareg media Facebook page, September 9, 2014 post). As a result, the tribal grievances constructed over history, including during the Qaddafi regime and the post-revolutionary era, as well as conflict over vital trade networks in the South, are now significant variables in Libya’s civil war.

In this post, we shall discuss the post-Qaddafi era Amazigh and Tuareg tribes, and to what extent they might impact Libya’s future. Our forthcoming post will focus on the Toubou and Arab tribes.

[Check also “The Islamic State in Libya – When Libyan Tribes Pledge Allegiance to the Khalifah, and The Islamic State in Libya – Force, Fighters and Tribes, by H Lavoix, April & May 2016).]

Areas of control, strategic towns, and jihadist camps in Fezzan, April 12, 2015, by FezzanLibya (click map to access FezzanLibya Twitter).

Amazigh (Berber) Tribes

In general, some of these tribes are allied with the General National Congress and Misrata Dawn of Libya Forces.

The Berbers, or Amazigh, are descendants of the region’s native inhabitants and still live in many North African countries (Encyclopedia Britannica, February 24, 2015; Solieman, Muftah, March 24, 2011). The Amazigh continue to hold to their language and traditions while practicing a blend of Sunni Islam and West African witchcraft, according to the World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples (August 2011).

Current Alliances

Current Amazigh militia alliances with Dawn of Libya appear to have an underlying dynamic driven by Arab-Berber tensions. Tribes in “Operation Dignity” are primarily Arab, while the Amazigh and Misrata tribes (Misratans are primarily an Amazigh ethnicity, according to Ziadeh, 1983) stand opposed to Zintan and rally to “Operation Dawn” (The Economist, January 10, 2015; Ziadeh, 1983). However, Pelham notes that this is not a strict paradigm, as “some Bedouins [Arabs descended from nomads] hold senior positions in Libya Dawn, and Berbers can be found fighting for Dignity” (Pelham, February 19, 2015). Declarations of support from Amazigh tribes and the participation of Amazigh units in “Operation Dawn” have given Dawn of Libya the primary support from the Amazigh people (Gartenstein-Ross & Barr, International Centre for Counter-Terrorism, February 2015; Abdallah, Al-Ahram, August 21, 2014; The Economist, September 25, 2014).

Yet, the primary reason for the Amazigh’s support to Operation Dawn might also well be Zintan’s allegiance to General Haftar and “Operation Dignity”.

Zintan, a town in the Amazigh-populated Nafusa Mountains, is primarily composed of Arab tribes (Al-Ahram, June 12, 2014; Pelham, February 19, 2015). Although Zintan and the surrounding Amazigh tribes had an alliance during the 2011 revolution to defeat Qaddafi, Zintan and its brigades withdrew from the alliance to partner with Haftar and “Operation Dignity” (Pelham, February 19, 2015). We may wonder if the Zintani allegiance to the primarily-Arab Operation Dignity, or the mere presence of an Arab tribe stronghold amongst their tribes drove the Amazigh to ally with Dawn of Libya. Even if there are most probably mixed and multiple motives, Zintan appears to be the driving element, as stated by an Amazigh commander in the Dawn of Libya coalition:

“The majority of Dawn are not Islamist. We all have different reasons for wanting less Zintani influence in western Libya” (The Economist, September 27, 2014).

Political Grievances

Throughout the rule of the National Transitional Council (NTC), Libya’s Amazigh advocated their political grievances, which primarily focused on constitutional recognition of the Amazigh people (Temehu, updated February 24, 2014). After Amazigh anger and protests over lacking cultural recognition in the NTC Constitutional Declaration, they were able to make some political progress under the General National Congress (elected July 2012), which came in the form of legislative actions: an “anti-discrimination law that strengthened protections for ethnic minorities” (April 2013), then in July both a legislation that officially recognized the minority languages – “enabling them to be taught in schools,” and a law that set aside six of the 60 seats in the Constitutional Drafting Committee for minority ethnicities (Ibid; Minority Rights Group International, July 3, 2014). In addition, Nouri Abusahmain, an Amazigh, was elected GNC President (Shennib, Reuters, July 17, 2013).

However, minority tribes objected to the representation in the Constitutional Drafting Committee, concerned that operating on a majority vote basis “will still mean that their concerns will not be adequately reflected” (Minority Rights Group International, July 3, 2014). Furthermore, the minority tribes continued to experience hostility from the Arab majority (Ibid), which possibly influenced their decision to not ally with the Arab-dominated “Operation Dignity” and the Council of Representatives. As a result, the Amazigh resorted to protests and political boycotts.

Amazigh protest in Jado to have Amazigh language officially recognized

Some Amazigh tribesmen occupied the Mellitah oil terminal in October 2013 in an effort to increase their representation in the Constitutional Drafting Committee (Pack and Cook, The Majalla, December 9, 2013). The newer Amazigh political association, the Libyan Amazigh Supreme Council, began political protests in 2014 by boycotting the 2014 election and refusing to recognize any Libyan Constitution until a consensus rule is agreed upon in the Constitutional Drafting Committee for proper minority representation (Mozayix, September 22, 2014; Libya Today, April 12, 2014; Nationalia, February 21, 2014).

Continued protest and boycotting over minority representation will remain an important issue in the Libyan political process, and could even cause further political fragmentation, as evidenced by the Amazigh announcement of their intention to create their own Amazigh Parliament (Nationalia, February 21, 2014).

Tuareg Tribes

In general, they are allied with the General National Congress and Misrata Dawn of Libya Forces.

The Tuareg tribes are of the Berber, or Amazigh, ethnicity and inhabit the Saharan countries of Algeria, Niger, Mali, Chad, Nigeria, and Burkina Faso, in addition to Libya (St. John, June 4, 2014; Office of the Commissioner General for Refugees and Stateless Persons, December 19, 2014). Originally nomadic, they now have a seminomadic and pastoralist lifestyle, but have turned to transnational trade routes for economic opportunities (Ibid; Tempelhof & Omar, USIP, January 2012). Similar to the Amazigh tribes, the Tuareg practice a blend of Sunni Islam and West African witchcraft (St. John, June 4, 2014).

Political Grievances

Tuareg political grievances in post-Qaddafi Libya include demands for economic development and state job opportunities in the Tuareg regions, as well as state support for “our culture and language,” according to Mohamed Abdelqader, the mayor of the Tuareg town of Ghat (Stocker, Deutsche Welle, October 12, 2013). The Tuareg – as well as the Amazigh and Toubou – also feel underrepresented at the Constitutional Drafting Committee and have altogether called for a “consensus principle” that would allow them to have a sufficient voice in the process (Payot, Minority Rights Group International, 2014). When the General National Congress was considered the legitimate authority, independent politicians represented some of the minority tribes, but left the government when the decision for a new constitution came to an impasse (Stocker, Deutsche Welle, October 12, 2013; Varvelli, ISPI, May 2013).

When political demands are not met, the Tuareg, as the Amazigh, use boycotts and protests as political leverage. In addition to boycotting elections, boycotting GNC sessions, and forming a Tuareg Supreme Council to advance their political concerns, Tuareg tribesmen were able to shut down the Sharara oilfield several times by protesting the government for “greater access to citizenship registration, development of local areas, and the reinstatement of local council members rejected by the central government” (Pack and Cook, The Majalla, December 9, 2013; Payot, Minority Rights Group International, 2014; Shennib, Reuters, July 17, 2013).

The Amazigh Supreme Council, Tuareg Supreme Council, and the Toubou National Assembly have pursued “joint political action” on the Constitutional Drafting Committee issue (Minority Rights Group International, July 3, 2014), although this appears to be the only political issue they explicitly coordinate on.

The continuation of political grievances could increase the possibility of a confederation of Tuareg tribes pursuing regional autonomous governance as an alternative, similar to the Political Bureau of Cyrenaica (see Mitchell, “Nationalist Forces I“) or the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad in Mali. There, their fellow Tuareg endured similar circumstances and formed the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) – a movement that desired “an independent state or an autonomous region” for the Azawad Tuareg, which received support from some Tuareg fighters that had fought in the 2011 Libyan revolution (Laremont, Stability: International Journal of Security and Development, June 25, 2013; Terrorism Research & Analysis Consortium).

Broken Truce, Ubari, and the Tuareg-Misrata Alliance

The Tuareg and Toubou had a relatively stable relationship in Southwestern Libya (also known as Fezzan) from 1875 or 1893 (depending on the source) to 2014 under a truce called “Midi Midi” (“Friend Friend”), which was needed to divide control of the vital trade routes in Southern Libya, as the routes were pivotal for their economic sustainability (Ben Hamel, Afrigate News, March 31, 2015; Obeid, Al-Akhbar, January 5, 2015; Shaw and Mangan, USIP, 2014). Midi Midi established Tuareg control over land and trade routes west of the Salvador Triangle (a remote area at the junction of the Libya, Algeria and Niger borders) and Toubou control over trade routes east of the triangle (Obeid, Al-Akhbar, January 5, 2015; Shaw and Mangan, USIP, 2014). These well-established, cross-border trade routes and smuggling networks converging through Libya from Chad, Algeria, and Niger are currently used for smuggling subsidized food and fuel, migrants, cigarettes, alcohol, drugs, and weapons (“A Fierce Battle for Control in Libya’s Desert,” Libya News Today, December 5, 2014; Daragahi, Gulf News, February 6, 2014).

The truce over these areas even lasted through the 2011 revolution, when most of the Toubou sided with the rebels and many of the Tuareg fought for Qaddafi – who promised citizenship rights, as he had in the past, to take part in his invasion of neighboring Chad (Murray, Middle East Eye, January 17, 2015).

The truce continued until September 2014, when the Tuareg and Toubou clashed in Ubari, a strategic town that provides some control over the South’s smuggling routes, as well as the neighboring el-Sharara oilfield (Ibid; Murray, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, December 10, 2014).

What caused the current Tuareg-Toubou conflict for control of strategic sites, such as Ubari, when Midi Midi effectively divided the control of the trade routes for over one hundred years? The breakdown of the long-lasting truce can likely be attributed to two primary actions. First, the National Transitional Council decided to award primary control of the Southern borders to the Toubou, who had fought on the side of the revolutionaries (Murray, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, December 10, 2014; Omar, February 2014). As a result, the Toubou and Zintani tribes took action to “safeguard the Sharara oil field…cutting the Tuareg out of their share” (Murray, Ibid.). A related aspect is which tribal group has rightful territorial control (Murray, McClatchy DC, January 23, 2015).

Second, the balance of power over trade and smuggling routes shifted as a result of regional effects. As established in the Midi Midi truce, Tuareg tribes control the trade routes on the Algerian border, while the Toubou control the trade routes to Chad and Niger (Reeve, Oxford Research Group, January 13, 2015; Mezran, et. al, Atlantic Council, May 5, 2014). It is important to note the transnational ethnicities that play a role in the smuggling routes, such as Libyan Tuareg links with their fellow Tuareg in Mali and Niger, and a link between Libyan and Chadian Toubou. Shaw and Mangan (2014) note important regional shifts in the smuggling routes that likely had a primary role in Tuareg-Toubou clashes. Indeed, Algerian security forces have increased their efforts to combat smuggling and the French intervention in Mali forced traffickers to change routes, lest they be caught and their products seized (Ibid). Thus, less secure routes though the Algeria-Libyan border forced smugglers to change to the Niger-Libyan route, which “prompted a shift in the established balance of power from the [Tuareg] into the hands of the [Toubou], who control the border region from the Salvador Triangle to Sudan” (Ibid). Such a shift may also have an effect on Tuareg tribes and extremist groups in Fezzan, which we shall discuss below.

Toubou control of vital economic and strategic sites – notably the El-Sharara oilfield and the Southern border smuggling routes – has a profound effect on the Tuareg, who not only clash with the Toubou over the strategic town of Ubari, but also formed an alliance with Misrata Dawn of Libya forces and the General National Congress. On the other hand, the Toubou have primarily allied themselves with Operation Dignity and the Council of Representatives (Reeve, Oxford Research Group, January 13, 2015). The clashes between the Tuareg and Toubou in Fezzan may also be drawing transnational fighter support from their fellow tribes in neighboring countries (Libya News Today, December 5, 2014),

“As both are pan-Saharan ethnic groups, there are reports of reinforcements coming from Mali and Niger (Tuareg) and Chad (Toubou).” – Richard Reeve (January 13, 2015)

“V. – we call Tuaregs in the neighboring countries to join their brethren who stand outside agendas in order to exterminate them and control points south of Libya…” (Tuareg media Facebook page, March 22, 2015)

It is worth noting that the Dawn of Libya coalition, primarily Misratan forces who vehemently opposed Qaddafi, has allied with the Tuareg, who mostly fought for the regime during the revolution. It appears that economic and regional interests (strategic control of oil resources and Southern smuggling routes), overshadow the alliances from 2011, as well as are being driven by the Misrata-Zintan rivalry (see Mitchell, “Nationalist Forces II” for the Misrata-Zintan rivalry). Control of economic and strategic sites is, of course, crucial to any armed groups in war; however, the shift of allegiances in Fezzan is worth keeping in mind for future scenarios because this shows tribal willingness to ally with national ambitions for the sake of pragmatic necessity, rather than ideological compatibility (as we discussed in our previous post).

Members of Misrata’s Third Force based out of Sebha.

Misrata’s Third Force detachment in Fezzan has occupied Sebha since January 2014, and, along with the support of the General National Congress, is there to provide “stability” over vital oil resources and the porous borders by securing the el-Sharara oilfield and establishing an intelligence center in Germa (SNE Special Projects, June 22, 2014; MurrayMiddle East Eye, January 17, 2015; Libya News Today, December 5, 2014). The GNC and Dawn of Libya appear to have taken the opportunity to not only oppose Zintan in the South (who is allied with the Toubou), but also have a tribal partner in the region with which to make strategic gains in “Operation Dawn”. Although the Misrata force has attempted to provide stability by mediating peace talks between tribes (SNE Special Projects, June 22, 2014), it appears to be taking strategic opportunities to advance “Operation Dawn”, as evidenced by Misratan military support for Tuareg fighters who captured the el-Sharara oilfield from the Zintani and Toubou guards in November 2014, as well as by the recent Third Force clashes with the Libyan Army 241st Infantry Brigade over the strategic Brak airbase (Libya News Today, December 5, 2014; Krnfodh, Alwasat, April 12, 2015).

Meanwhile, the GNC and its Misrata forces in the South have promised material support (weapons, armored vehicles, etc.) to enhance their alliance with the Tuareg tribes, although some Tuareg and certainly the Toubou consider Misrata – an external element in the region – to have “economic and political motivations at play to take control of the lucrative border trade” (Murray, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, December 10, 2014). The Tuareg-Misrata alliance is somewhat fragile, considering some Tuareg protests to the alliance and some regional, negative sentiment towards Misrata forces in Fezzan (see Murray, Middle East Eye, January 17, 2015 and FezzanLibya tweets below).

Tribes and Extremist Groups

Fezzan’s porous borders and remote location, far from the reach of larger political authorities, fosters a desirable climate for extremist groups. Al-Qaeda affiliates, such as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), are strengthening their presence in the South, particularly near Ubari and Sebha (Roeskestad, Al-Monitor, November 13, 2014; Dugulin, International Security Observer, April 30, 2014). Jihadists based in the South and those returning from Mali are able to connect with extremist groups in Derna, Benghazi and Sirte through jihadist routes that converge in Ubari (Al Arabiya, January 19, 2014). Limited sources suggest two different routes: the first runs North/Northeast from Ubari to Sirte (Faucon & Bradley, The Wall Street Journal, February 17, 2015) and the second runs East from Ubari then North to Derna and Benghazi (through Cyrenaica), as described by border guards and desert patrolmen (Al Arabiya, January 19, 2014). Leader of the Sebha-based Toubou militias, Abdel Majid [Issa Abdel Majid Mansur], notes that the two primary points of origin and destination in the jihadist routes are Derna and Ubari (Ibid; Terrorism Research & Analysis Consortium).

In issue 8 of the Islamic State’s magazine, Dabiq, the Islamic State (or Daesh) claimed that many Salafi groups across Libya’s three regions, including Fezzan, have pledged their allegiance (Dabiq, issue 8). Three primary events offer evidence of the Islamic State in Fezzan, or Wilayat al-Fizan. A January 3, 2015 attack in Sokhna on an army checkpoint resulted in the deaths of fourteen Libyan Army soldiers and was claimed by the Fezzan branch of the Islamic State (Kalam Institute for Network Science, February 2, 2015). Wilayat al-Fizan then released a video on January 20 of two Tuareg fighters having joined the Islamic State, calling on the Tuareg in Libya, Mali, and Algeria to pledge allegiance to al-Baghdadi, the head of the Islamic State (Alwasat, April 22, 2015; TheMagrebiNote, January 20, 2015; Zelin, The Washington Post, January 28, 2015). Lastly, the Islamic State released a video on April 19, 2015 (“Until There Came To Them Clear Evidence”, Al-Furqan Media –  see it on website, graphic video warning) that shows Ethiopian Christian captives shot and beheaded by Islamic State militants, with one group killed by the Barqa branch and the other group killed by Wilayat al-Fizan (The New York Times, April 19, 2015).

However, Libya’s Islamic State elements appear to be making slower expansion progress in Fezzan than in Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, considering the lower frequency of attacks and concentrated presence when compared to the Islamic State presence in Derna, Sirte, and Tripoli. This could perhaps be attributed to the more established al-Qaeda presence in Fezzan, or Salafi incompatibility with tribalism, as we discuss below.

Tuareg fighters appeared in a January 20, 2015 Wilayat al-Fizan video to recruit Tuareg in Libya, Mali, and Algeria for the Islamic State.

Tribal interaction with jihadists appears to be driven more by economic need, rather than ideological sympathies – although this does not discount the possibility of Al-Qaeda or the Islamic State recruitment amongst tribesmen. Jihadist funds are often able to purchase weapons, goods, and “short-term loyalty” of local Arab and Tuareg tribes, as well as, reportedly, land for training camps, and possibly even Tuareg guides to help them navigate the expansive desert (Chivvis and Liepman, RAND Corporation, 2013; Ben Hamel, Afrigate News, March 31, 2015; Al Arabiya, January 19, 2014; Roeskestasd, Al-Monitor, November 13, 2014; Pack, et al., May 5, 2014; Gartenstein-Ross and Barr, International Centre for Counter-Terrorism, February 2015; Dugulin, International Security Observer, April 30, 2014).

The shift in major trade routes, from a relatively balanced structure of control under Midi Midi to a Toubou-dominated one, has caused a decline in economic opportunity for Tuareg tribes, which might make them more inclined to conduct business with jihadist groups – again, for economic survival more so than ideological sympathy. According to Ubari resident Saleh Mohammad, “our children are forced to work with terrorists is [sic] the only way to get the money…” (Ben Hamel, Afrigate News, March 31, 2015). Displaced Tuareg tribesmen currently living in slums, as well as Tuareg doctor/social worker Abdallah Sherif attest that al-Qaeda affiliates provide economic opportunity for some who are desperate (Al Arabiya, January 19, 2014).

Although Salafi-jihadists can sometimes buy temporary loyalty from Tuareg tribesmen, the primary question is whether tribalism in Libya is ultimately compatible with Salafism. As we mentioned previously, the Tuareg blend Sunni Islam with West African witchcraft and sorcery, which would not be compatible with the strict doctrine of the Salafists. Furthermore, loyalty to family and tribe are fundamental to tribalism, as we discussed in the previous post, while Salafists “regard the global Muslim community, the Umma, as the only group of people to whom they owe allegiance and loyalty” (Lund, March 2013). The compatibility question is likely best answered through their views on law and justice. With a lack of both government presence and state justice in Fezzan, tribes rely primarily on customary law, or Urf, for conflict resolution and justice (Ibid), whereas Salafi-jihadists only invoke Sharia law. Urf is driven by the byproducts of tribalism – nepotism and favoritism, as explained by a United States Institute of Peace report on justice in post-Qaddafi Libya:

“This creates an environment of deal making, protection arrangement, brinkmanship, and cycles of violence outside state control and oversight… Small-scale incidents involving individuals can escalate to major inter-neighborhood and intertribal violence as each group weighs in to protect its own… Moreover, tribal influences have crept into formal criminal justice processes, wherein tribal alliances of integrated thuwar [revolutionaries] and pressure on officials influence whether to pursue an arrest, who remains incarcerated, and who is released. Tribes and militia have exploited accountability gaps to evade the law, protecting their own from arrest when implicated in crimes, arranging resolution outside the state, or taking the law into their own hands.” (Mangan and Murtaugh, USIP, September 2014)

As such, Libyan tribalism and its natural inclination towards customary law suggest an incompatibility with Salafism, or could even be acting as “counterweights to radicalism” (see Varvelli, ISPI, May 2013) in the Libyan context. Although entire tribes will likely not embrace Salafi ideology, extremists could still recruit individual tribesmen, who lack economic opportunities, as well as continue using tribes doomed to economic and political expediency.

The conflict in Southern Libya could be described as an extension of the struggle between “Operations Dawn” and “Dignity” that is primarily spearheaded by regional and tribal interests. We should note that tribal clashes in Fezzan and the conflict between the rival governments and their coalitions in the North are inextricably linked through political and economic grievances, control of oil resources, and the Misrata-Zintan rivalry. Now that we have examined the Amazigh and Tuareg, we shall evaluate the current dynamics of the Toubou tribes in the forthcoming post, as well as their conflict with Arab tribes.


Featured Image: A photograph of Tuareg tribesmen having tea and bread in their tent,  by Frederique Harmsze, [CC BY-NC-SA 2.0] on October 19, 2006, via Flickr

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