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Libyan War Spills Over to Europe, Algeria, and Niger – Sc 2.2 (1) – Scenarios for the Future of Libya

This article is the first of our series focusing on scenarios depicting the range of spillover that could stem from the Libyan war. In our previous article, we concluded the scenarios for international intervention in light of a fragmenting unity government. In this article, we shall focus on scenarios related to conflict spillover in only one direction (towards Europe), and then spillover in two directions (west towards Algeria and south towards Niger).

These scenarios are grounded in the premises that the evolution of the civil war leads to spillover. As a result, the war changes from an internal civil war within the bounds of Libyan borders with a measure of external involvement, to a renewed war that encompasses more than just Libya. Indeed, the war now includes all the territories where it spread. The type and intensity of the spillover will also determine how actors – notably those which are newly involved as a result of the spillover – will respond, and inevitably, the fate of the war.

It is important to note our choices for spillover sub-scenarios. There are many combinations that could occur under spillover conditions, but we have chosen three examples that maybe considered as ideal-types with particular country cases for the sake of brevity: spillover in only one direction (north towards Europe), spillover in two directions (Algeria/Niger), and spillover in all directions (Algeria/Niger/Egypt/Europe). Furthermore, the intensity of and response to spillover plays a key role in these sub-scenarios. The renewed war – now encompassing new actors outside of Libya – is altered significantly as intensity and response levels rise. However, we shall only briefly outline these scenarios, as they are fundamentally new conflicts and would require new scenarios to fully understand their depth.

Click to access larger image

Migrant/Refugee Terminology: For the purposes of the spillover scenarios, we have chosen to use the BBC’s use of the term “migrant”, which refers to people migrating to other countries that have not yet received asylum (BBC News, March 4, 2016). However, we use the term “refugee” when referring to Libyans fleeing the civil war.

Note: Considering the future names of potential factions that would result from a new split between the unity government, we shall use the label nationalist for those that supported the nationalist/liberal-dominated Council of Representatives (COR) and any future anti-Islamist factions; Islamist to note those that supported the General National Congress (GNC) and any future pro-political Islamic movements; and Salafist will remain the label of choice for groups that reject democratic institutions and embrace jihadism.

Sub-scenario 2.2 Spillover

External military support (for example, see Terrill, Strategic Studies Institute, December 2008 pgs. 2-4 for the effects of external military support in Iraq), the tribal character of the war, with tribal “land” overriding modern states boundaries, migrant flow, the fragility of states in the region, and Salafist threats with their global claims and connections originating from Libya are the primary factors that contribute to the potential spillover. Conflict spillover from Libya affects potentially some states significantly more than others, depending on geography and stability level, as well as on the factors mentioned above.

Indicators to Monitor

Below are the main indicators we identified that impact the likelihood to see scenario 2.2 occurring. They should thus be monitored.

  1. The stability level of bordering countries. If bordering countries suffer from instability, they are more susceptible to spillover effects than more stable countries. The lower the stability level of a state, the more likely this scenario will occur. For example, Niger is already plagued by the Boko Haram threat, institutional weakness, lack of development, and a deteriorating political climate, which makes it highly susceptible to experiencing spillover from the Libyan conflict (Jezequel and Cherbib, International Crisis Group, February 19, 2016; Melly and Shepherd, Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Centre, April 19, 2016).
  2. The pattern and intensity of migrant flows. The more migrant routes that go into Europe affect how difficult it is to stop the migrant flow. Multiple migrant routes spanning the width of the Mediterranean is harder to stop than only having to focus on one or two concentrated routes. Furthermore, the intensity of migrant flows through each route also affects the likelihood of this scenario. High-traveled routes increase the likelihood of significant spillover.
  3. The level of external support for Libyan actors. By backing particular Libyan actors in the conflict (whether through funding, weapons, military training, or partnering), external actors increase the likelihood of spillover. Particularly with Al-Qaida and Islamic State actors involved, external actors may fall victim to terrorist attacks on their home soil – depending on who they support and their level of support. A past indication occurred when Islamic State militants executed 21 Egyptian Christians in Libya (Mullen, CNN, February 16, 2015) – sending a clear message to Egypt, who has faithfully backed General Haftar’s forces throughout the conflict.
  4. The strength of transnational tribal ties. As discussed in Tribal Dynamics and Civil War I, II, and III, tribalism plays a significant role in Libya. Any conflict involving the Tuareg or Toubou runs the risk of spilling over throughout the region – considering their tribal ties extend across various state borders in North Africa. Conflict between the Tuareg and Toubou over vital smuggling routes, in particular, increases the likelihood of spillover.
  5. The length of the war in Libya. The longer the war in Libya continues, the higher the likelihood that it spills over. The length of war increases the number of refugees, potentially allows Salafist groups the time to expand their capabilities, and creates a demand for transnational arms and militant smuggling.

Sub-scenario 2.2.1 The Conflict Spills Over to the North (Europe)

Having to fight each other, as well as jihadist elements (although the Islamic State may be losing strength in Sirte at the moment, this scenario focuses on Libya 3-5 years from now, when Al-Qaida and Islamic State groups may regain strength), the Islamists and nationalists focus more on retaining territory than securing the borders to stop the migrant flow. As a result, the masses of migrants headed into Libya are able to more easily cross the Mediterranean into Europe. European countries – who are already dealing with Libyan war refugees leaving Libya because of the war, as well as the migrant flow from Turkey – experience this spillover effect on a large-scale by sea from war-torn Libya. The migrant spillover also contributes to the terrorism spillover, in that Salafist groups utilize the migrant flow from Libya to infiltrate European countries and carry out attacks. As the Islamic State groups in Libya face mounting pressure from the other Libyan actors, they funnel small cells of jihadists to Europe using the migrant route. The jihadists then begin targeting European populations as an alternative to fighting the war in Libya. Furthermore, the deployment of European advisers and Special Forces in support of Libyan actors against Salafist threats also results in jihadists attacking European targets.

Faced with increasing flows of migrants from Libya, and with new attacks carried out by perpetrators who can be traced originally to Libya, Europe works to stem the flow by deploying naval and coast guard units in the Mediterranean to intercept migrant boats and turn them back. It also attempts to compensate African countries on migratory routes to harbor migrants in an effort to prevent them from entering Libya in the first place. If Europe is unsuccessful in stopping the migrant flow, jihadists continue to enter as migrants in order to carry out deadly attacks on European populations while recruiting radicalized natural-born European citizens to carry out additional operations. A new type of war encompassing both Libya and Europe continues developing.

If successful in mitigating the migrant flow (and by default, restricting the ability of jihadists to enter by sea), the entry of Europe in the conflict through spillover now changes the conflict in Libya. With less opportunity to infiltrate Europe using the migrant routes from the Tripoli and Benghazi areas, the Salafists begin shifting their operatives to increasingly target government and military officials of the Islamists and nationalists. This shift in strategy forces the rival governments to heighten security around their political centers, and to divert more military forces against Salafist groups. Furthermore, the masses of migrants and Libyan refugees stuck in Tripoli and Benghazi, as well as in the south of Libya, contribute to instability in those areas, with some turning to armed groups as an alternative. Large groups of migrants and Libyan refugees may even head south or southwest to cross the borders into Algeria or Niger (see scenario below).

Lastly, European oil investments and imports from Libya continue being negatively affected as the nationalists, Islamists, and Salafist groups fight for control over Libya’s vital oil fields and production facilities. The surge in Salafist attacks and increased conflict over oil resources drastically impacts the willingness and ability of European companies to invest in Libyan oil and import it, which economically hurts both the Islamists and nationalists that are trying to export oil for funds.

Indicators to Monitor

Below are the main indicators we identified that impact the likelihood to see scenario 2.2.1 occurring. They should thus be monitored.

  1. Remaining unchecked pockets of Salafists on Libyan territory. The existence of unchecked Salafist groups in Libya would increase the likelihood to see Salafist groups maneuvering to funnel jihadists into Europe. Furthermore, it would also impact both possible outcomes. If Europe fails to stop the migrant flows, the new conflict born out of the spill over persists and intensifies. Alternatively, if the migrant flows are stopped, these same groups could more easily target Libyan government and military officials of both the Islamists and nationalists.
  2. The existence of naval patrols in the Mediterranean trying to stem the flow of migrants. Europe’s ability to mitigate the migrant flow depends heavily on border closings for landlocked countries, and a naval presence in the Mediterranean for coastal countries. The existence of naval patrols in the Mediterranean would probably increase the likelihood of mitigating migrant flow, although the current attempt – named Operation Sophia – has produced questionable results (see Rossi, skyNEWS, June 16, 2016).
  3. The level of pressure on Salafist groups. The level of pressure against Salafist groups may affect their willingness to smuggle jihadists into Europe posing as refugees. If Al-Qaida and Islamic State strongholds are weakened, and their influence waning, they may resort to sending some of their members to Europe as an alternative to fighting a losing struggle in Libya. A past indication occurred when forces under the unity government made significant progress against the Islamic State stronghold of Sirte (Rossi, skyNEWS, June 16, 2016).
  4. The ability of Salafist groups in Libya to smuggle jihadists in to Europe. If Salafist groups on the coast are able to fill a boat with migrants (along with a few undercover jihadists) and sail towards a highly trafficked migrant sea route towards Europe, the likelihood of spillover increases. With so many migrants stuck waiting on Libya’s shore, it would not be difficult to deceive a group of migrants into paying for a boat trip to Italy.
  5. The deployment of European advisers and Special Forces in support of Libyan actors. If European advisers or Special Forces are operating in Libya – regardless of whom they support – the likelihood of spillover increases. With Salafist groups fighting militias from both sides, they will be inclined to attack European targets for simply operating in the country – regardless of which side. Past indications occurred when French and British Special Forces teams began operating in Libya (BBC News, May 26, 2016; Sputnik News, February 26, 2016).
  6. The position of the Libyan governments regarding migrants. Similar to President Erdogan’s exploitation of the migrant crisis for monetary gain (Berger, New Eastern Outlook, March 4, 2016), the Islamist and nationalist governments may offer to increase border security and develop more migrant detention camps in exchange for compensation. If European governments are desperate enough to make a deal with the Libyan governments, the Libyan governments will in turn rely on their militias to run the migrant camps. If both the Libyan and European governments are willing to partner for the sake of keeping migrants in Libya, the likelihood of spillover decreases.
  7. Europe awareness and willingness to address fully the evolving nature of the war. If Europe is not aware, or is unwilling, to properly address the renewed war, the likelihood of significant spillover increases. European leadership may simply not recognize the full danger of renewed conflict; or if it does, but delays in responding, it will likely feel the full effects and have to invest even more willpower and resources to mitigate war.
  8. The level of conflict over Libya’s oil resources. Conflict between the Islamists, nationalists, and Islamic State groups affect Libyan oil exports, and thus affect global oil prices. Islamic State attacks on oil facilities, combined with back-and-forth captures of oil fields by Islamist and nationalist forces, increase the likelihood of economic spillover in the world’s oil sector (Faucon and Said, The Wall Street Journal, January 6, 2016; al-Warfalli, Reuters, March 3, 2015). A previous indication occurred when clashes near the Es Sider and Ras Lanuf oil terminals affected oil prices in late May 2016 (Tuttle, Bloomberg, May 29, 2016).
  9. Indicator 2 of scenario 2.2 also acts here in a similar way.

Sub-scenario 2.2.2 Conflict Spills Over to the West (Algeria) and South (Niger)

Algerian troops protecting the border, posted on the Military of Algeria Facebook page, 7 June 2016

With both Libya and Algeria unable to fully secure their shared border, Libyan migrants make their way into Algeria. Since Malian and Syrian migrants significantly outnumber the Libyan migrants in Algeria, the continuous flow of Libyan migrants into the country is a minor spillover effect. The primary spillover comes from terrorism, arms smuggling, and trans-national tribal ties.

Map by the Norwegian Center for Global Analysis (NGCA) in NCGA and Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime, Libya: Criminal economies and terrorist financing in the trans-Sahara, May 2015 – click for larger image

Although cross-border arms and drug smuggling in Libya’s southern and south-western areas is not a new phenomenon, Libya’s civil war and the growth of extremist groups in the region make smuggling across the Libyan-Algerian border more concerning. Islamist militants also use the smuggling routes to infiltrate Libya and join Salafist groups operating there. Facing constant instability and threats from Libya, Algeria tries to divert more security forces to the border areas. Meanwhile, the Islamist militants trying to cross the Algerian-Libyan border to join Libya’s war turn to the extremist groups already operating in Algeria, and begin bulking up their capabilities. Furthermore, renewed conflict between the Tuareg and Toubou over the lucrative smuggling routes push some of the Tuareg in Algeria to cross the border and assist their Libyan counterparts, which then prompts Toubou fighters from Niger and Chad to join the fray – thus turning the Southern Libyan conflict into a regional conflict between tribal forces.

Similar to Algeria, Niger falls victim to tribal spillover from the Libyan conflict – particularly, the tribal conflict in Southern Libya for control of vital smuggling routes. As a result, both Tuareg and Toubou fighters from Niger cross the border to assist their Libyan tribesmen. The severity of tribal conflict in Southern Libya determines whether or not conflict breaks out between the Tuareg and Toubou within Niger’s borders. Furthermore, the Islamists’ and nationalists’ progress against the Salafist groups, as well as the threat of strong international intervention, prompts some jihadists to relocate their area of operations to Niger. The level of progress against Salafists also impacts the militants that are headed north towards Libya through Niger. If the Salafists are steadily losing territory, militants may forego Libya and attempt to connect with extremist groups already operating in Niger. Considering Niger’s instability and already existing threat of Boko Haram, the increase of jihadists arriving from Libya prompts a serious military response and increased operations near the Niger-Libyan border.

Map of Toubou populations by ArnoldPlaton [CC BY-SA 3.0] via Wikimedia

Indicators to Monitor

Below are the main indicators we identified that impact the likelihood to see scenario 2.2.2 occurring. They should thus be monitored.

  1. The capacity of Europe to stop the flow of migrants (see previous scenario). As discussed in the previous scenario, Europe’s ability to stop the flow of migrants affects the likelihood of spillover to the south or southwest. However, the current attempt to stop this flow may actually be exacerbating the situation (see Rossi, skyNEWS, June 16, 2016). Furthermore, there are an estimated 800,000 migrants waiting on Libya’s shore to cross the Mediterranean (O’Reilly, Gulf News, May 29, 2016). If Europe is unable to stop this massive flow of migrants from Libya, the likelihood of this scenario decreases.
  2. The level of progress to combat Salafist groups in Libya. If Salafist groups begin to significantly weaken and lose territory in Northern Libya, and particularly if Europe has cut off the migrant flow across the Mediterranean, they may turn south or southwest and cross into neighboring countries. A past indication occurred when forces under the unity government made significant progress against the Islamic State stronghold of Sirte (Rossi, skyNEWS, June 16, 2016).
  3. The ability of militants to use smuggling routes to infiltrate Libya. By utilizing heavily trafficked trade routes through Algeria and Niger (see The Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, May 11, 2015), militants can infiltrate through Southern Libya and head north to connect with prominent Salafist groups there. The lack of border security and the lucrative business of the trade routes for tribes in the area allow for these militants to cross in to Libya. A past indication occurred when up to 1,000 Boko Haram fighters utilized smuggling routes to join Islamic State groups in Libya (Paton, International Business Times, March 5, 2016).
  4. The ability of Algeria to efficiently patrol its border. If Algeria is unable to efficiently patrol its border, the likelihood of spillover increases. Arms trafficking and Islamic militants pose a problem for Algeria’s 1,000km long border with Libya. Algeria’s Minister for Maghreb Affairs has stressed the importance of securing the border areas between his country and Libya – citing fears of spillover, while Algeria’s Deputy Defense Minister has heightened border security in the recent past (Karuri, AfricaNews, May 2, 2016; Reuters, March 14, 2016). Algeria has deployed additional troops to the border, and reportedly uses surveillance drones to spot arms traffickers and militant activity (Reuters, March 14, 2016). Increased efforts have thus far uncovered a cache of weapons near the Libyan border and captured members of a Libyan arms smuggling network operating near the border (NewsGhana, May 30, 2016; Albawaba News, May 19, 2016). However, the increased security efforts could also inadvertently increase the strength of extremist groups in Algeria, as militants attempting to cross in to Libya are cut off by the increased military presence.
  5. The real stability of Algeria. Algeria’s stability will determine its ability to effectively respond to Libyan spillover. Although Algeria ramped up its security measures on the border (see indicator above), its economy has suffered as a result of low global oil prices (Fakir and Ghanem-Yazbeck, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, February 11, 2016). Rising unemployment, corruption, and an “overbearing state bureaucracy” have incited social unrest (Serrano, Foreign Affairs, May 27, 2016). If the trend of social unrest and an increasingly fragile economy continue, Algeria may become more susceptible to spillover.
  6. The willingness of jihadists to relocate to Niger. Jihadists would likely only be willing to relocate to Niger if they face significant pressure in Libya and their groups are on the verge of defeat. Their willingness to travel to Niger instead of fighting to the end increases the likelihood of this scenario. A past indication occurred when Islamic State militants reportedly left their strongholds in Northern Libya and began migrating south towards Niger and Chad (Farge, Reuters, February 11, 2016).
  7. The stability of Niger. Niger’s stability level will play a significant role in how much it will be affected by Libyan spillover. It currently faces jihadist threats – particularly by Boko Haram, political tension, drought, food insecurity, poverty, and “economic fragility” (Shepherd and Melly, Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Centre, April 2016) – thus increasing the likelihood of this scenario.
  8. Niger’s control over its territory. The inability to efficiently control its own territory makes Niger more susceptible to spillover effects. The fact that one of the major smuggling routes in the region goes through the Nigerien-Libyan border is indicative of Niger’s inability to control that sector (The Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, May 11, 2015). A past indication of failing to control its territory occurred when Niger struggled to control the Lake Chad region during a Boko Haram bombing campaign in 2015 (Shepherd and Melly, Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Centre, April 2016).
  9. The severity of conflict between the Tuareg and Toubou in Southern Libya. High levels of conflict between the Tuareg and Toubou will increase the likelihood of this scenario. Fighting for strategic control of vital trade routes in Southern Libya may turn into a regional conflict between the tribes, which would certainly expand into neighboring Niger. A past indication occurred when the Tuareg and Toubou heavily fought for control over Ubari, the nearby oil fields, and the cross-border trade routes in the area (Murray, Middle East Eye, January 17, 2015).
  10. The willingness of Tuareg and Toubou in bordering countries to cross in to Libya. The willingness of these tribes to cross the border into Libya and join the conflict depends on the severity of the conflict (see indicator above) and the strength of the tribal ties – likely on the familial level. A past indication occurred when Toubou tribesmen in Chad crossed in to Libya to help their cousins fight the Zawiya (CapitalNews, March 22, 2012).


Featured Photo: Syrian and Iraq refugees arrive in Lesvos, Greece, by Ggia [CC BY-SA 4.0] via Wikimedia

Alex Rossi, “EU Operation ‘Encourages’ Illegal Migrants,” skyNews, June 16, 2016

Alex Rossi, “Libyan Forces Edge Closer To Victory In Sirte,” skyNews, June 16, 2016

“Algerian troops uncover weapons in Adrar province,” NewsGhana, May 30, 2016

“Algerian security forces break up Libyan arms smuggling ring,” Albawaba News, May 19, 2016

“Algeria’s military chief calls alert over Libyan frontier,” Reuters, March 14, 2016

Ayman al-Warfalli, “UPDATE 4-Rival Libyan forces carry out air strikes, militants storm oilfield,” Reuters, March 3, 2015

Benoit Faucon and Summer Said, “Islamic State Poses Growing Threat to Libya’s Oil Industry,” The Wall Street Journal, January 6, 2016

Callum Paton, “Isis in Libya: How Boko Haram jihadis are flocking to join Daesh’s holy war in North Africa,” International Business Times, March 5, 2016

“Commons committee chairman urges clarity over UK special forces in Libya,” BBC News, May 26, 2016

Emma Farge, “Islamic State fighters head south in Libya, threatening Sahel,” Reuters, February 11, 2016

“France’s ‘Secret War’ in Libya Unravels Amid Fresh Allegations,” Sputnik News, February 26, 2016

Francisco Serrano, “Algeria on the Brink?” Foreign Affairs, May 27, 2016

Intissar Fakir and Dalia Ghanem-Yazbeck, “Running Low: Algeria’s Fiscal Challenges and Implications for Stability,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, February 11, 2016

Jean-Herve Jezequel and Hamza Cherbib, “Presidential Elections in Niger: Tense Climate, Uncertain Future,” International Crisis Group, February 19, 2016

Jethro Mullen, “Egyptian warplanes bomb ISIS targets in Libya after killings of Christians,” CNN, February 16, 2015

Jon Mitchell, “Scenarios for the Future of Libya – Sc 2 (9) Fragmentation and International Intervention,” The Red Team Analysis Society, May 31, 2016

Jon Mitchell, “War in Libya and Its Futures – Tribal Dynamics and Civil War (1),” The Red Team Analysis Society, April 13, 2015

Jon Mitchell, “War in Libya and Its Futures – Tribal Dynamics and Civil War (2),” The Red Team Analysis Society, April 20, 2015

Jon Mitchell, “War in Libya and Its Futures – Tribal Dynamics and Civil War (3),” The Red Team Analysis Society, May 11, 2015

Ken Karuri, “Algeria pledges to develop areas along Libyan border,” AfricaNews, May 2, 2016

“Libya: a growing hub for Criminal Economies and Terrorist Financing in the Trans-Sahara,” The Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, May 11, 2015

“Libya ethnic conflict risks spilling over borders,” CapitalNews, March 22, 2012

Martin Berger, “How Much Money Will Erdogan Make from the EU Migration Crisis?” New Eastern Outlook, March 4, 2016

Mick O’Reilly, “New wave of refugees ready to leave Libya,” Gulf News, May 29, 2016

“Migrant crisis: Migration to Europe explained in seven charts,” BBC News, March 4, 2016

Paul Melly and Ben Shepherd, “Stability and vulnerability in the Sahel: the regional roles and internal dynamics of Chad and Niger,” Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Centre, April 2016

Rebecca Murray, “Battle rages in Libya’s southwest desert,” Middle East Eye, February 13, 2015

Robert Tuttle, “Oil Rises as Libya Fighting Flares Up Before OPEC Meets,” Bloomberg, May 29, 2016

W. Andrew Terrill, “Regional Spillover Effects of the Iraq War,” Strategic Studies Institute, December 2008

The Islamic State in Libya – When Libyan Tribes Pledge Allegiance to the Khalifah

The coming Battle for Sirte to defeat the Islamic State in Libya is principally seen from the perspective of the struggle between the U.N.-backed new government supported by some militias including Misrata, and those who refuse that government’s legitimacy, such as nationalist Haftar (e.g. “The scramble for Sirte”, The Economist, 14 May 2016. In the meanwhile, the Islamic State becomes an insignificant threat. Similarly, the situation on the ground, notably the tribes and related politics, are quasi ignored.

Yet, it is crucial to have an understanding of what is happening, which goes beyond a top-down approach, and to consider also the perspective of the enemy, through red team analysis for example, as we are doing here. The consequences for not doing so may be deleterious, notably for companies which do not have the easy choice to “avoid risk” as advised in risk management, i.e. for all those companies bound to a territory located on Libyan ground, be it because of infrastructures, exploitation of resources or because they deliver security advice of a very tactical and local nature nonetheless influenced by larger and more strategic developments. Humanitarian organisations are no less concerned as they need to prepare and deploy on the ground, to say nothing, of course, of Libyan people, which have to live with war.

If proper courses of actions are to be chosen, then a red team approach must be used, the complexity of the terrain must be considered, analysis must be added to mere collection of information and alternative hypotheses must be examined.

tribes allegiance, gates of misratah, Misrata, islamic State, war, Libya, war in Libya, Tribes, pledge, bay'ah, Warfalla, Qadhadhfa, Awlad Sulayman
“On the Gates of Misratah” – Wilayat Tarabulus – 12 May

This is what we shall endeavour here, building upon the last article which, seeking to evaluate the Islamic State forces in Libya, started also underlining the importance of the Islamic State’s connection to tribes (see The Islamic State in Libya – Force, Fighters and Tribes). Linkages to the Qadhadhfa tribe outlined potentials in terms of the creation of a truly Libyan component to the Khilafah’s presence in Libya, through the integration of people who were previously members of Gaddafi state’s security apparatus. Meanwhile, they also added, for the Islamic State, potential strategic depth to the south notably towards the town of Sebha, which could then be declined through trade, logistics, and strategic expansion towards and linkages with the Sahel and sub-Saharan Africa.

We shall now continue our focus on the Islamic State and tribes. We shall first point out indications that confirm the importance of the tribal connection for the Islamic State in Libya. We shall then enlarge our enquiry to also consider two other tribes besides the Qadhadhfa, the Awlad Sulayman and the Warfalla Tribes, notably pointing out the relationships between the three. Finally, we shall examine threats that could emerge from potential connections between the Islamic State and these three tribes and relate them to events on the ground.

Fighting over Libyan tribes

Interestingly, new indications of the importance of the elements favouring connections between some tribes and the Islamic State have been recently given by the conjunction of a couple of articles and news. The latter stressed either the willingness of ex-Gaddafi supporters to fight against the Islamic State or an Islamic State willingness to kill them. With these assertions, those fighting the Islamic State try to counter and deter any potential support any tribal member could give to the Islamic State.

We thus find that, according to the Libya Herald, in Sirte, the Islamic State has executed an army captain, Ahnaish Qaddafi (“IS continues killings as LNA claims offensive against Sirte ready”, 1 May 2016), reportedly a “leading member of the Qaddadfa tribe”, which would imply that “ISIS is likely to target more Gaddafi loyalists and sympathisers as it fears a new uprising in the town especially if arms make their way to these dissidents in the city”. (Eye On ISIS in Libya, Jihadology, 4 May 2016). Then, according to the International Business Time (William Watkinson, 7 May 2016), “Colonel Gaddafi’s henchmen join the West to purge Isis from North Africa“.  Finally, we learn that “Gaddafi’s widow [is] allowed back to Libya as part of ‘reconciliation’ drive” prompted by a “new program of national reconciliation” (Colin Freeman, The Telegraph, 9 May 2016).

tribes allegiance, gates of misratah, Misrata, islamic State, war, Libya, war in Libya, Tribes, pledge, bay'ah, Warfalla, Qadhadhfa, Awlad Sulayman

The Islamic State answer was to publish a psyops product (see above and below) showing elders and leaders of the Qadhadhfa, the Awlad Sulayman (or Awlad Sulaiman) and the Warfalla tribes pledging allegiance (bay’ah) to al-Baghdadi (Photo report, Wilayat Tarabulus media, 8 May 2016; @wellesbien, 8 May tweet; @Libyen_Insider, 9 May tweet).

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Considering what we saw previously, notably the findings of the U.N. “Final report of the Panel of Experts on Libya established pursuant to resolution 1973 (2011)” (S/2016/209 9 March 2016) indicating notably the cooptation of members of the Qadhadhfa tribe within the Islamic State, these are indications of a psyops battle being fought around and for the loyalty of and support by members of Gaddafi security apparatus from the U.N.-backed government’s and its supporters’ point of view, for allegiance (bay’ah) by these three tribes from the Islamic State’s perspective. Considering the tribal characteristics of Libya, both perspectives are congruent.

This struggle for influence also shows the crucial importance of securing tribal support in the battle against the Islamic State in Libya, and more generally for any operation in Libya, including by private and corporate actors, all the more so in the complex context of the war.

Towards a revisited al-Suff al-Fugi [al-Fuqhi] (Qadhadhfa, Awlad Sulayman and Warfalla Tribes)?

Against the backdrop of the struggle for this tribal “support” (pledging bay’ah is more than support), considering the Islamic State new psyops product, we do not only have to consider members or families of the Qadhadhfa tribe but also two other tribes, the Awlad Sulayman (or Awlad Sulaiman) and the Warfalla.

The Islamic State’s statement regarding bay’ah pledged by the Awlad Sulayman’s elders may appear as strange at first glance, as Sirte was meant to be captured partly from them (U.N. report, ibid., par. 57).

Yet, if we look back to the recent history of Libya, we find that “Qaddafi drew his strongest supporters from his own tribe, the Qadadfa, and many of its traditional tribal allies which once composed the Saff Awlad Sulayman confederation” (Bell and Witter, “Roots of Rebellion: Part I,” Institute for the Study of War, September 2011). According to Ali Abdullatif Ahmidain, during the 19th century, “this tribal confederation [the tribal suff of the interior, al-Fugi] included the four clans of the Awlad Sulayman and the Gadaddfa, the Warfalla, and the population of the Hunn-Waddan oases of Waddan and Hunn” (The Making of Modern Libya: State Formation, Colonization, and Resistance,  1994, 2009, pp. 53-54). It was mainly led up to 1927 by the Awlad Sulayman tribe (ibid.).

Thus the cooptation by the Islamic State of some members of the Qadhadhfa, as seen, may have eased association with some members of the Awlad Sulayman – and of the Warfalla – considering past alliances.

What we may be witnessing is an attempt by the Islamic State to recreate the kind of ancestral tribal alliances that allowed Gaddafi to remain in power and to develop a polity, itself grounded into much older Libyan political dynamics.

We should not forget, however the challenges related to such an endeavour. For example, the Awlad Sulayman, ruling notably over Sebha, was the leading tribe until the advent of Gaddafi (John Oakes, “Libya – Tribes and Tribulations“, Berenice Stories, March 2014). Gaddafi, while also integrating it, nonetheless favoured his own tribe, the Qadhadhfa (Ibid.). As a result, attempts to reassert past power by the Awald Sulayman may still exist, which could mean that only lukewarm or facade support may be given.

As far as the Warfalla is concerned, this very large tribe counts more than 1 million people and is composed of more than 50 sub-tribes (Bell and Witter, “Roots of Rebellion”, ibid., 18). It is thus most unlikely to act as a unique body. For example, Bell and Witter emphasise that the Warfalla “often aligned with the Qadadfa, and thus Qaddafi, due to blood ties, but the relationship is more than kinship. The Warfalla and the Qadadfa are long-established military allies” (Ibid.). Yet, in 2011 during the civil war against Gaddafi, some Warfalla defected (Arturo Varvelli, “The role of tribal dynamics in the Libyan future“, ISPI Analysis No. 172, May 2013, p.7). This is an instance of the variety of alignments and behaviour one may find within one tribe.

Nonetheless, Varvelli also underlines that “In post-Gaddafi Libya, some tribes – such as the Warfalla, Qadhadhfa, Warshafana, Tarhouna, Asabia and Mashashiya – are threatened by the revolutionary militias or suffer exclusion in the new political order” (ibid.), which implies that not most Warfalla did not defect. Indeed, many of the Warfalla, chiefly among them those in Bani Walid, remained faithful to Gaddafi, and suffered afterwards at the hand of the winning factions and tribes, first among them their arch-enemy the Misratans  (Peter Cole, “Bani Walid: Loyalism in a Time of Revolution”, 2015). Then, facing both state collapse, isolation and reprisal, they fell back on the old tribal identities and notably revived the old idea of “al-Suff al-Fuqhi” (al-Fugi) (Ibid., 286).

What we see here outlined is that some Warfalla, as we detailed previously for the Qadhadhfa (see Force, Fighters and Tribes), may find interest in links with the Islamic State, which would then capitalise on both the destruction of Gaddafi Libya with the support of NATO and feelings of injustice and alienation afterwards. Thus some of the Warfalla may be neutral or sympathetic to the aims of the Islamic State, while others may not.

Meanwhile, even the Qadhadhfa tribe is composed of 6 sub-tribes and thus sub-tribes – or families within them – may choose different paths.

We thus have older and deeper tribal identities and alliances which were revived before the Islamic State’s declaration of the Khilafah, mixed with at least a modicum of feeling of “Libyan-ness”, which remains and is expressed mainly as rejection of foreign intervention (note that the insistence on Tunisian, Chadian or any non-Libyan identity of Islamic State’s fighters is an effort at leveraging this feeling, further research and development on what it means to be foreign, from a Libyan point of view is needed here). The two can now meet and coalesce with the Khilafah’s objective in Libya, whilst inner feuds as well as sub-tribes’ and families’ independence may, on the contrary, play against such a revival in support of the Islamic State.

We should thus consider the Islamic State’s probable aim to embed itself within and link with a renewed al-suff al-Fugi as a dangerous emerging potentiality to monitor and not as an already fully actualized situation. Even if the links forged were already strong, considering the fluid character of tribal politics, we would need to monitor this tribal aspect closely.

Potential Threats in al-suff al-Fugi linkages with the Islamic State

What are thus the new threats outlined by the latest psyops product of wilayat Tarabulus, i.e. potentialities stemming not only from the linkages with and bay’ah by the Qadhadhfa, but also by some sub-tribes of the Awald Sulayman and of the Warfalla, and can we link them to events on the ground?

Keeping the road to the west and southwest opened while protecting Sirte western flank … and expanding?

If we look at the map depicting the implantation of tribes we see that the area south of Misrata and west from Sirte is home to the Warfalla.

tribes allegiance, gates of misratah, Misrata, islamic State, war, Libya, war in Libya, Tribes, pledge, bay'ah, Warfalla, Qadhadhfa, Awlad Sulayman
Distribution of major tribes in Libya by Giacomo Goldkorn, March, 18th, 2015, Geopolitical Atlas (click map to access geopoliticalatlas.org) – Sources: Libyan tribal system, Fergiani, – 09/22/2011.

We thus find a convergence, in the absence of direct evidence besides the Islamic State photos, between the early May 2016 Islamic State’s breakthrough to the west of Sirte, against Misrata, and the area under Warfalla rule.

On 5 and 6 May, the Islamic State moved west against Misrata and took the crossroad of Abu Grein (Abu Grain) as well as six other town and villages around the area (Abu Nujaym, Wadi Zamzam, Al Balgha, Al Washka, Wadi Bey and Al Buwirat (Fezzan.com, 7 May 2016; Libya’s Channel, 7 May;  “Weekly Eye on ISIS in Libya Update”, Jihadology.net, 10 May 2016), as shown on the detailed map (by @ArtRosinski updated 13 May) below:

map, ISIS west expansion libya, tribes allegiance, gates of misratah, Misrata, islamic State, war, Libya, war in Libya, Tribes, pledge, bay'ah, Warfalla, Qadhadhfa, Awlad Sulayman
Islamic State Western expansion 5 to 13 May 2016. Click on image to access large original file in HD. By @ArtRosinski

At the time of writing, fighting continues between Misrata and the Islamic State. On 12 May 2016, we had “clashes between #Misrata forces and #ISIS near the Sadada checkpoint” (@alwasatengnews, 12 May tweet), with vehicles and weapons being reportedly seized from the Islamic State by the 604th infantry (@Chief_MarshallR, 12 May tweet), forcing them to retreat towards Boukran (@libyaalaan, 12 May tweet). On 13 May, Misrata forces would have captured fifteen fighters of the Islamic State (Libya Akhbar). Meanwhile, Libya Dawn claims it has “performed more than 40 airstrikes in the vicinity of #Abugrein area” since 8 May (@Arn_Del, 12 May tweet) and air strikes would be ongoing (@Oded121351 12 May tweet).   

On 15 May, some forces ofLibya Dawn were still reportedly moving towards Abu Grein ((@Chief_MarshallR, 15 May tweet), and on 16 May 2016 the areas previously seized by the Islamic State were apparently still under its control.

We are not here in a “hit and run” context but in one where the Islamic State seeks to assert control, while being on the offensive. The map (by @Libyen_Insider) depicting the various forces in Libya thus now looks as below for 5 May, to which should be added the Islamic State move further west as depicted on the area map above:

map, libya 5 may war,
Map of the War in Libya by @Libyen_Insider – Click to access original map

Or, alternatively, as below, as for 13 May ( @ArtRosinski): The Islamic State corridor to the south depicted here seems to be much more in line with the pledge given by the three tribes as well as with the known move of fighters and weapons from the south through Sebha (see Force, Fighters and Tribes).

map IS all corridor south, map Islamic State Libya 13 May
Map of the war in Libya, situation by 13 May 2016, enlarged from the small map of the “Islamic State Western expansion 5 to 13 May 2016”. by @ArtRosinski

These Islamic State western attacks take place as the uncoordinated offensive against the Islamic State in Sirte is imminent, the new UN-backed government being about to attack from the west, with and through Misrata (e.g. TRTWorld, Reuters, “Libya prepares military operation on DAESH stronghold“, 11 May 2016), while the army of nationalist Haftar (not recognising the legitimacy of the U.N. backed government) is marching on Sirte from the east along the coast and from the southeast through Zalla (Libya’s Channel, “Haftar orders army to move on IS-held Sirte, clashes in Zalla“, 4 May 2016).

sirte deserted at night, night in Sirte, Sirte, islamic State, war, Libya, war in Libya, offensive sirte
Sirte deserted at night – 12 May 2016 – by @mohamed7elmahde

In this framework, and considering the Islamic State is certainly preparing itself to sustain a siege in Sirte, witness the refugees leaving the city and report of increased defences (Jamahiriya News Agency, 9 May 2016; TRTWorld, Reuters, Ibid; “Weekly Eye on ISIS”, Ibid.), the surprise attack to the west is probably a way to protect the western flank of the city, as well as to keep opened the road to the southwest, should a retreat be necessary. However planning for all options, including a retreat, is not the same as choosing to leave Sirte for the south as best strategic option, nor as a deliberate choice to abandon Libya, as argued by Emily Estelle, who states: “ISIS is laying the groundwork to abandon Sirte and will then pursue an alternate course of action to continue its campaign in North Africa without its Libyan stronghold.” (“ISIS’s Courses of Action – Out of Sirte“, Critical Threats, April 29, 2016).

Indeed the new territory captured by the Islamic State, added to the fact it is in Warfalla territory may also outline other possibilities. We should note here that the Islamic State wilayat Tarabulus psyops video stressing the support of the Warfalla was published on 8 May 2016, thus after the operation around Abu Grein took place. Although we do not know how much coercion and how much influence and cooptation could have been exerted, it is nonetheless likely that some results in terms of tribal politics were achieved with some Warfalla sub-tribes – or families, as shows the pledge of bay’ah and without which hold on an area would be quite impossible.

Two factors may be operative here. First, the deep-seated enmity between Misrata and the Warfalla may strongly be playing (Cole, Ibid.; Jon Mitchell, Tribal Dynamics and Civil War (3) (Toubou and Arab Tribes), 11 May 2015, RTAS; Oakes, Ibid). Second, The UN-backed character of the new GNA, added to covert support already given by the U.S., U.K. and France, are likely to enhance the perception of the U.N.-backed government as linked to foreign invaders (note that a few U.S. forces would be stationed in Misrata Missy Ryan, “U.S. establishes Libyan outposts with eye toward offensive against Islamic State“, Washington Post, 12 May 2016; see also Chris Stephen, “Secret US mission in Libya revealed after air force posted pictures“, The Guardian, 17 December 2015; Reuters, “French special forces waging ‘secret war’ in Libya: report“, 24 February 2016). This refusal of foreign intervention is most probably a very important aspect for the Warfalla,  as the tribe was vocal in 2012  to counter a GNC seen as the puppet of NATO (e.g. Alexandra Valient, “The Warfalla Tribe Are Leading The Revolt Against NATO’s Occupation ForcesLibya 360, 18 Oct 2012). Indeed the President of the Social Council of the tribes Warfalla in independently minded Bani Walid, in a recent interview, stresses he “has no communication with these [the three] governments”. However, he was also there describing the dire situation of the people displaced because of “Daesh”, which is far from full support (Jamahiriya News Agency, Ibid. 9 May 2016).

As a result, the current ability to remain in Warfalla territory probably signals not only the intention to fight as much as possible to “remain and expand” – to use the Islamic State motto, but also an enhanced ability of the Islamic State to do so, even if the latter depends also upon a host of other factors.

Short of unknown elements and black swans events (for an explanation of what are Black Swans events and of Taleb’s related book see H. Lavoix, “Taleb’s Black Swans: The End Of Foresight?“, RTAS, 21 Jan 2013), always possible especially at war, and without forgetting the damage airpower may cause, the Warfalla will most probably not help Misratans, and may see their interest in “allowing” the Islamic State to at least try stopping Misratans and the U.N.-backed government to obtain a too easy victory. The Islamic State may lose again Abu Grein and surrounding villages, but it will be because of a successful Misratan counter-offensive. It will change nothing to the fact that they have been able, however briefly, to start settling in the area.

At worst, the Warfalla may also, with time, see in an assertive Khilafah an opportunity to participate in and promote a revived al-Suff al-Fugi. The involvement and position of the Qadhadhfa and of the Awald Sulayman would most probably be also crucial here. We could even wonder if the al-Suff al Fugi could not become the representative of the Khilafah in Libya, ruling over its wilayat. In that case, we would be seeing not the premises of a final relatively rapid defeat of the Islamic State, notably qua state in Libya, but the some new steps of an expansion to the west and southwest.

map al naba Libya, Islamic State western expansion Libya
The Islamic State shows its new expansion to the west with an article in al-Naba (weekly newsletter) #30 – 10 May 2016 – p.5 Click to access the newsletter (in Arabic) on Jihadology.

As a result, the already existing sleeper cells in the west, the training camps in Sabratha and the road to and from Tunisia (see U.N. report, ibid.) – and potentially Algeria – would all take renewed tactical, operational and strategic values. Tripoli, as well as the U.N.-backed government would be in a more precarious position – despite alleged success in eradicating Islamic State’s sleeper cell in Tripoli, as on 14 May (“Tripoli IS terror cell planning operations, captured by Rada“, Libya Herald).  Potentially intervening powers would hence be placed into a conundrum that would need to be handled with high tribal political savvy.

The risks entailed are too high, even if the Islamic State is defeated in Abu Grein, and too fraught with strategic and operational consequences in terms of decisions for all actors, not to consider the possible range of alternatives and not to monitor also in depth this tribal perspective.

Connection to the Hunn-Waddan oases, a key to Libya?

Another very interesting aspect of the al-suff al-Fugi is that it includes or is related, as we saw above, to the population of the Hunn-Waddan (Houn-Waddan) oases (see map below), part of al-Jufra region.

Hunn-Waddan oases, tribes allegiance, gates of misratah, Misrata, islamic State, war, Libya, war in Libya, Tribes, pledge, bay'ah, Warfalla, Qadhadhfa, Awlad Sulayman
Click to access Google maps

Needless to say, obtaining connections to oases is absolutely crucial in a desert country. Furthermore, one may observe that the Hunn-Waddan oases are critically located almost in the center of Libya. It is a strategic place holding the south and Sebha, the west through Abu Grein and Ash Shawrif, the east though Zalla (Zillah), and the center north with Sirte.

It may indeed not be by complete chance that, historically, the tribes of the al-suff al-Fugi have consistently played such a crucial military role (Ahmida, Ibid; Cole, ibid.).

We shall not come back here to the importance of Sebha (see Force, Fighters and Tribes), but nonetheless shall underline that linkages between the Islamic State and the Awlad Sulayman, traditionally “ruling” over Sebha may only fortify the capabilities of the Khilafah to benefit from Sebha.

We saw above the importance of Abu Grein and the road to the West. The connection to the west is also reinforced by the fact that on 6 May, the Islamic State “seized governmental buildings in Abu Nujaym” (@Chief_MarshallR, 7 May tweet). Abu Nujaym is not so much located south of Sirte as on the road between Abu Grein and Waddan.

Now, regarding the defence of Sirte, the advantages of tribal connections to the oases, notably Waddan, are strategic. Indeed, Haftar’s armies are also advancing through the southern road. On 3 May 2016 they were reportedly in Zalla. That said, the Islamic State may also be protected by the fractious character of the Libyan war, as Haftar’s forces were attacked by “Forces loyal to Ziyad Belaam, a senior commander” allied with “Benghazi’s Revolutionaries Shura Council” itself “allied with Libya Dawn”, while Misratan air force also attacked them, the two sides then sending reinforcements to fight each other (Libya Channel, 4 May 2016). Nonetheless, rumours of a 6 May Islamic State’s attack “on a checkpoint in Jufra, which was also the sight of clashes between Dawn affiliated groups and the Libyan army, under the orders of Colonel Khalifa Haftar, the day before” were reported (Libya Channel, 7 May 2016). An attack West of Waddan was also denied (Abdulkarim Alduwayni, Fezzan Libya, 7 May), which may accredit the fact it was only a rumour, assuming the two are the same attack. Fear is not only creeping in, but also these rumors may prefigure the possibility to see an enhanced capability by the Islamic State to cut off retreat or arrival of reinforcement from the east, and ultimately a capacity to move towards the east, should, of course, the connection to the al-suff al-Fugi develop and be strengthened.

The fate of the Islamic State in Libya may very well be also in the hands of the Qadhadhfa, the Awlad Sulayman and the Warfalla Tribes. Should it be defeated and its capabilities degraded towards “hit and run” and “terrorist attacks” operations, the potential key role of these three tribes should be noted and remembered, as vital for a still hypothetic return to peace in Libya.

Featured image: from the photo report the pledge of allegiance of Tribes– Wilayat Tarabulus, 8 May 2016.

About the author: Helene Lavoix, PhD Lond (International Relations), is the Director of The Red (Team) Analysis Society. She is specialised in strategic foresight and warning for national and international security issues.

Ali Abdullatif Ahmida. The Making of Modern Libya: State Formation, Colonization and Resistance, 1830–1932. By  Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1994 [2009].

Peter Cole, “Bani Walid: Loyalism in a Time of Revolution”, in The Libyan Revolution and Its Aftermath, e.d Peter Cole, Brian McQuinn, Oxford University Press, 2015.

The Islamic State in Libya – Force, Fighters and Tribes

What is the current state of play for the Islamic State in Libya, and, most importantly, how can it evolve? The question is increasingly relevant considering the rising possibility of an international intervention in Libya against the Islamic State, a complex matter considering notably the questioned domestic legitimacy of the new U.N.-prompted Government of National Authority (GNA) (e.g. APA, “Libya unity gov’t approval postponed indefinitely“, 19 April 2016), despite strong pressure imposed on Libyans to recognise it, such as the U.S. President “Executive Order — Blocking Property And Suspending Entry Into The United States Of Persons Contributing To The Situation In Libya” (White House, 19 April 2016).

cyrenaica, al-Barqah, Islamic State, Liyan war, Islamic State forces in Libya
Advertising image for the Islamic state psyops video “The Raid of Shaykh Abū al-Mughīrah al-Qaḥṭānī – Wilāyat al-Barqah” – 14 Feb 2016

Is the Islamic State’s threat in Libya hyped and “not a realistic fallback” for a Khilafah, furthermore pummelled in Mesopotamia, as argued by Geoff Porter (“How Realistic Is Libya As An Islamic State “Fallback”?”, CTC Sentinel, 17 March 2016)? Or, on the contrary, as stated by the Council of the European Union “Council conclusions on Libya” (18 April 2016), are we faced with the “growing threat of terrorism including by Daesh and affiliates”, which echoes the concern expressed in the U.N. “Final report of the Panel of Experts on Libya established pursuant to resolution 1973 (2011)” (S/2016/209 9 March 2016), according to which “The political and security vacuum has been further exploited by Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which has significantly expanded its control over territory”? Should we believe, the deputy Prime Minister designate Musa al-Koni of the GNA when he warned that the Islamic State “could take over two-thirds of the country” (BBC News, 18 April 2016), or is this estimate not only motivated by genuine fear of a worst case scenario but also by a wish to ensure continuous support of the proponents of international intervention?

Depending on the answer to this question the range of impacts, as well as their durations, will vary, as, for example, some of the petroleum companies still operating in Libya had to further evacuate three fields for fear of attacks by the Islamic State, while the problems of migrants, not only to Europe but also within Libya does not relent (Reuters, 10 April 2016, Fezzan Libya, 10 April 2015; Ibrahim Hiba, “The danger coming from the West“, Fezzan Libya, 24 April 2015.

Sirte Drone
Sirte, image taken by a drone, from Islamic State psyops video “Of their Goods, take Alms”, Wilāyat Ṭarābulus”, 27 February 2016

We are dealing here, as so often lately, with the uncertainties of the future, furthermore shrouded by the fog of war. It would thus be unrealistic to expect a clear-cut, black and white, easy answer. Nonetheless, we may aim at improving our estimates, stressing notably dynamics and weak signals. We shall here focus on the Islamic State forces in Libya. After reviewing the existing quantitative assessments of Islamic State fighters in Libya, we shall dive deeper into what could be the overall human strength of the Islamic State in Libya. Considering the Islamic State’s state-building component, we shall thus look at the population under the Khilafah’s rule, at the way inhabitants are coerced and coopted and, as a result, at the tribal links the Islamic State is potentially forging. Finally, using the geographical distribution of tribes, we shall stress potential consequences in terms of use of foreign fighters and trade for the Islamic State in Libya.

A still relatively small yet rising force despite setbacks

In November 2014, when Derna fell, it was estimated that the Islamic State counted 800 fighters, operating “half a dozen camps on the outskirts of the town, as well as larger facilities in the nearby Green Mountains, where fighters from across North Africa  [were] are being trained”, including 300 fighters from the al-Battar Brigade (CNN, 18 Nov 2014). The latter had returned during Spring 2014 from fighting in Syria, called themselves the Islamic Youth Shura Council (IYSC) and had pledged allegiance to the Khalifah in September (Wehrey and Ala’ Alrababa’h, “Rising Out of Chaos: The Islamic State in Libya”Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. 5 March 2015).

122 marauding camp sc
From photo report “Sheikh Abu Al-Qahtani training camp – accepted by God” Wilāyat al-Barqah, 13 April 2016

In 2016, the estimates of the Islamic State forces vary between 2000-3000 for “a U.N estimate” (Tribune de Genève, 14 Dec 2015), 3000 for the French Minister of Defence (Atlantico, 8 Feb 2016), 3000-6000 (Stars and Stripes, 19 Feb 2016) or 3250-6500 for U.S. military intelligence sources (CNN, 4 Feb 2016) to 10000 fighters, the latter figure, however, according to unnamed and unspecified French sources quoted by Issandr El Amrani (How Much of Libya Does the Islamic State Control?“, Foreign Policy, 18 Feb 2016 – note that Porter, Ibid, misquote El-Amrani, referring to 12000 fighters).

If we compare briefly these figures with past estimates for other forces existing then on the Libyan ground, focusing on those forces supporting the nationalist or non-Islamist Tobruk based House or Council of Representatives, we have 18000-21000 men for the Petroleum Facilities Guard, out of which 2000 are militarily trained, 20000 fighters for the Cyrenaica Protection Force, 20000 soldiers for the Libyan army, 5000 commandos for Al-Saiqa (Special Forces), 2000 men for the Al-Sawaiq Brigade, up to 18000 well-armed fighters for the Zintani-composed al-Qaqa Brigade (see Mitchell, “Nationalist Forces -1“, RTAS, Oct 2014), and up to 6000 fighters for Haftar’s Libyan National Army, etc. (see Mitchell, “Nationalist Forces -2“, RTAS).

reading an naba2 scThe Islamic State forces are thus still a small faction even though obviously determined. Considering the fractious landscape of the war in Libya, this is, nevertheless, a force that can wreak considerable damage, and use not only hit and run types of operations but also conquering then defensive ones, aiming at state-building. Such conquering and defensive operations are exemplified first in Derna, where the Islamic state lost full control of the city in June  2015, then was most probably fully expelled by the al-Qaeda linked Derna Mujahideen Shura Council (DMSC) on 21 April 2016 (BBC News, Islamic State ‘forced out’ of key Libyan city of Derna, 21 April 2016; Thomas Joscelyn, “Islamic State fighters retreat from bases outside Derna, Libya“, the Long War Journal, 20 April 2016). We then have the example of Sirte and its nearby surrounding territory, including Bin Jawad, which is the only territory currently fully held by the Islamic State (Ibid., Libya Prospects, “IS forces Sirte inhabitants to attend Sharia lessons“, 30 March 2016; U.N. Final report, ibid.; Thomas Joscelyn, “Islamic State releases photos from captured Libyan town of Bin Jawad“, the Long War Journal, 7 January 2016).

Despite the presence of the Islamic State forces on the Libyan territory, the latest spat of defeats for the Islamic State, in Derna, as seen, or in Ajdabiya then Benghazi, this time against the nationalist forces of the Tobruk government (Thomson Reuters, “Libyan National Army claims ISIS pushed out of Ajdabiya, parts of Benghazi“, 21 Feb 2016; Euronews, “Libya’s eastern army gains ground in Benghazi“, 20 April 2016), could signal the beginning of the end for the Islamic State. The Islamic State forces would thus have reached their apex and, defeats leading to loss of appeal, we would start to see a declining yet dangerous threat.

If this scenario is possible, we are under the fog of war and, however uncertain, the potential exists within the current situation for another less optimistic scenario, as we shall now see.

Beyond fighters’ numbers: population and quality of fighters

Because the Islamic State aims at state-building and not only at attacking and wounding a foe, to fully evaluate the Islamic State’s forces and threat we also need to consider the population that is subjected to its rule. Indeed, it is out of this population that the Islamic State will extract part of the resources needed for its sustenance agric14 sc– besides the current tropism, oil is not the only resource and wealth available to political actors* – potentially recruit new fighters, as well as meet challenges that could lead to defeat or reinforcement, as exemplified in both Derna and Sirte with defeat in the first case and “successful repression”  – i.e. not leading to demise and loss of territory – in the second (see below).

Wielding coercion and cooptation

It is currently considered that the present entrenchment of the Islamic State in Sirte stems from the latter’s capacity to ally with, coopt and coerce the Qadhadhfa tribe, including recruiting young fighters among them (U.N. Final report, ibid: par. 57 to 60).

Both cooptation and coercion are two crucial elements of state-building and governance, and one would be very naive and ignorant of history and political dynamics to ignore these components. However unpalatable, notably to some current strands of ideology in the West, what makes the difference between a successful use of these fundamental instruments of political authorities’ power is the way these tools are exerted i.e. following historically constructed norms and belief-systems or not (Moore, B., Injustice: Social bases of Obedience and Revolt, London: Macmillan, 1978), as well as the efficiency of repression, as explained by Andrew Turton in his work on Thailand and everyday politics (according to Turton, we often tend to underestimate the power of coercion and violence).

Derna presents us with an instance of a use of violence by the Islamic State perceived as illegitimate when the Islamic State did not have the strength to face the consequences of the consequent uprising: following the assassination of the local leader of the Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade, the “Mujahedeen Shura Council of Derna declared jihad” on the Islamic State, which led to the loss of control of the city by the Islamic State in June 2015 (e.g. “ISIS Loses Libyan Stronghold“, ISW, Jun 24, 2015), and ultimately to the current ousting from the city (see above).

On the contrary, in Sirte, in August 2015, the Islamic State managed to repress a rebellion that followed the killing of an Imam of the Furjan Tribe, killing more than 50 members of the tribe (“IS detains elders from Al-Furjan tribe“, Libyaprospect, 12 April 2016; U.N. Final report). No further uprising followed. As a result, the Islamic State’s control over Sirte was likely strengthened.

However, one may not rule by the sword alone, hence also the need for cooptation, besides other crucial dimensions of governance. We find such an instance with a recent Shari’ah course conducted by the Islamic State in Sirte, and concluded by a large “graduation ceremony” publicised through a photo report (Photo report Wilayat Tarabulus, “Graduation Ceremony in Sirte”, 18 April 2016; see sirte graduation105 scexplanation on the type of propaganda or psyops in An Updated Guide to the Islamic State Psyops, 18 April 2016). The course would have reached out to more than 4000 people and some cash rewards would reportedly have been used as award for the best students (Jason Pack, “Weekly Eye on ISIS in Libya Update – April 20, 2016“, Jihadology.net). This cash reward may be seen as an example of cooptation.

What appears also as most striking during this ceremony, although one should not discount a specific choice of timing and images by the photographer, is that people laugh.** Indeed, in photographs and videos of people subjected to the rule of the Islamic State, notably in Mesopotamia, the emotions shown by the faces and especially the eyes of the people (not the fighters but the “subjects”) photographed are often hidden fear or resignation. If a group, including children, is shown rejoicing, an attentive examination tends to always find a grown-up looking away, showing uncertainty or being plainly afraid. Here, on 2 pictures, people laugh, and most probably not out of convenience or embarrassment. Although one definitely needs to remain cautious here, all the more so that one instance of “negative emotion” at least can be found in a past Islamic State video (“And What Is To Come Will Be More Devastating and Bitter – Wilāyat Ṭarābulus”, 26 March 2016), this may be a weak signal indicating that the Islamic State’s rule in Sirte would be relatively less heavy to bear for citizens, despite the Furjan repression mentioned above and, of course, the usual use of executions (e.g. Islamic State psyops video, “To Establish the Religion – Wilāyat Ṭarābulus”, 30 March 2016, Jihadology.net; Pack, ibid.).

night in sirte, Sirte, islamic State, war, Libya, war in Libya
Islamic State Wilayat Tarabulus, Photo “Night Portrait of a street in the city of Sirte” – 13 April 2016

We may thus estimate that the Islamic State has possibly learned from its mis-governance in Derna and is possibly improving the way it handles coercion and cooptation. Should this hypothesis and evaluation be correct, then the potential to see the Islamic State benefitting from its state-building in Sirte is enhanced. As a result, it would also be more likely to use successfully the tribal connections thus created to move forward, as we shall now see. As a consequence, the potential threat the Islamic State represents in the short to medium or even long-term – should no proper action be taken – would also increase.

Tribal Connections

Although we should not over-simplify tribal connections (families and sub-tribes may feud within one tribe, for example), the importance of tribal relationships in Libya should also not be underestimated (see Jon Mitchell, War in Libya and Its Futures – Tribal Dynamics and Civil War, 13 April 2015 and Tribal Dynamics and Civil War (3) (Toubou and Arab Tribes), 11 May 2015, RTAS).

tribes, Libya, Islamic State
Distribution of major tribes in Libya by Giacomo Goldkorn, March, 18th, 2015, Geopolitical Atlas (click map to access geopoliticalatlas.org) – Sources: Libyan tribal system, Fergiani, – 09/22/2011.

The Qadhadhfa, an Arab tribe, was the tribe of Muammar Gaddafi and its estrangement from the new post-Gaddafi Libya is most probably instrumental in its attitude to the Islamic State (U.N. Final report, ibid; Mitchell, Ibid.). The Qadhadhfa would count around 100.000 people (Bell and Witter, “Roots of Rebellion: Part I,” Institute for the Study of War, September 2011), even if most probably not all members react similarly to the Islamic State. The Qadhadhfa is present not only in Sirte but also, as shown on the map above, in the region of Sehba, one of the two major southern nodes, with Ghat, for the various smuggling routes in and out of Libya (Norwegian Center for Global Analysis (NGCA) and Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime, Libya: Criminal economies and terrorist financing in the trans-Sahara, May 2015).

Thus, short of major mis-governance (see above), the Islamic State may count on economic activity generated by the members of this tribe and related taxes first, and second on a level of support ranging from diplomacy and absence of hostility to more active support, such as facilitation of transactions including movement, logistics and trade, up to the recruitment of fighters and participation in administrative, police and security tasks. The involvement of the Qadhadhfa in the Gaddafi administration may also be an asset in terms of skills for the Islamic State.

Indeed, the U.N. final report underlines that “It [ISIL] has also recruited military officers from the former regime” (par 57). As we also know that fighters were recruited not only from the Qadhadhfa, but also from the Magharba tribe (Ibid.), and that the Magharba was another tribe previously supporting Gaddafi (Cherif Bassiouni, ed. Libya: From Repression to Revolution, 2013, p. xlv), while Qadhadhfa and some members of the Magharba held key positions in the security apparatus of the Gaddafi regime (ibid.), then what we see emerging is a genuinely Libyan component of the Islamic State’s administrative and security apparatus for wilayat Tarabulus, skilled and experienced as far as the Libyan idiosyncrasies are concerned.

Furthermore, we face a phenomenon that is not dissimilar to what happened in Iraq, with the inclusion of former Saddam Hussein security officers within the Islamic State’s security apparatus (e.g.Christoph Reuter, “The Terror Strategist: Secret Files Reveal the Structure of Islamic State“, Der Spiegel, 18 April 2015). The ease with which a similar narrative can be created for the two experiences, Libyan and Iraqi, as well as most probably the existence of comparable feelings of injustice for both the Libyan and Iraqi officers, may only favour the inclusion of Libyans within the Islamic State system, as well as create feelings of shared fate and common enemies.

As a result, the likelihood to see a rapid and full decline of the Islamic State in Libya decreases.  On the contrary, the overall threat is likely enhanced, despite defeats.

We should also note that the Magharba’s territory lies from the south of Benghazi to Sirte (Bell and Witter, Ibid; see map above), and also has a share in the oasis town of Jalo (“Libya – The Zawiya Tribe“, Berenice Stories, 14 Feb 2013). Thus, mentions of recruitment of members of the Magharba could potentially prefigure further attempts towards expansion in Magharba territory through alliance and allegiance and needs to be monitored.

Tribal connections, foreign recruitment and trade

The geographical presence of the Qadhadhfa in the region of the smuggling node of Sebha may also be a crucial advantage for the Islamic State. It most likely eases the move of weapons and fighters towards Libya to reinforce the ranks of the Islamic State first, then allow for reverse flow towards the Sahel countries and Sub-Saharan Africa both towards the west and the east.

From photo report : “raiding the Dawn of Libya May 28th battalion in the south”

Indeed, it would seem that fighters from Nigeria’s Boko Haram have contributed, notably over the last months, to beef up the ranks of the Islamic State in Libya. According to Callum Paton, an activist in Sehba estimates, using sources in both Sebha and Sirte, that “the number of Boko Haram fighters in Sirte could be as high as 1,000” (“Isis in Libya: How Boko Haram jihadis are flocking to join Daesh’s holy war in North Africa“, IBTimesUK, 5 March 2016). Always according to this activist, the Islamic State would use its own specific network, and not the usual smugglers for migrants. The Islamic State route and people would nonetheless go through Sebha (Ibid.). Furthermore, according to al-Ghwell of the Rafik Hariri Centre, Islamic State fighters in Sirte also include people from Chad and Niger (Ibid.), most probably coming through the same route. We also find trace of fighters from Somalia (H Lavoix, “At War against a Global Islamic State – Facing a Strategic Trap in Somalia?“, RTAS, 14 December 2015) and from Senegal (e.g. Emma Farge, “From Senegal to Libya – an African student joins Islamic State“, Reuters, 30 March 2016).

As a result, the Qadhadhfa’s connection for the Islamic State also means most probably an eased mobilisation, recruitment and access to radicalised people initially located south beyond the Libyan border.

Similarly, trade between Libya and the Sahel and sub-Saharan Africa is favoured, as already exists with Nigeria (Callum Paton, Ibid.), which, again, may enhance the Islamic State resources, in turn increasing its capacity to attract fighters as well as to wield cooptation.

22 car sales sc

Sirte, car sales, Islamic State, Libya
From photo report “car market taking place in Sirte”, 14 April 2016

In this light, the emphasis found in the psyops of wilayat Tarabulus on a car market taking place in Sirte (photo report, 14 April 2016) or on sales of fodder (see photo above) may also be part of a wish to demonstrate the Islamic State’s wealth as well as its trading capabilities. Similarly the video “Of their Goods, Take Alms”, (wilayat Tarabulus, 27 February 2016) even though focused on zakah and thus succour given to the poor (see for a detailed explanation Money, Wealth and Taxes, Ibid), also displays wealth mainly as cattle, crucial in a land of desert, as well as money, and thus could also be seen as broadly favouring trade.

The second better known route and connection towards Tunisia, as well as the Islamic State’s activities in Bani Walid will be examined with a forthcoming post.

In conclusion, the consideration of the forces of the Islamic State in terms of numbers of fighters stresses an important but still relatively small threat. Once one moves beyond the solely quantitative and look at state-building and connections to tribes, the potential threat becomes severe, while the likelihood to see a full and rapid decline of the Islamic State in Libya decreases (which does not mean disappears). At this stage of our analysis, the situation displays dynamics specific to the Libyan terrain which may conjugate not only with the Mesopotamian battlefield but also with a regional African one. It is thus more than “just a fallback” for the Mesopotamian theatre of operation.

Featured image: 14th photograph of the photo report – Wilayat Tarabulus, “Graduation Ceremony in Sirte”, 18 April 2016.

About the author: Helene Lavoix, PhD Lond (International Relations), is the Director of The Red (Team) Analysis Society. She is specialised in strategic foresight and warning for national and international security issues.


*Indeed, oil and gas only represents for the Islamic State in Mesopotamia around 40% of its income, Jean-Charles Brisard and Damien Martinez, Islamic State: the Economy-Based Terrorist Funding, Thomson Reuters Accelus, Oct 2014; IHS “Islamic State Monthly Revenue Drops to $56 million” 18 April 2016 – note the difference in break-down between the two evaluations. See also H Lavoix, “Understanding the Islamic State’s System – Money, Wealth and Taxes“, RTAS, 13 July 2015.

**Out of concern for the individuals mentioned in this paragraph, be it in Libya or Mesopotamia, and to avoid increasing the chance they could be victims of future reprisals by one faction or another, no image is given here.

War in Libya and Its Futures – Tribal Dynamics and Civil War (3)

In our previous post, we discussed the Amazigh and Tuareg tribes, who were marginalized and persecuted under Qaddafi, and their current involvement in the war. Similarly, the Toubou faced persecution and marginalization in the recent past, but became more powerful after the 2011 revolution, a result of their contribution to revolutionary forces. As a result, the balance of power over smuggling routes in Southern Libya (Fezzan) shifted to one that favored the Toubou, which drove the Toubou and Tuareg to end their long-lasting Midi Midi truce and clash in Ubari. This shift in power has also brought about violent clashes between Toubou and Arab tribesmen over smuggling routes and regional power.

Here, we shall discuss the Toubou political grievances, their alliances, and their conflict with Arab tribes, as well as the main Arab tribes and their alliances. We shall also examine the effects of shifts in trade route control and the role of Arab tribal alliances in Operations Dawn and Dignity.

[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).]

Toubou (Tebu, Tabu) Tribes

In general, they are allied with the Council of Representatives and Operation Dignity.

The Toubou primarily inhabit Southern Libya, as well as the northern regions of Chad, Niger, and Sudan (Martin and Weber, June 21, 2012; RT, July 1, 2012). According to Laura Van Waas (2013), there could be as many as 50,000 Toubou inhabiting Libya.

Political Grievances

Toubou tribesmen in Tripoli protest discrimination.

Under Qaddafi, the Toubou faced discrimination and state persecution by being denied access to “decent health care, education and skilled jobs,” being treated as foreigners by authorities, and being “[stripped]…of their Libyan citizenship” in 2007 (for those tribesmen who had it) as part of Qaddafi’s Arabization process (Dugulin, International Security Observer, April 30, 2014; Murray, InterPress Service, May 17, 2013; IRIN News, May 14, 2012). Currently, according to McGregor (Jamestown Foundation, January 23, 2014), the Toubou are experiencing a “cultural revival” by emphasizing their “non-Arab status,” causing them to renew demands for political integration and social recognition.

However, they also refuse the idea of a bounded nationality; perhaps because they have inhabited the area before the creation of a Libyan state,

“We [Toubou] great population of Libya indigenous nation do not need papers or documents in order to prove to the world that we [are] Libyans… our cards are palm trees and our passport is Saharan Africa and Africa as a whole is our nationality and no one can change it that never.” – [Toubou] Channel on Facebook, March 24, 2015

The Toubou’s political grievances have yet to be adequately addressed by Libya’s post-Qaddafi governments, which have led the Toubou to utilize political protests/boycotts and create the Toubou National Assembly to pursue their political interests (Payot, State of the World’s Minorities and Indigenous Peoples, 2014). In July 2012, Toubou leaders threatened to boycott the country’s elections if government forces did not withdraw from Kufra, where they allegedly targeted Toubou tribesmen during a Toubou-Arab clash (Batrawy, Yahoo News, July 1, 2012).

Along with the Amazigh and Tuaregs, the Toubou have expressed disapproval over the lack of tribal representation in the Constitutional Drafting Committee and boycotted the Committee election in July 2013 and February 2014 (Shennib, Reuters, July 17, 2013; Dugulin, International Security Observer, April 30, 2014). Toubou guards then halted the production capabilities of the Elephant oil field in June 2013 to “demand more employment opportunities for local community members in protecting the oilfield,” which resulted in the hiring of more Toubou guards (Security Assessment in North Africa, February 2014). A few months later in December and January, the Sarir power station was “blockaded” by Toubou tribesmen to “demand greater representation in Kufra’s municipal government and an extension of the power supply to the Toubou community at Rebyana” (McGregor, Jamestown Foundation, January 23, 2014). Toubou protests in March 2014 called for the state to “implement policies against alleged state-sponsored discriminations and to provide tribesmen with enhanced security” (Dugulin, International Security Observer, April 30, 2014).

Toubou protesters at El-Sharara oilfield in December 2012.

The continuance of political grievances has also led some Toubou to use rhetoric regarding Toubou autonomy – an issue on which they are split (Security Assessment in North Africa, February 2014). Sources attribute the rhetoric for Toubou autonomy to the lack of a state presence and state security in Southern Libya (Shkolnik, May 15, 2012), to Toubou-Arab clashes, as we shall see below (McGregor, Jamestown Foundation, January 23, 2014), and to anger at the government in August 2013, when it announced that one million Tuareg and Toubou “fake ID’s” were cancelled during the implementation of national ID cards (Security Assessment in North Africa, February 2014).

“If we don’t get our rights and they keep mistreating us, from this checkpoint on, all the way down to the border, we will declare it’s not part of Libya.” – Mohammed Wardugu, Toubou militia commander (Daragahi, FT Magazine, January 10, 2014)

As shown by a pattern of protests and boycotts, as well as autonomy rhetoric, unaddressed Toubou grievances have the potential to increase instability in Southern Libya. According to Toubou military spokesman Hassan Mousa, “The stability of the south depends on [Toubou] rights. And Libya’s stability depends on the south’s stability” (Murray, InterPress Service, October 11, 2012). Although the stability of Libya is in part dependent on Southern stability, the stability of the South is also dependent on Tuareg rights, as well as the mitigation of Toubou-Arab hostilities, as we discuss below.

Furthermore, the pursuit and subsequent declaration of an autonomous Toubou region would certainly be detrimental to the legitimacy of the rival governments, as would Amazigh and Tuareg declarations of autonomous regions and governing bodies (see Mitchell, “Tribal Dynamics & Civil War II”).

Toubou Alliances

The National Transitional Council gave control of the Southern border to the Toubou for their alliance with the revolutionaries, which “significantly strengthened [Toubou] cross-border ties” (Security Assessment in North Africa, February 2014; Murray, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, December 10, 2014). The Toubou then allied with Zintan militias to take control of the El-Sharara oilfield, which they guarded for three years until the Tuareg and their ally – the Misratan Third Force – took control of the oilfield in November 2014 (Murray, Middle East Eye, January 17, 2015; Murray, Carnegie Endowment for International peace, December 10, 2014; Libya News Today, December 5, 2014; Daragahi, Gulf News, February 6, 2014). This escalated into Tuareg and Toubou clashes over the nearby strategic town of Ubari, as we discussed previously.

In September 2014, the Toubou allied themselves with the Council of Representatives and Operation Dignity, after “rival Arab tribes in the area gave their support to the Tripoli government” (Michael and Keath, UT San Diego, September 9, 2014; Reeve, Oxford Research Group, January 13, 2015). Zintan’s strong alliance with Haftar and Operation Dignity could also have influenced the Toubou’s decision to support Dignity, as the Toubou and some Zintani militias have cooperated in Southern Libya to guard oil resources.

Toubou and Extremist Groups

As seen previously, al-Qaida affiliates have an established presence in Fezzan, and an Islamic State branch (Wilayat al-Fizan) has begun to operate there as well. The Toubou, in particular, have iterated concerns about extremist groups in Fezzan, including associations between Tuareg tribesmen and al-Qaida affiliates, while “portraying their own community as a bulwark against jihadism” (Security Assessment in North Africa, February 2014; Murray, McClatchy DC, January 23, 2015; Roeskestad, Al-Monitor, November 13, 2014). In response, Tuareg tribes accuse them of “exaggerating the terrorist threat” and “embellishing the truth for their own political gain” (Murray, Middle East Eye, January 17, 2015; Murray, McClatchy DC, January 23, 2015). The Toubou are likely less susceptible to Salafism compared with other groups, considering their strong anti-terrorist rhetoric, their alliance with the anti-Islamist Operation Dignity, and less reliance on transactions with jihadists (unlike the Tuareg), as a result of their control of an increased number of trade routes in Southern Libya.

However, the Islamic State branch in Tripolitania released a recruitment video on March 12, 2015 in the Toubou language that portrayed a lone Islamic State fighter calling on Toubou tribesmen to join Islamic State groups in Libya (Libya Institute for Advanced Studies, March 26, 2015). Yet, the Islamic State may have more difficulty recruiting Toubou tribesmen, not only because of tribalism’s incompatibility with Salafism (as discussed in the previous post), but also because of the Toubou’s public stance on extremist groups, as stated above.

Trade Routes and Toubou-Arab Clashes

As we saw previously, the Tuareg and Toubou broke their long-lasting Midi Midi truce and have clashed in Ubari for strategic control of smuggling routes and the nearby El-Sharara oilfield. However, the Toubou are not exclusively at odds with the Tuareg. Economic control over vital trade routes, often doubling as smuggling routes, has caused clashes between the Toubou tribes and the Zawiyah tribe (Arab) in Kufra, as well as between the Toubou and the Awlad Sulayman tribe (Arab) in Sabha.

Toubou militia checkpoint near Sabha.

Under Qaddafi, Arab tribes such as the Zawiyah were favored and used to control the minority groups in the South (Stratfor, December 4, 2012) – an action that likely fostered Toubou resentment toward the Southern Arab tribes. Clashes between the Zawiyah and Toubou started in December 2007, when a Toubou militia began attacking Zawiyah in Kufra, but was soon stopped by security units (Martin and Weber, June 21, 2012). In 2012, Conflict between the Toubou and Zawiyah escalated when the National Transitional Council awarded the Toubou control over Southern trade routes and borders, as the two tribal groups are in direct competition for control of trade routes near Kufra (Ibid, Murray, InterPress Service, October 11, 2012). According to Stratfor (December 4, 2012), the Zawiyah are upset over “the loss of their preferential status and dominance over local governance in Kufra.”

Kufra 10 May 2015, Libya, Toubou, Libyan war
“The latest developments in the city of Kufra” 10 May 2015 – Meeting between rivals – Toubou Facebook Page – Click to access

Kufra has endured cycles of fragile ceasefires and clashes that have killed hundreds, particularly from February 2012-June 2012 (Dugulin, International Security Observer, April 30, 2014). Intervention and peacekeeping units sent by the government have been unable to maintain ceasefires between the Toubou and Zawiyah (Ibid; Shuaib and Zargoun, Reuters, February 23, 2012; Martin and Weber, June 21, 2012).

Sabha is a strategic city that is home to a military base/airfield and “serves as a commercial and transportation hub for the Fezzan” (McGregor, Jamestown Foundation, January 23, 2014). The Sabha region is marred by Toubou-Arab rivalry, which led to deadly clashes beginning in March 2012 in what Daragahi labels an “all-out tribal and ethnic war between Arabs and [Toubou] and Tuaregs” (Daragahi, Gulf News, February 6, 2014; Murray, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, December 10, 2014; Security Assessment in North Africa, February 2014). The Toubou primarily clash with the dominant Awlad Sulayman and Awlad Abu Seif tribes over smuggling routes, resources, and regional power, although some clashes are a result of intertribal shootings, ambushes, and assassinations (Mezran, et al., Atlantic Council May 5, 2014; IRIN News, May 14, 2012; RT, March 31, 2012; McGregor, Jamestown Foundation, January 23, 2014). Furthermore, some leaders from the Awlad Sulayman tribe have spread xenophobic sentiment about the Toubou, saying “Not all the [Toubou] are Libyan. Libyans are welcome here, but outsiders are not” (IRIN News, May 14, 2012). Similar to Toubou-Arab clashes in Kufra, Sabha experiences cycles of ceasefires and violent conflict (RT, March 31, 2012; Dugulin, International Security Observer, April 30, 2014). Violence erupted in January 2014 when Toubou tribesmen murdered Sabha brigade commander Mansur al-Aswad, supposedly “in retaliation for crimes committed by his Abu Seif militia during the 2012 clashes in Sabha” (McGregor, Jamestown Foundation, January 23, 2014; Dugulin, International Security Observer, April 30, 2014).

Toubou-Arab clashes in Sabha, March 2012.

The awarding of Southern border control to the Toubou after the revolution likely escalated the clashes between Toubou and Arab tribes, as the revolution removed some advantages and existing power arrangements previously awarded to  Arab tribes – creating a change in the Southern power dynamics. This also explains the wider range of Toubou-Arab animosities compared to Tuareg-Arab animosities.

Arab Tribes

Arab tribes are divided in their alignments with Operation Dawn and Operation Dignity.

Here, by Arab tribes, we refer to tribes with Arab or a mixed Arab-Berber ethnicity, which encompass Libya’s main tribes that are not Amazigh, Tuareg, or Toubou. Note that any alliances described below are in general, and there may be exceptions at a sub-tribe or familial level. Arab tribe strength varies considerably; for example, the Warfallah are estimated to number over one million while the Qadhadhfa are estimated around 100,000 (Bell and Witter, Institute for the Study of War, September 2011).


Two primary alliances of Arab tribes labeled by Kamel Abdallah as the “[U]pper alliance” and “[L]ower alliance” dominate the Libyan political landscape, (Abdallah, Al-Ahram, February 6, 2014; Engel, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, November 2014), each aligning respectively with Operation Dawn or Operation Dignity, with some outliers.

The Upper alliance is composed of Zintan, Warfallah, Qadhadhfa, Warshefana, Magarha, and some Farjan tribes, while the Lower alliance comprises Misrata, Zawiyah, and some Farjan tribes (Ibid; Abdallah, Al-Ahram, July 24, 2014). It is important to note a fracture in the Upper alliance involving the Zintan and Warfallah tribes. According to Abdallah, Zintan left the Upper alliance during the 2011 revolution to fight against Qaddafi, which broke, or at least seriously strained, its historical alliance with the Warfallah (Abdallah, Al-Ahram, February 6, 2014; Abdallah, Al-Ahram, July 24, 2014). Zintan is now trying to rekindle its alliance with the Warfallah, which could be a strong tribal asset to Operation Dignity, considering both tribes are rivals of Misrata (Ibid; Obeid, Alakhbar, August 26, 2014; AbdallahAl-Ahram, May 29, 2014).

The Zintan, Warfallah, Qadhadhfa, Warshefana, and some Fajan tribes of the Upper alliance, as well as the Maghariba, Obeidat, and Baraasa tribes have aligned themselves with General Haftar and Operation Dignity, while the Misrata and Zawiyah tribes of the Lower alliance have allied with Operation Dawn (Engel, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, November 2014; Stevenson, Al-Monitor, September 14, 2014; Karasik, Al-Arabiya News, December 7, 2014; AbdallahAl-Ahram, May 29, 2014; Doha Institute, June 10, 2014).

The Warfallah are likely a major tribal asset for Haftar, considering it is the largest tribe in Libya with approximately one million people – although it comprises about 50 sub-tribes, of which some may be pursuing local or regional agendas instead (Kurczy and Hinshaw, Christian Science Monitor, February 24, 2011; Al-Arabiya News, September 1, 2011).

However, support granted by tribes to one or another side is not always that clear-cut or even that easy to identify. For example, the Tarhouna tribes’ allegiance appears to be controversial; Obeid (Alakhbar, August 26, 2014) and the Doha Institute (June 10, 2014) claim that the Tarhouna are allied with Operation Dignity, while a Libya Herald article (August 20, 2014) reports that the Tarhouna have rejected the Council of Representatives in Tobruk and aligned themselves with Operation Dawn. A possible reason for the conflicting information could be that these sources reached out to sub-tribes of the Tarhouna that have differing agendas, as we mentioned regarding the Warfallah.

Libyan tribalism is flexible, and allegiances fluctuate according to circumstances and pragmatic opportunities.

Tribal alignment with either Dawn or Dignity does not always mean political or ideological support, as shown by the Tuareg’s pragmatic relationship with Dawn of Libya (see previous post). As another example, the Obeidat and Baraasa tribes support Dignity, but are unwilling to support any alternative “political or military ambitions,” lest they lose their “traditional control and influence over the military” (AbdallahAl-Ahram, May 29, 2014). We also have Toubou support pledged to the Council of Representatives and Operation Dignity, which occurs only after their Arab rivals’ pledge of support for Operation Dawn. This shows again, as suggested previously, that Libyan tribalism is flexible, and that allegiances fluctuate according to circumstances and pragmatic opportunities. Yet, even this opportunism should not be overstated, as, religious (or refusal of some extremist positions, such as Salafism), political, or city/regional loyalties may override larger tribal decision for sub-tribes. (see Mitchell, Nationalist Forces I; Islamist and Misrata Forces I & Islamist and Misrata Forces II).

As we discussed in the first post of our series on tribes in Libya, Libyan tribalism played a dominant role under King Idris and eventually under Qaddafi; and tribes continue to play key roles in the post-Qaddafi era, particularly in the political and security sectors. We could even wonder if the whole Libyan conflict is not strongly determined first by tribal dynamics. The political grievances of the Amazigh, Tuareg, and Toubou will likely impact any future political process, as well as the stability of Southern Libya. The re-forging of a Zintani-Warfallah alliance has the potential to enhance Operation Dignity in the West, particularly since both tribes are rivals to Operation Dawn’s powerhouse – Misrata. Meanwhile, the incompatibility of tribalism with Salafism could serve to slow the progress of Islamic State presence in Libya, particularly in the South. While political and religious dynamics certainly have their place in Libya’s civil war, the participants have roots in Libya’s many tribes, and the tribalism dynamic will certainly play a role in Libya’s future.


Featured Image: Toubou guards of Libya’s Southern border posted on the Tabu Sons of the Desert Facebook page on May 8, 2013

“150 dead in Libyan tribal clashes reveal vacuum in authority,” RT, March 31, 2012

Al-Arabiya News, “Warfalla, Libya’s largest tribe,” September 1, 2011

Alexander Roeskestad, “Libya’s south on edge of chaos,” Al-Monitor, November 13, 2014

“A Fierce Battle for Control in Libya’s Desert,” Libya News Today, December 5, 2014

Ali Shuaib and Taha Zargoun, “New Libya army flexes muscles to halt tribal fight,” Reuters, February 23, 2012

Andrew Engel, “Libya as a Failed State: Causes, Consequences, Options,” The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Research Notes 24, November 2014

Andrew McGregor, “Tripoli Battles Shadowy Qaddafists While Tribal Rivals Fight Over Southern Libya,” The Jamestown Foundation, Terrorism Monitor 12, issue 2, January 23, 2014

Anthony Bell and David Witter, “Roots of Rebellion: Part I,” Institute for the Study of War, September 2011

Aya Batrawy, “Libyan Tabu tribe threatens election boycott,” Yahoo News, July 1, 2012

Borzou Daragahi, “Libya’s badlands,” FT Magazine, January 10, 2014

Borzou Daragahi, “Libya’s South Seethes with Resentment,” Gulf News, February 6, 2014

Dr. Theodore Karasik, “Is the real Libyan battle for Tripoli underway?” Al-Arabiya News, December 7, 2014

“Fears of Libya Slipping into Full-Scale Civil War,” Doha Institute, June 10, 2014

Ghaith Shennib, “Libyan minority groups say will boycott constitution vote,” Reuters, July 17, 2013

Glenn Payot, State of the World’s Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2014

Kamel Abdallah, “Breaking alliances,” Al-Ahram, July 24, 2014

Kamel Abdallah, Al-Ahram, “GNC, Maetig versus Haftar,” May 29, 2014

Kamel Abdallah, “Tribes and abductions,” Al-Ahram, February 6, 2014

Karim Mezran, Jason Pack, and Mohamed Eljarh, “Libya’s Faustian Bargains: Breaking the Appeasement Cycle,” Atlantic Council, May 5, 2014

Laura Van Waas, “The Stateless Tebu of Libya?” Tilburg Law School Legal Studies Research Paper Series, no. 010, 2013

“Tarhouna rejects House of Representatives , declares support for Operation Dawn,” Libya Herald, August 20, 2014

“Libya: The Importance of Managing Southern Tribal Conflicts,” Stratfor, December 4, 2012

“Libya: Uneasy calm in Sebha after clashes,” IRIN News, May 14, 2012

“Libyan tribal clashes: 47 dead in three days,” RT, July 1, 2012

“Libya’s Fractious South and Regional Stability,” Security Assessment in North Africa, February 2014

Maggie Michael and Lee Keath, “Under militia power, Libya closer to failed state,” UT San Diego, September 9, 2014

Michael Shkolnik, “Libya’s Fragmentation: Tribal Conflict, Islamism, and the Quest for Power,” United Nations Association in Canada, May 15, 2012

Mohannad Obeid, “What’s happening in Libya?” Alakhbar, August 26, 2014

Philip Martin and Christina Weber, “Ethnic Conflict in Libya: Toubou,” Carleton University, June 21, 2012

Rebecca Murray, “Battle rages in Libya’s southwest desert,” Middle East Eye, January 17, 2015

Rebecca Murray, “Libya oil production plummets as tribes fight to control field in south,” McClatchy DC, January 23, 2015

Rebecca Murray, “Libya’s Southern Rivalries,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, December 10, 2014

Rebecca Murray, “Tribal War Simmers in Libya’s Desert,” InterPress Service, October 11, 2012

Rebecca Murray, “Tribes Keep Uneasy Peace in Southern Libya,” InterPress Service, May 17, 2013

Riccardo Dugulin, “Inter-Tribal Clashes in Southern Libya: A Factor of Local and National Instability,” International Security Observer, April 30, 2014

Richard Reeve, “Briefing: Libya’s Proxy Battlefield,” Oxford Research Group, January 13, 2015

Stephen Kurczy and Drew Hinshaw, “Libya tribes: Who’s who?” Christian Science Monitor, February 24, 2011

Tabu Channel Facebook page

“Terrorism in Libya – 26 March 2015,” Libya Institute for Advanced Studies, March 26, 2015

Tom Stevenson, “Dozens killed in Tripoli suburb under siege,” Al-Monitor, September 14, 2014

War in Libya and Its Futures – Tribal Dynamics and Civil War (2)

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).] Continue reading War in Libya and Its Futures – Tribal Dynamics and Civil War (2)

War in Libya and Its Futures – Tribal Dynamics and Civil War (1)

Tribalism in Libya’s civil war is a powerful dynamic that must be analyzed and understood before endeavoring foresight. Libya comprises 140 tribes, of which an estimated 30 to 40 have political influence, making it “one of the most tribal nations in the Arab world” (Kurczy and Hinshaw, The Christian Science Monitor, February 24, 2011; Varvelli, ISPI, May 2013).

As a result, if a few or many of them side with one or the other warring groups, then this will impact the war. Tribal identity and its product of favoritism are dynamics that can have a profound effect on political allegiances (see section on Creating Grievances). Because tribes are inclusive and often have extended familial ties, they are naturally predisposed to favoritism in situations that involve more than their tribe. Furthermore, tribe-controlled transnational networks in Southern Libya may affect the war, notably in regards to an increasing jihadist presence. We thus need to understand better the tribal dynamics at work in Libya and estimate how they could impact the war.

In this post, we shall discuss first the history of Libya’s tribes as a foundation for current dynamics, as well as tribal composition, tribalism as a dynamic, and grievances under the Qaddafi regime.

[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).] Continue reading War in Libya and Its Futures – Tribal Dynamics and Civil War (1)