By Javier Martin
Powerless against the disarray and growing anarchy that spreads around smuggling – of oil, gasoline, weapons and people – Hasan Dhawadi, mayor of the Libyan city of Sabratha, raised the alarm.
In a press cference on 28 March, Dhawadi complained that this coastal city lacked the necessary means to stop the small and large-scale trade that had involved entire families for generations and moves tens of millions of euros annually.
The political instability and economic crisis that has gripped the country since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi’s dictatorship “has facilitated dozens of opportunistic entrepreneurs joining the usual traffickers. We need outside help,” he said.
Smuggling anything is a profitable and simple business in present-day Libya, a failed state without a government or unified military.
It is almost impossible to discern the limits of one or the other, or know the exact links because many times clans of the same tribe are each dedicated to a particular niche: some sell weapons, others sell people or fuel.
“They work like the big supermarkets – there is the fuel section, immigrants, weapons, cars, food,” a European intelligence member working in the region told EFE under the condition of anonymity.
“It is very difficult to fight them, they know the terrain, they have been in the business for a long time and they are well protected by heavily armed militias,” he added.
Occasionally, the Libyan Coast Guard intercepts an oil tanker near a beach or the Tunisian authorities stop a truck at the border, Dhawadi said.
“But the fact that it’s profits with little risk allows (all kinds of smuggling) to continue. And it will not stop while gasoline remains cheaper than a bottle of water in Libya,” he said.
The mayor said that, without work or a future, enlisting in militias or entering into the vast world of illegal trade were easy exits (options?) for young Libyans.
“We are not facing a new phenomenon,” the intelligence officer said.
“Smuggling is an activity that has always been seen in Sahel, even with Gaddafi, the difference being that it was controlled by the regime itself which took over the routes,” he said.
The Tuareg and Tebu semi-nomadic tribes have lived in the inhospitable sands bordering Sudan, Algeria, Chad, Tunisia, Niger and Egypt for centuries, controlling the ancient caravan routes of the desert until the dictator’s greed perverted their atavistic way of life.
That region is the main operations center for networks dedicated to sending immigrants to the north,” according to Frederic Wehrey, a researcher at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“Any attempt by Europeans to stem the migratory crisis off the coast of Libya is doomed to fail if governance and security problems in the south are not resolved,” he warned.
Wehrey said that “the struggle between communities and ethnic groups for (the control of) oil fields, smuggling routes and the border has mingled with national political conflict and the interference of actors outside the south as well as outside Libya”.
During the revolution against Gaddafi, a part of the Tuareg tribe joined the rebel ranks, although most of them stayed with the regime until the end.
Once overthrown, some Tuaregs joined the rebellion in Al-Azawad, a region in northern Mali, while the rest stayed in Sabha, the capital of southwest Libya, alienated by the new authorities.
The Tebu tribe took advantage of the situation and snatched the smuggling business in Kufrah district from the Arab tribe of Al Zawiya, favored by Gaddafi, with the help of opposition movements from Darfur (Sudan) involved in human trafficking.
In Rome on 2 April, both tribes renewed a pact signed in 1894 to divide the 5,000-kilometer-long (3,107 miles) desert border and the illegal trade with the Arab tribe Ould Sulaiman.
Their goal is to curb the ambitions of Marshall Khalifa Hafter, the strongman of eastern Libya, who has deployed forces to Sabha in an attempt to conquer the entire country.
“Hafter knows that the south is essential. In addition to oil, he wants the smuggling routes. Both for profit and to stem the flow of weapons and money given to jihadist groups” like the Islamic State or al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a local security source told EFE.
The signing in Rome coincided with the launch of a plan to stop smuggling in Libya by the UN-backed government in Tripoli, with the aid of international funds.
According to security officers EFE consulted in the Libyan town of Nalut, some 2.6 million litres of smuggled fuel enters Tunisia daily via Dehiba pass, and the same mafia is engaged in human trafficking from Tunisia to Libya, charging around $2,128 per person.
The link between smuggling and financing international terrorism is the last piece of this puzzle.
“There are no precise data, but we believe that AQIM is a fundamental factor in the illegal sale of oil and fuel in southern Libya,” a source from the local security attached to the triangle of cities – Awbari, Sabha and Murzuq – core to smuggling in Libya, told EFE.
Moreover, military leaders of the coastal town of Misrata have established a connection between terrorist movements and mafias that traffic people.
During the liberation of Sirte, military officials told EFE that some of the women sexually enslaved by terrorists were actually undocumented migrants who had been bought from the smugglers.