By Heba Saleh
Tripoli’s failure to exert control helps entrench Islamist group and local militias.
The political vacuum in Libya is allowing Isis to expand its operations as rival governments in the east and west fail to reach agreement on elections and unified institutions, the UN envoy for the country has warned.
Ghassan Salamé said the Islamist group’s “presence and operations in Libya are only spreading. I alert this council that Libya may become a shelter for terrorist groups of all persuasions”. Mr Salamé said restoring stability to Libya required “strong and unified civilian and military institutions which work to the benefit of all Libyans.”
Libya, a significant oil exporter, has been wracked by war and civil strife since Gaddafi was ousted in 2011. The internationally-recognised government in Tripoli, led by prime minister Fayez al-Sarraj, came to power in 2016 but has been unable to impose its authority.
Control in the east is in the hands of Khalifa Haftar, a former military man who refused to recognise the Tripoli government. Much of the country is under the sway of militias.
We can say Isis is now more active and more organised [than a year ago] Wolfram Lacher, Libya analyst at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs Isis was expelled last year from its stronghold in the coastal city of Sirte by local forces supported by US air strikes.
But Isis cells have recently reappeared, staging attacks against checkpoints in the desert and occasionally targets in cities. In May, a suicide attacker detonated a bomb in Tripoli at the headquarters of the election commission, killing more than a dozen people.
Last month the group claimed responsibility for an attack that killed four policemen in the town of Zliten. Wolfram Lacher, Libya analyst at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, said Isis in Libya had been mostly operating in the country’s “no man’s land” — areas not under control of either government or any local militia.
“We can say Isis is now more active and more organised [than a year ago],” said Mr Lacher. As well as allowing Isis to expand, political divisions are helping entrench local militias, which are looting state resources and exerting influence over political and economic institutions in the country.
Earlier this week, Mr Salamé brokered a ceasefire between warring militias in Tripoli, the capital, after more than a week of fighting in which 61 were killed and tanks and heavy artillery deployed in residential neighbourhoods.
The confrontations broke out after an armed group from a city south of Tripoli attacked the capital, which is controlled by a cartel of four militias.
Observers say the apparent motive was to supplant the cartel, whose members have been accused of profiting from exploiting state institutions and accessing dollars at the official price to resell on the black market, in order to take their own turn at plundering the state.
The militias “fraudulently obtain letters of credit so they can access dollars at the official price from banks,” said Mr Lacher. “They also manage to control the budgets of state institutions and add names to the payroll to siphon off money.”
Last month, the Libyan Investment Authority, the country’s sovereign fund, was forced to move its headquarters to another Tripoli location after intimidation against staff by a militia charged with guarding the office building.
Ali Mahmoud, head of the fund, told the Financial Times that he had received death threats and that one employee had been abducted twice by the militia and “beaten and humiliated” for organising and preparing the office move.
Photo: The aftermath of a battle between Isis and Tripoli forces in Sirte in 2016. The group is re-emerging in Libya, staging recent attacks on desert checkpoints and in cities.
Heba Saleh – Cairo and North Africa Correspondent of the Financial Times.