How Libya’s conflicts produce transnational networks straddling Africa and the Middle East
By Wolfram Lacher
War transforms societies and their boundaries. How it does so depends on the particularities of a society and the forces at work in a conflict.
The nationalist mobilization of the first and second world wars provoked a forced displacement of millions that turned diverse empires into ethnically homogeneous nation states.
The Rwandan genocide and ensuing Tutsi takeover triggered refugee movements that led to a series of conflicts in eastern Congo and deeply transformed that region’s social makeup.
The transnational networks formed during the Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union laid the groundwork for several generations of jihadist movements.
The Algerian civil war was first and foremost the traumatic experience of a nation, but the flight of small remnants of the insurgency to northern Mali planted the seeds of what would eventually become wholly indigenous jihadist movements in the Sahel.
It is not surprising that Libya’s conflicts since 2011 should act as a melting pot of transnational networks straddling the Middle East and Africa. Among North African societies, Libya has long been the most deeply integrated with sub-Saharan Africa.
This integration partly stemmed from previous conflicts: for example, Ottoman and Italian campaigns in the 19th and 20th centuries twice forced the Awlad Suleiman to flee to what is now Chad, where they settled and intermarried with locals.
After Qadhafi’s takeover in 1969, elite figures linked to that tribe’s Saif al-Nasr family again escaped to Chad and helped establish the exiled opposition there.
Qadhafi, in turn, hosted rebel groups from across the continent and recruited thousands of young men from Sahelian states, including for foreign military adventures.
But the connections created through Libya’s conflicts since 2011 transcend historical patterns. This is partly due to the inherent tendency of violent conflict to tear people apart from each other or force them to stick together; the chaotic twists and turns of war often leaving them with little choice between the two.
More fundamentally, new patterns emerge because the international environment of the past decade differs from previous eras. The relative decline in Western influence and the rise of regional powers have produced a multipolar disorder.
That disorder has promoted the emergence of intersecting regional conflict formations centred on Syria, Libya and the Horn of Africa. If the examples above are any indication, the networks created in such wars can form the basis of conflicts for decades to come.
Qadhafi’s Legacy and the Present
If it had not been for Qadhafi’s penchant for meddling in African conflicts along with his idiosyncratic Pan-Africanism, Libya might well have turned its back on sub-Saharan Africa in the decades of postcolonial nation-building, much as its neighbours did.
Whether it was intentional or not, Qadhafi’s policies forged transnational ties that have retained relevance since the demise of his regime.
His persecution of opponents, elite families and intellectuals forced thousands of Libyans into exile, where many built ties with the leadership of states that were, at varying times, opposed to Qadhafi, such as the leaders of Algeria, Sudan, Chad, and Morocco.
He encouraged members of Libyan tribes who had settled in Chad and Niger – and some communities whose Libyan ancestry was more doubtful – to “return” to Libya. There, they were highly dependent on state patronage, and formed a pool for military recruitment.
His support for African rebel groups and recruitment of men from Sahelian countries brought specialists in violence from across the continent to Libya. It also allowed many of Qadhafi’s intelligence operatives and military officers to develop networks among these groups.
Such networks played an important role in the 2011 civil war. Libyan exiles in the West lobbied the US, UK and French governments. Libyan businessmen and religious scholars with longstanding ties in the Gulf states used their connections to mobilize support, thereby building relationships that would have a lasting impact over the following years.
Qadhafi not only deployed the Tuareg soldiers of Sahelian origin in his Maghawir Brigade, but also reached out to former Tuareg rebels in Mali and Niger to mobilize additional recruits, and hired Darfur rebels who had found refuge in Libya.
African leaders who had benefited from Qadhafi’s support led the African Union (AU) to oppose the NATO intervention in Libya, and would later host senior former regime officials.
Middle Eastern Connections
Two main dynamics drove actors in Libya’s conflicts to establish ties in Middle Eastern states: the mobilization of support for the war against Qadhafi in 2011, and the formation of new Libyan diasporas as a result of the 2011 war and the conflicts that followed it.
In 2011, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) both supported the war against Qadhafi. But as Libyan factions competed for their support, these two states ended up backing disparate Libyan networks.
The National Transitional Council’s “prime minister” Mahmoud Jibril and the businessman-cum-Sufi scholar Aref al-Nayed both leveraged their connections in Doha and Abu Dhabi. But the Islamic scholar Ali Sallabi, a close associate of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Doha-based religious authority Youssef al-Qaradhawi, eventually won the favour of Qatari officials.
Through Sallabi, Qatar increasingly channelled its support to Islamist-leaning groups, including former leaders of the defunct Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG). In addition, former LIFG leaders who had spent time in Sudan during the 1990s used their connections to oversee weapons shipments from Sudan, some of which were financed by Qatar.
Separately, rebel leaders from Misrata also established ties with Qatar to obtain arms. Meanwhile, Nayed and Jibril channelled shipments from the UAE. In the Nafusa Mountains, UAE support went to groups from Zintan, while groups based in Nalut benefited from Qatari assistance.
The formation of new communities of Libyan exiles created additional transnational networks. Just as thousands of exiles returned to Libya in support of the revolution, hundreds of thousands of people associated in one way or another with the regime fled abroad, most of them to Tunisia or Egypt.
Former senior regime officials mostly converged on Egypt, eventually settling down after the July 2013 military coup removed the threat of extradition to Libya.
In Cairo, they established the satellite channel al-Jamahiriya al-Khadra’ (“Green Jamahiriya”), and Qadhafi’s cousin Ahmed Qadhafeddam reactivated ties with the Egyptian security services forged during long years of acting as Qadhafi’s envoy to Egypt.
From mid-2014 onwards, many western Libyan opponents of the Libya Dawn militia coalition moved to Cairo, including members of the Tobruk-based House of Representatives. In Cairo and Abu Dhabi, those who left Libya in 2014 gradually mended ties with exiled former regime supporters.
As Khalifa Haftar advanced in his Benghazi military campaign during 2015, some former regime officials began returning to eastern Libya and joining Haftar’s operation.
In Abu Dhabi, the Palestinian politician Mohamed Dahlan oversaw Emirati support to Haftar, working with the former right hand of Qadhafi’s son Saif, as well as with Qadhafeddam and the super-rich Benghazi businessman Hassan Tatanaki in Cairo – the latter a former business associate of Saif turned supporter of the 2011 revolution, then proponent of the eastern autonomy movement.
Conflict in Benghazi and Tripoli also forced groups on the other side of the political divides into exile. Dozens of thousands of people fled the war in Benghazi, many of them members of families that were forcibly displaced by Haftar’s armed groups because of their western Libyan origins.
Most settled in Misrata or Tripoli, but many also left to Istanbul. The Istanbul-based Benghazi diaspora included leaders of armed groups and prominent businessmen who supported the fight against Haftar. They ranged from ordinary people pushed into opposition to Haftar by their family ties or their belief in the 2011 revolution, to Islamists and jihadists.
From 2016 onwards, Islamists seeking refuge from the changing political climate in Tripoli and Misrata joined the Benghazi exiles in Istanbul. In Tripoli, a handful of militias expanded their control over much of the city in 2016-17, while growing increasingly hostile to political Islamists, including the former LIFG leaders.
In Istanbul, these senior figures mingled with the Benghazi diaspora, as well as with exiled Islamists from Egypt and Syria. But they also kept in touch with former regime officials exiled in Cairo and elsewhere, with whom they held repeated meetings in Istanbul and Doha from 2015 onwards, in an attempt from both sides to break their political isolation.
Key go-betweens in these efforts were the aforementioned Ali Sallabi as well as an immensely wealthy former companion of Qadhafi from Misrata, Ali Dabeiba, both of whom spent more and more of their time in Istanbul.
The media was one domain through which exiles exerted political influence in Libya. After the fall of the regime, political entrepreneurs in Tripoli launched several privately owned TV channels directed at a nationwide audience. But successive attacks by armed groups forced these channels to close down or relocate abroad.
In Libya, only channels that enjoyed the protection of a particular local constituency or armed group remained. Abroad, influential figures established highly successful TV channels and media outlets, relying on their own money or foreign sponsors.
As the political landscape split in two opposing camps in 2014, Ali Sallabi took over the Doha-based TV channel Libya li-kull al-Ahrar, forcing its previous head, the former NTC official Mahmoud Shammam, to move to Cairo.
There, Shammam established the al-Wasat website, which was broadly sympathetic to Haftar’s alliance. Another former executive of Libya li-kull al-Ahrar, Huda al-Serrari, launched the TV channel 218 in Amman, which was staunchly pro-Haftar. In Amman, too, Aref al-Nayed established his Libya TV channel, whose pro-Haftar line became increasingly pronounced over the years.
The funding of such channels remained murky, though Nayed’s and Serrari’s good connections in Abu Dhabi fuelled persistent rumours of UAE funding.
The influential website al-Marsad, which specialized in aggressive attacks on the government in Tripoli, kept its ownership hidden, though it also appeared to be run by Nayed out of Amman.
Meanwhile, Libya li-kull al-Ahrar relocated from Doha to Istanbul in 2017, as part of Qatar’s broader effort to create distance between itself and Muslim Brotherhood circles.
In Istanbul, the Muslim Brother Suleiman Dogha now ran the channel. Two other Islamist-leaning TV channels escaped Tripoli for Istanbul: Tanasuh TV, run by a son of Libya’s controversial mufti al-Sadeq al-Ghariyani; and al-Naba TV, linked to circles surrounding former LIFG leaders, which later transformed into Febrayer TV.
From the safe distance of exile, these media outlets projected their highly partisan agenda back into Libya – in many cases the agenda of people who had lost much of what they had in Libya, and were intent on getting it back by fuelling the country’s conflicts.
Wolfram Lacher, German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), Berlin
Middle East Political Science