THE ONLINE ADVANCE OF HAFTAR
Khalifa Haftar’s attack on Tripoli has dragged Libya into a new civil war.
Between 3rd and 4th April, the self-proclaimed Libyan National Army (LNA) from Cyrenaica launched an offensive against the forces of Tripolitania and the UN-supported Government of National Accord (GNA).
In order for this operation to succeed, and for Haftar to take power, the General must necessarily build a form of legitimacy at both the local and international level.
The war therefore takes place both on the military and on the political-diplomatic level. In this sense, the quality of propaganda and the evolution of online information flows related to Libyan events are of equal importance than developments on the ground.
This analysis focuses on the online side of the recent clashes in Libya in the period 1-14 April.
Given the current Libyan context, it was decided to carry out the analysis through the perspective of Information Warfare, as it allows to examine the intertwining and correspondences between the development of kinetic actions on the ground and the presence of manipulation activities of the information and communicative ecosystem.
The goal is to bring out manipulative activities online, and to underline how these can support specific perceptions of the war (both internally and internationally), as well as the ways in which they contribute to the construction of legitimacy for the belligerents, and in particular for Haftar.
Below are the main findings of the analysis.
The information horizon about Libya is tainted by Information Warfare actions. More actors in the field, with different techniques, methodologies and objectives are currently active in the information ecosystem developed around the action of Haftar.
Information Warfare activities detected can be divided into two groups:
1) strategic activities, of high impact and with high potential in the long term; and
2) tactical actions, of limited impact and conducted with inferior quality and refinement.
The strategic activities detected are built around the action of automated informative blogs in Arabic (such as bald-news.com, arabyoum.com, sabq-sa, alsharqtimes.com, medanelakhbar.com, uk.arabicnews.com).
These seemingly independent blogs are actually part of a single interconnected network. Every day they have published an impressive number of articles in an automated way: more than 15,000 cite Haftar in the 15 days taken into consideration.
The contents can be reached online and, above all, they are indexed by the Google News press review. If used in an instrumental way, this network of blogs could aim to saturate the information horizon, and then try to influence the way in which actors are perceived on the ground.
From a strategic point of view, the attempt to flood the Arabic press review of Google News with apparently independent contents can be used to set up a precise narrative of the events, poised to be fuelled over time.
Tactical actions analysed emerge on Social Media via fake Twitter accounts (fakebot), which post messages in English (more rarely in French), substantially identical, only apparently spontaneous, and with timing that makes these account suspicious.
The study of tweets published shows the construction of a pro-Haftar narrative (as man of order in Libya, spear-heading the fight against Daesh, al-Qaeda, etc.).
Neither for blog networks nor for fake Twitter accounts can a specific operator, or a group of operators, be identified with certainty. However, the narratives conveyed by these tactical activities appear predominantly in support of Haftar.
On the other hand, there do not seem to emerge specular tactical actions, that are in favour of the Tripoli front or of some of its leading figures, and as much effective and pervasive as those pro-Haftar.
As for now, there are two separate information universes.
The first is in Arabic, it originates from Saudi Arabia, Libya, Qatar, Egypt, United Arab Emirates, and produces almost three-quarters of the detected contents.
The second consists of conversations in other languages, mainly produced by the European countries most involved in Libyan dynamics (Italy, France, UK).
So far, these two universes have not shown clear channels of contact, nor mixtures in the narratives conveyed. However, considering both the possibility of a protracted war and Haftar’s strategic objective (acquiring international legitimacy), it is reasonable to expect an increase in hybrid actions in the near future.
The emergence of strategic activities, including in non-Arabic languages, is also expected. In particular, an increase in Information Warfare actions aimed at presenting Haftar’s attack in the framing of the fight against terrorism appears particularly likely.
This is both for internal purposes and for gaining legitimacy before the international community.
Given the multiple interests of Italy in Libya, the commitment of Italian diplomacy to support the Government of National Accord in Tripoli, and the presence of Italian soldiers on the ground (mission MIASIT), it cannot be excluded that in the near future such hybrid actions will also hit the digital information horizon related to Italy, in Italian language too.
On April 3rd, General Khalifa Haftar launched an offensive on Tripoli. Some units from Cyrenaica, framed in the self-proclaimed Libyan National Army (LNA), occupied the strategic city of Ghariyan and marched on the capital’s southern outskirts.
Haftar’s objective was to quickly conquer Tripoli, relying on the rivalries among the dozens of local militias, and to overthrow the Government of National Accord (GNA) led by Fayez al-Serraj and supported by the United Nations.
In fact, Haftar has always aimed to get a leading role in the post-Gaddafi era, alternating dialogue and diplomacy with the use of force. This enabled him to get more leverage during negotiations (for example, by taking control of almost all of Libyan hydrocarbon basins, pillars of the national economy).
However, faced with such an attack, armed groups in Tripoli soon put aside divisions, coordinated their actions and managed to block the advance of the LNA, also thanks to the military support from the powerful Misurata militias.
Against this background, the current Libyan scenario appears to be particularly permeable to Information Warfare actions, aimed at creating a synergy with the war operations and at supporting the agendas of the different rival actors involved in the conflict.
In fact, after the first 48-72 hours, clashes stalled with no significant successes on either side. The fight then moved to the political diplomatic level.
In fact, both sides can count on numerous international sponsors. Although formally the entire International Community recognizes only the GNA as the legitimate government, many countries have been following a double track for some time, coupling more selective, opaque and “covered” channels to the official ones.
Specifically, Haftar and LNA can count on logistical-military support by Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), political support from Saudi Arabia, a good relationship with Russia, and an important liaison with France.
Serraj and several GNA-affiliated militias can count on military and political support from Turkey and Qatar. Italy, the UK and Germany are among the most active political supporters of the UN-sponsored GNA.
The United States tends to read Libyan dynamics through the security prism of countering terrorism, leaving the political-diplomatic game in the background. Thus, both the Arab world and the European Union are internally split and unable to pursue a common agenda to tackle the Libyan crisis.
These divisions have played a crucial role in slowing down the Libyan reconciliation process led by the UN that started 4 years ago. This process has been deeply undermined by Haftar’s offensive, since the latter appears to have wasted the capital of trust between the parts accumulated since 2015.
In this sense, the most important confrontation between Haftar and the GNA is played on the level of legitimacy. Indeed, in order for the LNA offensive to achieve its political goals, military victory must be accompanied by parallel international recognition of Haftar.
The construction of a form of legitimacy is therefore one of the primary objectives of the General’s offensive, and as much important as military operations and the maintenance of international support.
OBJECTIVE OF THE ANALYSIS
The present analysis is conducted within the framework of Information Warfare, through which it is possible to systematize the complex horizon of the current Libyan situation.
The objective is twofold. The first is to rearrange the online information landscape related to Khalifa Haftar and produced in the early days of the offensive.
The second is to explore the possible presence of Information Warfare actions.
In particular, the analysis will deal with 4 research questions:
1. What features does the online information ecosystem have?
2. Which themes emerge as relevant in online conversations?
3. Which are the most active or relevant actors online?
4. Is it possible to identify anomalous activities in the discussions?
THE ONLINE HORIZON OF LIBYAN EVENTS
Conversations and content produced on the web related to Haftar (name or hashtag, in western or Arabic languages) have been detected and aggregated through the Talkwalker platform.
The research deals with the volumes produced online between 1st and 14th April 2019.
Over 735,000 contents emerged, as represented in table 1. The trend follows the initial phases of the Tripoli offensive between 3rd and 4th April, with a first peak on the morning of 4th April.
Some peaks of particular content production emerge on some key dates: Haftar’s announcement of the official start of the operation, renamed “Flood of Dignity” (taufan al-karama), on the afternoon of April 4 th ; clashes at Tripoli international airport, a strategic point for the control of the capital, on 5th and 6th April; Haftar’s visit to Egypt on April 14th .
Key days are also confirmed by the analysis of the trend of the over 4.2 million reactions detected in the period under consideration.
The 3 contents that recorded the greatest number of interactions are: Ennahar TV (2.8k Fb shares, 10.4k like Fb, 10.3k comments); reportage by L’Espresso “I am 16 years old, I am a prisoner in Libya. Please help me “(501 Twshares, 17k Fb shares), Russia Today – RT (28 Tw shares, 14.1k Fb shares).
continues in Part 2
CENTRO STUDI INTERNAZIONALI
CULTURE DIGITAL MEDIA