The dominant role of the Libyan National Army
By Noria Research
This report is based on interviews conducted with a range of actors in Libya, Tunis, Cairo and Istanbul, including businessmen, administrators, victims of armed groups, LNA dissidents, local notables and others.
Some interviews were conducted remotely. The report also draws from information contained in official documents, some of which are confidential and are not sourced in this paper.
Human-smuggling routes and actors in south-eastern Libya
From 2014 to late 2016, there were two main smuggling routes across eastern Libya that were used by smugglers to transport migrants from the Sudanese borders to Libya’s northern towns. The routes fell under the control of competing Zway and Tebu groups.
The first route, which is still in operation today and is controlled by the Zway and their allies among Sudanese rebel groups, starts in the area of Jabal al-Oweinate, and from there runs to al-Kufra or Tazerbu, before splitting into two directions, one heading north to Ajdabiya, and another west to Zella, where elements belonging to the SLA/MM are deployed.
The segment of the route via Zella was developed in 2016 to deal with the sudden collapse of Ajdabiya as a logistics hub following the kidnapping and murder of East African migrants by ISIS in Sirte in 2015 as they were headed for Tripoli.
Groups traveling along this route share the same tribal affiliation and are politically aligned with the LNA, driving down competition between the different groups.
This route is known to be safe and is mostly used to convey migrants from the Horn of Africa, notably Eritrea and Somalia, who are known for paying for their journey upfront and in hard currency.
Whereas some Sudanese, Egyptians and Chadians are dropped off by Libya’s Directorate to Combat Illegal Migration (DCIM) in border zones with their home countries in insecure conditions, Eritreans and Somalis tend to continue their journey north.
A local source from the DCIM indicated that Somali and Eritrean migrants are sent to northern detention centres by road in civilian cars, with no military protection: ‘Normal citizens, out of kindness, would drive migrants north. The Directorate does not have the required means to transport migrants.’
Regardless of the accuracy of this statement, it does at least show how safe the road from al-Kufra to the north has become, in a region where attacks on migrant convoys have been frequent.
Improvements in security conditions have benefited the smuggling business in general. According to local sources in al-Kufra, the closure of the central Mediterranean route as a result of joint European and Libyan efforts has not disrupted the flows of migrants, which continue as before.
Similar statements were also made by interviewees in the Fezzan. However, the accuracy of such statements remains difficult to assess.
At this stage, it is hard to determine the impact of deterrent measures taken to shut down the central Mediterranean route on flows of migrants into the south-east of Libya.
What is clear, however, is that the increasingly firm control imposed by the LNA over the eastern Libyan region has not restricted the smuggling business.
In fact, the political and military stability exerted by the LNA in eastern Libya seems to have benefited LNA-affiliated armed groups involved in the human-smuggling business in and around al-Kufra.
The second route, which was under the control of the Tebu, has to a large extent been abandoned, according to several sources in the Tebu smuggling milieu.
Tebu smugglers used to take control of migrants entering Libya in the region bordering Chad and Sudan before transporting them across the Libyan Desert to Rebiana. From there, migrants were transported to Sebha via Kelenji, waw al-Namus and Um al-Araneb.
Several factors contributed to the abandonment of this southern route – the deterioration of the Tebu’s military situation in the south-east following their defeat in al-Kufra in 2015, the collapse of their alliance with Sudanese mercenaries and the transfer of most of their troops to the Fezzan weakened their capacity to provide adequate security to migrant convoys, exposing them to repeated attacks by criminal groups.
In parallel, criminal groups, notably from the Mourdia clan in Chad, have been increasingly active since 2015, regularly attacking convoys of migrants.
A Tebu smuggler who had worked along this route said: ‘By the end of 2016, we avoided transporting Eritreans and Somalis who pay in US dollars, because they were much more attractive as targets for criminal groups.’
The same smuggler added that Sudanese agents, whose role had been pivotal in organizing the transfer of migrants along the southern route, also decided to end their collaboration with Tebu groups after repeated attacks.
A major Sudanese agent was attacked in Um al-Araneb in late 2016 and moved to Braq al-Shatea to set up a new route, in collaboration with the Zway.
Lack of political sponsorship, disorganization and divergent interests among Tebu groups put them in disarray in the south-east of Libya.
After the Tebu abandoned this route, criminal gangs, mainly from the Mourdia clan, started moving north to launch sporadic attacks on migrant convoys, particularly in the area of Tazerbu.
In September 2018, Subul al-Salam announced the arrest of a major commander from the Mourdia called al-Arabi, who started operating in Zway territory around late 2017 and early 2018.
Undoubtedly, the LNA’s strategy of sponsorship of local armed groups in the south-east is not the only factor shaping migration routes and dynamics.
Other factors also play a role, in particular counter-migration policies deployed in neighbouring countries and, more generally, business dynamics. However, the LNA’s strategy has allowed certain local groups to grow stronger, and others to weaken, which has had a direct impact on smuggling actors and routes.
The LNA’s support has been decisive in transforming Subul al-Salam into the largest military actor in the south-east of Libya and a major player in the human-smuggling business.
More recently, deploying a strategy similar to that of the former regime’s, the LNA has tried to enforce more direct control over the activities of local armed groups and the local economy.
The LNA’s foothold in al-Kufra today
As LNA units such as Brigade 106 have extended their field of operations into southern Libya, a strategy linked directly to the LNA leadership and the recent nomination of strong military governors, there is a need to address the threat posed by this system of delegating political and economic power to local armed groups.
The LNA’s foothold in al-Kufra grew stronger in early 2018. On 21 March 2018, the general command of the LNA nominated army colonel Belqasem al-Abaaj as the military governor of al-Kufra.
Al-Abaaj is a Zway from al-Kufra who, during the former regime, was in charge of the local branch of Libya’s Military Intelligence for two decades. Al-Abaaj is familiar with local tribal politics and management of smuggling networks.
He also coordinated relations with the Justice and Equality Movement, a Sudanese opposition group that fought alongside Gaddafi during the 2011 revolution and hosted Sudanese fighters in farms and warehouses near al-Kufra, a valuable experience in the light of mounting tensions between Subul al-Salam and Sudanese mercenaries in Libya.
Recently, the Military Committee mandated Abaaj to run the newly created Apparatus in Charge of the Development of the al-Kufra and al-Wahat – the regions that, combined, contain Libya’s major oilfields.
Unlike former military governors, al-Abaaj attempted to impose greater control over armed groups, including Subul al-Salam, but with limited success.
Al-Abaaj is a military career officer instinctively distrustful of armed groups and who incarnates the LNA’s strategy of centralization observed in Benghazi and in the east more generally. However, local sources doubted the governor’s intention to stop human smuggling and described recent announcements as mere rhetoric.
In the absence of sanctions against smugglers who continue to operate as members of armed groups in al-Kufra, measures recently taken by the military governor to counter smuggling activities do not seem to have had any impact on smuggling in al-Kufra.
More recently, the participation of identified human smugglers in military operations alongside warring parties in Tripoli casts doubts on the intentions of the LNA leadership to combat human smuggling in Libya.
In reality, the transactional relationship between the LNA leaders and sponsored armed groups playing a role in the human-smuggling economy seems to provide them with immunity.
Identified smugglers, one of whom is under an arrest warrant for his role in the killing of migrants in Bani Walid on 24 May 2018, is another indicator of the little importance shown by the LNA leadership to the involvement of affiliated armed groups in smuggling activities.
Besides the direct participation of smugglers in the fighting alongside warring parties, sources in Tripoli indicated that recent military developments in the Libyan capital have undermined recent efforts to contain flows of migrants from Libya across the Mediterranean to Europe.
Over the last two years, the LNA has taken possession of public and private assets, and imposed a monopoly over key lucrative export businesses in eastern Libya.
The LNA’s tax exemptions and financial advantages, guaranteed by law no. 3 (2018), coupled with its political and military superiority, are enough to see off any economic competition.
The influence the LNA has gained over political and financial institutions to promote its economic interests is in many ways similar to the behaviour of armed groups in Tripoli.
Henceforth, the prospect of a takeover of Tripoli by the LNA raises the question concerning its future approach towards the country’s financial institutions, notably the Central Bank of Libya, the National Oil Corporation and the Libya Investment Authority.
The existence of a legal economic sector, already weakened by several years of instability and the criminal behaviour of armed groups, is further threatened today by the promotion of new economic actors involved in illicit economic activities and capable of generating high revenues.
Moreover, the control of Libya’s key infrastructure, such as ports and airports, by armed groups and the absence of effective control mechanisms pose reputational risks for the country and will deter international partners from trading or investing in Libya, further undermining the country’s weakened economy.
This situation is aggravated by the fact that the law grants the LNA general commander the authority to decide which investors can operate in Libya.
Local businessmen have expressed their fears of being excluded from reconstruction bids, and indicated that certain international and regional sponsor states were promised by the LNA leadership a number of oil concessions and infrastructure contracts for the reconstruction of Benghazi in return for their support of the LNA over previous years.
In the absence of a political agreement, nationwide competition between armed actors to illegally capture state resources is encouraging predatory patterns.
Access by Tripoli-based armed groups to state funds and their alleged influence over Libya’s financial institutions – all based in Tripoli – ‘justify’ competing actors’ rhetoric to fight for their share, it is argued.
However, the LNA has become today the major political-military actor in Libya in terms of the size of the geographical territory under its control, and its role in shaping Libya’s political institutions will most likely be decisive.
As such, the LNA general command carries a substantial responsibility in putting an end to the predatory behaviour of affiliated commanders and groups, and control mechanisms should be placed over its economic activities, which seems unlikely to happen given the composition of the forces attacking Tripoli.
Noria (Network of Researchers in International Affairs) is an independent network of political analysts and researchers. It brings together specialists around shared methods and objectives, producing and disseminating fieldwork-based research and political analysis. Noria also provides political analysis for decision-makers, and fosters public dialogue and reflection on key international issues.