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.
If Libyan exiles in Middle Eastern capitals relied on capital to exert influence back home, African fighters in Libya entered into the labour side of the equation.
After the fall of the regime, several hundred Tuareg fighters famously left Libya to northern Mali, where their arrival provided the spark for a rebellion that had already been brewing. But many of them returned to Libya after the beginning of the French intervention in Mali, in January 2013. By 2014, African fighters were flocking to Libya, rather than escaping it.
The first foreign fighters to reach Libya in sizeable numbers were jihadists from the Maghreb countries who were hosted in Libyan coastal cities by well-implanted jihadist networks.
Initially, most of these foreign fighters came to Libya to undergo training and then travel on to Syria. As Libyan and foreign jihadists brought back the Islamic State (IS) brand from Syria, some local jihadist groups declared allegiance to the IS. In Darna, Benghazi, Sirte and Sabratha, local IS affiliates began recruitment drives.
By early 2016, the Islamic State’s expansion in Libya reached its zenith, with foreign fighters in its ranks numbering in the low thousands, and Tunisians representing, by far, the largest contingent.
Nationals of other North African states and Sudan also featured in sizeable numbers. But recruits from the Gambia, Senegal, Ghana, Mali, Niger, Chad and Eritrea also numbered at least several dozen each.
Many of these fighters were undoubtedly killed in the various military campaigns against Libyan IS strongholds, the most significant of which was the Misratan-led offensive on Sirte (May-December 2016).
It is impossible to say how many may have escaped, and whether the ties forged between fighters of different national origins will spawn new jihadist networks across Africa. Time will tell.
More significant, in terms of its scale and implications, is the recruitment of Chadian and Sudanese armed groups by Libyan parties. Former Chadian rebels, left empty-handed after the rapprochement between Sudan and Chad in 2010, had already begun moving to Libya before the revolution.
In Darfur, the situation also became increasingly difficult for the rebel groups from 2011 onwards. Sudanese and Chadian fighters therefore had their own reasons for moving to Libya, beyond the fact that Libyan factions sought to hire them.
On a small scale, Tubu armed groups were among the first to do so, in their conflicts with armed groups from the Awlad Suleiman and Zwayya communities in Sabha and Kufra, from 2012 onwards.
With the escalation into civil war in 2014, multiple factions began recruiting Chadian and Sudanese fighters. Tubu militia leaders, who themselves joined Haftar’s operation in Benghazi, facilitated the recruitment of Chadian and Darfur rebel groups.
Armed groups from Zintan, trying to fend off the Libya Dawn coalition, recruited Chadian fighters from the Goran (or Daza) ethnic group.
In the Oil Crescent, the militia leader Ibrahim al-Jadhran also recruited Chadians, aided by Tubu militia leader Hassan Musa. In Ubari, Tubu armed groups recruited Chadians and Darfuris in their fight against Tuareg militias.
As these conflicts wound down during 2015, the roles of Chadian and Sudanese groups shifted from fighting as mercenaries to securing remote outposts. But their numbers continued to grow, and their presence in Libya transformed these groups.
In late 2014, militia leaders and power-brokers in the Libya Dawn coalition began prying some of the Chadian mercenaries away from their adversaries.
Misrata’s Third Force – an umbrella organisation including several of the city’s armed groups – assembled these Chadians at a remote location in central Libya, Jabal al-Sawda.
Misratans then contacted Chadian rebel leader Mahamat Nouri in his French exile, who sent his lieutentant, Mahamat Mahdi, to take charge of the Third Force’s Chadian fighters.
But once in Jabal al-Sawda, Mahdi established himself as the leader, clashed with Nouri’s loyalists, and founded a new rebel group, the Front pour l’Alternance et la Concorde au Tchad (FACT).
Later, Haftar gave vehicles and a base in Sabha to a FACT commander, Mahamat Hassan Boulmaye, who split from FACT to form the Conseil de Commandement Militaire pour le Salut de la République (CCMSR).
These are just two examples for how conditions in Libya transformed Darfurian and Chadian rebel groups. Their historical leaders in Qatar, France and elsewhere often saw their influence wane as lieutenants on the ground dealt with the constraints of Libya’s fragmented landscape, and seized the opportunities Libyan actors presented to them.
Chadian and Darfurian factions frequently switched sides – in some cases several times – as Libyan factions fought over central and southern Libya during 2016-2018. But most eventually aligned themselves with Haftar.
In the case of Chadian groups, this meant that they had to shelve all plans for action against the government of Idriss Deby, whom Haftar saw as an ally.
By the time Haftar launched his Tripoli offensive in April 2019, Darfurian fighters in Libya numbered around 2,000 and Chadians well over 1,000.
Seeking to free up forces for the Tripoli war and strengthen the defence of strategic locations in the Oil Crescent and Jufra region, Haftar then continued to recruit in Sudan and Chad.
Over the summer and autumn of 2019, hundreds of young men from Chadian and Darfurian Arab communities joined Haftar’s forces in central Libya. But contrary to widespread reports, there was no evidence of a massive transfer of Sudanese fighters from the Rapid Support Forces to Libya.
The role of foreign support has only grown as the Tripoli war has dragged on, adding even more significant contingents of foreign fighters to the fray. Russian mercenaries employed by Wagner and other private military firms began fighting in Tripoli in September 2019, tilting the balance in Haftar’s favour.
Three months later, Turkey began sending several thousand Syrian militiamen to Tripoli to prevent any further advances by Haftar. In response, Russia began recruiting Syrians from areas under Bashar al-Assad’s control through Wagner, and deploying them to Libya in support of Haftar. Contrary to Chadian and Sudanese fighters, these contingents came to Libya not through the networks of Libyan war entrepreneurs, but sent by foreign states.
Well-connected Libyan brokers are the links between the networks of Libyan exiles exerting influence on events back home and those of African fighters seeking refuge or fortune in Libya.
A typical profile is that of military or intelligence officers from the Qadhafi regime’s core tribal constituencies, such as the Qadhadhfa and Maqarha.
Such people might have contacts to Sudanese and Chadian groups going back to the Qadhafi era. They might even have family ties in Chad, especially if their families had spent decades in Chadian exile. In most cases, they work for Haftar, responding to his demand for foreign fighters.
War entrepreneurs from the Tubu ethnic group are in another category. As representatives of a crossborder community, they tend to scoff at their Libyan adversaries’ claims that they are able to distinguish between Libyan Tubu, and those from Chad or Niger.
They often have family ties in other Chadian communities, such as the Goran or Zaghawa. They can host Chadian and Sudanese fighters in areas under their control, and make profits by acting as intermediaries between these fighters and their employers in northern Libya.
At times, the nodes of Libyan networks connect all the dots. In autumn 2014, two Tubu military leaders, Barka Wardogou and Hassan Musa Keley, spent time in the UAE with the then Libyan ambassador, Aref al-Nayed.
Both already had fighters with Haftar in Benghazi, and Keley was emerging as a key broker for the recruitment of Chadian and Sudanese groups.
Through Nayed, they organized UAE weapons shipments to Tubu forces in southern Libya. (Wardogou died in the UAE the following year). Keley later switched sides, and in late 2016, he joined an offensive led by the Benghazi Defence Brigades (BDB) to seize control of the Oil Crescent from Haftar.
The planning for the offensive had involved significant amounts of money to buy off Chadian and Sudanese groups whom Haftar had deployed in the region.
Whether the money really did come from Qatar, as several people involved claimed, is unclear. But at the very least, the offensive had the backing of Ali Sallabi in Doha, whose brother Ismail was the BDB’s leader. Keley and the BDB would become a prime target of Nayed’s Amman-based media outlets.
Several patterns emerge from this analysis of transnational networks forged through Libya’s conflicts. The capital-intensive nodes of these networks are primarily located in Middle Eastern capitals, where they enjoy political protection, financial largesse, or access to military hardware.
In Libya, we find the brokers: people who have accumulated contacts and expertise in bridging these networks over the past nine years of conflict or even longer.
Their connections reach into sub-Saharan Africa, bringing foreign labour into Libya’s conflicts. In these networks, we can see the new multipolar order spawning a regional conflict formation.
Since the outbreak of the latest war in April 2019, a new pattern has emerged: it is no longer well-connected Libyan actors but foreign states that bring in contingents of foreign fighters.
This goes for the Wagner Group in Russia, for the Syrian fighters Turkey and Russia have deployed to Libya, as well as for Sudanese recruits a UAE-based company hired under false pretences, for deployment in Libya’s Oil Crescent.
Such operations may be less likely to create lasting transnational ties, particularly not ones that will be permanently linked to Libya. But what applies to the many crossborder networks that have formed through Libya’s conflicts also applies to them: once such relationships have grown, they may open up new possibilities in other locations, in future conflicts.
Wolfram Lacher, German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), Berlin.
Middle East Political Science