By Jérôme Tubiana & Claudio Gramizzi
The deteriorating situation in Libya has drawn some attention to its southern borderlands, albeit with a nearly exclusive focus on security and migration—two complex issues that are often conflated or otherwise distorted in political rhetoric and media coverage.”
Since 2011, southern Libya has witnessed the growth of a patchwork of autonomous ethnic militias. These groups engage in intercommunity fighting, which is often aggravated by rival authorities in the north, which vie for control of southern Libya’s fighters, territory, and economic resources.
The main militias recruit among cross-border communities such as the Awlad Suleiman, Tubu (also known as Teda), Tuareg, and Zwaya Arabs.
Libya’s southern neighbours—Chad, Niger, and Sudan—have all tried to secure their northern borders, sometimes with the help of local militias, chiefly to prevent them from forming or hosting insurgencies.
Nevertheless, cross-border networks and community-based groups have managed to take control of Libya’s southern border, as well as informal trade and trafficking between Libya and the Sahel. They have left their most conspicuous imprint on the booming business of migrant smuggling, one of the few income-generating activities available to Saharan communities.
European policies that are designed to curb smuggling operations may inadvertently benefit militia forces and exacerbate conflicts, to the detriment of states in the region.
Niger, in particular, has maintained stability thanks to a fragile balance between northern communities, government institutions, and military authorities, as all of them stand to gain from the smuggling, directly or indirectly.
By compelling migrant smugglers to consider more dangerous activities, such as drug trafficking or armed insurgencies, European policies are generating tensions not only between civilian and military authorities, but also between governments and communities.
This report explores these developments in greater detail.
I. The Tubu: taking control of southern Libya’s borderlands
Geographic and ethnic context
Southern Libya’s ethnic communities typically represent more than a single nationality, reflecting the fact that their territories straddle artificial borders drawn across the Sahara by colonial powers. Groups and individuals have routinely crossed these borders to flee dangers—such as conflicts, invasions, or droughts—to look for economic opportunities, and to secure external support for armed insurgencies.
This border region is home to the non-Arab Tubu, who inhabit northern Chad, site of their main stronghold, the 3,000-metre Tibesti mountains, as well as eastern Nigerien and southern Libyan oases—including those of the Kufra area and the Fezzan.
The Ténéré desert marks the Tubu’s western border with the Tuareg, who live in southern Algeria, northern Mali, northern Niger, and south-western Libya.
Southern Libya’s Arab communities have experienced waves of migration south towards the Sahel. The Awlad Suleiman, in particular, were reshaped by such resettlement: many fled successive Ottoman and then Italian invasions, moved from northern Libya towards the Fezzan, and made their way south to western Chad and eastern Niger in the late 19 th and early 20 th centuries.
In pursuing an expansionist policy towards the Sahel, especially Chad and Niger, Qaddafi sought support from cross-border communities and invited them, in particular the Arabs, to return to their Libyan ‘homeland’.
He allowed the ‘returnees’, many of whom had been destitute since the devastating Sahelian droughts of the 1970s and 1980s, to benefit from jobs and services available in Libya. He also granted Libyan citizenship to the Tubu of the disputed Aozou Strip before withdrawing this right in 1996.
On the military front, he enlisted Tubu and Tuareg combatants into regular and irregular forces, including his so-called Islamic Legion; he also urged fighters to join Tubu and Tuareg rebel groups, which he supported against successive governments in N’Djaména and Niamey.
Following these developments, many members of cross-border communities began to refer to themselves as having two or more national identities. It was not unusual for the combatants among them to have served as government or opposition fighters of two or more countries—consecutively or even simultaneously.
Libya had absorbed a massive influx of Tubu from Chad and Niger; these exiled people had mounted rebellion after rebellion against successive governments in N’Djaména and, to a lesser
extent, in Niamey. By the 1980s, the Libyan Tubu, who had survived as an indigenous minority before the influx, had come to account for the majority of the global Tubu population.
In addition to Tubu ‘returnees’, Dazagada (or Goran) and Beri (Zaghawa and Bideyat) settled in the Kufra area of south-eastern Libya, bordering on Sudan and Chad.
In the 1990s and the early years of the following decade, the Beri gained prominence in the smuggling of manufactured goods between Libya and Khartoum’s Suq Libya.
When the Libyan revolution began, in February 2011, Qaddafi immediately called on the members of Saharan cross-border communities to defend the regime. Since many of them had taken part in rebellions abroad, they had earned a reputation in Libya for being better fighters than the regular national forces.
Even the ones who remained largely marginalized in Libya appear to have felt that they owed the government a debt, and Qaddafi now tempted them with promises of greater political and economic power. In addition, some feared that Qaddafi’s potential successors would marginalize them even further. Most of the Tuareg, including former rebels from Mali and Niger, heeded Qaddafi’s call to arms.
The Awlad Suleiman initially constituted an important contingent of Qaddafi’s forces; as the regime fell, however, they largely switched sides, expressing resentment over having been sidelined in favour of the colonel’s own Qadhadhfa tribesmen, with whom they had historically been allied.
The Tubu were more ambivalent, since Qaddafi had, after supporting their rebellions in Chad and Niger, turned against them in order to reconcile with N’Djaména and Niamey.
The most restive, or least obedient, Tubu rebel leaders were imprisoned, tortured, and killed. Yet, in February 2011, Qaddafi called for help from two former rebel leaders, both of whom had served as Libyan soldiers and played critical roles in the Tubu rebellion in Niger in the late 1990s.
The first was Barka Wardougou, who was born in northern Niger to a father who made a living smuggling goods, cigarettes, and people between Niger and Libya.
Having joined the Libyan army in the 1970s, at the age of 16, Barka Wardougou became a guard of the Chadian rebel leader and former president Goukouni Weddey, after which he turned to smuggling cars and cigarettes between Libya, Niger, and Nigeria.
In 1994, in protest against the way the Nigerien forces had treated him and other Tubu, he and a few like-minded men founded the Revolutionary Armed Forces of the Sahara (Forces armées révolutionnaires du Sahara, FARS). He was instrumental in smuggling arms inherited from the Chadian wars to fellow Tuareg rebels in Niger.
In 1997, as the majority of FARS combatants acceded to peace talks that were paving the way to the rebel group’s disarmament, Barka Wardougou was reluctant to give up the struggle. He transferred equipment, including nine vehicles with heavy weapons, to the newly formed Movement for Democracy and Justice in Chad (Mouvement pour la démocratie et la justice au Tchad), the Chadian Tubu rebellion led by Youssouf Togoïmi.
Qaddafi placed Wardougou under house arrest in 2000 and then sent him to prison; he was released in 2010, on the eve of the revolution. He initially accepted a small number of weapons—about 50 AK rifles—from the loyalists but then turned against the regime.
The second man was Barka Sidimi, a former FARS security chief and no natural ally of Qaddafi either. In 2005, he had attempted to resume armed operations in both Niger and Libya.
From his base on the Chadian side of the Chad–Niger–Libya tri-border, he and his 250 men—many of whom were reportedly Tuareg—attacked drug traffickers and also looted vehicles from a Chinese oil project near Zella, in central Libya.
Arrested by Qaddafi, he was sentenced to having a hand and a foot cut off. Nevertheless, in February 2011, Sidimi heeded Qaddafi’s call for help, travelled from Niger to Tripoli, and accepted the colonel’s offer of seven vehicles and money in exchange for protecting Fezzan oilfields.
As the regime lost its foothold, however, Sidimi was not able to find support among his kinsmen. He enlisted Tuareg loyalists, but they became reluctant to follow him as tensions grew between the Tuareg and the Tubu, such that he returned to Niger without fighting.
In the meantime, in Kufra, Tubu who had unsuccessfully opposed the regime a decade earlier—such as Issa Abdelmajid Mansour and Hassan Keley (aka Hassan Musa), and
army defectors such as Ali Ramadan Sida (aka Ali Kuri and Ali ‘Effendi’ (Colonel))—joined the revolution together with Zwaya Arabs with similar backgrounds.
In March and April they took control of the Ma’ten es-Sarra military base south of Kufra and the Sarir oilfield north of Kufra, thus acquiring a small number of vehicles. In May 2011, armed with weapons supplied by Sudan, they took control of Kufra.
Over a few days in June 2011, Barka Wardougou’s small group—15 men, mostly drawn from his relatives, and two vehicles—took control of a handful of military checkpoints south of his family’s stronghold of Tajarhi, the most southern oasis of the Fezzan, including the crossing point of Tomou on the Niger border.
They then intercepted about ten vehicles coming from Niger and carrying some 300 Tuareg and other pro-Qaddafi fighters. Wardougou also managed to seize the airstrip of El-Wigh, where he was reinforced by other Tubu and Awlad Suleiman combatants, who had received funding from revolutionaries in Benghazi and had then bought vehicles and weapons to supplement arms that Tubu fighters had brought from Sudan.
In mid-August, the group took Murzuq and the neighbouring El-Fil oilfield. The following month, they contributed to the fall of Sebha, together with various revolutionary forces, including Awlad Suleiman and Hassawna combatants, and others who had come from the north.
Tubu forces in Libya today
Following the revolution, Tubu forces began to fragment. Each attempted to secure control of specific areas, including urban neighbourhoods, checkpoints on commercial routes towards Chad, Niger, and Sudan, and economically strategic assets such as oilfields, agricultural projects, and gold mining areas.
Taking their cue from Qaddafi’s former forces, some Tubu groups presented themselves as guards of these areas and sought to obtain payments—in the form either of taxes on traders, gold miners, and travellers, or salaries paid to auxiliary forces by authorities in northern Libya, which are equally fragmented.
Tubu forces have only united when their community was under threat, typically during interethnic conflicts that pitted the Tubu against other communities for the control of strategic locations, routes, and resources.
Since late 2011, Tubu have fought Zwaya Arab forces in Kufra; beginning in March 2012, they confronted Awlad Suleiman Arabs in Sebha; and in 2014–16, they battled the Tuareg in Ubari. The latter conflict was put on hold, if not resolved, following local and Qatar-based negotiations, and the truce has since been monitored by a Hassawna peacekeeping force.
The conflict in Sebha resumed in March 2018. Having united again, Tubu forces managed to take over Sebha’s strategic—and symbolic—fortress from a mostly Awlad Suleiman brigade.
The Wardougou family and Cherfeddin Barkay
The main Tubu militias, in particular the forces of Cherfeddin Barkay and Barka Wardougou, mobilized in Sebha and Ubari. Unity remained loose. During these conflicts, the influence of the Murzuq Military Council, which had nominally been charged with the coordination of all forces in the Fezzan, was at best marginal.
Indeed, the council exercised only nominal authority beyond the forces of Barka Wardougou, who led the body until his death at the age of 60 in 2016, when he was succeeded by his brother Abay (Rajeb) Wardougou.
By 2017, Cherfeddin Barkay’s Battalion of the Martyrs of Um-el-Araneb (Katiba Shuhada Um-el-Araneb) was said to be the strongest Tubu militia, with some 400 active men and 40 to 100 vehicles.
Next was Abay Wardougou’s Dira’ Sahara (Sahara Shield), numbering 200 active troops and as many vehicles. Before the revolution, Cherfeddin Barkay had traded livestock and vehicles between Niger and Libya.
His popularity as a militia leader appears to have grown as his kinsman Barka Wardougou lost influence, partly because Wardougou went to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for medical treatment and remained there until his death in July 2016, at the age of 60.
While Cherfeddin’s rise may be attributed in part to his relative youth—Barka Wardougou was roughly 25 years his senior—it is also linked to his forces’ greater role in the Sebha and Ubari conflicts, as well as their approach to managing checkpoints and taxation on roads.
Specifically, they collect about LYD 10–20 (USD 1.70–3.40) per car —limited and even negotiable sums that they use to clear sand from the road between El-Wigh and Gatrun.
Barkay’s forces are also said to fight against alcohol and drug trafficking, as well as migrant smuggling—which is less popular among the Tubu than road maintenance. In some contrast, Barka Wardougou had been accused of double-dealing with competing foreign actors, a practice he had previously carried out as a Libyan soldier and as a rebel in Chad and Niger.
Jérôme Tubiana holds a PhD in African studies and has extensive experience as an independent researcher specializing in Chad, Sudan, and South Sudan over the past 20 years.
Claudio Gramizzi is the head of Operations for West Africa with Conflict Armament Research, for which he has undertaken research since 2014.