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.”
Tubu loyalties and external interference
Libyan Tubu forces and their leaders may appear to maintain ambiguous relations with actors in northern Libya as well as foreign players, but their loyalties follow a certain logic.
One key to understanding Tubu allegiances within Libya is their quest for international recognition. In 2014–15, many Tubu military and political leaders appeared to favour the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR), some of whose members were Tubu.
In so doing, they indirectly aligned themselves with Gen. Khalifa Haftar’s self-proclaimed Libyan National Army (LNA), which backs the HoR. Tubu support for the body appears to have been motivated by the fact that the Tobruk Parliament benefitted from US and EU recognition.
In early 2016, however, international recognition shifted to the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), a body led by Fayez Seraj and rejected by Haftar. Tubu support soon followed suit, even though the GNA lacked representation in southern Libya.
In the words of a Tubu leader: ‘We are like a trailer, we follow the North’s truck.’ Another crucial factor shaping Tubu militias’ loyalties is their desire to be seen as regular, legitimate forces, for both political and economic reasons, particularly since such recognition can help them obtain salaries from authorities in northern Libya.
Indeed, a number of forces that were on government payrolls under former prime ministers Ali Zeidan and Khalifa Ghwell—including petroleum facilities guards (PFGs) such as Bokori Sougui’s forces and Cherfeddin Barkay’s unit at the El-Wigh airstrip—have reportedly remained on the GNA payroll and have continued to receive salaries from the GNA defence ministry.
Tubu PFGs that were active in the oil crescent under militia leader Ibrahim Jadhran—including some of Hassan Keley and Allatchi Mahadi’s forces—joined the GNA before or with Jadhran. In the meantime, LNA-affiliated PFGs in Sarir continued to receive salaries from the defence ministry in Tripoli.
Prior to the establishment of the GNA, the Ghwell government also paid Tubu PFGs and appears to have maintained links with some forces in the Fezzan, notably Tubu ‘policemen’ in Murzuq.
Shifts in Tubu loyalties also reflect interference by northern Libyan and foreign forces in southern Libya’s conflicts, as well as the Tubu forces’ general distrust of external players.
A case in point concerns local youths who control the strategic checkpoint (‘Sabatachar’) in Sebha. These youths were recruited among Tubu and Arabs—Hassawna, Magarha, and Qadhadhfa—who were hostile to Awlad Suleiman and Misratan forces.
In early 2017, they reportedly displayed a Haftar poster at check-point 17. By early 2018, however, the poster had been removed as conflict had resumed in Sebha and a part of the Awlad Suleiman had aligned with Haftar.
In Sebha, Kufra, and elsewhere, Haftar, whose mother is a Zwaya Arab, has been viewed as hostile to the Tubu, a perception that has led some Tubu leaders—including Hassan Keley—to side with the anti-Haftar camp.
Tubu forces have exhibited an increasing distrust of all northern powers. After the LNA’s Arabic name was changed to ‘Libyan National Arab Army’, many Tubu shifted away from Haftar and towards the GNA.
In late 2016, Hassan Keley reportedly played a role in persuading Tubu forces—as well as Chadian and Darfur mercenaries and rebels in about 40 vehicles—to abandon Haftar in favour of the newly formed Benghazi Defence Brigade (Tharaya difa’ Benghazi, BDB) of Ismail Sallabi.
His aim was to challenge Haftar for control of the oil crescent—with the support of Qatar and GNA Defence Minister Mahdi Barghathi, whom Keley, at least on paper, served as adviser. Haftar subsequently accused Keley of recruiting mercenaries for his adversaries and issued an arrest warrant against him.
By May 2018, following the united Tubu attack on Sebha’s fortress, some Tubu forces, reportedly mobilized by Hassan Keley together with Chadian and Darfur rebels, and alongside BDB and Qadhadhfa troops, attempted to retake Tamanhant airfield from the LNA.
This move divided the Tubu once again, leading some to criticize Keley for involving the community in a conflict that was not tribal but rather national, at the risk of reinforcing Haftar’s support for the Awlad Suleiman. Indeed, in reprisals, Haftar’s aircraft bombed Tubu positions in Sebha and Um-el-Araneb.
Tubu allegiances have also been shaped in response to foreign interference. Chad and the UAE provided support to Barka Wardougou, and Chad also backed Allatchi Mahadi and Issa Abdelmajid, which may explain why these leaders initially appeared to favour Haftar rather than his Misratan enemies.
Between 2012 and 2015, the UAE allegedly supplied Barka Wardougou and allied Tubu forces with vehicles, arms such as Yugoslav-era M92 rifles, ammunition, uniforms, and food by way of the El-Wigh and Waw airfields.
Deliveries appeared to have stopped after a dispute between the forces of Barka Wardougou and those of Ali Mohammed Othman ‘Wujij’, which controlled Waw el-Kebir.
An associate of Wardougou’s has claimed that Wujij was manipulated by Haftar, who wanted to stop UAE supplies to Wardougou. This account may explain why Barka Wardougou’s brother and successor, Abay, appears to have distanced himself from Haftar.
Haftar had provided Barka Wardougou with further vehicles and arms in 2015, but the supplies seem to have ceased since his brother took over. Meanwhile, the Misratan forces and Haftar competed to get the Tubu forces on their side, not only in the disputed oil crescent, but also in the south itself.
In fact, they jockeyed for support in the south as a whole, be it through the use of incentives and threats, or by sending in troops. The Misratans deployed their Third Force under Jamal al-Triki. Created by the Ali Zeidan government in January 2014, the militia was presented as a peacekeeping force for Sebha and the Sharara oilfield, but in reality it supported local allies in efforts to control the Fezzan.
In January 2017, also on the pretext of supporting peace in Sebha, Haftar sent his own force to the Fezzan: Tubu and Arab troops in 20 to 40 vehicles, led by Ali Ramadan Sida, his main Tubu ally and one of the few Tubu leaders who was reliably loyal to the LNA.
Sida’s deployment was reportedly coordinated with Mohammed Ben Nayel, a former Qaddafi officer who became one of Haftar’s men in the south.
Ben Nayel had led the LNA contingent stationed in Wadi al-Shati, north of Sebha, an area abandoned to the LNA by Misrata’s Third Force in early 2017. Sida sought to enlist Tubu commanders in the LNA and induce Tubu forces to support Haftar, allegedly in preparation for an attack against Misratan forces in Sebha.
In June 2017 LNA forces, including Ben Nayel’s contingent, took the Tamanhant and Jufra airbases, north of Sebha, provoking the Third Force’s withdrawal from the south.
The Tubu did not welcome Sida with much enthusiasm, however. Most leaders, including Cherfeddin Barkay and Abay Wardougou, warned him of the risk of ‘exporting Benghazi’s war to the Fezzan’—advice that may have precipitated his return to Benghazi.
In the words of a lieutenant under Cherfeddin Barkay:
Only if Haftar controls both the east and the west, shall we join him. If ever a unified state with one army, one police, and other institutions settles and comes toward us, we will disarm.
Despite internal divisions, Tubu forces overall remain united in their desire not to let relations with external actors provoke conflicts among themselves. Distrustful of external agendas and fearing that stronger affiliations would aggravate divisions for only limited benefits, the Tubu have thus retained a certain degree of autonomy.
Tubu who challenge this approach by forging links with outsiders risk being rejected by the majority. Such was recently the case with Barka Sidimi, the above-mentioned ex-rebel from Niger.
In mid-2017, Sidimi, who had not been active militarily since 2011, left Agadez for southern Libya. With the stated goal of fighting non-Tubu cross-border road bandits (coupeurs de route), he quickly managed to recruit a significant force—including 10–20 vehicles—under the name Sahara Falcons (Saqur Sahara).
By September 2017, he had gained popularity among the Tubu for arresting foreign road bandits and car smugglers, including Darfur Beri and Arabs, as well as Chadian Dazagada. He established friendly relations with Libyan Tubu militias, which allegedly supplied him with military equipment.
By early 2018, however, his reputation had suffered, not only because he appeared to be collecting taxes on the roads like other militias, but also because he allegedly aligned himself with external players, including Idriss Déby—whom he visited in January 2018—Zintani militias, and Haftar, who reportedly promised Sidimi vehicles.
As a result, Sidimi appeared to be falling out of favour with the Tubu community in early 2018. Rival militias have also worried about Sidimi’s activities.
In late 2017 Cherfeddin Barkay, Bokori Sougui, Abay Wardougou, and others formed the Murzuq Basin (Hodh Murzuq), a new alliance designed to revive the Murzuq Military Council, replicate Sidimi’s anti- banditry operations, and drive out ‘foreign’ armed groups, including Chadian and Su danese rebels and bandits, as well as Sidimi’s own forces.
The coalition’s leadership was given to Abbakar Darmun, an Ahali or Fazazna (two names given to the other ‘black’ indigenous, now Arabized, community of the Fezzan region) who had served as an officer in Qaddafi’s army.
They deployed forces in Murzuq and Um-el-Araneb, where they reportedly forced Sidimi’s Sahara Falcons to evacuate a checkpoint. By April 2018, they were planning to form a joint force based in Um-el-Araneb, with 60–80 vehicles to patrol Libya’s southern borders.
In view of the conflict in Sebha and other priorities, however, most returned to their original bases. While the Murzuq Basin presents itself as neutral and was recognized by both the GNA and Haftar, it probably has stronger ties to Hassan Keley—who participated in the coalition’s creation—and the GNA.
By mid-2018, however, the coalition was reportedly weakening due to a lack of support from the GNA.
Tubu responses to Islamist threats
There has been much speculation about a possible jihadist infiltration in southern Libya, including among the Tubu. In order to secure international support, the Tubu have at times claimed that their Arab and Tuareg adversaries had Islamist agendas, arguing that they were supported by Islamist factions in Tripoli and Misrata and by Sudan.
At the same time, the Tubu have presented themselves as a shield against the establishment of Islamists in southern Libya. Yet, as Tubu leaders themselves have recognized, the picture is more complex.
The relationship between Hassan Keley and the Benghazi Defence Brigade, for instance, cannot be characterized as ideological, given that Keley is considered anti- Islamist while the BDB, which includes former members of Ansar al-Sharia, allegedly has ties to al-Qaeda.
The Fezzan Tubu have repeatedly said that they could form an effective bulwark against any attempt by the non-state armed group Islamic State (IS) to settle in the south, if needed, with the support of international troops such as the French force based in Madama, in north-eastern Niger.
After IS forces were defeated in Sirte in late 2016, some of their combatants reportedly headed towards the Fezzan and possibly the Sahel, while others appear to have been sighted in Sebha, Ubari, Murzuq, Um-el-Araneb, Wadi al-Shati, and the Salvador Pass at the Libya–Niger–Algeria tri-border.
In 2018, an IS group that had relocated from Sirte to Haruj el-Aswad mountains in central Libya was said to be responsible for attacks on both El-Fogaha in the north-west and Tazerbo in the south-east.
According to French sources, it may be easier to prevent IS combatants from relocating to the Fezzan than to the Kufra area, where they could obtain support from local and Sudanese sympathizers and use migrant- and arms-trafficking routes that lead through the Libya–Sudan–Egypt tri-border and on to the Red Sea.
In February 2018, outlandish rumours held that IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had moved from the Middle East to the Tibesti mountains in northern Chad or to northern Niger. Tubu leaders have argued that, given the absence of a functional state and security structures in southern Libya, Salafism has begun to contaminate youths in urban neighbourhoods.
Observers have also pointed to a Salafist presence in Murzuq and Um-el-Araneb. The Tubu cite only a few relevant cases, however, including that of a Tubu from Derna known as Ali Dernawi. Dernawi allegedly joined al-Qaeda before fighting with IS forces in Sirte, alongside two of his brothers.
In early 2018, as reports circulated of IS combatants attempting to settle in Um-el-Araneb, Murzuq Basin forces in the town reportedly arrested Dernawi and confiscated his car and gun.
An exchange of fire followed, during which Dernawi and Murzuq Basin fighters were reportedly killed, while Dernawi’s brothers and other IS combatants or former combatants left town.
Similarly, Nigerien authorities presented the arrest of a Tubu who was carrying 369 cartridges between Agadez and Zinder in February 2017 as—rather thin—evidence that some Tubu groups supply arms from IS forces in Libya to Boko Haram. They also cite the case of Mohamed Darkala, a Tubu migrant smuggler arrested in Niger in 2014 for transporting Boko Haram combatants who were planning to join IS forces in Sirte.
A pro-IS video in Tedaga (the Tubu language) was reportedly circulated by a Libyan Tubu from Sirte known as Abdelsalam ‘Daesh’, possibly a relative of Darkala.
While these cases represent little more than anecdotal evidence, they have contributed to Tubu fears that Salafism—whether violent or not—might find fertile ground among their youths if state absence and the marginalization of their territories persist.
In August 2018, a new force—adhering to the Salafist Madakhila ideology and composed of fighters from both Tubu and other communities—emerged in the Fezzan, under the name of Khalid Bin Walid Battalion.
The Madakhila ideology is in opposition to jihadism and the new battalion, with the stated aim of addressing insecurity, including drug and alcohol trafficking, mostly fought (alongside other Tubu forces) against Chadian Dazagada bandits involved in kidnappings.
As other Madakhila-inspired groups favour Haftar over the GNA, it appears that the new force rapidly got close to the LNA.
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.