2018/02/12 – Since 2012, Libya’s six neighbouring counties have met with increasing regularity to assess the situation there. Ministers from the six met in Niamey last April and are to meet there in December for a scheduled update on the subject.However, a November 29 regional meeting in Khartoum had a more specific aim. Foreign ministers from Libya, Sudan and Egypt and UN Special Envoy Ghassan Salame, as well as junior foreign ministers of Tunisia and Algeria, attended the meeting. Also present were representatives from Chad, the Arab League, the European Union and the African Union.
All were in the Sudanese capital to make serious decisions about securing Libya’s frontiers in the fight against cross-border movement of terrorists, arms, illegal migrants and drugs. Sudan wants a regional border force.
The presence of militants in Libya’s border areas was highlighted the same day as the conference when ten gunmen, said to be members of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, were killed in an air strike near Ghat on the Libyan border with Algeria.
The need for a mechanism to secure Libya’s borders has been voiced almost since the 2011 revolution. Prior to the collapse of the central government in Libya in 2014, there were agreements between Libya and individual neighbouring countries setting up joint forces to secure various areas of the border but these came to nothing. It has been left to individual neighbours to protect their own side and prevent militants, weapons, illegal immigrants and drugs crossing over.
Tunisia started building a 459km barrier along the Libyan border following the June 2015 Sousse massacre. On November 28, it was announced that Algeria was building a massive security barrier along its entire 6,334km land border.
Egypt has relied on its armed forces to secure the border, although it has not prevented terrorists or smugglers getting through. It has put aside differences with Sudan for the sake of security, particularly the danger of terrorist infiltration from Libya. On November 25, it was announced that both countries agreed to set up joint military border patrols.
For Chad and Niger, securing the Libyan frontier has been impossible. Without the means, they have been dependent on French and increasingly US and Italian support. In the case of Chad — and Sudan, too — the open border has allowed armed government opponents to use Libya as a base for operations.
Certainly, none of its neighbours can depend on Libya to secure its 4,350km of land borders from the inside. Authorities are powerless, other than on the Musaid-Salloum crossing on the Egyptian-Libyan border and at two crossings — Ras Jedir and Wazin-Dahiba — at the Tunisian-Libyan frontier. Rampant lawlessness in southern Libya has made border control impossible.
That lawlessness was demonstrated on November 23 when the Islamic State (ISIS) attacked a police station in the remote south-eastern oasis town of Tazirbu, 800km south of Benghazi, killing nine people, five of them policemen. Several others were injured and 11 kidnapped.
There was an inevitability to the incident. After the capture by Misratan-led pro-Presidency Council forces of the central coastal town of Sirte in December 2016, 400-700 ISIS fighters escaped to the vast and largely empty areas west, south and south-east of the town, changing their tactics to hit-and-run operations.
Last April, Misratan forces under the Presidency Council launched an offensive against ISIS west and south-west of Sirte, leading the group to focus its attacks on the area further south and to the south-east. In July, it attacked the Great Man-Made River control station, 50km east of Tazirbu. On October 28, there was an attack on Fugha, in central Libya’s Jufra district.
Like Jufra, the remote area south of Ajdabiya not far north of Kufra, in which Tazirbu lies, is supposedly under the control of the eastern-based Libyan National Army (LNA) of Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar.
However, there is no LNA presence in the area south beyond irregular patrols. Security is left to local forces allied to the LNA, which are coping as best they can. As a result, ISIS fighters can strike at will. In the case of the latest Tazirbu incident, it was initially announced that the LNA had tracked down the militants and killed 18 of them. This was amended to one alleged militant being captured in the area.
Locals warned there will be further attacks.
The ability of ISIS to operate freely is not the only issue in the south. The general lawlessness allows fighters from Chad and Sudan to roam the area, stealing and kidnapping to sustain themselves. General crime — killings, theft, attacks — continues to soar. Rising prices in the shops and the lack of fuel and so many goods because of transportation dangers have added to people’s misery.
There is an angry sense throughout the south that the politicians and the military leaders on the coast, whether in Tripoli, Misrata, Benghazi or Tobruk, are not interested in the south’s sufferings, that it is being left to rot.
In a belated response, the Presidency Council created a commission for the crisis in the south but this is seen as no more than lip service. There is a sense that there will be no peace in the region until there is a single, effective government in the north.
The need for a regional border force is clearly understood by Haftar. He was in Niger in August for security talks and twice in Chad in October for talks on border security and even reportedly suggested that Libya join G5 Sahel.
Despite the logic for such a force given Libya’s inability to secure the border, the Khartoum gathering turned out to be, like Palermo, little more than a talking shop. It ended with nothing more than a declaration of support for the Presidency Council, an acceptance of the need to pay “the greatest attention” to developments in southern Libya, the hope that there could be greater coordination in the fight against terrorism and violence. The only commitment was to meet again in six months’ time.
Michel Cousins (Michel Cousins is the editor-in-chief of the Libya Herald)
The Arab Weekly /Sahel-Elite Photo illustration: Challenging task. Libyan fighters from Kufra stand next to an Egypt sign at the Libyan-Egyptian border. (Reuters)