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Turkey’s efforts to pursue independent policies to continue to exacerbate tensions with Western, non-Western actors – Turkey Special Analysis

This report was written by Sanjana Parashar (MENA Intelligence Manager) and Swathi Nagesh (Levant region specialist)

And reviewed by Darren Cohen (MENA Senior Intelligence Manager and Levant region specialist) and Oded Berkowitz (Deputy Chief Intelligence Officer)

Executive Summary

Tensions between Turkey and Western state actors have increased over recent years due to various geopolitical and security issues. Ankara’s pursuit of an independent foreign policy and the shift in its strategic alliances is the result of both developments in the domestic political sphere and the waning presence of leading Western actors in the region.

A significant area of contention is Ankara’s military interventionism. On October 8, the US condemned Turkey’s operations in Syria as posing “an extraordinary threat” to Washington’s national security. On October 5, Canada announced the suspension of arms exports to Turkey over Ankara’s reported military support for Azerbaijan in its conflict with Armenia. On September 21, the EU sanctioned a Turkish firm for breaching the UN arms embargo on Libya

These developments highlight the clash between Turkey’s effort to bolster its regional influence and secure its independent interests on one hand and the interests of its traditional Western partners on the other.

Turkey and the US have particularly disputed the former’s purchase of the Russian S-400 air defense system, which the latter contends threatens its advanced aerial capabilities. This decision reflects Ankara’s intent to overtly confront Washington and NATO by presenting its willingness to partner with Russia amid its broader efforts to bolster its regional authority.

Ankara’s efforts to gain accession to the EU over the past decades have suffered several setbacks over recent years as Brussels has condemned Turkey’s economic policies and alleged human rights violations. More recently, tensions have been elevated over Ankara’s deployment of research vessels to conduct oil and gas exploration activities in disputed areas of the Eastern Mediterranean Sea that are also claimed by Greece and Cyprus.

Furthermore, Turkey has been engaged in a diplomatic rift with France over perceived anti-Islam comments made by French President Emmanuel Macron. The dispute has added to a growing perception in the West that Turkey seeks to adopt a “neo-Ottoman” ideology and present itself as the “protector of Islam”.

While Ankara’s foreign policy decisions have primarily been driven by an effort to advance its independent geopolitical interests rather than ideological opposition to the West, these decisions will nonetheless serve to alienate the latter.

That said, Turkey’s economic interests are likely to override any other considerations and, therefore, Ankara will refrain from completely jeopardizing its ability to improve trade relations with Western countries as access to these markets is crucial to sustaining the Turkish economy.

Regardless, during episodes of elevated tensions between Turkey and Western-aligned states, the existing religious and nationalist zeal of segments of the local populace can potentially translate into a hostile atmosphere, including calls for boycotts of foreign goods, demonstrations, and aggressive rhetoric.

Western nationals conducting travel in Turkey are generally advised to maintain a low profile and exercise heightened vigilance in the vicinity of locales frequented by foreign nationals.

Assessments & Forecast

Turkey’s geopolitical shift is partly a product of developments within its domestic sphere, US’s waning presence in the region

Although the President Recep Tayyip Erdogan-led Justice and Development Party (AKP) won the 2018 general elections with a clear majority, the government’s popularity has somewhat decreased over recent years, as evidenced by the AKP’s losses in the 2019 municipal elections in Ankara, Istanbul, and Izmir. This is primarily due to the inability of the government to stabilize the economy, characterized by a significant devaluation of the Turkish lira since 2018. Furthermore, a broad crackdown on opposition actors and perceived dissidents has exacerbated existing anti-government sentiments of certain sections of the local populace. Against this backdrop, Ankara’s willingness to confront its Western allies is likely part of an effort to gain patriotic support for Turkey’s endeavors and project its regional dominance, which, in turn, is partly aimed at containing domestic criticism against the government.

Erdogan has also attempted to revive the legacy of the Ottoman Empire and use Islamic sentiments to consolidate power, particularly from conservative and Islamist-leaning members of the populace. This is evidenced by the July 10 announcement to convert Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia, designated a museum by Turkish secular leaders in 1935, into a mosque. Although the decision sparked condemnation by various international actors, Erdogan received support for the move from conservative Turks who make up part of his support base. The decision’s timing was thus partly an attempt to bolster Erdogan’s “strongman” persona while diverting the local populace’s attention away from Turkey’s deteriorating economic conditions, which have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s growing military interventionism can also be partially attributed to the US’s waning presence in the broader region. Turkey’s Operation “Peace Spring”, aimed at dislodging Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militants from the area, was launched two days after the US’s October 7, 2019 announcement regarding the partial withdrawal of its troops from Syria. Turkey likely aimed to capitalize on this power vacuum to increase its influence within Syria and mitigate the Kurdish militant threat emanating from the country. Washington has also been largely uninvolved in Libya over recent years, which has allowed Turkey to become the main supporter of the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) and therefore become one of the primary international actors involved in the country. Overall, the lack of military presence by Western state actors in these countries over recent years has created a relative power vacuum that Ankara aims to fill as part of its aspirations to expand its regional influence.

Turkey’s regional interventionism largely motivated by the pursuit of independent foreign policy, rather than ideological hostility towards West

In recent years, Turkey has pursued a more independent foreign policy, distinct from its traditional Western allies, as illustrated by its military regional interventionism, the acquisition of Russia’s S-400 air defense systems, and Ankara’s activity in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea that has led to tensions with EU states. This approach has been perceived by Western actors to be destabilizing and contrary to the West’s interests. However, this is primarily, although not solely, an effort by Ankara to establish a more dominant role in the region, rather than being motivated by an ideological hostility to the West.

In Syria, Turkey’s efforts to mitigate what it perceives as the “Kurdish threat” to its national integrity have manifested in opposition to Washington’s interests. While Operation “Peace Spring” was launched primarily as an effort by Ankara to address the Kurdish militant threat, given the US’s alliance with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), largely composed of the YPG, it collided with Washington’s interests in the country. Tensions over this issue have persisted over the past year, as evidenced by a statement published by the US on October 8 indicating that Turkey’s operations in northern Syria directly undermine the former’s anti-Islamic State (IS) campaign and US’s national security. Therefore, while Turkey’s policy was not directly motivated by an anti-US agenda, it nonetheless contributed to the growing rift between the two counties.

Also in the Syrian context, Turkey backs the Syrian National Army (SNA) rebel alliance, which opposes the Damascus government, backed by both Iran and Russia, all of whom are adversaries of the US. However, the leaders of Iran, Turkey, and Russia have led the Astana Peace Process for Syria, which was originally launched in January 2017, and largely reflects an effort by Ankara, as well as Tehran and Moscow, to project itself as a regional power broker. It particularly underscores Turkey’s willingness to cooperate with its rivals in the Syrian sphere in order to cement itself in the political processes that determine Syria’s future and therefore maintain a strong influence in the country, which it considers essential to its security interests. However, as Turkey strengthens its strategic partnerships with Iran and Russia, and thus develops a greater alliance with the West’s foes, it partially reinforces its position as a non-Western-aligned state. This is also given the lack of involvement of the US in the Astana process, which showcases Ankara’s willingness to form interest-based alliances independent of its Western allies.

Turkey’s military backing for Azerbaijan amid its conflict with Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh region has further served to alienate Western-aligned allies. Ankara’s support for Baku is partly driven by its shared ethnic and cultural ties as well as historical antipathy towards Armenia. NATO, however, has called for the restoration of peace between both sides in the region, while Western states, such as Canada, have actively condemned Turkey’s reported military support for Azerbaijan. Hence, Turkey’s role in this conflict as part of its independent foreign policy interests serves to supersede its obligations to this Western security alliance. That said, Turkey’s reported deployment of Syrian rebels to fight in the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict and overall support for Baku is also a sensitive issue for Russia, due in part to the perceived threat of Islamist spillover regions along Russia’s southern borders and Moscow’s long-term cooperation with Armenia. This, therefore, showcases Ankara’s efforts to prioritize its own geopolitical interests, even if they partially undermine its alliances with either the West or with Russia.

These opposing interests between Ankara and Moscow were also witnessed in Libya, where Turkey provides military support for Libya’s GNA and Moscow supports the GNA’s rival, the Libyan National Army (LNA). Amid Turkey’s increasing military reinforcements for the GNA, both in the form of equipment as well as Syrian fighters, Russia increased its provision of military equipment to the LNA as well as its deployment of Russian private military company (PMC) personnel. This further reiterates Turkey’s willingness to pursue its own military interests, potentially at the expense of the interests of its allies, both Western and non-Western.

Turkey’s acquisition of Russia’s S-400 reflective of efforts to confront the West, bolster its regional authority

Turkey’s acquisition of Russia’s S-400 anti-aircraft missile system, which the US has stated “cannot coexist with a Russian intelligence-collection platform that will be used to learn about its advanced capabilities”, is indicative of Ankara’s prioritization of its alliances with Moscow over its participation in the US’s F-35 program and its ties to NATO and the West. While Turkey insists that this does not clash with NATO assets or US F-35 aircraft, despite evidence to the contrary, pressure is growing in Washington to impose punitive measures on Turkey for its perceived transgressions. This was recently demonstrated by the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s condemnation of the S-400 testing, which the chairman called on October 16 “a direct threat to the [US-made] F-35”, adding that “US law requires sanctions against countries that continue to deepen their defense relationship with Russia.”

The decision thus reflects Ankara’s willingness to overtly confront Washington and NATO by presenting its conviction to partner with Russia amid its broader efforts to bolster its regional authority. In this way, Turkey aims to demonstrate that it is not bound by Western alliances and interests, which may in future grant it leverage over the West during potential disputes. Moreover, the decision is also likely rooted in domestic politics. By demonstrating Turkey’s willingness to acquire weaponry from any partner of its choice, Erdogan seeks to affirm Ankara’s sovereign right to choose its military alliances, regardless of the West’s objections. This, in turn, allows Erdogan to bolster his “strongman” credentials to the domestic audience.

As illustrated by Turkey’s recent testing of the S-400 system, regardless of concerns voiced by the US and other NATO members, Ankara is determined to proceed with the preparation process and ensure the systems become operational. FORECAST: Elements within the US foreign affairs establishment will continue to pressure the administration to sanction Turkey. However, US President Donald Trump’s reluctance to take action, as illustrated by the absence of sanctions despite the Senate’s approval of such measures in December 2019, renders it unlikely that imminent measures will be imposed. US policy vis-a-vis Turkey may change, however, if the presidential election yields a change in administration. This is unlikely to happen in the immediate coming months as it will take time for any administration to review and formulate its foreign policy.

Turkey’s ambitions to become a regional energy hub, secure foreign investments has also increased tensions with Western actors

Turkey’s involvement in Libya highlights its efforts to secure its energy interests in the region and counterbalance Greece, Egypt, Cyprus, and Israel. Turkey signed a Memoranda of Understanding (MoU) with Libya’s GNA on November 27, 2019 for this purpose. This includes the establishment of a maritime border between the parties and allows Turkey to stake a claim to oil drilling rights in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, particularly in the vicinity of some Greek islands and the disputed waters south of Cyprus, which the Greek Cypriot administration claims is part of its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The EU, particularly Italy, France, and Greece, as well as Egypt and Israel, have backed the Greek Cypriot government’s claim. Thus, although Turkey’s stance has elevated tensions with certain EU states and other regional stakeholders, Ankara’s determination to pursue its activities in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea highlights its willingness to take a confrontational stance against certain EU members to achieve its energy objectives.

This determination to enhance its energy security has likely also been bolstered by the actions of other regional actors in this context. On September 22, Egypt, Israel, the Palestinian Authority (PA), Greece, Cyprus, Italy, and Jordan established the East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF) to promote natural gas exports from the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. Turkey was not included in the forum. Ankara’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson has reportedly stated that Turkey will “resolutely” continue to “protect its rights” in the Eastern Mediterranean and that “no alliance of malice” will prevent this. Ankara likely perceives the establishment of the EMGF as a provocative action aimed at actively excluding Turkey, which has likely increased its efforts to conduct exploration missions in the East Mediterranean. FORECAST: As illustrated by Turkey’s recent extension of the “Oruc Reis” research vessel’s activities in disputed waters until November 14, regardless of whether such action prompts tensions with the EU and potential sanctions against it in the framework of Brussels’ targeted sanctions program against Turkey for its “unauthorized” drilling activities of “hydrocarbons in the Eastern Mediterranean”, Ankara will persist with its exploration activities.

Meanwhile, Turkey and Russia have relatively divergent interests in the Black Sea. Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 allowed it to expand its de-facto coastline to over a thousand kilometers, enabling the country to carry out its energy exploration, in direct conflict with the interests of NATO countries and their allies, such as Ukraine, in the Black Sea. In this context, on August 20, President Erdogan announced the discovery of a “320 billion” cubic meters gas reserve in the Black Sea, constituting the largest gas reserve discovered in the area by Turkey. Energy production from this reserve is slated to begin in 2023. FORECAST: Ankara’s discovery of a gas reserve in the Black Sea in August and its growing readiness to invest additional resources to carry out its exploratory missions in the area may increase Moscow’s perception that Ankara is attempting to impose itself in the region and thus increases the potential for friction with Russia.

Overall, both of these developments constitute an effort by Turkey to acquire energy security and thus reduce its dependence on other states to import oil and gas, which is likely becoming increasingly costly as the lira has devalued significantly over recent years. The fact that Turkey’s operations in both the Eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea have the potential to cause friction with both the EU and Russia again demonstrates that Turkey’s activities are part of an overall effort to implement an independent policy, and while liable to alienate its geopolitical alliances, do not constitute an explicitly anti-Western strategy. However, as illustrated throughout this report, regardless of whether Turkey aims to antagonize its Western allies, the outcome is ultimately the same.

Political rapprochement with US’s adversaries motivated by geopolitical concerns, desire to present itself as ‘protectors of Islam’, likely to further alienate West

In Turkey’s partnership with Iran, Ankara likely aims to counter what it perceives to be a growing regional threat to its ideology and interests. The Erdogan-led government seeks to impose its version of state-level political Islam, by forming alliances with Iran, Qatar, and Muslim Brotherhood groups and affiliates throughout the region. This is with the aim of countering the growing alliance of states in the region that it perceives as countering its interests and ideology, led by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE, all of whom are at least willing to collaborate with Israel and are largely acting in coordination with US interests. Thus, its increasing interventionism throughout the region can also be understood as an attempt to project Turkey as the “protectors of Islam” and has been perceived in the West as a form of “neo-Ottomanism” and an effort to invoke the spirit of the former Ottoman empire.

In this context, there has been a growing rapprochement between Iran and Turkey over recent years, in contrast with the ideological rivalry that initially emerged between the two states following the 2011 Arab Spring, with the parties largely on opposing sides in major conflict zones, such as Syria. The warming of their ties over recent years has manifested in political opposition to Saudi-aligned Gulf states and varying degrees of support for Qatar amid its rift with the former, both countries’ opposition to the “Abraham Accords” signed between Bahrain, the UAE, and Israel, as well as Iran’s diplomatic support for Libya’s Turkey-backed GNA. A recent September 8 meeting between President Erdogan and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani wherein they committed to conducting joint counter-militancy operations is thus indicative of increasingly cordial relations between the two states. FORECAST: These ties are liable to increase the tension between the US and Turkey, given the former’s efforts to diplomatically isolate Iran, as part of its broader “maximum pressure” campaign.

The ongoing rift between French President Macron and Turkish President Erdogan pertaining to the former’s defense of the right to draw caricatures of religious figures is likely to increase the West’s perception of Turkey “neo-Ottoman” aspirations. These diplomatic tensions followed the beheading of a teacher in France for showing caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad to his students and has generated a diplomatic fallout between Turkey and France, with Erdogan stating on October 24 that Macron should get “mental checks” and Macron on October 31 accusing Turkey of having a “bellicose attitude toward its NATO allies”, adding that Ankara has “imperial inclinations in the region”. The fact that this has also translated into anti-France protests throughout Turkey illustrates the impact of such diplomatic tensions and the potential for a hostile environment to emerge for Westerners operating in Turkey.

Meanwhile, the US has stated that it “strongly objects” to Erdogan’s hosting of the leaders of Hamas, the Palestinian militant group, in Turkey on August 22. The Turkish government announced that it “fully rejected” the US’s statement and accused Washington of “serving Israel’s interests”. Additional reports from August also indicate that Turkey is granting citizenship to Hamas operatives. Through this action, Turkey has signaled its willingness to legitimize the Palestinian militant group, as opposed to Washington’s categorization of the Gaza Strip-based group as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO).

Ankara’s actions are likely to be perceived by Western-aligned states as granting increased freedom of movement to Hamas and thus allowing them to carry out destabilizing activities in Israel. Similar to its relations with Iran, Turkey’s support for Hamas is unlikely to yield major economic or security benefits. Rather, it is indicative of an effort by Ankara to align with Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated and other Islamist groups and thus expand its sphere of influence throughout the region. Turkey also seeks to be a power broker and thus counteract recent ties between Gulf states and Israel, as evidenced by its hosting of talks between the two rival prominent Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, for reconciliation talks on September 22.

These relations constitute a further fault line in the current tensions between the US and its allies on one side and Turkey on the other. FORECAST: Turkey’s growing support for Hamas as well as its opposition to Arab states’ normalization with Jerusalem, despite the fact Ankara maintains relations with Israel, is liable to increase tensions between the US and Turkey as well as Israel and Turkey. Although Jerusalem and Ankara share strong economic ties, Erdogan’s growing support for Hamas and persistent condemnations of Israel has the potential to strain these relations. This is particularly the case in light of the fact that Jerusalem now has formal ties with other regional states that are rivals of Turkey, primarily the UAE, and may therefore opt to cooperate economically with these countries, at Ankara’s expense.

Turkey to ultimately refrain from completely alienating its NATO allies

FORECAST: Taken as a whole, while Turkey is pursuing a more independent foreign policy, it is unlikely to completely alienate its Western allies, particularly NATO members. This is because Turkey can leverage its strategic position as a member of NATO to deter any significant punitive measures. This alliance also allows Turkey to mitigate the risk of direct confrontations as it implements its military policies in Syria, Libya, and Armenia/Azerbaijan, as well as within the energy sector, as Turkey pursues its energy interests in direct conflict with certain EU member states, such as Greece. In turn, despite the disputes between NATO member states and Ankara, Turkey will continue to remain a strategic ally by hosting US and NATO military assets, such as the Incirlik Air Base.

Within the context of the energy dispute between Turkey and the EU in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, NATO also provides for peaceful dispute resolution mechanisms between its member states. This, therefore, allows NATO to mitigate the threat of direct confrontations between Turkey on one side and Greece and Cyprus on the other in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. Hence, it is in the interest of NATO actors to continue to retain Turkey in the alliance as this would serve to manage emerging conflicts with EU members. This, in turn, provides Ankara with leeway in terms of its ability to pursue its energy policies without the threat of military confrontation with EU states.

Business continuity in Turkey for Western-linked entities unlikely to be significantly impacted, although potential punitive measures liable to elevate tensions

As previously mentioned, it is unlikely that under a President Trump administration, barring a breakdown in personal relations between the leaders, the White House will implement the Senate’s December 2019 approval of sanctions against Turkey. However, a Joe Biden-led presidency may seek to change course and punish states deemed to be acting in opposition to Washington’s core interests, for instance by operating Russian-made air defense systems.

In the event that the US imposes sanctions or tariffs, as in 2018, there is a high probability of further damage to the Turkish economy, as was witnessed following the implementation of such measures two years ago. This would lead to a further devaluation of the currency and render it more difficult for Turkish-based companies and Turkish state entities to remain competitive. FORECAST: Irrespective of who wins the US presidential election, as previously mentioned, any decision on sanctions or tariffs against Turkey is liable to take several months as the incoming administration formulates its foreign policy agenda. Regardless, Turkey’s actions may prompt other Western actors to consider punitive measures to pressure Ankara to alter its perceived destabilizing activities. This may, for instance, manifest in a ban on arms sales, as announced by Canada on October 5, which has the potential to undermine Turkey’s aforementioned defense strategy.

In the event that the US and/or the EU does impose sanctions or other punitive measures on Ankara, there is a potential for an increase in vocalized sentiment emanating from the government and domestic populace against the US, the West, or its perceived interests. This was illustrated by events in August 2018 amid the sanctions and tariffs imposed on Turkey by Washington, wherein a significant uptick in protests condemning the US was recorded in major cities in Turkey and President Erdogan reportedly called for a boycott of US electrical goods, while some Turkish citizens posted videos on social media of them physically attacking US-made products and currency.

Similarly, amid the aforementioned dispute over comments made by French President Macron regarding cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammad, reports from October 26 indicate that Erdogan called for a boycott of French goods. Both of these episodes illustrate the existing religious and nationalist zeal of segments of the local populace that can translate into a potentially hostile atmosphere, including boycotts of foreign goods, demonstrations, and aggressive rhetoric. As per the prior example involving the US, these tensions tend to subside relatively quickly without a significant impact on foreign businesses operating in Turkey. However, there is also the potential for temporary retaliatory measures imposed by foreign states such as sanctions and tariffs, as occurred in 2018, as well as increased bureaucratic challenges for nationals of perceived adversaries, which may hinder operations in the country.

However, ultimately, Turkey’s economic interests are likely to override any other considerations. This is illustrated by its willingness to cooperate economically with China, despite differences in ideology. According to the EU, Turkey’s main export markets are the EU, the UK, the US, and Israel. Thus, despite Erdogan’s geopolitical activities, economic trade with its Western counterparts remains crucial for the stabilization and growth of the Turkish economy. FORECAST: The Turkish government is unlikely to significantly jeopardize its ability to improve trade relations with Western countries as access to these markets is crucial to sustaining the Turkish economy. Turkey’s geopolitical expansionism is therefore unlikely to have a significant impact on Western economic interests over the coming months. Moreover, Turkey is unlikely to place restrictions on private Western citizens or enterprises from operating in the country, even in the event of a dispute between the states in which these entities are based.

Recommendations

Travel to Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir may continue while remaining cognizant of the latent threat of militancy, as well as regular anti-government protests and occasional incidents of unrest in these locales. Contact us at [email protected] or +44 20-3540-0434 for itinerary and contingency support options.

It is advised to avoid all travel to border areas with Syria and Iraq given the increased risk of militancy and spillover of armed conflict emanating from these countries.

Foreigners, particularly Westerners, conducting travel in Turkey are generally advised to maintain a low profile, and exercise heightened vigilance in the vicinity of locales frequented by foreign nationals. This is particularly the case in the event of elevated tensions between Turkey and Western or Western-affiliated states and entities.

Avoid any overt or critical statements of government, religious, or political institutions both in public spaces and online, including social media. It is also advised to be mindful of any social media posts made prior to travel that could be accessed publicly and could be viewed negatively during your visit. This is particularly the case during times of heightened political tensions involving Turkey in the international arena.

Bolstered international support for LNA Field Marshal Haftar amid ongoing hostilities in Tripoli likely to prolong conflict – Libya Analysis

Executive summary

Over the past three years, the Libyan National Army (LNA) Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar has gained increased domestic and international legitimacy amid his forces’ territorial advances in the Oil Crescent, Benghazi, Derna and the Fezzan Region.

On April 4, Haftar announced the launch of Operation “Flood of Dignity” aimed at taking control of Tripoli and its surrounding areas from the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA)-linked militias.

Despite this development, recent actions by prominent Western leaders, particularly of the US, the UK, and France, have increased the international legitimacy of the LNA vis-a-vis the UN-backed GNA in Libya.

This increased Western support for Haftar may be interpreted as a “green light” for his regional supporters, namely the UAE, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, to further extend financial and military assistance to the LNA.

Meanwhile, Turkey and Qatar have, and will continue to bolster their own measures to assist GNA-linked forces in Tripoli in order to further their own interests in the oil-rich country.

Overall, the bolstered international and regional involvement in the Libyan conflict will fuel further hostilities and the prolongation of fighting throughout the country, and specifically around Tripoli, in the coming months.

It is advised to defer all travel to Tripoli and Benghazi at this time due to ongoing violence, threats against foreigners, and the risk of a broad deterioration of security conditions. Contact us at [email protected] or +44 20-3540-0434 for itinerary and contingency support plans.

Focal Points in Libya

Current Situation

On April 4, Haftar announced the launch of Operation “Flood of Dignity” aimed at taking control of Tripoli and its surrounding areas from the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA)-linked militias.

On April 10, France blocked an attempt by the European Union (EU) to publish an official statement condemning the LNA offensive on Tripoli.

On April 19, an official statement by the US State Department indicated that on April 15 the US President Donald Trump conversed with LNA Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, recognizing his “significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources”.

On April 23, the UN-backed Government of National Accord’s (GNA) Prime Minister, Fayez al-Serraj, gave interviews for French news agencies, denouncing the French government’s support for Haftar.

On April 25, the LNA arrested two Turkish nationals in Tripoli. Reports quoting the LNA Spokesperson have indicated that they were arrested for alleged involvement in espionage activity. According to reports citing Turkish officials, the two were restaurant workers in Tripoli and were not involved with Turkish security forces.

On April 29, the GNA’s Interior Minister, Fathi Bashagha, visited Turkey to strengthen security and defense cooperation agreements. Bashagha was reportedly accompanied by the Chief of the Western Military Command, Usama al-Juwaili, and another top GNA-linked military official.

On April 29, the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, conversed with the GNA Prime Minister, Fayez al-Serraj, and expressed Turkey’s support for the GNA.

On May 18, the GNA-linked “Volcano of Wrath” Operations Room announced that they had received a ship containing military reinforcements. Picture material and additional reports indicate that the ship arrived from Turkey’s Samsun Port and contained multiple Turkish-made armored vehicles as well as other military hardware.

Background

The LNA’s Supreme Commander, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s local and international legitimacy has significantly increased over the past three years. This can largely be attributed to the fact that since 2016, the LNA has made gradual territorial advances in Libya, which has resulted in an expansion of Haftar’s influence over almost two-thirds of the country. In September 2016, the LNA took control of the Oil Crescent from the former GNA-aligned Petroleum Facilities Guard (PFG). This was followed by the LNA’s announcement of the conclusion of its three-year long Operation “Dignity” on July 5, 2017, which resulted in the eviction of the Revolutionary Shura Council of Benghazi (RSCB) and the Islamic State (IS) from the city. On June 28, 2018, Haftar announced that its forces had taken full control of the eastern city of Derna from the Derna Protection Force (DPF), formerly known as the Mujahideen Shura Council of Derna (MSCD). Finally, the LNA took full control of southern Libya as part of its Operation “Murzuq Basin” in March 2019.

Although, Haftar received initial support from the UAE, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and France, over the years, countries that were initially opposed to the LNA’s Operation “Dignity”, such as the US, the UK, and Italy have shown an increasing interest in negotiating with Haftar. This is underscored by a meeting between the former UK Foreign Minister Boris Johnson and the British Ambassador to Libya, Peter Millett, and Haftar in August 2017. More recently, Italy invited both the UN-backed GNA Prime Minister, Fayez al-Serraj and Haftar to a conference on Libya in Palermo, Italy in November 2018 to discuss a potential date for a nationwide election process in the country.

Assessments & Forecast

Egypt, UAE, Jordan, Saudi Arabia to extend further support to LNA amid ongoing clashes with GNA-linked forces in Tripoli

Initially, a significant support, mainly by Egypt and the UAE, had been extended to Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and the LNA, in light of the latter’s efforts to dislodge Islamist militants and militias from Benghazi. This most significantly came in the form of military hardware and logistical assistance by the two aforementioned countries, and the UAE’s manning of a al-Khadim airbase in 2016, to support the LNA’s military efforts. This extensive support was based since its initial phase upon Haftar’s self-positioning as the figure with the desire and ability to defeat Libya’s belligerent Islamist factions and Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated groups, which have gained significant foothold in the country amid the civil war. This is due to the fact that both Egypt and the UAE view these groups as a region-wide threat. Thus, the success of Haftar’s Operation “Dignity”, and his more recent success in taking control over the Fezzan Region, while emphasizing his determination to continue fighting such elements, has bolstered his position as a reliable ally for Egypt and the UAE. As for Egypt, another significant interest in strengthening the LNA was its determination to bolster an ally that would be able to secure the vast swaths of the desert-dense border areas between the two countries. These porous border areas serve as a major pipeline for both the smuggling of weapons and the movement of fighters from Libya into Egypt, and subsequently, to militant groups operating inside Egypt.

This emergence of the anti-Muslim Brotherhood alliance, characterizing the LNA’s relations with Egypt and the UAE, was paralelled by the increasing of relations between the Tripoli-based GNA and Turkey and Qatar, who are perceived by the UAE, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia to be supporting Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated groups across Libya, including in Tripoli. This has reportedly involved Turkish shipments of weapons to such elements in western Libya, as was highlighted by the seizure of a Turkish arms-carrying naval vessel, detained in Libya in December 2018. The increase of relations between Turkey and the GNA was likely further prompted by the current ongoing clashes in the designated capital, and was most significantly highlighted by both the April 29 security-related visit by the GNA Interior Minister to Turkey and the phone conversation between GNA Prime Minister, al-Serraj, and President Erdogan, during which the latter emphasised his support for the former. This, in turn, may have been the preceding arrangement for the May 18 reinforcement shipment, reportedly arriving from Turkey, which contained multiple Turkish-made armored vehicles as well as military hardware.

This more overt Turkish involvement has, in turn, drawn further accusation from the LNA of Turkish sponsorship of Islamist factions in and around the capital. In this framework, the LNA’s April 25 detention of two Turkish nationals on espionage charges indicates a further deterioration of relations between the LNA and Turkey. Regardless of whether or not the arrestees were indeed involved in espionage activities, the event is likely perceived by the LNA as an opportunity to further paint Turkey as intervening in Libya’s internal affairs in support of “extreme elements”. This, in turn, is likely perceived by the LNA as an opportunity to prompt its traditional aforementioned backers to supply it with additional assistance and potentially even draw the attention of other international stakeholders towards Turkey’s policies. Such efforts may have been the reason behind what appears to be greater support for Field Marshal Haftar by Saudi Arabia’s King Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), who has expressed the Kingdom’s support for the former and has also reportedly offered to financially support the LNA’s Tripoli campaign during an official meeting between the two on March 27.

FORECAST: Significant support and material assistance will continue to be extended towards the LNA by the UAE, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. This will highly likely manifest in the form of direct aerial support, as well as military and financial aid aimed at bolstering the LNA’s capabilities and enabling it to continue its offensive on the designated capital. In terms of physical military assistance to the LNA, it remains likely that the UAE will assist the LNA with additional employment of attack and reconnaissance unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), as it has done in the past, and given that it still possesses an active UAV base in eastern Libya. Such support is likely to be already taking place given multiple reports indicating the discovery of remnants of missiles believed to be a type used by the UAE UAVs, and is in any case not in use by any Libyan faction. However, such assistance is likely to remain relatively limited and covert, as the UAE will likely attempt to refrain from being painted as overtly challenging a UN-backed government.

FORECAST: Given the heightened tensions between the LNA on the one side and Turkey and Qatar on the other side, specifically surrounding the ongoing fighting in Tripoli, we assess that over the coming weeks, Turkish and Qatari nationals or corporations will face a growing threat of being subjected to arbitrary measures in LNA-controlled territories in Libya. This will most likely entail extrajudicial measures, such as arbitrary arrests and military prosecution over alleged charges of espionage and militant activity.

Increased political support for LNA by major Western stakeholders bolster LNA’s legitimacy, incentivise regional backers to extend further support to LNA

Most of the Western governments involved in Libya, such as the UK, Italy, France, and the US, initially primarily backed the UN-led initiative to reinvigorate a viable political process for Libya’s unification under one functioning government. This initiative partially came in the form of the establishment of the GNA in December 2015, which has since been the officially recognized government in Libya by the UN. That being said, the aforementioned ability of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar to take control of the Oil Crescent has consolidated his international standing among these countries. This was most significantly highlighted by the actions of Italy, a prominent supporter of the GNA, which has, after Haftar’s aforementioned successes, dedicated significant effort to convince him to participate in the political effort to unite the country under the Italian-initiated Palermo Conference in November 2018. Despite Italy’s backing of the GNA, Italian symbolic acceptance of Field Marshal Haftar was more recently highlighted even amid the ongoing offensive on the capital, when Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announced on May 7 that he is seeking to meet Field Marshal Haftar in the near future. In a similar vein, a process of gradual political acceptance towards the Field Marshal was also recorded in the UK. This mainly materialized after Haftar’s territorial gains in the Oil Crescent and Benghazi, resulting in a more accepting discourse by the UK Foreign Minister, Boris Johnson, in an official meeting between the two in August 2017.

France, contrary to the aforementioned European powers, extended its support in terms of military advisory assistance to Field Marshal Haftar during his initial Operation “Dignity”, aimed at dislodging Islamist militants from Benghazi. A more robust support by France followed Haftar’s takeover of the Oil Crescent, when President Emmanuel Macron invited the Field Marshal to the Paris Conference in 2017. That being said, despite having given such support to the Field Marshal, the French government has never explicitly acted in defense of the LNA and against the UN-backed international effort to establish unified political establishments in the country. Thus, the April 10 measure by the French government, namely the blocking of an official EU condemnation, is highly notable as it constitutes France’s first overt political support for the LNA at the expense of the UN and EU efforts to condemn and exert political pressure upon Field Marshal Haftar. This, in turn, has prompted significant protests in GNA-controlled territories, such as the April 19 “yellow vests” demonstrations in Tripoli and Misrata, with protesters dispensing anti-Macron discourse to denounce the French government’s backing of Haftar. In addition, the development has prompted GNA Prime Minister, al-Serraj, to give interviews to two primary French news agencies, where he publicly denounced the French government’s support for the “Dictator” Hafter. Lastly, this has also prompted political action by the GNA, with most significantly the Interior Ministry’s decision on April 18 to suspend bilateral cooperation with France, and the GNA Ministry of Economy and Industry’s decision to suspend operation licences of 40 companies, including a major French oil and gas company, on May 8.

The April 19 incident involving the US President highlights another culmination of international support by Western leaders for Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and the LNA, despite the official UN support for the Tripoli-based GNA. Furthermore, on April 4, a press statement by US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, expressed the US’ opposition to Haftar’s move towards Tripoli, urging a cessation of the offensive. The aforementioned phone call, however, took place approximately two weeks after the LNA has commenced its offensive, which could be interpreted as a shift in the US administration’s approach to Libya and its greater acceptance of Haftar, at least by the president himself. This apparent change in the US president’s approach and the robust support extended to the Field Marshal by France, could be interpreted as predicated upon a few factors.

First, the extensive territorial gains made by Haftar in the Fezzan Region have highly likely bolstered his standing vis-a-vis the GNA, regardless of whether or not the current assault on Tripoli will succeed. The Fezzan Region has been regarded as one of the major regional focal points for contraband, illegal immigration, and militancy-related activities for international stakeholders, such as the EU, and some of Libya’s neighboring Arab countries, primarily Egypt. This is due to the fact that since Muammar Ghaddhafi’s fall in 2011, the Fezzan Region has hosted the major transit routes through which immigrants from West Africa have been travelling, via Libya’s border-crossings with Niger and Chad, towards Europe. This, in turn, has also attracted criminal, militia, and militant networks wishing to capitalize upon the ungoverned territories of the Fezzan to further strengthen their operations, while local authorities were either absent or incapacitated to act upon these threats. For this reason, the LNA has dedicated extensive discursive and physical effort towards emphasizing its determination to mitigate threats emanating from the country’s border areas. Through this, Haftar is able to capitalize upon European interests related to counter-militancy and counter-immigration efforts to gain the aforementioned political support, primarily from France.

In addition, the Fezzan campaign has resulted in Haftar’s possession of the al-Feel and Sharara oil fields, which account for approximately a quarter of the country’s oil production potential. As was recorded after his takeover of the Oil Crescent, this development increased Haftar’s international standing as an arbiter in the competition between foreign companies over stakes in Libya’s oil industry. Such competition has reportedly taken place between major Italian and French companies seeking opportunities in the country’s oil market and wishing to see the stabilization of the region. Furthermore, Haftar’s control over the majority of Libya’s oil fields, with Libya potentially being one of the top world producers of oil, stations Haftar as a potential influencer in global oil prices. This, in turn, can make Haftar a lucrative partner for major international powers seeking to influence trends in global oil prices for their interests. In the case of the US, the stabilization of Libya’s oil industry in the hands of a potential ally could serve important American national security interests that are currently being pursued, such as stabilizing a low oil price amid the ongoing sanctions against Iran.

FORECAST: Given the aforementioned developments involving the US and France, it is likely that despite the overall condemnation of the LNA by major international institutions such as the UN, these countries will continue to extend their support to the LNA. Though such support is overall likely to remain symbolic, it may be interpreted by the actors more vigorously and physically supporting the LNA, such as the UAE and Egypt, as a “green light” to employ greater measures to facilitate the LNA’s takeover of the designated capital. Meanwhile, given the heightened tensions between the GNA and the French government, and given the increased anti-French sentiment expressed in Libya’s GNA-strongholds, such as Tripoli and Misrata, over the coming months French nationals and corporations will face a growing threat from local citizens and potentially armed militias which operate in western Libya and are opposing current French policies towards Libya.

Recommendations

It is advised to defer all travel to Tripoli and Benghazi at this time due to ongoing violence, threats against foreigners, and the risk of a broad deterioration of security conditions. We advise at this time that those remaining in Tripoli and Benghazi should initiate contingency and emergency evacuation plans due to deterioration in the security situation. Contact us at [email protected] or +44 20-3540-0434 for itinerary and contingency support plans.

Travel to Misrata and Tobruk should be for essential purposes only, while adhering to all security precautions regarding civil unrest and militancy. We advise against all travel to outlying areas of the country, due to the threat of militancy, kidnapping, and general lawlessness in such areas.

French nationals operating or residing in Libya are advised to keep a low profile and to overall refrain from externalizing their nationality in western Libya’s major GNA strongholds, such as Tripoli and Misrata, due to increased public expression of anti-French sentiment in these locales.

Turkish and Qatari nationals operating or residing in Libya are advised to keep a low profile and to overall refrain from externalizing their nationality in LNA-controlled territories. This is due to a growing risk of arbitrary measures and detentions by the LNA, following the aforementioned countries’ support for GNA-linked forces.

Avoid entering Libyan territorial waters in the area between Benghazi and al-Tamimi without prior authorization, as a no-sail zone is currently in effect in this area and several naval vessels had been intercepted or attacked due to not following proper procedures.

In addition, avoid entering Libyan territorial waters off the coast of Tripoli due to the heavy deployment of LNA naval vessels in the area. If travel is unavoidable, seek prior permission from the relevant authorities in order to mitigate the risk of interception on account of misidentification.

Those planning to conduct air travel to, from and inside Libya should avoid entering the area between Marsa al-Brega, Sirte and Sebha, as it was declared a no-fly zone by the Libyan National Army (LNA).

Those planning to conduct air travel to and from Tripoli’s Mitiga International Airport are advised to follow all relevant security protocols due to the increased threat to aviation in the capital as a result of the ongoing hostilities.

We further advise against all travel to Libya’s border areas at this time due to persistent violence and lawlessness in these regions.

For those operating in or conducting business with oil facilities, it is advised to consult with us for itinerary-based travel recommendations and ground support options.

47 killed, 181 wounded in hostilities in Tripoli on April 7-9; LNA advances likely to become protracted – Libya Situation Update

Executive Summary

The latest hostilities in Tripoli come within the context of the Libyan National Army’s (LNA) Operation “Flood of Dignity”, aimed at eliminating local militias operating within the capital, and the Government of National Accord’s (GNA) counter-offensive, Operation “Volcano of Wrath”, aimed at preventing the LNA from taking control of the city and its surrounding areas.

Although, the LNA managed to swiftly take control of several areas west and south of Tripoli within the first three days of the launch of Operation “Flood of Dignity”, the unification of militias within Tripoli under the umbrella of the Tripoli Protection Force (TPF) will present the LNA with challenges in making further territorial advances within the capital.

The April 8-9 Islamic State (IS)-perpetrated attack in al-Fuqaha bolsters our previous assessment regarding the potential increase in threat of militancy in the country over the coming weeks and months, as militant group’s attempt to take advantage of the LNA and GNA-linked forces’ preoccupation in hostilities in northwestern Libya to ramp up their operations within the country, without the threat of being detected by security forces.

Overall, the security situation in Libya is likely to significantly deteriorate over the coming weeks and months. As the LNA’s Operation “Flood of Dignity” becomes protracted, as a result of strong defensive measures adopted by GNA-linked forces, it will be compelled to divert further troops from other parts of Libya towards Tripoli. This will allow IS to regroup in eastern and southern parts of Libya and increase the frequency of its operations over the coming weeks.

Current Situation

Across the country, the following incidents have been reported:

 

Fezzan Region

Date District/City Brief Description
March 28 Ghadduwah Islamic State (IS) claims killing of two Libyan “agents” and kidnapping of others in an attack.
April 2 Sebha Reports indicate that “heavy machine gunfire” was heard in downtown Sebha.
April 8 Murzuq Government of National Accord (GNA)-linked forces reportedly seize control of the Murzuq checkpoint from Libyan National Army (LNA) forces.

 

Misrata Environs

Date District/City Brief Description
April 1 Bani Walid A GNA team representing Libya’s Airports Authority inspected the Bani Walid Airport to reportedly prepare it to receive civil flights.

 

Jufra District

Date District/City Brief Description
April 8-9 al-Fuqaha IS militants reportedly entered the town of al-Fuqaha during the overnight hours of April 8-9 in 13-15 vehicles and cut off all communications to it. The militants also executed the head of the local council and of the municipal guard as well as burned down houses.
April 9 Sukhna GNA aircraft from Misrata reportedly conduct airstrikes against LNA positions in Sukhna. The LNA accused the GNA aircraft of targeting a civilian farm.

 

Sirte Basin

Date District/City Brief Description
April 1 Sirte Reports indicate that Sirte’s Gaddhafi tribe is demanding the departure of the Sirte Protection Force  following the reported killing of a member of the tribe by the latter.
April 1 Gate 50, east of Sirte GNA-linked forces reportedly reached “Gate 50” from Sultan, establishing a checkpoint in the area.

 

Tobruk Environs

Date District/City Brief Description
April 8 Susah, Tobruk The LNA reportedly discovered and dismantled IEDs in a vehicle in Tobruk. In Susah’s Sunday market, LNA forces dismantled an adhesive bomb on a car.

 

Tripoli Environs

Map # Date District/City Brief Description
March 30 Western Region LNA Field Marshal Khalifa Hafar appoints Abdulsalam al-Hassi as commander of the LNA’s Western Region Operations Room.
March 31 Tripoli The LNA confirms its readiness to enter Tripoli to eliminate militias and other armed groups.
April 1 Tripoli The Tripoli Protection Force (TPF) issues a statement confirming its participation in a meeting regarding the unification of armed forces in the region.
April 3 Tripoli The UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) releases a communique denouncing the latest advancements by the LNA in areas south of Tripoli, stating that the government has ordered the general mobilization of all military, security, and police forces to prepare for a response to any attack on the capital.
1 April 4 Gharyan LNA Spokesperson Colonel Ahmed Mismari confirms the peaceful entrance of the LNA into Gharyan. LNA Commander of Western Region Operation Room, Abdulsalam al-Hassi announced that the LNA is in control of Gharyan.
April 4 Tripoli Secretary General of the UN, Antonio Guterres, denounced the current instability in a visit to Tripoli.
April 4 Tripoli Haftar announces the beginning of Operation “Flood of Dignity” to “liberate” Tripoli from the control of armed militias.
2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 April 4 Sabratha, Surman, al-Aziziya, As Sabiriya, Zawiya, al-Zahra area LNA captures the towns of Surman, al-Aziziya, As Sabria, Zawiya, and the al-Zahra area from GNA-linked militias.
8 April 4 Wadi al-Hira The LNA announces that its forces clashed with forces led by the GNA-appointed commander of the Western Military Region, Usama al-Juweili, in Wadi al-Hira.
9 April 4 Tripoli International Airport LNA declares control over non-operational Tripoli International Airport.
10 April 4 Janzour neighborhood, Tripoli LNA forces take control of western Tripoli’s Janzour neighborhood.
11 April 4-5 Sidi Bilal Naval Base The LNA landed several of its naval vessels at the Sidi Bilal Naval Base, located just west of Tripoli’s Janzour neighborhood, during the overnight hours of April 4-5.
April 4-5 Tripoli The Tripoli Protection Force (TPF) announces the launch of the second phase of Operation “Wadi al-Dom” against LNA forces during the overnight hours of April 4-5.
12 April 4-5 Gate 27, western entrance to Tripoli The TPF launched a counter-offensive against the LNA and was able to take back control of Gate 27, located at the western entrance to Tripoli. Gate 27 had been temporarily captured by LNA forces during the night hours of April 4.
13, 14, 15 April 5 Qasr Bin Ghashir, Wadi al-Rabee and Souq al-Khamis; Tripoli LNA seizes control of territory in Tripoli’s Qasr Bin Ghashir, Wadi al-Rabee, and Souq al-Khamis districts.
April 6 Western Libya Libyan Air Force (LAF) declares western Libya a “no–fly zone” and indicates that any military aircraft including those “conducting aerial photography” but “excluding commercial flights” identified in the area will be considered as a “hostile target”. The LNA added that the aircraft’s point of departure will also be deemed a legitimate target.
16, 17, 18 April 6 Sadiya, Ain Zara, Khallet al-Furjan; Tripoli LNA makes multiple territorial gains in Tripoli’s Sadiya, Ain Zara, and Khallet al-Furjan districts.
April 6 Wadi al-Rabee, Souq al-Khamis; Tripoli GNA conducts airstrikes against LNA positions in Tripoli’s Wadi al-Rabee and Souq al-Khamis districts.
April 6 al-Aziziyah, Gharyan GNA conducts airstrikes against LNA positions in al-Aziziyah and Gharyan.
April 7 Tripoli GNA announces launch of anti-LNA Operation “Volcano of Wrath”.  
April 7 Tripoli US Africa Command (AFRICOM) issues statement announcing the temporary relocation of a contingent of US troops supporting US AFRICOM due to the “security conditions on the ground”.
19 April 8 Mitiga International Airport LAF conducts airstrikes targeting the Mitiga International Airport.
April 8 Tripoli International Airport GNA-linked militias reportedly take back control of the Tripoli International Airport from the LNA.
20 April 8 Yarmouk Refugee Camp 29 LNA soldiers surrender to GNA-linked forces in the Yarmouk Refugee Camp.
April 8 Tripoli Italy begins to evacuate its troops from Tripoli.
April 8-9 Tripoli UN Special Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) evacuates its staff from Tripoli.
April 8 Tripoli GNA announces the closure of the air space over Tripoli. Misrata forces reportedly deploy air defense systems in the capital.
21 April 9 Salah al-Din District GNA-linked forces take control of several areas in Salah al-Din District after the withdrawal of LNA forces.
April 9 Warshefana District LAF conducts airstrikes against GNA positions.
April 9 Tripoli International Airport LAF conducts airstrikes against the GNA-held Tripoli International Airport.
April 9 Ash Shwayrif LAF conducts airstrikes against fuel trucks in Ash Shwayrif. The trucks were reportedly en route to the LNA-held Gharyan.

Political Developments

Date Brief Description
March 30 Libya held municipal elections in nine municipalities, which had a turnout of 40 percent of registered voters.
March 31 GNA Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj called on Arab countries to agree on Libyan crisis during 30th Arab summit in Tunis.
March 31 A bilateral cooperation agreement was signed between the Atomic Energy Cooperation and The Libyan Center for Remote Sensing and Space Sciences.
April 2 Reports indicated that trade between Libya and Algeria has faced hurdles over the past days in light of the continued closure of the border between the two countries.

Assessments & Forecast

The latest developments in Tripoli come within the context of the LNA’s Operation “Flood of Dignity”, which is aimed at eliminating local militias operating within the capital, and the GNA’s counter-offensive, named Operation “Volcano of Wrath”, which is aimed at preventing the LNA from taking control of the city and its surrounding areas. The fact that the LNA managed to swiftly take control of several areas located west and south of the capital within a short span of time can be attributed to two main factors. First, the LNA had the advantage of surprise during the initial days of Operation “Flood of Dignity”. This allowed LNA forces to advance swiftly and take control of areas, such as Gharyan, Aziziyah, Surman, and Zawiya, without much resistance. This is particularly as this lack of time prevented the local militias who were in control of these towns to form any significant alliances to present a unified defense. Second, the local militias that were in control of the aforementioned towns are largely self-trained and lack the necessary resources required to withstand an offensive by the relatively better equipped and trained LNA troops. The LNA’s recent territorial gains against local militias in southern Libya likely prompted militias in northwestern Libya to concede territory to advancing LNA forces, in an effort to preserve the lives of their fighters and their respective cities’ infrastructure.

FORECAST: That said, while the LNA managed to make significant territorial gains within the first three days of the launch of Operation “Flood of Dignity” is not indicative of a similar positive momentum for LNA forces in the future. Areas within Tripoli are controlled by militias, such as the al-Radaa Deterrence Forces, the Tripoli Revolutionaries’ Brigade, and the Abu Salim Unit, which are unified under the umbrella organization of the Tripoli Protection Force (TPF). This will allow the TPF to present a stronger defense to advancing LNA forces, as already underlined by the fact that GNA-linked forces managed to reverse almost all the gains made by the LNA in the Qasr Bin Ghashir, Ain Zara, Salah al-Din, and Wadi al-Rabee districts on April 8-9. Moreover, recent reinforcements diverted by Misrata forces from Misrata towards Tripoli will allow the GNA to bolster its defenses within downtown Tripoli, further slowing down the LNA’s advances into the capital. Although, the LNA is likely to employ the use of heavy weaponry, such as tanks, mortar shelling, and airstrikes as cover for its ground troops, its forces are likely to refrain from making indiscriminate use of such a strategy as it will inevitably result in civilian collateral damage. A high civilian casualty count has the potential to significantly diminish Haftar’s increased international and national legitimacy.

The IS-perpetrated attack in al-Fuqaha bolsters our previous assessment that Sunni jihadist militant groups operating in Libya will likely attempt to take advantage of the LNA and the GNA-linked forces’ preoccupation in fighting each other in northwestern Libya to conduct attacks and potentially attempt to take control of territory in other parts of the country. IS has conducted several attacks in the al-Fuqaha area in the past, with the most notable one occurring during the overnight hours of October 28-29, 2018. The Sunni jihadist militant group’s known operational presence in the areas surrounding al-Fuqaha likely allowed it to quickly mobilize its fighters in the aftermath of the outbreak of hostilities near Tripoli and launch the latest attack. This is supported by the relatively low-scale of the attack, which indicates that it was likely planned and executed within a short span of time. FORECAST: The LNA will likely divert at least some troops and resources towards al-Fuqaha over the coming days in order to secure the town. These troops will likely be diverted from fronts other than Tripoli, in an effort to prevent the down-scaling of Operation “Flood of Dignity”. However, such a scenario is liable to leave other parts of eastern and southern Libya vulnerable to IS operations. Overall, the Sunni jihadist militant group will attempt to increase the frequency, symbolism, and scale of its attacks in Libya over the coming days and weeks.

Recommendations

It is advised to defer all travel to Tripoli and Benghazi at this time due to a recent uptick in violence, threats against foreigners, and the risk of a broad deterioration of security conditions. We advise at this time that those remaining in Tripoli and Benghazi should initiate contingency and emergency evacuation plans due to deterioration in the security situation. Contact us at [email protected] or +44 20-3540-0434 for itinerary and contingency support plans.

For those remaining in Tripoli, we advise to avoid nonessential travel to the outskirts of the city, particularly the Janzour and Tajoura neighborhoods, as well as to the Mitiga and Tripoli International Airports, given that these are the focal points of ground clashes and airstrikes in the city.

Travel to Misrata and Tobruk should be for essential purposes only, while adhering to all security precautions regarding civil unrest and militancy. We advise against all travel to outlying areas of the country, due to the threat of militancy, kidnapping, and general lawlessness in such areas.

Avoid entering Libyan territorial waters in the area between Benghazi and al-Tamimi without prior authorization, as a “no-sail zone” is currently in effect in this area and several naval vessels had been intercepted or attacked due to not following proper procedures.

Those planning to conduct air travel to, from and inside Libya should avoid entering the area between Marsa al-Brega, Sirte and Sebha, as it was declared a no-fly zone by the Libyan National Army (LNA).

We further advise against all travel to Libya’s border areas at this time due to persistent violence and lawlessness in these regions.

IS attack against Tazirbu police station on November 23 indicative of increase in militant group’s ranks, capabilities in Libya – Libya Analysis

Executive Summary

The modus operandi of the November 23 attack against the Tazirbu police station is very similar to the October 28-29 Islamic State (IS)-claimed attack against a police station in al-Fuqaha, Jufra District. The scale of these attacks, combined with the short time span within which they occurred make them highly noteworthy.

This shift in IS strategy from localized small-scale attacks across Libyan territory towards more focused large-scale attacks against towns in southern Libya, which witness lower security presence, indicates that the militant group has to some degree managed to reinforce its ranks as well as rebuild its capabilities over the past year.

Similar to the al-Fuqaha attack, IS militants kidnapped ten people, including government officials and security personnel from Tazirbu. IS’ increased focus on kidnappings can be attributed to its interest in using the abductees as bargaining chips for ransom. This would allow the group to replenish its revenues, purchase supplies and weaponry, and ramp up its operations in Libya.

We advised against all travel to the southern outlying areas of Libya at this time due to the general lack of governance and security protocols in this region, which makes it conducive for militant activity and attractive targets for attacks.

Current Situation

According to reports, suspected IS militants aboard ten armed vehicles launched an attack targeting a police station in Tazirbu, located in the Kufra District, during the night hours of November 23.
At least nine civilians and policemen were killed, and 15 were wounded as a result of the attack.
Reports further indicate that the militants kidnapped at least ten people, including the Mayor of Tazirbu and a member of the municipal council, and fled the scene.
The Libyan National Army (LNA) has diverted forces from other parts of Kufra District towards the town of Tazirbu to secure it.

Assessments & Forecast

The modus operandi, target, and location of the attack suggest that it was carried out by IS militants. The Sunni jihadist militant group recently conducted a very similar attack against the al-Fuqaha police station, located in the Jufra District, during the overnight hours of October 28-29. The scale of these two attacks, along with the short time span within which they occured make them highly noteworthy. In the time period between IS’ complete loss of territories in Libya in December 2016 and October 2018, the majority of the militant group’s attacks had been relatively small-scale as well as spread out over a long period of time and territory. The majority of these attacks utilized suicide vehicle-borne IEDs (SVBIEDs) against security checkpoints or small-scale raids against police stations. For instance, the July 24 raid against the al-Uqaylah police station killed two LNA soldiers and wounded three others, while the June 2 raid against the al-Qunan police station killed one civilian and wounded five others.

Over the past year, IS was likely operating in groups of 10-12 fighters in the country. This allowed its militants to avoid attracting security forces’ attention and move relatively undetected across a larger swathe of territory. The lack of sufficient personnel and weaponry may have compelled IS to operate in this manner, which, in turn, had an impact upon their ability to launch larger-scale attacks. The recent attacks in al-Fuqaha and Tazirbu may indicate that IS has managed to bolster its ranks, partly through militants fleeing the group’s territorial losses in Syria and Iraq and partly through new recruits who now consider Libya as a more attractive arena. This has allowed IS to concentrate its forces towards launching larger-scale attacks against entire towns, rather than just security checkpoints or isolated government infrastructure, for example, in Tripoli in May and September as well as in Misrata in October 2017.

While, on the one hand, this indicates that IS has managed to rebuild its capabilities in Libya to some degree since its loss of territories to Misrata forces in December 2016, the location of the recent attacks suggest that these capabilities are still limited. Although al-Fuqaha and Tazirbu are both located within LNA-held territories, the towns witness relatively lower security presence as compared to areas located further north in the Sirte Basin and the Oil Crescent. The security forces of southern towns are largely comprised of local militias, who maintain small armed fighting units that are neither well-equipped nor well-trained. Therefore, it is possible that IS decided to focus its efforts in southern Libya, as this would increase the militant group’s chances of success.

As witnessed in the attack on the al-Fuqaha police station, the focus on conducting kidnapping of government officials and security forces stands out in the recent incident. Unconfirmed reports from November 10 indicated that IS is seeking to negotiate the release of four out of the ten hostages abducted in the attack on al-Fuqaha. If confirmed, this would suggest that through such kidnappings-for-ransom, the Sunni jihadist militant group is aiming to replenish its revenues, which, in turn, would allow it to purchase supplies and weaponry to ramp up its operations in Libya. This would also explain the recent kidnapping of the Mayor of Tazirbu, who by the prerogative of his position within society would demand a higher ransom. Aside from the ransom, such an abduction allows IS to project the Libyan authorities as incapable of securing its own civilians, thereby allowing the group to showcase its relatively higher capabilities.
FORECAST: IS will claim responsibility for the attack over the coming hours, as its scale will allow the militant group to significantly raise its profile in Libya. Meanwhile, the LNA will divert forces towards Tazirbu in order to secure the town over the coming hours and days. It will increase security protocols in Kufra District, which may include increased security checkpoints along main roads. The LNA may also tighten security along Libya’s southern borders with Sudan and Chad, as the porosity of these borders allows militant organizations to engage in the cross-border movement of fighters, supplies, and weaponry. While this may facilitate LNA forces in gathering vital intelligence and intercepting IS convoys, it will also provide the militant group with additional targets for attacks. On a more strategic level, the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) may utilize this attack to highlight the LNA’s inability to secure its held territories and attempt to leverage this in its political negotiations with the latter.

Recommendations

It is advised to defer all travel to Tripoli and Benghazi at this time due to ongoing violence, threats against foreigners, and the risk of a broad deterioration of security conditions. We advise at this time that those remaining in Tripoli and Benghazi should initiate contingency and emergency evacuation plans due to deterioration in the security situation. Contact us at [email protected] or +44 20-3540-0434 for itinerary and contingency support plans.

For those remaining in Tripoli, we advise to avoid nonessential travel to the outskirts of the city, particularly the Janzour and Tajoura neighborhoods, as well as to the Mitiga and Tripoli International Airports, given that these are focal points of ground clashes in the city.

Avoid the immediate vicinity of government buildings, police stations, media outlet offices, and political party and militia headquarters, given that these locales have been targeted by militia groups in the past and recently by militants, and thus remain at increased risk for violence and unrest.

We advised against all travel to the southern outlying areas of Libya at this time due to the general lack of governance and security protocols in this region, which makes it conducive for militant activity and attractive targets for attacks.

Westerners, particularly US citizens, operating in Libya are advised to maintain a low profile and exercise heightened vigilance in light of prevailing anti-Western sentiment and increasing attacks against foreigners.

Nationwide, take precautions to mitigate the risk of being targeted for kidnapping. Refrain from traveling in luxury vehicles and maintain a generally low profile. Routinely alter travel routes and refrain from divulging sensitive itinerary information to strangers.

AQIM-OIB claims attack against National Guard patrol in Jendouba Governorate’s Ghardimaou on July 8 – Tunisia Alert

Please be advised

According to the Ministry of Interior (MoI), a group of militants killed six National Guardsmen in an ambush targeting two vehicles patrolling the Tunisian-Algerian border near Ain Soltane village, located in Jendouba Governorate’s Ghardimaou District, during the morning hours of July 8.

The militants reportedly detonated an IED against the patrol, which was then followed by gunfire against the National Guardsmen. The assailants reportedly fled the scene following the attack and are still at large.
The attack was later claimed by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)-affiliated Okba Ibn Nafaa Brigade (OIB). According to their statement, nine National Guardsmen, including an officer, were killed in the attack. The militants seized eight rifles, a handgun, and a machine gun before fleeing the scene of the attack.

According to reports, a man was arrested in Kairouan Governorate for expressing support for the AQIM-OIB claimed attack on July 9.

In addition, members of the security services of Beja staged a protest in front of the National Guard’s headquarters demanding that the Minister of Interior (MoI) support new legislation meant to protect servicemen on July 9.

Tunisia Alert (UPDATE): AQIM-OIB claims attack against National Guard patrol in Jendouba Governorate’s Ghardimaou on July 8; avoid all travel to area | MAX Security

Assessments & Forecast

The attack is highly notable since it is the largest militant attack on Tunisian soil since March 2016, when Islamic State (IS) militants infiltrated Medenine Governorate’s Ben Guerdane from Libya. This incident highlights the increased risk of militancy near Tunisia’s western borders with Algeria, with the latest attack in the area recorded on May 31, when security forces foiled an AQIM-OIB attack in Kasserine Governorate. Although, AQIM-OIB is known to maintain an operational base along the Tunisian-Algerian border, the majority of its attacks over the past year have been mainly focused in the southwest, namely Kasserine Governorate, rather than in Jendouba, which is located in the northwestern part of the country.

Furthermore, all of these attacks have been of a lower sophistication, mainly involving the use of landmines or shootings. However, the latest attack utilized a relatively more sophisticated modus operandi. The multi-pronged nature of attack highlights the militant group’s resilience to security forces’ ongoing operations in western Tunisia, as well as their fighters’ abilities to regroup in the aftermath of such operations. It is also indicative of their ability to plan and execute coordinated attacks in order to achieve maximum casualties.

The timing of the attack is further significant. It was likely conducted in response to several developments that undermine the group’s interests in the area. These developments include the recent heightened security protocols put in place by Tunisian security forces along the border area in coordination with their Algerian counterparts.

This has led to a decline in the militant group’s abilities to operate along the border area, as witnessed in February, when Tunisian security forces neutralized a leader of AQIM-OIB in Kasserine Governorate based on intelligence from the Algerian intelligence apparatus. The militant had reportedly been sent from Algeria to reorganize the Tunisian affiliate.

Security protocols along the western border have also hindered smuggling operations, which provide militant groups with supplies and revenue, and cement their codependence with local smugglers, as the latter also depends on these operations as a source of income. Mitigating these operations not only damages the militant group’s supply lines, but also erodes their influence over the local population, as its members inevitably seek other sources of income.

Therefore, the attack likely seeks to compel security forces to divert resources away from Kasserine Governorate, which is AQIM-OIB’s primary area of operations in the country, towards Jendouba Governorate. This will overstretch the resources at the disposal of the Tunisian security apparatus, thus allowing militants to operate more freely in the area.

The latest attack follows the June 3 IS-claimed attack against a gas pipeline near Kasserine Governorate’s Sbeitla. In light of the ongoing competition between IS and AQIM over weapons, supplies, and personnel in western Tunisia, it is highly likely that the latest attack was meant to be symbolic in nature. This would project AQIM-OIB as the more prominent Sunni jihadist group in the country, allowing it to attract supporters and recruits at the expense of IS.

FORECAST: In response, the Tunisian Armed Forces (TAF) will launch intensified counter-militancy operations in western Tunisia, including in Jendouba, Kef, and Kasserine governorates. These will likely include increased security patrols as well as artillery shelling against potential militant hideouts in the mountainous regions. Security protocols will also be elevated along the Algerian border in order to prevent militants from crossing into Algeria and evading arrests.

However, this increase in security presence may provide militants with additional targets, leading to further clashes between security personnel and militants. Moreover, the increase in AQIM-OIB activity may prompt IS to heighten operations in the country in the near term. Overall, given the continued entrenchment of militants in western Tunisia’s mountainous areas due to their demonstrated ability to adapt and evolve, further similar sporadic attacks are likely to take place in the coming weeks and months.

Recommendations

Travel to Tunis may continue while adhering to all security precautions regarding militancy and civil unrest. Those operating or residing in Tunisia are advised that we maintain operational capabilities in the country.

Contact us at [email protected] or +44 20-3540-0434 for itinerary and contingency support options.

Those operating or residing in Jendouba District on July 8 should avoid all travel to the Ghardimaou District in light of the anticipated counter-militancy operations following the attack, as well as the likelihood for further clashes in the area over the coming days.

Avoid all travel to the Kasserine, Kef, and Jendouba Governorates, in addition to all border areas, due to jihadist activity and military closures. Furthermore, avoid all travel to within 50 km from the border with Libya, due to the increased threat of attacks originating from Libya targeting Tunisian interests.

 

Resurgence of Saraya Defend Benghazi (SDB) likely linked to Libyan National Army’s (LNA) recent preoccupation in Derna – Libya Analysis

Executive Summary

The June 14 attack against the Oil Crescent is highly notable as the Libyan National Army’s (LNA) control over this area has remained largely unchallenged since March 2017.

The LNA’s preoccupation in hostilities in other parts of the country over the past year, combined with widespread cross-border smuggling of weapons and fighters across Libya’s southern borders likely allowed SDB fighters to regroup in southern Libya.

The timing of the latest attack is significant as it attempted to capitalize upon the LNA’s preoccupation in ongoing operations in Derna, aimed at dislodging the al-Qaeda-linked Derna Protection Force (DPF) from the city.

Ibrahim al-Jathran’s mentioning of the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) as the country’s only “legitimate” government in his statement is likely deliberate and part of an effort by al-Jathran to gain legitimacy for the attack.

Although the LNA was able to successfully repel the attack, it will likely divert further troops to the area over the coming hours and days to fortify all the installations in the Oil Crescent.

Those conducting business at the Ras Lanuf and Sidra oil terminals are advised to compensate for anticipated delays in operations on June 15 and over the coming days due to the closure of the facilities.

Resurgence of Saraya Defend Benghazi (SDB) likely linked to Libyan National Army’s (LNA) recent preoccupation in Derna - Libya Analysis | MAX SecurityMAX Security

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Current Situation

During the morning hours of June 14, an armed group led by Ibrahim al-Jathran, a former commander of the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA)-linked Petroleum Facilities Guard (PFG), attacked the Sidra and Ras Lanuf oil fields in the Oil Crescent.

According to a video released by al-Jathran, the attack was supported by the Magharba tribe and the Tebu militia. According to the Libyan National Army (LNA), the al-Qaeda-linked Saraya Defend Benghazi (SDB) was behind the attack. The LNA confirmed that the group of SDB fighters were led by al-Jathran. Further unconfirmed reports also indicate the involvement of armed groups from Chad.

Al-Jathran claimed that the attack was aimed at freeing the region from the ‘‘terrorist and extremist’’ LNA forces in an effort to end the ‘‘injustice’’ in the oil crescent. He further stated that the GNA has sole legitimacy in the country.

The GNA released a statement saying that it had not authorized any military action in the OIl Crescent and condemned the attack as a “terrorist operation”.

The LNA has diverted troops and aircraft to the area to repel the attack. Furthermore, the Libyan Air Force (LAF) has launched multiple airstrikes against the armed group over the past 24 hours. The LNA claims that the oil ports are under the control of its forces and that the attack was successfully repelled. At least four LNA soldiers have been killed as a result of the clashes.

However, unconfirmed reports indicate that the clashes are still ongoing and that the armed group has taken control of the Ras Lanuf and Sidra oil terminals.

The National Oil Corporation (NOC) has declared “force majeure” at both oil fields and evacuated all workers out of the area.

Assessments & Forecast

This development is highly notable as the LNA’s control over the Oil Crescent has remained largely unchallenged since March 2017, when LNA forces launched a counter-offensive against the SDB and the PFG, who had temporarily taken control of the Ras Lanuf and Sidra oil terminals. The LNA initially took control of the Oil Crescent from the PFG in an attack against the group in December 2016, after the SDB officially handed over control of the oil terminals to the GNA-linked forces. Meanwhile, although the SDB indicated its willingness to disband in June 2017 after its substantial losses against the LNA in the Jufra District, the large-scale nature of this attack indicates that the militant group has successfully managed to regroup and regain at least part of its capabilities over the past year.

This bolsters our previous assessment that SDB fighters will likely disperse to more remote areas in the latter half of 2017 to regroup. Several factors likely facilitated the resurgence of the SDB at this time. Firstly, the LNA’s preoccupation in hostilities in other parts of the country, such as in the Warshefana District, Benghazi, Sebha, Derna, and the Sirte Basin, over the past year likely allowed SDB fighters to regroup in southern Libya, which remains largely controlled by tribal militias and is out of the jurisdiction of both the LNA and the GNA, without being detected by security forces. Secondly, widespread cross-border smuggling of weapons and fighters across LIbya’s southern borders with Sudan and Chad, likely allowed the militant group to reinforce its offensive capabilities. Thirdly, reports regarding LNA Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s ill health in April may have bolstered the morale of SDB fighters, enabling the group to further ramp up its operations. All of these factors combined allowed the militant group to launch its first attack in over a year on May 31 against the LAF-controlled Tamanhint Airbase, and temporarily take control of the facility.

The timing of the latest attack is significant as it comes amid the LNA’s ongoing operations in Derna, aimed at dislodging the al-Qaeda-linked Derna Protection Force (DPF) from the city. Therefore, the armed group was likely attempting to capitalize upon the fact that LNA forces currently remain overstretched across eastern Libya, which increases the possibility of success of an attack against the Oil Crescent at this time. This attack serves the aims of both former PFG members as well as the SDB. If successful, the attack would provide both groups with vast resources. They would be able to sell the oil from the production facilities on the black market and fund their operations in Libya. That said, even if the attack was not successful, it would elevate al-Jathran’s status in the country and bring the commander back to light after a two year hiatus. With regards to the SDB, such an attack would deprive the LNA of vital revenue from oil exports. It would also compel the LNA to divert troops and resources away from their ongoing operations in Derna, thus, providing at least partial relief to the al-Qaeda-linked DPF in the city.

Furthermore, al-Jathran’s statement is notable as it specifically mentions the UN-backed GNA, calling it the country’s “legitimate” government. This was likely deliberate and part of an effort by al-Jathran to gain legitimacy for the attack. This underscores a larger trend in Libya, wherein various armed actors in the country utilize the lack of a sovereign political authority for their own gains. This lack of a unified government has created ambiguity in territorial jurisdiction, allowing various armed groups to proliferate and operate along the fringes. This not only highlights Libya’s volatile political environment but also the threat posed by it to vital infrastructure located in the country.

However, the fact that the LNA was able to recapture the oil terminals within the span of a day highlights its relative capabilities to defend the oil infrastructure from such armed assaults. FORECAST: Although the LNA was able to successfully repel the attack, it will likely divert further troops to the area over the coming hours and days to fortify all the installations in the Oil Crescent. Furthermore, LNA forces will launch security raids in areas surrounding the Ras Lanuf and Sidra oil terminals to hinder the ability of SDB fighters to receive reinforcements from other parts of Libya and mount another similar attack. The LAF will also increase aerial reconnaissance over the Sirte Basin and launch airstrikes against suspected armed convoys belonging to militant groups. It is also possible that foreign aircraft, such as those of the US, will launch airstrikes against militants in the Sirte Basin over the coming days in an effort to secure their interests in the country. This is light of the fact that the UN-backed GNA has denounced the latest attack as a militant operation and this will increase the US’s concerns regarding the growing threat of militancy in Libya. Aerial operations by LNA-allies, such as UAE and Egypt, may also be witnessed over eastern Libya over the coming days. That said, the LNA’s increased preoccupation in the Oil Crescent may slow down its ground offensive against the DPF in Derna in the short-term.

Recommendations

It is advised to defer all travel to Tripoli and Benghazi at this time due to ongoing violence, threats against foreigners, and the risk of a broad deterioration of security conditions. We advise at this time that those remaining in Tripoli and Benghazi should initiate contingency and emergency evacuation plans due to deterioration in the security situation. Contact us at [email protected] or +44 20-3540-0434 for itinerary and contingency support plans.

Those planning to conduct air travel to, from and inside Libya should avoid entering the area between Marsa al-Brega, Sirte and Sebha, as it was declared a no-fly zone by the Libyan National Army (LNA).

For those operating in or conducting business with oil facilities, it is advised to consult with us for itinerary-based travel recommendations and ground support options.

Those conducting business at the Ras Lanuf and Sidra oil terminals are advised to compensate for anticipated delays in operations on June 15 and over the coming days due to the closure of the facilities.

AQIM publishes statement late night on May 8 threatening ‘French, Western companies in area from Libya to Mauritania’ – Africa & MENA Alert

Executive Summary

During the overnight hours of May 8-9, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) issued a threat against Western, and particularly French, companies that operate in the area “from Libya to Mauritania”.

While the threat is not new but rather a reiteration of an existing and proven one, its release in the lead-up to the holy month of Ramadan is indication of a heightened risk of al-Qaeda attacks against Western companies and interests in North Africa and the Sahel region over the coming weeks.

Please be advised

During the overnight hours of May 8-9, the al-Andalus Foundation, the media wing of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), published a “Statement for French and Western Companies”.

In the statement, AQIM threatens to attack Western, and particularly French, companies that operate in the area “from Libya to Mauritania”.

The publication further states that “85 percent of the wealth in this region is controlled by the French, while the rest is in the hands of traitors” and that the “French occupation prevents the prosperity of the region and has corrupted society”.

The statement concluded by warning Muslims to stay away from Western companies’ sites for fear of being hurt by collateral damage in an attack.

AQIM publishes statement late night on May 8 threatening ‘French, Western companies in area from Libya to Mauritania’ - Africa & MENA Alert | MAX SecurityAQIM publishes statement late night on May 8 threatening ‘French, Western companies in area from Libya to Mauritania’ - Africa & MENA Alert | MAX Security

Assessments & Forecast

AQIM’s statement does not denote a new threat to Western operations and presence in Africa, but is rather a reiteration of its main strategy: driving Western influence away from what AQIM perceive as their areas of influence, with the intention of consolidating its control and later expanding it while facing diminished resistance. AQIM and organizations that are directly affiliated with it, such as Jamaat Nusratal-Islam Wal Muslimeen (JNIM), have conducted several high profile attacks as part of this strategy. These most notably include the March 2 attack against the French Embassy in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso; the October 25, 2017 attack against a French firm in Soumpi, Mali; and the March 18, 2016 attack against the Krechba gas facility in Algeria that was jointly operated by an Algerian government-owned company, and Norwegian- and British-based companies.

This strategy is also the main reason for AQIM’s threat particularly addressing French companies, as the French-led “Operation Barkhane” in the Sahel in support of the G5 countries (Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger) is currently the main threat to AQIM and its direct affiliates’ operations. This threat was recently exemplified by French operations on February 14 in Mali that resulted in the deaths of six JNIM leaders, including that of Hasan al-Ansari, co-founder of JNIM, later confirmed by the group itself. However, as noted in AQIM’s latest statement, the threat extends to all Western companies, all perceived as “crusaders” in AQIM’s narrative, which it would attack given the opportunity, as underscored by the March 2016 Krechba attack that targeted Algerian, Norwegian, and British firms. That most of the attacks thus far have been directed against French interests is largely due to the outsized French presence among potential targets in the region and France’s lead role in regional counter-militancy operations.

The references made to the negative impact of the French presence on the region’s economy and society underscores an inherent part of al-Qaeda’s strategy as a whole, and that of AQIM in particular. AQIM, unlike certain other jihadist groups such as the Islamic State (IS), is willing to be more flexible in the implementation of its religious ideology in order to not only gain the support of, but also embed themselves in the local population. Thus, by appealing to material interests such as the state of the economy and society, AQIM is seeking to create an image of “us against them”, rallying as much of the local population as possible in opposition to foreign influence. While this may boost recruitment for the group, this is not the main goal in this case, as al-Qaeda favors quality over quantity with its fighters. The goal is rather to enhance the group’s freedom of operation within the population, which it will utilize to launch attacks and, later, to go into hiding as well as to facilitate logistical support.

FORECAST: Currently, AQIM and its direct affiliates maintain a presence, either of offensive operations or for logistical support, in parts of Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger, putting these countries at a high risk, which also corresponds with the message threatening Western companies “from Libya to Mauritania”. Given the current strategy and deployment of the group, as well as precedent, we assess that of these countries Algeria, Mali, and Burkina Faso are at the highest risk. Nonetheless, this foothold could, depending on developments and the dynamics of the situation in the region, be exploited to launch attacks into neighboring countries if needed.

FORECAST: It is important to note that while AQIM’s threat is not new, but rather a reiteration of an existing and proven threat, it does come ahead of the holy month of Ramadan, currently slated to start on May 15. This period of the year historically is when jihadist groups attempt to increase their rate of operations and conduct more high profile and notable attacks, so as to capitalize on the symbolism of the holiday. Accordingly, it is possible that the timing of AQIM’s latest message was similarly motivated, thus highlighting the elevated potential for al-Qaeda attacks against Western interests in North Africa and the Sahel region over the coming weeks.

Recommendations

Western companies operating in the North Africa and Sahel regions are advised to evaluate security procedures pertaining to attacks against installations, and emphasize guideline to their staff.

Examine behavioral patterns of local employees on site to mitigate potential risks arising from influence by Jihadist propaganda.

Monitor MAX Intelligence’s reports, as well as local publications to remain abreast of the dynamics of the threat posed by Jihadist groups in your areas of operations. Potential indications of a change in the level of threat include the rate, scope and rhetoric of Jihadist publications and their attacks, changes in modus operandi, scale and sophistication of attacks, and changes to areas of operations and influence of different groups.

Threat to aviation by anti-tank guided missiles highlighted by al-Arish Airport attack case study – Special Analysis Report

Case study: December 20 attack on al-Arish Airport

On December 20, an anti-tank guided missile (ATGM)  targeted a helicopter on the ramp of al-Arish Airport, located in Egypt’s North Sinai Governorate. The helicopter carried, among others, the Egyptian interior and defense ministers who disembarked from the aircraft shortly before the attack.

On December 21, the Islamic State (IS)-linked news agency released a report on the attack, alongside a claim of responsibility by the local IS affiliate Wilayat Sinai, stating that the group had prior knowledge of the arrival of the ministers and dispatched a team of militants to ambush the entourage. It further stated that the attack was conducted with the use of a 9M133 “Kornet” ATGM that targeted an AH-64 Apache attack helicopter that was escorting the VIPs.

Initial IS-linked report detailing the al-Arish attack
Initial IS-linked report detailing the al-Arish attack

Later that day, the IS-linked news agency released a video showing the attack itself, in which the ministers and their entourage can be seen next to the helicopter with its navigation lights still on, which contrary to initial publications was a UH-60 “Blackhawk”, as it was hit by an ATGM.

Edition number 111 of IS’s weekly al-Naba newsletter published on December 22 included a more detailed and contradictory account of the attack, stating that militants spotted a helicopter with a “unique shape” and concluded that this would be a high value target.

This prompted militants to dispatch an ATGM team to a position overlooking the airport with the objective of destroying the “unique aircraft”.

It is important to mention that the Egyptian Air Force (EAAF) reportedly operated two Blackhawk helicopters prior to the attack, mainly in the role of VIP transport. These aircraft are much more distinct than others that would commonly be seen in Sinai’s airspace, such as Apaches or Mi-17s.

Report of the al-Arish attack released in IS's weekly newsletter with details contradicting initial reports
Report of the al-Arish attack released in IS’s weekly newsletter with details contradicting initial reports

Analysis of the missile launch:

While there has been no corroboration as to the type of missile used by IS in the attack at the time of writing, Wilayat Sinai have employed Kornets several times in the past, most notably in July 2015 when the group used the missile to attack an Egyptian naval vessel off the coast of North Sinai’s Rafah.

If the missile used was in fact a Kornet as IS claims, given that the missile was in flight for 14 seconds from launch until it hit its target and given that the speed of a standard Kornet missile is between 250 and 300 meters a second, it would place the launcher between 3.5 and 4.2 km from the target, well within the Kornet’s effective daytime range.

By comparing the video and imagery analysis of Al-Arish Airport, we concluded that the missile was launched from an elevated structure or a dirt berm southwest of the helicopter’s position, as can be see in the following map:

Analysis of the Missile against Helicopter in Al-Arish-Airport

Threat posed to aviation from proliferation of ATGMs

The attack does not represent a precedent, but rather serves as an opportunity to highlight the threat posed to aviation from the proliferation of ATGMs in the hands of numerous militant groups in multiple countries. Several accounts of ATGMs being fired against aircraft were recorded in recent years, including successfully targeting aircraft in flight, with the most prominent example being the downing of an Israeli Air Force (IAF) helicopter by Hezbollah in Lebanon on August 12, 2006. This is especially important as this threat is often overlooked in comparison to the more well known threat posed by man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS).

While MANPADS pose a more prominent threat to aircraft, as they were designed with the specific goal of targeting aircraft, they have several shortcomings compared to ATGMs. These mainly include being more delicate, having parts with short shelf lives, requiring greater expertise and training to successfully operate, and being more rare. ATGMs still require expertise and training, although less than MANPADS, and are generally more durable and can be sustained for operations over longer time and in harsher conditions. Most importantly however, ATGMs are significantly more common than MANPADS, and with the destabilization of countries such as Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, thousands of these systems, of different generations and capabilities, were taken away from military storage and ended in the hands of militant groups across the world. This is in addition to illegal purchases through stable countries that do not adhere to international norms, such as Belarus and North Korea.

As noted, ATGMs were not designed primarily to hit aircraft and therefore do not excel in it, however, the features for which they were designed, namely attacking a comparatively slow moving target, still make them effective weapons against aircraft. This is mostly relevant during the takeoff and landing stages of both rotary and fixed-wing aircraft, when these are most vulnerable due to their low speed and altitude. In addition, while there are several options of countermeasures against MANPADS that can be used by civil aircraft, countermeasures against ATGMs are fewer, and often involve explosives, making them currently non-optional for civil aircraft.

An additional weakness exposed in the recent attack is the dependency on local security forces and their protocols, which can often be low in standard. The attack occurred in a region currently undergoing prolonged and high intensity militant activity, in a city that was hit by the most attacks in the region in recent months. Despite this fact, the VIPs were flown in a distinct helicopter that draws attention, the airport lacks even basic and cheap means in place that may disrupt or prevent a missile attack, such as walls that would block line of sight into the airport, or metal nets that would negate the missile’s shaped charge mechanism. All of these expose the weaknesses of local security protocols, which were a direct factor in the attack.

Recommendations

The threat of ATGMs should be considered as a potential factor while conducting risk and vulnerability surveys, particularly in unstable regions.

Prior to conducting aerial activity in countries with known militant activity, contact us at [email protected] to consult on the possible threat posed by relevant militant groups’ weapons and capabilities and ways to mitigate these.

Contact us at [email protected] or +44 20-3540-0434 for security surveys of airports.

How countries such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, UAE, Egypt cutting ties with Qatar is likely to influence the region – Middle East & N. Africa Analysis

Current Situation

During the morning hours of June 5, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, and the UAE announced the cutting of all diplomatic ties with Qatar.  The Hadi-led government in Yemen, as well as Libya’s anti-Islamist House of Representatives (HoR) similarly announced the severing of diplomatic ties with Qatar on the same day. The first four countries issued a 48-hour ultimatum to Qatari diplomats to evacuate their respective nations, while similarly issuing an ultimatum to all other Qatari citizens to leave within two weeks. Additionally, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, and the UAE announced that they had closed their airspace for Qatari aircrafts, and that all flights by airliners from these countries to Qatar were suspended. Qatari naval vessels will also not be allowed to use the countries’ seaports to anchor, while land travel between Qatar and Saudi Arabia will be limited to non-Qatari nationals only.

Additional measures implemented against Qatar include the expelling of the country from the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen and its anti-Islamic State (IS) coalition in Syria. These measures were implemented based on accusations that Qatar is “supporting and financing extremist groups” across the region, as well as encouraging sectarianism and subversive elements operating in the abovementioned countries. Meanwhile, Qatar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement that the accusations are “absolute fabrications” and “proves that there are premeditated intentions to cause damage to Qatar”.

How countries such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, UAE, Egypt cutting ties with Qatar is likely to influence the region - Middle East & N. Africa Analysis | MAX Security
Map of countries affected by travel restrictions on Qataris

Assessments & Forecast

Severing ties may hurt Qatar economically, push its policy towards more pro-Iranian approach; limited impact on regional conflicts

While the new development is unlikely to have any effect on Qatar’s and any of the other impacted countries’ security conditions in the short term, we assess that this measure may lead to multiple local and regional ramifications over the coming months. For instance, approximately 90 percent of Qatar’s imports of food products are transferred through land from Saudi Arabia. Thus, in light of the border closure between the two countries, Doha will likely be forced to divert a large amount of resources in developing its maritime trade, including in the form of improving its seaport infrastructure, as now its imports via sea are liable to be enhanced significantly. Moreover, given the high-profile nature of the event, there remains a possibility that the turn of events will impact global markets, and particularly the oil sector, as it may be perceived as a source of instability across this oil-rich region.

These new developments may also impact expatriates, including Westerners operating in Qatar and the GCC, particularly given the suspension of flights between the GCC countries and Qatar and the closure of the land border with Saudi Arabia. In light of the likely increase in logistical difficulties in traveling between Qatar and the above-mentioned countries, exacted upon expatriates by the measures, it is likely to damage Qatar’s national economy. Though the impact on GCC residents seeking to enter Qatar is yet to be determined, it cannot be ruled out that Qatar will implement punitive measures and ban GCC citizens and residents from entering the country.

The partial isolation of Qatar may affect several conflicts and political rivalries across the region. With regards to Iran, Doha is liable to improve its bilateral relations and economic ties with Tehran, as now Qatar would be compelled to compensate for its political and economic setback. Moreover, in Yemen, in the short-term, Qatar’s absence from the Saudi-led coalition may slightly reduce the latter’s on-the-ground capabilities in fighting against the Iranian-backed Shiite Houthis. However, given Qatar’s already limited role in the coalition, as well as the aforementioned arms deal with the US, in the medium to long-term the Saudi-led coalitions is unlikely to be significantly impacted by Qatar’s absence from the coalition.

In Syria, in light of the already heightened internal divisions between rebel factions, it remains possible that this new development will further exacerbate tensions between rebel groups supported by Qatar on one side, and factions backed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE on the other. Should the event indeed lead to an economic recession in Qatar, their supported factions on-the ground would suffer from a shortage of resources, thus forcing them to disband or merge into other factions. With this in mind, should scenarios eventually materialize, it would potentially tip the scale towards the pro-government forces in the Syrian conflict.

In Libya, the development may constitute a boost to the HoR and its allied Libyan National Army (LNA), given their conflict with the pro-Islamist General National Congress (GNC) and its affiliated militias, which are partially supported by Qatar. That said, Qatar’s direct involvement in this conflict has significantly waned in recent years, particularly since the March 2016 arrival of the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) to the designated capital of Tripoli, and therefore any implications on the conflict will remain limited.

Cutting ties with Qatar likely linked to global, regional developments involving Iran, new US administration

Today’s development comes amidst years of tensions between Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, UAE, and Egypt on one side, and Qatar on the other, surrounding multiple issues, chiefly the latter’s alleged direct involvement in the internal affairs of countries throughout the region. This is particularly relevant to Qatar’s long-standing support for Muslim Brotherhood-linked political elements across the Middle East and North Africa, as the countries in this Saudi-led alliance view the Islamist organization is a subversive element and a threat to their respective governments. Additional contentious issue include Qatar’s overall positive relations with Iran, as opposed to that of the other Gulf Cooperation Countries (GCC), with the exception of Oman, which remain strong adversaries of Tehran. This is highlighted by numerous past economic agreements between Tehran and Doha in recent years, such as the agreement from February 2014 to create a joint free trade and economic zones between the two countries. A further issue that contributed to the strained relations with Qatar throughout the years is the cooperation of the Qatari-based news outlet al-Jazeera, which had been accused by the aforementioned countries of attempting to undermine their, as well as their regional allies’, governments.

That said, despite these strained relations, Qatar and the other GCC countries’ relations can be characterized over the past several years by intermittent escalation and rapprochement between the sides. For instance, on December 9, 2014, Qatar agreed as part of a GCC summit, to establish a regional police force in order to improve coordination regarding drug trafficking, money laundering, and cybercrime, as well as announced its “full support to al-Sisi-led government in Egypt”. This followed Saudi officials’ March 9, 2014 threats to impose sanctions against Qatar, including in the form of sea blockade, in light of Doha’s persistent support for Muslim Brotherhood-linked elements across the region. However, the complete cutting of diplomatic relations between the aforementioned Saudi-aligned countries is highly notable given its wide scale and scope, as it includes significant restrictions on Qatar and its citizens.

We assess that this escalation is linked to global and regional geo-political developments, largely with regards to Iran and the new Donald Trump administration in the US. With this in mind, in recent years, under the Obama administration, relations between Saudi Arabia and its allies on one side, and Washington on the other, were oftentimes strained due to the US’ perceived efforts to approach Tehran, which was likely viewed by Riyadh as coming at its expense. In light of the aforementioned normal relations between Qatar and Iran, Saudi Arabia and the other GCC countries were likely felt compelled to prevent Qatar from approaching the Islamic Republic too much, as this would have significantly undermined their sense of security and regional interest.

Since President Trump’s inauguration, Washington increased its anti-Iranian rhetoric, while at the same time strengthened its ties with Saudi Arabia. This is highlighted by the May 15 UAE-US defense agreement, as well as the 350 Billion USD agreement between Riyadh and Washington involving an arms deal, and Saudi investments in the US. Thus, there remains a potential that the recent visit of President Trump to Saudi Arabia in late May, as well as the US’ growing support for Saudi Arabia and its allies, motivated the Kingdom to implement these measures, as part of the shared interest with the US in tackling Iran and its allies’ influence throughout the region. With this in mind, given Saudi Arabia’s decreasing need for Qatar’s cooperation on security and political support amidst the ongoing rivalry with Shiite Iran, it is likely that Saudi Arabia assessed that it is no longer obligated to maintain positive bilateral relations with Qatar, prompting this development.

The development comes amidst a diminishing political influence of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood organization across the Middle East and North Africa over the past two years. In this context, it remains possible that Saudi Arabia no longer felt compelled to maintain good relations with Qatar, following the reduction of the threat stemming from the Muslim Brotherhood, as opposed to previous Saudi attempts to pressure Qatar to abandon their support for the Islamist organization in return for the improvement of relations with the other GCC countries.

Recommendations

Travel to Qatar may continue as normal while adhering to cultural norms and avoiding making any statements critical of the Qatari Emir and government officials, despite the aforementioned new restrictions. That being said, those operating in Qatar over the coming days and weeks are advised to stock up on food and basic products, due to the possibility that these will be in shortage due to the declared measures. Those operating throughout the Middle East and North Africa, and particularly in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, UAE, and Qatar are advised to remain cognizant of developments and potential effects on travel and business continuity given the current lack of full information regarding the various restrictions that will be in effect. This is particularly relevant for the possibility of unexpected border closures between the relevant countries over the coming days and weeks.

 

This report was written by:
Asaf Day – MAX Security’s Senior Intelligence Manager, Middle East & North Africa

What are the implications of the Egyptian Air Force conducted airstrikes in Libya following Islamic State attack – Egypt & Libya Analysis

Current Situation

According to statements made by the Egyptian Armed Forces (EAAF) Spokesperson, the Egyptian Air Force (EAF) targeted “terrorist gatherings” in Derna during the overnight hours of May 26-27, and in an unspecified area in Libya during the morning hours of May 27. The airstrikes were conducted after “confirming the targets’ involvement in planning and conducting the May 26 attack in Minya Governorate”. Moreover, the Libyan Air Force (LAF) stated that the airstrikes were coordinated and supported by it. Reports indicate that between six and ten airstrikes targeted locations in Derna, while at the time of writing there are no indications of other locales in Libya that were targeted. Meanwhile, the Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility for the Minya attack during the afternoon hours of May 27.

Assessments & Forecast

The developments are notable given the rarity of direct Egyptian military intervention in Libya, and more so ones that are publicly announced, with the most recent incident being the airstrikes in Derna following the execution of 21 Egyptian Copts by the Islamic State (IS) in Libya on February 16, 2015. Moreover, it is notable as Derna is currently the stronghold of the Mujahideen Shura Council of Derna (MSCD) after having entirely expelled IS from the area on April 20, 2016. In this context, despite their links to al-Qaeda, the MSCD is mostly a domestically-oriented militant group, and along with their established and long lasting conflict with IS is unlikely to assist the group, and therefore is not likely to have direct links to the Minya attack, particularly as it was claimed by IS.

In this context, these airstrikes were more likely meant as an immediate show of force for the Egyptian populace and the international public opinion in wake of the attack, rather than actual military retaliation for it. This is particularly likely as mounting efforts by Egyptian authorities, chief among these is the nationwide state of emergency enacted in wake of the Palm Sunday attacks on April 9, failed to prevent the recent attack. As such, the Egyptian government likely felt compelled to take what will be perceived as extreme measures in order to project the extent of their efforts to protect its country and citizenry from militant attacks. This is especially aimed towards the Coptic minority which was the target of all four recent large scale IS attacks in Egypt, in an effort to offset IS’s strategy of exacerbating sectarian tensions and turning the religious minority against the government.

With this in mind, Egypt likely chose to attack Derna for several reasons that are unrelated to alleged direct involvement in the Minya attack. It is in relative close proximity to Egypt and thus well within range of Egyptian aircraft without requiring special planning and logistical support. Furthermore, the city is already negatively associated by the Egyptian populace due to the aforementioned February 2015 events. Additionally, it has been a target for the Libyan National Army (LNA) for several years, thus intelligence of locales and personnel that are still related to global jihad elements, even if not to IS, and are therefore considered “legitimate targets” was easily acquired through the established cooperation between the LNA and Egypt.

With this in consideration, it cannot be ruled out that the airstrikes were also meant to serve as direct support for the LNA in their Derna campaign, as the LNA have persistently been unable to allocate sufficient resources to the capturing of the city, due to the need to address several conflict zones that are distant from each other. Furthermore, the MSCD are likely perceived by Egypt both as a destabilizing factor for Libya, as well as a potential long-term threat to Egypt due to the group’s ties to al-Qaeda. As such, strengthening the LNA is within Egypt’s government’s interests due to the alliance between the sides, as well as the fact that a situation in which the LNA fully controls eastern Libya will prevent a spillover of militancy from the country into Egypt. FORECAST: Taken as a whole, it remains possible that Egypt will conduct additional airstrikes in Libya over the coming days and weeks, while it will likely increase its direct support for the LNA in this period. Additionally, it cannot be ruled out that Egypt will initiate a limited scale ground operation in Libya in the coming weeks.

Recommendations

Recommendations Egypt:

Travel to Cairo and Alexandria may continue while adhering to all security precautions regarding militancy and civil unrest. Consult with us for itinerary-based travel recommendations. Avoid all travel to the North Sinai Governorate and border areas with Libya, Sudan, and Israel due to the persistent risk for militant attacks, kidnappings, and general lawlessness.

Recommendations Libya:

It is advised to defer all travel to Tripoli and Benghazi at this time due to ongoing violence, threats against foreigners, and the risk of a broad deterioration of security conditions. We advise at this time that those remaining in Tripoli and Benghazi should initiate contingency and emergency evacuation plans due to deterioration in the security situation. Contact us at [email protected] or +44 20-3540-0434 for itinerary and contingency support plans. We further advise against all travel to Libya’s border areas at this time due to persistent violence and lawlessness in these regions.