A decade of instability, a fractured political landscape, and a capital city awash with militias make Libya ripe for terrorism. With the arrival of over 17,000 Syrian mercenaries in 2020, the potential for terrorist activity increased significantly. The transfer of thousands of Syrian operatives, secretly facilitated by Turkey, poses a present and real danger to Libyan civilians. It also risks exporting a new wave of jihadi fighters to Europe.
Terrorism in Libya is heavily politicized, generating its own disinformation industry. Accusations of being in sympathy with terrorist objectives are used to slander opponents and discredit rival ideologies. Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) exploited the terrorist threat in western Libya as the pretext for its offensive on Tripoli in April 2019. Haftar adopted bellicose nationalistic language, vowing to rid the capital of its “terrorist militias” as part of a wider “war on terrorism”. It is this narrative that has assisted the LNA in gaining international support from backers such as the UAE, Russia, Egypt, and France. However, Haftar’s rhetoric belies a more complex dynamic. Many of the Madkhali Salafi groups, aligned to Haftar’s LNA, are themselves ideologically akin to terror organisations such as Islamic State (IS). A recent report from the Strategic Studies Institute at the US Army War College noted, “In the event of a total LNA collapse, these groups could give ISIS a boost”.
IS emerged in Libya from the post-2011 power vacuum created by the fall of Gaddafi. It utilised tensions between ethnic groups to gain a foothold in several towns, taking control of the strategic city of Sirte in 2014. At least 47 people were executed during IS’ tenure before Sirte was liberated in 2016 by the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA). Since then IS has been driven into Libya’s hinterland, with small pockets of the group known to be operating on the west coast and Libya’s southern desert region, Fezzan. IS elements have survived by becoming embedded in criminal gangs operating human and drug-smuggling networks.
Protracted conflict in Libya has provided opportunities for terrorist groups to expand their activities further. Though both the GNA and the LNA have conducted counter-terrorism operations in their respective areas of control, their resources have not been dedicated to this task and security forces have been thinly spread across the country. In a briefing to the UN Security Council on 24 August 2020, the UN’s counter-terrorism chief, Vladimir Voronkov reported that there are now a few hundred IS fighters in Libya.
“Three months, six thousand US dollars… Return to the homeland or to Europe”.
This was the deal offered to Muhammad Ibrahim Adawi, a Syrian mercenary and former Syrian National Army (SNA) fighter hired by the GNA in western Libya. He was captured by the LNA in Tripoli’s Abu Salim neighbourhood during Haftar’s fourteen-month siege of the capital. Muhammad Ibrahim Adawi is one of an estimated 17,420 Syrian mercenaries believed to be fighting for the GNA in Libya. While both the GNA and the LNA use Syrian mercenaries, the GNA has many more on its payroll. Instead, Haftar relies on foreign fighters from Chad and Sudan as well as Wagner Group operatives from Russia. The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) has reported extensively on the transfer of Syrian operatives to Libya to fight for the GNA. While some sources estimate the number of Syrian mercenaries in Libya to be around 5,000, the SOHR gives the more recent and reliable figure of 17,420, of which 6,000 have returned to Syria. This potentially leaves 11,000 Syrian operatives still in Libya.
Discerning the beliefs and intentions of mercenaries is complex. They are hired precisely because they are eminently deniable and have no accountability. Most Syrian mercenaries travelled to Libya for financial gain, signing three to six-month contracts worth $2,000 a month. This vastly exceeded the $60-$75 they were paid for serving in the SNA. Pro-GNA Syrian mercenaries belong to armed factions affiliated to the SNA, including the Al-Mutasim Brigade, the Suleiman Shah Brigade, Majd Corps, the Hamza Division, and the Sultan Murad Division. These SNA brigades are hard to categorise because they are not homogenous entities; it often comes down to individual allegiances, which are highly erratic. Ideological overlap provides opportunities for fighters to move between groups, which they often do.
However, evidence has emerged to suggest that a significant minority are affiliated with IS. The SOHR reported in May 2020 that 50 former IS members, originating from Homs, had joined the fight in Libya with the GNA. The group was headed by Mohammed Al-Bowaydani who had reportedly joined Al-Nusra Front after the collapse of IS in Syria. In July, reports surfaced that Turkey had transferred over 2,500 Tunisian nationals to Libya who were previously fighting in Syria. Many are reported to be IS affiliates.
Since the arrival of Syrian mercenaries in Tripoli, there has been evidence of an IS revival in Libya. Most recently, on 1 September there was a terrorist suicide attack in western Tripoli near Ghiran checkpoint. IS flags have been spotted throughout the capital in the Ghut Al-Shaal neighbourhood and Janzour. In mid-June, reports surfaced that two IS training facilities had been established in the coastal town of Sabratha, less than 50 miles west of Tripoli. In a social-media thread discussing IS presence in Sabratha, one user confirmed the recent reports: “Today I was in a meeting with a friend from Sabratha who said that the Sabratha issue is correct. ISIS’s movements are very clear, especially in the location of the US raid in February 2016 … the black flag is flying high there”.
It is telling that shortly after reports emerged about renewed terrorist activity in Sabratha, US Africa Command (AFRICOM) held a meeting with GNA leaders in the nearby town of Zuwara. In the meeting, AFRICOM expressed concerns about the potential resurgence of IS and Al-Qaeda in Libya. That the AFRICOM meeting took place in Zuwara in such proximity to Sabratha is symbolically significant and seems to give further credence to the reports of IS activity in the Sabratha area. Interestingly, Sabratha has a history of terrorist activity. In 2016 the US launched airstrikes on the city killing 40 IS militants. The town gained its status as a terrorist hot-spot because of its people-smuggling operations, making it a useful corridor to the Mediterranean and Europe.
Aside from terrorist affiliation, mercenary activity in Tripoli has been linked to violations of human rights. Accusations of theft and the torture and murder of civilians abound. The SOHR reported that a number of Syrian fighters have not been remunerated for the past five months and have resorted to looting homes of IDPs in Tripoli. In an interview, one operative conceded, “They did not pay us what they promised, so it is a good way to earn more money”. More disturbingly a US journalist obtained a voice recording of Syrian mercenaries discussing their role in providing security during the recent protests in Tripoli, “If things get serious, we’ll harvest them”, added one. Syrian mercenaries were subsequently accused of opening fire on protestors.
Potential European threat
Libya’s geography and its well-established migratory routes mean there is a substantial risk that Syrian fighters will reach Europe. 90% of all migrants who cross the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe depart from Libya on the ‘Central Mediterranean route’. Libya is a gateway for migrants coming to Europe from African countries such as Sudan, Nigeria, Mali and the Ivory Coast.
When interviewed, some Syrian mercenaries admitted that they came to Libya in order to take a migrant boat to Europe – many have succeeded in doing so. In July 2020, the SOHR reported that 290 Syrian mercenaries had reached Europe. In response, under pressure from Italian officials concerned about mercenaries migrating to Italy, the GNA has reportedly formed a militia tasked with preventing Syrian operatives from leaving Tripoli. Furthermore, reports have circulated of despondency and disillusionment in Syrian camps in Libya with Syrian operatives claiming they have suffered racist abuse from Libyan armed groups. A sense of disenfranchisement may prompt operatives to risk their lives attempting to reach Europe by sea.
The prospect of hundreds, potentially thousands, of extremist foreign fighters brutalised by wars in Syria and Libya arriving on Europe’s shores should be a serious security concern for the EU. Uncomfortably, the problem lies under the auspices of the UN-backed government in western Libya. This perhaps, along with its alliance with the UAE, explains France’s muted support for the LNA. Even more uncomfortably, Europe is faced with the problem of Turkey. Ankara has been instrumental at every stage in the deployment of Syrian operatives, from their recruitment in Afrin, Aleppo and Idlib, to their transfer to training camps in southern Turkey. A NATO member and recognised candidate for EU ascension, Turkey’s role in facilitating the steady flow of Syrian mercenaries to Libya is a cause for alarm in Brussels and beyond.