April 29, 2020
Africa File: Libya crisis deepens as warlord declares military rule
Contributors: Kalissa Azooz, Samuel Bloebaum, Jessica Kocan, Carl Moudabber, Nicholas Wernert, and the Institute for the Study of War
[Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk (*) for the reader's awareness.]
The Libya crisis is worsening rapidly. Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar declared military rule in the country’s east on April 27. Haftar is not close to controlling the country, however; his yearlong effort to seize the capital Tripoli has stalled. The fighting is displacing civilians and destroying health infrastructure, likely exacerbating the spread of COVID-19.
The war is also setting conditions for Salafi-jihadi groups such as the Islamic State and al Qaeda to recover in Libya. Meanwhile, foreign players with competing interests in Libya are fueling the conflict, which is becoming a testing ground for new weaponry (and maybe even chemical weapons).
The Libya crisis has many implications beyond its borders. Russia’s involvement in the country is part of a long-term effort to pressure Europe and contest NATO’s unfettered access to the Mediterranean while challenging American global leadership. Libya is also a front in a destabilizing power competition between Middle Eastern states that is fueling conflict and political instability across the Middle East and large swathes of Africa. More broadly, Libya, alongside Syria, have become the laboratories for a new way of war that increasingly threatens global stability.
External involvement in local conflicts can prolong and deepen them, particularly when civil wars become multisided proxy conflicts, writes Critical Threats Project Research Manager Emily Estelle in RealClearWorld. This dynamic causes conflicts to spread and merge; Libya’s war is becoming increasingly entangled with Syria’s, setting up a larger security crisis in the Eastern Mediterranean. Prolonged conflicts destroy responsive governance and deepen popular grievances—exactly the conditions that extremists like Salafi-jihadis need to thrive.
Extremist groups in turn provide justification for intervening states (including those seeking to upend the world order) to mask their actual intent. This vicious cycle is making conflicts harder to resolve and chipping away at the global order and will keep doing so while COVID-19 consumes the world’s attention.
Read Further On:
Recent Critical Threats Project Publications:
“Eyes on the Other Global Crises” by Emily Estelle (Originally published in RealClearWorld)
“Salafi-Jihadi Ecosystem in the Sahel” and interactive graphic by Katherine Zimmerman
At a Glance: the Salafi-jihadi Threat in Africa
Updated April 28, 2020
The COVID-19 pandemic will hasten the reduction of global counterterrorism efforts, which had already been rapidly receding as the US shifted its strategic focus to competition with Iran, China, Russia, and North Korea. The US administration has begun to withdraw troops from Afghanistan after signing a peace deal with the Taliban on February 29. The future of US forces in Iraq and Syria is uncertain following the destruction of the Islamic State’s physical caliphate and its leader’s death, though the group already shows signs of recovery. The US Department of Defense is also considering a significant drawdown of US forces engaged in counterterrorism missions in Africa, though support for the French counterterrorism mission in the Sahel has been extended for now.
This is happening as the Salafi-jihadi movement, including al Qaeda and Islamic State affiliates and allies, continues to make gains in Africa, including in areas where previous counterterrorism efforts had significantly reduced Salafi-jihadi groups’ capabilities. The movement was already positioned to take advantage of the expected general reduction in counterterrorism pressure before the pandemic hit; now, a likely wave of instability and governmental legitimacy crises will create more opportunities for Salafi-jihadi groups to establish new support zones, consolidate old ones, increase attack capabilities, and expand to new areas of operations.
The Salafi-jihadi movement is on the offensive in Burkina Faso, Niger, and Mali, where it has pressured the Malian government to offer negotiations. It is also stalemated in Somalia and Nigeria and persisting amid the war in Libya. Conditions in these last three countries favor the Salafi-jihadi movement rather than its opponents in the coming year.
Libya’s civil war, reignited on a large scale in April 2019, will continue to fuel the conditions of a Salafi-jihadi comeback, particularly as foreign actors prolong and heighten the conflict. Counterterrorism efforts in Somalia and Mali rest on the continued efforts of international coalitions, support for which is eroding in both host and troop-contributing countries and on local partners that have demonstrated their inability to govern effectively or establish legitimacy in their people’s eyes.
Amid these conditions, US Africa Command (AFRICOM) is shifting its prioritization from the counterterrorism mission to great-power competition, a move also intended to reduce risk after a 2017 attack killed four servicemen in Niger. US and European powers aim to turn over counterterrorism responsibilities to regional forces of limited effectiveness—such as the G5 Sahel, which is plagued by funding issues, and the African Union Mission in Somalia, which is beginning a scheduled drawdown.
The Salafi-jihadi movement has several main centers of activity in Africa: Libya, Mali and its environs, the Lake Chad Basin, the Horn of Africa, and now northern Mozambique. These epicenters are networked, allowing recruits, funding, and expertise to flow among them. The rise of the Salafi-jihadi movement in these and any other places is tied to the circumstances of Sunni Muslim populations. The movement takes root when Salafi-jihadi groups can forge ties to vulnerable populations facing existential crises such as civil war, communal violence, or state neglect or abuse (all now likely to be exacerbated by the pandemic). Local crises are the incubators for the Salafi-jihadi movement and can become the bases for future attacks against the US and its allies.
Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar declared military rule in eastern Libya. Haftar announced the military’s formal takeover from nominal civilian authorities in eastern Libya on April 27, citing popular will. Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) already had de facto control of the east. This move is likely a bid to gain a level of international recognition—or at minimum permit a level of international indifference—that will allow him to gain access to Libya’s economic resources, including exporting oil.
Russia’s foreign minister signaled disapproval for the announced military takeover and emphasized Moscow’s sustained contact with all factions in Libya’s conflict. Russian private military contractors are fighting with Haftar’s forces in the battle for Tripoli, but Moscow has never acknowledged their presence. The Kremlin seeks to be kingmaker in Libya and is backing Haftar and Qaddafi-era figures for potential leadership.
Haftar’s announcement may also be an attempt to project strength following setbacks in his yearlong campaign to seize Tripoli. Forces aligned with the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) and backed by Turkey *seized several towns west of Tripoli from the LNA on April 13, threatening a key LNA airbase. GNA-aligned forces also launched a campaign to seize the Tripoli suburb of Tarhouna, a key LNA position and source of manpower 45 miles southeast of Tripoli, on April 18. LNA forces rebuffed the initial attack. Clashes have also continued on a front nearer to central Libya, where the LNA seeks to pressure the key GNA-aligned hub of Misrata but has not been able to sustain forward progress.
Russian mercenaries are accused of using chemical weapons in Tripoli. The GNA’s interior minister accused the Wagner Group of using “nerve gas” in the Libyan capital of Tripoli, where Wagner is fighting in support of the LNA. The Wagner group is a proxy of the Russian Ministry of Defense. Observers reported shells emitting smoke on the Tripoli front line and hospitalized fighters with symptoms consistent with a poison gas attack. The allegations are unconfirmed, and there is no consensus among observers on the type of chemical weapon that may have been used.
Such an attack in Libya could indicate a chemical weapons transfer from Syria, underscoring the deepening connections between the two conflicts. The use of chemical weapons by a Russian contractor would indicate that Russia seeks to use the Libyan theater to advance its effort to normalize chemical weapons use. If so, Russia may have decided to do so now to counteract new pressure in Syria after the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons attributed responsibility for a chemical attack in Syria to the Assad regime, Russia’s client, for the first time since the war began in 2011. Haftar’s forces also have possible incentive to use chemical weapons to break an increasingly grinding stalemate that threatens the LNA’s ability to sustain operations in Tripoli.
Prison breaks may help Salafi-jihadi groups reconstitute. More than 400 prisoners escaped or were released in Sabratha and Surman following GNA-aligned militias’ takeovers of the cities. These prisons likely contained members of the Islamic State and other Salafi-jihadi groups.
Forecast: The most likely case is a grinding stalemate that settles in the Tripoli suburbs, prolonging the humanitarian crisis and exacerbating the spread of COVID-19. Such a stalemate, or the less likely but possible loss of LNA’s Wattiya airbase northwest of Tripoli, could degrade the LNA’s cohesion and reduce support for the war in its base in eastern Libya. This would introduce new conflict and create opportunities for dormant Salafi-jihadi groups to reemerge in the east.
Alternately, the LNA will bring sufficient pressure on Tripoli and Misrata to lure Misratan forces away from Tripoli and secure defections among Tripoli-based militias, enabling either an extension of the LNA’s military takeover or a negotiated settlement. This outcome would set conditions for insurgency, likely quickly. Even if Haftar gains international recognition and access to Libya’s economic resources, he lacks the capability to unify and stabilize the country, especially against externally backed opposition.
All the most likely outcomes—stalemate, LNA fragmentation, and LNA Pyrrhic victory—preserve and worsen conditions that will allow Salafi-jihadi groups to strengthen. (Updated April 28, 2020)
Clashes continued between Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wa al Muslimeen (JNIM) and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) despite an ISGS official’s overture to end the intra-jihadist fighting. An April 10 audio recording allegedly from an ISGS official suggested that ISGS and JNIM should exchange prisoners and cease clashes.[i] The message was addressed to JNIM Deputy Leader and Macina Liberation Front Lead Amadou Koufa.
However, clashes have continued throughout the Malian-Burkinabe border region since this message. Some reports indicate that leaders of the Burkina Faso–based group Ansar al Islam may be attacking ISGS, indicating that Ansar al Islam may have broken past ties with ISGS to formally align with JNIM.
ISGS and JNIM have cooperated in the past but also clash over territory, economic opportunities, and personnel. The current clashes are the most severe and sustained eruption of hostilities between the groups. JNIM and ISGS will likely deconflict and potentially resolve their dispute over time.
Salafi-jihadi activity contributed to low turnout in the second round of Mali’s legislative elections on April 19. Likely JNIM militants attacked electoral officials and voting stations in northern and central Mali. JNIM militants also kidnapped candidates from multiple parties, including an opposition party leader, before the first round of voting. The elections are an important step in the implementation of Mali’s 2015 peace agreement and can be seen as an “attempt to renew the legitimacy of the national parliament and the current government” as it faces the overlapping challenges of the pandemic, economic woes, ethnic violence, and a Salafi-jihadi insurgency.
JNIM has woven COVID-19 into its propaganda narratives about the French intervention in Mali. The group expressed hope that the COVID-19 pandemic would weaken European troop-contributing countries and cause the fragmentation of the French-led military coalition in the Sahel on April 10.[ii] Subsequent attack claims have continued this narrative thread.[iii] JNIM media seeks to amplify the group’s call for French forces to withdraw as a precondition for negotiations with the Malian government. JNIM has not yet released a statement on COVID-19 that relates to its efforts to provide alternative governance inside Mali.
The French defense minister confirmed on April 24 that US and UK support for the French security mission in the Sahel, which includes intelligence, supply, and logistics, will continue for at least the coming months.
Security force abuses against Fulani and Tuareg populations reinforce Salafi-jihadi narratives and will drive populations to tolerate or support Salafi-jihadi groups in self-defense. Burkinabe security forces allegedly executed 31 detainees in northern Burkina Faso on April 9. Reports also surfaced of mass graves for Tuareg and Fulani civilians executed in a security sweep in western Niger in late March and early April. JNIM has begun to claim attacks on security forces as revenge for such abuses; further human rights abuses will legitimate Salafi-jihadi claims to provide a viable alternative to flawed states.
Forecast: The perceived illegitimacy of the Malian elections will fuel unrest with interest groups in northern Mali, possibly distracting the state from counter-Salafi-jihadi efforts and creating more opportunities for Salafi-jihadi groups to establish mutually beneficial agreements with other anti-government groups. Salafi-jihadi groups will begin to establish governing institutions—such as courts—in the Burkinabe-Malian-Nigerien tri-border area in the next six months, though it may mask these efforts to facilitate a deal with the Malian government.
Salafi-jihadi groups may also work through local governance structures to present themselves as legitimate interlocutors and avoid scrutiny. Attacks on Fulani civilians will drive greater popular support to JNIM, which will present itself as a more moderate alternative. (Updated April 14, 2020)
An Islamic State–linked insurgency continued to escalate in Mozambique, where militants recently announced their intent to establish a caliphate. An Islamic State–linked news agency alleged that the militants downed a military helicopter in Mozambique’s northern Cabo Delgado Province on April 8.[iv] Security officials also reported that militants had killed more than 50 civilians for refusing recruitment on April 7.
However, security forces’ abuses will likely drive some of the population toward the insurgency despite its brutality; Mozambique’s president confirmed some human rights abuses during counterinsurgency operations following accusations by the country’s opposition party. Local grievances are directed at the government and security forces and multibillion-dollar hydrocarbon projects run by foreign companies in the area.
A recent uptick in the scale and brazenness of attacks indicates a drastic increase in the capabilities and tactical skill of Salafi-jihadi militants in Mozambique. The militants have also begun making overtures to local populations by avoiding civilian casualties, redistributing looted goods, and emphasizing their alliance with local populations against elites seen as corrupt. The Mozambican government’s reliance on heavy-handed security measures and foreign mercenaries to combat the insurgency risk inflaming these grievances.
Forecast: ISCA will take control of a northern Mozambican population center and declare it a part of the Islamic State’s caliphate this year, possibly during the upcoming Ramadan period. (As of April 14, 2020)
Backlash to the Somali Federal Government’s (SFG) pandemic response may reinforce al Shabaab’s claim to provide alternative governance. Hundreds of civilians *protested against *police brutality in the enforcement of the COVID-19 curfew in Mogadishu on April 25.
Al Shabaab’s messaging on COVID-19 aims to strengthen the group’s claim to provide responsive governance in Somalia. The group held a consultative forum with community leaders that included discussion of COVID-19 in mid-March. Al Shabaab has directed blame for the pandemic toward the SFG’s foreign partners, including foreign troops present in Somalia; an al Shabaab leader also celebrated the pandemic’s effects in the US and Europe on April 1.
Al Shabaab may increase attacks in Mogadishu to underscore the SFG’s weakness in this period. The African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) *locked down its Halane base camp in Mogadishu after a contractor tested positive for the coronavirus, which will temporarily limit its ability to support security provision in the capital. Al Shabaab has increased attacks in Mogadishu since the group’s emir took direct control of operations in the city earlier this year.
Al Shabaab “opened the month of Ramadan” with a double suicide bombing at a Ugandan AMISOM base.[v] Militants *detonated two suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices at a Ugandan base in Barawe in southern Somalia’s Lower Shabelle region on April 24. The attack is the latest in a series of attacks targeting Ugandan positions in Lower Shabelle in April. Al Shabaab will likely sustain a high operational tempo throughout the Muslim holy month.
AFRICOM released its first quarterly report investigating allegations of civilian casualties caused by US airstrikes in Somalia. AFRICOM assessed that an airstrike that killed two al Shabaab militants in February 2019 in southern Somalia likely killed two civilians and injured three others. AFRICOM announced a plan to release quarterly reports on its investigations in late March, coinciding with an Amnesty International report accusing AFRICOM of underreporting civilian casualties. AFRICOM has contested Amnesty International’s account, noting that nonmilitary organizations lack access to necessary information for post-strike investigations and underscoring its already stringent measures to limit civilian harm. The AFRICOM reporting also aims to counter al Shabaab propaganda, which frequently falsely accuses AFRICOM of attacking civilians.
Forecast: Al Shabaab will attempt to capitalize on backlash to the SFG’s pandemic response to present itself as the more legitimate governing force in Somalia but may suffer its own delegitimization if its efforts—potentially including disrupting aid—are seen as causing harm in the areas it controls. The pandemic may reduce targets available for al Shabaab’s campaigns, potentially leading to fewer attacks (especially if the planned 2020 elections are postponed). The pandemic may also delay al Shabaab’s efforts to execute a spectacular attack in Kenya. (Updated April 14, 2020)
[i] “Alleged Audio from IS Official in Mali to JNIM Commander Acknowledges Fighting Between Groups,” SITE Intelligence Group, April 10, 2020, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.
[ii] “JNIM Claims Killing Nearly 30 Malian Soldiers in Raid on Military Base in Bamba,” SITE Intelligence Group, April 13, 2020, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.
[iii] “JNIM Claims Killing 5 Burkinabe Soldiers in Attack in Sollé,” SITE Intelligence Group, April 16, 2020, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.
[iv] “’Amaq Video Shows Mozambican Military Helicopter Allegedly Shot Down by ISCAP Fighters in Quissanga,” SITE Intelligence Group, April 20, 2020, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.
[v] “Shabaab Claims 2 Suicide Bombings at Ugandan base in Barawe in 1st Operation During Ramadan,” SITE Intelligence Group, April 24, 2020, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.