Foreign Fighters and Mercenaries Fueling Libyan Conflict

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Libya is becoming a mercenary’s dream with multiple factions competing for hired guns from across the Middle East and Africa. Regional experts and a report released by the United Nations make this abundantly clear.

Paid fighters ranging from Sub-Saharan Africa to the Arabian Peninsula are flocking to Libya and fueling its civil war, according to the report released this year by the Panel of Experts on Libya which began its work in 2011.

The large scale of use of mercenary units in Libya separates the conflict from other civil wars in the region. Experts say the country’s relatively large size and small population – it has a land mass larger than Alaska and a population smaller than of than Massachusetts – is one reason it has expanded so quickly. The United Nations report provides the most recent systematic analysis of the practice.

“Foreign interference in Libya has taken a more direct form with the increasing involvement of Chadian and Sudanese mercenaries” the report reads. The report notes that all sides are using foreign fighters to perpetuate the conflict. 

The foreign fighters are also raising fears that they may return to their own unstable countries and foment violence.

The presence of large groups of foreign fighters in Libya is in striking contrast to other regional conflicts. The Syrian Civil War and the larger struggle against the Assad regime, for example, has attracted lone jihadists from around the world.  The Libyan Civil war, by contrast, has attracted entire military units and terrorist groups are joining the conflict. Notable examples include Da'esh, possibly Hamas, as well as rebel movements from nations in the Sahel region of Africa.

Libya’s international attempt to ban Palestinians, Syrians and Sudanese from entering the country is due in part to prior concerns that nationals of those countries could become mercenaries in Libya's civil war in 2015.

In September of this year, the Libyan Attorney General's Office released new information on foreign fighters fighting with Da'esh in Libya with fighters coming from as far as Eritrea and Ghana. The over one hundred foreign fighters from Sudan, Egypt and Tunisia are now members of Da’esh in Libya. The official also revealed that a Mauritanian national had been organizing a terror cell for the Palestinian group Hamas in Libya.

Other claims have emerged regarding Hamas’ presence in Libya including Libyan National Army (LNA) spokesman Ahmed Al- Mismari, who told the media this summer that Hamas was fighting with Islamists in Libya and was receiving direct military support from Qatar.

The LNA also produced a Qatari diplomatic document from 2012 which, it claims, proves a Qatari military presence in Libya. In the past Egyptian officials have also blasted the role of Qatar in the conflict while supporting the rival LNA.

The United Nation’s report appears to support that claim. It mentions, in passing, a Palestinian military presence in Libya albeit one consisting of a mere eight members. Though the report does not mention if the Palestinian faction is Hamas, which has close ties to Qatar or another group but does mention ongoing investigations into the assertion. Multiple inquiries to the United Nations on Hamas’ role in Libya have yet to garner a response.

The United Nations report also appears to validate claims of the Sudanese government that large numbers of Sudanese rebels are now fighting in Libya with the LNA.

Darfur rebels, according to the report, continue to work as mercenaries with the LNA, though the number of fighters is unclear. The Darfur rebel faction rejected a general Sudanese peace process launched in 2014 and had instead vowed to continue fighting Khartoum.

 “There are 600 rebels from the Minnawi faction of the Sudan Liberation Movement who are fighting in Libya with General Haftar’s forces, Sudan’s Foreign Minister, Ibrahim Ghandour, said in an interview with the author earlier this year. “Those rebels could return anytime with support from Libya and re-ignite the war in Darfur.”

The U.N. report on Libya also notes Chadian rebels are increasingly operating out of Southern Libya and increasingly involving themselves in the Libyan Civil War. Last December the little known Chadian opposition group Front pour l’alternance et la concorde au Tchad (FACT) revealed Haftar’s LNA had attacked its positions in Southern Libya.

Palestinian, Chadian and Sudanese groups could return battle-hardened and flush with cash ready to re-ignite conflict in their respective countries.

The report also details the role of ISIS in the Libyan conflict. On the orders of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi himself, a cadre of leaders and fighters moved to Libya in 2014 establishing a base in Sirte as a fallback position if the group was defeated in Syria.

ISIS was driven from the port city of Sirte earlier this year with the support of U.S. airstrikes in late April and by a coalition of Libyan militias working with the internationally recognized GNA. The report suggests that ISIS fighters are still believed to be in environs of Sirte and a serious threat to the resolution of the Libyan conflict. 

The use of mercenaries in Libya began during the rule of Libyan Leader Muammar Ghaddaffi. Before his overthrow in 2011, the dictator had developed an “Islamic Legion” which included a large number of Africans soldiers. The force served in Chad and as a far away as Uganda before being integrated into regular Libyan forces in the late 1980s. However, even after its formal dissolution, the Libyan armed forces continued to maintain regiments organized by ethnicity. The organization of forces along ethnic lines is unusual though the practice continues even in Western armies. For example, the United Kingdom still maintains a Gurkha brigade largely consisting of Nepali recruits.

In 2011, as he battled the uprising that would eventually depose and murder him, Ghaddafi recruited as far away as Zimbabwe and Guinea for fighters, and as many as 6,000 soldiers’ mercenaries mostly from the Sahel countries answered his call.

The destabilization created by the Libyan War could be spreading with Nigerien authorities suggesting that using Tuareg smugglers an overland link has been established between ISIS and Boko Haram. The terrorist group based in Northern Nigeria pledged allegiance to ISIS in 2015.

“Most of the cohesive military units that are fighting in Libya hail from the Sahel region,” says Oded Berkowitz, a Libya expert with the consultancy Max Security, “Groups from Chad, Niger, and Sudan are involved in the Libyan Civil War for a variety of reasons including money, tribal affiliation, or geopolitical gain. In some instances, groups are fighting in this war in return, they hope, for future support in their own wars one day.”

The recent bombing of a music concert in Manchester has led the United States to reconsider its role in Libya experts says. While the Trump administration has focused its efforts on fighting ISIS, the nature of the Libyan conflict means that even non-Islamist groups could quickly be radicalized.

The case of another Sahel region terrorist group not mentioned in the report is instructive. Polisario, which began as a communist rebel group committed to fighting the Moroccan government. Has seen many of its members radicalized into jihadists. Former Polisario leader, Abu Walid Al-Sahrawi led a group Western Saharans to join ISIS.

Experts suggest that without stronger international involvement the use of mercenaries is likely to continue.

“After six years of war there are only so many Libyans who are motivated to fight for the root political causes at the heart of this conflict,” says Randall Stickley, a research consultant on Libya. “As a result, the main factions in Libya are likely to increasingly turn to mercenaries to perpetuate the conflict."

Joseph Hammond is a senior contributor with the American Media Institute. As a former Cairo correspondent for Radio Free Europe during the 2011 Arab uprisings, he has also reported from four continents on issues ranging from stability in Somalia to the M23 rebellion in the Eastern Congo.

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