North African Militancy – by Michael Godfrey
North Africa will be an area of primary concern for U.S. national security over the next twelve months. Since late 2010, this region has experienced sweeping protest movements, collectively referred to as the Arab Spring, that have caused widespread instability and severe shocks to the dynamics of the region. These shocks include the deposing of dictatorial regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Most important to U.S. national security are stability issues caused by the ouster of Libyan president Muammar Qaddafi in August 2011. The legacy of this revolution has been chaos in Libya, massive weapon proliferation, and a power vacuum in the region that has allowed al-Qaeda and its affiliates to have greater freedom of movement in Libya and neighboring areas such as Mali. Although U.S. security interests in North Africa also include Egypt, Nigeria, Somalia and Sudan, policy makers should make issues in Libya and Mali their primary focus.
Libya is a priority area of concern for U.S. national security. The establishment of safe havens for radical jihadist groups inside Libya, including al-Qaeda and its affiliates, should cause U.S. policy makers to increase stability in Libya. Current conditions in the country have led to the exporting of violence and instability in the region, most notably to Mali. The situation in Libya will likely improve in the next twelve months as the government consolidates disparate militias into a state security apparatus.
In order to understand the current instability in Libya, it is necessary to look at Libya’s geography. With the Gulf of Sidra and a sparsely populated desert separating them, Tripoli and Benghazi, Libya’s two largest cities, developed as competing political and cultural centers. Since Libya was created in 1934, those governing Libya, whether Italy, Britain, or the King of Libya, tried to balance power between the two cities. However, “Gadhafi’s regime, founded in 1969, represented the alternative way of ruling Libya’s vast and disparate desert territory: using a strong central government and authoritarian control to suppress Libya’s strong regional identities.” By suppressing Benghazi economically and politically, Qaddafi set up the conditions for a civil war. The Arab Spring protest movement was essentially the catalyst needed for action. In February 2011 protests began in Benghazi, which was followed by a heavy-handed suppression campaign from Qaddafi. The situation escalated with protests occurring in all major urban centers, harsh government responses, and the formation of militias that both countered and supported the regime. Eventually, a NATO-led intervention tipped the balance of power towards the rebels and Qaddafi and his government was effectively destroyed by October 2011.
In place of Qaddafi’s rule, a provisional government was formed which eventually led to the General National Congress (GNC), a parliamentary system. The GNC is not strong enough to govern the country effectively, as it has to balance power not just between Tripoli and Benghazi, and it must bring the vast number of independent militias under its umbrella. If the GNC moves to consolidate control too quickly, it would likely experience significant resistance from the powerful militias that dominate the urban centers of the country. This would mean that Libya would dive into civil war.
Currently the government is bringing militias into its security apparatus, establishing the trend for the next year. By using Libya’s vast oil reserves, the GNC can,
Incentivize local militias, revolutionary councils, armed groups and even Islamist brigades against taking actions contrary to the government’s interests… Tripoli has also created umbrella organizations aimed at protecting energy infrastructure by giving militia groups a share of the oil revenue in exchange for organizing under the leadership of the Interior and Defense ministries.
This is evidenced by Prime Minister Ali Zidan’s recent call for the country’s militias to unite under the government’s security apparatus.
The real problem for U.S. national security lies in the fact that the Libyan government is unable to exert control over so much of its territory. This has facilitated the expansion of al-Qaeda in Libya, both its under-construction clandestine network and its new militia organization, Ansar al-Sharia. It was Ansar al-Sharia that conducted the attack against the U.S. consulate in Benghazi on September 11, 2012 that resulted in the death of U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens and three others.
The name Ansar al Sharia is used by multiple groups inside Libya. It is not just the name of individual battalions, but also may be al Qaeda’s new overall brand in Libya. Ansar al Sharia is being used by al Qaeda in Yemen, Tunisia and elsewhere to rebrand itself as an organization that represents true Islamic law.
Members of the Ansar al-Sharia brigade, the militia that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens, were trained in Libya by Muhammad Jamal, an al-Qaeda cell leader arrested in Cairo in October 2012. Jamal had extensive communications with al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, received operational support from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and was apparently tasked with transporting small arms and missiles from Libya into Egypt, particularly to his al-Qaeda cells operating in the Sinai region bordering Israel. The next twelve months will see an increase in al-Qaeda capabilities inside Libya, resulting in proliferation of Libyan weapons and increased attacks on political targets in areas bordering the country. However, if the Libyan government can consolidate more militias into its security apparatus, thus expanding its reach, then it may be able to slow or dismantle the nascent al-Qaeda networks forming in the country.