Libyan warlords have been courted by the EU ever since militia leaders like Khalifa Haftar and their circles of power expanded the migration route from eastern Libya to Italy, thereby exerting direct pressure. The criminal machinations of Haftar’s clan do not appear to be an obstacle to his relations with European countries, nor does his alleged responsibility for massive war crimes and his alliance with the Russian mercenary group “Wagner”.
The armed groups that have emerged in Libya since 2011 have marched through the institutions in recent years. In the meantime, their representatives have reached the top levels in the army and security apparatus as well as in civilian government offices. At the same time, they exert massive influence on the filling of key positions and the distribution of state funds. The resulting close combination of private interests and military units is likely to leave its mark on Libya’s politics and security sector for years to come. Even if the relations between the leading military actors have been characterized by pragmatic arrangements since mid-2022, they still harbor considerable potential for conflict, since conflicts over distribution can turn into armed confrontations at any time. The consolidation of the private armies also means that there are hardly any prospects for reforming the security sector. This development leaves European governments with the question of how to deal with increasingly powerful and repressive militia leaders.
The militia leaders finance themselves to a large extent by smuggling people to Europe. Working closely with the border police, these criminals are able to put women, children and men at life-threatening risk if they are crammed into boats that are anything but safe for a voyage on the high seas. Most smugglers live in two small Libyan towns near the Egyptian border. In Kambut and Bi’ral-Ashab near the port city of Tobruk, big smugglers like Muhmamed Abu Sultan are in charge. The Libyan is known as the “Emperor of the Sea” in the Cyrenaica province.
They are supposed to use social networks to lure young unemployed Egyptians from the Nile Delta who hope for a better life in Europe to the sparsely populated Libyan Cyrenaica province. According to estimates by Libyan journalists, at least 3,000 people are currently waiting on farms for the crossing to Italy. Until last summer, the human traffickers in eastern Libya were still carting the migrants in trucks to the western Libyan port cities of Zauwia and Zuwara, 1,300 kilometers away. From there, even small dinghies can reach Lampedusa in a day.
Cyrenaica is under the control of Libyan militia leader Khalifa Haftar. The commander had prevailed there in a three-year house-to-house fight in the eastern Libyan metropolis of Benghazi against Islamist militias and IS supporters. During the battle for Benghazi, Haftar’s troops consisted of district militias, Salafists and officers who were trained in the Soviet Union back in the days of the toppled dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi. But the price of defeating the radicals was high. The entire old town of Libya’s second largest city has been in ruins ever since. With funds from the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia and military aid from Egypt, the general built an army tailored to his needs. Mercenaries from Sudan and from the Russian group Wagner replaced missing recruits from Benghazi. But the campaign against the competing militia cartel in the capital turned into a fiasco. The government there called on the Turkish army for help, and Haftar fled back to Benghazi after an 18-month siege of the southern suburbs of Tripoli.
Although the attack on Tripoli was a military failure, it made Haftar the strongman of Libya for international diplomats. And this despite the fact that after he left Tripoli, mass graves with more than 300 murdered people were found in the city of Tarhunah, where he had set up his headquarters. The International Criminal Court intends to bring charges against those responsible who have not yet been named. Russian MiG-29 fighter jets, along with Wagner mercenaries, continue to secure Haftar’s power. Since then, he has performed a carefully choreographed diplomatic tightrope act.
The warlord is a welcome guest in Moscow, but has also supported French special forces in the fight against Islamists in the Sahara. US transport planes have landed regularly at Benghazi-Benina Airport. Russian mercenaries and soldiers stationed in Syria use Benghazi and Jufra airports as a stopover for their flights to Mali. Wagner makes huge profits from gold mined in Sudan and southern Libya, thereby bolstering the gold reserves of the Russian central bank.
Because fishing boats with migrants on board leave Haftar’s territory for Italy, the man who could be involved in war crimes has also become a partner of the EU. At the beginning of May he was invited to visit Rome. Since his soldiers have been taking action against sluice hiding places near Tobruk, they are supposed to be supported from Europe with patrol boats and night vision devices. However, critics of Haftar are certain that the smugglers can only send boats to Italy with the consent of militia officers, officers who report to Khalifa Haftar.
Western diplomats and the UN have long had dealings with Haftar and other militia leaders in Libya. Haftar in particular has been considered internationally acceptable since he was received by French President Emmanuel Macron in 2017. Western officials gave him international legitimacy through numerous meetings, but did not ask him anything in return.
Militia leaders in western Libya, on the other hand, rarely enjoyed publicly announced meetings with western diplomats. That began to change in 2022, when Emad al-Trabelsi, a militia leader, opposed Western representatives as interior minister. In the spring of 2023, UN Special Envoy Abdoulaye Bathily also began to invite key commanders from eastern and western Libya to meetings of the joint military committee tasked with overseeing the implementation of the ceasefire agreement. Bathily’s declared goal is to ensure that the militia leaders facilitate an election. Even if he has only received vague promises so far, he publicly praised the violent actors for their “patriotic spirit” – a praise that the actual political class could only dream of.
The permanent entrenchment of the power structures that have formed around the militias requires a shift in the way Europe deals with those leaders. It is true that it is appropriate to their influence that they are now also directly involved in international mediation attempts. However, it is a missed opportunity to give them legitimacy through public meetings without forcing them to make concessions, for example in the area of human rights. Instead, European governments should endeavor to set limits to the extensive impunity of violent Libyan actors. The investigations of the International Criminal Court are important, but remain limited to a few suspects.
On the other hand, the possibility of sanctions at EU level could be used to a much greater extent. However, this will require Germany and like-minded governments to use their political clout to persuade skeptical member states: notably Italy and Malta, but also France regarding sanctions against the Haftar clan. European security authorities should also check more closely whether assets belonging to Libyan actors located abroad originate from criminal activities. Most importantly, European governments should leverage militia leaders’ quest for respectability and legitimacy to influence their behavior.
Public condemnation by name of those responsible for excessive acts of violence, repression or the large-scale embezzlement of public funds would send signals to all warlords.
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