From Janzur to Washington DC: How the GNA Viewed Militias Prior to April War – SPECIAL REPORT – Al Marsad

A Special Report by Al Marsad investigates how the Libya’s Minister of Interior, Fathi Bashagha, failed to tackle militia chaos in Tripoli and has been woefully inconsistent in his claims to UNSMIL, the International Community, and the Libyan public on the power and control of militias who currently fight under the GNA.

From Criminalization to Legitimization

[Tripoli, 3 June 2019] – On 17 January 2019, four months prior to the war breaking out in Tripoli between the armed groups affiliated to the Government of National Accord (GNA) and the Libyan National Army (LNA), the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) hosted a meeting between the Minister of Interior, Fathi Bashagha, and 18 ambassadors and representatives of the diplomatic corps in Libya.

The special meeting was held in Janzur, the mission’s headquarters in Tripoli. The meeting’s main objective was to mobilize support for the GNA’s Ministry of Interior and its respective security directorates to impose security and disarm the militias.

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The meeting took place in the period between two battles in the south of the capital between GNA forces and the dissolved 7th Brigade. It is also noteworthy that Al-Somoud Battalion, led by Salah Badi, fought against GNA forces in September 2018, and carried out deadly criminal attacks prompting the Security Council of the UN and the American Administration to classify him, in addition to Ibrahim al-Jadhran, under UN Sanctions. At that time, Ghassan Salamé, the Special Envoy of the Secretary General of the United Nations in Libya, told the 218 TV Station that he had managed to sanction certain individuals. Both Salah Badi and Jadhran are currently fighting under the GNA.

During this period the relationship with the Tripoli Protection Force (TPF) was tense. The most visible sign of the breakdown of their relationship was when armed groups prevented the Minister of Interior from working at the official headquarters of the Ministry in downtown Tripoli or at the Ministry offices located on the Tripoli International Airport Road. This fait accompli compelled the Minister of Interior to work from Ministry offices in the neighborhood of Janzur. Both two sides exchanged accusations of being agents of foreign countries, encouraging criminality, displaying lack of discipline, fuelling the militarization of the state, and causing wars, strife and other problems for the citizens of the city.

Salamé wrote on Twitter, the statement he made at the special UNSMIL meeting in January: “This meeting is necessary, because there’s a firm decision by the GNA and Minister Bashagha to exercise all responsibilties entrusted to the ministry and extend state’s authority. This meeting is a clear message of the International Community’s strong support for this decision”.

Background to the Conflict

Notwithstanding the UNSMIL meeting, on 16 January 2018 there was a serious security development at the Tripoli International Airport where the Tarhuna Security Operations force was deployed following the ceasefire agreement concluded in the western coastal city of Zawiya under the auspices of the United Nations.

The Tarhuna Security Operations force was attacked by both the Tripoli Revolutionaries’ Brigade (TRB) and the Ghneiwa Al-Kakli forces. The Minister of Interior condemned the attack and categorized the assaulting forces as uncontrolled militias undermining the peaceful handover of the Tripoli International Airport from the Tarhuna Security Operations force to the Ministry of Interior. Today, however, Bashagha classifies the Tarhuna Security Operations force as “Kaniyat” militias.

In November 2018, following the first battle and preceding the UNSMIL meeting, Haitham Al-Tajouri, the Commander of the Tripoli Revolutionaries’ Brigade (TRB), along with some of his close associates, executed two of the senior commanders of the TRB, including the prominent figure in the TRB, Al-Hadi Awainat, after kidnapping both men in broad daylight on their homecoming from Tunisia through Mitiga International Airport. Two senior TRB commanders, Mohammed Al-Bakbak and Jalal Al-Warshifani, have fled Libya and are reportedly still abroad and have since publicly accused their comrade in arms, Haitham Al-Tajouri, of being a foreign agent and a traitor. Militia chaos and conflict among the militias and with the GNA was therefore rife prior to the April War in Tripoli.

TRB Commander, Haitham Al-Tajouri (front right), with Al-Hadi Awainat (left).

Bashagha on the Militias

In an interview with Al-Hurra TV, the Interior Minister of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), Fathi Bashagha, said that Libyans were fed up with the militias and their excesses, practices and presence in the capital of Tripoli. Bashagha, stressed that there are institutions that hinder the work of his Ministry, and that the understanding with some of these institutions has reached a dead end. He said that security arrangements have failed and nothing has materialized on the ground.

These statements contradict statements made by the President of the Presidential Council, Fayez al-Sarraj, to France 24 during his recent visit to Paris. Al-Sarraj claimed that the security arrangements were successful, yet this was denied by the UN special envoy, confirming that security arrangements had failed to make any tangible progress in Tripoli.

There have been also accusations levelled at the Minister of Interior, Fathi Bashagha accusing him of being the godfather of the Libya Dawn operation (Fajr Libya), which resulted in the devastating political division that has impacted the country since 2014. Fajr Libya aimed to disperse and divide the House of Representatives. In his capacity as a man of influence over the Hattin Battalion and the Misrata Military Council, which led Fajr Libya through the internationally sanctioned Salah Badi— Bashagha was accused by the Tripoli Protection Force of conspiring against the capital with Salah Badi, and causing conflict and sedition. Salah Badi now leads the war efforts in Tripoli after having fought the GNA in 2018.

Bashagha, whoever, told the BBC on 5 January that armed groups did not follow the orders of the Interior Ministry or those of the GNA, adding that they had their own budgets and agendas and no one could stand in their way. The Interior Minister also indicated that those forces have leverage in the decision-making of the government in all fields from politics, security to economy.

In the three months that preceded the outbreak of the war on 4 April, UNSMIL’s Special Envoy also made several briefings to the Security Council and held several media interviews in which he confirmed the influence and control of the Tripoli militias in the decision-making process of the Libyan state. Salamé also accused the ruling political elite in Libya of looting the resources of the country, practicing systematic corruption, and obstructing political solutions. In the meantime, the Tripoli Protection Force submitted a statement to the Attorney General against Bashagha on 6 February accusing him of importing armored vehicles from Turkey with the aim of handing them over to ideological and radical groups.

Furthermore, the Tripoli Protection Force issued three statements confirming its non-compliance with the Presidential Council (PC) orders unless the PC had the full quorum of nine members. The militias were trying to block all the decisions issued by the Minister of Interior against them and his attempts to delegitimize them.

Militia Anarchy and Terrorism

Following the suicide attack on the GNA Foreign Ministry on 25 December 2018, Bashagha stated at a news conference in Tripoli that security chaos in Libya offers propitious conditions for the Islamic State and other terrorist groups to emerge. “Libyans are smart enough and know who works professionally and who works to spread chaos and anarchy,” said Bashagha, hinting at militias executing a foreign agenda on Libyan territory through unnamed foreign intelligence agencies.

Bashagha also stressed that the security situation in Tripoli was fragile—contrary to what he has been reiterating over the past six weeks, claiming that Tripoli enjoyed the highest security levels before Haftar came, sabotaged it and activated terrorism. The Minister of Interior also declared at the UNSMIL meeting in January, that the security arrangements remained ink on paper and were not implemented on the ground.

His allegations came at a time when the capital did not witness the emergence of any terrorists, during the recent war, from areas outside GNA jurisdiction. Those who descended upon Tripoli came from areas under GNA control such as Zawiya, Misrata and Khoms. They fight for, and report to, the Government of National Accord (GNA).

The anti-militia rhetoric of the GNA Interior Minister Bashagha seemed impressive at the time to large segments of the Libyan people, although many questioned his ability to take any action whatsoever against criminal militias without resorting to the military power of the city-state of Misrata to confront or deter them.

Since the beginning of April, however, Bashagha openly contradicted all his previous stances and statements. He now categorizes the LNA opposition as military gangs whilst the previous gangs and militias are now portrayed as supporting forces, heroes and martyrs sacrificing for the civilian state—the same ones who he previously accused of being responsible for looting and lawlessness.

The influence and control of key nodes of the state were also acknowledged by UNSMIL. A statement was issued on 1 November 2018 by UNSMIL on the attacks of armed groups on economic institutions which referred to the attack on the Aman Bank al-Siyahia Branch and the headquarters of Libyan Arab Foreign Investment Company (LAFICO) by Al-Nawasi Battalion, led by its field commander Mohamed Abou Dhra’a (a.k.a. al-Sondoug). The Sanctions Committee of the Security Council, as well as several credible international media and research reports, categorized this battalion as an anti-establishment force. UNSMIL said that these groups intervened in the work of those institutions to gain privileged access to financial resources. Prior to the afore-mentioned suicide attack, the Special Envoy briefed the Security Council on how these militias were obstructing economic reforms because they benefit from the differential between the official foreign exchange rate and the parallel market by opening Letters of Credits worth millions of dollars, driving the US Dollar rate to the unprecedented skyrocketing level of 10 Libyan Dinars for one US Dollar.

 

Conflicting Stances by Bashagha and the GNA 

Western diplomats contacted by Al-Marsad at the time of the UNSMIL meeting to mobilize international support for the Interior Ministry of the Government of National Accord, confirmed the statements of Bashagha about militias, whether during the UNSMIL meeting or in other bilateral meetings or even in press releases. When Al-Marsad contacted them last week to include their comments in this report on the ongoing war in Tripoli, some streesed the need for a ceasefire and the neutralizing of terrorist elements. What is striking, however, is that most of them asserted that their governments find it difficult to change their positions on the GNA militias after the picture that was painted by Bashasgha and on the basis of his previous issued letters and statements. And we add to this perception the reports of the security services and intelligence agencies before and after the recent war on the status of these forces and their various alliances, both with militants and also with smugglers of people, fuel and goods. Some of them are also linked to activities connected to financing terrorism through trafficking.

Sources in the United States also indicated that Bashagha, during his US visit in February this year, depicted to Washington the same grim image of these groups which he described as militias. The Interior Minister asked the US government’s help to impose his security framework in the capital. This is not a secret since Bashagha candidly expressed this view in a televised interview in the US capital with Al-Hurra TV.

This may explain the coldness of the American response to the GNA, and also the support expressed by President Donald Trump and his National Security Advisor, John Bolton, to Field Marshal Haftar in order to eliminate these groups that Bashagha, Salamé and others have already portrayed as criminal groups. The assessment of militias chaos and their criminal network and influence correspond to Haftar’s own description of the situation in Tripoli, and perhaps too with that of the intelligence community and security agencies who assessed the de facto state of affairs. This may partly answer the concern of these militias groups and their leaders and their disappointment with the rapidly declining international support for them and for the Government of National Accord (GNA)—with the exception of the Turkish, Qatari declared support, and, to some extent, the Italian undeclared support, as well the British backing of the GNA. The latter seems to have also reduced its support to an unexpected level.

“Our decisions towards these militias, the impression we have about them, their obstruction of security, their spreading of chaos which allowed the IS infiltration, the collapse of the Libyan economy, and the boom of smuggling activities, were all based on the reports we received, before this current war, from the Government of National Accord and its advisers and ministers,” a senior European diplomat who asked not to be identified told Al-Marsad.

Salamé, in public briefings, asserted that militias report lies to the government. They control the exchange rate and blackmail the investment authority, ministries and companies. Their conflicts revolve around controlling and abusing financial resources that in reality belong to all Libyans.

It is clear that the international community must not change its understanding of the situation and the criminal status of the militias involved based merely on contradictory strategic and political interests of the GNA.

The international community must call on all parties to comply with the recent statement of the European Union calling for firm action to be taken on the ground to exert authority over terrorists, smugglers, and all those who are under international sanctions and anyone associated with them.

© Al Marsad English. 2019.

 

Additional Resources:

قوة حماية طرابلس : لاطاعة للرئاسي مجدداً إلا عندما يكون قراره مجتمعاً بكامل أعضائه التسعة

قوة حماية طرابلس : السراج يواصل العبث بتمكين عناصر جماعة الإخوان المنبوذة من مفاصل الدولة