The need to break down the profitable cycle of crime and violence in Libya
Elissa Miller has written an article for the Journal of Middle Eastern Politics and Policy detailing the perpetuating cycle of crime and civil war in Libya. In the article Miller argues that any efforts to improve governance in Libya have to address the underlying roots of instability that fuel both criminality and violence. The author goes on to explore how militia groups have taken advantage of the power vacuum and instability that ushered in after the removal of Qaddafi in 2011, suggesting:
In Sabratha, for example, the smuggling economy offered militias critical financial returns. Notably, a June 2017 UN report identified the Dabbashi brigade as one of the main facilitators of migrant smuggling in the city. The August 2017 deal which enlisted Dabbashi to prevent smuggling threw off the balance of power in Sabratha. Dabbashi’s decision to shift its activities from smuggling to preventing departures was likely driven by more than just financial interests, as it greatly benefited from the smuggling trade. One Sabratha resident suggested the Italy-Dabbashi deal was attractive because it allowed the militia to garner legitimacy as “the only possible interlocutors to ensure city security and the only ones able to block human trafficking” from both Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA) and Italy. Italy’s reported funneling of cash and logistical support to Dabbashi through the GNA therefore benefited all parties; the GNA appeared to exercise control over Dabbashi, the militia received political legitimacy, and Rome avoided accusations of direct engagement with armed criminal groups. In effect, the Italy deal turned “yesterday’s traffickers [into] today’s-trafficking force”.
However, while Dabbashi gained legitimacy from this deal, other militias engaged in migrant trafficking suffered. The prevention of migrant departures impacted the interests of the al-Wadi militia, whose smuggling activities and income were subsequently threatened. Al-Wadi and its allies reacted strongly to Dabbashi’s interruption of the smuggling trade; violence broke out, and al-Wadi succeeded in pushing Dabbashi out of Sabratha after several weeks of fighting.
The clashes are significant because they demonstrate the manipulation of national ideological narratives in local disputes in Libya. The fighting in Sabratha was not confined to Dabbashi and al-Wadi; alliances crystalized that reflected the broader ideological divide in Libya. Al-Wadi and its allies took advantage of an anti-terrorist narrative that is heavily propagated by strongman Khalifa Haftar, the key eastern leader in Libya’s east-west split. Haftar regularly labels his foes, including GNA officials, as “terrorists” in order to delegitimize their positions and bolster his credentials as a bastion against extremism.
It came as little surprise that al-Wadi, which has ties to Haftar’s forces, leveraged this anti-terrorist rhetoric against Dabbashi. Al-Wadi used the civil war narrative of a legitimate battle against extremists to counter the threat to its smuggling operation posed by Dabbashi and to undercut the rival militia’s legitimacy. As a result, the motivations behind the violence expanded from mere militia rivalries to ideological interests. The head of Sabratha’s Military Council summed up the clashes, noting that “this is a war that started between human traffickers, then snowballed into an ideological and political one”.
Click here to read the article in full.