Libyan security forces advance during clashes with anti-government forces after an attack on a Benghazi police station in May 2014. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Bullets and ballots in Benghazi

Many residents of the Libyan city are preparing to leave for fear of more violence; others would leave if they could.

The ceasefire in Benghazi, the largest city in eastern Libya, lasted until just 3pm on 25 June, the day of national parliamentary elections. The new 200-member parliament will be called the House of Representatives and will replace the unpopular General National Congress (GNC). In a last-ditch attempt to appease the restive east of the country, the House of Representatives will sit in Benghazi, rather than the capital, Tripoli.

Yet five hours before the polling stations were due to close, fighting resumed in the city. News broke that the prominent human rights activist Salwa Bugaighis, an important voice in the 2011 uprising against Muammar Gaddafi, had been shot dead in her living room after she returned home from voting. Political assassinations are not uncommon in Benghazi, but Bugaighis is the most prominent woman killed.

In Tripoli the elections were met with indifference. Across the capital, most of the candidate campaign posters had been defaced. The empty polling stations hinted at a considerably lower turnout than for the 2012 elections, when over 60 per cent of the electorate voted in the GNC.

One reason for the poor turnout might be the change in the electoral system. In an effort to stop party infighting hijacking the process, all candidates – over 1,500 in total – had to run as independents. Few people I spoke to had any idea who they were voting for.

“People are also disillusioned with the authorities and fed up with the state of the country; we expect less than 20 per cent to come,” said Fawzia Bin al-Taiff, who was working at a Tripoli polling station.

The GNC limped on to the end of its tenure having failed to oversee the completion of a constitution or the formation of an effective government. Libyans do not know who their prime minister is: three men confusingly declared their premiership in May. One of them, Ahmed Maiteeq, a businessman from the coastal city of Misurata, was carried to the prime minister’s office atop a truck armed with anti-aircraft guns.

Meanwhile, the GNC’s main political blocs – the Muslim Brotherhood and their non-Islamist opponents – frequently manoeuvre their own militias to fight against one another, turning every political spat into a potential war.

The violence in Benghazi escalated in May when the renegade former army general Khalifa Hiftar, backed by a muddle of former special forces and what remains of the national army, launched his “Dignity” campaign to wipe out Islamist extremists. Groups such as Ansar al-Sharia, the Islamist organisation responsible for the September 2012 attack that killed the US ambassador Chris Stevens, had been threatening to take over much of the east of the country.

Hiftar and his army are intent on overpowering Libya’s many government-funded militias. These formed during the war and are fighting each other for territory and weapons. In recent years various armed groups have laid siege to the parliament and government, kidnapped (and then rescued) the prime minister and shut down oilfields in the east at a cost of as much as $30bn in lost revenues.

Many Libyans, weary of the violence, tentatively backed Hiftar’s plan in the naive belief that air strikes would knock out the Islamists and the other militias fighting together with them.

A month later, the battle is still raging and the general increasingly looks like any other political opportunist. The ministry of defence does not officially recognise Hiftar’s army. And citizens are caught up in the violence.

“They started shelling early after sunset on Ramadan,” said Walid, a 36-year-old engineer and supporter of Hiftar’s “Dignity” in Benghazi. He is planning to move his family to the US. “I passed by one of the main hospitals in the city and saw it was secured by Ansar al-Sharia. I’m disappointed and confused. I don’t know if we are winning or losing.” Walid says his daughter cries herself to sleep each night, to the sound of gunfire.

However, Hiftar believes he will be victorious. In Marj, the last major town before the front line, his spokesperson Mohamed el-Hejazi, a pilot in the Libyan air force, said that the general had at least 70,000 troops on his side as well as several MiG fighter jets and attack helicopters.

“We have completed 60 per cent of our goals,” he told me when we met at an empty hotel in the deserted town, though he was vague on details. Even after a month of air strikes, the four districts surrounding Benghazi are controlled by Hiftar’s opponents.

It is unclear how the general and his troops can afford to continue the battle, but el-Hejazi dodged my questions about funding. Unlike government-recognised militia groups, these forces do not receive GNC funding. Nor does Hiftar get funds from overseas.

Even so, the militia commanders fighting Hiftar do not sound confident and some hint at a future stalemate.

“Hiftar’s people call themselves the police and the army. They are political climbers who didn’t fight during the revolution – we are the ones who liberated the country,” said Mohamed al-Arieby, head of Libya Shield 2, a government-funded militia fighting alongside Ansar al-Sharia. A wiry young man with long dreadlocks, al-Arieby looks more like a hippie than a fighter. His nickname is Boka, meaning “vehicle pit”, which refers to his pre-war career as a car mechanic. “We will not leave the city and we will not let them in,” he said.

Many residents of Benghazi are preparing to leave for fear of more violence; others would leave if they could. “We are living in horror,” said Nada, a young mother of two children. “My kids sleep to the sound of shelling.”

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, After God Again

Show Hide image

Battle for Mosul: will this be the end of Islamic State?

The militant group's grip on power is slipping but it has proved resilient in the past.

The battle for Mosul is the latest stage in the long struggle to defeat Islamic State. The group has been around since the late 1990s in one form or another, constantly mutating in response to its environment. Undoubtedly its ejection from Mosul will be a significant moment in the group’s history, but it is unlikely to be its final chapter. The destruction of the group will only be complete when some fundamental changes occur within Iraq and the war in Syria comes to an end.

IS’s roots go back to a training camp established by the militant Islamist Abu Musab al Zarqawi in the late 1990s in Herat, Afghanistan. Founded as an army to overthrow the apostate regimes of the Levant, it fled to northern Iraq in the wake of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan post-9/11 where it re-established itself as a force alongside Ansar al Shariah, a hardline Salafi jihadi organisation.

As American attention shifted from Afghanistan to Iraq, the group was ideally placed to become one of the leading lights in the post-Saddam Iraqi insurgency. Brutally announcing itself to the world in August 2003 with successive attacks on the Jordanian Embassy in Baghdad, the UN headquarters and a Shia shrine in Najaf — the latter being the deadliest attack in Iraq that year with a death toll of 95 — the group grew to assume the mantle of al-Qaeda in Iraq. By 2006 this brand had become somewhat damaged through the brutal sectarian campaign the group waged, and when its founder, Zarqawi, died it sought to reinvent itself as the Mujahedeen Shura Council. This incarnation did not last long either, and eventually it assumed the title of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), alongside a more Iraqi leadership.

This was the start of a diffcult period in the group's history. Its excesses in Iraq (including indiscriminate slaughter of Shia Muslims to stir sectarian hatred and filmed decapitations of prisoners) lost it local support and led to the tribes in Sunni Iraq rising up and supporting the government in Baghdad's fight back against the group. By 2009, when the west abruptly stopped paying attention and withdrew from Iraq the group was largely perceived as in decline, with the Shia Muslim-led Iraqi government appearing to slowly assert itself more effectively across the country.

The terrorist attacks by the group continued. And the new government started to advance an increasingly sectarian agenda. These two played off each other in a downward spiral that was given a fresh boost of blood when the civil war in Syria erupted in 2011. Drawing on its existing networks (that were leftovers from when Syria was used as a staging point by the organisation to launch attacks into Iraq), the leadership sent a cell to Syria to explore what opportunities existed within the emerging fight there. This cell became the seed that grew into Jabhat al Nusrah and ultimately IS – a label the group adopted when in June 2013 IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi decided it was time to reveal this link between his Iraqi group and Jabhat al Nusrah. This led to divisions and the breaking up of the two organisations.

For IS, however, it was the beginning of an upward trajectory, building on this division to grow itself substantially in Syria (with Raqqa as its capital) and in 2014 taking over Iraq’s second biggest city of Mosul. We then reach the apex of IS’s success and the biggest expansion of the group yet.

It now seems that this growth had a shelf life of just two-and-a-half years. As the group appears to be losing Mosul, it is likely that we will see the beginning of a period of retraction. But this will not be its end – rather, it will flee back to the hills and the ungoverned spaces in Iraq and Syria from where it will continue a persistent terrorist strategy in both countries. Here it will bide its time until the moment presents itself to rise up. Waiting until the governance in Iraq and Syria fails its people again, the group can paint itself as the protector of Sunnis and once more build on that group's disenfranchisement to win supporters and occupy a space vacated by local governments.

IS's grip on power might currently be slipping but as history has shown, it has waxed and waned depending on the context it is operating in. We are now going to see a period of withdrawal, but unless attention is paid by the global community, it will expand again in the future.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). Visit his website at