ISLAMISTS TIGHTEN THEIR GRIP ON STRATEGIC LIBYA

Libya

By Donnelly McCleland

Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar called on his forces on Saturday [23 May] to rally against Turkey, which has helped his Tripoli-based rivals turn the tide of a military conflict around the capital. Recent advances by forces aligned with the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA), including the seizure of a key air base, have thrown a year-long offensive on Tripoli by Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) into jeopardy. They have also drawn a threat by the LNA, which is backed by the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Russia, to carry out a massive air campaign in retaliation. (Reuters)

Islamist aspirations in Libya

Oil-rich Libya has been in chaos since the Arab spring movement and NATO bombing campaign that toppled Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. Under Gaddafi’s authoritarian, and often brutal rule, Libya had one of the highest standards of living in Africa. He pursued a form of Arab socialism and heavily repressed Islamist ambitions. Despite being a staunch Muslim, he forbade all forms of Islamism – the belief that Islam should guide social and political as well as personal life, a form of ‘religionised politics’ – in Libya and was an archenemy of the Muslim Brotherhood (a transnational Sunni Islamist organisation founded in Egypt by Islamic scholar and schoolteacher Hassan al-Banna in 1928, often banned and declared a terrorist organisation) for many years. Since Gaddafi’s death, Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic State (IS) did not waste time in re-establishing their presence in this highly strategic nation. According to Yossef Bodansky (in his in-depth article, Libya’s Gathering and Critical Jihad): “By mid-January 2016, the Islamist jihadist trend resolved to send a clear message to the West that any effort to establish a non-Islamist Libya was futile.” Libya is seen a critical nation for establishing the Caliphate and extending ambitions into Europe. Two key nations that support the Muslim Brotherhood is Qatar and Turkey.

Turkey’s involvement in Libya

Turkey has had extensive involvement in Libya, mainly covertly, but this increased dramatically in late 2019 with the signing of two controversial Memorandums of Understanding, one the “Delimitation of the Maritime Jurisdiction Areas in the Mediterranean”, and the second on “Security and Military Cooperation”, on 27 November 2019. Turkish officials claim there is no connection between Turkey’s Libya intervention and this maritime pact, and that it is “merely a coincidence” that it was signed on the same day as that of the security cooperation deal.  Many Turkish experts, however, agree that the sequencing of events suggests that the maritime deal was a gateway for increasing Turkish military support. 

According to the International Crisis Group, for more than a decade, “Turkey has sought maritime boundary delimitation agreements with Egypt and Libya that would challenge Athens’ assignment of large maritime jurisdiction areas to Greek islands and Cyprus, leaving a narrow strip of water and seabed to Turkey. Turkish officials and experts have long contended that the Greece-claimed continental shelf and its EEZ amount to an ‘imprisonment’ of Turkey, ‘the country with the longest coast’ in the Mediterranean.”  Subsequently, the stakes rose with the discovery of large natural gas reserves off the shores of Cyprus. This big find led in January 2020 to the signing of the EastMed Pipeline Project agreement by Israel, Greece and Cyprus, bypassing Turkey, to transport natural gas from the eastern Mediterranean to Europe via Greece. Deteriorating regional relationships and unsettled disputes further complicate the picture. Turkey’s relations with Egypt significantly worsened since the 2013 coup against President Mohamed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood member whom it supported. Turkey also does not recognise the Republic of Cyprus, and its relations with Israel had soured since 2010, and this only left Libya with which it still had good relations. And the Tripoli government needed Turkish military support to counter Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s forces.

In January 2020, The Guardian reported that two thousand Syrian fighters had travelled from Turkey to the battlefields of Libya. Turkey supported the Syrian opposition since the early days of the war in Syria, and they continued their support despite the growth of Islamist elements within the ‘rebel’ groups. Turkey’s military ‘powerplay’, while still heavily involved in the ongoing conflict in Syria, is seen as a necessary gamble – an effort to counter a coalition of Arab countries hostile to Turkey, which includes Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, Haftar’s main external backers. These countries staunchly oppose Muslim Brotherhood-related groups that gained political strength in the 2011 Arab uprisings and received support from Turkey’s ruling AK Party.  Turkey is sending a powerful signal to actors seeking to constrain it. As one Ankara-based analyst explained: “There is a sense that we are boxed in with no place to move. We need to find new allies, deepen [relationships with] those we have and create space that we can be in. Turkey is following a [regional] trend in its power projection, in order not to lose ground.”

Khalifa Haftar’s role

Khalifa Haftar is a Gaddafi-era general, captured during the war in Chad in 1987, and later released around 1990 in a deal with the United States government. He lived in the US for nearly two decades and gained US citizenship. A staunch nationalist, he only returned to Libya in 2011, due to concerns that his nation may be overrun by transnational jihadists and Islamists. He is a deeply divisive figure who has called for elections but whose opponents accuse of wanting to establish a military dictatorship, another Gaddafi. His supporters, however, claim that he is the only bulwark against an expansion of Islamic extremism. Haftar has regularly framed his operations as a “war on terrorism” and has described the Muslim Brotherhood as “the main enemy”. According to the International Crisis Group: “Because Haftar established his coalition in 2014 by bringing together disgruntled army officers with tribal, Salafi or regional militias and armed civilians, the lines between regular and irregular fighters were often blurred.” Haftar has also reportedly accepted assistance from Russian fighters from the paramilitary Wagner Group – who were considered to be instrumental in Haftar’s successes but were recently seen retreating from the increased Turkish support in Tripoli. Since there has been an increase in Russian presence in Libya, the US now considers Haftar as a threat to their strategic interests and consider Turkish interests as closer to their own.

Haftar’s recent military setbacks have caused many analysts to question whether he can come back from this or whether it will lead to fragmentation of his support base, and further instability. Some analysts do not believe Haftar will still be on the scene by the end of the year, and there are those who believe his absence will embolden Islamist ambitions in Libya.

FROM A CHRISTIAN PERSPECTIVE

Christianity has an ancient presence in Libya, but the light is fading. Evidence of Libyan Christian communities has been traced back to the century following Jesus’s birth. In three of the gospels, it was Simon of Cyrene — an ancient coastal city lying in the east of today’s Libya — who helped to carry the cross upon which Jesus was crucified. Libyans from Cyrene are recorded as being present at the time believers received the Holy Spirit on Pentecost (Acts 2:10). However, despite those early roots and influence, history shows that when Islam swept through in the seventh and eighth centuries, Christianity became mostly a religion of foreigners. In many Muslim-majority nations, being Muslim is synonymous with the particular culture, it is often considered unheard of that one can be anything other than Muslim. Proselytising and conversion are often punishable ‘offences.’ Sometimes, the only ‘exceptions’ are those who are from ethnic minorities with a history or tradition of Christianity, or foreigners working in the country. This is true in Libya as well. There are various estimates of the number of Christians in Libya, but many include foreigners working in Libya, or migrant workers (such as Copts from Egypt, Ethiopia, etc.), and most figures are outdated since many Christians have fled the years of war in the country. Suffice to say, the numbers are considered to be low, even as low as 50 native believers (in a population of 6.8 million), which would make it one of the least-reached countries. The current ongoing conflict also makes it an extremely dangerous place to utilise alternative means of sharing the Gospel. Libya is a country in desperate need of Christ, “But how can they call on him to save them unless they believe in him? And how can they believe in him if they have never heard about him? And how can they hear about him unless someone tells them? And how will anyone go and tell them without being sent? That is why the Scriptures say, ‘How beautiful are the feet of messengers who bring good news!’” (Romans 10:14-15)

Please pray with us:

  • For the Lord to raise up a leader in Libya who will lead righteously
  • For a breakthrough in the spiritual stronghold over the nation
  • For the few Libyan believers to be encouraged and sheltered from the physical and spiritual battles that rage around them

 

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IMAGE:

REUTERS/Hazem Ahmed

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