Archive for the ‘Libya’ Category

Why does EU tolerate Libya’s smuggler kingpin as migrants drown?

Monday, August 29th, 2016

originally published October 16, 2015 in Asia Times News & Features, Middle East (

Libya’s Smuggler King has an EU company and a ship that visits Malta

Links between human, weapons and diesel fuel smuggling are there to see, if the EU wants to

Zwara, the westernmost town on the Libyan coast, boasts turquoise water, endless sand beaches, and delicious fresh fish. You can even sit at a beach café at night and have an espresso while gazing at the Mediterranean. Over the course of several visits in 2011-12, it seemed the most Europeanized place in Libya. But for the last three months, local sources complain that the fish stores have been empty: every fishing boat is involved in human trafficking instead. And photos of corpses of drowned migrants on those endless beaches have shocked the conscience of the world. On Sept. 19th alone, almost 4,800 migrants were rescued off Libya. An estimated 130,000 have crossed from Libya to Europe this year to date, mainly from Subsaharan Africa.

LibyaOn Sept. 28, the European Union Naval Force for the Mediterranean (EUNav) announced that on October 7 it would begin “Operation Sophia” to intercept smugglers’ ships and capture their crews, escalating from the current policy of merely tracking them. EU authorities have identified 17 Libyan boats involved in the trade. It is likely most if not all belong to citizens of Zwara.

One question is why the EU authorities made an advance announcement that gives the ship owners time to switch to other vessels. Another is why the announcement was made just as the summer smuggling season draws to a close.

The biggest question is why the EU ignores the fact that migrant smuggling is just one part of the activities of a well-funded mafia that includes not only the expected Libyan citizens, but also EU citizens.

The EU has mainly turned a blind eye to the trade that brings weapons and ammunition into Zwara for the jihadi coalition controlling Western Libya, Libya Dawn, and takes subsidized Libyan diesel fuel in exchange. By perpetuating the Libyan civil war, this trade also takes lives.

A liter of diesel fuel costs about .10 Libyan dinar or .065 euro in Libya, but upwards of a euro in Malta or elsewhere in southern Europe. The UN has banned both sides of the trade, but the EU doesn’t pay attention very often. (See this recent case of a boat impounded by Greece with weapons aboard)

On Oct. 12, the Libyan Central Bank decided to lift the subsidy on diesel and other subsidized goods in the interest of slowing the hemorrhage of cash out of the country. Fuel represents 70 – 80% of the $9 billion Libya has been spending annually on discounted goods.
Group of Zwara rebels at Libyan-Tunisian border in August 2011

Group of Zwara rebels at Libyan-Tunisian border in August 2011

Anything that will stop the flow of weapons to Libya Dawn is a good thing. They are an unsavory lot, closely linked to Ansar al Sharia in Benghazi, the listed terror group that took part in the killing of US Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans on Sept. 12 2012. There is hard evidence that Libya Dawn funds the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council, the umbrella group of terrorists that includes Ansar. Libya Dawn regularly sends shipments of weapons and ammunition by sea from Tripoli to Benghazi to re-supply Ansar and other terror groups, including IS, who are fighting the Libyan National Army there. The internationally recognized Libyan government is based in the eastern cities of Bayda and Tobruk and controls the east and some of the south; Libya Dawn controls Tripoli and most of the coast from Misrata to the Tunisian border, including Zwara.

To this day, despite its financing of Ansar and its complicity in the smuggling trades, the UN and EU consider Libya Dawn as a legitimate negotiating partner in peace talks with the internationally recognized government. And it looks to many Libyans as though the EU does not want to act against the diesel smuggling and arms trafficking that allows the human smugglers the space to operate.

“The Italians want to stop this migrant business,” said a Zwara citizen, “Bashir,” who is one of a small group who are discreetly acting against the smugglers. “But they don’t care about the other smuggling. We want to stop all! I have met with people from Italian embassy (to Libya, now situated in Tunis) five or six times. They know the names of all the smugglers.”

As Bashir (real name withheld to protect him) and others explain, a group of interlinked crime families, similar to Italian Mafia families and including ties to them, handles human trafficking, diesel smuggling, drug smuggling, and weapons importation. The kingpins have to be taken down — otherwise, people who specialize in human trafficking will just shift to cocaine or weapons or alcohol smuggling for awhile. (Diesel smuggling is the only business that requires specialized ships.) Tolerating one kind of smuggling is like allowing an American Mafia family to continue to control illegal gambling and drug dealing, but to crack down only on prostitution. But many Zwara people think the Europeans don’t really care about any illicit commerce, except that which deposits unwanted migrants on their shores.

As evidence for this, Bashir points to the fact that Zwara’s smuggling king is a shareholder in and a director of a Malta company, and Malta is an EU country.

The smuggling kingpin is Fahmi Slim Mousa Ben Khalifa, aka Fahmi Slim. Slim, a dark-skinned Zwara native said to be about 45, served a few years of a 15-year sentence for drug smuggling in Gaddafi days before the revolution opened the prisons. Now he is so powerful that part of the harbor in Zwara is known simply as “Fahmi Slim’s harbor.” While he is not directly involved with human smuggling currently, locals say that he works with some of the human smugglers in other illegal ventures.

Editor’s note: an official of an international agency confirms that Fahmi Slim is involved in fuel-smuggling activities in Libya and is known to French, Maltese and Italian authorities as a person of interest.

The EU could put pressure on Slim and anyone he controls easily: Fahmi Slim is a partner in and director of the Maltese corporation ADJ Trading Ltd. ADJ, under its old name of ADJ Swordfish, also owns a tanker called Basbosa Star that has a history of movements that suggest diesel smuggling. As Zwara does not have an oil terminal – the nearest one is in Zawia, 100km east – any tankers that call at its port are ipso facto suspect. Asia Times editors have seen evidence linking the Basbosa Star and its sister ship, the tanker Amazigh F, in suspicious activity.

Now, new documents (1) also show Slim’s name on a ship that is being sold with the permission of the Tripoli-based Libya Dawn anti-government. The ship, carrying the IMO number 7900522, was impounded in Misrata, Libya for diesel smuggling years ago, in 2008 or 2009. It remained in Misrata harbor even after Gaddafi’s fall, slowly decaying, until this spring, when the Libya Dawn coalition that controls Misrata decided it wanted the ship — now derelict — removed.

The vessel is shown on the shipping website Equasis as owned by one “Benkhalifa FSM” since May 22 2015. That is Fahmi Slim’s full legal name. Each ship has a unique IMO number from build to scrap, so it is an important way to identify ships after name changes. On Equasis, the name of the vessel numbered 7900522 is given as Tiuboda 1. Tiuboda is near Zwara, and Fahmi Slim is chairman of a Libyan company named Tiuboda Oil Services, #41992.
Troodos ship photo

Troodos/Tiuboda 1 ship photo

On another shipping website,, the IMO number 7900522 is associated with the name Troodos – owned by an obscure Spanish company, AlvarGonzalez SA, using a Georgian flag (5). This appears to be the owner from the time when the ship was impounded.

Currently the ship is being marketed by a Mr Albarasi. He showed a prospective Libyan buyer a three page contract from the Tripoli Ministry of Transportation, stating that he, Emrajaa Embarek Abdul Hamid, bought the ship from the deputy Minister of Transportation, one Abdul Alatef Mahmod Ben Amer. On the first page, the document states that the Acting Minister gave permission for the sale on March 30, 2015.

Reached by Viber and responding to written questions in Arabic, Mr Albarasi said he is the sole owner, that “he owns it according to a contract made with Ports and Marine Transportation” and that “nobody else has anything to do with the ship.” He also wrote, “Troodos is the name of the ship.”

Troodos_Tiuboda 1 photoThen, on Sept. 19, reached through the prospective buyer who asked not to be identified, Mr Albarasi admitted that although he had bought the ship from the Tripoli ministry, his partner, one Abdulkarim Nassraat, later sold it to Fahmi Slim, who is now the owner. (Equasis shows Slim bought the ship on May 22.) Zwara sources identify Mr Nassraat as a Zwara native. Note that the sale occurred while the Troodos/Tiuboda 1 was still a derelict ship, unable to move under its own power. This makes it look very much like a “wash” sale.

One piece of Tripoli Port (Lebanon) paperwork –in English – locates the ship, under its Fahmi Slim-registered name of Tiuboda 1, in Tripoli, Lebanon harbor on July 15, “coming from Malta.” Mr Albarasi explained in Arabic, “The ship was towed from Misrata to Malta and the engines were maintained there.” He says the vessel is currently in Beirut obtaining an inspection.

If the EU wants to put pressure on those who have the power to stop human trafficking in Zwara, Fahmi Slim is an excellent place to begin. Why was his ship allowed in Maltese waters? Why is his Maltese company allowed to conduct business? The sale of the “Troodos/Tiuboda 1” to Mr Albarasi and its sale barely two months later to Fahmi Slim suggests that the Tripoli anti-government works hand in glove with Slim. In this instance as in others, Libya Dawn behaves more like a criminal enterprise than a government. Isn’t it time for the EU to bring its formidable soft power to bear to stop these needless deaths by stopping the money flows to the smugglers?


(2)Fahmi Slim’s full legal name

(3)AlvarGonzalez SA

Ann Marlowe, a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute based in New York City, has written for the Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, Tablet Magazine and other publications. She visited Afghanistan 18 times and spent 4 months in Libya in 2011-12. She tweets about Libya at @AnnMarlowe.

Do We Really Want to be Members of a Tribe?

Thursday, July 7th, 2016


Sebastian Junger’s fascinatingly wrong-headed ‘Tribe: on Homecoming and Belonging’

By Ann Marlowe
July 7, 2016 • 12:00 AM

“The question for Western society isn’t so much why tribal life might be so appealing—it seems obvious on the face of it—but why Western society is so unappealing.”

This statement early in Sebastian Junger’s new paean to tribal togetherness is, on the face of it, rubbish. Western society’s lack of appeal must be news to the millions of people who try, often at risk of their lives, to enter the United States, Canada, Australia, Great Britain, and the European Union each year as migrants or immigrants, apparently having decided that all that tribal connectivity in Somalia, Eritrea, Iraq, Afghanistan, or Syria (to name the countries that were the top sources of migrants to the E.U. in 2015) was something they could live without. Such rashness alerts us that Tribe is one of those eccentric screeds where everything looks like a nail because the author has a hammer. (But then, 2016 is a year in which this seems to be a feature of political thinking.)

Junger argues that the loss of the tribal environment in which human beings evolved helps to explain the 2008 financial crisis, mass shootings, and insurance fraud. He even argues against the American and Northern European practice of making children sleep by themselves in their own rooms—after all, our primitive ancestors didn’t do that, so it must cause problems. And yet Junger never defines what he means by “tribe.” The closest he comes is near the end of the book: “Acting in a tribal way simply means being willing to make a substantive sacrifice for your community.” But Americans already have one of the world’s highest levels of community engagement in terms of volunteerism, charitable giving, and attendance at religious worship.

Junger wants something more intense than normal life. Natural disasters, he argues, “Turn back the clock on ten thousand years of social evolution. Self-interest gets subsumed into group interest because there is no survival outside group survival, and that creates a social bond that many people sorely miss.” He’s in love with the immediately post-Sept. 11 upsurge of group cohesion, and some of this was a good thing. He points out that there were no mass shootings for a year after Sept. 11 and that “rates of violent crime, suicide and psychiatric disturbance dropped immediately. … New York’s suicide rate dropped by around 20 percent in the six months following the attacks, the murder rate dropped by 40 percent.” But there was also a circling of the wagons, a suspicion of the foreign and the Muslim, a lot of flag waving by people careful to stay far from danger.

Is American society circa 2001-2 really something we want to revisit? Did we fight smart wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as a result? Was abridging our freedoms at home really the best way to enlarge the cause of freedom in the world? Is the rhetoric of “homeland” and “belonging” to a larger entity and “solidarity” helpful going forward?

Junger’s book is sorely lacking in analysis, counter-examples, subtlety, and organization. His prose has the rounded homogeneity of best-selling nonfiction. Yet the itch Junger is scratching is widespread in advanced societies, and the regressiveness of his argument is very of the moment, and he knows something about what he speaks: A seasoned war correspondent, he is the author of War, about an extended embed at a remote combat outpost in Afghanistan, and the companion film Restrepo. And as a national level distance runner at Wesleyan, he also spent a summer training with Navajo runners.

Yet Junger’s tribalism is vague. He mainly refers to Native American tribes, though he does mention a few African tribes. As anthropologists have been at pains to establish, tribes come in all sorts of flavors, and some are very nasty. It matters, because the crux of Junger’s argument is that human beings used to live happily in a certain way for hundreds of thousands of years in small tribes, and we no longer do, and our genetics change much more slowly than our living conditions, so we are profoundly maladjusted to the way we live now. This in turn leads to greedy bankers who disrespect the tribe by taking more than their share and PTSD for returning warriors, because war used to involve the whole tribe, not just a small segment of society. It’s hard not to see Junger’s model for how human beings used to live as yet another primitivism fantasy, an imaginary paradise loosely gleaned from American Indian life. It’s nostalgie de la boue—a term coined in 1855, just as the lower layers of European society were finally starting to escape the mud.

Moreover, the term tribal today is often used to describe social organization in some spectacularly unsuccessful places, like Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Kenya, and (with less validity) Libya. In some places in these countries belonging to a tribe is more or less important. But these societies, unlike American Indian life as Junger characterizes it, suffer from severe gender inequality, endemic corruption, conflict, and often from extremes of wealth and poverty.

But let’s give Junger the benefit of the doubt, say that human beings evolved under something like the conditions of the nicer American Indian tribes, and see what he has to say.


“Indians almost never ran away to join white society,” Junger notes. But so many Americans who do not claim Indian identity have Indian great-great-great grandmothers or -fathers that plenty of Indians must have entered white society. From my anecdotal knowledge, most of the captives lived on the frontiers and were not part of the ruling elites. They had pushed out to the places where the forest met the fields for cheaper land or more privacy; they were not abducted from Boston or Richmond. My hunch is that the captives who chose to stay were predominantly lower income, lower status, less educated: They were making a rational choice in the context of their position in white society. As Junger points out, “Indian society was essentially classless and egalitarian,” and a lower-status white person might do better relatively there.

As to the appeal of Native American life to non-Native Americans, it may well have been relaxed and companionable and egalitarian, but it did not offer much scope to the intellectual or cultural interests of cultivated Europeans (or for that matter Chinese or Japanese) at the time. How appealing would it be to spend the rest of your life in a society of 100 to 1,000 ethnically homogeneous people, without access to writing, science, philosophy, more than one type of cooking, chess, more than one type of music, more than one type of dance, more than one type of fashion, painting, or a variety of sports? Even in the 18th century, it meant no horse-drawn carriages, no roads, no Homer, no Shakespeare, no flower gardens, no piano, no silk, no architecture, no metal tools, no fine china, no furniture, no number theory.
‘Acting in a tribal way simply means being willing to make a substantive sacrifice for your community.’

Junger is also curiously silent about the moral and spiritual life of the Indian tribes. He might have noted that at the time of the first settlers, Protestantism was also becoming the dominant religion of northern and Western Europe. Protestantism demanded individual moral judgment and constant self-scrutiny (rather like Judaism). The notion of a career as providing meaning in life was just beginning to grow and with it the idea that one was responsible for one’s success or failure in worldly terms, and that it all had something to do with goodness. All of this is hard stuff; that’s why many people in the West, and even more in the Rest, still don’t like it.

It’s easier to live in a shame culture, not a guilt culture, and that’s what Native America was. The Indians may have lived blamelessly, even virtuously, but without forming independent moral judgments, figuring out one’s identity as an autonomous individual, even opposing the group if one thought they were wrong. When people are caught up in a larger-than-life drama, good or bad, whether a natural disaster or an event like Sept. 11, they find themselves back in a shame culture, where self-interrogation is less important than meeting group expectations. And for some people, this has good effects.

Junger’s two favorite idylls, military life and Native American life, meet along an existential dimension: In both of them, you don’t need to engage in a daily struggle to achieve your purpose in life. Most of us in advanced, urbanized cultures have to confront disturbing existential questions every day. What have I accomplished today? What’s my plan? Am I living rightly? Is everything I’m doing today furthering that plan?

This sort of interrogation is a part of Jewish culture even among non-religious Jews and surely explains the celebrated neuroticism and melancholy of Jews. Which brings me to another issue: I can’t see the word “tribe” without thinking of the phrase, “member of the Tribe.” Maybe it’s the same for Junger, who is half-Jewish on his father’s side. I’ve never liked this phrase, which implies that Jews are born, not made, and which mistakes what is great about Judaism. Our ancestors were not very like the American Indians Junger extols: They invented monotheism and wrote the Bible and started abstract thinking and one of the great schools of legal reasoning thousands of years ago. All of this proved to be essential to modern life. All of it was accessible to people who were not born Jews.


In tribal life, as in the American military, many of the existential questions are answered for you once you make the big choice to sign up. That’s why there are people who flounder in civilian life but succeed brilliantly in the military. That’s also why some 18th-century captives presumably made great Indians, but would have been lost in Providence or Philadelphia.

So, yes; living in the non-tribal world is harder and often sadder. Junger says: “The more assimilated a person is into American society, the more likely they are to develop depression during the course of their lifetime, regardless of what ethnicity they are.” Of course! If you’re a Chinese immigrant waiter working 18 hours a day and sharing a two-bedroom with 15 other men, you don’t have the luxury of depression. But a Chinese-American investment banker has time to agonize over whether he is really actualizing himself, really married to the right person, really living in the right city. “According to a global survey by the World Health Organization, people in wealthy countries suffer depression at as much as eight times the rate they do in poor countries.” Well, yes. If I’m sure of my food for the day, I start thinking about existential issues, and often this leads to anxiety or feelings of inadequacy.

In Tribe, Junger does not mention any of this; war and tribal life are all about camaraderie, never about how they solve the existential questions. Perhaps because of the simplistic view he takes of war, Junger also errs in his argument in Tribe that PTSD is a disease of re-entry into a fragmented society. This is unfair in a couple of ways to the military and rather unfortunate given recent medical research on the physical basis of at least some PTSD. Junger, whose website features a photograph of the author in body armor on an embed, is a great admirer of the American military, but just as he ignores the aspects of military life that are easier than civilian life, he also ignores the burdens of military discipline and of command.

Part of the reason for this, I think, is that Junger’s fallen into a common trap among military reporters: thinking you’re having the full experience when you’re just an observer. Sentences like, “At one point I and the men I was with made our way to a front-line position” and “We lost one of our packhorses in the barrage” are a clue that Junger misunderstands his role. Reporters have few of the moral burdens of the combatants. No journalist fires at the car that doesn’t slow down for the checkpoint and then finds out that it contains the dead bodies of a not very bright father and his perfectly innocent Iraqi family of eight. No journalist sends a SEAL team on a mission knowing some of them will not come back—or sends four young low-ranking enlisted on a routine re-supply convoy that ends in their crippling by IED explosion. All this must be processed on re-entry.

Then there is the impact of IEDs. It’s not uncommon for American soldiers with multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan to have experienced several IED blasts. This is very different from a World War II soldier’s experience. Junger notes that “roughly half of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have applied for permanent PTSD disability. Since only 10 percent of our armed forces experience actual combat, the majority of vets claiming to suffer from PTSD seem to have been affected by something other than direct exposure to danger.” He’s right to notice that there is a mismatch—and some fraud and freeloading—here. But that 10 percent figure is as sketchy as it is hard to verify, and it’s irrelevant in the new wars, where combat is not what’s most likely to kill you. Supply specialists, drivers, cultural experts, or engineers who had the bad luck to be in the wrong convoy can die or receive disabling injuries in an instant.

Junger’s view of PTSD as a mainly or wholly psychological ailment is also turning out to be incorrect. Medical studies are emerging now which prove what seems common sense: The human brain is injured by being multiply concussed. Just in the last months, it’s emerged that there are distinctive changes in the brain from concussions that can affect reasoning, mood, and behavior. Here is the key medical article and here is the New York Times Magazine piece about it.

More than 340,000 veterans have been diagnosed with Traumatic Brain Injury (admittedly most not from IEDs), which can take months or years to manifest. Part of the reason for the high numbers of vets applying for disability is that people are surviving what would have been lethal wounds in earlier wars. Junger views it as a paradox that disability claims rise as mortality falls, but it makes perfect sense: We have a lot more injured vets coming back who would have died in WWII from the same injuries. So, if PTSD is often a response to surviving IED explosions that jar the brain, it doesn’t make much difference what kind of integration into society the returning vet has.

But again like that man who happens to have a hammer, Junger is intent on seeing all of life through the lens of the military and tribalism. Something Junger says about the current debased political discourse is applicable here: “Reviling people you share a combat outpost with is an incredibly stupid thing to do, and public figures who imagine their nation isn’t, potentially, one huge combat outpost are deluding themselves.” Sympathetic though I am with Junger’s message, America should not be looked at as a combat outpost—either by foreigners, or worse, by Americans.

We have never been Sparta; the founders were clear that we were not to be a garrison state with a standing army but a nation devoted to “the pursuit of happiness” in whatever way individuals wished. And it’s precisely because figuring out one’s desires is tough that life in the contemporary world is tough. Jews learned that, perhaps, before most other people. But regression to the values of tribalism is no answer.

The Next Dangerous Move in Libya

Wednesday, March 9th, 2016

(originally published in on February 22 2016:

Ann Marlowe

Chaos 02.22.16 12:01 AM ET
The Next Dangerous Move in Libya

The Islamic State is growing in Libya. But to fight it, the Libyan state has to be resurrected. Critical moves are expected in the next few days and weeks.

Almost every day brings a different European leader calling for military intervention to save Libya from the so-called Islamic State—but only once there is a single government in Libya with legitimate claims to control the entire country; one government, that is, to “invite” those foreign troops. And while the Europeans wait, the White House steps back even further, as The Daily Beast reported Thursday, telling the Pentagon to put its plans for a major intervention on hold.

Hence the urgency behind efforts to seat the painstakingly brokered “Government of National Accord” in Tripoli as soon as possible. But politically and militarily, that’s no simple matter, and the question of foreign intervention, seen from the ground in Libya, is even more problematic. The Italians who occupied Italy from 1911 to ’43 are believed to have killed or imprisoned a third of the population by 1934, when they declared the country “pacified.”

Today, the killing goes on, with supposedly surgical airstrikes by American forces. On Friday, American planes hit the coastal town of Sabratha, reportedly targeting a specific ISIS cell and, in the process, killing some 43 people. Yet there are no plans to move against the ISIS stronghold in the city of Sirte, because, once again, there is no fixed regime with which to coordinate such actions.

Who can trigger the chain of events that just might bring a unified government, foreign stabilization assistance, an end to ISIS and the many, many other things that need doing to resurrect this country?

One important player is Colonel Idris Madi of the Libyan National Army, the commander of the Tripoli manteqah or region, responsible for seating the new national accord government in the old national capital, even though, at the moment, the city is still under the tenuous control of dozens of extremist militia collectively known as Fajr Libya or Libya Dawn.

Like the rest of the national army, the colonel is under the command of the Ministry of Defense in Bayda, in eastern Libya, and this in turn is under the internationally recognized House of Representatives in Tobruk, which governs most of eastern Libya, some of southern Libya, and Zintan, a mountain town that is effectively an island separated from the coast by Libya Dawn territory. Zintan is just a two-hour drive away from the capital, but since August 2014 it’s been cut off by road.

Madi, with silver hair and mustache, glasses, and wearing a uniform with his colonel’s insignia, looks very different from the thuggish Tripoli militia leaders in their rumpled mercenary chic. He is very close to General Khalifa Haftar, the principle commander of the national army, and he holds the first rank in the Western region. Madi was with Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi until the dictator’s fall at the hands of the European-backed revolution in 2011.

As a Zintani, Madi has a big dog in the fight for Tripoli. The militias that had held the Tripoli airport until August 2014 were from Zintan, and there is no worse blood in Libya than between Zintanis and the Tripoli and Misrata militias that defeated them, destroying the airport in the process.

But Madi commands regular army troops, not militias, and was at pains to emphasize that militias cannot be involved in the process of seating the national accord government, or, “We will be back to square one.”

We spoke over Skype five years to the day after the Libyan revolution began in Benghazi—a very different time, when hopes were high and a manic idealism pervasive. But in recent times, after a year and a half of slow-boil civil war and economic collapse, Libya’s mood is decidedly grim.

Libya’s two contesting power centers, the one in Tobruk and the General National Congress in Tripoli, which is under the control of the Islamist “Libya Dawn” militias, are now under pressure from the international community to accept the Government of National Accord so that the country can face ISIS with a united front.

So, if all those ducks can be lined up, and the Libyan National Army has the backing of the Government of National Accord, what will it take to defeat the so-called Islamic State in their midst? Can the job be done without a lot of international help?

“Most Libyans don’t accept ISIS”, the colonel said. “But ISIS was a part of the Fajr government or collaborating with them.” The regular Libyan army “is able to defeat ISIS, not through airstrikes but on the ground,” he said.

“We just need international help for monitoring,” Madi continued, meaning intelligence on the wherabouts of militias and combatants. “We cannot talk about specific numbers. We need support of the international community. We need information—monitoring of borders and the movement of fighters inside the country. ”

The new Government of National Accord is a motley undistinguished group that few Libyans have greeted with enthusiasm, but most probably regard it as better than continued chaos. It was propped up by the United Nations on Dec. 17, 2015. The ministers-designate have spent the last two months in Tunisia and then Morocco trying to name a cabinet that will get the backing of the hitherto legitimate government in Tobruk, the legislature known as the House of Representatives or HoR. (Everything has an acronym in Libya.)
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On Tuesday the 23rd, the HoR is to vote on the latest iteration, a group of merely 18 ministers, down from 30-something, that has to please all the city-states and tribal groupings in the East. This is in itself a tall order, and it’s rumored that some of the names are so controversial that the vote will be name by name rather than for the whole slate.

Meanwhile, it was announced that the GNA has asked for international protection even to go to Tobruk for the vote, given the still very fragile security in the eastern stronghold of the legitimate government. Madi said nothing of this embarrassment, nor would he corroborate rumors that U.S. special operations forces already are in Western Libya cooperating with the national army.

“We don’t have any dealings with any U.S. forces,” he said, “but we will in the future.”

Assuming the HoR approves the new government, the real hurdle is seating it in Tripoli, controlled by the Islamist militias that seized the capital in August 2014. Madi seemed confident as he spoke (in Arabic, using a U.S.-educated translator).

“Two weeks after the House of Representatives approves the cabinet, we can bring them to Tripoli,” he said. “The commanders have lists of the soldiers and we are communicating daily.We will have about 6,000 soldiers and 2,500 policeman. The Libyan National Army has 10 regions. Each has to give 500 soldiers to this operation. In western Libya, there are 500 soldiers from the coast, 500 from the mountains and 200 inside Tripoli. “

The LNA’s plans for Tripoli revolve around the thousands of soldiers who are believed to be still loyal to the LNA but have to keep their allegiances secret because they live in Fajr-controlled towns. (A Libyan friend in that situation introduced me to Col. Madi online.) If you were rash enough to support the Tobruk government, you’d likely get your house burned down for your pains, and that’s the only asset most Libyans possess.

As these numbers suggest, everything military in Libya, a nation of roughly 6 million people, happens on a Lilliputian scale by American standards. Many former combatants estimate that fewer than 10,000 Libyans actually fought in the revolution against Gaddafi and that may be generous.

The problem is that tens of thousands of unemployed young men have joined the government-funded militias that have sprung up since then. One teenager I know has his own truck-mounted KPV 14.5mm heavy machine gun. Luckily he’s a good kid. Spending on these militias and their weapons has crowded out just about everything else, to the extent that Libyan hospitals now lack basic supplies. The country has committed suicide by militia.

Where will these well-paid, well-armed, mainly youthful Islamist militias that currently run rampant in Tripoli go if they are ousted?

Madi says “they must go to the borders.” Libya’s frontiers have been largely unpoliced for years now, allowing not only the headline-grabbing trafficking in subSaharan Africans en route to Europe, but the smuggling of drugs, alcohol, weapons and terrorists. The problem is that no one in Libya is very keen on being posted to a desolate desert border crossing. The militia members in Tripoli will almost surely say, “Why should I leave to go to the borders? Why can’t the LNA go there?”

And perhaps more importantly, what will make the militia commanders—who have been looting the national wealth for years—leave the big money institutions of Libya in Tripoli like the National Oil Company and Central Bank to the new government? What will make strongman Nuri Abu Sahmein, the president of the current regime in Tripoli, leave?

Here Col. Idris Madi allowed himself a small smile.

“This is a battle,” he said. “A three-part battle. Part is about dialogue, part is about new choices, and part is fighting. I think he will go peacefully. The Libyan people do not accept political Islam.”

He’s right, if election results are any guide. But Libya’s Islamists have not respected electoral results. How about Abdulhakim Belhaj, the ex-Libyan Islamic Fighting Group fighter whose political party failed to secure even one seat in the 2014 parliamentary elections, but whose fighters were among those who seized Tripoli in August 2014? Is there a role for him in the future?

“His reputation is very bad,” said Madi. “If it was good, he would have been elected. “

I asked about demands that Belhaj, Abu Sahmein and others be tried for war crimes in the Hague, or in Libya.

Madi said Libyans, “Don’t want to go for accountability at this stage. We need to get the country stable.” He went on to say, “It was a big mistake to disband the Libyan National Army similar to what happened in Iraq. This was because the Muslim Brotherhood wanted to build an army of its own.”

Like most Libyans, even military professionals, Madi emphasizes dialogue. Libyans settle most matters by talking, even in war. One commander I know was on his mobile phone to his opposite number during a “small war” between the Amazigh town of Zwara and its Arab neighbors in the spring of 2012.

Will there be a battle for Tripoli?

“No, I don’t think so. Except small fights in certain areas. There is another threat, which is ISIS.”

But it’s a barely concealed secret that many of the Islamists are willing to tolerate ISIS when it suits them. The colonel is quick to say, “The Fajr government is very weak and has other agendas. The Fajr Libya government includes ISIS, especially in Sabratha. Sometimes they fight ISIS, when it affects their interest, and other times they include ISIS or the LIFG or Ansar al Shariah. “

I asked Col. Madi about a basic logistical issue: the road between Tripoli and Tunisia has been blocked for months by fighting between rival Fajr militias. The condition has come to seem so permanent that an air taxi service now brings people from the furthest west town, Zwara, to Tripoli, and ancient Fajr helicopters ferry people back and forth to Sabratha, just east of Zwara and the reputed home to a sizeable ISIS contingent.

Madi seemed to think that the rival militias would stop fighting in the face of the LNA, and—again—that the real fight would be with ISIS.

The colonel denied that any Zintan militias will be allowed to operate as such in the effort to seat the GNA in Tripoli. But another Zintan source said that he has no doubt that some of the Zintan militia will participate in any operation in Tripoli, and that while Col. Madi has the highest formal military rank in the LNA in the West, he is not the strongest anti-Fajr commander in the West.

That title belongs to Osama Al Juwaili, leader of the military council of Zintan, a former defense minister of Libya circa 2012, who has connections with Misrata’s powerful Halbous and al Mahjoub brigades, currently occupying Tripoli. Supposedly Juwaili supports the Government of National Accord.

Another Zintan heavyweight is Emad Trabelsi, commander of the As-Sawaiq brigade of Zintan, which has between 300 and 1200 men. As-Sawaiq is rumored to be among the Zintan militias that will enter Tripoli. Some of the Misrata brigades in Tripoli have forged agreements with the Zintan brigades to allow a peaceful entry into Tripoli since the Misrata-Tripoli Islamist alliance has itself fractured, like everything else.

I asked Colonel Madi’s translator, another native Zintani, if there were big celebrations for the anniversary of the February 17 Revolution. (The first demonstrations began with a timid lawyers’ protest in Benghazi on Feb. 15, 2011, and picked up steam nationwide from there.) But this being Libya, it turned out that Zintan had celebrated the anniversary of the revolution on February 16, when the rebellion was said to have begun there.

This is an excellent example of both the beauty and the tragedy of Libya.

It’s a country of free, proud and by-and-large reasonably well-governed city states, where individuals also consider themselves free and equal, paying no deference to birth, rank, or position. (Wealth is another matter). Yet these city states cannot agree on when to celebrate their revolution, much less on a national government, and somehow all this theoretical freedom results in chaos, which doesn’t allow anyone real freedom, like the freedom to drive the coast road from Tripoli to Tunisia, or from Zintan to Tripoli, without dire consequences, or the freedom to not be kidnapped, or assassinated.

Zintan is a stark, bordering-on-grim place, though it has its own beauty, and while the Zintanis criticize the Tripoli militias for embracing political Islam or worse, the town is extremely. Women do not drive there, and indeed are almost never seen in the streets. The translator ended our talk by remarking wistfully that since he left his graduate program in electrical engineering in the U.S., his life has stagnated.

“I can’t even go to Tripoli. I’ve been stuck in Zintan for two years. When you mentioned going to the gym, I remembered so much about the United States. There is nothing to do here.”

It’s a common sentiment. Libya is not Afghanistan; it’s a wealthy oil state on the Mediterranean. Most Libyans have some experience of the world outside, and want to be part of it. The first step back to being a normal country would be the seating of the GNA in Tripoli. But at the moment, no one can predict when that day will come.