Libya: A smuggling hypermarket

Javier Martin – EFE

4 minute read

TUNIS, Tunisia: Feeling powerless against the anarchy that surrounds the smuggling of oil, fuel, weapons and people in Libya, the mayor of the coastal city of Sabratha has made an impassioned plea for help.

Hasan Dhawadi says his city simply does not have the means to dismantle an entrenched smuggling trade that has involved entire families for generations, and moves tens of millions of euros every year.

He says political instability, and the economic crisis that has gripped Libya since the fall of dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, had opened the door for opportunistic entrepreneurs to forge alliances with smugglers.

"We need outside help," Dhawadi says.

Smuggling any commodity is a profitable enterprise in Libya, a failed state without a government or a unified military.

Often clans from the same tribe specialise in different sectors of this illicit industry. Some sell weapons. Some sell fuel. Others sell illegal journeys to desperate people.

"They work like the big supermarkets - there is the fuel section, immigrants, weapons, cars, food," a European intelligence official working in the region tells EFE on condition of anonymity.

"It is very difficult to fight them.They know the terrain, they have been in the business for a long time and they are well protected by heavily-armed militias."

Occasionally, the Libyan coastguard intercepts an oil tanker near a beach, or the Tunisian authorities stop a truck at the border.

"But ... profits with little risk allows (all kinds of smuggling) to continue. And it will not stop while gasoline remains cheaper than a bottle of water in Libya," Dhawadi warns.

The mayor says that for many young Libyans - without jobs or future prospects - joining militias or turning to smuggling is an easy decision. The intelligence officer agrees, saying: "We are not facing a new phenomenon. Smuggling is an activity that has always been seen in Sahel, even with Gaddafi, the difference being that it was controlled by the regime itself which took over the routes."

The Tuareg and Tebu semi-nomadic tribes have lived in the inhospitable sands bordering Sudan, Algeria, Chad, Tunisia, Niger and Egypt for centuries, controlling the ancient caravan routes of the desert until Gaddafi perverted their atavistic way of life.

"That region is the main operations centre for networks dedicated to sending immigrants to the north," says Frederic Wehrey, a researcher at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

"Any attempt by Europeans to stem the migratory crisis off the coast of Libya is doomed to fail if governance and security problems in the south are not resolved."

Wehrey says the struggle between communities and ethnic groups for control of oil fields, smuggling routes and the border itself is complicated by national political conflict and the interference of outsiders.

During the revolution against Gaddafi, part of the Tuareg tribe joined rebel ranks, although most of them stayed with the regime until the end.

After the overthrow, some Tuaregs joined the rebellion in Al-Azawad, a region in northern Mali, while the rest stayed in Sabha, the capital of southwest Libya, alienated by the new authorities.

The Tebu tribe took advantage of the situation and snatched the smuggling business in Kufrah district from the Arab tribe of Al Zaway, favoured by Gaddafi, with help from people smugglers in Sudan.

In April this year, in Rome, both tribes renewed a pact to divide the 5000km-long (3107 miles) desert border, and the illegal trade with the Arab tribe Ould Sulaiman.

Their goal is to curb the ambitions of Marshal Khalifa Haftar, the strong man of eastern Libya, who has deployed forces to Sabha in an attempt to conquer the entire country. 

"Haftar knows that the south is essential. In addition to oil, he wants the smuggling routes. Both for profit and to stem the flow of weapons and money given to jihadist groups like the Islamic State, or al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)," a local security source tells EFE.

The agreement in Rome coincided with the launch of a plan to stop smuggling in Libya by the UN-backed government in Tripoli, with the aid of international funds.

According to security officers in the Libyan town of Nalut, about 2.6 million litres of smuggled fuel enters Tunisia daily via Dehiba pass, with the mafia behind that scheme also engaged in people smuggling from Tunisia, charging around $US2128 (1800 euros) per person.

The link between smuggling and the financing international terrorism is the last piece of this puzzle.

"There are no precise data, but we believe that AQIM is a fundamental factor in the illegal sale of oil and fuel in southern Libya," says a local security source attached to the triangle of cities - Awbari, Sabha and Murzuq - that are core to smuggling in Libya.

Military leaders of the coastal town of Misrata have established a connection between terrorist movements and mafias that smuggle people.

During the liberation of Sirte, military officials said some of the women sexually enslaved by terrorists were actually undocumented migrants who had been bought from smugglers.

MINDS/efe