Libya: the great power vacuum in Europe’s Near Abroad
and NATO’s growing role in securing Central Mediterranean
Roma, 16 giugno 2016
A. Context, background and nature of the crisis
B (2.3) People smuggling networks and migration
C. (3.1) NATO policing and training mission in Libya
D. (3.2) Maritime operation
A. Context, background and nature of the crisis
- Libya is the fourth-largest country in Africa and one of the least populated in the world compared to the size of its territory. It is mostly deserted hinterland represents an empty but strategic crossroad that interconnects four different geopolitical spaces: the Maghreb, the Mashreq, the Sahel and Central Mediterranean.
- The status of failing state wherein Libya has fallen since 2011 is of great concern for the European Union, representing at the same time a Somali-style hotbed at NATO’s Southern flank. The post Gheddafi civil war is now entering its fifth year and its relatively low-intensity shouldn’t overshadow the security threats impending on Europe and on the maritime security of Central Mediterranean.
- Libyan security scenario further deteriorated since the last NATO Summit in Cardiff. The on-going violence among militias has increased, as well as the political fragmentation among conflicting governments, backed by different foreign sponsors. The creation of a UN recognised government of national unity and its settlement in Tripoli in March 2016 is a positive development but it may fail to simplify the complexity of the political scenario and risks to become a further step towards political instability, where a multiple number of competing governments will be a multiplier of the already extensive fragmentation of military power along ethnic and tribal lines. The proliferation of national and sub-national entities increases the numbers of sovereignty vacuums that can be exploited by non-state entities – like Islamist terrorist organisations loyal to the Islamic State in Libya (ISL) or, like Ansar al Sharia, affiliated to AQIM – but also by criminal syndicates with transnational outreach, whose profits contribute to fuel the civil war and provide resource to extremist groups.
- This incoherent mix of pre- and post-modern security threats and challenges, is destined to grow substantially unchallenged due to the reasonable reluctance of NATO and other security-providing Organisations and States in engaging with troops on the ground in prolonged and treacherous “Afghanistan style” COIN operations. Unfortunately, such a commitment represents the necessary precondition to start any concrete action of State Building and Security Sector Reform in Libya. It is a clear situation of impasse that risks to leave Libya, as a forgotten “lost space” stretching from Sahara Desert to Central Mediterranean, creating a North – South and East West crossroad of instability that channels insecurity into the Mediterranean space and across MENA region.
- Exploiting the chaos in Libya and turning its territory into a geopolitical asset is of great strategic significance for ISIL and for other extremist groups affiliated with Al-Qaeda. Especially in the current phase of growing military pressure against ISIL, the self-proclaimed Caliphate is looking to Libya as the “best next” option where projecting its operational hubs and redirecting most of its foreign fighters, particularly those coming from North Africa and neighbouring Tunisia. Even if the military pressure on the Islamic State’s strongholds in Libya is at the moment increasing from local actors backed by western States, the power vacuum in the country is destined to remain high, since each present center of power will have only a very limited control of the territory and a small capacity of force projection. Without a more comprehensive political – military action the country will remain the reign of warlordism, tribal militias and criminal kingpins, with the only alternative to local chaos represented by the rise to power of Islamic fundamentalism with an international terrorist agenda. A dangerous Somalia in the Middle of the Mediterranean that neither NATO nor EU could afford to underestimate.
- A very dangerous circumstance is represented by the fact that the Libyan civil war is taking place substantially in an “open borders” environment, were a growing number of private actors are exploiting the absence of rule of law in order to create multiple hub of criminal activities just outside EU external borders. Weapons, drugs, human beings and bunker are the main illicit traffics that nowadays have transformed Libya not only into a transit country for different criminal activities, but into a strategic criminal hub.
- The hybrid character of the threats that are stockpiling in Libya, their proximity to the Mediterranean Sea and the present difficulties for projecting a stabilisation force in Libya, will configure a persistent near future threat for the security, safety and freedom of navigation in the Mediterranean, a Sea that is of paramount importance for the economic and political wellbeing not only of the European Union, but also of the Transatlantic community as a whole. This implies that NATO should look for any possible chance to assist EU to improve the security environment of its Maritime domain, providing concrete support and assistance in the framework of the maritime multilateralism that has been evoked in the European Maritime Security Strategy (2014).
- It is important to understand that most of the criminal activities that are taking over Libya and the same rise of ISL (the only “true” branch of the Islamic State abroad with foreign appointed leaders directly responding to IS headquarters) are not a direct product of Libya but mostly a consequence of the porous and uncontrolled borders of the country that is more and more being occupied by trans-national criminal flows directed toward Europe.
B (2.3) People smuggling networks and migration
- Libya is the first point of departure of the greatest majority of illegal migrants trying to enter the European Union from the Italian borders. In 2014, 82% of the illegal migrants arriving in Italy (141.000) have been departing from Libya. In 2015 they were 92% (138.000), while in the first quarter of 2016 they are around 87% (25.000). The nationalities of the migrants illegally departing from Libya reflects the growing role of the country as a hub for different routes, with flows of migrants originating from Eastern Africa, Western Africa, Middle East and Central Asia. In fact, after 2011 Libya has become the main harbour for migrants coming from three different routes: from the “Horn of Africa”, through Ethiopia and Sudan, illegal migrants arrive mostly from Eritrea and Somalia; the “Gulf of Guinea” route channels to Libya’s shores mostly people from Nigeria, Gambia, Senegal, Ivory Coast and Mali, crossing Mali, Niger or Algeria. In addition to these routes, Libya has become a destination of choice not only for Sub-Saharan Africa smugglers, but also for those operating in other North African countries, bringing migrants from Morocco and Egypt, but also from the Middle East (Syrian and Palestinian) or Asia (Bangladesh).
- The Sea route from Libya to Italy has always existed, and has been intermittently used until 2008 when a bilateral agreement between Italy and Libya put an end to it and the flow of illegal migrants almost entirely stopped. Human smuggling is the most profitable and less risky criminal business in Libya and it is interconnected with the other criminal activities taking place across Libyan borders. The other main negative global flows incoming in the country are drug smuggling (mostly from Morocco), arms trafficking (both from Libya and to Libya), and Oil smuggling. Especially for the first three types of criminal activities, Libyan officials have discovered strong ties between the networks smuggling migrants, weapons and drugs. In the case of drugs and human beings we should talk of real transnational criminal syndicates that have established themselves in Sub-Saharan Africa, in North Africa and Europe, with Libya playing the role of hub where stocking the smuggled goods and people.
- On 9th October 2015, the Security Council passed a Chapter VII UN Resolution (due to expire in October 2016) that authorizes member states or regional organisations, under certain circumstances, the use of force against smugglers and traffickers (“to use all measures commensurate to the specific circumstances in confronting migrant smugglers or human traffickers”). The same Resolution authorizes the inspection and seizure of unflagged vessels (or with the consent of the flag State) on the high seas off the coast of Libya, when they have “reasonable grounds” to suspect they are used for migrant smuggling or human trafficking.
- Since the new post conflict surge in illegal migration from Libya (40.000 arrivals in 2013) the European Union started its political and military actions to curb the phenomena. Since then, two CSDP missions have been launched by Brussels. In 2013 the European Union, after the invitation of the recognised Libyan government, gave green light to EUBAM Libya, a civil mission tasked to provide border assistance to Libyan authorities. Originally based in Tripoli, underfunded and with limited personnel (4,4 million euro, 16 international Staff), it could not start its operations and was relocated to Tunis due to inability of the Libyan authorities to guarantee the security of EUBAM premises and its staff. In June 2015 the European Union established the naval military mission EUNAVFOR MED, whose original mandate included an active contrast to human smugglers and traffickers but that, until now, it has remained substantially a Search and Rescue mission, mostly due to political constraints.
- Nexus between terrorism, human smuggling and other criminal activities. In the Libyan anarchy, there are multiple risk factors that are dangerously connecting the human smuggling and the terrorist dimensions. The first one we can call it the “GDP effect”. Even if it appears that terrorist organisation are not directly involved in the smuggling operations, this is effects only the operative local level. The re-investment of the revenues and profits generated with such a constant and high-volume migration flows, represents a virtually untracked flow of billions of euros in cash that are redistributed along tribal lines and that fuel inter-tribal economics relations and are reinvested in the other illicit activities that are prospering in the country. According to Europol, only in 2015, Libyan human smugglers have earned more than 5 billion euro of profits handling illegal migrants from Africa to Europe across the Mediterranean. According to Italian estimates, up to 50% of the GDP of Tripoli region (Tripolitania) is nowadays guaranteed by human smuggling, with most of tribes benefitting from revenues. The second element in the terrorism-migration nexus is the “protection fee model”. The routes of smugglers from Sub Saharan Africa to Libya crosses numerous territories in Nigeria, Mali and Algeria where terrorist organisations associated to the ISL or to AQIM are controlling strip of territories and borders. It is practically unlike that the traffickers could cross that territories and carry out their billionaire business without paying a transit or protection fee that will be made available to the terrorist organisations operating in the area. Such operative model has appeared even in Somalia, when even some of the money paid by western ship-owners to free their vessels held by Somali pirates included a royalty being paid to the terrorist organisation Al-Shabaab who was controlling the sea-shore where pirates operated. The third link is the “migration of terrorism” one. Libyan authorities have admitted that many of the foreign fighters arrived in Libya (around 6.000 are estimated to operate in the country in middle 2016) have crossed the borders using the consolidated illegal migration routes that run both from the East and the West. ISIS in Libya has been reported paying to the smugglers higher compensations in order to bring into the country Arab speaking foreign fighters (mostly Syrian, Tunisian and Sudanese), using the West routes (borders with Algeria and Tunisia) and - mostly – via the “Horn of Africa route” through the Sudan – Libyan border. Islamic State in Libya have been reported also buying or kidnapping migrants or foreign workers inside the country, in order to force them to become fighters or work otherwise in the territories under their control. In smaller numbers, foreign fighters from Mali, Mauritania and Nigeria have also joined ISL in Libya’s ranks through using the illegal migration networks. The fourth link is the “terrorism as a business” one. Terrorist organisation of the kind of ISL are not only a radical-ideological actor but in failed state context they tend to become lucrative organisation devoted to the seizure and exploitation of the resources of the country (land, agriculture, houses, people, industry, trade etc.). Such organisation attracts poor foreigners mostly with criminal background especially from Egypt and Tunisia, consolidating in this way the criminal – terrorist connection.
C. (3.1) NATO policing and training mission in Libya
- NATO has a moral obligation to stay ready, when the internal conditions will allow for it and under the invitation of the government, to assist Libya’s internationally recognised government to build and develop a new and democratic controlled centralised Armed Forces. In this field NATO has got a huge capacity and experience in all the aspects of SSR derived from its extensive engagement in the Balkans, Eastern Europe and Afghanistan and moreover, the military capacity to guarantee the security framework needed for the civilian personnel (including law enforcement agencies) to operate, including intelligence, protection of the premises and ability to guarantee the secure movement throughout the country.
- Unfortunately, the present situation in Libya is not yet ripe for actions aimed at reforming and democratising the country Security Sector, since it is trapped in a pre-transitional stage, with a low intensity civil war going on and with a necessity to prioritise the fight against ISL, the disarmament and demobilisation of militias and “freedom fighters” and their reintegration in the civil society or in a unified security structure at central and local levels. Some of these actions (reconstruction of a Ministry of Defence, disarmament and demobilisation, SSR) will, actually need a direct NATO involvement on the ground, but other security problems (like the fight against ISL or ending the conflict between opposing governments) will clearly be worsened by a direct participation and NATO will risk to become a preferred target being dragged as external actor in the internal conflict; with the boomerang effect that other external actor may decide to plumping the conflict from the outside.
- We are therefore still in a pre-SSR phase of post conflict Libya where the stabilisation efforts didn’t succeed yet. Several pre-conditions connected to SSR that represent its logic antecedent (such as disarmament, demobilization, reintegration and rehabilitation of former combatants, eventually de-radicalisation, contrast to the proliferation of small arms and mostly obstructing trans-national organised crime and the illegal flow of drugs and human being across the country) should be prioritised in this phase of supporting Libya reconstruction. Some of these actions could be achieved by training (and supporting) Libyan selected central and local authorities in Libya or on the territory of NATO Mediterranean Dialogue countries (Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt) provided that there are sufficient guarantees that these capacities and materials won’t be used in escalating the civil war (like was the case in Syria with the external support of several donors).
- Maintaining high the necessity of upgrading Libya’s defence, rule of law and judiciary capacities, a lot could be achieved also by reducing the negative externalities entering Libya from its uncontrolled borders that the country Security Sector apparatus will have to confront. This may be the most practical and achievable contribution to Libya stability that NATO may help to achieve. A strategy of supporting from the outside in a cooperative engagement with the neighbouring countries and regional organisations appears to be one of the best card for the Alliance.
- In the field of border control NATO should therefore remain willing and ready to directly assist Libya in its future security institution building under the request of the Government of National Accord, meanwhile should take action inside and outside Libya to support indirectly – in concert with other international organisations (mostly UN, UE, UA) – the reduction of the magnitude of the main negative external flows identified and discussed in paragraph 6 and 13, that are the main responsible of the prolonged insecurity of the country five years after NATO military intervention.
- This has mostly to do with the surveillance and control of the immense land and maritime borders of the country that are fading, fragmenting, and as distant as ever from the central authority, whoever it will be. After 2011 civil war and the collapse of Libyan armed forces the control of the borders of the country has shifted to a mix of different local armed groups, some of them tenuously linked with central authorities but without a clear chain of command. In this situation the “security” of Libya’s border is shaped by a complex power bargain between the different costal centers of power and those actors whose nature is mostly a cross-border one, ethnic and tribal groups, smugglers of arms, people and other illicit goods, terrorist organisations.
- If the establishment of an effective government in Libya won’t be achieved, or if it won’t be in the position to invite NATO or UE to assist the upgrading of its security structures, or guaranteeing the security of their personnel, and in the impossibility of a direct intervention in the country in an unstable situation, other temporary solutions should be studied. These may include looking for alternative ways to contrast and reduce the criminal trans-national inflows toward Libya, which represent the key fuel of the instability in the country. It is in NATO interest to politically promote such “out of the box” temporary solutions that may include NATO political and material backing of ad hoc missions and projects crafted with the EU and/or the AU for training and supporting law enforcement and border control organisations on the territories of the countries neighbouring Libya (not limiting to those of the NATO Mediterranean Dialogue, but including also Niger, Chad and Sudan). Engaging Libya’s three southern neighbours will require the active involvement of the African Union (with whom NATO has already established supporting operations to UA peacekeeping missions in Sudan and Somalia.
- Cooperating with the neighbouring countries and the regional organisations for the control off Libya’s territory of the country external borders is the equivalent of establishing naval operations off Libya’s territorial waters as “next best” alternative. This would imply that, in the absence of (or in the presence of a fragmented) IBM (integrated border management) from a centralised authority, the control of Libya’s Eastern, Western and Southern borders could be pursued assembling a mix of initiative, inside or outside the country, national or regional, brokered with different neighbouring stakeholders were NATO can play a different role in each of them. This would require a strong political coordination between NATO, UE, UA, and UN and an outreach with the EU training and capacity building missions already on-going in Libya’s southern neighbourhood, in order to design a comprehensive strategy for stopping the flows of weapons, human beings and foreign fighters across Libya’s borders. NATO alone cannot reach such a goal, but probably only NATO has the political weight, capacity and the useful assets to promote such a coalition (and implementing the necessary supporting missions) aimed at safeguarding the borders and the unity of Libya, in cooperation with international recognised central authorities and inter moras of re-establishment of their effective control of the territory.
- In a comprehensive vision of Security, NATO should acknowledge that the stability of Libya, and the contrast to the spread of international terrorism and maintenance of maritime security in the central Mediterranean are strictly connected with policing the borders of the country, especially those with the countries of Sub-Saharan Africa, against trans-border terrorism, arm smuggling and human trafficking.
D. (3.2) Maritime operation
- The deterioration of the security situation across the enlarged Mediterranean region, the proliferation of a growing number of failing states (Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Mali), the raging civil wars in Syria and Iraq, the ascendance of a trans-national caliphate (with the dual nature of global terrorist organisation and Islamic State) and, finally, an extraordinary migratory crisis that almost brought to political collapse the European Union and bitterly divided Turkey by NATO EU States, the Atlantic Alliance has finally decided to rediscover the geopolitical centrality of the Mediterranean Sea. The idea that the alliance could do more in order to avoid a further emergence of multiple hybrid challenges to its Southern Flank has recently re-emerged in NATO’s strategic vision. In order to confront with the deteriorated security climate in the Mediterranean region and reducing the risk of a growing anarchy in the Mediterranean, NATO’s Mediterranean Dimension needs to be strengthened with a full spectrum maritime security operation. A first new commitment has been achieved in the Eastern Mediterranean in February 2016, when NATO sent three vessels in support of FRONTEX, Turkish and Greek coastguards to block the refugee flow from Turkey to Greek islands enforcing the EU – Turkey agreement on the repatriation of migrants arriving from Turkey. Returning illegal migrants to their departure point has been a completely new activity for NATO, and that may open new operative dimensions to the Alliance. Traditionally NATO has never seen itself as an organisation that could focus on combating trafficking in human beings, but the new magnitude of the phenomena, the strong criminalisation of its economic cycles and its proximity to terrorist group and terrorist held territories has moved the Alliance to enter this new dimension of security with a subsidiary role.
- This development is consistent with the recent evolutions of NATO missions mandates to include also the support to the local government in combatting trafficking in human being as well as border control, as was the case with ISAF, whose mandate has been enlarged to include support to the Government of Afghanistan in countering human trafficking.
- In the case of Libya and Central Mediterranean, NATO will have to face a very hybrid situation in the land and – potentially – at sea, with a mixture of conventional and unconventional security challenges, such as warlordism, radical Islamism, tribal and ethnic divide, secessionism, kidnapping for ransom industry, criminal smuggling of human beings, weapons and drugs, flow of foreign fighters and others. All these serious security issues are, year by year, reinforcing one-another on the land, and are jointly putting under stress maritime security in the central Mediterranean. As usual, the problems at Sea come from the land and you can only temporary control them if you don’t have an integrated maritime – land strategy.
- Additionally, there is no doubt that these serious security risk proliferating just few nautical miles from the busiest and more strategic international waters of the world may be exploited by a quasi-state actor like ISL or by any other non-state organisation (radical or criminal minded) that could transform them into a coherent system of threats embedded inside a failing State proxy to European Union territorial waters. National missions and EU CSDP missions such as EUNAVFOR MED and EUBAM Libya alleviated some of the problems but didn’t produce the expected results and an increasing security vacuum is appearing in the Middle of the Alliance Southern Flank. It is time for NATO to react and the quickest and easiest way is to expand its maritime actions in the Mediterranean in order to support and enhance the existing naval military operations.
- It is logic that the building bloc of this expansion will be the existing Operation Active Endeavour, that has been performing its anti-terrorism mandate in the Mediterranean for many years since 9/11 but, until now, it has not been extended to include other types of maritime security, such as contrast to illegal activities at sea and human and arm smuggling. Transforming the old Active Endeavour mission, into a broader Maritime Security Operation in the Central Mediterranean off the Libyan waters will strengthen the military measures and will maintain high the political attention on the Libyan security dilemmas. There are several UN Security Council resolution that need to be implemented, such as Res. 2240/15 (that authorised the interdiction of vessels used for migrant smuggling or human trafficking on the high seas off the coast of Libya), Res. 2146/14 (that imposed measures on vessels transporting crude oil that had been illicitly exported from Libya), Res. 1970/11 and 2174/14 (that establishes an arm embargo on Libya) and, finally, Res. 2292/16 (authorising inspection off Libya’s coast of vessels suspected to break the embargo).
- A NATO maritime operation in the Central Mediterranean will, therefore, extend the outreach of EU NAVFOR MED and enforce the UN resolution on Libya on arms trafficking, oil smuggling and human trafficking. Although the new mission mandate it is not known, it is likely that NATO will take a direct active role in contrasting the arm embargo while it should include also direct or indirect actions as far as the migrant crisis is concerned. On one side this implies a strong coordination and political cooperation between EU and NATO naval military missions in the Mediterranean and, on the other side, the progressive empowerment of Tripoli’s GNA government maritime capacities. This may be achieved assisting the Libyan coast guard in developing its capacity, a role that EU has already undertaken but that can be further supported.
- It will be welcome if the „new” Active Endeavour mission will have a broad spectrum mandate that will include all the general tasks such as situational awareness and upholding freedom of navigation and the specific one identified by UN Resolution 2292 (inspection of vessels in violation of the arms embargo and seizure of the weapons in international water) but it will also include the other tasks embraced in the previous UN Resolutions on Libya, such as conducting maritime interdiction operations and maritime counter-terrorism. For these last two tasks NATO may contribute by providing Additional surveillance capability and ISR Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance also using Maritime Patrol Aircrafts.