North Africa Theater
ISIS forces in Libya have doubled over the past year, now reaching up to 6,000 fighters, Gen. David M. Rodriguez, head of US Africa Command, told a news briefing in Washington April 7. But he emphasized that local militias "are contesting the growth of ISIS in several areas across Libya." (Reuters, April 7) He did not mention that many of those militias fighting ISIS are themselves jihadist, and loyal to rival Qaeda-linked factions. Additionally, the rate of growth may be significantly low-balled, if we go by Gen. Rodriguez's own prior statements. Just over a year ago, he characterized the ISIS presence in Libya as "very small and nascent," with "around a couple hundred" militants.
In a surprise dawn raid March 7, ISIS attacked National Guard, army and police barracks in Ben Guerdane, the first Tunisian town west of the border with Libya. At least 53 people were killed in the figting, including several civilians. The dead included a 12-year-old girl. "Our country is at war against barbarism," said Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi. "This is an unprecedented attack, planned and organized. Its goal was probably to take control of this area and to announce a new emirate." The attack was repulsed, but a curfew has been imposed in Ben Gardane and the border with Libya is closed until further notice. (AP, Libya Observer, ANSA, Al Jazeera, March 7)
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, on a tour of North Africa, on March 5 visited the sprawling refugee camps at Tindouf in the Algerian desert, where nearly 200,000 Sahrawi Arabs displaced from Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara have for more then four decades been exiled. Ban called the Tindouf refugee camps "among the oldest in the world," and called on the parties involved in the Western Sahara conflict to end the "unacceptable" plight of the Sahrawi. Ban meet with refugees and their representatives at Smara Camp, and later with leaders of the Polisario Front, which seeks independence for Western Sahara, including the group's secretary general Mohamed Abdelaziz. Ban also visited the headquarters of the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) in Laayoune, Western Sahara's capital. The UN-mandated referendum on the territory's status has been stalled for over 20 years, with Morocco and the Polisario Front unable to come to terms (Jurist, AFP, March 6)
The UK will be sending troops to Tunisia to help prevent ISIS fighters from entering the country from Libya, British Defense Minister Michael Fallon said March 1. "A training team of some 20 troops from the 4th Infantry Brigade is now moving to Tunisia to help to counter illegal cross-border movement from Libya in support of the Tunisian authorities," Fallon told Parliament. Using the Arabic acronym for ISIS, he added: "I am extremely concerned about the proliferation of Daesh along the Libyan coastline, which is why we have been urgently assisting the formation of a new Libyan government." Implicitly invoking deployment of ground forces in Libya, he said: "Before taking any military action in Libya, we would seek an invitation from the new Libyan government." (MEM, March 2)
The International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague opened the confirmation of charges against Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi for destruction of religious and cultural heritage on March 1. The charges levied against al-Faqi, an alleged member of Islamic terrorist group, Ansar Dine, and an important figure in the jihadist occupation of Timbuktu, signal what appears to be the first-ever war crimes trial addressing attacks against cultural heritage. Specifically, the charges state that al-Faqi is criminally responsible, either himself or through his assistance, for "intentionally directing attacks against buildings dedicated to religion and/or historical monuments in Timbuktu," including nine mausoleums and the Sidi Yahia Mosque.
The UN released a report on Feb. 25 detailing a "litany of violations and abuses" being committed by both state and non-state actors in the current Libyan conflict that may amount to war crimes. The report (PDF), compiled by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, found that atrocities such as sexual assault, gender-based violence, unlawful killings, violent attacks and other abuses have been occurring with impunity since the beginning of 2014. The report found that not only are state actors participating in the chaos, but also multiple non-state militia groups. The report particularly highlights harassment, kidnapping, and murders of activists and journalists. The report notes a lack of effective oversight or accountability by state authorities in relation to the violations, and sees a failure by authorities to provide remedies to victims or to take measures to prevent future violations.
Amid continued confused multi-factional warfare in Libya, Islamist militias on Feb. 23 reportedly lost two major areas in the contested eastern city of Benghazi. Fighters loyal to anti-Islamist Gen Khalifa Haftar are reported to have taken over the port, a hospital and have cut off a key weapons supply line. (BBC News) Meanwhile, Libya Dawn militia forces loyal to the rebel government that controls Tripoli were mobilized to the western town of Sabratha, after ISIS militants seized several key positions there, including the main hospital. (Libya Herald) In England, the defense spokesman for the hard-right UK Independence Party (UKIP) warned that Libya could be the "EU's Vietnam," citing a supposed leak of documents revealing plans to expand "Operation Sophia" to put European "boots on the ground" in the North African country. (UKIP, Feb. 18)
US warplanes hit an ISIS camp at Sabratha, about 70 kilometers west of Tripoli, killing at least 49—said to be mostly foreign fighters who were preparing an attack in Europe. The camp was said to be led by Noureddine Chouchane AKA "Sabir"—a Tunisian militant held to be responsible in last year's terror attacks in Tunisia. "We took this action against Sabir in the training camp after determining that both he and the ISIL fighters at these facilities were planning external attacks on US and other Western interests in the region," said Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook. "We see what's happening in Iraq and Syria and we believe that these fighters in Libya posed a threat to our national security interests." He said the strikes were carried out "with the knowledge of Libyan authorities" but declined to confirm exactly who had been informed. Ironically, the Islamist-led rebel government in Tripoli said it supported the air-strikes, while the internationally recognized government exiled to Libya's east condemned them. (Libya Herald, Feb. 20; CNN, BBC News, Feb. 19)