Exclusive – Derna Liberation Aftermath: Terrorist Sleeper Cells Plague Libya

Exclusive – Derna Liberation Aftermath: Terrorist Sleeper Cells Plague Libya

Monday, 18 June, 2018 - 06:00
Soldiers manning a military outpost in Libya. (Reuters)
Libyan-Egyptian borders – Abdul Sattar Hatita
The Libyan National Army, which has been under an international arms ban since 2011, succeeded in defeating extremists in the coastal city of Derna, the last remaining foothold for these groups in the east. Led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, the LNA set in motion plans to re-establish peace and counter terrorism in the region. It faces an uphill battle given the tribal nature of the society and the chaos reigning in the oil-rich North African country.

Sheikh Ali Abou Sawa, aide in the General Authority for Awqaf and Islamic Affairs under the former regime, said that the threat of terrorist sleeper cells was particularly great in Derna and Benghazi.

“The danger of these groups lies in their ideology. It is a reckless ideology, which believes it is doing the right thing in targeting the innocents, army or vital facilities,” he said, adding that they are driven by their goal to defeat the “tyrant, or the state, as they claim.”

Libya stretches over 2 million square kilometers. It is a mainly desert country and distances between cities are vast. Roads connecting them are difficult to secure. Mechili, which lies halfway between a southern desert road linking Tubrok to Benghazi, has become a haven for extremists who have fled Derna. The LNA has set up checkpoints in the surrounding areas to prevent outlaws from reaching Mechili.

The area, once known for its security and lack of crime, has now become a hub for extremists in the post-Gaddafi era. The LNA was welcomed with open arms when it arrived in the area and local youths volunteered to join its ranks in a hope to once again establish security.

One such member told Asharq Al-Awsat that due to the arms embargo, the LNA lacks modern explosives and weapons detecting equipment that can be used to inspect passing vehicles. In addition, he said that women, according to Libyan traditions, are barred from becoming security inspectors in their ranks. According to these traditions, men are prohibited from unveiling the face of a woman, which is why female are inspectors are needed to perform this check.

At the Abou al-Sahel area, the main crossing point for those traveling from Derna to Tubrok, one can see the poor state of the soldiers manning the position. One soldier, 22, from the al-Qataan tribe, told Asharq Al-Awsat that he fled Tubrok with his family in 2016 to escape the extremists. In Tubrok, he joined the LNA and was appointed to the Abou al-Sahel checkpoint.

The soldiers bitterly complained how the world has abandoned them to fight terrorism on their own. The Abou al-Sahel checkpoint lacks proper metal detectors and women cannot be recruited as inspectors. The al-Qataan soldier recounted one incident where these shortcomings became glaring.

He said that a vehicle was stopped at the checkpoint for inspection. The soldiers saw two passengers riding the Mitsubishi type vehicle: A man and a woman, who was hiding her face with her veil. The norm in such cases was for the soldiers to remove the barrel blocking the road and allow the vehicle to pass without inspecting the passengers given that they are man and wife.

Things had, however, changed in wake of the war against extremists.

The soldier said that the barrel remained in its place, which surprised the driver. When one of the other soldiers approached the Mitsubishi to inspect it and the identification cards of the passengers, the driver hit the gas and drove through the barrel. A car chase soon ensued for over 20 kilometers that ended when the Mitsubishi crashed after veering off the dirt desert road.

The soldiers were surprised to find five youths, who were hidden beneath the luggage in the backseat of the vehicle. After investigations, they were revealed to be fugitive extremists from Derna, who were making their way east to the terrorist cells in Tubrok, 150 kilometers away.

The LNA member stressed that the military now has a plan to inspect any travelers, whether they are man or woman, passing through regions under their control. He revealed that women are now finally being allowed to join security teams to facilitate inspections and preserve local traditions. Women have been deployed in Benghazi and they will be deployed in Derna and other areas.

In liberated cities, the threat of sleeper cells still stands and they are being monitored by LNA intelligence.

Despite these efforts, recruits still have to make due with meager resources. They have to buy their military uniform out of their own pockets and they have to suffer through months-long salary payment delays. Families also volunteer to provide food for soldiers manning checkpoints.

The soldiers’ deep desire to rid their country of terrorists and extremists is their main motivation in putting up with these poor conditions.

The security situation has deteriorated so much that people avoid highways where extremists lie in ambush. Heading from city to city is also a monumental and risky task, with travelers making dozens of telephone calls to ensure that they are traversing safe routes. Dozens of people have fallen victim to the extremists that have taken over the 476 kilometer coastal highway connecting Tubrok to Benghazi.

The Qataan soldier at the Abou al-Sahel checkpoint declared: “I am standing here to defend my family. Fulfilling such a duty does not hinge on a salary.”

During a previous interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, LNA spokesman Ahmed al-Mismari said that the forces realize that liberating cities from terrorists does not mean the demise of terror. He instead underlined the need to follow up the liberation with combating terror ideology.

The terrorist threat cannot be defeated as long as the military and police institutions remain divided between eastern and western Libya. The division has also reached general and military intelligence, making it difficult for the LNA to assess terrorist threats in areas outside of its control.

Abou Sawa also stressed the need to defeat terrorist ideology, accusing some clerics of incitement and some people of sympathizing with this rhetoric. The Muslim Brotherhood ideology is also being promoted.

The Libyan people themselves do not differentiate between one extremist group and the other. The names “Muslim Brotherhood”, “al-Qaeda” and “ISIS” are all the same to them. Mismari himself lumps terrorists all in one basket because they all have a common target in the army and the state. Various investigations have revealed that these groups have some form of cooperation between them, compounding the challenge to defeat them.

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