with additional reporting by Hakeam el-Yamany
The drive from Benghazi to Derna, a port city in Eastern Libya is stunning. After passing through the al Kouf valley, the route continues past picturesque Greek ruins and down a coastal highway overlooking the vast, blue Mediterranean. We stayed at the Emilia Resort, a cluster of well-appointed tourist apartments directly across from the sea. After we settled in, we met Suraqa el-Shaari, 26, at the resort’s restaurant and coffee shop.
El-Shaari sat in a red vinyl booth, fidgeting as he began to recount the worst six months of his life. “It was the Shura Council that captured me and made me their prisoner in 2018,” he said. He described the torture the group inflicted on him while he was their captive. “I think they kept me hung up for 11 days by my wrists. Just my big toes touched the ground.” Drawing a shaky breath, he rolled up his sleeves a bit. “I still have the marks on my wrists.”
In October 2014, much of the city of Derna was overrun by ISIS. In June 2015, the Shura Council of Mujahideen in Derna, a coalition of al Qaeda-affiliated, Islamist militias at odds with ISIS over territory and resources, began fighting ISIS for control of Derna. ISIS was expelled in 2016, leaving control of most of the city in the hands of the Shura Council. “But they were the same,” said El-Shaari. “ISIS and the Shura Council were the same. They were terrorists.” El-Shaari and other captives were able to escape when the Libyan National Army (LNA) defeated the Shura Council and took control of the city of Derna.
As El-Shaari began to tell more of his harrowing ordeal, Major General Salem Miftah Al-Refadi of the LNA walked into the restaurant and approached our table. El-Shaari was visibly nervous. Al-Refadi greeted us, and we made plans for the following day, when we’d be interviewing him and touring the city with some of his soldiers.
El-Shaari was emanating anxiety, repeatedly turning towards the exit and then back to us, as though he were planning to bolt. When Al-Refadi left, El-Shaari looked relieved. His relief was short-lived.
Less than a minute later, Al-Refadi walked back into the restaurant, sat down directly across from El-Shaari, and said, “I remember now who you are. We came to arrest you, but you weren’t at home. Look, I’m not going to arrest you. Consider this a warning. You cannot pursue your own justice. That’s not right, and that’s not how things are done here. We follow the law here.” Without waiting for a response, Al-Refadi left again.
Bewildered, I asked El-Shaari to explain. After he was freed, he harassed the family of one of his captors, a militant who’d been arrested by the LNA in the course of the final battles in Derna. He visited the family’s home and demanded restitution payments. He says he may have threatened them, too. “I shouldn’t have done it,” he said, “But I was angry.” The family went to the LNA for help, which prompted the LNA to attempt to arrest El-Shaari.
The next day, I asked Al-Refadi about the situation. “So, the family of the terrorist who kidnapped him felt safe asking the LNA for help?” I asked. “Even though their relative is in your custody and spent years fighting against your army?”
“Of course,” Al-Refadi said. “The family did nothing wrong. They’re Libyans. What happened to that boy was horrible, but he had no right to attack innocent people over it.” Al-Refadi says he’s working on an initiative to allow the wives and families of terrorists killed or arrested to be able to access the salary payments they would otherwise receive, either from past jobs or the country’s social security fund. “Their families have to be able to support themselves, to survive,” he said. “We don’t hold them responsible for the actions of their relatives. We are moving forward as a city, and as a country.”
Al-Refadi recounted the events of 2011, when demonstrations and NATO interference resulted in the overthrow and killing of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi. “The people demonstrated,” he said. “They wanted a better life and a better regime. But unfortunately, all those countries that supported us then quickly abandoned the Libyan people. Left us to deal with terrorism. As though their only job was to change the regime in Libya.”
Years of chaos followed Qaddafi’s ouster. ISIS and other terrorist groups proliferated. In December 2015, the United Nations spearheaded the Libyan Political Agreement, which lead to the formation of the Government of National Accord (GNA). The agreement was initially supported by the Libyan House of Representatives, but by March 2016, the House of Representatives had withdrawn support. The country was divided between the GNA and the militias loyal to them, and the House of Representatives and the LNA.
“According to the Libyan Political Agreement, the GNA is supposed to be the government of all of Libya and Libyans in all cities,” said Foreign Minister Abdel-Hadi Al-Huwaij. “In reality, the GNA is just a local government existing in part of Tripoli, giving the money that belongs to the Libyan people to the terrorist militias oppressing them.”
Minister Al-Huwaij says the House of Representatives government controls more than 90% of the cities in Libya. “We’re even in parts of Tripoli,” he said. “To clarify, we are the legitimate government, we are the lawful government, we are the public government. We are like any other government. We didn’t arrive via parachute. We were elected by the Libyan Parliament, which is the only legislative body in Libya with the authority to do so.
“The GNA is unconstitutional, unaccredited, and expired,” Al-Huwaij continued. “The agreement called for the GNA to be accredited by the Parliament, which it has attempted, and failed to do, twice. And according to the agreement, the GNA could only be renewed for a term of one year. The text is very clear. This means that in December 2017, this government had already expired and was illegitimate.
“The Parliament is the commander of the armed forces in Libya,” said Al-Huwaij. “And the General Commander [Haftar] of the Libyan Army was elected in March 2015 by the Parliament, which represents the will of the Libyan people. Thus, the leadership and the army are an expression of the will of the Libyan people. There is harmony and collective work.”
According to Major General Ahmed Mismari, the LNA’s official spokesman, the LNA has more than 80,000 soldiers and officers, with more joining regularly. “The Libyan Army is deeply rooted in the history of the country. It was established in 1941. And after the events of 2011 and the dismantling of the army, the General Commander [Haftar] began reunification,” Mismari said.
In July 2017, the LNA gained complete control over the city of Benghazi. Battles continued throughout the country, and the territory under the control of the LNA grew steadily. In February 2019, GNA Prime Minister al-Sarraj and Commander General Haftar signed an agreement in Abu Dhabi, which included a stipulation that general elections would be held in Libya by the end of 2019. In April 2019, al-Sarraj and the GNA backed out of the agreement. LNA forces were advancing towards Tripoli.
GNA Prime Minister Fayez el-Sarraj enlisted the support of Turkish President Erdogan and struck a deal for Turkey to send thousands of Syrian mercenary fighters from the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (TFSA) to Libya to fight alongside the pro-GNA forces. The exact number of Syrians who have been sent to Libya is unknown, but is believed to be more than 6,000 at this point.
“First of all, it’s important to understand that this is not where Turkey’s interference in Libya began,” said General Ahmed Mismari, the LNA’s official spokesman. “This didn’t start with the advancement of our forces into Tripoli. Turkey’s intervention began earlier than 2014, though it was revealed then in Benghazi, through Turkey’s support of terrorist militias there.
“The difference is that now, Turkey’s support for the terrorists in Libya has become public. It’s in front of the international community and the media. Turkey’s support isn’t just to prevent the [LNA] from gaining control over Tripoli. It’s about maintaining the Muslim Brotherhood’s influence there,” Mismari said.
Mismari says the LNA has monitored the transfer of mercenaries from Syria to Libya, many of whom have ISIS or al Qaeda affiliations. TFSA sources in Syria have confirmed that a number of militants from Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, or HTS, have been sent to fight in Libya. HTS was previously known as Jabhat al-Nusra, Syria’s former al-Qaeda affiliate. HTS is a designated terrorist organization in the US, EU, and according to the UN Security Council.
In January, the LNA captured a number of Syrian militants attempting to secure transport from Libya to Italy through illegal smugglers. One of the militants was an ISIS member who’d been held in a prison in Northeastern Syria and escaped. The LNA estimates that hundreds of Syrian mercenaries may have successfully fled Libya for Italy.
“There are two types of militias fighting in Tripoli,” Mismari said. “There are criminal militias, and there are extremist, terrorist militias. All the militias were paid around $2.4 billion, in cash, by the GNA. This was while the citizens suffered from lack of money liquidity, when most of the banks were closed. And the Turkish forces and Syrian mercenaries have been paid for primarily by Libyan oil revenue.”
On January 18th, tribal leaders in Eastern Libya voted to enact a blockade on oil production and export. Alumda Al-Sanussi al-Zwey, leader of the Zwey tribe, said that the blockade was to stop the financing of terrorist activity through oil revenues, and that all tribal leaders in the region were in agreement. GNA Prime Minister Al-Sarraj has said the oil blockade is causing economic devastation in Tripoli.
“The blockade hasn’t stopped them from paying the militias and mercenaries,” Mismari pointed out. “The general situation for Libyan people is dreadful. Salaries for [GNA] government hasn’t been paid in months. The criminals and terrorists are still being paid.” Syrian mercenaries in Libya are paid between $2000-3000 per month, a salary many times higher than the average Libyan worker.
Mismari believes that the financial strain caused by the oil blockade will be offset by support from Qatar. “Qatar won’t let al-Sarraj fall easily. They will send more support. Qatar is supporting Turkey’s invasion of Libya financially. For weapons, ammunition, and other expenses,” he said.
Mismari says the situation in Tripoli sharply contrasts with the situation in Benghazi. “In our [LNA-controlled] areas, salaries have been paid,” he said. “The security situation in Benghazi has allowed for businesses and manufacturers to resume work. Citizens have revenue through commerce, and this isn’t the case in Tripoli, usually, because of the militia operations and blackmail. Life is very difficult for a civilian in an area controlled by the GNA. In Misrata, for example, there are more than 20,000 truck drivers who are out of work and many manufacturing facilities are completely shut down.”
Sources in the TFSA have provided insights into the Libyan battlefield through voice memos, photos, and videos. In January, TFSA fighters sent videos of the beautiful villas they occupied, likely abandoned by civilians displaced by the fighting. In one, a Syrian militant pans around what looks to be a child’s bedroom, complete with a Mickey Mouse decal on the wall, while laughing about the amount of hashish he was consuming. “They smoke hash like cigarettes here,” he said.
As the months passed, the tone of messages from TFSA sources became darker. After an airstrike in Idlib, Syria resulted in the deaths of dozens of Turkish soldiers in late February, TFSA fighters in Libya were unable to access the internet for several days, a move they assumed was to prevent them from learning more about the situation in Syria. “It didn’t matter,” a TFSA source said. “A lot of them saw how much territory Turkey and the TFSA were losing in Syria and demanded to go home to fight. Not that they could.”
TFSA sources began sending photos of gravely injured Syrian militants being bandaged in living rooms along with complaints that they weren’t receiving adequate medical care. So many had refused to continue fighting that they were due to be sent back to Syria and were stripped of their salaries.
“Libya is on fire,” a TFSA source in Afrin recently said. Reports of mass casualties among the Syrian fighters, particularly in Ain Zara (an area fighters from the Sultan Murad faction have referred to as “the slaughter axis” in messages) led many militants to simply defy orders from their commanders.
“Men in almost every faction are refusing orders. The Turks are arresting many TFSA. I know of 86 men who have been arrested until now,” the TFSA source said. He said the only fighters on the ground in Libya who were consistently complying with orders were those from HTS.
“Why doesn’t the international community, or the UN Security Council, stop this terrorism in Libya?” Major General Salem Miftah Al-Refadi asked. “It’s all very clear. The support for terrorism from Turkey and Qatar is very clear. My personal opinion is that they want the chaos to continue,” he said.
There has been a slew of negative media coverage of Commander General Haftar and the LNA in Western media outlets as well as in outlets funded by Qatar and Turkey. The LNA are portrayed as brutal thugs, and the civilians in their areas terrified and oppressed. Journalists have claimed that intelligence agents followed them wherever they went, and they sprinkle their pieces with vague, ominous statements made by local civilians who refuse to be named. Benghazi is described as a decrepit police state.
My experience in Eastern Libya was quite different. I was able to venture out alone. Benghazi, though certainly battle-scarred and still suffering, is full of life. I arrived on the final day of the Spring Fair, an event where foreign communities within Benghazi showcased their cultures by sharing food, art, and traditional clothing.
The fair was held in Benghazi’s Industry Expo Center, next to street after street of buildings destroyed by years of war. “Maybe you noticed that I organized this festival in an area of war,” the event’s organizer, Sumaya el-Mesrati said. “This was deliberate. Benghazi is dusting itself off from the remains of war. From destruction to construction.”
Civilians were willing to speak to me on the record, including several who fled the fighting in Tripoli. “From 2011 onwards, life was a tragedy. It was not life,” said Mohamed Shibani, a man from Tripoli who’d recently fled the city to a village east of Benghazi. “Safety and security is the most important thing for people. If the pillars of government fall, life will be chaos. The police, army, the education sector, the health sector, all of these collapsed in Tripoli. And they were replaced with militias.”
Shibani motioned to his 92 year-old mother, who sat on a bed next to him. “For her entire life, my mother never left Tripoli. And she never wanted to leave Tripoli. But we had no choice,” he said. Shibani talked about the years he and his family spent living under militia rule in Tripoli. “Civilians were robbed, kidnapped. Women were violated. I watched a militia rob a man who had his wife and sister with him. They beat him, took his car, and left them on the side of the road. These things happened every day,” he said.
Two of Shibani’s siblings have chronic conditions requiring regular dialysis treatments. “When the fighting was intense, they couldn’t go for treatment. And any time they went out, for any reason, there was a risk the militias would interfere,” he said. “It got worse and worse until one day, the Red Crescent was able to help us to get out. We couldn’t take anything with us. My mother didn’t even take her shoes.”
Shibani and nine of his relatives are living together in a small house. Despite the cramped quarters, he says he is grateful to be away from Tripoli. “There is no comparison between this area and Tripoli,” he said. “We can buy fuel, which we couldn’t do in Tripoli. We can go out for groceries. We can go out after midnight in Benghazi! In Tripoli, no one would dare leave their homes after the sun went down.”
Salam Madhun, a 19 year-old woman originally from Tripoli, said life under the militias there was a constant hell. “Everyone knew that in whatever part of the city you lived in, you had to be inside before dark, or you would likely be kidnapped, mugged, or worse,” she said. “A boy in my class just disappeared. We heard his father was killed by a militia, and immediately, his whole family just vanished.” Madhun says she enjoys much more freedom in Benghazi. She opened a small cake business, SAM Cakes, which she hopes to grow into a cafe and bakery.
Suraqa el-Shaari, despite having technically been a fugitive wanted by the LNA, says the LNA’s control of Derna was the city’s salvation. “If not for the armed forces, we would not have survived,” he said. “Before that, this city spent years under the terrorists’ control. It was absolute darkness.”
all photos by Lindsey Snell