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The Strategic Role of the Fezzan Region for European Security

Article by Paolo Zucconi

May 30, 2019

The Strategic Role of the Fezzan Region for European Security

The Fezzan is a strategic southwestern region of Libya. Its stability is vital for Europe’s security and that of the wider Mediterranean area. The region is home to two of the most important oil fields of North Africa and is a hub for human smuggling and organised crime, whose networks extend to Mali, Niger, Chad and southern Europe. While most of the international community’s attention is on the current conflict between Tripoli’s militias and the Libyan National Army (LNA), the Fezzan region’s role in the wider geopolitics is underestimated. It is often represented as a zone of systemic insecurity, far and disconnected from the political issues in northern Libya. Its importance, however, is crucial for national stabilisation and regional security in Sahel as Fezzan has become a key hub for transnational migrant smuggling networks, as well as oil, weapons, drug and gold trafficking across Africa and the Middle East.

A Precarious Social and Economic Condition

Since the 2011 revolution, the Fezzan region has suffered from a lack of central authorities with the capability to impose order and develop licit economies. Tribal fights have impeded the development of any state authority and, until last January when the LNA occupied the region peacefully, militias based in Tripolitania and Cirenaica had been unable to take control over the area. Members of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Daesh have exploited the increasing lawlessness to develop their strongholds and logistical hubs in southern Libya.

Post-2011 revolution, security issues which have affected the northern parts of the country have involved the South as well. Institutional weakness, lack of municipal governance and few sources for local economic growth are some of the South’s most pressing challenges. There are also ethnic-based conflicts which involve identity, authenticity and citizenship. These conflicts are due in part to the legacy of Qaddafi’s divide-and-rule policies, as well as tribal rivalries. Qaddafi cynically manipulated the ‘right to citizenship’ to garner the support of southern tribes like the Tebu, one of the most important tribes in Libya, which has suffered systematic marginalisation as a non-Arab community. In particular, Qaddafi promised the Tebu full citizenship in exchange for service in his security forces, but he never kept the promise. Since 2014, the tribe has been attempting to reclaim citizenship. [1]

Combined with significant structural economic issues and the collapse of the institutional order, this legacy of conflict between the southern tribes in Libya has proven to be a key driver of conflict. Furthermore, the rivalries fostered by Qaddafi have made these tribes adverse to any central authority, especially one based in Tripoli.

The Role of Sabha and Ubari

Despite the localised conflicts and social tensions in many parts of the South, two main cities have developed to play key roles in the region. This is in part due to their capabilities to draw in social and political actors from across the wider region. These cities are: Sabha and Ubari. Both places are ethnically and tribally diverse, and both are affected by the lack of a centralised governance, especially when it comes to security and justice. The local economies of these two cities are mostly based on smuggling routes and oil fields.

Sabha is a strategically very important city, not only because it is the provincial capital of the South but also because it is a historic hub in North-South supply routes. Post-2011 revolution it plays a huge role in migrant smuggling. The city also represents the emblem of porosity of the southern border. It is a hub of black market labour in which Sahelian migrants stay before moving northward. Migrants work as day labourers in impoverished neighbourhoods like Ghurda, where they are accommodated by the dozens into single room, trying to save 30 dinars to be able to move northward; migrants from other regions and countries cannot avoid forced labour or prostitution. Once they can move to the next step of their journey, they are packed into cargo trucks; facing violent abuse, sexual assault and abandonment; ‘If you faint or fall off, they leave you. The drivers beat us with long wooden sticks.’ [2, 3]

Ubari is another strategic city located near the Algerian-Nigerien border and has major oil fields. Most of the population are Arabised Africans, the so-called ‘Ahali’, who descend from sub-Saharan slaves. The Tuareg are the second largest group while the Tebu are a minority. The revolution’s aftermath devastated the local economy. Local competition over power, assets, and alternative livelihoods emerged, increasing discontent among the town’s impoverished and disenfranchised communities and cross-border smuggling increased.

When it comes to border control with Niger and Chad, this has always been problematic. Qaddafi could not exercise full control over the area because he wanted to secure the tribes’ support. To gain the support this meant letting lucrative smuggling routes flourish and for the governance of the city to be held by the local tribes. As the money generated from licit economies was not enough to provide sufficient local income, illicit trade from and to Niger and Chad became a structural feature of the Ubari’s socioeconomic framework just like in other parts of the region. The South’s security actors are often involved in these illicit trade routes, and other attempts to fight it often fail because of a lack of equipment and trained personnel. This situation has created two types of smuggling. One related to arms, narcotics and militants, which are sometimes intercepted, and fuel, subsidised food, cigarettes and illegal migrants, which pass through by paying a fee.

The international community is incapable to implement strategies for countering organised crime and smuggling in South Libya because local municipalities share power with informal security providers and criminalised power structures.

Overall the international community continues to underestimate the Fezzan. Efforts for stabilisation are focused on North Libya where most of the urbanisation and economic activities are. However, without stabilising the Fezzan, no peace process can fully take place. Factions competing for national control (the Government of National Accord and the Libyan National Army) are supported by militias and tribes, some more than others, involved in smuggling. Drugs, weapons, oil and human trafficking operations come from Niger and Chad, and due to porous borders enter South Libya, and have established strategic hubs in Sabha and Ubari. This represents a profitable business for the major Libyan local actors and they are not willing to change that. Breaking the nexus between organised crime and instability must be a priority for the international community. Otherwise no peace plan can be successful.

The international community should support more common dialogue in the region. It is crucial to avoid a Somalisation of Libya, which could bring about long-term violence. Although the Fezzan has very complex tribal dynamics usually impeding foreign efforts for stabilisation, the Italian government and the Italian Sant’Egidio community have started a mediation dialogue with local tribes to find local solutions to the main problems. [4] This initiative is hard to implement but necessary and the international community should support it rather than diverging on how to deal with Libya. If local actors are given the opportunity to negotiate to find solutions to their own problems, this could be the first step for local reconciliation. However, the dialogue needs to be structured so that past tribal conflicts are not obstacles and so they can also be focused on redistribution of oil revenues.

Tribes, who control routes and hubs for smuggling, are unlikely to agree to fight profitable criminal activities and to develop licit economies, unless there is an equally profitable source of income. Redistribution of oil revenues could be this source of income, and be the economic foundation for reconciliation, the development of licit economies and the restoration of public basic services. In order to reduce corruption, redistribution should be supervised by international financial institutions. Currently, oil revenues go from the National Oil Company to the Central Bank of Libya, instead of being redistributed across local municipalities and this enables dirty money to be the main source of income.

Porous Border Control

According to Frederic Wehrey, the Fezzan region is characterised by key border-control deficiencies stemming from a lack of municipal governance capacity. But there are no particular capacity building initiatives in place to face this problem. It is too dangerous and logistically difficult to deploy capacity building missions in the Fezzan. What the international community should do is to implement common dialogue among tribes (including discussions on the redistribution of oil revenue) along with capacity building initiatives in Chad and Niger, where there is a safer and securer environment, and where important transnational criminal hubs are located. France and Italy have started missions in those countries (i.e. MISIN) to train local security forces, but the effectiveness of these missions is debated among experts. Training security forces and developing border police forces can be a good start in fighting criminal networks and break the nexus between criminality and instability. However, the presence of further elements of instability (i.e. terrorism, climate change) have a deep impact on efforts for stabilisation in Sahel.

The city of Ghat is a key example of border control deficiency. Ghat’s local leadership controls the Libyan border from Algeria to Niger. After the closure of the Algerian border, Ghat became isolated with no supply chains and got involved in clashes with neighbouring city Ubari. The leader of a local border armed group, Katiba 411, declared that ‘he was forced to patrol a 230-kilometre stretch of border with Algeria with just 230 men.’ [5] Since the Algerian border closed, smuggling has moved to the Nigerien border and into Gatrun, exploiting a Tebu-controlled route. Ghat’s leaders have often and unsuccessfully requested the support of the Government of National Accord and the EU for direct assistance in reinstating Algerian cross-border trade routes for Libya’s border towns. “We asked the Europeans to pressure Algeria to open the border to relieve our suffering” a municipal council member referred, criticising the fact that the Tuareg, living in the area, did not have access to medical care and basic goods coming from Algeria. [6] However, the EU did not intervene on this.

The situation in Ghat is just one example amongst many. As long as local institutions and neighbouring governments, with the support of regional and international actors, will not face illicit trafficking properly black economies will remain the most important source of local income, and any law enforcement, technical and bureaucratic improvements will probably fail.

The Government of Niger has begun to work on the issue and has introduced ‘more stringent document control, vehicle search and seizure’, along with repressive measures ‘for those caught smuggling, resulting in a net decrease in migration out flow’. [7] Although these actions are a step forward in the right direction, it is not enough.

The smuggling routes and the struggle for resources are part of deeper socioeconomic issues. [8] Recently, the EU has started to address some of these problems in the Fezzan and across the border with Chad, providing funds to local councils to build migrant detention centres for the councils to manage the flow of migration. However, many mayors rejected the plan because it does not address the key and structural features of migrant flows and smuggling (i.e. the absence of a licit local economy). Moreover, due to the lack of strong governance and supervision, human rights violations by local militias and managers of such facilities could easily take place.

The role of the EU in addressing security and insurgency issues in the Fezzan is limited due to internal divisions among the EU member states in dealing with the Libyan conflict. Italy supports Al-Sarraj’s government in Tripoli, while France supports Haftar’s Libyan National Army in Benghazi. As the two most important EU member states in the Mediterranean diverge, it is difficult for the EU to act as a bloc and find a common approach to stabilise Libya.

The European Union Border Assistance Mission in Libya (EUBAM Libya), a civilian mission under the Common Security and Defence Policy, is aimed at supporting the Tripoli-based authorities disrupting organised criminal networks, like human trafficking, drug and oil smuggling, and terrorism. One of the task is developing the security of the country’s borders. However, EUBAM presence in the Fezzan is very limited, if it even exists. Also, due to fragmentation of power and the lack of inclusive military command structure, national police and armed forces are no longer operational since the 2011 revolution. Diverse armed actors have become integral to security arrangements, mostly informal, and have basically acquired the legitimate status as local authorities need protection. This has affected the effectiveness of the EU integrated border management assistance mission in Libya.


Despite the recent LNA occupation of the region, and ongoing ceasefire arrangements between groups once at war, Fezzan remains affected by social, economic, political and security issues.

Regional and international actors support diverging and opposing sides (Italy, the UN, Qatar and Turkey support Al-Sarraj, while France, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Russia support Haftar). All of them have different and competing interests. For example, the main French oil company Total competes with the main Italian oil company ENI to gain control over key oil fields in Libya. Since 2017, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have no diplomatic relations after the embargo against Qatar by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates. Riyadh and Doha are financing two opposing sides in the Libyan conflict. These diverging interests intersect with very complex local dynamics and impede the international community from adopting a common strategy to solve the conflict As a consequence, the fight against criminal networks is minimal and restoring the circulation of clean money remains a distant long-term objective. Informal economies have spread across southern Libya and, just like in other regions, it affects efforts for stabilisation. As the local economies mostly consist of smuggling and trafficking, tribes and militias in the region will remain involved because it is a lucrative market.

Although a national peace and capacity building program aimed at restoring basic services and security forces to fight criminalised power structures would be necessary, there are not the conditions on-the-ground to implement such a program. Italy has tried to promote dialogue between the southern tribes but this is not enough. The recent LNA occupation of the Fezzan and the current fight to occupy Tripoli have changed the political landscape, a common approach that takes this into account, as well as the complex context in the Fezzan, needs to be adopted by the international community.

Paolo Zucconi is a Research Fellow at the Global Center for Security Studies in Brussels. He is an independent geopolitical analyst and contributor for The Journal of International Security (Intersec), Global Security Review, and Geopolitical Monitor. He writes for journals and reviews based in the UK, USA, Canada, Australia and Italy on topics related to the MENA region’s security and geopolitical affairs.

Photo by Franzfoto, published under Creative Commons with no changes made.

[1] Ben Lamma M. 2017. ‘The Tribal Structure in Libya: Factor for fragmentation or cohesion?’. Observatoire du Monde Arabo-Musulman et du Sahel.

[2] F. Wehrey. 2017. ‘Insecurity and Governance Challenges in Shouthern Libya’. Carnegie Endowement for International Peace: Washington D.C.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Comunità di Sant’Egidio. 2016. ‘Libia, Accordo a Sant’Egidio fra le Tribù del Sud per la Pacificazione dela città di Sebha’. Sant’Egidio Website News.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] International Organization for Migration. 2016. ‘Migration Crisis Operational Framework 2017-2019’. Libya Country Office.

[8] I. Kohl. 2015. ‘Terminal Sahara: Sub-Saharan Migrants and Tuareg Stuck in the Desert’. Stichproben: Vienna Journal of African Studies 28, no. 15, 55–81 

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