Libya’s Rogue Militias Keep the Country From Tackling Human Trafficking

Libya’s Rogue Militias Keep the Country From Tackling Human Trafficking

Publication: Terrorism Monitor

By: Alessandra Bocchi

The Jamestown Foundation

Since 2014, people smuggling and human trafficking has become a lucrative business in Libya, benefiting the country’s rival militias and tribes, but fueling instability. Efforts by the European Union (EU), in particular Italy, to combat the problem have had some partial success—in one of the most effective moves, an agreement reached in August last year between Italy and Libya’s UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) saw Rome pay the GNA to prevent migrant departures (Agenzia Nova, September 22, 2017).

However, fighting in Libya’s coastal cities between the forces of the GNA, the rival General National Congress (GNC) and the Libyan National Army (LNA), led by General Khalifa Haftar, continues to complicate efforts to halt the “trade” in passage to Europe. Furthermore, the militias stand to gain much from their involvement, making it even harder to bring an end to human trafficking in Libya.

The Problem of Rogue Militias

Up until the agreement reached last August between the GNA and the Italian government, the main militias facilitating people smuggling on the coast were based in Zawiyah, Zuwarah and Sabratha. The situation is still not fully resolved as even after the deal there have been clashes in Sabratha between the so-called Anti-Islamic State Operations Room (AIOR), backed by Haftar’s forces, and the 48th Brigade militia and its allies. The two are rivals anyway, but Haftar has accused the 48th Brigade, which the GNA says is part of the armed force, of involvement in people smuggling (Libya Herald, September 21, 2017).

In fact, Hafter has proved to be effective at stemming the flow of migrants transiting through the country’s northeast. Whereas, despite the deal with Italy, human trafficking has remained an acute problem in Libya’s northwest, where there are both government-aligned militias—groups that fall under the control of either the GNA or the GNC in Tripoli—and “rogue” militias, which are outside of government control and without government financing.

Without government support, these rogue militias rely on income from people trafficking and the smuggling of oil and arms. According to one analyst, trafficking gangs with links to Libyan militias in the south can demand between 1,000 to 1,500 Libyan dinars ($800 to $1,100) to take migrants as far as Tripoli. [1]

If migrants are unable to pay, they are handed over directly to rogue militias who place them in safe houses owned by armed gangs. There the migrants will usually try to call home, requesting money to pay for their release. If their families are unable to pay, the militias sell them to wealthy Libyans who need cheap labor on their farms or on construction sites. These African migrants in effect become independent laborers for Libyans who provide them little in the way of pay or maintenance for the work they do. [2] Some may be passed as slaves among the different militias, while the more fortunate ones are sold to wealthy Libyans and become employees who can eventually earn enough money to pay to escape the country. Others will end up in the hands of government-aligned militias who then place them in detention centers awaiting deportation.

Some evidence indicates that greater international reporting on the slave trade in Libya over recent months has led wealthy Libyans who employ migrants as cheap labor to increase their wages and improve their living conditions.

While the main routes to Europe on Libya’s western coasts have been effectively closed thanks to the August deal, other routes have opened in areas like Garabulli,  which is situated about 70 kilometers east of Tripoli. However, while the flow across the Mediterranean continues, it is at a lower rate than before.

The effect has been that an increasing number of migrants remain stuck in Libya. At the same time, arrivals into Libya have continued apace. While the GNA has seen some gains in terms of its territorial control, the number of migrants entering the country is increasing faster than the government is able to facilitate deportations, leading to overcrowding in Libya’s detention centers. To try to temporarily alleviate the problem, the GNA has tried to turn unused warehouses and buildings into new detention centers, offering the owners payments and supplying armed guards.

Overcrowding has also meant that there are greater opportunities for rogue militias to capture migrants, and with rising unemployment and the ever-larger number of migrants arriving in Libya, rogue militias are now more often trading migrants among themselves, ostensibly to extract further ransom from their families. In many cases, migrants are left to die if they cannot obtain the money.

Lack of Control in the South

Libya’s southern area of Fezzan, where many migrants first make their entry through the border with Niger, is key to the human trafficking network. Even before the 2011 uprising against Libya’s former leader Muammar Gaddafi, the smuggling and human trafficking routes there were well plied. However, Gaddafi’s tight control over both the northwestern region of Tripolitania and the eastern region of Cyrenaica kept the trade to Europe relatively well contained.

Much of the Fezzan is under the de facto control of southern tribes, largely the Tebu and Tuareg. The southern tribes have no solid loyalties to any of the three governments vying for control of Libya. They work with the GNA in Tripoli, but also with General Haftar, one of the GNA’s main detractors, and his LNA. In fact, many southern tribes anecdotally appear to be more sympathetic to Haftar than to the GNA and remain overtly hostile to the Islamist GNC forces.

While the Tebu and Tuareg largely control the Fezzan area, other smaller tribes are also involved in the smuggling routes toward Tripolitania. Added to this are a number of Sub-Saharan African smugglers and traffickers—mainly of Nigerian and Ghanaian origin—who operate in the south of Libya where they capture migrants upon their arrival in the country. These gangs reportedly operate from warehouses located in Qatrun, Awbari, Sebha and Murzuq and are usually armed by rogue militias, which are in turn often connected to one of the southern tribes.

The majority of the militia smuggling gangs on the southern border are aligned to (or work with) members of the Tebu tribe. Tebu leaders, like Adamu Tchéké and Abu Bakr al-Suqi, collect tolls in cash for travel from the border to the central city of Sebha. Members of the Awlad Suleiman tribe and the Megarha tribe then organize the smuggling from Sebha to northwestern Tripolitania. Traffickers from the Megarha tribe in particular control the key route from Brak El-Shati to Alshwarif. [3] The Tuareg are more heavily involved in the trade in the Obari area.

A Complex Problem

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) is trying to ease the problem by working with the Tripoli government to establish detention centers to eventually deport the migrants back to their home countries. However, there are complications, as many detention centers near Misrata are under the GNC’s control. Heavy clashes have occurred between militias aligned with the GNC and militias aligned with the GNA at the Tripoli airport (Rai News, January 15).

Following the August agreement between Italy and the GNA, the GNA was accused of paying off militias responsible for smuggling and trafficking in Sabratha with funds from Italy. The Italian government denied these accusations, in particular denying that funds found their way to the Anas Dabbashi militia, which was particularly known for its smuggling and trafficking activities (ANSA, August 30, 2017).

Similar accusations have been made regarding tribes in the south by the Fezza Organization, with the GNA accused of making payments to the Tebu at the southern border to halt their smuggling and human trafficking activities. However, paying tribes with little government affiliation is likely only a temporary solution—as soon as funds are scarce, smuggling will once again become a source of income.

Further complications include the difficulty of detecting the militias responsible. The Libyan authorities have trouble distinguishing their own government-aligned militias from rogue militias because they often wear the same uniforms, which are sold in local shops, and are typically armed with AK-47s, which are readily available on the black market.

Nonetheless, Libyan authorities have managed to arrest traffickers such as Fahmi Salim. Known as the “Smuggling King,” he was one of the most notorious smugglers in western Libya. His arrest is an indication that at least some of the Italian funds have gone into tackling lawlessness (ANSA, September 2, 2017). However, it continues to be difficult for the GNA to form its own national army to effectively end the migrant business. Instead, it relies on militias with fluctuating loyalties.

No End in Sight

Libya’s political fragmentation means that rogue militias and gangs continue to profit from Libya’s people-smuggling networks and the trafficking of migrants, a situation that is unlikely to change as the GNA lacks both the resources and enough effective control to tackle the issue.

The northwestern and southern regions in particular continue to be governed in effect by militias and subject to tribal rivalries. The UN, the EU and Italy’s support for the GNA to end the migrant business is risky, because the GNA’s sphere of control is largely limited to Tripoli and because the southern tribes remain autonomous.

Although the LNA, under Haftar, has kept control in the east, the various militias in the northwest are arrayed against him. This rivalry is stoked by the influence of actors outside Libya. Haftar is supported by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt, while many northwestern Islamist militias are backed by Qatar. In this context, human trafficking continues to fuel instability through government, tribal and militia rivalries.


[1] Author interview with Mac K. B. Simpson, author on migration and human trafficking based in Tripoli (February 7).

[2] Fezzan Libya Group based in Sebha, an organization that reports on clashes in the area (February 9).

[3] Dzsihad Hadelli, a journalist for the Tripoli-based Libya Observer (February 20).

[3] Additional information on militia members was obtained from the latest UNSC report (June 1, 2017).

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