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Libya: The Forgotten War of the Tebu and Tuareg

[Tuareg children on the remains of Tuareg houses in the Tayuri neighborhood of Sebha, destroyed during clashes in July 2015. Image by author] [Tuareg children on the remains of Tuareg houses in the Tayuri neighborhood of Sebha, destroyed during clashes in July 2015. Image by author]

In the midst of the Libyan desert, a thousand kilometers south of Tripoli, a war divides two communities that had been living a brotherly life until the post-revolutionary vortex carried away their friendship. The Tebu, an ethnic group that traces its roots to the Tibesti Mountains in Chad, and the Tuareg, the “Berbers of the desert” spread throughout the Sahel-Saharan region, had been living side by side since having signed a peace treaty in late nineteenth century. In August 2014, however, violence broke out in the Ubari oasis, where the increased influence of the Tebu community had generated tensions with the Tuareg majority. A year later, in July 2015, the clashes reached Sebha, the capital of the Fezzan. As the conflict rages on, it has become increasingly difficult to understand what it is that prolongs it. The parties involved—convinced of the presence of a fifth column—say they no longer control their destiny. 

The Fezzan, Troubled Borderland 

Once located on the trans-Saharan caravan route, Ubari later became a base for sightseeing tours into the Libyan Sahara. Today, the deserted town is divided into hostile areas under the control of armed groups. Heavy shelling and snipers have driven out a quarter of Ubari’s thirty thousand inhabitants, while the others resist, holed up in their neighborhoods. The fighting has left hundreds dead, and the hospital, deprived of its staff that fled the city, can no longer keep up with treating the wounded. The most severely injured often die during their transfer to the capital. With militias or bandits often closing the only road that links the oasis to Sebha and the Algerian border, little assistance gets through. Isolated from the world, Ubari has sunk into oblivion. 

Yet, the Fezzan continues to be of major geopolitical importance. Bordering Algeria, Niger, and Chad, it is through this hostile terrain that transit most sub-Saharan migrants who attempt to cross the Mediterranean from Libya’s shores, as well as criminal gangs hauling heroin and cocaine to Europe. It is also here that Mokhtar Belmokhtar, mastermind of the attack on the Algerian In Amenas gas site, and other leaders of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), are believed to have sought refuge, and where the Islamic State Group (IS) claims to have a subsidiary branch. A perilous region, the Fezzan sparks fears of the European Union, which in 2013, set up a European Border Assistance Mission (EUBAM) [1] in an effort to assist Libya in strengthening border controls. The security deterioration has since made EUBAM’s task impossible to fulfill. 

In northern Libya, many see the Fezzan as a hotbed of unrest and are tormented by the idea of an uprising led by former Gaddafi loyalists, or the invasion of their country by “foreigners.” This designation is frequently used to include the Tuareg and the Tebu due to their originally nomadic lifestyle and family ties in neighboring countries. From time to time, the Libyan press ignites these issues but there generally is little interest in the Fezzan. This marginalization has profoundly affected how locals conceive their relationship with the north. Complaints that “they have always been exploiting our oil fields and aquifers without giving us anything in return” are frequent. 

Misrata versus Zintan 

In the power vacuum that followed Gaddafi's fall, the region has been subject to clientelist policies emanating from local powers in the north that see the Fezzan as their backyard. Zintan, a small mountain town in the northwest Libyan Nafussa Mountains, seized border crossings to Tunisia and Algeria, and oil sites in the Ghadames and Murzuq basins in 2011 and 2012, recruiting Tebu fighters to guard the spoils of war. This alliance, along with the Tebu’s increased military power, displeased the Tuareg, who traditionally dominated in the areas of Ubari, Ghat, and Ghadames. In Ubari, Tuareg residents demanded job opportunities and complained that the Zintanis were granting privileges to the Tebu, such as access to the airstrip at Sharara oil field fifty kilometers from the town.

In parallel, the city of Misrata—which, since 2011, constitutes the greatest military power in northwest Libya and is in competition with Zintan—increased its presence in the Fezzan. In January 2014, Misratan brigades deployed to Sebha as a so-called “Third Force,” an alliance mandated by the National General Congress in Tripoli to stop tribal clashes in the southern city. Misratan leaders struck alliances with local forces recruited from among the Awlad Suleiman and Hassawna tribes, deemed supporters of the revolution and opposed to the Gaddadfa and the Magarha. The latter two tribes, privileged during Gaddafi's era and marginalized since his fall, have been suspected of fomenting a rebellion backed by former regime dignitaries based in Niger and Egypt. 

Lines of division hardened when a civil war erupted in the summer of 2014 between Fajr Libya (Libya Dawn)—a coalition dominated by Misrata and supported by Islamist Congress members—and the Karama (Dignity) Coalition, led by Khalifa Haftar. The latter is politically backed by the new Parliament, which operates out of the east, and whose main western ally is Zintan. Tebu military leaders swiftly declared their support for Karama and threatened to send troops to Tripoli. But Zintan, struggling to defend its northwestern positions, largely withdrew from the Fezzan, ceding ground to the Misratan Third Force, which deployed near Ubari. 

It is in this context that the Ubari conflict erupted. Accusing the Tebu of smuggling fuel and monopolizing fuel distribution networks, a Tuareg militia seized gas stations and the local police headquarters. Aided by their reinforcements from Murzuq, the Tebu responded with a counter-attack. Very quickly, narratives radicalized on both sides. The Tuareg demanded the departure of “Chadian mercenaries,” repeating a widespread cliché, while the Tebu denounced the “Malian terrorists,” suggesting that their opponents were all rebels who escaped northern Mali after the French intervention there. The Tebu also presented themselves as the last line of defense against an “Islamist” takeover under Misrata’s leadership. Early November, a Tuareg group ejected the Tebu from Sharara oil field with the support of the Third Force, which, albeit, remained at the gates of Ubari without openly intervening in the conflict. There has been little change on the battleground since, and the war entered a phase of stalemate. Ubari’s eastern neighborhoods remain under Tebu control, while the Tuareg are blocking their advance from the top of Jebel Tende, a mountain overlooking the city.

The Shadow of Mercenaries

On 10 July 2015, violence spread to Sebha, when a murder triggered clashes between the Tebu and Tuareg residents in the Tayuri neighborhood. Within a few days, hundreds of families fled the shantytown, taking refuge in Sebha schools. Dozens of civilians perished, including at least five children. For the first time, the conflict caught the attention of neighboring communities. Within days, Sebha’s Tribal Council formed a neighborhood committee, which then declared a ceasefire. Meanwhile, a large delegation of sheikhs from different parts of the country, including Misrata and the Nafussa Mountains, arrived in Sebha in order to mediate between the warring parties. On 25 July, the Tayuri Committee negotiated a first peace agreement, allowing for the return of the displaced, as well as the exchange of prisoners and reopening of roads. 

Walking through what remained of Tayuri metal sheet houses after the shelling by Tebu forces, Mohamed Mussa Tuji was optimistic regarding the outcome of the negotiations. As one of several vice-presidents of the Tuareg Social Council [2], he explained that neighborhood elders were committed to handing over anyone breaching the ceasefire to the other side. Yet, he admitted that underlying issues remained unresolved: “The unrest in Tayuri feeds off the troubles in Ubari and as long as the main conflict is not resolved we will not live in peace.” 

Neither Tebu nor Tuareg have an interest in the perpetuation of this conflict, both sides keep emphasizing. And still, none of the numerous truces negotiated between Ubari elders lasted long enough for a genuine peace process to start. One of the main reasons is certainly the absence of a national army, functioning police apparatus, or in fact, any neutral force capable of separating the warring forces. The Third Force, which is meant to play this role, has so far held back, wary of being “drawn into inter-tribal strife,” according to its leader Jamal Treiki. Even in Sebha, where the force retains some of its savior image, local officials are not fooled. “To this day, there is no force capable of standing in between warring groups whether you name it fifth, fourth, or third force,” quipped Hassan Ragig of the Sebha Elders Council.

Notwithstanding technicalities, the resolution of this conflict seems all the more difficult in view of its political and geographic ramifications. Both sides accuse each other of using mercenaries and after every battle bodies remain unclaimed. Ahmed Matko, head of Ubari’s Elders Council, explained that as a retired police officer, he has recognized some of the prisoners taken from the Tebu side. “Criminals from Nigeria, Uganda, and Sudan who were in jail a few years ago are now showing up on the frontlines,” he claimed. Pictures of non-Libyan war prisoners, foreign IDs, SIM cards, and foreign currencies circulate on social media and are presented as proof of the presence of African mercenaries. 

France, a Suspect

Added to this, locals believe the conflict is manipulated from the outside. Undoubtedly, the civil war and the bellicose discourse have fanned the flames of Tebu-Tuareg animosity. General Haftar has also been accused of providing weapons and food supplies to Tebu forces via the Wigh and Waw al-Kabir airfields, while the authorities in Tripoli have been accused of arming the Tuareg via Sharara. Proof is hard to come by, but the general consensus is that third parties have indeed exacerbated the conflict and are using it as a proxy battlefield for their own rivalries. In the words of one young Tuareg activist from Ubari: “In the beginning, the conflict was tribal, but it has become politicised. It is no longer Tebu and Tuaregs who are leading the battle, but foreign combatants, notably the Sudan People’s Liberation Army and the Sudanese Movement for Justice and Equality." [3]

Discussions also revolve around a supposed political agenda that shadowy foreign powers might be trying to achieve in the Fezzan. The prime suspect is France, whose launching of Operation Barkhane in August 2014 to stabilize the Sahel and contain the spread of jihadi groups is seen as proof of its hegemonic ambitions. In the eyes of many Tuareg, the fight against terrorism is little more than a pretext to build a neo-colonial empire replicating France’s status in the Fezzan from 1943 to 1951 [4], when it administered the territory after the defeat of Fascist Italy. According to Mohamed Mussa Tuji, France is seeking to capitalize on the chaos in Libya in order to establish a permanent presence in the southwest of the country through an alliance with the Tebu. He traces this revelation back to a peace conference for Ubari, organized by Chadian president Idriss Deby in N’Djamena: “When it became clear that France and its Nigerian and Chadian pawns were playing a double game, we withdrew from the talks.” Treiki, the commander of the Third Force, also believes in a conspiracy involving the secret services of France and the United Arab Emirates, exiled Gaddafi loyalists, and General Haftar. According to Treiki, these various forces have united to spread disorder, and eventually justify a Western military intervention. Moreover, Treiki asserts that he has concrete evidence of French military forays into Libya from their base at Madama in northern Niger.

In Libya, conspiracy theories are all too common, but foreign interference also cannot be overlooked or dismissed outright. The French army has already intercepted drug and weapons traffickers near the Salvador Pass at the intersection of Algeria, Libya, and Niger. French Minister of Defense Jean-Yves Le Drian has repeatedly alluded to the possibility of an international intervention in the Fezzan. Libya is already undergoing a regionalisation and widening of its internal conflict, as both sides accept arms, aid, and materiel from foreign sources—a flagrant violation of a United Nations weapons embargo. Among the presumed suppliers are Egypt and the UAE, supporting Karama; and Turkey and Qatar supporting the Fajr Coalition. The exact role of foreign powers in the Tebu-Tuareg conflict remains undetermined, but for local actors, it is far easier to levy blame against a nefarious fifth column than to assume responsibility for their own actions.

[This article was published in partnership with OrientXXI.]

[1] On 22 May 2013, the European Union established EUBAM (European Border Assistance Mission), a civilian mission charged with aiding Libyan authorities to improve and reinforce border security at Libya’s request, with an initial two-year mandate. Earlier this year, EUBAM’s mandate was extended until 21 November 2015, but most of the staff has had to relocate to Tunis for security reasons and most activities are on hold. 

[2] Founded on 9 February 2015 and based in Ubari, the Social Council is the most widely recognised political body of the Libyan Tuareg community. Two other groups, the Tuareg Consultative Council and the Tuareg Supreme Council, preceded it. Both of these bodies still exist and continue to operate in parallel to the Social Council, but wield less influence.

[3] APLS and MJE are two Sudanese rebel groups. The Sudan People’s Liberation Army—a former guerrilla movement—constitutes the official Army of South Sudan since the country’s independence in 2011. The MJE (Movement for Justice and Equality), better known in Arabic as “Harakat al-adal wal musawa,” is an Islamist militia from Darfur whose defunct leader Khalil Ibrahim took refuge in Libya in 2010-2011. The Tuareg are not alone in pointing to the “Sudanese connection." Last month, the press in Khartoum published the revelations of a repentant rebel leader, who asserted that the MJE is working as a mercenary force for General Haftar in Benghazi and Ubari. The MJE’s current leader, Jibril Ibrahim (brother of founder Khalil Ibrahim), denies these allegations. Recently on French media outlet France 24, he insisted: the Libyan conflict is “internal”..

[4] The French military did not withdraw definitively from the region until 1956.

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