While the Islamic State Group grabbed headlines last week when it attempted to seize two of Libya’s most important oil terminals, nearby a town is sliding into violence without having raised much attention so far. Ajdabiya is divided along political, tribal and ideological lines and residents fear that the war in Benghazi will soon engulf their town as well. The recent pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State of a local splinter group further exacerbates fears.
In a sudden advance on Tuesday, a local brigade allied with the army seized Checkpoint 60, south of Ajdabiya, from a local extremist group known as Shura Council of the Ajdabiya Revolutionaries Alliance, in shorter Ajdabiya Revolutionaries Shura Council or ARSC. The Ajdabiya Revolutionaries Shura Council has been in control of the town’s southern suburbs for almost a year, but pro-army forces launched a campaign last month to drive the extremists out. The Libyan air force bombed Checkpoint 60 last week, paving the way for its local allies to take over.
Ajdabiya, some 150km southwest of Benghazi, is a key strategic asset as link between north and south and gateway to eastern Libya. Located on the eastern end of the Gulf of Sirte, just over 10km away from the coast and close to four of Libya’s six onshore oil terminals, it is also the capital of the Wahat district, which encompasses the Sirte basin – the country’s most prolific oil-producing region. The town’s history is intrinsically linked to the oil industry, a recent manifestation of which is the local branch of the Petroleum Facilities Guard, which – under the lead of Ajdabiya strongman Ibrahim Jadhran – closed down three of the oil terminals during 2013 and 2014 in a grasp for power.
Since 2014 Ajdabiya has seen a rise of extremism and a wave of political assassinations targeting security officials, activists, and religious figures, similar to what Benghazi experienced from 2012. Late last year, the army leadership called on townspeople to rise up against the extremists, setting December 15 as a target date. But the uprising faltered as pro-government forces failed to form a united front, and municipal council members and tribal elders instead tried to defuse tensions by negotiating with the ARSC.
The ARSC has its stronghold 18km south of Ajdabiya, on farmland owned by the Zwaya tribe. The group was set up back in March 2015 by former members of Libya Shield – a once government-sanctioned umbrella group for revolutionary forces whose mandate expired – and offshoots of UN-designated terror group Ansar al-Sharia. It mimics the Benghazi Revolutionaries’ Shura Council – a coalition of self-declared revolutionaries from different backgrounds that rallied behind a hardline Islamist agenda and declared war on the army.
Although the main forces in Ajdabiya are allied to the official government and fight under the banner of the army, their affiliations and loyalties differ.
The town’s largest army unit – the Jawarikh Brigade – is busy fighting the BRSC on Benghazi’s western frontline alongside Haftar’s troops. Border Guard Brigade 21, which seized Checkpoint 60 on Tuesday, is said to be smaller. Its commander, Mohamed Ibseet is also the deputy head of the Ajdabiya Military Operations Room, whose chief, Fawzi al-Mansuri al-Obeidi says his command unit was set up by the army’s general command, i.e. Khalifa Haftar. But there is another military body known as Ajdabiya Military Command or Border Division that is manned by army officers and led by a Colonel (Bashir Budhfira) and allegedly does not respond to Haftar. Ibrahim Jadhran, whose PFG Central Libya Division is believed to be the strongest single force in the area and the main one fighting the IS Group at the oil terminals, has a particularly antagonistic stance towards Haftar and recently went as far as saying that Haftar and IS were “two sides of the same coin”. Partly as a result of these splits, the pro-government forces all lack equipment and funds and are in poor shape to face the extremists, whether the ARSC or IS.
Throughout 2015 rising tensions between the ARSC and other armed groups occasionally triggered skirmishes, and the situation escalated last month after the army’s call for mobilization. Clashes erupted on December 15 between the ARSC and a local Salafi group supported by neighborhood youth in the area of the 7 October Bridge in the western part of the town. ARSC leader Ibreik Maziq al-Zway, also known as Ibreik al-Masriya, was placed under siege in one of his family houses in Galuz Street, near the bridge. By December 18 the local hospital reported 15 dead and 27 injured. Among those killed were a member of the Municipal Council, Abdelmenem Harun Lafkih, as well as Ahmed Maziq al-Zway, Ibreik Maziq’s brother.
Given the parallel loyalties of the pro-government armed forces, it is unclear to what extent the army has been involved in fighting on the ground. Early on in December, Fawzi al-Mansuri said that his Military Operations Room had incorporated different pro-army factions. His deputy Mohamed Ibseet told Libya Channel on December 22 that it was “neighborhood youth supported by the army” fighting “terrorist groups”, criticizing the Ajdabiya Municipal Council’s for describing them as “conflict parties”. The PFG and the so-called Border Division meanwhile stayed out of the fighting, according to local sources, although they had recently formed a joint security room together with the Security Directorate to stem violence in the town. Some ascribed their apparent neutrality to concerns for civilian safety, while others pointed to ties between members of the Jadhran family and the ARSC accusing them of vested interests.
Tribal elders, gathered under the lead of the Ajdabiya Elders Council, as well as civilian residents from the affected neighborhoods – 7 October Bridge and Galuz Street – tried to negotiate a truce between the warring factions. Ibreik Maziq demanded that the Salafi and armed youth groups put down their weapons and refrain from targeting the family houses of ARSC members; their opponents demanded that the ARSC pull out of the urban areas to the farmland south of Ajdabiya. Adam al-Gadi, head of the Elders Council, was optimistic that an agreement could be reached and key locations handed over to the Security Directorate. Anyone violating the truce would be refused tribal protection, so the elders.
But the negotiations collapsed at the start of January when the group of mediators was shot at by unidentified assailants in front of the Security Directorate.
The ARSC moreover issued a statement calling on the elders and mediators to denounce the pro-army neighborhood youth as “criminals”, and some member of the Municipal Council blamed the army for using assassinations as “pretext for a military intervention” and for “undermining peace efforts” by continuing air strikes during the talks.
Confusing the scene further, a group of militants speaking in the name of the Ajdabiya Revolutionaries Shura Council pledged allegiance to IS in a video released on 31 December. The ARSC promptly denied any links to the group, which it referred to as “madakhla” (quietist Salafis) seeking to discredit the “revolutionaries”, implying that this was a pro-Haftar conspiracy.
The ARSC has tried to distance itself from the IS Group denying any ties to the organization, much like the BRSC, which recently engaged in a “battle of statements” with IS. In fact several ARSC members – including their leader Ibreik Maziq – are believed to have ties to al-Qaeda. When the US carried out an airstrike on an alleged terrorist gathering south of Ajdabiya in June 2015, they claimed to have targeted Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a former top commander of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
The conflict has already taken a heavy toll on the residents of Ajdabiya. Dozens, including civilians, have died in the clashes and airstrikes. People live in fear of the extremists, as well as war breaking out between them and the army. “Ajdabiyans are against extremism but they don’t have weapons to fight them. Most of all they are terrified of the Benghazi scenario repeating itself in Ajdabiya, bringing with it death, internal displacement and the disintegration of the social tissue”, a local resident told us.