Inter-Tribal Clashes in Southern Libya: A Factor of Local and National Instability


Since the fall of the Gaddafi regime in October 2011, a plethora of issues has been tearing apart the Libyan social fabric and substantially hindering the country’s security environment. In the northern and northeastern provinces, criminal networks, former rebel groups, and radical Islamist militants have resorted to violence in an effort to expand their political and financial gains.

In Libya’s southern regions, stretching from Sebha to Kufra, tribal animosities represent a major factor of instability. Since 2012, Arab ethnic and black African tribes vying for local power and national recognition have clashed against each other. These incidents pose a threat to the country’s public infrastructure and to the government’s ability to successfully exploit its energy resources. In addition, tribal tensions in southern Libya have highlighted the Libyan army’s inability to fully control the country’s territory.

The Tebu tribe is a Chadian ethnic group consisting of approximately 350,000 people.[i] Its members mainly live in the northern Aouzou Strip in Chad, the southern regions of Libya and on Niger’s northeastern border. Under Gaddafi’s rule, the Tebu people were widely marginalized and discriminated by the Libyan authorities. As part of the country’s Arabization policy, the state put in place an institutionalized persecution of the Tebu people. This move culminated in a December 2007 decision to strip all the tribe members of their Libyan citizenship.[ii]

After the 2011 Libyan civil war, tensions flared up in the country’s southern regions as Tebu tribesmen demanded greater socio-political recognition. In the first semester of 2012, Tebu fighters clashed with Arab ethnic Zuwayya tribesmen in Kufra and with Abu Seif tribesmen in Sebha. The fighting in Kufra lasted from February until the end of June and resulted in more than 270 dead.[iii] The violence was sparked by a clash between Zuwayya and Tebu gunmen in Kufra. Hostilities stopped after the intervention of the Libyan armed forces and the imposition of a ceasefire. A similar scenario unfolded in Sebha where a personal dispute between Tebu and Abu Seif tribesmen sparked six days of intense violence that led to more than 160 dead.[iv]  The situation de-escalated when Libyan army soldiers entered into Sebha.

Tensions between Tebu fighters and Arab ethnic tribes remain a constant factor of instability in Sebha and Kufra. Violence flared up in January 2014 when Tebu gunmen kidnapped and killed a commander of a Sebha revolutionary brigade in Taraghin, southeast of Sebha. The incident resulted in more than two weeks of fighting between Tebu and Arab ethnic tribes leaving more than a hundred dead.[v] The violence spread throughout the region and highlighted the structural factors of instability in Libya’s southern regions. In addition, sporadic tribal clashes throughout February 2014 resulted in temporary shutdowns of the Sarir power station in the Kufra region.[vi]

These rounds of violence lead to effects that spread further than the disruptions they directly cause in the affected areas. Inter-tribal violence highlights the current inability by the Libyan government to successfully rein in tribal armed groups operating in the country’s southern regions; it underscores the fact that external terrorist actors may use the porosity of the southern Libyan border to develop staging areas for future attacks; and it bodes negatively for the Libyan political system’s ability to integrate the country’s components into its legislative structure.

The Effects of Tribal Tensions in the Sebha and Kufra Regions

The 2012 and 2014 clashes in Sebha and Kufra underscore a set of effects that can result from tribal tensions in Libya’s southern regions. The instability generated by these periodic rounds of violence threatens both local life standards and the operations of international corporations investing in the area.

As was highlighted during the January 2014 Sebha clashes, violence exerts a heavy toll on local infrastructure and bears the potential of shutting down local administrations. In late January, reports were issued by the hospital of Murzuq, a town south of Sebha, that basic medical supplies were running low and that the personnel lacked the logistics to carry out basic tasks.[vii]  People in need of treatment had to be evacuated to medical facilities up to 170km away from Murzuq. This situation was caused by the increased inflow of wounded from Sebha as well as by the fact that overland travel routes were blocked by the fighting. The violence also paralyzed the commercial and political life in Sebha. Shops were closed for more than two weeks and the local council suspended its work, depriving the town’s inhabitants of basic administrative services. 

In addition to these direct effects endured by the local population, inter-tribal clashes in Sebha resulted in disruption that affected both Libyans and international personnel. The Sebha airport, located in the eastern portion of the city was intermittently closed during the January 2014 violence. Clashes in the area often led to the suspension of flights because of security concerns.[viii] According to airport officials, government forces should provide a safe area of at least 20km around the facility for it to operate normally. However, because of its proximity to the contested city, tribal clashes do erupt near the airport’s perimeter. The closure of the Sebha airport had a negative effect on travel to Libya’s southern regions as there are only two airports used for commercial flights in the region. The second one, the Obari airport, quickly becomes overcrowded when the Sebha airport closes.   

A third effect of inter-tribal fighting lies in the direct impact these events have on the country’s energy production. The case of the Sarir power station exemplifies this issue. The station is guarded by a unit of the Petroleum Facility Guards (PFG). The PFG Sarir unit is mainly formed by Tebu fighters. The 427th Brigade of the Libyan army is stationed in the Sarir power plant area. It is mainly composed by ethnic Arab Zwai tribesmen. Clashes between both tribes often result in the shelling of the energy infrastructure. These attacks lead to the temporary shutdown of the complex and the potential suspension of energy supplies to northern Libya. Inter-tribal clashes in the Kufra region can thus have large scale repercussions in the rest of the country. In addition, a direct consequence of the clashes in the country’s southern region is that they can result in the temporary closure of oil fields, such as the al-Elephant and the al-Sarara ones. In turn, no oil arrives to the northern refineries and terminals. Power shortages and oil shortages may result in additional social discontent and labor unrest. These tensions caused by unstable energy supplies can lead to demonstrations and work stoppages generating a threat to business continuity for international companies.

Inter-Tribal Clashes: an Indicator of Libya’s Long-Term Issues

Clashes in Sebha and Kufra stand as an indicator of troubles ahead for the Libyan government. Following the analysis of the tensions between black Chadian and ethnic Arab tribes in southern Libya, three conclusions can be drawn.

First, while inter-tribal violence has so far been curtailed by the intervention of military forces, the fact that the government had to send troops to the country’s southern border regions underscores its lack of capabilities to fully control these areas. This situation leaves major territorial gaps that can be exploited by armed groups other than local tribes to challenge the Libyan state or threaten international interests in the area. The takeover by Gaddafi loyalists of the Tamerhint airbase and their show-of-force in Ajilat[ix] at the end of January 2014 highlights the fact that armed groups operating in the south can be a nuisance to the state. These actions did not result in any territorial or political gain for the Gaddafi loyalists. However, in the long-run they may contribute to further erode the government’s legitimacy in the area.

Second, the southern border regions of the country offer an ideal safe haven and staging area for regional Islamist terrorist networks. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is known to operate in the northern regions of Niger and Chad. While AQIM has not yet penetrated the inter-tribal conflicts in southern Libya, the porosity of the southern border and relative inability of the armed forces to secure these areas raises the risk of further terrorist incursions in the southern portion of the country. In the beginning of January 2014, a senior member of the Tebu tribe stated that AQIM fighters are strengthening their foothold in the southwestern region close to Sebha[x]. Armed radical Islamists are in the process of acquiring weapons and forging alliances with local Arab tribes and members of the Tuareg community in order to gain the right to remain in the area.

The third and last point refers to tribal tensions that could factor negatively in the country’s overall electoral process. In February 2014, Tebu representatives called for the boycott of the elections for the Libyan Constitutional Committee.[xi] This boycott was caused by the alleged ongoing discrimination against Tebu tribesmen. In March members of the Tebu community staged rallies in Tripoli calling for enhanced political rights. They requested Libyan authorities to implement policies against alleged state-sponsored discriminations and to provide tribesmen with enhanced security. While these events are not highly influential in themselves, they point toward a loss of legitimacy by the government and the risk of claims for increased autonomy in the country’s southern regions.

At this juncture, there remains an elevated risk of further tribal clashes in Sebha, Murzuq and throughout the country’s southern regions. These incidents bare the potential of further destabilizing the region and breaking the fragile peace agreement that was reached at the end of February 2014. For now, tribal clashes in the south do not involve federalist demands. Tebu fighters demand greater integration in the current political system and a fairer allocation of the national budget without calling for enhanced autonomy inside Libya. Further small-scale clashes between Arab and Chadian tribes in the Libyan southern desert should closely be monitored as they can rapidly lead to major disruptions in the affected areas and instability throughout the country.

Photo credit: Valerie Stocker

[i] John, Oakes, Libyastories, Libya-The Tebu of Kufra, Sebha and Muzuq; A black people in search of a nationality, July 20th 2013.

[ii] Laura, Van Wass, Tilburg Law School Legal Studies Research Paper Series, The Stateless Tebu of Libya ?, October 2013

[iii] CTV News, UN says south Libya tense after tribal warfare, February 28th 2012 on April 2nd 2014

[iv] The Telegraph, 70 killed in three days in Libya, March 28th 2012

[v] Le Monde, Les troubles dans le Sud Libyen inquiètent les Occidentaux, , January 30th 2014

[vi] Libya Herald, Sarir Power station in missile attack, February 1st 2014

[vii] Libya Herald, Sebha Clashes Create Crisis for Murzuk Hospital, January 20th 2014

[viii] Libya Herald, Sebha airport still closed, March 24th 2014.

[ix] The Modern Tokyo Times,Tripoli Battles Shadowy Qaddafists While Tribal Rivals Fight Over Southern Libya, January 27th 2014

[x] Associated Press, Desert Gives Al-Qaeda Refuge After Mali Defeat, January 19th 2014.

[xi] Libya Herald, Tebus announce boycott of Constitutional Committee elections, February 17th 2014

About Author

Riccardo Dugulin

Riccardo Dugulin is a contributor at the International Security Observer. Riccardo is an analyst at Drum Cussac, a global business risk consultancy. He specializes in supporting international organizations and large corporations operating in high threat areas by providing them with critical risk management intelligence. His regions of expertise are the Near East, the Gulf, North Africa and Continental Europe. He previously worked as project manager for a French medical assistance company. He gained field experience in the Middle East having worked for leading think tanks in Dubai and Beirut. Riccardo holds a Master in International Affairs from the Sciences Po – Paris and a Bachelor in Middle Eastern Studies from the same university. He is bilingual in Italian and French, fluent in English, he has a working knowledge of Spanish and an elementary knowledge of Arabic and Russian.

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