Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 9 Issue: 18


In the remote mountains that range along Libya’s western border with Tunisia, North Africa’s indigenous Berber tribes are locked in a life-and-death struggle with Mu’ammar Qaddafi’s Arab-supremacist regime. Though they were among the first to rebel against Qaddafi’s government, the Berbers are poorly armed and severely short of food and fuel with loyalist forces in the plains cutting off supply routes. Direct military intervention by NATO warplanes appears to the Berbers to be the only way of repelling advancing loyalist troops.

There are an estimated 25 million Berbers (as defined by use of Berber languages) spread across North Africa. The Berbers call themselves Imazighen (“Free Men”) and their ancestors were known to their ancient Egyptian neighbors as the Libu, the Meshwesh, the Tjehenu and the Tamahu.
Libya’s Berbers do not form a single group; a division between Eastern and Western Berbers dates back to ancient times and the desert-dwelling ethnic-Berber Tuareg developed their own independent culture centuries ago. As a result, there are three main groups of ethnic-Berbers in Libya with only minimal interrelation:

• The Western Berbers consist of two main groups.

1) The tribes of the Ait Willul live in the coastal city of Zuwara, known in Berber as Tamurt n Wat Willul (Town of the Ait Willul). Zuwara rose in revolt in February, but government forces suppressed the rebellion there a month later.

2) The Nafusa tribes live in the Western Mountains (al-Jabal al-Gharbi), better known as the Nafusa Mountains after the region’s Berber name, Adrar n Infusen. The Nafusa Berbers retreated there from the coast to isolate themselves from the mass Arabization of the Libyans after the arrival of two large Arab tribes in the 11th century, the Banu Hilal and the Banu Salim. The Nafusa declared against Qaddafi in the earliest days of the rebellion despite having little ability to defend their communities. With the government having managed to consolidate itself in other parts of western Libya, loyalist forces have now turned their attention to the mountain rebels.

• The Eastern Berbers live in the oasis towns of Jalu and Awjilah, about 250km southeast of the battlefront at Ajdabiyah. Rebel sources reported a new loyalist offensive by troops in trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns and Grad rockets against the settlements this week, part of a government effort to cut off rebel-held northern Cyrenaica from the oil and water-rich Libyan interior.  The loyalist column of 45 vehicles was destroyed in a NATO airstrike on May 1 after the column attacked Jalu and Awjilah (Reuters, May 1; Upstream Online, May 2).

• The Tuareg live in communities focused on the oases of southwestern Libya. Though ethnically Berber, the Tuareg developed their own culture and version of the Berber language (Tamasheq or Tamahaq) after their ancestors migrated deep into the African interior roughly 1600 years ago. Despite insisting the Tuareg are actually Arabs, Qaddafi has also sought their favor at times due to their reputation as skilled desert fighters he could use in his efforts to expand his influence in the Sahara and Sahel regions. Qaddafi’s occasional efforts to champion the Tuareg cause and arm Tuareg rebel movements outside Libya appear to have brought large numbers of Tuareg from Mali and Niger to Libya to join the loyalist forces, though this recruitment has been achieved more through cash payments than personal loyalty to Qaddafi. [1] Libya’s own Tuareg appear divided on whether to support Qaddafi, though few, if any, appear to have joined the armed rebellion.

Qaddafi has always regarded the existence of the Berbers as an annoying reminder of the Berber origins of his own Arabized tribe and hence an impediment to his efforts to become leader of the pan-Arab community. An apparent softening of the regime’s approach to the Berber minority led by Saif al-Islam Qaddafi in 2007 (which included lifting the ban on Berber names) was reversed by Mu’ammar Qaddafi less than a year later when the Libyan leader travelled to the Western mountains to warn Berbers; “You can call yourselves whatever you want inside your homes – Berbers, Children of Satan, whatever – but you are only Libyans when you leave your homes” [2]


1. See Andrew McGregor, “Libyan Loyalists and Dissidents Vie for Tuareg Fighters,” Terrorism Monitor Brief, March 10, 2011.
2. U.S. Embassy Tripoli cable 08TRIPOLI530, July 3, 2008, published by the Telegraph, January 31, 2011. See also AFP, August 24, 2007.


Once known as “Forbidden Kufra,” the small group of oases clustered in the vast deserts of southeastern Libya has become the latest battlefield in Libya as government forces battle to retake Kufra from the rebels who seized the region over a month ago. Despite being one of the most isolated settlements on Earth, deep in the Sahara and nearly surrounded by sand seas on three sides, Kufra has now become a strategically important center for the control of Libya’s vital oil industry.

On April 28 a column of 60 vehicles carrying roughly 250 loyalist fighters arrived in Kufra, taking the oasis with only light resistance from its rebel defenders before raising the green national flag over the courthouse (Reuters, April 28). Saleh Muhammad al-Zaruq, the security chief for Kufra, had announced his support for the rebel forces in early April, putting the oasis region under rebel control (al-Jazeera, April 3).

According to rebel spokesmen, the loyalist forces travelled nearly 1,000 km from Sabha, a desert stronghold of Qaddafi forces surrounded by pro-regime tribes (, May 3). The rebels also claimed the loyalists were accompanied by 1,500 Chadian mercenaries, though this has not been confirmed. Rebel sources tend to exaggerate numbers and the degree of foreign support for Qaddafi in order to obtain greater military support from NATO forces. Libyan state television later reported: “Libyan forces have seized full control of the town of Kufra and purified it of the armed gangs” (Reuters, April 28). The attack on Kufra came days after loyalist forces raided a remote desert oil pumping station, killing eight guards (AFP, April 25).

Kufra was long held by the Teda wing of the indigenous Tubu people, whose large Tibesti-centered desert homeland covers southeastern Libya, northern Chad and eastern Niger. However, control of the oasis region was taken over by the powerful Zuwaya Arabs in 1840. This development opened Kufra to the influence of the Sanussi religious order, which moved their headquarters there in 1895 to resist attempts by the Ottoman rulers of northern Cyrenaica to bring the Sanussis under the supervision of Istanbul. From Kufra the Sanussis expanded their growing confederacy to areas of modern-day Chad, Niger and Western Egypt, areas for which they would soon compete with the colonial armies of France, Italy and Great Britain.

Though the Sanussis had lost much of their territory to the Europeans by the end of the First World War, Kufra continued to resist conquest and remained, with the exception of several prisoners and the redoubtable Rosita Forbes, closed to non-Muslims. When an Italian column under Marshal Rodolfo Graziani arrived in 1931 with 3,000 troops, artillery and a score of warplanes, Kufra’s fate was sealed.

The Italians built a fort and an important airfield, but were relieved of their new possession by a column of Free French and Chadian colonial troops with the aid of the newly-formed British Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) in March 1941. The battle marked the first major victory in the distinguished military career of the operation’s commander, French General Philippe Leclerc. Kufra was then used as a base for desert operations by the LRDG and Special Air Service (SAS).

In recent years Kufra has become an important center on the Libyan desert road system that has improved transportation across the Sahara and allowed food aid shipments to be driven south directly to refugee camps in Darfur and Chad (, November 24, 2004). A massive agricultural project uses water drawn from the massive aquifers discovered beneath the Libyan desert. On a darker note, Kufra has also become an important mid-way point for human traffickers shipping migrants from sub-Saharan Africa north to the Mediterranean coast, where they board overcrowded boats bound for a perilous voyage to Europe.

Zuwaya Arabs and Teda Tubu were reported to have clashed in Kufra in 2008, with the Teda getting the worst of it. The Libyan rebels claim to have support from the Zuwaya, but the Tubu are often seen as inclined towards Qaddafi (AFP, April 25). The Tubu have had their own problems with the Libyan leader, who expelled several thousand of them to Chad after a member of the Sanussi royal family tried to recruit Tubu mercenaries to fight Qaddafi in the early 1970s. Despite this, many Tubu find careers in the Libyan military that suit the warrior traditions of their noble clans. Under King Idriss al-Sanusi (1951-1969), the Tubu formed the royal guard. Loyalist operations in the oasis have the potential of reviving the local Arab-Tubu rivalry.