Libya: Gulf Crisis Sparks Posturing Among Militant Leadership

Publication: Militant Leadership Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 6

On June 5, a number of the Gulf States — Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain — announced that they were severing diplomatic ties with Qatar due to controversial accusations of Qatar’s support for terrorism. The emergence of this unprecedented rift between Gulf powers is sending shock waves through the entire Middle East and North Africa. In the wake of this clash, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE and Bahrain released a list naming a number of organizations and individuals that allegedly support terrorism and are linked to Qatar (ArabNews, June 9). Included on this list were the names of several Libyan militant leaders. The most notable among them was Sadek al-Ghariani, the controversial Tripoli-based grand mufti who recently called upon Libyans to end the bloodshed and reconcile in the wake of the Eid Al-Fitr (the Muslim holiday marking the end of Ramadan) and blamed external countries for the conflict in Libya (Libya Observer, June 24). Other notable names included Abdulhakim Belhaj, the brothers Ali and Ismail al-Salabi, Mahdi al-Harati and the entire Benghazi Defense Brigades (BDB).

Following the early June announcement, the Eastern-based government and parliament and the House of Representatives (HoR), both close to the UAE, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, decided to sever their ties with Qatar. The HoR also released its own list of alleged terrorists with links to Qatar, suggesting the Gulf list was partial and incomplete. On that list, the HoR named 75 Libyan individuals and nine entities (Libya Herald, June 12). This decision sparked the reaction of the enemies of the HoR and the Eastern Government. In a tit-for-tat move, the BDB released its own list of those it deems to be terrorists, naming 11 people it considers to be terrorists in Libya — though not necessarily linked with Qatar. Notably, there was no mention of Khalifa Haftar on the BDB’s list (Libya Herald, June 16).

The publication of these lists will not change the dynamics of the conflict in Libya significantly. The Gulf sanctions against Qatari entities and Libyan individuals and groups may reduce their freedom of action and their financial resources slightly, but it is not a game changer. Meanwhile, Qatar has also reacted by trying to minimize the impact of the blockade, searching for support from other countries. At the Libyan level, these lists have simply documented a bitter rivalry that was already well known and will have little impact on the actual dynamics on the ground. From this point of view, the massacre of Brik al-Shatti has had a much more significant impact and has possibly marked the beginning of a new phase in the intra-Libyan conflict (see Terrorism Monitor, June 2).

However, if looked at from a broader perspective — and given the impact that external dynamics play in the Libyan context — the evolution of the Gulf rift may affect the capacities of Libyan actors to access external resources, as well as their strategic and economic freedom of action. After two weeks since the beginning of the division, the situation is far from settled. The publication of the list of demands that Saudi Arabia and its allies want Qatar to accept is likely to deepen the conflict, widening the distance between the various actors involved. As Libyan actors remain very dependent on external support, the weakening of any of the players participating in this dispute will affect their proxies in Libya.

After releasing their tit-for-tat list, the leadership of the BDB offered to dissolve the brigades and integrate them into the legitimate formal Libyan army. In a statement, the group said that it wants to prevent a deepening of the Libyan bloodshed and further deterioration of living conditions, and to “remove the excuse used by France, Egypt and UAE for their planned invasion of Libya” (Libya Herald, June 23). That said, this sounds like a tactical move to reduce pressure rather than a strategic decision. However, increasing pressure on some actors in Libya does not mean that, if weakened, they will be ready to compromise or accede to demands. On the contrary, if the brigades feel under pressure and that they are facing increasing risks of marginalization due to becoming increasingly weaker, they could become more aggressive.