Special Commentary from Inside Western Libya– The Nalut Offensive: A View from the Battlefield

Executive Summary:

In response to weeks-long GRAD artillery fire aimed at their key supply hub of Nalut, Libya’s western rebels finally launched a large scale, logistically sophisticated offensive against the Qaddafist-held towns of Ghazaya and Takut in recent days. In the weeks leading up to the offensive, rebels and civilians alike in the town of Nalut, located in Libya’s Jebel Nafusa mountain range, endured constant and highly irregular GRAD barrages, resulting in tens of thousands of Nalutis seeking refuge across the border in Tunisia. On the morning of July 28, hours before the rebel assault got underway, NATO forces followed through on the promise to conduct air strikes against Ghazaya and Takut, as rebel leaders refused to send their troops in to battle without NATO’s prior ‘softening up’ of the towns with heavy bombardment. Rebel dependence on NATO forces is a notable development when compared to their original policy of absolutist non-interventionism that dominated at the war’s outset in February. However, support from the Libyan rebel’s Arab allies in the Gulf are also seen in Nalut as  Qatari and Emirati officials vie for influence among the rebels, including a Qatari government representative escorting Jalal al-Digheily, the National Transitional Council’s civilian Defense Minister, on a tour of front line towns.  Five months on, not only are opposition forces in need of Western air power, but also of arms, ammunition, and other types of support, most notably from the tiny Gulf emirate of Qatar. After their initial success in this offensive, which combined hi-tech Western air support with crude artillery and locally fashioned ‘technical’ fighting trucks, for the time being the Amazigh and Arab rebels of Western Libya have secured for themselves a crucial Tunisian lifeline as well as newfound confidence.

On Thursday, July 28, 2011, Libya’s western rebels launched a large scale, logistically sophisticated offensive against heavily dug-in Qaddafist positions in the towns of Ghazaya and Takut in the plains below the Jebel Nafusa mountain range. For weeks on end, forces loyal to Tripoli attacked the key rebel supply hub of Nalut with crudely targeted multiple rocket launch system GRAD artillery. The constant GRAD fire, launched at highly irregular intervals and aimed at terrorizing the populace, had several debilitating effects. It sent tens of thousands of Nalutis and those inhabiting surrounding areas into refuge across the border in Tunisia, just less than an hour’s drive away. Nalut, as the gateway to the greater Amazigh-dominated (Berber) Jebel Nafusa region as well as rebel-controlled Arab towns to the east and north, had its humanitarian and military supply under threat from direct fire attacks. Without the Nalut conduit to Wazin, the rebel controlled post on the Libyan-Tunisian border, Qaddafist forces maintained the potential to cut off supplies to western rebels from the rear which would have isolated and eventually starved towns like Jadu, Yefran, and Zintan, essentially turning them into an island of resistance facing rapidly encroaching enemies on all sides. Nalut’s rebel leadership had been lobbying the top echelon’s of the Benghazi-based Transitional National Council (TNC) to sell NATO war planners in Europe on the idea of an all out war against Mu’ammar al-Qaddafi’s westernmost troops.

While NATO higher ups deliberated on the notion of attacking another front, ostensibly under its mandate to protect Libyan civilians, Nalut continued to be attacked with ageing yet terrifying Soviet-era rocket technology. In one of the worst such incidents, the author witnessed Qaddafists rocketing Nalut for nearly eight hours with an estimated 70 munitions hitting the town and surrounding environs. Jamestown met with the head of Nalut’s military council, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of retribution against family members remaining in Tripoli. A compact, light skinned Amazigh man in his late 50s or early 60s clad in dated American-issue desert camouflage complemented by a matching beige turban, he had an air of confidence that the NATO air cavalry would indeed come but he was as not at liberty to specify when. Even in Nalut, a place with a high degree of social cohesion, people feared the presence of pro-Qaddafi informants not unlike their peers in cosmopolitan Benghazi. All details about military operations were to stay ‘top secret’ virtually until the moment of kinetic contact.

At 6:30 am on the day of the offensive, this Jamestown analyst rode with a column of refurbished Soviet T-60 tanks as they awkwardly trundled down a petroleum smuggler’s route from the Nalut tableland down to the Ghazaya plain in the early morning fog. The diesel belching T-60s, barely fitting on the ad hoc road, churned up asphalt poured by those who ferried black market oil that was once transported to Tunisia while Libya was subject to international sanctions. The tanks were accompanied by rebel fighter trucks that brought under-armed fighters to the front. As one groups of rebels advanced toward Ghazaya, another group to the northeast moved down the mountain toward Takut in order to attack the Qaddfists on two fronts concomitantly. The vaguely promised NATO air strikes finally materialized in the hours before the dawn assault. With the cliffs around Nalut acting like a hulking geologic amphitheater, reverberations shook Nalut for hours in the dark of night. Rebel leaders refused to mount their attack without their NATO partners softening up these towns with a heavy bombardment beforehand. The rebels estimated there were four GRAD trucks in Ghazaya and at least one in Takut. They alleged these vehicle-borne artillery systems were hidden either between or actually inside homes in civilian areas where NATO would be required to strike, perhaps giving Western planners pause in regard to hesitancy about civilian casualties.

Upon spotting an incongruously new, black Toyota HiLux truck on the roadside (virtually all Libyan rebel trucks are white or silver), Jamestown encountered a pair of American intelligence officers on a rocky outcropping along with two TNC officials who appeared to be helping to target and coordinate air strikes on Ghazaya under the searing sun. On a nearby mesa, rebels loaded a makeshift four tube GRAD rocket launcher technical truck in full view of the intelligence men who appeared indifferent to screams of Allahu akbar as rebels fired wildly from the technical into the valley’s parched floor. The Americans present were quietly employing high-powered, military grade binoculars to closely observe the assault on Ghazaya as jets roared overhead. The objective for the rebels to have NATO eliminate all of the GRAD systems possessed by Qaddafist troops was not immediately successful. For even as precision guided munitions from the alliances jets continued to smash targets below, Qaddafists began to fire on Nalut’s town center in an incredibly violent quid pro quo. The covert presence of Americans on the Libyan battlefield would have been immensely controversial at the war’s outset in February as its early leaders preached a policy of absolutist non-interventionism. That quickly evolved into pleas for Western air power coupled with a ‘no boots-on-the-ground’ proviso. Libyan rebels, full of soaring bravado after a series of successful battles against Qaddafist forces in the oil terminal towns of Brega and Ras Lanuf in early March, told the author at the time that under no circumstances would they accept help from non-Libyan nationals on the ground, including help from fellow Arab states.

With the war dragging on for months at the time of this writing and several of the rebels’ earliest victories having long since been rolled back by their much better armed and trained opponents, there are now several foreign governments directly involved in the Libyan conflict. Aside from the Americans encountered during the height of the Nalut offensive, Jamestown was told by an Amazigh rebel official that Qatari and Emirati investment in the war had reached a point to where it appeared the two Gulf states were vying for influence among rebel factions. When Jalal al-Digheily, the new TNC Defense Minister, visited Nalut on July 20, he was escorted by a man purported to be an official from the Qatari Ministry of Defense, according to a member of al-Digheily’s entourage. The State of Qatar has been involved nearly since the conflict’s inception by providing arms, ammunition and many other types of support. Several pro-rebel satellite channels with expensive looking sets and slick production values have sprung up in recent months with the studios reportedly located in Doha (al-Jazeera, April 3). The degree of United Arab Emirates collusion with the rebels is less clear than that of Qatar but at dozens of rebel checkpoints throughout Amazigh-majority areas the Emirati flag is now flapping alongside its Qatari counterpart. Decals of the Qatari monarch Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani adorned dozens of rebel technicals as they descended down the mountainsides into battle. The tiny Gulf emirate is punching well above its weight in the Libyan conflict, likely in a bid to enhance its prestige in the Arab world while securing its position to do business in Libya in the event of a post-conflict scenario. The arming of Libya’s western rebels is a complex logistical web filled with many unknowns. One of the biggest questions is the level of Tunisian involvement in the Libyan conflict. Officially Tunisia’s pre-election caretaker government is not taking sides in Libya, but crates of munitions arriving in the Jebel Nafusa region and adjacent Arab rebel-controlled areas tell a different story. Libya’s western rebels state that all their weapons either come from captured Qaddafist stores or, now, via aerial deliveries direct from Benghazi with NATO’s over-flight acquiescence to a temporary airstrip on the road between Nalut and Zintan. However, when Qaddafist forces based in Ghazaya fired artillery at Libyan rebels which made its way to the Tunisian side of the border, Tripoli risked escalating the conflict by nudging Tunis closer toward the rebels. While the Tunisians have appeared to turn a blind eye to weapons smuggling from the port of Benghazi by ship and road through their territory (Reuters, May 31), talk of increasing hostility toward Qaddafi within the Tunisian security forces is tilting them toward the TNC circulated in Nalut. Upon closer inspection, talk of Tunisian involvement of any kind was quickly dismissed by rebel spokesmen. However, at rebel installations running from Wazin to Zintan, the author observed Tunisian flags being flown alongside the rebel/independence tricolor.

The Nalut offensive was, for the most part, not a close quartered Kalashnikov-on-Kalashnikov fight. It was a battle of blunt force artillery with varying degrees of accuracy (NATO accuracy was high; rebels and Qaddafists accuracy was rather low). Jamestown was escorted into Takut by a jubilant rebel commander who was proud of what the rebels and their NATO allies had accomplished. Rebels entered a mosque there, quickly ascending its lime green stucco minaret and planting a red, black, and green flag. Takut appeared entirely deserted at first glimpse, with many residential dwellings burned, looted, and pockmarked with the scars of war. Though rebels were all too quick to boast a victory that particular occupied towns were ‘free,’ this was not necessarily the case on the ground. When Jamestown attempted to proceed further into town in an attempt to inspect damage done in the offensive, massive thuds of ordinance off in the distance demonstrated that Takut was not yet entirely ‘free.’

The morning assault on Takut was launched first, in part because it was logistically easier, but more so to cut off supply lines and isolate the more significant target of Ghazaya, abutting Tunisia to the west. The flaw in this strategy was that Ghazaya was thought to have many more artillery batteries so that even by the time rebel troops were entering Takut, Qaddafists in Ghazaya, who had much more hardware than their Takut-based counterparts, were still able to rain down GRAD rockets in central Nalut even at the height of the offensive after suffering hours of bombardment.  In response, rebel forces set up a fully loaded, 40 tube GRAD truck next to a mobile phone network tower on a cliff top north of the road to Wazin. When the author approached the scene, an ageing rebel declared the GRAD site “a closed military area,” effectively barring Jamestown from openly documenting the attack on the town below. Western rebels had been incensed after the issuance of a scathing Human Rights Watch (HRW) report on rebel abuses in recently conquered towns causing them to be more cautious of foreign observers in their midst. [1] Though the author did not witness the widespread looting or arson described in the HRW report, rebels were seen nonchalantly loading television sets into the bed of a technical fighter truck following the fall of Takut. Obvious scars of arson were visible on the landscape, which rebels stated took place under the period of Qaddafist occupation. Savvier local rebel area commanders are wary of criticism in the international media lest it damage their much-needed credibility amongst their NATO and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) allies without whose critical support their movement would quickly suffocate.

Despite international isolation being imposed on the regime in Tripoli to constrain it financially and politically, none of these machinations have entirely diminished the ability of military forces loyal to the regime to procure arms and ammunition. While the rebels had to save their best arms for this offensive, Qaddafists shelled Nalut five of the seven nights Jamestown resided there. Rebel sources told Jamestown that despite mounting hostility to Qaddafi internationally, he was still able to rearm via opportunistic former Eastern bloc states who supplied his troops via a land corridor connecting southeastern Algeria to the Qaddafist desert stronghold of Ghadames just south of Tunisia. Rebels suspected a for-profit collusion scheme between members of the Algerian and Libyan regime militaries that have allowed the Libyans to steadily reequip themselves throughout the conflict. Jamestown had no way to independently verify such claims as that region is off limits to foreign observers.

With the capture of Ghazaya and Takut further securing their Tunisian lifeline, the Amazigh and Arab rebels of western Libya have succeeded, along with their NATO partners, on a critical front in the struggle for Libya. While Qaddafist forces may no longer be threatening the Tunisian route (and Tunisia proper), they still control a string of key towns, including Tiji, al-Jawsh, and Badr, below the Jebel Nafusa that runs parallel to the main road connecting Wazin to Zintan, This route connects to the Gharyan road that runs from southern Tripoli to on down to the Qaddafist-controlled town of Sebha. The Qaddafist towns create a heavily fortified military backbone that will require a large quantity of NATO munitions to decimate. Following the victory of the rebel-NATO Nalut offensive, rebel bravado is soaring. A common rebel refrain maintains that the rebels are fighting for faith, dignity, and in the case of the Amazigh, the restoration of a wounded culture. This narrative demonizes those fighting for Mu’ammar al-Qaddafi as either toothless conscripts who fear being executed by their commanding officer or ruthless mercenaries fighting in the pay of Africa’s longest ruling dictator. This simplistic, binary talk by the rebels about their battlefield opponents belies the ferocity with which many diehard Qaddafists fighting against them put forth. The Qaddafist-controlled towns that lay north of the Jebel Nafusa will likely require a massive amount of Western airpower if the rebels in that region actually intend to surround metropolitan Tripoli at any point in the near future. Judging by the amount of air strikes launched on Ghazaya and Takut in order to break the back of the loyalist troops stationed there, political will in the West will have to remain undaunted in the face of perceived mission creep in the Libyan civil war.


1. Human Rights Watch, “Libya: Opposition Forces Should Protect Civilians and Hospitals,”  July 13, 2011, available online at: https://www.hrw.org/news/2011/07/13/libya-opposition-forces-should-protect-civilians-and-hospitals.