Corruption, Drugs, Guns and Human Trafficking - Libya’s descent into hell

Post-Qaddafi Libya lies in ruins. In the vacuum of civil war, criminal and militia rule has ripped the country apart into competing enclaves and cities. In the chaos, the nefarious shadow of transnational organised crime - once in the shadows of daily life in Libya - operates in plain sight now and is infecting the county like a virus. “My generation, the next generation is gone,” Ahmed Al-Hani, a member of the Government National Assembly, said sadly to me in London. “Society as a whole has disintegrated. Without a gun, you’re nothing.”

The consequences of bringing down Colonel Muammer Qaddafi’s regime in Libya have been stark. Since the 2011 revolution and NATO’s military campaign Qaddafi’s government, ending forty one years of autocratic rule, the country has been in a state of conflict and political upheaval, and embroiled in two civil wars since. In February 2019, according to a report by the U.N Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 823,000 people in Libya, including 248,000 children are in need of humanitarian assistance, which amounts to over twelve per cent of the entire population. Since the outbreak of violence in Tripoli in early 2019, 1.5 million people have been affected including half a million children in Western Libya. 62,700 have become refugees in their own country.

With Tripoli in a state of war since April 2019 as Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army batters the city, the world can expect further crisis. Boris Johnson, the United Kingdom’s Foreign Secretary is not the first person to peddle fantasies about Libya’s future. Sirte is another stricken city after a ferocious battle between Islamic State soldiers and the forces of the Government of National Accord (GNA) in 2016 who were supported by U.S air-power, the second intervention by the Obama administration in the conflict since 2011. “They’ve got a brilliant vision to turn Sirte, with the help of the municipality of Sirte, to turn it into the next Dubai,” Boris Johnson said excitedly at a Conservative Party Conference in Manchester in 2017. “The only thing they’ve got to do is clear the dead bodies away and then we will be there.” His comment produced a chorus of laughter across the room.

In Tripoli, battered by conflict, water was cut off for two days and power outages have been a daily feature of life in the city since the battle began. International Crisis Group, a think tank focused on conflict analysis, has warned of a major banking crisis which threatens the broader economy. The economic catastrophe will impoverish millions of civilians.

U.S forces - under the AFRICOM (U.S. Africa Command) and who have conducted hundreds of drone strikes in Libya - were instructed to withdraw. "The security realities on the ground in Libya are growing increasingly complex and unpredictable," said Marine Corps General. Thomas Waldhauser, the Head of AFRICOM. The move announced by Waldhauser seemed temporary. "Even with an adjustment of the force, we will continue to remain agile in support of existing U.S. strategy." The Foreign Commonwealth Office has advised against all travel to the entire of the Libya. Patrick Cockburn, who has covered conflict in the Middle East for decades said Libya was in danger of becoming another Somalia, a divided and broken country consumed by perpetual violence. The ‘next Dubai’ eluded to by Johnson seems more a mirage then the reality in 2019 Libya.

Instead of becoming a replica of Qatar or Dubai, Libya has been plagued by the rise of organised crime and a surging black market, spurned on by overlapping refugee crises and conflict, and expressed in several forms; drug trafficking, artifacts smuggling, petroleum trafficking, human trafficking and arms smuggling.

Conventionally, the narrative is that a civil war or bloodshed is bad for business for a drug trafficking ring. Violence disrupts the flow of drugs and turf wars can garner unwanted international attention. Transporting drugs through collapsed states also bring their own risks including kidnap, torture and drug loads being seized by armed groups. Not so in Libya where, as with Iraq and Syria, smuggling networks and rackets have been utilised by global and local criminal organisations to distribute drugs to traumatised populations and operating as hub for delivering cocaine to drug fueled parties in Europe. Libya has its own consumers and is a perfect springboard to the island of Sicily and mainland Italy where Camorra and the Ndrangheta - some of Italy’s main criminal organisations - operate.

Conventionally, long borders and corruption – present under Qaddafi – have made Libya ideal for smuggling for decades. Cannabis in the European Union coming from across the Mediterranean Sea has traditionally departed from Libya. Cocaine coming through West Africa is often distributed through Libya to Europe through southern Italy and transnational criminal organisations (TCOs) have been entrenching themselves along these routes to transport cocaine, amphetamine, cannabis, small arms and migrants through to North Africa.

TCOs are taking full advantage of pre-existing cannabis and arm smuggling routes which existed before the conflict. With instability, Libya’s borders with Chad and Niger, now undermanned by militias, have become an increasing concern for Libyan authorities. Similarly, as with other countries impacted by the ‘War on Drugs’ such as the United States, Mexico, and Colombia, violence has not halted or disrupted the drug trade. The seizure of 25 tonnes of cannabis in February, 2013 and 24 million tablets of Tramadol (a synthetic opioid which has become a blight on the streets of Libya and used by Islamic State fighters to overcome combat stress) in March, 2017 were two examples of huge drug imports and exports to and from Libya being intercepted by Italian authorities.

In a study conducted by Libya’s Ministry of Health and the Department of Global Health and Socio-epidemiology in Kyoto University’s School of Public Health, drugs are cheaper then food in the post-Qaddafi era. “Slashing prices is a way to create demand and open up a market,” a Western diplomat told Inter Press Service in April, 2013.

Published in March, 2018 in the International Journal of Drug Policy, the report details how the rates of drug addiction and increased the number of users have spiraled. “It’s part of the fallout from the revolution.” said Abdullah Fannir, deputy director of Gargaresh psychiatric hospital in Tripoli speaking to The New Humanitarian in July, 2013. “Border control is weak, making it easy for drug-traffickers, and there’s more demand as well. Hundreds of thousands of Libyans were displaced, wounded or bereaved during the uprising.” Libya is not unique in this regard. The Arab world, including Libya, Syria, Iraq and Yemen, is going through traumatic political and social catalysed by economic dislocation and environmental degradation for decades and the Arab Revolutions is the latest phase in this upheaval.

At the same time increased drug use, increased prostitution and sexual violence has created an epidemic of HIV, a trend identified by doctors in Libya treating patients. Data is in short supply for both rates of drug use and those contracting HIV, and a shortfall in funding has hampered the efforts of Libya’s healthcare system to get to the bottom of the rise in HIV and drug use. 12,000 cases of HIV were the estimated number in 2013, however the real statistics could be far higher now given the needle exchange programme is non-existent and the perpetual conflict gripping Libya. Both drug use and HIV are taboo subjects, lessening the likelihood that those affected by either addiction and/or HIV come forward to seek help. This was a problem which existed under Qaddafi, and stigma continues in post-Qaddafi Libya.

Another serious challenge in Libya is the emergence of a sprawling arms trafficking market. As the Small Arms Survey analyses, the Libyan revolutions brought ‘an end the tight regulation of the domestic arms trade. Its aftermath paved the way for a large illicit arms trade in these newly available weapons to emerge. Like their counterparts in many nations, some of the players in this new market now use online resources to hawk their wares. Online sales via social media platforms are one of the tools currently being used for this purpose.’ A domestic and international market opened up online and offline which have consistently flouted the arms embargo imposed by the UN, Resolution 1973 (2011). States such as the United Arab Emirates and Turkey, both deeply involved in Syria and Yemen, have been accused of violating this resolution. Global criminal organisations have made high-profile exchanges with different faction fighting in Libya, as the Camorra demonstrates.

In October, 2016, The Daily Beast, The Irish Times and La Stampa detailed how Camorra and Ndrangheta were trading arms with Islamic State in exchange for antiques and artifacts looted from Libya’s World Heritage Sites by their fighters. These antiques were then sold off to clients as far a field as RussiaChinaJapan, the United Arab Emirates and the United States, a fact verified by Italy’s interior minister Angelino Alfano. These artifacts from Leptis Magna, Cyrene and Sabrata were delivered to Calabria, a Ndrangheta strong-hold and shipped from Sirte to Calabria. Arms were delivered the other way to Islamic State as they defended Sirte from a government offensive.

These weapons including Kalashnikov rifles and rocked-propelled grenade launchers are supplied by Camorra’s racket with Russia, Moldova, and Ukraine, some of which were seized by police in Naples in September, 2016, several months before the collapse of Islamic State’s effort to hold the city of Sirte. These revelations came in months after a Reuters report asserted that ‘Libya's ancient sites were not exposed to same risk as in Syria and Iraq’ where the terrorist organisation was visibly involved in trading artifacts in the black market for finances to bankroll their murderous war, fund terrorist operations abroad, and arm recruits.

In 2017, a married couple, Annamaria Fontana and Mario di Leva, were arrested along with their son, Luca di Leva and Andrea Pardi in Naples accused of sending arms to Islamic State in Libya, including a cache of anti-tank and surface-to-air missiles between 2011 and 2015. According to The Daily Beast, Fontana and Di Leva have been previously suspected of involvement with several Camorra crime family clans in the area. The Libyan they’d been dealing withm Ali Mohamud Shaswish (likely Islamic State’s middle man who was striking the deal with the couple) escaped arrest.

It was Catello Maresca, Head of the Naples’ Anti-Mafia and Anti-Terrorism Unit who traced several of these weapons. Most of them originated from the former Soviet bloc which again, as noted before, is Camorra’s primary racket for arms trafficking in Europe. This example is likely the tip of the iceberg, by 2016 it was estimated that 20 million weapons were in Libya for a population of 6 million people. The problem became so vast that the UN Security Council authorised a crackdown on arms smuggling in the waters off the Libyan coast.

Human trafficking and detention centers where refugees and migrants are incarcerated have garnered considerable international attention since the collapse of the state. Like the paramilitary narcos in Mexico and Central America - whose main export is drugs such as cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine - who diversified into kidnapping, trading and detaining refugees and migrants fleeing Honduras, Guatemala, Colombia and El Salvador for alternative criminal revenue, Libyan militias, businessman and government branches have exploited innocent men, women and children for profit through extortion.

Many of these migrants and refugees arriving in Libya are smuggling cocaine for Boko Haram, Al-Qa’ida and Islamic State affiliates who are tied to Colombia’s insurgents and drug trafficking rings. “It was mostly cocaine,” said Moussa, a people smuggler who spoke to The Daily Beast, who was born and raised in Tongo Tongo in Niger. “There was hardly a time I didn't return [to the village] with a migrant carrying drugs.” These terrorist organisations, through agents and spokespersons have strong relationships with Colombian contacts along the West African coastline, predominantly the narco-state of Guinea-Bissau, as well as paramilitary groups, splinters groups of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army still operating in the Colombian borderlands. It is in the interests of the terrorist organisations to deliver the cocaine through the Niger-Libya corridor.

Cash payment from the Latin American transnational criminal groups to Islamic State for transportation of cocaine is only made in full once the substance reaches its final destination in Europe. A part, though, is paid to cover logistics for movement through the sub-Saharan Africa and across the Mediterranean. The jihadists also get to keep a little portion of the drugs.

The increased price value of the cocaine is utilised to purchase weapons, and to earn even more, this means getting migrants into Libya, and funneling them into Europe through smuggling rackets owned by Libyan militias. “These migrants and refugees (from the Lake Chad region plagued by conflict, famine and climate change) would be transferred over to the Tuareg, Tebu and other Libyan militias based in the south.” said the official. “They would then help these migrants enter Libya and move with them northwards to the coast where they board the dinghies to Europe.”  

Until his arrest in August, 2017 in Tripoli, Fahmi Salim Musa Bin Khalifa was head of the biggest smuggling operations in Libya. Another major human trafficking ring connect was run in Sabratha, 75 km west of Tripoli was run by Brigade 148, a paramilitary led by Ahmed Al-Dabbashi. He ran his operation with Khalifa who was based in Zuwara, 100 km west of the capital and close to the Tunisian border. “Khalifa and Al-Dabbashi were the two most active human, fuel and drug smugglers in north of Libya.” said the Libyan official.

Khalifa, who was also chairman of Tiuboda Oil and Gas Services Limited and ran his own militia, controlled his operation through the transport hub ADJ Trading. He held €330,000 in shares ADJ Trading and used vessels Basbosa Star and Amazigh F (renamed Sea Master X) to smuggle oil and more across the Mediterranean.

It is alleged that a Maltese crime syndicate assassinated Daphne Caruana Galizia in 2017, who was murdered by a car bomb in Malta in relation to her investigation into fuel smuggling in Libya. Galizia played a key role in The Panama Papers, an unprecedented leak of 11.5 million files from the database of the world’s fourth biggest offshore law firm, Mossack Fonseca.  Her assassination, Carmelo Zuccaro, a chief prosecutor in Sicily who is leading the fuel-smuggling inquiry was linked to Libya and potentially Darren Debono, a Maltese and former football player (he was arrested three months after Khalifa). Debono, held shares in the ADJ Trading company with Khalifa. Khalifa had big business ties in Malta, specifically with Debono (who and had his own estates there before his arrest by the Tripoli’s Special Deterrence Force.

Debono was among the subjects of Caruana Galizia’s journalism. In blogposts she published in February 2016, she said Debono was a restaurant owner and fisherman who did “a lot of ‘business’ with Libya”. She also claimed to have received an email threat from a relative of Debono who was allegedly upset by some of her earlier work on the family’s activities. Caruana Galizia wrote in her blog that Debono was at risk of getting “blown up” after the murders of two other “fishermen” with business ties to Libya who had “been blown up in their cars”.

The issue of oil smuggling by Libyan-Malta-Italian criminal organisations had been raised by Libya’s GNA. According to Attorney General Sadiq Al-Sour, “Maltese and Italian mafias are sending oil vessels on a daily basis to receive the fuel smuggled from Libya. We arrested some of those smugglers, and they were from Italy, Malta and the Ukraine.” Annajar Osama Soleman, 40 working at the Libyan embassy (his role is unclear, although the Libyans were quick to reject he was a diplomat) in Malta was also arrested for money laundering activities, Another Libyan, Boulqassim Khalleefah Aboulqassim Almigheerbi, who was working with Soleman was busted with him in a deal to trade one and a half kilos of cocaine.

It is alleged that Khalifa and Debono made €30m (£26.7m) from petroleum smuggling between 2016 and 2017 alone while it is estimated smugglers made €3000 a day in 2014, over €1 million a year. Investigation showed that much of the money used to fund his operations ‘were transferred through Tunisian shell companies and ended up in the United Arab Emirates, prosecutors said in court documents with investigators alleging that Khalifa’s network also has ties to the Santapaola mafia crime family in Catania, Sicily.’ The multi-million industry was clearly worth killing for, as the death of Galiza demonstrates as she paid the ultimate price for exposing the Maltese mafia’s role in exacerbating corruption in Libya and exposing key individuals complicity in petroleum smuggling, human trafficking and potential drug trafficking.

As a report from Zuwara in 2016 (a year before his arrest) by The Guardian indicates Khalifa was almost certainly involved in human trafficking. Over 300 people drowned in 2015 after a boat capsized off the shores of Zuwara, a key transit point to reach Italy. The bodies were discovered one kilometer from the port where Khalifa and Al-Dabbashi’s militia held influence and power. Little has changed for the men, women and children being smuggled even after Khalifa’s arrest. In May, 2019, over 70 refugees and migrants drowned after setting off from Zuwara, the same market Khalfia’s militia held sway over.

On arrival in Libya, the situation facing migrants and refugees from West Africa, Central Africa and Horn of Africa is dire even before tens of thousands take the risk to enter Europe. For the past few years human traffickers and militias have made life perilous for asylum seekers by kidnapping them to sell at slave auctions or to torture them to coerce ransom payments from their loved ones abroad,” said Andrea Gagne, an aid worker and activist at a US refugee resettlement agency. “The most unlucky people were sometimes killed, and their organs harvested for the black market.”

Those who could escape the hands of the militias had one option: to try and cross the sea and get to safety in Europe but after Italy, backed by the European Union, signed a deal with the Libyan authorities in 2017 to stem migration this became even more perilous. The EU trained and funded the Libyan Coast Guard to stop boats before reaching international waters. They would then return the men, women and children back to Libya's war-torn shores where the refugees would be locked in government-run prisons and detention centers. If there is a debate in the United States’ over whether the Trump administration is placing men, women and children in ‘concentration camps’ along the southern border of America, then a conversation here is, shockingly, nearly non-existent, and receives far less coverage then the Central American refugee crisis.

The detention centers run by militia are depraved. “These detention centers are plagued with disease, famine and a complete lack of sanitation and hygiene. Refugees sleep on concrete floors, with maggot-infested blankets and some are forced to drink water from toilets to survive.” said Andrea. “Women who become pregnant after being raped by their captors are forced to give birth in captivity to underweight and malnourished children. In Zintan prison alone, 20 refugees have died in the past seven months as a result of these horrid conditions.” The torture and beatings of prisoners is rife.

In January, 2019, Human Rights Watch issued a report condemning the arbitrary detention of migrants and stated bluntly that EU policies were contributed to appalling human rights violations in prisons across Libya including Ain Zara, Tajoura and Misrata detention centers. HRW concluded that ‘neither the complexities of international migration nor the myriad challenges facing Libya today excuse the brutality visited in Libya upon migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees.’ To this day, over 10,000 remain detained in these prisons by Libyan authorities, and the numbers of innocent men, women and children being captured and forced into this prison indefinitely is steadily rising.

Corruption and criminality, alongside the multiple accounts of human rights violations, is present in these detention centers. There are no clear lines between prison management, militias, and human trafficking rings. Government-sponsored detention centers are run by wardens who are tied to human traffickers as Andrea continued to explain.

Take Zawiya Prison, for example. It is located on the coast and as a result the local townspeople have become tied up in trafficking operations and the prison manager is working with them to coerce money from the refugees imprisoned there. The Somali refugees in this prison have been asked by the manager to pay $1,500 USD each in exchange for a chance to reach Europe. In Qaser Bin Ghashir the local Tarhouna militia used to gain access to the center through their ties to the manager, to come in and kidnap refugees for a day or two at a time to force them to work as slave laborers on their base moving heavy military equipment or cleaning their guns and ammunition.

The extortion racket in prisons pays less then the average made from petroleum smuggling in Libya. However, with economic collapse and no hope for the current generation, thousands are turning to illicit opportunities and the war economy provided by violence to profit from the suffering of others.

MEDITERRANEAN SEA - 160810-N-JW440-083 MEDITERRANEAN SEA (Aug. 10, 2016) An AV-8B Harrier, with the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), takes off from the flight deck of the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp (LHD 1) Aug. 8, 2016. The 22nd MEU, embarked on Wasp, is conducting precision air strikes in support of the Libyan Government of National Accord-aligned forces against Daesh targets in Sirte, Libya, as part of Operation Odyssey Lightning. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Rawad Madanat/Released)

MEDITERRANEAN SEA - 160810-N-JW440-083 MEDITERRANEAN SEA (Aug. 10, 2016) An AV-8B Harrier, with the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), takes off from the flight deck of the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp (LHD 1) Aug. 8, 2016. The 22nd MEU, embarked on Wasp, is conducting precision air strikes in support of the Libyan Government of National Accord-aligned forces against Daesh targets in Sirte, Libya, as part of Operation Odyssey Lightning. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Rawad Madanat/Released)

Transnational crime has filled the void left by NATO’s successful military campaign to remove Qaddafi. Since these short-term successes though, politically, it has so far proven to have been a poorly thought out intervention with no long term plan for the country, which has resulted in corruption pervading every level of both governments. Corruption at an institutional level has laid the groundwork for this criminal environment and enabled impunity.

Speaking to the Libyan official, he described the corruption plaguing the country. “The corruption which has occurred in the past eight years has surpassed the corruption over the 42 years of Qaddafi.” he said grimly. “This is caused by consistently rotating political actors at the state level, who are trying to get a piece of the pie, of which they were previously denied or unable to access. New ministers and their ministries would embezzle billions with no results.”

This environment of corruption was made easier by the rotten institutions left by Qaddafi’s government following its collapse in 2011. The paramilitaries took over many of these facilities from the Qaddafi era, both economic and governmental, and used them as political cards to use against the GNA and HOR. The outbreak of conflict in Tripoli in 2019 has made the situation even more complex. The biggest danger for Libya, now, is a drawn out civil war by the warring factions which in its essence is now the east of country against the west side of the country. Crime is now commonplace but the stability of the country rests in a long lasting peace agreement. The militias in the west have everything to lose if Haftar takes Tripoli, the west of Libya and creates his own state. Haftar will cease to be a major player and this re-bolsters the idea of the militias are needed if he fails to rebuild Libya. Militia rule, as proven by the last eight years has been disastrous, and driven smuggling of arms and petroleum and human trafficking into overdrive.

Libya has become a global hub for transnational crime. State actors, non-state actors and individuals complicit in these illicit activities must be held to account and brought to justice. Ending the civil wars in Libya, stepping up humanitarian aid, cementing a peace deal between GNA and HOR, and restoring and rebuilding the country’s broken institutions are the first step to starting this process of restoring Libya.

To understand Libya’s descent into criminality, and how transnational criminal organisations feast on the country is to understand the major threat transnational organised crime presents to the world, economically, politically socially and environmentally. It is a threat which we must understand and challenge.

Corruption kills, and the dead discarded by the Mediterranean on the beaches of Tripoli, those starving on boats and in detention centres, those forced into sexual slavery and exploitative labor in Italy and the dead and dying along the narco routes of West Africa and in Libya exemplify the rot gripping the country.