In February 2017, after less than a year in office, Italian Interior Minister Marco Minniti managed to reduce the flow of illegal migration out of Libya by 87 per cent. He visited Libya and signed a deal with the head of the Government of National Accord (GNA) Fayez Al-Sarraj aiming to stem the flow of migrants who take the perilous journey over the Mediterranean and end up on Italy’s southern shores. At the time, Minniti was accused of putting the lives of unwanted migrants at the mercy of the GNA’s corrupt coastguard service.
After concluding his dubious deal, Minniti was also accused of using unethical methods and trespassing on Libya’s sovereignty. At his office in Rome he met with a delegation from Libya’s southern border tribes and offered them “financial” help if they play their role in controlling the flow of migrants. The Italian minister took advantage of the weak GNA being unable to exercise any authority in Libya’s southern regions which most migrants pass through on their journey to the coast.
While the tribal leaders agreed to help, they were not obliged to deal with migrants according to international norms and standards. In fact, most of the migrants were detained and sent to overcrowded detention centres in Libya’s coastal cities, including Tripoli. This put them at risk, as fighting raged between GNA forces and Khalifa Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) trying to take the capital. Last July, at least 44 people were killed when a migrants’ centre in Tajoura, just east of Tripoli, was hit by a rocket.
Many tribal leaders in Libya’s lawless south are suspected of cooperating with professional traffickers in the local network that extends from the desert to the coast. Marco Minniti is also accused of making a secret deal with such traffickers in Libya who are responsible for the lucrative business of sending migrants in dinghies and small fishing boats across the sea. It has been rumoured that Italy offered money and immunity from prosecution to some alleged traffickers, including Abd Al-Rahman Milad, known as Bija. More light was shed on the issue recently when he was spotted in a meeting between Italian intelligence agents and Libya coastguard officials in Sicily.
Avvenire published an extensive investigation of the meeting it had documented previously. According to the Italian newspaper, Bija was among the Libyan security delegation that came to Sicily on 11 May, 2017 to discuss ways to control migration out of Libya. A report by a UN panel of experts addressing security issues and published in June 2017 described Bija as a human trafficker responsible for the “shooting at sea and suspected drowning” of dozens of migrants. In the report, he is linked to another, locally-known trafficker, called Mohammad Koshlaf who is also accused by the UN panel of opening a rudimentary detention centre inside an oil refinery just outside his home town of Al-Zawiyah, 45 kilometres west of Tripoli. Koshlaf is accused in the same UN report of operating another notorious armed group responsible for smuggling fuel out of that Al-Zawiyah refinery. This not only links the GNA directly to known traffickers but also makes them complicit in what they do.
When fighting erupted around Tripoli between militias loyal to the GNA and LNA forces last April, Koshlaf was spotted helping the GNA; reports say that his colleague Bija was doing the same in order to repel Haftar’s forces. It is no secret that former smugglers and wanted individuals are involved in the GNA’s military and political cadres.
Earlier this month, the GNA appointed Salah Badi as director of military intelligence. Badi is sanctioned by the UN’s committee on Libya for his role in undermining the political process in the country and countering the GNA before he turned to become its trusted ally. In 2014 he led his militia, Al-Somood Brigade, in a fight that chased the elected parliament out of Tripoli. He is one of the top, Islamist backed cadres who helped form the short-lived Government of National Salvation in August 2014. Salah Badi himself appeared in a video during the fighting hailing the destruction of Tripoli’s international airport. He was one of the field commanders of the militia coalition that attacked Bani Walid, south-west of Tripoli, killings dozens and displacing thousands in October 2012.
As the fighting around Tripoli continues, the GNA sinks further into the dangerous militia underworld in Tripoli. It is now fighting for its survival as it is extremely difficult to cut its links to suspected individuals and militias despite being a liability both locally and internationally. The majority of Libyans have no doubt at all about the kind of crimes that Badi, Bija and Koshlaf have committed.
Can the GNA really sever its links with such people? Is it even interested in doing so? The appointment of Salah Badi and the revelation of Bija among an official GNA delegation, suggest not. It seems that GNA Prime Minster Fayez Al-Sarraj is either unable to do anything or he welcomes such people into his government. Many Libyans, though, believe that he is not actually in control and does not agree with many things done in the GNA’s name. However, that does not make him any less responsible for working with well-known criminals disliked and distrusted by the majority of Libyans.
How will this play out now that Germany is gearing up to hold a conference on Libya, probably later this year? Major countries like France, Britain and Germany itself certainly know about both Badi and Bija and probably many others, and this might be reflected in their positions if and when that Berlin conference takes place.
More importantly, such behaviour by Al-Sarraj only serves to erode his already low credibility even more. The people of Libya might have turned a blind eye to the many problems they face every day, but they are unlikely to forget that known criminals are among those ostensibly running their country.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.