Libye, retour sur un passé récent
Rédigé courant juillet 2011 par l'un des correspondants du GCTAT en Libye, le document qui suit fit l'objet d'une Note de renseignement du Centre (NrC) publiée le 3 août 2011. Ce rapport fut transmis aux clients et abonnés du Centre. S'il ne présente plus qu'un intérêt historique (notamment l'évaluation finale qui s'avéra bien trop pessimiste), ce document propose des éclairages inédits sur les situations qui prévalaient alors dans plusieurs parties du pays et au sein de différentes unités de l'insurrection. Le spectre des arsenaux du régime pillés à répétition et celui des armes, plus ou moins sophistiquées, plus ou moins maîtrisées et plus ou moins conservées sur le territoire national libyen émaille l'entier de ce texte.
Si les remarques qui suivent n'ont pas valeur de preuve, elles invitent à la réflexion et ne manqueront pas, tout au moins l'espérons nous, de nourrir le débat.
More weapons in the West
Thanks to continuing fuel supplies from Tunisia and weapons from France and Qatar, the insurgents have tightened their grip on the Western Nafusah mountains in the last few weeks. Weapons have been dropped by French proxies (a fact that the insurgents deny) and were flown in by small planes from Benghazi. A couple of weeks ago, about 95% of rifles possessed by insurgent forces were versions of the AK-47 or AK-74 while only a few were of the NATO-type (mostly Belgian FALs and very few H&K G3s).
This has now changed. Most probably because of weapons deliveries by France and/or Qatar, FALs constitute now around 10-20% of rifles used in the Nafusah mountains. Because of their stronger cartridges compared to the AK-47 the NATO-rifles are more suitable for war in the mountains. We have also seen quite a few Belgian MAG machine guns which are using the same ammunition as the FALs (7,62 x 51mm).
Radios are now widespread although most of them seem to be civilian versions. We were told of supplies of radio sets and other material from Switzerland, an allegation that we couldn’t verify. What we were told was that there were Swiss-made 7,62 x 51mm rounds (produced in Thun by Ruag Ammotec) that were originally exported to Qatar. We are still trying to find out if there were indeed any direct deliveries of Swiss material to Libyan insurgents.
We also saw unguided air-to-surface rockets on a pick-up truck that looked suspiciously like the SNORA-rocket (RAK 024) made by Oerlikon (or maybe under licence by the now defunct Italian company SNIA). These rockets can also be used from launchers on the ground (no launchers could be found however).
The SNORA was in use in Qatar as well as in the Swiss Airforce (armament of Hunters and Mirage IIIS). It could well be that the rockets we saw were delivered in the eighties by the Italians who supplied Qaddafi with more than 200 trainer aircrafts SF-260. These planes were equipped with SNORA rockets
The insurgents in the Nafusah mountains captured the big ammunition depot of Qa'a (southeast of Zintan) at the end of June 2011. These rockets were most probably found there, as witnessed by western journalists. Unfortunately, we could only confirm much later on that these rockets looked like the SNORA; which is why we did not take more close-up shots of them.
An air link between Benghazi and Jadu
The insurgents have readied an improvised airstrip on a piece of straight tarmac road at the village of Rhebat near Jadu. This airstrip has been officially inaugurated by Ali Tarhouni, the Oil and Finance Minister of the TNC, on July 12, 2011. Tarhouni landed on the road in a jet with the words «Air Libya» painted on it, coming from Benghazi (there was a Benghazi-based airline called «Air Libya» before the war). Colonel Juma Ibrahim, the deputy commander of the Western front (besides the Nafusah mountains it includes the coastal towns from Tripoli further West up to the Tunisian border), told us in his HQ in Zintan that the insurgents also had another airstrip although a more secluded one (from the public). «As a good military you always need to have a secret alternative», he told us. Colonel Juma Ibrahim used to be a Mig-25 fighter pilot in Qaddafi's Airforce. It should be noted that the insurgents in Misrata have opened their airport as well. From now on there is a direct air link between this town and the rebel-held areas in the West and in the East.
Demands still higher than supply of arms
Following NATO air raids, insurgents conquered the villages of Qawalish and Kikla, about 40 kilometres north-east of Zintan. It has to be noted that they only attacked these government positions after NATO had bombed the area for some time and after they had received the green light from the Alliance. The insurgents hope to use these newly captured positions as a staging ground for an attack on the well-fortified town of Gharyan, another 30 kilometers north-east. Gharyan which lies on the highway linking Tripoli with the important garrison of Sebha in the middle of the Sahara, hosts a base for the Libyan Special Forces. The information is derived from an inhabitant who recently fled the town and joined the insurgents. It is considered a strategic entry gate for any assault on the capital.
Capturing Gharyan would also cut an important supply line linking Tripoli with Ghadames, close to the border with neighbouring Algeria. Besides, there are rumours that military fuel supplies are might be reaching Qaddafi's forces from Algeria via Ghadames.
Apart from their movement towards Gharyan the insurgents have successfully advanced into the Jifarah plains capturing the power station at Shakshuk. Zintan, Jadu and other mountain towns can be supplied with electricity anew. As the weather is now hot and dry, there is an almost permanent lack of water in the highlands and most water pumps only work with a functioning electricity supply. Further west however, Nalut is still depending on generators because its power station is also down in the plains and remains controlled by government forces. With NATO’s help the Berbers around Nalut are trying to advance into the plains and are taking heavy casualties there.
The insurgent forces around Zintan (Zintan is predominantly Arab, whereas Jadu and Nalut are Berber) also took an important hill on the outskirts of Bir Ghanam, some 70 kilometres away from the suburbs of Tripoli. This (mainly) Arab force has a lot of fighters who came from Zawiya, either via Tunisia or directly by road or on foot. At Bir Ghanam there are nearly daily exchanges of fire. In one of those clashes, the insurgents brought a newly acquired MILAN anti-tank missile launcher to a firing position. But once the MILAN was set up, the insurgents realized that its battery was flat. The French admitted having parachuted weapons, including MILAN, over the Nafusah mountains recently.
But there are indications that some of the MILAN the insurgents are using today are fairly old and were actually supplied by Germany to Qaddafi's forces a long time ago. Later on they were captured by the opposition, probably in the raid on the ammunition depot of Qa'a.
Even if the insurgents are now much better equipped than a few weeks ago there are still scores of young fighters that have no firearms at all, or just shotguns, hunting rifles or the odd Italian Carcano carbine from WW II. The opposition is still lacking rifles and ammunition as well as proper training. The rebel ranks are swelled on a daily basis by newcomers from the coastal plains who want to join the fight against Qaddafi. With this flow of young men they are getting more and better intelligence about the situation in Tripoli and other coastal towns.
What is still one of the main problems of the insurgents is their lack of heavy weapons and the inability to use the few they have in an effective manner. The opposition forces are completely relying on NATO's help when occupying fortified government positions or taking control of tanks and artillery pieces. Coordination with NATO is furthermore complicated by the fact that all demands for air support have to be made through Benghazi.
The rebels in the HQ in Zintan are trying to pinpoint potential targets on maps and on their computer screens with Google Earth. Once they know the exact GPS position, they communicate their coordinates to the operation room in Benghazi via satellite phones or Skype. This procedure remains cumbersome although coordination seems to improve.
The HQ of the western front believes in a slow but steadfast push towards the capital. Commanders want to avoid costly reversals with the corresponding losses of men and material. Their hopes rest on an uprising in Tripoli and other coastal towns like Zawiya where insurgents are active again after having been subdued in the early days of the uprising.
Using secret pathways, fighters from the Coast smuggle light weapons into the big cities for the days of the final uprising. Useless to say, that they are most reluctant to speak about it in more details. Questions about the insurgent areas of influence in Tripoli also remain unanswered. At the moment insurgent forces are seriously overstretched in the eastern part of the Nafusah mountains, even if they are receiving an almost daily trickle of new fighters and recruits from the coastal towns. Still, there might be just a few thousand armed rebels in an around the Nafusah mountain range - not enough for a final assault on the big city. And near Zintan the insurgents are fighting on three fronts: Northeast around Bir Ghanam, to the East near Asaba and to the South.
All over the Nafusa mountains the insurgents have formed so-called Tripoli battalions with fighters who came from the capital to join the revolution. We saw a pick-up truck near Zintan with the emblem of one of those battalions (see picture left).
The crew of that pick-up was fairly particular as its crue were snipers equipped with M82 rifles made by the American armorer Barrett. According to Jane’s Infantry Weapons, these rifles are in use with the French army and the Qatari armed forces, among many others. However, it is still not clear to us how the insurgents got hold of these guns.
As a matter of fact, our team had never seen such weapons in Libya before but we were unable to verify whether the men using them (or pretending to) were properly trained on the M82.
A little more on Misrata
As we couldn’t enter Misrata it was difficult to find out more about that city. We can however add the following points. Our team met with a source in the Nafusah mountains. Our source had spent quite some time in Misrata during the siege by Qaddafi's forces. Source confirmed that Hasadi had been in Misrata in March and not in April as suspected. We also met a foreign expert on mines, UXOs and IEDs who was working for an international NGO. He told us that his teams had deactivated unexploded IEDs in Misrata that were very similar in type to those used at the beginning of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He especially pointed out to the electric detonators which were similar to those used earlier in Iraq and Afghanistan (although mujahideen are now using more advanced equipment). The expert was unable to tell whether these IEDs were placed by government or insurgent forces but this might still be an indication that some of the insurgents who have fought in Iraq or Afghanistan before might now be using their knowledge in Libya. The source was unwilling to show us pictures of he IED’s.
Even if Zintan is home to the HQ for the whole Western front, there remain doubts regarding the successful military coordination between the Arab-dominated town and the Berbers further west. The relations between the native Berbers and the „mountain Arabs“ have not always been good, and fighters from both ethnical groups admit in private that they do not fight together very often. In addition, even Zintan's Arabs are divided between approximately ten clans, each with its own battalion and command structure. The town had a pre-war population of approximately 40,000.
When driving from the Tunisian border to Zintan our car passed by a village that was completely deserted. Nothing special in the Nafusah mountains but the fact that there were still green (Qaddafi) flags flying on a water reservoir and a mobile phone antenna was rather exceptional. We were told later that the village was inhabited by a tribe supporting Qaddafi and that consequently they had the advancing insurgent forces. There are quite a few similar villages in the Zintan region. There have been reports about maltreatment of civilians by the insurgents in these villages as well as killings of captured soldiers.
Some more SA-7s
We didn’t reach the captured ammunition depot of Qa'a, but we were told by foreign journalists who visited the spot that there were chaotic scenes. Although the rebels put guards, people would just come with their cars and pick whatever they found. There were at least a dozen SA-7s (apparently made in Eastern Europe) that purely and simply vanished from the depot.
The HQ in Zintan has forbidden the rebels to bring those weapons to the frontline for fear that they might be used accidentally to shoot down NATO planes. The fate of those missiles remains unclear to us but there is a clear danger that smugglers might plan to sell them to the highest bidder (which would certainly be AQIM). The Nafusah region pretty close to both Algeria and Niger, making it easy for smugglers to deliver their goods to northern Mali and subsequently to AQIM operational HQ.
The west and the NTC
We have heard stories from foreign journalists in Benghazi about misuse of funds by the NTC but we have not investigated these allegations ourselves. It is obvious that the insurgents in the east are very slow to adapt to the kind of warfare that Qaddafi's soldiers are forcing upon them around the important oil port of Brega. This has lead to some bad blood between the insurgents in the west and the NTC, although this is rarely admitted in public. Western rebels depend on the NTC for the delivery of arms by air as well as for the coordination with NATO. A fact that might explain why high ranking figures in the western opposition are reluctant to criticize their eastern counterparts. With the establishment of the air link between East and West and the visit of several members of the NTC in Nalut, Jadu and elsewhere the relations between the two sides should become better though.
Still important drawbacks
Despite the continuing lack of heavy weapons and substandard military training of the insurgents, the opposition forces on the Western front have changed from defensive to more and more offensive operations. Their tactics have so far been adapted to the highlands and mountains but tactical approach in the Jifara plains will be very different, dominated by Qaddafi's rocket launchers, tanks and artillery, even if these have already been severely decimated by NATO.
Time and again insurgents point out to the fact that their advances are hindered by the fear for civilians who - the insurgents say - are used as human shields by government forces. This danger is aggravated in the more populated areas of the coastal plains. The positioning of heavy weapons next to civilian infrastructures is a well-documented fact (even with video clips captured by soldiers on their cell phones).
For the time being the rebel forces still are not as numerous as they would need to be for a successful push towards Tripoli. Even the taking of Gharyan, the entry gate to Tripoli, might still take many more weeks. Without new deliveries of arms and ammunitions, especially heavy weapons, there is no chance that the opposition can advance successfully towards Tripoli in the near future. The hope for an uprising in the capital might be realistic but only if the rebels get closer to the big city. To do just that, the insurgents need to better train their forces and there must be more coordination among them, with the NTC, Misrata and with NATO. So it seems that the endgame has only just started and is far from being finished. The road to Tripoli is still long...