On Sunday, August 4, a series of airstrikes in Libya’s remote southwest desert town of Murzuq killed a gathering over 40 armed men and civilians, with a further 50 people injured. Khalifa Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) claimed responsibility for the deadly attack, most likely carried out by foreign aircraft, claiming the targets were ‘Chadian opposition fighters’. In the aftermath, Murzuq’s rudimentary hospital was overwhelmed by the wounded, and many Tebu casualties had to be driven off road over harsh desert terrain, bypassing checkpoints manned by hostile tribal armed groups to reach medical care further afield.
Haftar has been engaged in a years-long battle against those he brands ‘terrorists’, conflating Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda extremists he fought against in Benghazi and Derna with ‘foreigners’ and political opponents like members of Muslim Brotherhood. This rhetoric also applies to populations in Libya’s south, and most recently to the current battle against armed groups under the umbrella of the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) defending Tripoli against the LNA offensive in the north.
A precursor to LNA involvement in the southwest was in 2018, after the ousting of Misrata’s Third Force from Sebha and southern airbases the year before, and re-ignition of battles – which in the past resulted in massacres between the Tebu and Awlad Suleiman over border trade routes and social dominance – and has greatly weakened the standing of Haftar’s former ally, the Tebu. Awlad Suleiman militia, on the other hand, swapped their allegiances from the departing Third Force to the LNA, and disparaged the Tebu as ‘foreigners’.
After the 2011 uprising revolution in Ubari, four hours drive from Sebha and next to Libya’s lucrative Sharara oil field, the Tebu security personnel at the time smeared their then-opponents, the Tuareg, as ‘foreigners’ and ‘al-Qaeda’ militants returned from Mali. Now it is the Tebu who are on the defensive, also called ‘ISIS’ and ‘Chadians’ loosely by LNA affiliates.
During the full scale LNA incursion into the south, in January this year, army spokesman Ahmad al-Mismari vowed they would “secure the southwest from terrorist elements of al-Qaeda, IS and rogue bandits involved in kidnapping, extortion and smuggling and threaten to change the topography of southern Libya”. Ironically, the Third Force from Misrata adopted similar, albeit more tempered language, to justify their presence in the south: “We are here to restore stability, and save the south from itself”.
Libya’s southern Sahara is the source of the country’s wealth. It holds the country’s largest oil and gas fields, as well as the water aquifers piped up through the desert to feed the thirsty population scattered along the coast.
Qaddafi’s preference for Arab populations, some of which tribes he transplanted back to southern Libya from the Sahel, over the indigenous Tebu and Tuareg and their links to cross border kin in Sudan, Chad, Niger and Algeria, established a hierarchy of alliances.
This order was turned on its head when the 2011 revolution was ignited. Libya’s Tebu, with their heartland in Murzuq, had cast their lot in with rebel forces by securing southern borders. This placed them in a strong position, partnering with Arab tribes like the Qaddafa, to benefit from cross border illicit trade of fuel, food goods, people, drugs and weapons.
Since then, the battle over resources in Ubari, Sebha and Kufra have pitted the area’s tribes against each other, backed by a Libyan government split between the west and east and various foreign states.
Today’s conflict includes the UAE and Egypt, and nominally France and Russia backing Haftar, while most European Union states, Turkey and now minimal Qatari support the GNA in the west. The US position under the Trump administration is ambiguous, but their bombing campaign against IS militants in Sirte has shown that they have remained engaged with their ‘war against terror’. These international backers have variously provided political cover, prevented international institutions from action, ignored the UN sanctions committee by providing lethal weapons, as well as money and mercenaries.
Laying the groundwork for the LNA’s move to the southwest, Haftar first ensured the southeastern smuggling hub of Kufra, and its marginalized and restless Tebu population were firmly under the thumb of an LNA military envoy, with the local Arab Zway tribe monopolizing government institutions.
Haftar’s incursion into southwest Libya in January vowed to wipe out ‘terrorists’ and ‘foreigners’, ironically using Sudanese forces among others to do so. The LNA launched a military takeover key military bases of Tamenhint, Brak al Shati and Jufra. Jufra serves as the main staging base for the LNA in the fight for Tripoli – for fueling fighter jets, drones, and storing weapons and fighters, including Sudanese Rapid Support Forces, formerly known as the ‘Janjaweed’ in Darfur and bankrolled by the UAE.
The LNA initially swept into Sebha and installed eastern-based security structures like the Sebha military zone headed by Mabrouk al-Ghazni, formerly the LNA-backed governor of Kufra. They empowered militias, mostly from the Awlad Suleiman and Magarha tribes with the eastern backed security structure, the Central Support Forces and Joint Security Room. With the support of French anti-terrorism forces, Operation Barkhane on the other side of the Niger border, the LNA bombed a convoy of Chadian rebels against Chadian president Idriss Deby’s regime, driving towards the southern border.
When the LNA reached Ubari, Tuareg leadership under Tuareg Supreme Council, pragmatically agreed to coexist with Haftar’s forces. This would be in exchange for retaining control over security for the lucrative Sharara oil field, and thus keeping the peace in Ubari, which had been destroyed by a proxy war fought by Tuareg and Tebu just a few years before.
But LNA military allies were not so diplomatic as they approached the Tebu. Their convoys headed on the road south, they smashed Tebu checkpoints and entered Ghudwa, the site of IS attacks against the LNA, before crossing an unspoken ‘red line’ and entering Murzuq. Militias belonging to Awlad Sulieman and Zway fighters, both Arab tribes with a history of animosity and bloodshed with the Tebu in Sebha and Kufra respectively, allied with aggrieve local Ahali residents against the dominant Tebu in town, and set fire to Tebu homes.
As abruptly as they arrived, in March the LNA swiftly turned their focus north to carry out Haftar’s ambition of conquering the capital in an operation dubbed ‘Flood of Dignity’. The sudden vacuum of LNA forces in the south enabled the Tebu, with militias now loosely allied to the powerless GNA and Southern Protection Force, headed by Kufra’s exiled Tebu military leader Hasan Musa Keeley, were cast into the cold as ‘Chadians’ or ‘foreigners’.
The Tebu set about to exact revenge on the Ahali, displacing the entire population from Murzuq; an extreme act that is being mediated for a just solution in the UAE presently. The LNA’s exit also triggered another cycle of chaos that threatened to undermine regional peace, and creating a security vacuum for real extremists to enter and thrive.
 Author visit to Tebu and Tuareg communities in Ubari, 2014-2016
 It is common for Libyan Tebu and Tuareg to lack official Libyan ID due to a mix of politics, discrimination and contradictory laws.
 Author visit to the Misrata Third Force HQ, Sebha, 2014