Libya has once again found itself in the media spotlight this month, but unfortunately, for all of the wrong reasons. In the past year, the Maghreb nation has generally received accolades from media professionals, with journalists styling the country as a model for would-be revolutionary states. Its relatively quick eight-month uprising culminating in the death of a reviled dictator paved the way for a peaceful and successful parliamentary election in July 2012. Democratic values have flourished in Libya. Public squares, including Tripoli’s Maydan ash Shuhada (Martyrs’ Square), as well as Benghazi’s Maydan al Tahrir (Tahrir Square) and Maydan al Shajara (Tree Square), have become a Friday fixture for (mostly) peaceful protests. The explosion of thousands of newspapers and magazines throughout the country has also become symptomatic of a newfound right to free press, which Muammar Gaddafi gladly suppressed during his forty-two year reign.
This is not to say that Libya is without its faults. The devastating attack on the US Consulate, which left four Americans dead and dozens of Libyans injured, aside, the North African nation has also been blamed for the general decrease in stability across the Maghreb and greater Sahel region, not least of which is due to the proliferation of thousands of Gaddafi-era weapons following the end of the 2011 uprising. And then, there is the problem of kidnaps…
The Kidnap Spike
Now that the government has been bracing itself for the possibility of yet another breakdown in security amid next week’s two-year anniversary of the Libyan uprising, residents have also alerted authorities to another concerning issue often left on the backburner: the surge in abductions. Both anecdotal evidence and concrete reports obtained from local police suggest that, since the collapse of the former regime, there has been a massive uptick in crime of all types, including drug abuse, armed robbery, murder and carjacking. To drive home the point, the Ministry of the Interior (MoI) recently announced that between 2010 – 2012 the number of murders rose from eighty-seven to 525, equating to an increase of just over 500%. As a general rule, unlike murder rates, quantifying abduction figures is far more difficult, given that most incidents of kidnap go unreported. Indeed, most victims, including actual hostages or their friends and family members, are often reluctant to report such assaults to police, for fear of retribution from assailants, or in some cases due to sheer embarrassment. However, common sense suggests that a general rise in law-breaking activities, supported in part by a disparate security system and the spread of arms, would also lend itself to an overall increase in kidnaps during the same period. To that end, The Inkerman Group has received numerous reports which suggest that, not only has the number of incidents of hostage-taking increased since 2011, it also appears to be growing at an even greater rate in the past seven months. As shown below, between July 2012 – January 2013, The Inkerman Group noted a steady rise in such assaults, starting with seven recorded incidents in July 2012, to twelve in January 2013.
Abductions appear to have dipped briefly in September 2012, with only three recorded incidents, a figure which may have been due to the prominent assault on the US Consulate on 11 September 2012. In other words, either would-be hostage-takers decided to forgo their criminal activities in order to “maintain a low profile” during this period for fear of ramped up security, or, there remained a lack of reporting on abductions as both police and local media personnel had their attention drawn elsewhere. Whichever the case, the slight decline in kidnap activity during this time frame does nothing to alleviate the anxieties of Libyans who have noted an overall rise in abductions. This is because anyone, even foreign nationals, could potentially become enveloped in a hostage crisis. As it stands, most abduction scenarios are either drug-related or are attempts at political retribution (i.e., kidnaps orchestrated by those who claim to have supported the revolution against those who are perceived Gaddafi supporters, and vice versa). In addition to these schemes are kidnaps which involve inter-tribal or inter-city rivalries (see Bani Walid), the detention of journalists, or the classic financially-motivated attacks where armed gangs target those who they only “think” have wealth (that is, anyone with a steady job).
More compelling than the actual cases, are the perpetrators. Indeed, the majority of victims appear to have been taken hostage by groups purporting to be under the umbrella of the controversial Supreme Security Committee (SSC), an organisation which was scheduled to be dismantled by the MoI on 01 January 2013. In one case which highlights the anarchical structure of the supposedly soon-to-be shelved SSC, celebrated activist Dr Hamid al Tubuly was revealed via social media to have been taken by members of a criminal organisation who apparently infiltrated the SSC’s Tripoli-based 10th Brigade, on 04 December 2012. Tubuly, who was released two days later, has cut a popular figure having worked as an activist during the country’s pre-revolutionary days. He was believed to have been abducted for both financial and political reasons, given that they not only demanded cash for his freedom, but also reportedly declared their sympathies for Gaddafi. Foreign nationals, including those from the ‘West’, have not been excluded from the SSC’s, and other armed groups’, shenanigans. On 04 January 2013, two executives from the Malta-based aviation company, Medavia, were released after being held by the SSC elements in Zawiya for two weeks due to accusations they had supported Gaddafi. Western-based media professionals have also been detained by the SSC, potentially over fears the journalists may paint their country in a bad light.
The Way Ahead
So what is behind this rise in abductions? The overall increase of criminal activity is due to a number of factors, not least of which includes the fact that Gaddafi released approximately “15,000 prisoners” prior to the 2011 uprising. Furthermore, the shaky economy and the disparate post-revolutionary security system are also likely contributors to the rise of abductions. However, another more controversial reasoning behind the rise in kidnaps is that, for all of the Colonel’s misguided and treacherous policies (including most notably his horrific role in the 1996 massacre of 1,200 inmates in Abu Salim prison), he kept a ‘tight ship’ so-to-speak, when it came to implementing security. Indeed, Gaddafi practically perfected the use of fear and constant surveillance to keep Libya in check. That being said, Gaddafi is not believed to have kept an accurate representation of the true number of incidents for propaganda efforts. As Libyan-American human rights activist Mohamed Eljahmi put it, under Gaddafi there was no “judicial checks and balances”, the judiciary was “ill-defined, allowing regime elites to use multiple security forces to harass ordinary Libyan citizens”. Now that Gaddafi is long gone, Libya’s fledgling democratic government is faced with a difficult task: providing security and keeping tabs of criminal activities and organisations that may have well been brushed under the rug for decades. Despite constant assurances offered by Prime Minister Ali Zidan, at present the government is assessed to be insufficient with regard to its security capabilities, meaning that abductions, including those which occur in major city centres like Tripoli, and those that take place within Libya’s remote oil-rich regions, are likely to continue.