LIBYA’S KIDNAP CONUNDRUM: A REVISIT

(Note:  This is part two in a series that analyses the risk of kidnaps in Libya)

When undertaking an operation as ambitious as physically rooting out wayward militias in Libya, a few ‘security snags’ are expected to pop up along the way.

Indeed, as the Maghreb nation’s government-backed forces remain entrenched in their campaign to expunge armed groups in the capital under the rather unimaginatively titled “Operation Tripoli”, authorities have also simultaneously noted a rise in criminal activity, especially the hostage-taking kind. This has led to assumptions that – in addition to a rise in general reporting from an increasingly confident national police force – the growth of kidnaps as of late could also stem from the intensification of government’s ‘anti-militia’ operations. In other words, these rogue militias, angered by the perception that the world may actually be caving in around them, could be resorting to retaliatory acts of abduction in a last ditch effort to cement their power.

Of course, there are caveats to this suggestion. To begin with, correlation does not imply causation, meaning that the increase in military exercises aimed at dismantling armed groups does not necessarily lead to an increase in kidnaps. Furthermore, obtaining accurate kidnap statistics is cumbersome. As a general rule, quantifying abduction figures is far more difficult than say, murder rates, given that most incidents go unreported. Many 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. Nevertheless, as shown below, between July 2012 – April 2013, The Inkerman Group has noted a steady rise in such assaults, starting with seven recorded incidents in July 2012, to nineteen this month (reports as of 16 April 2013). In total, during this ten-month period, 132 incidents were recorded. More interesting, however, is that following the official launch of Operation Tripoli in March 2013, there appeared to be a substantial spike in kidnaps, with a whopping thirty-six cases reported in the span of just four weeks.

The recent ‘spike’ in abductions has become so concerning that the General National Congress (GNC) was forced to issue new legislation on 09 April 2013, calling for the institution of harsher penalties against anyone accused of committing violent crimes, such as kidnapping and torture. The new law now requires that those convicted of orchestrating abductions serve no less than “seven years” in prison. Of course this action, in itself, invited more abductions. Indeed, following news that Minister of Labour and Retraining, Mohamed Fitouri Sualim, voted in favour of the “anti-militia” ruling, Misrata-based militia abducted his son. Although he reportedly (and thankfully) managed to escape from his captors, the incident underscores that there may some truth to the idea that the rise of abductions comes as a result of the ongoing operation against militias.

Foreign Nationals – A Target?

Equally worrisome, especially for foreign nationals looking to travel to Libya for business or other ventures, is that whilst most incidents of abduction involve Libyan citizens, there have been a range of reports of expatriates falling victim to hostage-taking. Indeed, of the 132 incidents recorded between July 2012 and April 2013, twenty involved the abduction of foreign citizens, representing 15.2% of all cases. As can be expected, natives of the subcontinent account for the vast majority of these cases. Illustrating the threat of abductions targeting Sub-Saharan Africans, police in Benghazi confirmed that a woman of Sudanese nationality was kidnapped by unknown assailants on 27 March 2013. At time of publication, no further information has been revealed as to the exact circumstances surrounding the abduction, which is said to have occurred inside her home in the Ras Abaydah district. But the attacks against Sub-Saharan migrants did not stop there. Just a few days later in the very same city, local police reported that a Ghanaian national had also been kidnapped.

In addition to targeting people from the subcontinent, assailants in Benghazi (as well as elsewhere in Libya) have also kidnapped a number of individuals originating from neighbouring Egypt. Demonstrating this, on 23 March 2013, reports surfaced which indicated that a Sirte-based militia kidnapped an Egyptian national who had been working for the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Sirte. In this particular incident it is believed that the militia, which had been operating outside the bounds of Libya’s security system, may have targeted the Egyptian man due to his purported illegal immigration status. Egyptians are considered a prominent target for armed gangs. This is due to a number of factors, including the perception that Egyptian nationals are often given jobs which are paid “under the table” to avoid scrutiny from authorities. This has, in turn, led a number of Egyptian migrants to enjoy steady, cash-based income – an attractive target for would-be kidnappers motivated by financial concerns. In addition, there are a number of Egyptian migrants who are Coptic Christian, and as such, they often face abduction on trumped up charges of proselytisation, an act which is forbidden in Libya. Furthermore, as many Egyptians are living in the country illegally, armed groups often target migrants knowing that the victims are unable to go to authorities for help.

Whilst kidnaps against foreign nationals originating from the African continent are more common, this does not mean that individuals from other parts of the world (namely South Korea or the UK) are not at risk. Indeed, in perhaps the most head-lining ripping abduction incident to arise from Libya, five British nationals of Pakistani origin, who were part of a pro-Palestinian aid convoy , were briefly kidnapped by a militia in Benghazi on 26 March 2013. Whilst this incident was harrowing enough, the two male individuals of the convoy were allegedly “beaten up”, whilst two of the three women in the group were reportedly sexually assaulted, after being stopped at a checkpoint manned by purported “security guards” en route to Benina International Airport.

What Next for the Abduction Problem?

These horrific reports aside, the good news is that the Libyan Government is keenly aware of the abduction crisis. This was made even more evident by its “anti-militia” ruling on 09 April 2013. Interestingly, this new legislation not only applies to ‘rogue’ militias, it also pertains to those in positions of power, including public officials and “members of security forces”, the latter of which presumably refers to the supposedly dismantled Supreme Security Committee (SSC). Whilst the decision was praised by Libyans, most citizens are concerned that real difficulty lies in the ability of national security officers to actually enforce this new law. Nevertheless, some Libyan leaders are optimistic that there will be a positive turnaround in the country’s current precarious security situation. Indeed, Minister of Justice Saleh Marghani (who has, himself, suffered threats of kidnap) reportedly praised the ruling as an important first “step” toward “ensuring human rights”.

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