Assassinations are proving to be, yet again, among the most problematic security issues facing Libya. With at least sixteen incidents recorded in September 2013, alone, officials are struggling to come to terms with the fact that the fallout from the 2011 uprising may not be over. As can be expected, the overwhelming majority of these security setbacks take place in the East, with Benghazi often playing centre stage to targeted killings. Here, local news outlets regularly provide updates on “unidentified” armed men opening fire on seemingly unsuspecting ‘Gaddafi’-linked judges, as well as non-regime-aligned security officers, activists and journalists. Elsewhere in Libya, ‘anonymous’ individuals have also been reported planting explosive devices underneath the vehicles of anxious police officers, or targeting unwary local businessmen.
Even to the casual observer of Libyan affairs, assassinations pose a significant problem to the security of the Maghreb state. What is more difficult to assess, however, is whether the situation is becoming worse; and who, exactly, is responsible for these horrific attacks?
The Numbers Game
Gauging whether assassinations have increased or decreased in Libya is challenging. That being said, unlike kidnaps which are notoriously underreported, targeted killings are generally kept in the media spotlight, a helpful tool in recording attacks. Nevertheless, there remains a ‘blurred’ line when it comes to describing these events as actual ‘assassinations’ or low-level killings. In its truest form, assassinations are those which involve the pre-planned murder of an individual of high status, usually orchestrated for financial gain, retaliation, or due to a religious and / or political agenda. When using this definition, statistics compiled by The Inkerman Group reveal that, as of 07 October 2013, a total of eighty-one targeted killings have taken place since the fall of Gaddafi in 2011. This is substantial, but not out of line when considering the country’s overall security decline during the past three years. Indeed, both anecdotal evidence and official intelligence obtained from Libyan authorities suggest that, since the Gaddafi collapse, there has been a surge in crime of all types, including drug abuse, armed robbery and carjacking. To drive home the point, former Minister of the Interior (MoI), Ashour Suleiman Shuwail, announced in January 2013, that between 2010 – 2012 the number of murders rose from eighty-seven to 525, equating to an increase of just over 500%. The situation in 2013 did not fare any better. As suggested below, whilst some months like May saw no recorded incidents of assassination, others like July 2013, incurred up to eleven attacks. Meanwhile, in October 2013, four assassinations were reported in just the first week. In general, between May – October 2013, there appears to have been a steady incline in the combined number of assassination attempts and targeted killings.
Whilst the data above does not necessarily ‘prove’ the assassination campaign is becoming worse, it does shed light on a very Libyan problem. For their part, some sources in Benghazi are adamant that the overall situation is at least “stabilising”, thanks in part to the presence of Libya’s famed Special Forces Team, the Al Saiqa Brigade. The merits of the Al Saiqa (also known as the “Thunderbolt”) Brigade cannot be discounted. Its popularity was perhaps underscored by the Brigade commander’s decision in early October 2013 to raid a crudely-built gang hideout in Benghazi’s Shari’ ash Shuhada (People’s Park), after being alerted of the alleged criminal activity by Special Forces’ admirers via Facebook. The high regard for the Al Saiqa Brigade aside, questions remain as to how long the Special Forces Team can ‘keep up’ its precautionary measures in Benghazi given that its members seem to be the main target of assassins.
Although it is difficult to determine whether the ‘assassination situation’ is deteriorating, it is perhaps far more challenging to ascertain who, exactly, is behind these series of targeted murders. By most indications, government security higher-ups are aware of the assailants’ identities; however, officials are generally reluctant to proceed with militant cases due to fears for their own personal security. In addition, leaders in Tripoli are afraid that, by launching counter-terror operations or mass arrests of ‘wanted’ assassins, they could open up a ‘Pandora’s box’ of terror, as these assailants likely have far more advanced weaponry at their disposal. Making matters worse, intelligence officials suggest there remains a serious militant “infiltration” problem within Libya’s security establishment. This leaves those outside of the security inner-circle to rely largely on the information made publicly available to draw theories as to who could be responsible. To that end, it is likely that in the beginning of the assassination campaign, most targeted killings were orchestrated by older individuals who had suffered immensely under the regime of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. Zeroed-in by Gaddafi henchmen for their religious beliefs, or detained for their anti-government stance during the dictator’s forty-two-year reign of terror, some dissidents became radicalised and wanted revenge. For these assailants, the target of choice in 2012 understandably became members of what was left of Gaddafi’s security and intelligence system. This was noted in July 2012, when a series of evidently pre-planned murders rocked the eastern city of Benghazi, with almost all victims having served with the dictator in some vein. Among the most notorious of these assaults took place on 28 July 2012, when Gaddafi-era military intelligence chief, Colonel Suleiman Buzraidah, was killed by a “single shot” fired from a white Chevrolet near the official’s home in Benghazi’s Al Leithi district. The meticulous manner of attack initially led to suspicions that the murder had been the work of a professional hit man. Whilst this was never confirmed, the gunman’s precision may have given credence to allegations that the assassin was an experienced individual.
A Shift in Target
Colonel Suleiman Buzraidah’s death was not the first, and sadly, it was not to be the last. To be sure, Libyan officials later raised concerns that Buzraidah may have been just “no. 13” on a rumoured list of 106 names of Gaddafi-era officials who were apparently being targeted in revenge by what had been described as a “shadowy group”. The connection between Gaddafi-era higher-ups and those who wanted ‘justice’ is clear. However, this would not explain why, a year later, would-be assassins began to focus their energies elsewhere: journalists. Indeed, between July – August 2013, a number of cases began to emerge regarding assassination attempts on media professionals. Perhaps the most infamous of these involved Benghazi-based reporter Khadija al Amami, who was shot multiple times while driving her car on 12 August 2013. Amami fled the scene, but not before the assailants sent her a text message threatening to kill her if she does not stop her “journalism”. Days earlier, Osama Audairi, a Brega-based reporter was also shot in the hand on 10 August 2013, whilst Ezzeddin Qusad, a television host, was found dead on 09 August 2013. Local businessmen, who may or may not have had dealings with the former regime, were also subjected to attacks. This was noted on 21 September 2013, when Yusuf Ajaj, a Benghazi-based administrative assistant was “shot dead” by masked men in the Al Hawari district. Religious leaders who did not espouse Libya’s traditional Sunni beliefs were also potential victims. Indeed, on 20 September 2013, extremist elements from the so-called “Vanguards of the Caliphate” murdered well-known local Sufi cleric, Sheikh Mustafa Rajab Al Mahjoubi, as he was outside his home in Derna “buying bread”. Suddenly, it seemed, anyone could be next.
As the targets changed, so, too, did the level of precision. As made clear in the above graph, in the latter half of 2013 there became a notable increase in the levels of ‘inaccuracy’ among Libyan gunmen. To be sure, in August 2013, The Inkerman Group recorded twelve assassinations attempts, compared to seven completed killings – a success rate of just over 58%. These ‘blunders’ are severely concerning. Not only do they point to the probability of assailants re-attempting their assassination bids, they also suggest the gunmen are more inexperienced than their 2012 predecessors, which in turn, could lend support to allegations that extremists groups are actively recruiting younger, alienated individuals. Moreover, the lack of precision means that ordinary civilians could become “caught up” in failed attacks. Tragically, some Libyans have already fallen victim to episodes of mistaken identity. Case in point: on 06 August 2013, a Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Device (VBIED) detonated outside Benghazi’s Khaled Ben Al-Walid Football Club, killing an innocent man named Hamid Ali Warfali. In this instance, the assailants believed Warfali to be Ibrahim Ali Haddad, an intelligence officer, a mistake which could give credence to the “inexperienced assailant” theory. Speculation that ill-practiced gunmen may be behind the rise in targeted murders was perhaps made even more evident during the strange murder case of General Mohammed Sousi, a famed rebel leader who was assassinated by Yekaterina Ustyuzhaninova, a Russian woman, and self-proclaimed Gaddafi enthusiast, on 02 October 2013.
The Way Ahead
The names of all those responsible for Libya’s assassination campaign may never be known to the public. What is certain, however, is that the Libyan Government appears unwilling, or unable, to put a stop to the militant scourge. This is an alarming development, given that with almost every assassination comes the loss of an adept military or intelligence official who could have helped improve the country’s fragile security landscape. In effect, the series of targeted murders has resulted in a cycle of terror, often leaving Libya’s international allies, such as the US, no choice but to intervene, if only to prevent the country’s militant threat from becoming a regional phenomenon.