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Finding Profit in Libya's Frayed State

The Chaos Profiteers

Muhammad Al-Skir of the Libyan coast guard.
The boats used by fuel smugglers outgun the patrol boats of the Libyan coast guard, complain members of the force. Photograph: Mirco Keilberth

Unscrupulous smugglers are taking advantage of the lawlessness of Libya, transforming the country into a gigantic transit zone for all kinds of goods. Their actions are endangering the prospect of a peaceful future on the North African coast.

Muhamad Al-Triki of Misrata is head of the Third Force, a peace mission tasked with mediating a tribal conflict in southern Libya. With its control of the checkpoints north of the desert metropolis Sabha, it also controls an important trading hub. From here, cars imported tax-free are sold on to Chad via the Mediterranean port in Misrata, and gasoline provided by Libya’s unity government is put up for sale on the black market further south. But the northbound human trafficking and the drug trade are still the biggest earners.


I’m afraid the Mafia will be stronger than us, or even the police itself in post-war Libya.

While most Libyans, for the first time in their lives, are experiencing a financial crisis borne of their country’s chaos, others are benefiting from the situation, making the deals of their lives. Behind the façade of the war, the open borders, the cash shortages, the decrease in value of the Libyan dinar and the limitations imposed on cash withdrawals mean some business opportunities are flourishing.


“In peaceful times, a commander such as Al-Triki would probably just be an unemployed good-for-nothing in his hometown of Misrata, just like he was before the revolution,” says an activist in Sabha. So why should a militia leader like him strive for peace?


Tobu, Tuareg and Islamists have long divided the Sahara among themselves, but since 2011 Libya’s Mediterranean coast has also come into focus as a lawless space that can be exploited criminally. The first move in this direction was made by Italian sea fishermen illegally fishing the bountiful waters in the Gulf of Sirte, in the shadow of the NATO mission against the Gaddafi regime and often in plain sight of the military.

Two Libyan fuel smugglers in Ben Gardane, Tunisia.
Two Libyan fuel smugglers in Ben Gardane, Tunisia. They smuggle because there are no other ways to make a living, they say. Photograph: Mirco Keilberth

Meanwhile, the permeable borders in the south facilitate undisturbed human trafficking across the Sahara. Taxes remain largely unknown in Libya, making revenue from smuggling essential. And the border regions along Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria have become a powerful economic engine for Libya. Contraband petrol and consumer goods from Libya can now be found everywhere along the roads in southern Tunisia.


For Mohamed Shukri and Lofti Anamen, two couriers from the trafficking stronghold Ben Gardane in southern Tunisia, there is nothing reprehensible about their daily contraband drives from Tunisia to the Libyan harbour city of Zuwara. “The government isn’t investing anything at all here, we have even no hospital. What is there left for us to do, other than take advantage of the price differences in the two countries and turning that into a business model? I’m just trying to survive,” Anamen says.


The most lucrative route in the region between the Sahara and the Mediterranean remains the passage from Zuwara to Malta, via Tripoli. The Mediterranean island is a member of the European Union and has always been a bridgehead between Libya and Europe. When the international community imposed sanctions on the Gaddafi regime in the mid-1990s, rich Libyans stashed their money away in banks in Valletta, the Baroque capital of Malta.


After Gaddafi was overthrown, shrewd Maltese businessmen attempted to win back the Libyan market. A daily ferry service transported goods in one direction and money from rich Libyans in the other – this whet the appetite. When competition became too strong for his liking, Libyan multi-millionaire Husni Bey, who had made a fortune in the import and export business, made use of his contacts and launched a publicity campaign against the ‘Malta Connection’. The crew of smuggling ship Azzuro was consequently arrested and the vessel seized.


Since then, Libya’s trade with Malta has been officially on hold – this is also due to the fact that there has been no actual Libyan state since the Abdurrahim El-Keib administration (2011-12). Customs and port authorities still show up to work daily and are paid their salaries, but the ministries haven’t given out any instructions in a long time. Just as in the Sahara, corruption rules on the Libyan coast. Fishing boats with hidden petrol tanks and Libyan registration leave every day from the port of Zuwara, arriving under Maltese flag and a new name in Valetta.


One of the goods subsidised by the Libyan state is fuel. A litre of gasoline costs about five Libyan cents (two euro cents); at a petrol station on Malta it’s 1.40 euros. In Tunisia, in Sousse or Djerba, 200 kilometres west of Zuwara, British and German tourists pay about 1.24 euros for the premium petrol with which they fill up their rental cars. 


The refinery in Zawia.
The refinery in Zawia. As an oil producer, petroleum products in Libya are far cheaper than in surrounding countries and can be profitably smuggled across borders. Photograph: Mirco Keilberth

And so the tank trucks leaving Libya’s only remaining refinery in Zawia head either to the port of Zuwara, passing long lines in front of petrol stations, or to the Tunisian border. Tankers, converted fishing boats or Tunisian smugglers await them if the load goes north. During the loading procedures, the coast guard crew is mostly out in the city, giving cousins or neighbours the chance to capitalise on the opportunity.


“The cargo ships are sometimes loaded with up to 50,000 litres of fuel and are equipped with much better weapons than we are,” says Muhammad Al-Skir of the Libyan coast guard. His patrol boats stand no chance against those used by the smugglers, he complains. Al-Skir is hoping that Italy finally clears four patrol boats being repaired in shipyards in Sicily: “They promised us they would deliver the boats as soon as a recognised unity government was formed and recognised by the parliament.”


Because this seems nowhere in sight the EU and UN formally work with premier Fayez Al-Serraj. Al-Skir shrugs his shoulders: even a recognised government has no way to stop the boats heading to Malta or to even control the roads to the beaches. “I’m afraid the mafia will be stronger than us, or even the police itself in post-war Libya.”


North of Zuwara lies the Al Bouri oil field, the largest in in the Mediterranean, operated by a joint venture between Italian oil giant ENI and Libya’s state-owned National Oil Corporation. Like the other offshore fields along Libya’s 2,300km coast, oil and gas extraction here never came to a halt. The three eighty-metre-high towers off the coast of Zuwara are in an area with strong offshore currents, functioning as a sort of turbo drive for the lightweight boats of the smugglers in action on the shortest route to Lampedusa and Sicily. Since the beginning of this year, the rubber boats – each often with more than 100 people on board – don’t have to travel more than 15 kilometres, since a number of military and civic boats  patrol along the Libyan coast.


Italian fishers meet in the huge Al Bouri field to sell valuable fish caught in Libyan waters to their Spanish or Chinese counterparts. Egyptian and Tunisian fishermen, offering their boats for the highest bid to human traffickers, come together at this “beacon of Mediterranean trade”, Al-Skir remarks disparagingly, complaining as he asks why his European colleagues don’t at least stop the trade of weapons and drugs.


For the rubber dinghies, often in distress after only a few hundred metres at sea, the oil field infrastructure of Bouri is an important mark for orientation, as they hope for the military boats of the EU mission Sophia to show up, the operation which has patrolled the southern Mediterranean since 2015.


Al-Skir wants a more robust mission. The war in Libya will only end, he warns, when the business model of the traffickers and smugglers in the Sahara and Mediterranean is no longer lucrative.

Mirco Keilberth
Photographies by: 
Mirco Keilberth