Qatar picks side of Tripoli militias in Libya showdown
LONDON - While the showdown between the Libyan National Army and militias aligned with the Tripoli-based government continued, Qatari Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Affairs Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani arrived in Rome to seek support for his call for an arms embargo on Libya.
Sheikh Mohammed, who met with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and other government officials, said Doha was concerned about the military risks to Islamist militias, which Qatar supports, as the Libyan National Army (LNA) pressed its offensive on Tripoli.
The April 15 visit by Sheikh Mohammed to Rome could be read as an attempt by Doha to strike an alliance with Italy over Rome’s rivalry with Paris after their interests clashed regarding Libya.
In an interview published by La Repubblica, Sheikh Mohammed suggested there had been an international conspiracy regarding the LNA’s swift advance on Tripoli.
“And I ask the question: Can someone explain how Haftar’s troops were able to cover 1,500km of desert towards Tripoli without anyone realising?” he was quoted as saying.
The Qatari foreign minister, asked if the LNA was supported by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, said those countries had close links with LNA Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar and all had a stake in “creating a regime like their own in Libya.”
Conte said after meeting with Sheikh Mohammed: “There are foreign global players that are weighing strongly in this situation.”
He did not mention Italy’s footprint in Libya, although Rome admitted to having at least 400 soldiers in Libya. There has been speculation that Italy was working with Libyan militias to stop illegal immigration from Libya.
The fighting in Tripoli pits the LNA against militias backing the internationally recognised Government of National Accord led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj. Many of the militias are Islamist-affiliated.
“There is an oversimplification. It is not just Haftar the baddie against the goodies in Tripoli and Misrata. There are groups that are, at the end of the day, allied to al-Qaeda on the other side,” a French diplomatic source told Thomson Reuters.
Qatar’s stances seem to be nudging the Libya showdown towards a similar polarisation in which the Saudi-led Arab Quartet has faced off with a Qatar-Turkey-Muslim Brotherhood alliance. In June 2017, the quartet — Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain — imposed a boycott of Qatar, claiming that Doha was supporting extremist groups and maintained close ties with Iran.
Qatar’s suspected support for Islamist factions in Libya was pointed out in a sanctions list issued by the Arab Quartet. On the list of the 71 Qatari-linked organisations and individuals were leading players in Libya, including al-Qaeda-aligned Benghazi Defence Brigades.
UAE officials said that since the 2011 Libyan uprisings, Doha funnelled arms and other support to Libyan militias through radical Ali Mohammed al-Salabi and his brother Ismail, a leader of the Benghazi Defence Brigades.
The Benghazi Defence Brigades has ties with Ansar al-Sharia, the group behind the 2012 attack on the US diplomatic mission in Benghazi, which resulted in the death of US Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens. Ansar al-Sharia is also suspected of terrorist activities in Tunisia.
Another Libyan on the sanctions list is jihadist leader Abdel Hakim Belhadj, who turned political party leader after the fall of the Qaddafi regime in 2011. Belhaj is the former military commander of al-Qaeda-affiliated Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, created in the 1990s in Afghanistan and designated as a terror organisation by the United Nations.
In a 2007 address announcing the merger of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri bestowed the title of the “Emir of the Mujahideen” on Belhaj.
A June 2017 report in Newsweek magazine stated that Haftar accused Qatari intelligence General Salim Ali al-Jarboui of supporting al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Muslim Brotherhood by transferring $8 billion from a Qatari bank account.
The LNA accused Doha of complicity in the assassination of senior officials and produced a letter by the acting charge d’affaires at the Qatar Embassy in Libya alleging that Qatar had deployed military units in the country.
The Arab Quartet sees the Haftar-led campaign as an effort to prevent Islamists from turning Libya into a base to pursue an agenda of conquest across the Middle East and North Africa.