Suspicions of interference in Libya fuel hostility towards Turkey

Abdulhakim Belhaj is not popular, even in Tripoli, and his denials are unlikely to dampen distrust about him.
Sunday 13/01/2019
Abdulhakim Belhaj, head of Libya’s al-Watan Party and owner of its pro-Islamist TV station Al Nabaa, attends a news conference in Istanbul, last May. (AFP)
Turkish sanctuary. Abdulhakim Belhaj, head of Libya’s al-Watan Party and owner of its pro-Islamist TV station Al Nabaa, attends a news conference in Istanbul, last May. (AFP)

TUNIS - The discovery of two attempts, less than a month apart, to smuggle Turkish-made guns into Libya triggered hostile reactions over suspicions of Ankara’s support to extremists.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry recently repeated what has become a regular Egyptian accusation that Qatar and Turkey are destabilising Libya and supporting extremists there. In particular, he accused Turkey of smuggling arms to Libya.

Libyan customs officials in the port of Khoms, 120km east of Tripoli, on December 18 discovered 3,000 Turkish-made 9mm Beretta-style handguns and 2.3 million rounds of ammunition in two containers that had been delivered on a cargo ship from Turkey. Officially, the containers were supposed to have building materials and flooring.

On January 7, customs officials at Libya’s other deepwater port in Misrata, 100km further east, found more than 20,000 8mm Turkish handguns hidden in a container delivered from Turkey. The container contents had been registered as children’s toys and household goods.

The immediate response by Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar, the head of Libyan National Army, to the first discovery was that the UN Security Council should condemn Turkey and set up a full investigation.

That came as no surprise. Like Egypt, Haftar regards Turkey as an adversary aiding and abetting Islamist militants he has been fighting since 2013.

Even the rival Tripoli-based and UN-backed Presidential Council led by Fayez al-Sarraj, which maintains cordial relations with Ankara, felt obliged to demand an explanation as to what was happening.

Algeria denounced the smuggling, with a government official saying the aim was to destabilise Libya. The UN Support Mission in Libya described reports of the incident as “extremely disconcerting.” It indicated that the United Nations’ Panel of Experts would investigate.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu travelled to Tripoli after the first discovery to soothe the Presidential Council’s ruffled feathers. Such actions did “not represent the policy or approach of the Turkish state,” he declared. He and Sarraj agreed to set up a joint investigation into the incident.

Other than Shoukry’s comments, the second discovery has resulted in no official statements from the Libyans or the Turks. However, on Libyan social media there has been a surge of anti-Turkish sentiment.

An incident on the day before the Misrata discovery added fuel to the flames. A security source said there was an attempt to kill the customs officer charged with investigating the Khoms smuggling. Although the source said authorities are keeping an open mind about the incident, it is believed that someone does not want the smuggling to be revealed.

Even without the two incidents, hostility to Turkey is growing. The acting mayor of Derna, which for four years was run by the Islamic State and then by local Islamists sympathetic to al-Qaeda and is still not fully cleared of the latter, claimed that investigations following the arrest of four militants showed they had been provided with arms and equipment by Turkey and Qatar.

The fact that Turkey has, with Qatar, become a sanctuary for numerous Libyan Islamist or quasi-Islamist political figures also fuelled hostility. Prominent among them is Abdulhakim Belhaj, the head of Libya’s al-Watan Party and owner of its pro-Islamist TV station Al Nabaa, which operates out of Turkey.

Belhaj created the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group in the 1990s, was an ally in Afghanistan of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban and, immediately after the 2011 Libyan revolution, became head of Tripoli Military Council until the following year.

He and his wife obtained an unprecedented apology in the British parliament last year from Prime Minister Theresa May for British intelligence’s involvement in their rendition by the CIA to Libya and subsequent imprisonment and torture by the Qaddafi regime. The UK government paid them 500,000 British pounds — more than $600,000 — in compensation.

Despite the British apology, Belhaj has been persistently accused in Libya of having links with Islamist movements, such as Ansar al-Sharia, as well as to the Muslim Brotherhood. One accusation was of involvement with Tunisia’s Ansar al-Sharia Salafist movement, an al-Qaeda offshoot, and the killing of two Tunisian leftist politicians in 2013. He denied the accusations.

At the beginning of January, in a surprise move, the head of investigations at the Libyan Attorney General’s office issued an arrest warrant for Belhaj, five other Libyans and 31 Chadian and Sudanese fighters on charges relating to state security.

Originally it was thought that Belhaj was being accused of involvement in attacks on Libyan oilfields and terminals as well as on the Tamenhint Airbase near Sabha and other unnamed incidents in southern Libya.

However, it was subsequently disclosed that the accusation in Belhaj’s case was of involvement with a Libyan cell of the Palestinian movement Hamas. It is alleged he helped supply weapons and other equipment to Gaza and militants in Egypt’s Sinai.

The accusation and numerous others are based on files discovered on the computer of the head of the Hamas cell, arrested early last year and held at the prison at an airbase in Tripoli. The files allegedly contain details of meetings, correspondence, voice recordings, video clips and payment details apparently showing Belhaj to have been closely involved in supplying arms to Hamas and its allies.

There are also said to be videos of Hamas instructors training Libyans fighters and details of collaboration with commanders in the Benghazi and Derna revolutionary shura councils. The computer files are said to contain evidence of other Libyan political figures involved with Hamas Libya.

Belhaj denied the allegations, describing them as a conspiracy. He threatened legal action.

He is not popular though, even in Tripoli, and his denials are unlikely to dampen distrust about him.

Nor is distrust of Turkey likely to subside. Its perceived alliance with transnational Islamist movements, allegations of links to Libyan militants, the fact that so many use Turkey as a base and now the accusations of gun smuggling, coming on top of the generally negative perception of Libya’s history as a neo-Ottoman province, appear to be building public suspicion and antagonism towards Turkey.