Turkish, Egyptian intelligence services vie for influence in Libya
ANKARA/CAIRO - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared recently that his country’s intelligence work on Libyan soil was able to halt the ground progress of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA) while security sources in Cairo told The Arab Weekly that Egyptian intelligence was aware of the smallest details of what was happening in the western side of Libya, which is controlled by the Turkey-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj.
Statements by the two parties confirm the obvious intensification of intelligence activity by Ankara and Cairo over Libya.
The Turkish president underlined “the importance of the intelligence apparatus for the state, as it constitutes a cornerstone for keeping the state standing.”
He recalled that “the Ottoman Empire suffered one of the greatest defeats in its history with the Balkan War (1912-1913), as the rulers of that period were unable for years to see the preparations being undertaken by some societies to rebel against the state, due to a lack of correct vision and acumen.”
He explained that “thanks to the growing influence of its external intelligence, Turkey began to occupy its due place in all international forums as a regional and global power,” noting that “the gains that we have achieved in the zones of confrontation, strengthen our position at the negotiation table and give us the power to defend the interests of our people.”
“The intelligence service is a pivotal weapon in our historical struggle to build a strong and great Turkey, and it will remain so,” he added.
Erdogan also said that intelligence work was his most important weapon, especially that the intelligence services had saved him in the 2016 failed coup attempted by army leaders. This is why he had placed his friend and confident, Hakan Fidan, at the helm of the intelligence services and was comfortable and reassured by the performance of that institution that has not failed him.
During his speech, Erdogan kept listing examples for the effectiveness of Turkey’s intelligence services in Turkish history from the Ottoman period to the role they are currently playing in Libya now. He stressed that the “successes” achieved by the intelligence services would enhance Ankara’s power at the negotiating table, in reference to diplomatic moves in search for a solution that takes into account the interests of various actors in the crisis, and particularly recognising the “advances” towards naval and air dominance, as well oil sector gains.
Erdogan also wanted to send reassuring messages that his steps in Libya were carefully calculated, and that those doubting him should reconsider their thinking, and those trusting him should continue to do so, for no matter how many and scattered his adventures in Libya might seem, he is totally in control of the situation, carefully gauging his steps before taking them thanks to the large intelligence data at his disposal.
The problem with all of this Turkish self-assurance about its intelligence work is that other intelligence actors—Russian, French, and American—are playing the same game and in the same field.
Even Egypt is no longer hiding the fact that the situation in Libya has become its top priority because of its vital importance to its national security, from the point of view of its war on terrorism, securing its borders, safeguarding the interests of Egyptian companies and labourers in Libya, and taking advantage of the increasing international and regional annoyance at the growing Turkish influence in the Mediterranean.
An Egyptian security expert did not deny the obvious expansion of the role played by Turkish intelligence in the region, given Ankara’s desire to play complex roles over a wide area of the world, and its keenness to extend its military presence in more than one region, which naturally leads to a substantial increase in intelligence gathering.
The expert added to The Arab Weekly that the tasks carried out by Turkish intelligence in Libya were essentially confined to using and managing the card of terrorist organisations as well as recruiting and transporting foreign fighters. The performance of these elements on the ground, however, proved to be rather limited and confused due to their lack of familiarity with their new environment.
He cited the attack on al-Watiya base as a clear example of the blatant failure of Turkish intelligence on the ground in Libya since it was unable to protect the advanced military equipment that it had smuggled and installed at the base, could not identify exactly who carried out the attack, and dared not accuse a specific country of the attack because that would require mounting a befitting response, which was beyond its capabilities.
The Arab Weekly’s sources refused to talk about the nature of the Egyptian intelligence activity in Libya, saying only: “We know every big and small detail in Libya, at the political, security and social levels. Even the map of the militias and mercenaries in Libya is no secret to us, and this is the result of long years of work, because Libya is directly relevant to Egypt’s national security and it would have been unthinkable to leave the stage vacant for Turkey or others to tamper with as they wish.”
Asked about the reasons for the prolonged crisis and Cairo’s inability to intervene early enough, since it was aware of all the details of the situation, and this in contrast to Turkey’s quick military interventions, the sources said: “The situation on the ground in Libya is complicated with international intelligence services competing. But what counts is the end result; whichever party possesses a deeper knowledge of the environment and is more influential will be able to achieve its goals somehow, and even if it does not achieve gains, it would at least limit its losses and avoid clashes with major powers.”
To manage the Libyan file, Cairo had early on formed an enlarged committee that includes all the security services, and not just the General Intelligence Service. This committee holds periodic meetings, in coordination with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and submits its reports directly to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who uses them to decide on the appropriate measures for the various stages of the crisis.