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Libya: Current Situation

August 31st 2017
Very little appears in the maritime press about Libya, other than the occasional item on the continuing migrant crossing issue.

However, the country poses real challenges for shipping, not least because of maritime domain confusion arising from its current governance (or lack thereof in certain areas). Politically, Libya remains a tribal country (in much the same way as Somalia is clan-based) split in two, although realistically, the division is that the EU- and UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) also known as the Unity Government, led by Prime Minister Sarraj hold around one third of the country while the rival, House of Representatives (HoR) controls around two thirds in the East of the country.

The HoR, fronted by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, is not recognised by Western governments, but increasingly, he has been courted by a variety of countries including the UK, US and Russia. Haftar has his eyes on a secure powerbase; his militias and Libyan National Army currently controls the Oil Crescent, ceding management to the independent National Oil Company.

Unfortunately, he has expressed limited interest in peace negotiations with the GNA, leaving the country split politically. This means that shipping companies have to deal with each government, depending on which ports they work from and, increasingly, the risk of vessel seizure by one or other government or the militias which work for them.

August 27th saw the arrest of the MT Levante, a Greek-owned tanker stopped by the GNA-backed Libyan Coast Guard, who accused it of being involved in fuel smuggling. The irony is that fuel smuggling has long been ignored by local authorities and the Coast Guard; some even accuse them of being complicit in the practice. It’s certainly been a revenue source for many years prior to mass migration from Libyan ports. August 30th, meanwhile, saw the Libyan Coast Guard arrest a Tanzanian-flagged tanker called Rex, on suspicion of fuel smuggling and a Maltese trawler which was arrested for allegedly fishing illegally in Libyan waters. It’s clear that Libya is now beginning to get very serious about its TTW, and all CSOs should take note.

With the advent of mass Mediterranean migration, Libyan militias and smugglers cornered the market. However, this brought unwanted attention to fuel smuggling and fights between gangs, often leading to the hijacking of migrants, were not uncommon. Currently, the most popular ports for migrant gangs to leave from are Sabratha and Zawiya. Both are nominally under the control of the GNA but, in the case of Zawiya, actual day-to-day control is handled by militias and armed gangs.

Following the establishment of a Search and Rescue Exclusion Zone in Libya’s territorial waters (TTW) by the GNA, the Libyan Coast Guard immediately threatened NGO rescue missions and warned them that if they entered the area, they would be fired on. This in turn led to several charities ending their work in the Mediterranean.

Coincidentally, the number of migrants attempting to cross to Italy fell dramatically.

New information suggests that significant payments have been made to Libyan militia groups to ensure migrants do not make the crossing. Although unconfirmed, it is highly likely that this is the case. Unconfirmed media reports detail medical and humanitarian supplies reaching areas where these things are generally very rare, as well as meetings between Italian officials and militia leaders.

With the migrant problem on the back burner, even temporarily, this means the fuel smugglers can return to business. The problem for the shipping industry is that the gangs involved in this are lethal and liable to shoot first and ask questions later. Gunfights at sea between rival gangs are not uncommon and add another level of risk for vessels transiting Libya’s TTW.

These risks are generally not normally featured in route risk assessments, but members should ensure that their vessels have all correct permissions and paperwork to enter Libyan waters and, importantly, heed any warnings from vessels claiming to be Libyan Coast Guard. The risk of arrest is moderate, provided all your paperwork is in order, but it is very real, as the crews of three vessels can attest.