Libya: The Next Pirate Haven?

by Paul Pryce. With degrees in political science from both sides of the pond, Paul Pryce has previously worked as Senior Research Fellow for the Atlantic Council of Canada’s Canadian Armed Forces program, as a Research Fellow for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, and as an Associate Fellow at the Latvian Institute of International Affairs. He has also served as an infantryman in the Canadian Forces.

USS Philadelphia burning at the Battle of Tripoli Harbor during the First Barbary War in 1804.

USS Philadelphia burning at the Battle of Tripoli Harbor during the First Barbary War in 1804.

At the start of the 19th century, pirates based in what is now Libya prompted in part the re-establishment of the United States Navy (USN). The Barbary Wars saw the United States and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies fighting against the Northwest African Berber states, quasi-independent entities within the Ottoman Empire, which had been harassing commercial shipping in the Mediterranean Sea. After two major conflicts in North Africa, the threat of piracy was more or less ended by 1816. Two hundred years later, piracy off the Libyan coast could again become a major threat to international peace and security, requiring an American response.

Under the rule of Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan Navy was a sufficiently potent force to secure Libya’s territorial waters and coastline. But a combination of NATO airstrikes during the 2011 multilateral intervention in Libya and the lack of national unity has left Libya’s maritime forces in shambles. According to the limited information available on the state of the Libyan Navy, it has only one Koni-class frigate remaining: al-Hani. That vessel, a Soviet frigate built in the early 1980’s and with a displacement of 1,900 tonnes, arrived in Malta for extensive repairs in October 2013. According to the Oryx Blog, the single Natya-class minesweeper already sunk a couple of years ago due to a lack of maintenance (see photo below), but not before it was deprived of both of its AK-230 gun emplacements, which were subsequently installed on the Kamaz and Scania trucks. Beyond that, a Polnocny C-class landing ship is reportedly undergoing a refit in Toulon, France, while a second is undergoing repairs at Cassar Ship Repair, Malta, which is the same facility hosting al-Hani. As such, the Libyan Navy likely has only one landing ship with which to patrol more than 1,700 kilometres of coastline.

The poor state of the Libyan Navy is further compounded by the lack of coherent command and control – or in fact the lack of a functioning state. Although Libya does nominally have a Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Hassan Ali Bushnak, the Government of National Accord (GNA) to which he reports does not have control over all of Libyan territory. Opposing the internationally recognized government of Libya is a collection of Islamist groups, including factions loyal to the terror organisation “Islamic State” (ISIS). Although a United Nations brokered peace agreement has secured some degree of power sharing, the democratically elected Council of Deputies could withdraw its support for the GNA at any time, deepening the conflict.

The remains of the unfortunate Natya-class minesweeper (Photo: Oryx Blog).

The remains of the unfortunate Natya-class minesweeper (Photo: Oryx Blog).

In short, it is difficult to say who is in charge in Libya anymore, especially regarding some of the Gaddafi regime’s naval bases. Major bases in Tripoli, Sirte, and Khoms were devastated by airstrikes. Tobruk has been the last refuge of the Council of Deputies in the midst of the civil war. Misrata is more or less GNA controlled. Benghazi remains a battleground between GNA forces and the Islamist coalition known as the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries. Derna is also a battleground, albeit between ISIS and another Islamist group known as the Shura Council of Mujahedeen in Derna.

In this context, Operation Sophia, also known as European Union Naval Force Mediterranean (EUNAVFOR Med), is a naïve approach to addressing the threat of Libyan piracy. One of the stated objectives of Operation Sophia is to address the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean by fostering the establishment of a professional Libyan Navy. But such an initiative will clearly take many years to reach fruition. The European Union Border Assistance Mission in Libya (EUBAM Libya) has been training Libyan officers and personnel in just such an effort to develop a capable Navy or Coast Guard, but the training has been strictly limited to rigid hull inflatable boats (RHIB). If Libya is to successfully intercept or deter homegrown pirates, vessels with greater range will be necessary, as well as the ability to crew and operate ships with that kind of reach.

The European Union Training Mission in Somalia (EUTM Somalia) was originally launched in April 2010 with similar objectives, training the forces necessary for the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) to exert its sovereignty over Somali territory and put an end to piracy. More than six years later, the Somali Maritime Force is a ragtag collection of Soviet-built Osa-II missile-armed fast attack craft, resembling the current state of the Libyan Navy, and is mostly under the authority of the breakaway Puntland administration.

Operational area of EUNAVFOR Med.

Operational area of EUNAVFOR Med.

The immediacy of this threat should be abundantly clear. In April 2015, a Sicilian fishing boat and its seven crew members was apparently seized by pirates approximately 60 kilometres off the Libyan coast. In March 2014, Libyan rebels hijacked MV Morning Glory, a crude oil tanker, and loaded it with 234,000 barrels of state-owned crude for illegal sale abroad but the vessel was interdicted by the USN and turned over to the Libyan authorities. Even if rebels do not turn to piracy for new sources of revenue, ISIS affiliates could take advantage of the security vacuum to mount destructive attacks against commercial shipping. Such an attack could be similar to the suicide bombing perpetrated by al-Qaeda against USS Cole, a USN guided-missile destroyer, while it was harboured for refueling in the Yemeni port of Aden in October 2000.

Although training assistance could play a role in improving Libya’s maritime security situation as part of a larger state-building effort in the country, it is vital to Mediterranean commercial shipping that the US and EU mount a joint effort to patrol the Libyan coastline, blockade rebel-held ports like Derna, and develop partnerships with regional neighbours. NATO signed a Tactical Memorandum of Understanding (T-MOU) with Morocco in 2009, while Morocco also participates in Operation Active Endeavour, NATO’s effort to increase surveillance on freight traffic in the Mediterranean. The Tunisian Navy is also a robust force and could be incorporated into an effort to address piracy, especially as Tunisia has repeatedly come under threat from Libya-based terrorist groups. In the absence of a concerted response, it is only a matter of time before commercial shipping comes under attack.

More information

About Paul Pryce

Paul Pryce is Director of Social Media at the Centre for International Maritime Security and also serves as a Research Analyst with the NATO Council of Canada's Maritime Nation Program. Holding degrees from the University of Calgary and Tallinn University, he has previously worked in conflict resolution as a diplomatic aide with the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and as an infantryman in the Canadian Forces.
This entry was posted in English, International, Libya, Paul Pryce, Sea Powers.

One Response to Libya: The Next Pirate Haven?

  1. Six additional points:

    1. In Libya, GNA doesn’t exert any control on Benghazi, actually GNA doesn’t exert any sovereignty even in Tripoli.
    2. Narrative abt Libya tend to forget that bulk of GNA-aligned forces are also made of Islamist militias. Look at Misrata’s.
    3. Bizarre thing is article quotes messy #Tunisia as potential partner to address this issue and forget Algeria & Egypt.
    4. Maybe because Egypt refuses to recognize GNA and Algeria still distrusts it?
    5. Da’ish won’t hold another port anytime soon to launch such attacks. But other actors indeed may be tempted.
    6. That EU’s mission “Operation Sophia” is a bit naïve is indeed a true fact.

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