Mark Micallef

Beyond the ‘migrant crisis’, Europe should recognise the threat posed by illicit markets in Libya.

Speaking in Geneva recently, the head of Libya’s National Oil Company, Mustafa Sanalla, launched an impassioned plea to European partners to help his country combat fuel smuggling.

The practice of smuggling heavily subsidised fuel from Libya (fuel in Libya costs as little as US$0.02c/0.03c per litre) is costing the country an estimated US$750million a year. Sanalla emphasised that the proliferation of fuel smuggling, and the organised criminal networks behind parts of it, are undermining Libya’s social fabric and the country’s ongoing state-building process.

This illicit activity is by no means a new phenomenon in Libya. Cheap fuel has been seeping out of the country’s land borders with Tunisia, Niger, Chad, Sudan and Egypt for decades. However, the collapse of law and order and the propagation of armed militias after 2011 enabled various warlords, together with local and international high-level criminals, to industrialise and vastly expand the business.

The most significant development in this respect has been the emergence of large-scale, sea-bound fuel smuggling to Europe and Turkey onboard fuel tankers: particularly off the west coast of Libya. Over the past seven years, the area has seen the development of significant syndicates headed by militia leaders with various interests in the black economy: from fuel smuggling to weapons, drugs, and human smuggling.

In spite of the country’s continuing problems, Sanalla’s plea for action is not an isolated example of Libya’s efforts to respond to this threat. For almost two years now, the Fuel and Gas Crisis Committee has been coordinating law enforcement activities against different forms of smuggling, forging partnerships with different able and willing national and local entities.

Similarly, in March, Attorney General Sadik Al-Sour published a list of 200 wanted smugglers, traffickers and middle men. The scale of the list and the profile of some of the names make it unlikely that it would be pursued exhaustively. Doing so could prove destabilising and provoke conflict across various parts of the Tripolitania. However, the process of naming and shaming has sent a powerful message.

This momentum is not to be taken for granted. The tentative push-back remains an overwhelmingly uphill struggle. Moreover, the general political situation remains as volatile as ever, especially with the uncertainty surrounding the health of the east’s strongman, Khalifa Haftar.

The island of Malta, which has been a recipient of fuel smuggled from Libya, is just 350 km north of Tripoli. Despite the proximity of this activity to European shores, and given evident self-interest in degrading such threats, the EU has not so far engaged seriously with willing Libyan partners on this issue. The outlook to Libya has instead been blinkered by the more pressing priorities of terrorism and migration.

Sources close to the operation say that behind the scenes, Sophia has been passing intelligence relevant to human smuggling to the Libyan authorities. But this sort of gesture is limited and largely anonymous. It has done nothing to mitigate Libyans’ anger over Europe’s expectation for the country to step up the policing of irregular migration, while refusing to use its flotilla to stop, search, and detain vessels engaged in fuel smuggling.

Italy recognised this frustration early on and understood that this could undermine cooperation from Libya in the response to human smuggling. Rome agreed to add fuel smuggling to the memorandum of understanding it signed with the UN-sanctioned Government of National Accord in February 2017. In October of that same year, Italian prosecutors started issuing charges against a major fuel smuggling ring that operated from Sicily, Malta and the coastal town of Zuwara. In August, one of the Libyan kingpins in that network, Fahmi Slim, was apprehended in Libya in an unrelated operation.

It is clear, however, that the EU as a bloc has not yet responded to the threats stemming from organised crime in Libya with a broad, coherent and unified policy. What is currently on the table is arguably a piecemeal response addressed at the narrow priorities pursued by dominant member states.

Sanalla’s point about fuel smuggling can be made about most other smuggling markets. They all serve to undermine the Libyan state; and therefore contribute to the greater strategic threat that the ‘Somalisation’ of this troubled North African country would pose to the Mediterranean and Europe.