Mark Micallef

The UN’s sanctions this week against six kingpins involved in human smuggling and trafficking markets will send out a strong message to transnational criminal networks.

On 7 June, the UN Security Council took the unprecedented step of targeting six individuals with sanctions over their alleged involvement in Libya’s transnational human smuggling and trafficking rings.

An asset freeze, travel bans and other punitive measures were imposed on four Libyan nationals – Mussab Abugrein (aka Doctor Mussab), Ahmed Al Dabbashi (who goes by the moniker Al Amu – ‘the uncle’), Mohammed Kushlav (aka Al-Gsab) and Abdulrahman Milad, aka Al Bija. The other two men on the sanctions blacklist are notorious Eritrean people smuggler Ermias Ghermay and Eritrean Fitwi Abdelrazak.

The move is a serious one and will have an impact on Libyan criminal networks, even if the six remain out of the reach of international justice, as have many others facing sanctions before them.

The Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime has time and again called for the use of targeted actions as well as naming and shaming in dealing with these forms of organized crime in Libya, which have proved to be an effective ‘stick’ in the past.

In the past year, international exposure has conditioned gang leaders to reduce their profile, wind down their operations or even, in some cases, prompted a move into law enforcement, in mixed attempts at reputation laundering. More generally, such measures pierce the aura of invincibility of the targeted smugglers and send a warning to the industry as a whole.

The right names on the list?

Three of the Libyans included on the Security Council list – Al Amu, Al-Gsab, and Doctor Mussab (reportedly called that because of his degree of professionalism) – are without question among the biggest kingpins in the Libyan West Coast’s vast black market, and are appropriate targets for sanction. That said, Al-Gsab’s scale of involvement in the fuel smuggling industry far outstrips his human smuggling operations.

Together, these men form part of an ecosystem of militiamen who have come to dominate the sociopolitical landscape of Libya’s west coast. Abugrein is the only one on the sanctions list who is not a militia leader in his own right – although he is seen as the financier of a militia, the Al Wadi Battalion of Sabratha.

The two East Africans targeted by the Security Council, Ghermay and Abdelrazak, are technically known as manadeeb (brokers) who grew so powerful, between 2012 and 2015/16, that many migrants who travelled through Libya using their networks often believed they were actually ru’us (‘heads’ or network leaders). In fact, as noted in the narrative put forward by the Security Council to justify the sanctions against these individuals, both men worked for Libyans, one of whom was Mussab Abugrein.

Ghermay and Abdelrazak, and several other similar East African players, were critical in helping to connect the Libyan smuggling and trafficking industry transnationally to a sophisticated network of smugglers, brokers and hawaladars (paperless money-transfer agents) working along the routes connecting various East African countries to Libyan coastal migrant hubs via the Sudanese capital, Khartoum.

Perhaps the only surprising name on the list is that of Al Bija, a Libyan coastguard captain with whom I have spent some time. Despite his official job title, there is no question that Bija is first and foremost a militiaman – although thuwar (revolutionary) is probably the term he would prefer. Al Bija’s modus operandi sits uneasily with the activities of a disciplined force like the Libyan navy and coastguard.

In that respect, he too is an important member of the West Coast’s militia ecosystem. Nonetheless, his profile in terms of his involvement in Libya’s black market is nowhere near the scale of the others, including his cousin and fellow sanctionee, Al-Gsab.

Among other things, Al Bija is accused by the Security Council of ‘the sinking of migrant boats using firearms …’ and of intercepting migrants who were then taken to a detention centre where they were ‘reportedly held in brutal conditions and subjected to beatings’.

These are serious allegations. But they could equally be applied to many law-enforcement entities in Libya, be they legitimate bodies or militias, including partners of the international community, who may well have contributed to the information-gathering process that led to these sanctions.

A carrot too small

For targeted actions to have a lasting effect they must be leveled in a justifiable manner that is also seen to be even-handed by players on the ground.  Sanctions must also be deployed as part of a broader carrot-and-stick strategy that clearly differentiates between the most serious offenders and the smaller players.

Failing to make this distinction in a consistent and meaningful way risks tilting the risk-equation for militiamen too far in the wrong direction.  If there is everything to lose and nothing to gain, and the system seems rigged against them, then leading smugglers will quickly realise there are few incentives to cooperate with the international agenda.

The result is likely to be a return to maximizing profits from pushing people out to sea, a further scale-up of the militia-driven arms race along the coast, and the prospects of a peaceful political transition for Libya receding still further.