Violent confrontations between Libyan maritime authorities and foreign vessels highlight the vulnerability of commercial shipping transiting the waters off Libya.
The presence of rival governing institutions has complicated the process of securing authorisation to enter Libyan waters, increasing the likelihood of hostile encounters with local security forces.
- Risks to the shipping sector are likely to continue for the foreseeable future due to ongoing political divisions and smuggling in the Mediterranean Sea, which fuels tensions between Libyan maritime authorities and foreign ships.
There are growing concerns over the risk to international shipping in the southern Mediterranean Sea following recent confrontations between Libyan maritime authorities and foreign vessels. The Libyan Navy on 17 August fired on a vessel operated by medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), the Bourbon Argos, marking the first time Libyan authorities have fired directly on a rescue vessel since the conflict there began in 2011. Naval personnel eventually boarded the vessel, with the incident occurring 24 nm off the Libyan coast in international waters. A similar episode took place on 11 September when the Libyan coastguard fired warning shots at a rescue vessel belonging to German charity group Sea-Eye, although this did not cause injuries or significant damage. The coastguard subsequently detained two crew members on suspicion of illicit fuel smuggling before releasing them 24 hours later.
Since the civil war broke out in Libya in 2011, shippers have faced a number of operational and security challenges. Military forces conducted at least three air strikes against commercial vessels in 2015, and recent confrontations between maritime security forces and foreign vessels indicate that the threat of attack continues. In July, the eastern House of Representatives authority (HoR), which opposes the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), threatened to attack any unauthorised oil tanker entering Libyan waters with air strikes. Although no such attack has been launched since the announcement, the precedent for aerial bombardments targeting unrecognised commercial vessels suggests that there remains cause for concern.
The situation is exacerbated by the poor discipline of the Libyan naval forces and a lack of enforcement of internationally accepted standards of engagement even when operating in international waters. During the 17 August incident, MSF reported that armed men on a speedboat fired at least 13 bullets directly at their vessel, some of which hit the ship’s bridge. The account differs significantly from that of Brig Ayoub Qassim, a spokesperson for the Libyan Navy, who said five warning shots were fired, and denied claims that the vessel was boarded. Qassim also stated that naval forces attempted to contact the boat and ordered it to stop, although MSF said the crew had repeatedly attempted to communicate over radio without response.
Such incidents are difficult to mitigate, given the isolation of vessels at sea. The nature of operating at sea means any protocols guiding procedures for encounters with security forces, such as proper communication and verification of vessels through an Automatic Identification System (AIS), are difficult to enforce. The incident highlights how even vessels experienced in operating in the region and utilising AIS, which displays the ship’s details to any naval forces, can encounter potentially life-threatening confrontations with Libyan security forces. The Bourbon Argos has been operating off Libya since May 2015 and was clearly marked, indicating that authorities should have been familiar with the vessel. The Sea-Eye incident differs from the MSF attack in that the vessel accidentally strayed into Libyan waters, although it is highly likely that the vessel’s AIS was turned on, given that the charity’s website was providing live tracking of its route.
The presence of two competing administrations in Libya, the GNA and the HoR, also makes it difficult for shippers to know who to obtain authorisation from, increasing the risk of vessel seizures, searches, and attacks by local security forces. Maritime security forces affiliated with both the HoR and GNA have continued to detain and search foreign commercial and charity vessels in recent months, with at least two reports of foreign-owned merchant vessels being detained in July, although it is possible other incidents went unreported. On 30 July, a Canadian cargo ship was detained in Tobruk and searched by the coastguard affiliated with the HoR, weeks after a Comoros-flagged vessel was briefly detained off Ras Hilial. In both instances, the vessels were suspected of smuggling weapons or oil, although they were later accused of not obtaining the correct permit to enter Libyan waters.
Moreover, neither the GNA nor the HoR are coherent forces and have wide-ranging allegiances to numerous others forces and militia. Some of these militia are capable of operating at sea and have high degrees of autonomy, such as those controlled by the eastern-based military commander General Khalifa Haftar, who controls the key oil ports of Ras Lanuf and Es Sider. As these factions look to prevent rivals from accessing international trade and remain suspicious of any vessels within or near Libyan territorial waters, there will be the potential for further attacks, seizures and detention of foreign vessels and their crews.
The threat to vessels near Libya’s territorial waters is likely to continue for the foreseeable future as a result of the political divisions onshore, the failure to train and instil professionalism among local maritime forces, and the widespread smuggling operations off the coast of Libya. The EU’s naval operation for the Mediterranean Sea, EUNAVFOR MED, started training the Libyan Coastguard and Navy in August this year to help national maritime authorities build capacity in order to tackle human trafficking. However, it is unlikely the training will resolve suspicions among local security forces of unidentified vessels, given the huge scale of smuggling in the region. Such training missions will do little to bring about a unified and cooperative maritime force off Libya while so many factions vie for control over the country’s export infrastructure, meaning foreign vessels will remain vulnerable to attack for the foreseeable future.