Libya’s absurdist anarchy, as told by two militias


One man's private collection of tanks sit in a family-owned lot in the Libyan coastal city of Misurata. (Abigail Hauslohner/TWP)

Last week, I sat down with two sides of an ongoing conflict in Libya-one that has involved a mysterious ship filled with more than $30 million worth of crude oil, a U.S. Navy SEALs raid, nervous American oil companies, a dramatic battle at sea between rival militias, and traditional political negotiations.

The up-close view provided a good illustration of just how anarchic - sometimes humorously so -- Libya has become since the revolution that toppled Moammar Gaddafi three years ago.

To visit the two sides, I traveled on an oil company flight from an Islamist-controlled airport in the capital to an eastern oil port controlled by the powerful militia commander Ibrahim Jadhran.

Jadhran has held several state oil facilities hostage for nine months, crippling the country's lifeblood in a push for regional development demands. But when he tried to sell a tanker-load of oil on the black market last month, a rival group of militia fighters from the western coastal city of Misurata tried to stop him.

To do that, the Misuratans loaded gun trucks onto a few tugboats and launched a barrage of anti-tank missiles at the seaborne oil tanker .

In Jadhran's hometown of Ajdabiyah, I met one of the men who was on board the illicit tanker when that happened. Salah Mohamed, a skinny 29-year-old English teacher-turned-rebel, told me he was chosen for the expedition because of his language skills. He translated orders for the Pakistani captain of the chartered ship, who spoke no Arabic, and said he later translated for the SEALs who seized the ship off the coast of Cyprus.

In Misurata, I met the local "coast guard"-a rag-tag group that included former fishermen, a law graduate and a diving enthusiast who had become the city's naval force in the wake of the 2011 revolution, and who led the offensive on the tanker. We sat on mattresses on the floor of their portside headquarters and watched the videos they had filmed of the incident.

The tanker chase, they said enthusiastically, might have been the first-ever deployment of armed pick-up trucks to launch an attack from a tugboat.

"Our naval vessels weren't functioning. They're all very old," explained Col. Reda Abdullah Issa, the group's commander and the only longstanding coast guard member.


Members of the Misrata coast guard sit on mattresses in their harbor headquarters while watching a video of their recent attack on an illicit oil tanker at sea. The men are a rag tag group that includes former fishermen, a law graduate and a diving enthusiast. (Abigail Hauslohner/The Washington Post)

It might go without saying that tugboats are not meant for modern warfare, or that anti-tank missiles launched from a tugboat are unlikely to hit a ship 2 1/2 miles away.

But the Misuratans were proud, and they laughed gleefully as the video replayed their tugboat captain shouting "smash them, smash them," while the group fired machine guns and missiles toward a vague spot on the horizon.

The seventh missile struck, setting a small fire. Both sides said that the shrapnel from the missile also conveniently struck a set of water pipes, putting out the fire.

The Pakistani captain of the tanker, the Morning Glory, could be heard over the tugboat's radio during the attack, pleading with Misurata to hold its fire, until an American voice-identifying himself as a representative on a NATO ship - came in over the radio and told everyone to cool it.

The tugboat fired off a few more rounds anyway, and the Misratan captain shouted: "No, guys, don't!"

After the attack at sea, the NATO ship stayed alongside the tanker-which was registered to a man in the United Arab Emirates-as it moved to anchor off of Cyprus.

Later the same night, U.S. SEALs boarded the ship, and took control of the oil cargo to return it to Libya's Navy based at Tripoli's port. It was never clear who the oil's illegal buyers were. At least 40 percent of the crude belonged to American oil companies, leading some fighters on both sides to suggest the SEALs intervened for that reason.

The Misuratans, who abandoned the chase after they felt certain that the tanker was in NATO's hands, required a bit of American intervention too.

"We had a little electrical fire," Issa said. He said U.S. Marines sailed out from the NATO ship and put out the fire, but not before it damaged the engine. They "took turns" manually operating the boat's motor to make their way back to shore, he said, a journey that took 24 hours.

If there's a silver lining to the absurdity of Libya's ongoing crisis - Jadhran still hasn't agreed to open all the ports - it might be this: both sides said they thoroughly enjoyed the adventure.

Mohamed, the English teacher, was allowed to return to Ajdabiyah shortly after his capture. "It was quite fun because for all three of us because it was our first time on a boat," he said, referring to himself and his comrades.

Issa, the Misuratan commander, declared with a wide smile that he enjoyed the whole affair "very much."

Abigail Hauslohner has been The Post’s Cairo bureau chief since 2012. She served previously as a Middle East correspondent for Time magazine and has been covering the Middle East since 2007.
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