Eight months into Libya’s worst spasm of violence in eight years, the conflict is being fought increasingly by weaponized drones — and civilian casualties are mounting.
The United Nations blames airstrikes for the deaths of more than 60 percent of the 284 civilians killed since the eastern warlord Khalifa Hifter started his offensive to oust the U.N.-installed government from Tripoli in April. Recent drone attacks killed 12 members of a family, including 10 children, in southern Libya, and at least 10 people, mostly African migrants, in a biscuit factory in Tripoli, according to U.N. and Libyan officials. The assaults, U.N. officials and human rights activists say, could constitute war crimes.
“The rockets from the drones are getting stronger,” said Gen. Mohammed Haddad, the top pro-government commander in Misurata. “Before, they did not go through concrete buildings.”
Drones have been deployed in Middle Eastern conflicts from Yemen to Syria to the Palestinian territories. But no other war has been marked by the rapid intensification of remote-controlled air power now unfolding in Libya. The U.N. has counted more than 1,000 strikes since April. Analysts say the lethal machines are prolonging the conflict and offering daily evidence it has become a proxy war, fought by multiple nations in violation of a U.N. arms embargo.
“Outside powers are the driving force,” said Matthew Herbert, senior research consultant for the South Africa-based Institute of Security Studies. “They supply the drones, the ammunition, and the pilots to fly the craft.
“Without foreign intervention, there might be drones in the Libya conflict, but there would not be the sort of high-intensity drone war we’re now witnessing.”
The U.N.’s top envoy to Libya, Ghassan Salamé, told the U.N. Security Council last month that “the use of air power and precision technology has become a dominant feature of an otherwise low-intensity conflict.”
Drones are playing a pivotal role in the Libyan conflict
Chinese-made Wing Loong drones deployed by the United Arab Emirates are playing a pivotal role in the campaign by Hifter, whose forces have laid siege to Tripoli. In recent weeks, the increasing aerial war and an influx of Russian mercenaries have built momentum for Hifter’s ambitions to control Libya, according to Libyan commanders, analysts and Western officials.
Turkey is funneling its own Bayraktar TB2 drones to the U.N.-installed Government of National Accord, but they have less range and are less powerful than Hifter’s. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is seeking a greater role in Libya, recently inking economic, security and military agreements with the GNA and offering to send troops.
Neither UAE nor Turkish officials responded to requests for comment.
The precision of the strikes suggests the drones are not being operated or maintained by Libyans, who lack the technical expertise, U.N. investigators reported this month. They suggested their use has led to less collateral damage than would be seen in a conflict driven by street fighting.
Still, drones are wreaking havoc on the civilian population. A strike at a field hospital in July killed five medical personnel. An attack by Hifter’s forces on a community meeting in August killed 45. And a strike in a Tripoli suburb this month killed five. Ambulances and field hospitals, too, have been targeted in recent weeks.
“Most were hit by drone strikes, if not all,” said Ridah Shotah, a director of the Health Ministry in Tripoli.
The Chinese and Turkish drones cost far less than manned warplanes or the roughly $15 million American MQ-9 Reaper drones that the U.S. military uses to target Islamic militants in Libya. That has allowed both sides to build up airborne arsenals that are less expensive than fighter jets to maintain and replace.
“In Libya, drones have given both sides significant air power at relatively little costs,” said Chris Cole, the director of Drone Wars UK, an Oxford-based organization that monitors drone activity. “The use of these armed systems — both large and small — at distance has enabled both nonstate and state actors to engage in warfare with virtual impunity.”
Omar Amir’s mother and sister were among the victims.
One recent night, he said, the large family was inside their palatial home, with its large pool and palm trees. They had been planning for Amir’s wedding, and the bride’s dress was upstairs.
Nobody could sleep. They could hear the whirring sound of drones outside, and every few minutes the sound of a strike. But they felt protected.
“We never expected the missile to enter,” said Amir, 21, as he stood in the rubble- and soot-covered living room three days after the attack.
Russia, France, Saudi Arabia, UAE wage a proxy war
When Hifter launched his Tripoli offensive, few Libyans expected an aerial war — and certainly not one dictated by drones.
Since the 2011 Arab Spring revolution and NATO attacks toppled Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi and plunged the oil producer into lawlessness and chaos, militias seeking influence, wealth and territory have clashed frequently. But those battles have been fought largely on the ground, with heavy guns, mortars, tanks and poorly trained fighters with AK-47 rifles.
This time, sophisticated weaponry and military strategies prevail, as regional and Western governments back both sides. The UAE, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, France and Russia are supporting Hifter. So are Russian military contractors from the Kremlin-linked Wagner Group and African mercenaries from Sudan and Chad.
Turkey, Qatar, Italy and other European countries are supporting the GNA. The United States ostensibly backs it as well, but the Trump administration’s continued contacts with Hifter, a dual Libyan-U.S. citizen and former CIA asset who lived for years in Northern Virginia, have sent mixed signals.
When Hifter’s ground offensive stalled in April, his self-described Libyan National Army turned to drones and warplanes, including French Mirage and Rafale jets, Russian Sukhoi aircraft and MI-35 combat helicopters. By summer, the Governmente of National Accord was deploying its own drones.
Hifter has launched more than 800 drone strikes, according to the most recent U.N. data. The GNA has launched more than 240.
By comparison, the British military has launched 974 warheads from drones in Iraq and Syria since August 2014, according to Drone Wars UK.
In Libya, the warheads of the Chinese drones used by Hifter’s forces are heavier and more destructive than the Turkish weapons used by the GNA.
“This has meant that Hifter has de facto managed to gain superior control over the skies,” said Emadeddin Badi, a Libya analyst with the Middle East Institute.
Drones now dictate the rhythms of war in Libya — and of life.
Militia fighters drive in civilian cars or set up checkpoints under bridges to avoid being targeted. When a drone is spotted, civilian drivers abandon their cars and take cover. The machines have entered everyday vocabulary: An armed drone is called “Musayer”; a smaller reconnaissance drone is known as “Yasmina.”
Doctors and medics were setting up a clinic at an abandoned gas station in Tripoli one recent day to receive fighters battling less than a mile away. Every few minutes, a shell would crash nearby.
At 3:16 p.m., Hamza Ali pointed at the sky: “Yasmina!”
The team took cover. A few minutes later, militiamen in a pickup truck mounted with a heavy machine gun pulled into the station. Ali and other medics implored them to leave, fearing they would make the clinic a bigger target. The fighters refused.
“Let’s go,” yelled Ali, and the team swiftly packed up and left.
‘We watched death pass through our home’
Misurata, nestled on Libya’s coast 116 miles east of Tripoli, is pocked with the scars of drones. Several have struck factories and the civilian airport, disrupting flights. In a field lies the wreckage of a Chinese drone that was shot down.
“People are scared,” said Yousuf Jamal, a senior tribal leader in Misurata. “They don’t know what’s going to happen at night.”
Some residential areas that were hit were near military bases, he said. But the attacks would not have happened if the U.N. weapons embargo were honored.
“Now we have new military equipment, new machines and new sophisticated weapons targeting us,” Jamal said. “Had they enforced the ban, we would not have reached this point.”
Inside the family mansion of Omar Amir, workers were fixing the damage.
His mother, Amal, and his sister, Mariam, were at a hospital in neighboring Tunisia. His wedding had been canceled. But there was also a sense of appreciation.
“Thank God there were not more injuries,” someone had scrawled on a wall mirror coated in soot and dust.
“We watched death pass through our home,” Amir said. “A house can be rebuilt. A family cannot.”