Libya—awash with roving militias and presently undergoing a near-total evacuation of Westerners from oil-producing Benghazi—is doing its best to make a few cosmetic security changes in an atmosphere of growing uncertainty.
Libya has announced a new visa policy requiring all foreigners to obtain visas before entering Libya. This adds Tunisians, Turks and Jordanians to the list. It has also implemented stricter policies for employing foreign workers on Libyan territory.
These are the measures being put in place to boost security of energy assets—the bulk of which are located in remote, sparsely populated desert regions close to the Algerian border.
Libya is keen to insist that it was in no way involved in the spectacular attack on the BP-operated gas field in the Algerian Sahara in mid-January. It is less keen to bring up the fact that the attackers entered Algeria from the Libyan border, which sits only 100 kilometers from the BP assets.
These latest measures will do little to boost security in Libya, where much of the country’s south and half of its border regions are not even under government control. Libya has promised to send more troops to patrol the border with Algeria, but this, too, will be challenging in territory to which the government has had to cede control to a variety of tribes. (Related article: Why This is All Libya's Fault)
Terrorist groups have almost uncontested mobility across much of this Sahelian desert border land.
More significantly, the French intervention in Mali is pushing militants across these borders, where there are already indications that they are regrouping in parts of Libya and other desert locations. Libya is already awash with roving militias—some of them deemed “friendly” and involved in providing security for the energy industry and Western consulates. This loyalty is at best uncertain. With an influx of fighters from the Mali theater, loyalties may shift and catch the industry unprepared for disaster (much as the US consulate in Benghazi was unprepared in September 2012).
Arms depots uncovered in Tunisia, along the route to Libya, in recent days point to plans for another attack under way. (Related article: Jordan - Problems Ahead?)
The energy industry appears to be underestimating the security threat across the Sahel, misreading the attack on Algeria and implications of the conflict in Mali. Evacuations and relocations have centered only on Benghazi and Algeria—while the threat should be considered region-wide.
Tunisia is rightfully concerned about security at its energy sites in the country’s south. Special units have been deployed to reinforce security at these southern desert venues, which are close to the borders with Libya and Algeria. (Also close to where the two arms depots were recently uncovered).
Libya, Algeria, Egypt, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Tunisia are all major fossil fuels or minerals venues, and they are all potential attack targets. Of these, Libya has been destabilized since the death of Gaddafi; Mali is embroiled in a major conflict; Niger and Mauritania are poor and corrupt and security forces are easily infiltrated; Algeria has the most capable security forces, but struggles to control its borders and Egypt and Tunisia are distracted by continuing political unrest, which in the former threatens again to assume revolutionary proportions.