The detainment of a ship carrying Turkish crewmembers by Libyan forces presents us with an example of what could happen in the future. It seems unlikely that the Libyan National Army would have been able to detain the ship without the backing of external intelligence. Other countries were undoubtedly involved.
Do the names Abdulhakim Belhaj and Mahdi Al Harati ring a bell? Both were rising names involved in the political process that culminated with the fall of Qaddafi in Libya. For a while, Harati was known as the man “who kissed Erdoğan’s forehead’.
I have attempted to explain the significance of Harati and Belhaj in one of my previous articles.
Libya then served as a headquarters for jihadist groups. From 2011 onwards, the US transferred hordes of jihadists and weapons from Libya to Syria (aboard ships). It was said that ships settled in Port Alexandretta and that the highway was used to deliver weapons to Syria. A weapon delivery scheme with trucks that the Turkish daily Cumhuriyet disclosed was part of this process. Back then, the government did not see any harm in jihadists being transferred to Syria through Turkey under the aegis of certain foreign governments. Those are the same foreign governments Turkey now opposes in Libya and Syria. Hospitals in Istanbul were once teeming with Libyan jihadists.
Mahdi Al Harati was one of the members of the Turkish fleet that brought aid to Gaza in 2010 and faced attacks from Israel. Al Harati was said to kiss Erdogan’s forehead when the then-prime minister visited those wounded in the incident in a hospital. Harati himself was wounded. Though the Spanish sought him for his role in the bloody Madrid attacks of 2004, Harati was seen camping in Syria’s Mount Zawiya in the vicinity of Idlib in October 2011.
On the other hand, Belhaj entered Turkey multiple times between 2011 and 2012. It has been said that he reorganised a unity of approximately 1,500 members in Syria and that he had an office in Incirlik. Aside from these two symbolic figures, hundreds of other Libyan jihadists have played a role in the Syrian war. But Harati and Belhaj came up again in 2017 amidst the Qatar-Saudi crisis that involved other Gulf states.
That year, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE and Egypt published a joint declaration that labelled 52 individuals as terrorists. The list included some Qatari senior officials. It also featured Mahdi Al Harati and Abdulhakim Belhaj. Yet the lack of information we have about their whereabouts serves as a striking example of how the Turkish governments conducts its foreign policy.
Today, it is said that this transfer of jihadists has been turned around. Are jihadists from Idlib being transferred to Libya to help the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord that is backed by the Turkish government?
The detainment of some Turkish ships by the Haftar-led National Army served to find jihadists and weapons, though there are other dimensions to this incident. Already at odds with the West in the Eastern Mediterranean, Turkey has opened a front against the Arab world through its forays in Libya. Turkey’s incursions in the Eastern Mediterranean posed problems for certain countries like Egypt. But its presence in Libya directly places Ankara in a conflict against the UAE and Saudi Arabia – two countries with which it already maintains tense relationships. It also stokes tensions with Egypt. Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi recently said “he regretted not sending military forces to Libya”. In a statement he gave to the Egyptian Al Ahram newspaper, he pledged to “not let foreign powers gain territory in Libya and that this was a national security problem for Egypt.”
While Erdogan’s emphasis on “national security concerns” remains a legitimate justification for its operations in Syria, if Turkey sends troops to Libya, both Egypt and Saudi Arabia will feel emboldened to follow suit.
Besides, their involvement in Libya would scarcely have to do with buttressing Haftar but mostly with reining in a Turkish expansion. The National Army’s detainment of a ship that carried Turkish crewmembers presents us with an example of possibly worse scenarios to come. It seems unlikely that the Libyan National Army would have been able to detain the ship without the backing of external intelligence. Other countries were undoubtedly involved.
What will Turkey’s next move be in Libya? Will it transfer jihadists from Syria to Libya? Or find new Haratis and Belhajs in Libya?
The goal of this policy is to support jihadists, as Turkey did in Syria. Ankara has been in conflict with states in the entire region because of this. Turkey’s actions in the Eastern Mediterranean and in Libya should be considered in this regard.