Residents in Libya: Drones must not fall into the wrong hands

This is the second installment of Navanti’s six-part series on perceptions and use of drones in Africa and the Middle East. In this installment, we will explore the dynamics of drone usage in Libya.

As many different fighting Libyan factions rush to take advantage of drone technology, residents in Libya negatively associate these unmanned aerial vehicles with airstrikes and fear they could fall into the wrong hands, according to a recent Navanti survey.

In the informal survey, carried out from April to May 2017, Navanti asked residents in two cities of Libya — Benghazi and Bani Walid — about their views on the use of UAVs in their area. The respondents expressed concern at the variety of groups currently employing UAVs, from the United States and international actors, to the eastern rival government known as the Libyan National Army (LNA), to militia groups and violent extremist organizations.

The survey indicated respondents in Libya experience drones almost as a daily part of life without knowing who is operating them.

I hear drone sounds approximately every other night. I once saw one from afar. Based on the sound I think they are drones. They are very loud and sound like the drones that pass over Sirte,” a respondent in Bani Walid said. “I suspect Misratan security forces are using UAVs for surveillance.

A respondent in Benghazi said that drones were so prevalent in his area, he believed they were being used by a variety of entities, which could include the Islamist militia Benghazi Revolutionary Shura Council and LNA special forces. “I think the UAE, Russia, and France might also be using drones,” he added.

Libyan respondents noted that drones are being used for a number of purposes.

The smaller, commercial UAVs — used particularly for reconnaissance and propaganda purposes — are now relatively easy to obtain, and the Benghazi respondent asserted they “are also bought online outside of Libya and brought into the country.”

Weaponized drones were first used in Libya in 2011, when the Obama administration approved the use of Predator drones to target former Libyan dictator Moammer Qadaffi’s forces in urban areas after Qadaffi ordered a wide-scale attack on civilians. Following the dissolution of the Qaddafi regime, drones began to be used by U.S. forces against the Islamic State and other terrorist groups that took root during the ensuing instability.

Though the U.S. and the United Arab Emirates employ the larger, weaponized drones in more rural areas of Libya to carry out airstrikes on violent extremist organizations (VEOs), a range of other groups employ the smaller, non-weaponized UAVs. The Tobruk-based rival LNA, a rival government to the UN-backed Government of National Accord, did not initially embrace the technology. “In the beginning of Operation Dignity, the army [LNA] didn’t use drones. They were used by terrorist groups because of the large support and money [they received from wealthy donors], so modern drones came to them,” the respondent in Benghazi said.

He explained that VEOs and rebel groups in the area initially obtained the commercially available drones online, using them to scope out their territory or to film their rallies to drum up support. Once the LNA, under the lead of Field Marshal Khalifa Hiftar, began expanding territory, these drones were confiscated and their use was coopted by the LNA.

“But under army control, these drones were obtained, which helped the army completely control the whole area, so of course this is good,” the Benghazi respondent added.Today, the LNA continues to employ its newfound technology to monitor VEO and rebel activity and wrest control over the areas of its control.

While the respondents showed a general unease about the use of UAVs in their area, they seemed to accept their use as a necessity by the appropriate authorities as a check on VEOs and other destabilizing groups.“[Drones] are positive when they are used to monitor enemy positions, but negative when they are used in the wrong hands because they cause a lot of problems,” a respondent in Benghazi argued.

With a variety of groups, many of them on differing sides of the conflict depending on their location or their political, ideological, or tribal affiliation, still employing UAVs in Libya, the presence of drones will likely remain a long-term fixture to maintain surveillance over areas and stomp out any activity deemed threatening or destabilizing to the group in control. Respondents generally seemed positive about this activity as long as UAVs were used to protect them from violence.

However, with regard to Islamist militias, VEOs, and other groups still employing UAVs, the respondents expressed continuing concern, especially if these groups begin to weaponize these smaller, more readily available drones, as already seen in Iraq by ISIS. Looking forward, UAVs will pose a challenge to local security forces as they monitor these developments and ensure adequate resources are diverted to restricting UAV use by VEOs and violent non-state actors.

About Navanti

Navanti researches socio-economic and political risk trends using a combination of in-house subject matter experts and hyper-local atmospherics reporting from local researchers in predominantly high-conflict zones across Africa, the Middle East, and Eurasia.