Libya’s Kidnapping Epidemic is Shattering Families
Since the downfall of Muammar Qaddafi’s regime in 2011, militias have terrorized civilians by abducting dissenters for ideological reasons or for ransom. Politicians, businessmen and activists have all been targeted. And once taken, many never reappear.
Malik al-Faissi, a young Sufi scholar who disappeared on 27 January 2012 in the western town of Masalatta, is suspected of being one of the first people abducted. Residents believe that he was snatched for challenging the intolerant views of some Islamist extremists in the town. Although his father has begged government-backed militias to investigate his son’s whereabouts, nobody has helped him.
Like Idris, most Libyans must rely on their own means to track down their loved ones. Lina (not her real name) told the BBC that her family has assembled contacts of people that might be able to help find her father.
“You don’t have institutions that you can turn to that are there to protect and serve the citizens. So, the reality then becomes that it is the citizens who must take matters into their own hands,” she said.
The total number of people who are missing in Libya is unknown, although the figure is believed to have soared after the country plunged into a second civil war in 2014. The economy was in freefall that year, fuelling a business of kidnapping for ransom. The Libyan Red Crescent Society documented the disappearance of more than 600 people between February 2014 and April 2015.
The western area of Warshefana is particularly notorious for kidnappings. One local satirist even joked that if the gangs in Warshefana deposited their ransom money into Libya’s banks, the country’s cash shortage would be solved.
Kidnapping is also rampant in Tripoli, the capital. According to the Interior Ministry of the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), at least 189 people were kidnapped in March 2017, while 68 people were reportedly abducted the following April.
The east of the country, which is mostly controlled by the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA), is not any safer. In the city of Ajdabiya, 121 abductions took place in March 2017 alone. Kidnapping is also believed to be rampant in Benghazi, though exact figures are unknown.
Allebya for Democracy and Human Rights (ADHR), a grassroots organization that was founded in February 2018, told al-Monitor that they are also compiling a database to document the missing. The registry is still in its early stages, but by the end of March, the group counted 60 people who had gone missing.
The children of Riyad al-Shershari were among them. On 2 September 2015, his daughter and two sons – Dahab, AbdelHamid and Muhammad – were abducted in Surman, a town located about 60km west of Tripoli.
A day after snatching the children from their mother, the kidnappers phoned al-Shershari to demand a ransom of 20 million dinars, which is equivalent to more than $2 million on the black market. But when Riyad al-Shershari asked to speak to his children, the militants hung up and never called back.
For the next two and a half years, the al-Shershari family lobbied authorities to help them track down the kidnappers. Anti-crime militias that are aligned with the GNA finally found the gang responsible on 15 March 2018.
Four of the five kidnappers were killed that day, while the lone survivor was rushed to hospital where he fell into a coma. When he woke up on 7 April, he quickly revealed where the children were. When rescuers arrived at the scene, all they found were the children’s decomposing corpses. Authorities believe that the children had been killed months earlier. Dahab was just 11 years old, AbdelHamid was 8 and Muhammad was 6 when they were abducted.
“[Over the last two years], my writings, imaginations and hopes stopped for pain, grief and loss,” wrote Ashawer Alshershari, the children’s older sister, on Facebook. “And in the end, [the fate of my siblings] was death.”
Foreigners have also been kidnapped and killed in Libya. In November 2015, the Serbian ambassador and a fellow diplomat were abducted when their convoy was stopped by an armed group. The two were later killed by a US air strike, which officials say was intended to hit an Islamic State training camp.
Two years later, on 3 November 2017, three Turks and a South African were kidnapped in the south-west of Libya. They were seized and route to a construction site where they were building a power plant. Until now, their fate remains unknown.
While the kidnapping of foreigners in Libya has made headlines, nationals from countries in sub-Saharan Africa are arguably the most vulnerable. Most of them are fleeing persecution, war and famine, pushing them to rely on criminal gangs to take them to Europe. However, since Europe began contracting Libyan militias to intercept boats at sea in February 2017, smugglers have resorted to kidnapping migrants to earn a profit instead.
Jalal Harchaoui, a PhD candidate at the University of Paris and a frequent commentator on Libyan affairs, told Fanack Chronicle that the pro-Qaddafi town of Bani Walid, to the south-east of Tripoli, is well known for kidnapping migrants. Marginalized by the revolution in 2011, residents have been neglected by all competing authorities, giving them added incentive to profit from the chaos.
One man from the west Sudanese province of Darfur, who goes by the name of Mueltazim, told Fanack Chronicle that his brother was abducted by a criminal gang in Bani Walid. Mueltazim’s family was then sent a video, showing militants standing over his brother and melting plastic on his body.
“We can’t afford to pay the [the gang] any money,” Mueltazim told Fanack Chronicle in February, without disclosing the size of the ransom.
Weeks later, Mueltazim learned that his brother had escaped but was not told how. His situation, however, remains precarious. With militias ruling Libya, Mueltazim’s brother has nowhere to go and few places to hide, putting him at risk of being kidnapped again.
“The notion of kidnapping is very common in Libya,” Harchaoui told Fanack Chronicle. “Militias see it as a good way of doing business.”