Zuwara: the Smuggling Hub Where No One Gets Caught

Not a single smuggler has been arrested over the past years in Zuwara, the place touted to be Libya’s most prolific sending site for migrants wanting to cross to Europe.

Whenever the question is put to law enforcement officials here, the answer always shifts the focus on the migrants. “We intercepted a boat with 70 migrants just this weekend,” says Anwar Abu Deib, chief of Zuwara’s anti-immigration police section. Yes, but what about the smuggler? Did you catch him? “No,” he says, as his second in command flicks through a thick file with the records arrests made this year. Has any smuggler been arrested since the 2011 revolution? “No”.

It’s a strange response because this strategically-located port city, with its vast, weakly-policed shoreline and access to the Tunisian border 100 kilometres away (by Libyan standards that’s a stone’s throw away), makes it the ideal place to be a hub for smuggling.

Indeed, thousands of testimonies given by migrants over the years to journalists, agencies and NGOs, support the idea that Zuwara is the place to go if you want to take a boat to Europe.

When this is put to the chief, a 45-year-old man with a solid build and a no nonsense look to go with it, he darts back an impish look and shrugs his shoulders: “we do our best.”

He stops short of saying what he really wanted to say. But his second in command says it for him after the interview: ‘have you looked around you? Things are not exactly smooth here’.

Balaclava Interview

You are free to speak your mind: a Zuwara coastguard soldier doubling up as a journalist in balaclava. He was interviewing a Syrian asylum seeker who formed part of a group of 70 migrants intercepted in Libyan waters. The report was aired on a local channel.

And herein lies the problem. Its not that the police officers are necessarily happy with the current state of play but they are thrust in a difficult situation in which chasing smugglers is at the bottom of their priority list. And why should catching smugglers be at the top of Zuwara’s priorities anyway?

The department operates from a centralised station that houses all of the city’s police branches. They do so primarily for security reasons, because police officers are prime targets for random attacks by lone wolves aligned to ISIS.

When asked whether he had ever investigated Zuwarans who had seemingly become rich overnight, Abu Deib get’s visibly worked up.

“Of course, I see these things. I am not stupid, and it angers me. We do our duty here for a pittance every month and we do it for our country, and then you see people who make fortunes out of this business, and it’s not just people that are being smuggled. It’s also drugs, alcohol, fuel, you name it. As I said, we do our best,” he says.

Across town from the police station, the municipality was keen to play down Zuwara’s importance as a smuggling centre.

Councillor Baseem Dahan insisted that the spotlight cast on Zuwara in Europe after the April 19 tragedy in which 850 people died outside Libyan waters, was unfair.

The boats do not just leave from Zuwara, he argued, but also from neighbouring Sabratha and Zawiya as well as further afield, east of Tripoli, from places like Garabulli, and Al Khoms.

All of this is known and even mapped out in official data by the EU border patrol agency Frontex. But the picture developed over the years is that Zuwara’s Amazigh or berber people, are among the most active and on top of the game.

At this point, Dahan was visibly irritated by the suggestion. “People smugglers operate huge networks over many countries, why are the Amazigh being labelled? We are the only people who have protested against this activity. We don’t want it, and we don’t like it. This idea that all Amazigh are smugglers is just wrong.”

When asked if he knew of any smuggler being arrested here, he directs the question to the police. But he returns on that point, echoing the message being delivered by every single Libyan official involved with immigration: “we cannot do this alone, we need help”.

He said the council had commissioned a report which made recommendations on how to deal with migration, with European help. It was commissioned right after the councillors took office in the counrty’s first municipal elections in 2014.

“We spoke to the Italian government about it, we spoke to the German Ambassador in Tunis, but nothing ever came of this”

They asked for equipment, such as 4x4s, speed boats, and help with the detention centres. “All the equipment would be on loan, meaning it would remain EU property, we would simply employ it here in a joint-programme.”

To get a sense of the coastguard’s needs, all you need to do is head for the port, which is littered with large  wooden boats able to carry in excess of 500 people.

Many of them were abandoned by Egyptian fishermen, who left after last year’s clashes in Tripoli, which eventually saw Libya Dawn – a broad Islamist coalition of militias – supplant the internationally-recognised government which is now based in Tobruk.

The coastguard here has one patrol boat which tends to overheat, often leaving its crew stranded and in need of rescue themselves. They also have access to two fast boats, which are on loan from a nearby oil refinery.

But beyond the coastguard’s capability, the scene at the Zuwara port, with hundreds of abandoned boats collected on the quay, supports the point made by Dahan. There may be collusion at some level with the smugglers but if it were so widespread, the boats would not be there.

Wooden boats are more valuable than rubber dinghies and a vessel able to carry 500 people can fetch in excess of €50,000 – not a negligible sum of money taking into account that a coastguard chief is likely to earn little more than 1,000 Libyan dinars (€500) per month.

If there was structured collusion, the boats would all have been sold by now.

Zuwara Coastline

Zuwara’s vast coastline has long been an ideal site for people-smugglers to launch their boats from but it’s not alone, there are launching spots all along the coast right up to Misurata and beyond. Photo: Migrant Report

But Zuwara has not become known as a main hub of smuggling activity this year. It was an open secret that Saadi Gaddafi, the flamboyant playboy son of former Libyan dictator, protected a network of well placed smugglers when the Colonel ran the show, according to local security sources who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Back then the regime exercised control over the number of migrants that would leave Libyan shores. “It used to happen because of two reasons: the first is that security was tighter, they had better control over the territory, the Mukhabarat (Libyan secret service) was more effective at the time and it showed. But there was also Saadi. He could tell his friends, who ran the business at the time in Zuwara, to turn off the tap for a while. And they would,” the source said.

Gaddafi would use his control over the smuggling operations as a bargaining chip which culminated in him demanding €5 billion from the EU, in return for sparing Europe from becoming black.

“What that control meant in practice was that given his son’s interest in Zuwara, only smugglers who had this protection could operate. After the revolution, the market got liberalised, so to speak,” the source pointed out.

Saadi Gaddafi’s financial interests in Zuwara were never properly documented. However, a US cable released by Wikileaks in February 2011, just as the revolution started gaining ground in the East of Libya, revealed his special interest in the city.

“Saadi al-Qadhafi, son of Muammar al-Qadhafi, has recently turned his attention to transforming an area near the western Libyan town of Zuwara into an Export Free Trade Zone,” the cable from March 2009 reads.

“The project would include an airport, immigration and customs operations, a high tech industrial park, banks, medical centers and educational facilities. During a rare visit by Muammar al-Qadhafi to Zuwara late last year, he promised to help bring the project to reality; work began a few days after the visit.”

The sitting Ambassador at the time, Gene Cretz, argued that the son’s involvement meant the project had a greater chance of success but added that the Colonel may have been also driven by a desire to provide tangible deliverables to a leading city of the berbers, with whom his regime had a historically-contentious relationship.

Since then Gaddafi was killed, and his son Saadi is awaiting trial on murder charges. As it happens, Gaddafi’s last play on immigration was made in the dying months of his regime and less than a year before he was killed in his hometown of Sirte. The Amazigh are still thriving in Zuwara but they keep having to contend with their berber heritage coming into play when their city is talked about in relation to people-smuggling.



US Embassy dated March 3, 2009




E.O. 12958: DECL: 3/2/2019




CLASSIFIED BY: Gene A. Cretz, Ambassador, U.S. Embassy – Tripoli, U.S. Dept of State.

REASON: 1.4 (b), (d)

1. (C) Summary: Saadi al-Qadhafi, son of Muammar al-Qadhafi, has recently turned his attention to transforming an area near the western Libyan town of Zuwara into an Export Free Trade Zone. The project would include an airport, immigration and customs operations, a high tech industrial park, banks, medical centers and educational facilities. During a rare visit by Muammar al-Qadhafi to Zuwara late last year, he promised to help bring the project to reality; work began a few days after the visit. As with most business ventures in Libya, there are considerable political dimensions to any economic enterprise. A desire to provide tangible deliverables to a leading city of the Berbers, with whom his regime has had a historically contentious relationship, may have helped prompt al-Qadhafi’s support.

Saadi’s status as a son of the first family may mean that his project stands a better chance of surviving as government budgets are tightened in light of flat oil prices. Although the Zuwara Free Trade Zone is an ambitious and expensive project, XXXXXXXXXXXX Regardless, the Berber-dominated town of Zuwara will benefit from the creation of new employment, both in the construction phase and later in the running of the zone.


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End summary.


2. (C) Saadi al-Qadhafi, a son of Muammar al-Qadhafi, has recently spent considerable time in the predominantly Berber town of Zuwara, located in western Libya near the border with Tunisia. Saadi was married off several years ago to the daughter of prominent regime figure al-Khweildi al-Hmeidi XXXXXXXXXXXX According to residents, XXXXXXXXXXXX Saadi does his own shopping and walks the streets of Zuwara’s small downtown area, usually with a small security detail. A former professional footballer (he enjoyed a single season with Perugia in Italy’s Serie A league, owns a significant share of al-Ahli – one of the two biggest soccer teams in Libya – and has run Libya’s Football Federation) and engineer by training, Saadi’s focus has drifted from soccer to the military (he was briefly an officer in a special forces unit and reportedly did well, but was bored by military life) to movies (he owns the film production company World Navigator Entertainment). He now appears to be focused on developing Zuwara into an Export Free Zone.


3. (SBU) The Zuwara Export Free Trade Zone project was initiated in 2006 XXXXXXXXXXXX to develop the area located between the city of Zuwara and the fishing village of Ras-Ajdar. The latter is located on the Libya-Tunisia border.

The zone is intended to encourage foreign investment and prompt industrial and commercial development and tourism that will contribute to long-term economic growth. In a press release, Saadi highlighted the project as a means by which to diversify Libya’s economy, reduce dependence on oil revenues, create jobs and strengthen foreign investment. The design of the project was assigned to a number of multinational companies, which have developed a phased plan for the project. In late 2008, Emirati Emaar Properties and the Government of Libya (GOL) created a joint venture company to be the main developer of Phase 1, which included developing residential, commercial, industrial, educational, healthcare, leisure and entertainment components designed to attract foreign investment and generate employment.

4. (SBU) If implemented, the Zuwara Export Free Trade Zone would be the first of its kind in Libya. It would have unique

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features such as its own harbor and airport, and immigration and customs offices to facilitate vistors’ entry into Libya, and would be a fully-functioning hub for business investors. In a nod to cultural sensitivity, there would be multi-religious worship facilities in the zone and the area would deliberately cultivate “western style” business laws with which European and American companies would be familiar. Locally-engaged Embassy staff resident in Zuwara have heard credible reports that Saadi has secured agreement to sell alcohol in the zone as part of an effort to make it attractive to potential expatriate investors and business interests. (Note: Libya is technically dry, although there is a thriving black market for alcohol and discreet drinking is tacitly accepted. A number of new hotels in Tripoli due to open soon have requested liquor licenses and believe they may get them, although there is credible reporting suggesting that Muammar al-Qadhafi personally opposes the consumption of alcohol and will not allow it so long as he remains in power. End note.)


5. (C) During a rare visit by Muammar al-Qadhafi to Zuwara in September 2008, he promised to help bring the project to fruition. His visit and interest in the project may have been partly prompted by a desire to provide tangible deliverables to the Berber community, with which his regime has had a historically contentious relationship. In 2007, the GOL showed some evidence of reversing its longstanding denial that any Berber communities exist in Libya and granted permission to the Amazigh (Berber) World Congress to host a large gathering in Tripoli in August 2007. Saif al-Islam al-Qadhafi, son of Muammar al-Qadhafi, and the Prime Minister made high-profile visits in August and September 2007 to predominantly Berber communities and announced major infrastructure investments; however, in March 2008 the GOL hotly criticized a request for Emboffs to visit Berber leaders in Zuwara and in May 2008 Muammar al-Qadhafi denied the existence of an ethno-linguistically distinct Berber minority in a visit to Berber tribes near Jadu (reftel).

6. (C) Within a few days of his al-Qadhafi’s visit to Zuwara, significant work on the free trade zone project began. On a site visit to Zwara in October 2008, Econoff noticed several old buildings being torn down along the beachfront to make way for new buildings. Roads have been re-surfaced in record time and the city’s main entrance from the coastal road leading to Tripoli has been spruced up with palm trees and landscaping.

Local residents have remarked that their town, which had been a bit dusty and shabby, now looks like “an international city”. A project to build another water desalination plant has just been awarded to a Turkish contractor and work has begun, which will directly contribute to the overall standard of living for Zuwara’s residents. There is talk in the town of Zwara that the best building in town, previously owned by the National Livestock Company, will host the new joint venture company that will manage construction of the free zone.

7. (C) Comment: Saadi’s status as a son of the first family likely means that the Zuwara Export Free Trade Zone stands a better chance of surviving as budgets are trimmed in light of flat oil prices. As reported previously, the GOL had initially pegged its 2009 national budget (now being debated at the session of the General People’s Congress currently underway) to a price per barrel of USD 65; however, it recently re-calibrated the budget and significantly reduced outlays on some development projects to reflect sagging oil prices. Although the Zuwara Free Trade Zone is an ambitious and expensive project, Muammar al-Qadhafi likely views it as a relatively small price to pay if it helps occupy the notoriously ill-behaved Saadi and lend a patina of useful engagement to his otherwise less than sterling reputation. Saadi has a troubled past, including scuffles with police in Europe (especially Italy), abuse of drugs and alcohol, excessive partying, travel abroad in contravention of his father’s wishes XXXXXXXXXXXX Creating the appearance of useful employment for al-Qadhafi’s offspring has been an important objective for the regime. Muhammad al-Qadhafi (the oldest of al-Qadhafi’s children, but by his first wife)

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dominates the telecommunciations sector, Saif al-Islam is the presumed heir-apparent and is focused on civil society and political-economic reform, Muatassim is National Security Adviser, Hannibal (another miscreant whose recent misbehavior in Geneva is the cause of the current rupture in Swiss-Libyan

relations) has maritime shipping, Khamis is commanding officer of Libya’s premier military unit and Aisha runs a quasi-governmental organization and helps mediate family disputes. The mystery candidate is Saif al-Arab, who reportedly spends most of his time in Munich, where he is involved in ill-defined business pursuits and spends much of his time partying. Regardless of any desire to appease the Berber community and/or paternalistic motives behind the GOL’s support for the free trade zone, the town of Zuwara and its predominantly Berber residents stand to benefit in the end from the project. End comment.