The EU is supporting Libyan border security troops near Ghadames, but local members of the military complain of unclear structures and insufficient equipment. They put the blame on the government in Tripoli.
Ethnic tensions have resurfaced in Ghadames, which lies near Libya's border triangle with Tunisia and Algeria, since the 2011 revolution that ultimately deposed Moammar Gadhafi. The minority Tuareg population in Ghadames has been accused of committing atrocities against other locals and in support of Gadhafi, leading to retaliatory attacks against the Tuareg.
The situation often seems deceptively peaceful inside the town, but lawlessness reigns just outside the city limits. Extremist and criminal networks are expanding in the region.
'Drugs in, weapons out'
The Libyan army is still growing into its tasks more than two years after the revolution against Gadhafi, and it has had only limited success in integrating former rebels. Effectively controlling the country's borders remains beyond the army's capabilities.
"Large segments of the 1,000-kilometer long border to Algeria are nearly inaccessible. The border triangle represents an additional challenge. How are we supposed to be able to patrol this entire area?" said one border commander, who asked to remain anonymous.
The border guards are nominally part of Libya's army, but thus far consist primarily of more or less autonomous brigades.
The commander is blunt about the troubling situation, saying, "Drugs are flowing into the country, weapons out. The Algerian side is teeming with al Qaeda fighters who are profiting from it all."
Gadhafi's arsenal in extremist hands?
The forbidding landscape near Ghadames helps explain the region's border security problems. Located 600 kilometers (372 miles) from Libya's capital, Tripoli, Ghadames lies just north of the Red Hamada, an uninhabited rocky desert in which oil production takes place. North of the oasis town, the desert opens into mountains.
"The smugglers know their way around very well and select unpredictable routes through the dunes and valleys," explained the border commander, adding that the groups are now heavily armed, unlike before the revolution. "If we were better equipped, we could at least send convoys out into the immediately surrounding areas."
Tripoli and its international partners are aware of these problems. Currently, Libya's government is considering the purchase of a satellite-controlled surveillance system for the border regions.
Thus far, the military's attempts at surveillance using fighter jets that periodically circle the region have been ineffective at identifying smuggler convoys, say border control agents who prefer to remain anonymous. They also say that helicopters would be better suited to the task but would face the added risk of being able to be shot down from the ground more easily.
Thousands of portable ground-to-air missiles from Gadhafi's arsenal that could shoot down aircraft have gone missing. It's feared that they've now landed in the hands of extremist groups.
Lacking 'concrete results'
The Libyan government is working on strengthening its ground troops. More than 1,000 border guards are currently undergoing a months-long training program. Hundreds of cadets have already completed it, and are now set to replace the brigades operating at Libya's outer areas. The question, however, is whether those brigades will be prepared to part with their responsibility.
The European Union is supporting Libyan officials in working out a strategy for border management as part of the EU's border assistance mission, EUBAM. The cabinet of Germany's government also decided in the summer to lend support to the mission by sending federal and state police officials.
In Ghadames, EUBAM security experts have already conducted a number of specialized training courses for customs officers and border agents.
"The British, the Germans, the UN - every possible delegation has already been here. But there have yet to be any concrete results," claims the border commander in Ghadames. The military blames the country's leaders in Tripoli, he says, who enjoy relative security and fail to provide clear structures.
Nonetheless, many here hope for continued technical and logistical help from the international community.
At the official border passage to Algeria, 15 kilometers from Ghadames, there's little excitement. The smugglers' routes don't pass by here.
"It's a daily average of two trucks that cross the border," remarked a police officer sitting in the shade of a building at the juncture.
That excludes the Algerian migrants, who Libyan border officials report as crossing into the country by the dozens on a daily basis. They are seldom stopped, since hardly anyone seems prepared to take on the responsibility for doing so.
Ghamades, once a bustling trade hub, sees little activity these days. The town survives on agriculture and high subsidies from the state. Prior to the revolution, tourism also served as an important source of local revenue. UNESCO declared Ghadames' historic old town as a World Heritage site in 1986. The continuing instability and security risks in the region make it unlikely that tourists will be coming back anytime soon.