Ibrahim al-Jathran, a powerful militia leader based in Eastern Libya, has cut off oil flows from the region in recent months and is demanding greater autonomy and control of oil revenues. At the same time, he has begun to build a vast political machine and some are beginning to wonder if his ultimate goal is to seize power.
Ibrahim protecting Libya's oil fields
Ibrahim was one of the leaders on the front lines of the civil war. Young for a rebel leader at the age of 33, Ibrahim spent time in Gadhafi's jails and fought in numerous battles in the war. During the war, he led a militia to conquer the eastern portion of Libya, which contains approximately half of the nation's oil wealth. Ibrahim was initially welcomed into the new government with open arms and made commander of the Petroleum Defense Guards, which protects the country's oil facilities.
Now, at the head of a militia that is believed to number nearly 20,000 strong, Ibrahim has shut down the country's Eastern oil facilities and is demanding more autonomy and more say in the national government. Ibrahim, who shut down the country's eastern oil terminals and wells, has already cost the government some 5 billion dollars, revenue that is desperately needed for the fledgling government.
With Western powers tied up in Syria and facing domestic problems, and the Libyan government remaining weak and fractured, there is no one in the country with the power to challenge him. Indeed, the central government actually lacks a standing army and must rely on militia leaders to muster up armed forces.
Libya rebuilding itself
When those leaders decide not to cooperate, there is little that the government can do except try to negotiate and appease. While Libya still struggling to rebuild itself in the aftermath of the violent and widespread civil war, no leader has yet emerged with the power to unite the whole country. Some analysts, however, are wondering if Ibrahim could turn out to be that unifying leader. His soldiers have proven to be very loyal, and with half of the country's oil under his control, he has plenty of money. If Ibrahim were to choose to seize, there would appear to be few who could challenge him.
While Ibrahim is drawing the ire of the national government and international community, he is gaining popularity among rural citizens. He known for being charming and energetic. His lack of formal education has made him a “rags-to-riches” folk hero. Ibrahim has also been careful not to push an Islamic agenda, though some believe that is his ultimate goal.
Grass roots campaign
At the same time, Ibrahim has been using funds and resources to assist struggling citizens and to build up a grass roots campaign. He has cast aside his military uniforms in favor of business suits and has hired political professionals to handle his messaging and public outreach efforts. These efforts are paying dividends as his power continues to grow.
And yet, his power grows at the expense of the national government's power. Ibrahim has not just been calling for autonomy, he has been positioning himself as the solution to the country's problems. His political campaign has even written a sort of constitution and Ibrahim now appears on television frequently. The national government has tried to isolate him through the tribal system and uniting tribal leaders against him, put Ibrahim's power only continues to grow.
Looking at the developments, it's hard not to wonder if the world is seeing the rise of the next Gadafi, and if Libya could be heading towards another period of control by another dictator. If Ibrahim decides that he really is the solution to Libya's problems, and that the government itself is a problem and must be removed, is there really anyone who could stop him?