Libyan Civil War
In this article, we shall discuss the origins of the Libyan Civil War, which began in 2011, and continue to this day. We shall examine how the civil war in Libya began, with particular attention to the fall of the Muammar Gaddafi regime, and the events that followed. We will also discuss the different actors in the civil war in Libya, and also the political events that have transpired in recent years. We will also update the page as new information about the Libyan civil war unfolds.
As has been pointed out, “Today Libya is at war with itself again. It is split between a government in Beida [Tobruk], in the east of the country, which is aligned with the military; and another in Tripoli, in the west, which is dominated by Islamists and militias from western coastal cities. Benghazi is again a battlefield. Parts of its university, where many government ministers on both sides of the new civil war used to teach, have been put to the torch. Across the country people shiver in the cold of freak snowstorms, many without running water or electricity” (Economist, 2015). However, we should understand that there are many actors in the conflict, and it is not limited to two opposition sides. As Wolfram Lacher (2015) writes:
Libya’s second civil war, which erupted in mid-2014, is often mischaracterized as a conflict between two camps, each with its own parliament and government. The reality is considerably more complicated. The actors in Libya’s toxic mix of conflicts include a plethora of largely autonomous local militias, a variety of jihadi groups, and regional powers backing their preferred Libyan clients. The two loose alliances that emerged in 2014 turned out to be fleeting phenomena. Over the past year, divisions in both camps have taken center stage.
Furthermore, in early 2016, a third main political entity, the UN backed General National Accord (GNA) has also claims to be the key authority in Libya. Thus, this article will help explain who the different factions are, as well as what their political and economics interests are in Libya. We continue to update this article as events unfold int eh Libyan Civil War.
The Origins of the Libyan Civil War: The Fall of Muammar Gaddafi
During the late 2010 and early 2011, individuals throughout North Africa and the Middle East began protesting their respective governments. What began in Tunisia, continued in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Bahrian, Yemen, etc…People were calling for the end of their authoritarian governments. And while some of the leaders left without civil war (as was the case in Tunisia and Egypt, for example), other regimes refused to do so quickly. In Syria, we see a continued civil war in which Bashar al-Assad is still working to hold onto power. And in Libya, Muammar Gaddafi was trying to do the same thing. It was only after months of conflict, which included western intervention in Libya that led to the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, who himself was captured and killed later that year in October.
In the early stages after Gaddafi, there were advancements on issues such as elections and additional freedoms not seen under the previous regime (Ashour, 2015). However, things began to deteriorate quickly, particularly with the introduction of power struggles, as well as the rise of the Islamic State, as well as Ansar al-Shariah.
What Went Wrong in Libya?
Since the fall of the Gaddafi regime, Libya has moved to a state of civil war. During the western intervention through the no-fly zone and bombings, rebel forces that were taking ground against Gaddafi began forming an alternate government to the state. The western states were looking to support these rebel forces against Gaddafi, and thus, had military advisors in Libya aiding the rebels (Economist, 2015).
Following the fall of Gaddafi, The National Transition Council (NTC) was establishing its government in Libya. However, despite the formation of the new government, there were still some concerns about the stability of the new political government in the country. Namely, “the judges, academics and lawyers who filled its ranks worried about their own legitimacy and feared confrontation with the militias which, in toppling Qaddafi, had taken his arsenals for their own. By the time the NTC’s chairman, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, arrived in Tripoli, militia leaders were already ensconced in the capital’s prime properties” (Economist, 2015).
There were many things that went wrong in the aftermath of Gaddafi’s death in the country. Much of the blame has been placed on Western countries such as the United States, among others. In fact, President Barack Obama, speaking to the New York Times in 2014, discussed the lessons he learned from Libya.
More recently, he pointed to the lack of planning following Gaddafi’s fall in Libya as his biggest mistake in office.
According to a report from the UK Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, they place significant blame on David Cameron fro the country’s involvement in the Libyan intervention. They argue that the UK’s involvement in the country starting in March of 2011 was based on faulty intelligence, and the intervention has been part of the reason for tensions in Libya (Middle East Monitor, 2016). Those who wrote the report, along with others, have been critical that what began as merely an attempt to establish a no-fly zone in Libby quickly grew to “an “opportunistic” position of working to remove Muammar Gaddafi from power, which is what led to the current instability to Libya today (Farmer, 2016).
In the report, entitled “Libya: Examination of intervention and collapse and the UK’s future policy options“, it also stated that Cameron did not have a plan for dealing with Libya following the overthrow of Gaddafi.
Elsewhere however, other political leaders have been less critical of the intervention, and that the intervention was the cause of the current problems in Libya. For example, speaking to NBC matt Lauer during the Commander in Chief Forum, United States presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was quoted as saying that ““With respect to Libya, again, there’s no difference between my opponent and myself. He’s on record extensively supporting intervention in Libya, when Gadhafi was threatening to massacre his population. I put together a coalition that included NATO, included the Arab League, and we were able to save lives. We did not lose a single American in that action.” She went on to say that ““And I think taking that action was the right decision[,]”” and that ““Not taking it, and permitting there to be an ongoing civil war in Libya, would have been as dangerous and threatening as what we are now seeing in Syria” (Salhani, 2016).
Following this fall of Gaddafi, in 2012, Libya held its first democratic election in the country. And while the General National Congress (GNC) won the majority of seats in July, the Islamists also had a strong electoral showing, winning 19 out of the total 80 seats. However, while the GNC and the Islamists were represented in the new government, many militia groups were not. Thus, some within the government was trying to find ways to give the militias some voice so that they would not use violence for their objectives. However, there were some government actions that unintentionally helped the militias grown. For example,
“The incumbent prime minister, Abdurrahim al-Keib, a university professor who had spent decades in exile, fretted and dithered. He bowed to militia demands for their leaders to be appointed to senior ministries, and failed to revive public-works programmes, in full swing before the revolution, which might have given militiamen jobs. Many received handouts without being required to hand in weapons or disband, an incentive which served to swell their ranks; when the colonel was killed the number of revolutionaries registered with the Warriors Affairs Commission set up by the NTC was about 60,000; a year later there were over 200,000. Of some 500 registered militias, almost half came from one city, Misrata” (Economist, 2015).
And as Wehrey (2014) explains,
“One of Libya’s conundrums is that nearly all the armed groups claim legitimacy from their affiliation with competing organs of the weak and fractured government. Government subsidization of these groups arose from the enfeebled state of the formal army and police. Muammar Qaddafi had marginalized those forces in favor of elite units commanded by his sons, and both the army and police had largely evaporated during the revolution that overthrew Qaddafi. Bereft of a way to project its authority and police the country’s periphery and towns, Libya’s transitional authority that took power after Qaddafi—the National Transitional Council—put the armed groups on its payroll. The chief of staff of the army, minister of defense, minister of interior, and president of the outgoing General National Congress (GNC; Libya’s legislature that succeeded the National Transitional Council) have all at one time “registered” or “deputized” coalitions of armed groups. One result of these subsidies has been a mushrooming of armed groups, well beyond the number that actually fought against Qaddafi.”
It was this quick “localism”, from the early days of the conflict, onwards, that has in part led to further fragmentation in Libya (Lacher, 2015).
In addition, the government itself continued to provide other concessions to the militia groups, which only further increased their individual power at the expense of national unity. For example, “When Mr Keib or the elected parliament balked, the militias simply raided their premises. “The war wounded closed a parliament session for six weeks until we passed a law rewarding them,” recalls Mustafa Abushagur, then Mr Keib’s deputy. In May 2013 the militias forced parliament to pass a law barring from office anyone who had held a senior position in Qaddafi’s regime after laying siege to government ministries. That October militiamen briefly kidnapped Mr Keib’s successor as prime minister, Ali Zeidan” (Economist, 2015). However, before this, the government supported these groups because they offered security at a time when national security did not exist, and when internal conflict between groups was taking place (Wehrey, 2014).
Thus, instability brought about more reliance on these non-state military groups. As Lacher (2015) writes: “Following regime collapse, a succession of weak interim governments fell prey to the multitude of local interests, and revolutionary armed groups evolved into powerful militias that seized state assets and engaged in increasingly fierce rivalries. In the absence of central government authority, one may have expected local representative and decision-making structures to consolidate, local communities to close ranks against external threats and local armed groups to cement their hold over patches of territory. Instead, the fragmentation of the national political scene is now mirrored at the local level. Local elites are losing their key political resource: their ability to speak for their communities.”
However, part of the tension during this time period was also related to historical governance of Libya. Throughout most of the 1900s, Libya was controlled in three provinces, Cyrenaica, Fezzan, and Tripoltania. Thus, there were local influences in these different areas, and some upset at historical actions against them by different groups (Economist, 2015). Thus, different groups formed their own governance structures within their areas. And the governments, looking for various protections, looked to different militias, who in turn increased their power and authority in their respective towns or areas of control (Wehrey, 2014).
Libyan Civil War: 2013-2014
The political divisions were expanding in the country. For example, “In June 2013 the Transitional Council of Barqa (the Arab name for Cyrenaica), a body primarily comprised of Arab tribes, declared the east a separate federal region, and soon after allied tribal militias around the Gulf of Sirte took control of the oilfields” (Economist, 2015). In addition, “In the west, indigenous Berbers, who make up about a tenth of the population, formed a council of their own and called on larger Berber communities in the Maghreb and Europe for support. Port cities started to claim self-government and set up their own border controls” (Economist, 2015).
In August of 2014, a group of hardline conservative Islamists, led by Salah Badi, who used to be a politician in Musrata, attacked the international airports in Tripoli. According to a New York Times report by David D. Kirkaptrick, “Those backing Mr. Badi say his attack was a pre-emptive blow against an imminent counterrevolution modeled on the military takeover in Egypt and backed by its conservative allies: Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.” And “Their opponents, including the militias stocked with former Qaddafi soldiers that controlled the airport, say Mr. Badi was merely the spearhead of a hard-line Islamist onslaught resembling the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and supported by the Islamist-friendly governments of Turkey and Qatar” (Kirkpatrick, 2014).
Libya did have elections in June of 2014. However, they were very different from the elections in 2012. As the Economist (2015) explains, “The elections which followed were a far cry from the happy experience of 2012. In some parts of the country it was too dangerous to go out and vote; in the rest most chose not to anyway, seeing a process now dominated by bullets, not ballots. Such retrenchment has been particularly noticeable among women.” One can see the differences with regards to the elections when looking at turnout figures. In 2012, turnout for the voting process was at 60 percent, whereas in the 2014 elections, it was at 18 percent (Economist, 2015).
To make matters worse, many of the violent Islamist organizations were not happy with the results of the elections. And thus, “[d]ismissing the results, an alliance of Islamist, Misratan and Berber militias called Libya Dawn launched a six-week assault on Tripoli. The newly elected parliament decamped to Tobruk, some 1,300km east. Militias backing the parliament, including those from the Arab town of Zintan, fled to the Nafusa Mountains south-west of the city” (Economist, 2015). And following this, “Grasping for a figleaf of legitimacy, Libya Dawn reconstituted the pre-election GNC and appointed a new government” (Economist, 2015).
For a long time following the beginnings of the Libyan Civil War, the country was split. Throughout Libya, different towns have backed different forces within the country, leaving no centralized power that has control over the entire country. But along with this, various forces were looking overtake Tripoli. The Economist, writing in early 2015, wrote about the situation in Libya, saying:
“So today Libya is split between two parliaments—both boycotted by their own oppositions and inquorate—two governments, and two central-bank governors. The army—which has two chiefs of staff—is largely split along ethnic lines, with Arab soldiers in Arab tribes rallying around Dignity and the far fewer Misratan and Berber ones around Libya Dawn. Libya Dawn controls the bulk of the territory and probably has more fighters at its disposal. But General Haftar’s Dignity, which has based its government in Beida, has air power and, probably, better weaponry.”
Thus, scholars seemed to agree with President Obama’s statements about the importance of state building following the fall of Gaddafi. In terms of what should have been done to possibly avoid the situation that Libya is in today, ““Immediately after the fall of the regime, the West should have pushed the Libyan elite to start a program of national reconciliation and dialogue,” [Karim] Mezran said. “Instead, there was a rush to elections, which compounded the divisions in the country, creating the fragmentation that then evolved into the polarization of 2014” (Boghani, 2016).
Others echoed similar positions. For example, Marina Ottaway, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC was quoted as saying that ““Once Qaddafi was gone, essentially the United States took its eyes off the ball.” She added, “The Libyans at the time were saying the right things, about setting up a constituent assembly, elections, etc., so that we kind of lulled ourselves into believing that things were going in the right direction”” (Boghani, 2016).
The focus on elections, without working on building a united civil society led to further fractionalization in Libya. Other scholars such as Shadi Hamid argue that exclusionary electoral laws (banning former Gaddafi supporters from running in elections) further decreased the chances of post-revolution stability. Hamid states that ““Those types of exclusionary laws aren’t productive at sensitive periods of time when you need to ensure that as many Libyans as possible have a stake in the political process,” and also that A law that excluded even those who eventually turned against Qaddafi encouraged people to turn against the system, he said. “In other words, people have an incentive to undermine the system because they’re not being included”” (Boghani, 2016).
Actors in the Libyan Civil War
Much of the conflict stems around the way different organizations see the future of Libya. There are moderates, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya, as well as secularists, who are looking to set up democratic institutions. This is counter to hardline Islamist groups such as Ansar al-Shariah who are denouncing any notions of democratic governance in Libya (Kirkpatrick, 2014).
The Libyan Government (Tobrouk)
Despite the increased fractionalization of Libya during the civil war the past few years, Libya does still have a national government. Many of them however left Tripoli–on account of heavy fighting in the city–and are now working out of Tobruk in Eastern Libya (Tharoor & Taylor, 2014). The current government was elected from the June 2014 elections (referenced earlier).
But, they have little influence throughout much of Libya, given the rise of various militant organizations. And thus, because of the the instability in the country, and the very weak central power that that government has, they are looking for outside support (Tharoor & Taylor, 2014). In fact, scholars explain that “[t]oday, Libya’s formal armed forces are extremely ill-equipped, poorly trained, and bloated at the senior ranks. In many parts of the country, it is the armed groups, not the army, that control defense ministries, barracks, bases, and ammunition depots. The police force fares slightly better, but it is still unequipped to handle more difficult and hazardous policing tasks” (Wherey, 2014).
While this government was recognized by international actors (ECFR, 2016), this changed in early 2016 following the formation of the GNA, which is a UN-backed government created to help bring stability to the political situation in Libya.
The Libyan Army
As mentioned, there very weak in terms of its power and influence, there is a central Libyan government, and with that, also exists a national Libyan Army. While the rebel forces throughout the country have strong holds on different regions, “The Libyan army is slowly beginning to emerge as a viable, if not yet effective force. The army has been training new recruits and, after Misrata’s militias withdrew from Tripoli in November 2013, has been deployed to provide regular security on the streets for the first time” (BBC, 2014). However, they are still short on seasoned soldiers (BBC, 2014). This will continue to be a challenge for the state, given the increased influence of some of the violent Islamist groups in the country, and the continued divisions between the GNA, the GNC, and the HR.
There is also a group of elite fighters called the Al-Saiqa Forces. This group is “made up of paratroopers and commandos. It initially came to prominence after it was deployed in Benghazi to control the spiralling lawlessness. The force is popular in Benghazi, because of its stance against the Islamist Ansar al-Sharia group and because it is seen as a symbol of the reborn Libyan armed forces” (BBC, 2014). It is important to note that “[m]ore recently Al-Saiqa joined the renegade General Khalifa Haftar who in May 2014 launched “Operation Dignity”, targeting Islamist militias” (BBC, 2014).
The Government of National Accord (GNA)
The Government of National Accord (GNA) is a United Nations created technocratic government working from March 30 of 2016. The GNA is run by the Presidential Council (PC), which operates out of the navy base of Abu Sittah, near Tripoli. With regards to the Presidential Council, “The PC is headed by Fayez al-Sarraj – a former member of the Tobruk Parliament, where he represented a Tripoli constituency – and it was borne out of the signing of the UN-brokered Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) in December 2015. According to this agreement, the PC presides over the Government of National Accord (GNA), which is currently based in Tripoli. The GNA should be endorsed by the House of Representatives (HoR) which was previously based in Tobruk but could move elsewhere to guarantee the safety of its members some of whom have repeatedly reported being stopped from voting and threatened by members hostile to the GNA” (ECFR, 2016). The PC is important since it is “…the body that acts collectively as head of state and supreme commander of the armed forces” (ECFR, 2016). In late August of 2016, the Libya Parliament did not offer a vote of support for the GNA, further complicating matters in the Libyan Civil War with regards to leadership. In fact, according to reports, “…[The]…vote triggered disputes between the supporters of Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj and his opponents in the parliament over the legitimacy of the vote. Members of the pro-Serraj bloc claimed they were blindsided, saying the vote was not included in the parliamentary agenda on Monday. Many Serraj supporters did not attend the session” (Raghavan, 2016).
It was argued that al-Sarraj himself has not had the power to influence other groups within Libya (part of this was evident with the vote of no confidence. For example, Agilah Saleh, who chaired the session, is known to have strong ties to Hifter (Raghaven, 2016). However, other members of the Government of National Accord (GNA) have been seen as much more influential, which has been helpful to provide at least some credibility to the GNA within the country. For example, as the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR, 2016) notes:
“…deputy Ahmed Maiteeq, who served a short stint as prime minister of Libya before being hit by a court ruling, represents the powerful city-state of Misrata, which is the biggest backer of the GNA from both a political and military standpoint. Misrata’s militias were a crucial component in the downfall of Gaddafi and are still one of the two most relevant military forces in the country.
Another important deputy is Ali Faraj al-Qatrani who represents General Haftar who in turn heads the LNA – the other large military force. Al-Qatrani is currently boycotting the meetings of the PC on the grounds that it is not inclusive enough.
Al-Qatrani is a close ally of another member of the Presidential Council, Omar Ahmed al-Aswad who represents the city-state of Zintan in western Libya. Zintan played a very important role in the fall of Gaddafi-controlled Tripoli in 2011 and has good relations today with the UAE.
A third deputy is Abdessalam Kajman who aligned with the Justice and Construction Party of which the Muslim Brotherhood is the largest component while Musa al-Kuni represents southern Libya.
Finally, Mohammed Ammari represents the pro-GNA faction within the GNC (the “Tripoli parliament”), and Fathi al-Majburi is an ally of the head of the Petroleum Facilities Guards (PFG) headed by Ibrahim Jadhran.
Al-Sarraj and the Presidential Council has also been helped by getting the backing the Libyan Central Bank, and also the National Oil Cooperation (the top actor with regards to the Libyan oil sector in the country). Furthermore, they have additional security support from the Temporary Security Committee which, through negotiations with other groups, has allowed the PC to enter into Tripoli to do their work (ECFR, 2016).
There was also a group called the Libyan Shield Force who was established “in 2012 as a temporary vehicle for integrating former rebel fighters into a cohesive national force, but it has clashed with other government-sponsored forces, such as the special forces unit of the Libyan army” (BBC, 2014). While the leaders wanted to use these forces, over time, they increased their own power and activity in Libya, and thus, challenged the influence of the national army (Wherey, 2014). In fact, they were there to put out “fires” between different groups. But as Wehrey (2014) explains, the Libyan Shield has not only increased in popularity, but as a result, there have been less going to work in the national army or police. Much of this has to do with the financial benefits that some receive by jointing the Libyan Shield, where “The monthly government salary for a Shield member exceeds that of a regular policeman and army recruit… In other instances, double-and triple-dipping occurs: because of the system of unregulated, direct payments to commanders of armed groups and the absence of an effective registration system, a young man might be a member of a Shield, his local armed group that had been subsumed under the Shield but still operated independently, and the police all at the same time” (Wehrey, 2014). And while they are technically under the authority of a government military official, “[i]n reality, though, the commander of an armed formation whose men comprise the Shield division calls the shots” (Wehrey, 2014).
And these groups, because they are localized (but still under a government military leader) have local ties, and yet, are able to operate more freely since they have power and influence of a national government. In terms of size, the various sub-groups are usually about 1000 (or less) people. And because of their localized power, there has been conflict even between different sections of the Shield Force (2014). And while there have been some calls to unite the Libyan Shield Force, many within the organization protested this idea, partially because of calls to first give up weapons before a finalized deal was set (Wehrey, 2014).
Thus, because of their local authority, as well as their ability to recruit, groups such as the Libyan Shield Force are seen as much more powerful by than the national military and police (Wehrey, 2014), making national power more difficult to attain. Furthermore, there are tensions between the army and groups such as the Shield Force, where “[t]he senior army officers regard the Libya Shield as an ill-disciplined, highly politicized, and Islamist group. Meanwhile, the Libya Shield sees the regular army as a hollow, corrupt, and top-heavy force. The SSC’s relationship with the police is marked by similar distrust; the police are seen as incompetent and tainted by the legacy of affiliation with the Qaddafi regime. For their part, the police see the SSC forces, like the Shield units, as unruly, ideological, and criminal” (Wehrey, 2014).
Other Libyan Government Forces
There are other forces related to the government. For example, there exists the Libya Revolutionaries Operations ROOM (LROR), whose task it is to ensure that Tripoli is secure. But the group does not have the power it once did given that “its members kidnapped then Prime Minister Ali Zeidan in October 2013. A branch of the LROR was set up in Benghazi to deal with deteriorating security” (BBC, 2014). In addition, there also exists the National Security Directorate, which is the police. And while they are operating in the country, they have been attacked by militia groups (BBC, 2014). Then, there are also anti-crime units, as well as Petroleum Facilities Guards (BBC, 2014).
The “Parallel” Government (Tripoli)
Along with the current government, there are those former political leaders, some of whom are challenging the current regime. There are a group from the former government (that were elected in 2012) that have begun working with some Islamist groups. These individuals do not see the government as legitimate, and thus are not recognizing the 2014 elections (Tharoor & Taylor, 2014). They are trying to establish power out of Tripoli, meeting there (Tharoor & Taylor, 2014). This has posed another challenge to the idea of a unified political state in Libya. However, it is important to note that as of 2016, “The rival Government of National Salvation headed by Prime Minister Khalifa Ghwell – resting on the authority of the General National Congress (GNC), the resurrected parliament originally elected in 2012 – is also based in Tripoli, although it no longer controls any relevant institutions. The vast majority of the members of the GNC (also known as the “Tripoli Parliament”) have been moved across to the State Council, a consultative body created under the LPA which convenes in Tripoli” (ECFR, 2016).
With regards to the this government in Tripoli, “Their military support base is the Steadfastness Front (Jabhat al-Samud) of Salah Badi. While they have received some weapons from Turkey in the past, they were never controlled or influenced by Ankara in the slightest. Initially they represented the Libya Dawn coalition which involves Islamists, the city-state of Misrata, and several other western cities (including parts of the Amazigh minority). Both Ghwell and Abusahmain have been hostile to the GNA and have been subjected to sanctions by the EU because of this. Their support base has gradually shrunk although they still retain some capacity to disrupt al-Sarraj’s activities here and there, particularly if popular support for him decreases or if some of the militias now supporting him decide to switch sides” (ECFR, 2016).
Non-Violent Islamists: The Libyan Muslim Brotherhood
The Libyan Muslim Brotherhood is an Islamist party that has had some presence in Libya since 1949. However, their organization was short lived, particularly with the rise of Muammar Gadhafi in 1969. Given how critical and repressive Gadhafi was against political parties, the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood did not have effectiveness in maintaing influence as an organization, particularly since Gadhafi banned the group from operating in Libya (Ashour, 2015). There were increased attempts by Gadhafi’s government (and particularly his son, Saif Gadhafi), to work with moderate Islamist groups (Ashour, 2015).
Following the fall of Gadhafi, the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood was willing (and began) operating in the Libyan electoral space. However, they have not picked up a great deal of public support, in part because they are not as embedded in Libyan society as the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood (Ashour, 2015), who has decades of experience and social service activity work in the country. In addition, “
Libyan Islamists had to deal with persistent questions about their commitment to democratic values, women’s rights, and toleration of others. The attempt to be inclusive was clear in the party’s conference on March 2-3, 2012. Walid al-Sakran, non-member of the MB, was a candidate for the party’s leadership and five women attempted to join the 45-member Consultative Council. Three were successful. But even if the leadership was committed to pragmatism, the grassroots and sympathizers expect the ideology to influence the behavior. This challenge for the leadership is to legitimate its pragmatic behavior, including coalitions with non-Islamists, to their followers” (Ashour, 2015: 4). In addition, some were also concerned about the direction that the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood wanted to take the country when they advocated for including a reference to shariah in the Libyan constitution (Ashour, 2015).
There are many Islamist organizations operating throughout the Libyan Civil War. One of the violent Islamist umbrella organizations in Libya is a group that goes by ‘The Dawn of Libya.’ This is the group that struck and took over the airport in Tripoli in August of 2014. While different violent Islamist groups are within this umbrella, one of the organizations in Dawn is a group called the February 17th Martyr’s Brigade, which is a very large fighting force in the country (BBC, in Tharoor & Taylor, 2014). According to scholars, this group, along with other violent Islamist groups, “reflect that region’s longtime alienation from the center and increasing embrace of moral piety and purity” (Wehrey, 2014). For example, during the fight against Gaddafi, a group called the Zawiya Martyer’s Brigade were recruiting individuals who were unemployed, day laborers, as well as students. Now, scholars say that these individuals not only do not want to revert back to their previous work, but also that these Islamist groups are not willing to give up their weapons (Wehrey, 2014). Part of their issue is that some for the government’s security still has individuals from the time that Muammar Gaddafi was in power. They are also upset with many governance institutions that they see as historically corrupt. Others still are calling for more Islam within the institutional codes (Wehrey, 2014).
Another violent Islamist organization in Libya is a group called Ansar Al-Shariah. This organization has been active in Libya for years following the conflict in 2011 against Gaddafi. This group “has become one of the most notorious Islamist groups operating in Libya after the civil war that ousted Qaddafi, in part due to its extremist rhetoric but also due to its alleged involvement on the 2012 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi (for which the U.S. designated Ansar al-Sharia a terrorist organization)” (Thakoor & Taylor, 2014). The group’s stronghold is in Benghazi, although their influence does also extend to other parts of the country (Irshaid, 2014).
The group Ansar Al-Shariah do not seem to have ties to the Dawn movement in Libya, and vice-versa (Thakoor & Taylor, 2014). This organization has been critical not only of the moderate Muslim Brotherhood in the country, but also of any notion of a democratic governance structure in the country (Thakoor & Taylor, 2014).
Writing in August 2014, Kilkpatrick explained that “In an alarming turn for the West, the rush toward war is also lifting the fortunes of the Islamist extremists of Ansar al-Shariah, the Benghazi militant group. It has gained ground because other militias and factions are building new alliances with its fighters against common enemies.” Ansar Al-Shariah has held much of the power in the Benghazi area, although it seems that according to reports, ISIS forces have been moving towards that area, along with other parts of Eastern Libya (Cruickshank, Robertson, Lister & Karadsheh, 2015). They have also been very active in terms of proselytization, as well as the providing of social service in Libya (Irshaid, 2014).
There have been questions about whether Ansar al-Shariah has formal ties to the Islamic State. It seems that while this was not the case early on, 2015, particularly following the death of Ansar al-Shariah’s leader Mohamed al-Zehawi, that the group might be more willing to move away from al-Qaeda and more towards ISIS. Much of this has to do with them willing to give up their authority, and also to agree to ISIS positions on issues such as state and institution building, something Ansar al-Sharia has traditionally been opposed to (Moore, 2015).
ISIS and the Shura Council for the Youth of Islam
Fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have also been fighting in Libya. As noted in a February 16, 2015 CNN report, “Fighters loyal to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria [had] complete control of the city of Derna, population of about 100,000, not far from the Egyptian border and just about 200 miles from the southern shores of the European Union” (Cruickshank, Robertson, Lister & Karadsheh, 2015). In 2015, CNN writers also reported that there were over 800 ISIS fighters in the area, and the ISIS forces in Derna not only control the area politically (and in terms of communications, as well as the education in Derna), but the report also states that it is here that they are training fighters in the Green Mountains by Derna (Cruickshank, Robertson, Lister & Karadsheh, 2015).
This town has been a hotbed of radical Islamist activity. Historically, the town has had many Al Qaeda fighters. And recently, ISIS has been active in the town. For example,
“In September ISIS leader Baghdadi helped orchestrate the takeover of Derna by dispatching one of his senior aides, Abu Nabil al Anbari, an Iraqi ISIS veteran who had spent time with Baghdadi, in a U.S. detention facility in Iraq, according to Benotman.
Helped by Abu al-Baraa el-Azdi, a Saudi preacher who has become Derna’s top religious judge, al Anbari’s efforts have borne fruit. In November a new pan-Libyan group calling itself “Mujahideen of Libya” declared allegiance to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, claiming it was sub-divided into three provinces: Barqa, Tripoli, and Fezzan (southwest Libya). The ISIS leader responded by calling all supporters in Libya to join what he called the newest administrative region of the Islamic caliphate” (Cruickshank, Robertson, Lister & Karadsheh, 2015).
However, it is important to note that the Islamic State has been losing control over Derma, where, “After IS fighters took over Derna, a small port in the east, and instituted their savage brand of justice, they faced a backlash and were ultimately pushed out of the city by a coalition that included other jihadists” (The Economist, 2015). And then, according to reports in late 2015, while there has been a strong resistance to ISIS, and one that has been able to push its forces out of most of Derna, there has still been fighting in the Fatayh and Hay el-Arbaamiyya parts of Derna (Habil, 2015). Groups such as Abu Selim Martyrs Brigade–a group affiliated with Ansar al-Shariah–has been at the front of the anti-ISIS activity (Habil, 2015). Following the pushing out of ISIS, citizens in Derna are speaking about the improved conditions, but continue to note that electricity is not consistent, and while food is easier to access, prices are rising (Habil, 2015).
The question that many have when studying the Libyan war is related to how much control did and does ISIS have in the country. According to late 2015 figures, ISIS is said to have roughly 3,000 fighters in Libya. Sadly, there are many reasons as to why ISIS has been able to increase in presence in Libya, as well as control more land, with more recent numbers suggesting that the number of ISIS fighters may have increased to roughly 5,000. As the Economist (2015b) noted in November of 2015: “The group has gained ground there amid the chaos of a civil war between rival governments, and their allied militias, in the east and west of the country. State structures do not exist to counter its rise. Weapons, from rifles to rockets, abound. And the borders are porous.” So, it seems that ISIS is capitalizing on a lack of solidified institutions in Libya, and also because of the ease in which weapons are being acquired. With little serious police or national military force, smaller groups are able to operate without penalty.
As of mid-February 2016, the Islamic State and their allies controlled the city of Sirte, and some parts of the north east coast in Libya, although they lost control of Derna as the LNA, the US, and others carried out strikes and attacks against the Islamic State in areas like Sirte; “Last August, the U.S. military began airstrikes that, along with continued pressure on the ground from the Libyan militias, pushed the remaining ISIS fighters back into Sirte, eventually relegating them to a few blocks of the city. In all, U.S. drones and planes hit ISIS nearly 590 times. Throughout the fall, the Libyan militias cleared building after building, finally reclaiming the city in mid-December” (Kube & Windrem, 2017).
There are also different groups (including ISIS and Ansar al-Shariah) fighting for territory in Benghazi (Economist, 2015b). However, the United States under then President Barack Obama continued the fight against the Islamic State as among his final foreign policy actions in Libya (Kube & Windrem, 2017).
Local Militia Groups
Along with various Islamist fighting forces, there are also local militia groups that have formed in various towns and cities across Libya. Many of these groups were working together in 2011 to remove Muammar Gaddafi from power. However, falling his death, a number of these groups have ended their ties with one another. It has been pointed out that part of this may stem from the lack of national institutions due to Gaddafi’s rule (Tharoor & Taylor, 2014). And as these groups continued to build their own power bases (many within the same city, as has been the case in Tripoli), it has made governing Libya from a unified position highly problematic (Tharoor & Taylor, 2014). Furthermore, rivalries have formed between militia groups. For example, in Tripoli, there are fights between the Zintan militia and the Misurata militia.
The Misurata have been more actively supporting Islamist forces against secular groups (with whom the Zintan are fighting with) (Tharoor & Taylor, 2014). The Misrata militia is viewed as being one of the most powerful, most equipped, and best organized militia groups in the Libyan civil war.
The Zintan, for example, after taking over the Tripoli airport, are using it to bring in weapons from abroad (Wehrey, 2014). And because of the conflict between these groups, they are making any peace difficult to accomplish (Wehrey, 2014). The Zintan Brigades are more aligned with Hiftar and the Libyan National Army, and have continued to fight against Islamists (and their fight has centered on the Misrata militia forces) (Micallef, 2017).
Two other examples of militia groups are the Al-Qaqa Brigade (that ensures the safety of top government leaders) as well as the Al-Sawaiq Brigade, which broke off from Zintan and also offers security for top figures in the National Transitional Council (BBC, 2014). For example, the Al-Qaqa militia began as protecting government officials, but is also believed to have criminal ties. However, “[m]ore recently, the Qaqa Brigade became increasingly political, acting in effect as the armed wing for former prime minister Mahmoud Jibril’s party, the National Forces Alliance (Mlegta’s brother is the head of the alliance’s steering committee). In January, Mlegta’s men threatened to shut down the elected legislature in response to a move to extend the GNC’s mandate by his archrivals, the Misratans” (Wehrey, 2014).
Khalifa Hiftar was a former general in the Libyan military turned “renegade,” who has been active in fighting Islamist forces in the country. Hiftar was living in the United States for over twenty years. Hiftar “took part in the coup that brought the Libyan strongman to power in 1969, only to break with the Libyan leader in the late 80s. He has longstanding ties with Russia, having received training there in the 1970s, but paradoxically also with the CIA. Hiftar came to the U.S. in 1990, along with 300 of his former soldiers, under a CIA sponsored U.S. refugee program. He lived in Virginia for almost 20 years, and in the process also became a U.S. citizen” (Micallef, 2017).
Upon returning to Libya in 2014, he wanted (and tried) to end the GNC, and then placing himself as the top Commander in Chief of a group that he called “Dignity” (Economist, 2015). According to reports, Haftar “declared that he would seize power by force to purge Libya of Islamists, beginning in Benghazi. He vowed to eradicate the hard-line Islamists of Ansar al-Shariah, blamed for a long series of bombings and assassinations” (Kilkpatrick, 2014). In addition, “Borrowing lines from President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt, General Hifter also pledged to close the Parliament and arrest moderate Islamist members. And he has mustered a small fleet of helicopters and warplanes that have bombed rival bases around Benghazi, a steep escalation of the violence” (Kirkpatrick, 2014). However, this upset many moderate Islamists, as well as others who, as a result, have actually worked more with Ansar al-Shaiarh under a new council of “revolutionary” militia groups (Kirkpatrick, 2014).
His Dignity group was gaining various military victories in May of 2014. For example, during this time “Haftar and his supporters had captured the Islamist-dominated parliament in Tripoli, the General National Congress, and announced it would be dissolved. They gained the support of the Qaqa and Sawaiq militias in Tripoli and saw marches of support in a number of Libyan cities” (Tharoor & Tucker, 2014). However, according to some, “Haftar’s offensive ultimately stalled, however, in part due to suspicions about his political ambitions and unconfirmed links to the CIA, as well as his aggressive stance against even moderate Islamist groups. His relationship to the government in Tobruk is ambiguous” (Tharoor & Tucker, 2014).
As Ashour (2015) explains,
Since May 2014, when General Khalifa Hefter declared his second televised coup, the political game in Libya has significantly changed. Before that date, Islamists and their rivals were contesting politics on four fronts: a media front, an election/political institutional front, a judicial front and a controlled hard-power front. The latter front was represented by a balance of terror system rather than a full-fledged armed confrontation. Each political party/coalition was attempting to extend its influence over, and strengthen its alliance with, armed brigades of various affiliations. The May 2014 attempted coup turned that multi-dimensional conflict into primarily an armed one. The majority of Islamist forces, whether from the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood or formerly Libyan Islamic Fighting Group or others, were on the side of the Tripoli government, and a minority of Islamists, mainly from the Salafi-madkhali trend and former jihadist figures, sided with the Tobruk government and Colonel Hefter’s forces (1).
Hifter has continued to grow his power and influence in Libya, particularly as he, and the Libyan National Army were able to take over key oil reserves, which, in September of 2016 included “four crucial oil export terminals in the Gulf of Sirte, Ras Lanuf, As Sidra, Zueitina and Marsa el Brega, as well as the El Sharara and El Feel oil fields, two of Libya’s largest, giving him control of almost all of Libya’s onshore petroleum production” (Micallef, 2017).
He has also been one of the most outspoken critics of the unity government, saying in My of 2016 that he won’t support this government until all militia forces who have ties to the government give up their weapons (Reuters, 2016). In May of 2016, he was quoted as saying that “Firstly, We have no links with Mr Seraj and the Presidential Council which he leads is not recognized by the parliament (in the east).” He also said, “”Secondly, on this unified command center, I would like to stress that Mr Seraj relies on militia and we refuse them. An army cannot unify with militias so they must be dismantled. It’s unthinkable to work with these armed factions”” (Reuters, 2016). He has continued to refuse accepting the unity government.
International Actors in the Libyan Civil War
There are many states in the region and internationally that are keeping a close eye on the developments in Libya, with some taking actions related to the conflict.
Egypt and the Libyan Civil War
Egypt, under Abdel Fattah El-Sisi has been involved with regards to the civil war in Libya. El-Sisi, fighting violent Islamist organizations in the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, has supported the Dignity political movement created by Khalifa Hifter (and Hifter has been as open to support El-Sisi’s approach to Islamists in Egypt). Thus, El-Sisi has provided support to the group (Economist, 2015), as they are fighting against the various Islamist actors in the country, something that is clearly along the lines of El-Sisi’s interests not only in Libya, but also in his own country of Egypt. Radical Islamist forces such as the Derma group within ISIS in Libya “was the prime suspect in a suicide bombing in early November in Tobruk, the temporary home of Libya’s internationally recognized parliament near the Egyptian border” in November of 2014 (Cruickshank, Robertson, Lister & Karadsheh, 2015). In addition, “In November the Derna wing claimed it had previously dispatched nine suicide bombers from Egypt, Libya and Tunisia to carry out attacks against Libyan security forces in and around Benghazi” (Cruickshank, Robertson, Lister & Karadsheh, 2015). However, this was not the only violent Islamist attack in Egypt from Libya. For example, “In July gunmen suspected of being part of Ansar Beit al Maqdis, an Egyptian jihadi group, attacked an Egyptian desert border post, killing 21 soldiers. Ansar Beit al Maqdis has also pledged allegiance to ISIS — raising concerns that it may cooperate with the Islamic State supporters in Libya. Egyptian officials say a significant number of Ansar al Beit’s weapons originated in Libya” (Cruickshank, Robertson, Lister & Karadsheh, 2015).
And on February 16th, 2015, as a result of 21 Egyptian Christians killed by ISIS in Libya, El-Sisi ordered attacks on ISIS. According to the reports, there were two waves of Egyptian airstrikes, going after not only training centers, weapons storage centers, but also other ISIS controlled areas in Derna. Speaking on this issue, The Egyptian Foreign Minister was quoted as saying that “Leaving the situation as it is in Libya without a firm intervention to curtail these terrorist organizations would be a threat to international peace and security” (Mullen, 2015). And El-Sisi was quoted as saying that Egypt “”reserves the right of retaliation and with the methods and timing it sees fit for retribution for those murderers and criminals who are without the slightest humanity” (Mullen, 2015).
If we recall, El-Sisi not only overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood in July of 2013, but he also also arrested leaders of the organization, the military has killed and arrested hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood supporters, and he has labelled them a terrorist organization. Thus, El-Sisi was going after non-violent Islamists in Egypt, but he has also been fighting violent Islamists in the Sinai. And with the strikes by ISIS forces from Libya, he is striking them, in what seems to be the hope that ensuring that this group does not increase its power in Libya.
Qatar and Turkey: The Libyan Civil War
Egypt is not the only state in the Middle East that has an interest in Libya. Qatar was involved in supporting rebels against Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. And after his fall, they have shown an interest in backing political Islamist organizations not only in Libya, but in other parts of the region as well (Tharoor & Taylor, 2014). Other than Qatar, Turkey is also believed to be supporting the Islamists in Libya, although there are questions on just how strong this relationship is.
United Arab Emirates and Libya
There have also been reports that the United Arab Emirates were not only involved in supporting the removal of Gaddafi from power in 2011. However, it is also believed that were active in more recent airstrikes in Libya in late August of 2014. It is believed that they are concerned about rising Islamist influences in the country (Tharoor & Taylor, 2014).
Saudi Arabia and Libya
Saudi Arabia is believed to be providing large amounts of aid in the fight against Islamist forces in Libya. Saudi Arabia does not want challengers to his regional influence, and is believed to be increasing their ties to not only El-Sisi in Egypt, but also Israel in order to ensure their geopolitical interests (Tharoor & Taylor, 2014). However, it is unlikely that Saudi Arabia will be sending in troops in attempts to alter the political landscape in Libya, particularly since their greater interest seems be Iran’s activities in Syria.
France and the Libyan Civil War
According to reports, it seems that France is supportive of General Hafter, and the eastern government in Tobruk. The reason for this, they give, is because of what they view as a growing radical jihadist threat from the Islamic State, as well as other groups such as Answar al-Shariah. It is argued that “France is worried that terrorism in Libya is a real threat that its going to effect France to the extent that some politicians tried to use what happened in Charlie Hebdo affair and link it to Libya to justify an intervention in Libya” (Al Jazeera, 2015).
It is for this reason that some, such as Guma al-Gamaty (in Al Jazeera, 2015) argue that “France has not played a neutral role and has vetoed a lot of positions to settle the conflict that UK and US proposed, so in a way it’s not helping.”
The United States and the Libyan Civil War
As mentioned, President Obama of the United States government felt that he made a significant mistake with regards to the Post-Gaddafi Libya. But despite mistakes following the 2011 overthrow of the Libyan regime by protesters and rebels, the United States has been active in Libya, primarily through selected airstrikes against the Islamic State. However, as of mid-February 2016, there have been discussions about possibly increasing US, British, and other western involvement in Libya. For the western countries, their interest lies largely in fighting the Islamic State. It is for this reason that they have continued to push a unity government in Libya.
In May of 2016, the United States government, along with other state leaders, suggested that they would be willing to provide weapons to the Libyan government in Tobruk in their fight against the Islamic State. According to reports, “Aiming at once to shore up the fragile government, and prevent Islamic State fighters and rival militias from further gains, the U.S., the four other permanent U.N. Security Council members and more than 15 other nations said they would approve exemptions to a United Nations arms embargo to allow military sales and aid to Libya’s so-called “Government of National Accord.” In a joint communique, the nations said that while the broader embargo will remain in place, they are “ready to respond to the Libyan government’s requests for training and equipping” government forces (Jahn & Lee, 2016). As we see, the situation of instability in Libya makes it difficult for a unified government to form, and to effectively fight terror groups. Thus, some within the international community are willing to provide this support in hopes that it will embolden the government.
Of course, this is not without risks. There is no guarantee that supplying weapons will lead to any more effective governance, or that the government has the ability to stamp out the Islamic State. In addition, given the complex inter-relations between government figures, rebel groups, and other organized militias, adding additional weapons–even if it is to the state–is far from being a sure thing to resolving tensions in Libya. Secretary of State John Kerry seems to understand the risks here, calling the objective “a delicate plan” (Jahn & Lee, 2016).
But along with the supplying of weapons, there were also reports on the increased direct US military activity against in Libya. For example, in a May 18th, 2016 report, Nick Paton Walsh of CNN wrote that the US Special forces have been on the ground in Libya. Interestingly, ” The U.S. presence in Libya was acknowledged by Pentagon officials in the past few days, who admitted groups of Special Forces were “meeting a variety of Libyans.” The teams are said to be in action around the capital Tripoli, as well as Misrata and the east of the country.” So, while the United States continues to openly back the government in Tobruk, they are also containing to maintain contacts with other groups throughout Libya (Walsh, 2016).
Then, at the beginning of August in 2016, following requests by the UN-recognized government in Eastern Libya, the United States initiated air strikes against the Islamic State in Sirte, Libya. While this is not the first time the United States has been active against ISIS (carrying out strikes in November 2015 and February of 2016, these ones in August are important to note since “[t]he air strikes are the first such US military intervention co-ordinated with the Libyan unity government” (BBC, 2016). A statement from the Pentagon noted that “”These actions and those we have taken previously will help deny ISIL a safe haven in Libya from which it could attack the United States and our allies” (BBC, 2016).
Impact of the Libyan Civil War on the Population
The Libyan Civil War has had a profound effect on the population in the country. Thousands have died from the fighting, either from direct attacks, or from conflict between different groups. In addition, poverty has risen greatly in the country, and necessities, such as food are hard to come by, along with the fact that prices are rising for these products. In addition, people have often had to wait hours for gasoline. Moreover, basic services such as trash collection are not functioning as they once were (Kilkpatrick, 2014).
In addition, those who are not supporting a particular group face the threat of abuse. There have been many examples of individuals being caught in the conflict. For example, ISIS has captured many non-combatans, executing them because of their religion; they did this with Egyptian Christians who were in Libya trying to find employment in the country (Mullen, 2015).
Recommendations to End the Libyan Civil War
The scholar Frederic Wehrey of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has written a number of recommendations for ending the Libyan Civil War. For example, he stresses the importance of a cease-fire between the different fighting forces. He also calls for the moving of these entities out of cities, and disarming those that have went after civilians. In addition, he also calls for a transitional government that brings in the different voices, as long as all those in the government condemn terror activities. Moreover, he also is calling for a regional agreement (amongst other states in North Africa and the Middle East) that will specifically state that they will not interfere in the situation in Libya. As we have discussed above, different actors in the region have their own political interests in Libya, and are spending money to work towards that objective. Lastly, he recommends the building of the national army and security, as well as demilitarization efforts. Here, he suggests the United States and others help in this process. However, there might be some that will be critical with the U.S.’ involvement in the region, even in this sort of capacity. Thus, another option could be to consider actors from the African Union or the Arab League, although getting support from the Arab League might be an issue given the regional interests by many of the states in the international organization.
2015 Developments in the Libyan Civil War
There have been some important developments with regards to the Libyan Civil War. One of the most noted stories was the political agreement between the various actors in Libya with regards to a unity government. On December 17th, 2015, “Representatives from a broad range of Libyan society today signed a United Nations-brokered agreement on forming a national unity government, a move welcomed by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and his top envoy for the country as among the “essential building blocks towards a peaceful, secure and prosperous Libya,” but also as “the beginning of a difficult journey” along that path” (United Nations, 2015). The hope from this agreement is that the government in eastern and Western Libya will put aside any political differences and form a singular government, as well as invest in singular, national institutions (United Nations, 2015). Right now, part of the problem in Libya is that there are divided power bases, and no significant national services in place.
It would be a mistake to view this development as the end to the Libyan civil war. Instead, many viewed it as Libya “restarting its political transition” (statement made by Martin Kobler, in United Nations, 2015). From there, it becomes essential that the respective powers not only work to come towards a power sharing agreement, but that they also work together to establish necessary national political institutions such as a judiciary, military, and other government related services sectors. In addition, the unity government would have to come up with a policy (and then effectively implement said policy) to defeat the Islamic State. Martin Kobler, who is the Secretary-General’s Special Representative and also is the head of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) noted that ““There is a critical need for national reconciliation and an inclusive national security dialogue,” he added. “Urgent solutions must be found to bolster the Libyan-led fight against terrorism and in particular the threat of Da’esh [also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant or ISIL]” (United Nations, 2015). He also advocated that the different sides work together to help the horrible humanitarian situation in Bengazi, along with other parts of Libya (United Nations, 2015).
However, this unification of the various political entities in Libya has not taken place. Despite the UN attempts at putting together the Government of National Accord (GNA) (which is working out of the city of Tripoli), in August 22nd, 2016, the Libyan Parliament, which held a session in Tobruk, offered a vote of no confidence to the GNA. According to reports, “Of the 101 lawmakers who attended, 61 voted against the government, 39 abstained, and only one sided in favor, according to a statement on the parliament’s website” (Raghavan, 2016).
Attacking ISIS in Libya
A continued push against ISIS forces in Libya has lead to a major victory in the city of Sirte, gaining “complete control of the al-Sarawa area east of Sirte, according to Al-Bunyan al-Marsous, a Libya monitor” (Alkhshali & Dewan, 2016). A range of coalition militia forces–with connection to the United Nations-backed unity government attacked the Islamic State with airstrikes, missile strikes, and artillery (BBC, 2016). According to reports, the forces were primarily militias out of Misrata (BBC, 2016). It should be noted that while the militia saw gains in early June, “This operation started last month, initially only by the armed groups there which felt a growing threat when it appeared the extremist group was edging closer to their city. But they are also allied to the UN-backed government in Tripoli, and are now believed to be jointly-commanded by figures appointed by the government from Libya’s traditional army.”
2016 Developments in the Libyan Civil War
With the Libyan Civil War continuing into 2016, the United Nations has attempted to bring the two respective governments together to accept the authority of the Unity government. However, this has not happened. As mentioned above, the Libyan government in Toubruk has not given a vote of support for the GNA.
Then, in late September 2016, Khalifa Hifter seemed to repeat previous sentiment with regards to the GNA, namely that he and his fighters would not recognize the Libyan government in Tripoli, in Western Libya. Hifter seems concerned that the government in the West is influenced by the Islamists, something that he has not accepted, and has been staunchly opposed to. He has also continued to speak out on what he feels is the importance and necessity of a military leader to run the country. For him, having someone with a military background as the head of Libya will be useful in going after terror groups such as the Islamic State and Ansar al-Shariah.
However, part of the reason that both sides are still unwilling to recognize one another’s authority has to do with their disagreement over Hifter; “The two sides are deeply divided on Hifter’s future role in the country. In the east, he is seen as the kind of strong, experienced military leader who can defeat Islamic extremists and restore order to the oil-rich North African country. In the west, where powerful Islamist militias hold sway, he is seen as a remnant of the Khadafy government — which he once served — and an aspiring strongman” (San Francisco Gate, 2016).
So, in 2016, the power with regards to who runs Libya has been contested by three political governments, which has led to additional concerns about the likelihood of a unified government to get out of the civil war, and that will have the ability and civilian-supported mandate to run the country.
Fighting in Sirte
The Islamic State has continued to lose influence and regional control in parts of Libya during 2016. One of the ISIS controlled cities that militia and government forces have went after is the Libyan town of Sirte. The attempt to take Sirte from ISIS began in May of 2016 (BBC, 2016). Then, in September of 2016, “US-backed government militia in Libya are pushing forward in their battle to expel ISIS from the coastal Libyan city of Sirte, despite ongoing attacks from the terror group” (Abdelaziz, Munayyer, & Vilanova, 2016). The US has been using airstrikes since August, while allied forces have been pushing the ground offensive with the hopes of taking back the area from ISIS. ISIS, having controlled Sirte since 2014, has built this area up. Thus, by being able to take back Sirte, it would be a great blow to ISIS. The fighting in Sirte has been effective for those looking to take the city from ISIS with the government-backed forces being able to reduce ISIS influence in the city (Bacchi, 2016), but all the while, many Libyans living in Sirte have fled. Neighboring Misrata has helped bring in those who have fled Sirte (Abdelaziz, Munayyer, & VIlanova, 2016). As of October 2016, “An estimated 90,000 people, about three quarters of the city’s population, have fled Sirte since it was taken over by Islamic State last year, according to the United Nations” (Bacchi, 2016). Those citizens who remained in the city were greatly affected, particularly regarding access to health (medicine), and also food. According to reports, because of the destruction of Sirte, it would take a long time to re-establish the health facilities in the country. Furthermore, many of the citizens continue to deal with gruesome displays of violence by the Islamic State (Bacchi, 2016).
Fighting in Misrata, Derna, and Benghazi
Meanwhile, government forces have continued the fight with jihadists over the Libyan city of Misrata. The Islamic State has ruled Misrata for over 12 months, but militia forces have waged a campaign to take the city back.
In fact, the Islamic State continued to suffer losses throughout Libya in 2015 and 2016, culminating with the loss of Derna. Then, “On August 1, 2016, in response to a request for assistance by Fayez al-Sarraj, the Prime Minister of the Libyan Government of National Accord, the U.S. launched Operation Odyssey Lightning to help government-aligned forces push IS out of Sirte. AFRICOM, which was charged with the mission, conducted “495 precision airstrikes against Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Devices, heavy guns, tanks, command and control centers and fighting positions.” The operation was officially ended on December 16” (Micallef, 2017).
The Islamic State’s numbers are said to have dropped greatly in Libya; it was reported that there used to be as many as 5,000 Islamic State fighters in Libya. As of mid-February 2017, the numbers are said to be much lower at 200-1000 (Micallef, 2017).
2017 Developments in the Libyan Civil War
The conflict in Libya has continued into 2017, with the United Nations government yet able to gain significant traction in Libya. In fact, the United Nations created joint government has been unable to influence local politics, political groups, militias, or much of civil society. Furthermore, it has little territorial control of Libya. The issue with the joint government was that neither of the governments (the GNC as well as the House of Representatives) are backing this government (the House of Representatives never did), and the GNC and Hiftar have moved away from the government (Micallef, 2017).
Much of the attempts to broker a long-term agreement do seem to pivot on Hiftar, who runs the Libyan National Army (LNA). Hiftar, who again backs the Eastern government in Libya, is seen to be backed by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and also Saudi Arabia. It is also reported that more and more Russia is lending its support to Hiftar (Micallef, 2017).
According to some, what continues to make the Libyan Conflict continue is the lack of clear power authority in the country. As Micallef (2017) wrote in mid-February of 2017, “none of the major armed groups have sufficient strength to overcome the others. While the LNA and the Zintan Brigades collectively control a significant part of Libya, it’s not clear that the Zintan Brigades would support the LNA if renewed fighting broke out between the Libyan National Army and the Misratan Militias. With the Government of National Accord widely seen as being on its last legs and a new round of negotiations to create a new unity government imminent, all three of the main groups have a vested interest in cooperating in the organization, and subsequent division of power, in a new government.”
Humanitarian Crisis in Libya
As mentioned above, there exists a real humanitarian crisis in Libya, and this continues to be the greatest tragedy as a result of the civil war. It is said that there are 2.4 million Libyans impacted by the war and who need some sort of humanitarian aid. In addition, the United Nations believes that there are roughly 435,000 internally displaced persons in the country (United Nations, 2015).
There have been efforts to collect needed aid and other support for the IDPs and others suffering due to the Libyan Civil War. The United Nations, for example, has taken steps to set up humanitarian relief, not only in on-the-ground-work, but also to collect needed supplies for those living in Libya. However, their collection drive is coming up far short. In a February 1st, 2016 report, UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Libya Ali Al-Za’tari was quoted as saying that “With winter temperatures plunging and funding support for the Libya Humanitarian Response Plan (HRP) stagnant, I am increasingly concerned that vulnerable, conflict-affected people in Libya will continue to suffer due to a lack of meaningful and timely support” (United Nations, 2016). He also went on to say that ““The gallant efforts of Libyan organizations, public or civic, whether on their own or with external aid, are not enough to meet the demands of the many affected by the conflict” (United Nations, 2016). He stated that 166 million dollars are needed to adequately help 1.3 million refugees. However, heading into February, they have only collected 2.1 million dollars, which is 1 percent of the total amount needed (United Nations, 2016).
As we can see from the discussion above, the Libyan Civil War is very complicated. As Wehrey (2014) explains, while there are secular vs. Islamist tensions, or conflict between different towns in Libya (such as Zintan or Misrata for economic influence), or conflict between the current government that was elected in 2014, and the one elected in 2014, there is much more happening. Namely, “…none of them alone has sufficient explanatory power. At its core, Libya’s violence is an intensely local affair, stemming from deeply entrenched patronage networks battling for economic resources and political power in a state afflicted by a gaping institutional vacuum and the absence of a central arbiter with a preponderance of force. In essence, the country suffers from a balance of weakness among its political factions and armed groups: no single entity can compel others to act purely through coercion, but every entity is strong enough to veto the others.” Moreover, the ability to rid the militias of weapons is very difficult, and there are stories of how easy it is for these groups to get high tech weapons from places such as social media.
Thus, in order to end the Libyan Civil War, the tensions between these groups, as well as the lack of centralized government will need to be resolved in order for peace to exist. However, this is very difficult to establish on the ground, particularly with years of policies that have only encouraged fractionalization–not only with parties, but militia groups as well.
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