About-Faces, Inaction and Policy Void in Libya

by Saul Burban

Since the end of the revolution in October 2011 Libya has been gripped by internal political strife, the post-revolution situation continuing to become ever more complicated and chaotic. In late January this year, a new unity government was created with UN and EU backing, optimistically named the Government of National Accord. It is the latest initiative to ferment some sense of unity in Libya, which has essentially been split between east and west since the end of the revolution. In the west, the General National Congress is dominated by Islamists, while the House of Representatives located in Tobruk is the remnants of the elected government that was ousted from Tripoli in 2014. It has international backing and is comprised mostly of federalists and nationalists. This is only one side of the multi-faceted issue of factionalism in Libya as swathes of territory are entirely outside of either government’s control, occupied by a large number of militias, tribes and warlords, divided by ethnic, religious, regional and political preferences. Even within the governments various individuals vie for a place in future administrations, openly competing with one another.

Added to this toxic mix is Daesh, who since mid-2015 have controlled Sirte and the surrounding coastline. Daesh militants, numbering approximately 5000 (Stratfor, 2016) did not ‘invade’ Libya in the traditional sense. Many rebel fighters travelled to Syria after the conclusion of Libya’s revolution to fight Assad and his forces, notably a group calling themselves the Battar Brigade (Wehrey and Alrababa’h, 2015). This band of fighters eventually professed their allegiance to Daesh before returning home in late 2014 to find a security situation ripe for exploitation. Beginning in the city of Derna, which already had a reputation for extremism, Daesh declared eastern Libya a new province of the so-called Islamic State. In early 2015 they began pushing west, arriving in Sirte in February where they recruited a significant number of defectors from the extremist militia Ansar al-Sharia, which has since also pledged allegiance to Daesh. Subsequently, Daesh have consolidated their position in central Libya by fortifying positions, enforcing Sharia law, beginning the process of state-building, taking the nearby towns of Nofaliya and Harawa, occupying important infrastructure and attacking oil refineries. Daesh territory has been used to train jihadists and launch attacks in the region, notably the murder of 38 European tourists in Tunisia last year.

All of this is cause for concern in the EU and NATO as the situation exacerbates the ongoing migrant crisis which has seen thousands of refugees and economic migrants attempting to gain access to EU territory from the Libyan coastline. The fact that Daesh controls a portion of that coastline lends to suspicions that terrorists are among those making the perilous journey to Europe. Consequently, western armed forces have begun to prepare for a stabilisation mission. British, US, French and Italian Special Operations Forces are already present in the country and have been for some time, training loyal militias, conducting reconnaissance operations, organising weapons shipments to anti-Daesh forces in Syria and setting the stage for a larger intervention (Stratfor, 2016). However, often these different forces are training and equipping militia groups opposed to one-another, thereby “hindering efforts to reunite Libyan politics” (Wintour, 2016). The problem of a fully-fledged intervention arises from UN insistence that a formal invitation was needed from the GNA. Since the revolution various Libyan political bodies have insisted they do not want ‘boots on the ground’, and so far this has been heeded, but the continued lack of a coherent and unified Libyan government body, increasing pressure on the Italian state from the migrant situation and further Daesh advances in the region may force the west to intervene regardless of Libyan wishes.

If experiences of intervention operations in the Islamic world over the last ten years are anything to go by, a formal military intervention by western armed forces will no doubt create another quagmire that will have lasting regional implications and tie down armies (especially smaller European armies) to the North African region for the foreseeable future. This is an important factor to be considered at a time when flagrant military posturing in Eastern Europe is becoming a requirement. Alongside, such an intervention might have the ironic consequence of uniting Libya’s fragmented political and military factions against the West.

There has, however, been a shift in the political rhetoric surrounding Libya as very recent developments appear to have postponed such an intervention indefinitely. Italy was the principal supporter and instigator of the idea of a formal military intervention, however those plans appear to have been shelved as a statement was made in the Italian senate in late April implying that such an intervention was not “on the agenda” (Associated Press, 2016). On May 16th US Secretary of State John Kerry stated that a military intervention has been ruled out, with the focus being on developing Libya’s innate capacity to deal with terror threats on its own instead (Crabtree, 2016). This will no doubt entail continued deployments of Special Operations Forces and intelligence operatives as training teams, force multipliers and liaisons, which is increasingly becoming the norm. Additionally, Kerry stated there was a plan in place to “arm and equip” further newly established Libyan forces in the battle against Daesh (Chicago Tribune, 2016).

The developments in Libya this year can be seen in a broader context as the flip-flopping of preference in the west for a doctrine of formal armed interventions versus a more subtle strategy of arming and training local forces while concurrently providing ‘advice’ in the form of covert Special Forces. This no doubt ties in with the waxing and waning political will to do something about Libya. Since Libyan forces have recently begun a campaign against Daesh the pressure to act has been reduced somewhat compared to earlier in the year when an intervention was being seriously considered. However it also reveals the distinct lack of a coherent plan. The only observable and consistent objective appears to be destroying Daesh. This is no doubt an important goal, but as Libya slips further and further towards being a failed state a purely military solution is looking increasingly inadequate. Post-Revolutionary Libya was always insistent that they wanted to build their nation with minimal foreign support, but their continued inability to create a stable successor to Gaddafi’s Libya now has regional and international consequences with no end in sight. The international community’s reliance of doctrines similar to those used in Iraq and Afghanistan have also proven inadequate. Perhaps it is time to forge a new strategy distinctly tailored to Libya’s problems instead of this one size fits all approach.


Associated Press, ‘Italian Official: No military intervention planned for Libya’, Associated Press, 26.04.2016, http://bigstory.ap.org/article/f6ff6bf127c74884a424b9fa7b144708/italian-official-no-military-intervention-planned-libya [Accessed 25.05.2016].

Chicago Tribune, ‘Editorial: US right to arm new Libyan government in fight against Islamic State’, Chicago Tribune, 17.05.2016, http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/editorials/ct-libya-islamic-state-20160517-story.html [Accessed 25.05.2016].

Crabtree, S., ‘World powers are “ready” to arm Libyan government’, Washington Examiner, 16.05.2016, http://www.washingtonexaminer.com/world-powers-are-ready-to-arm-libyan-government/article/2591418 [Accessed 25.05.2016].

Stratfor, ‘In Libya, The West Heeds the Call of Intervention’, Stratfor, 19.01.2016, https://www.stratfor.com/analysis/libya-west-heeds-call-intervention [Accessed 03.05.2016].

Stratfor, ‘Clashes Continue, Regionally and Locally’, Stratfor, 04.05.2016, https://www.stratfor.com/analysis/clashes-continue-regionally-and-locally [Accessed 05.05.2016].

Wehrey, F and Alrababa’h, A., ‘Rising Out of Chaos: the Islamic State in Libya’, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 05.05.2015, http://carnegieendowment.org/syriaincrisis/?fa=59268 [Accessed 05.05.2016].

Wintour, P., ‘Foreign Ministers hold Vienna Talks as Isis threat to Libya grows’, The Guardian, 16.05.2016, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/may/16/libya-ministers-vienna-plan-help-government-gain-foothold [Accessed 25.05.2016].

Edited by Johana Franz Palacios and Scott Forsyth

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *