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Libya’s security deficit in a regional context


Since the 2011 revolution Libya has spiralled into a state failure characterised by political contestation, increasing criminality and violence, and the apparent exodus of its civilian population fleeing the dire situation of the country’s present and the hopelessness of its future. The lack of border security has enabled the creation of a highway of smugglers moving weapons, goods and people through the country and into the Mediterranean region beyond. The current government’s inability to control the numerous armed groups within its borders has contributed to the proliferation of criminal activities through which these groups sustain themselves. In southern Libya, tribal militias have been vying for control over the smuggling routes, further exacerbating the violence in the area.


Libya is split between competing political actors and militias vying for territorial control and recognition at the expense of the population. The country’s problems, however, have spilled over its borders into neighbouring countries and overseas into Europe. Terrorists and smugglers exploiting this weakness risk destabilising adjacent nations. Despite the evident crisis, countries in the Mediterranean region have been reluctant to act in concert, opting instead to reinforce their own borders where possible. This policy brief will show that the lack of political foresight by countries in the Maghreb, in the Middle East, and indeed in Europe has permitted the situation in Libya to worsen. If Libya is to have any hope for a stable future, a pragmatic approach is necessary, including a wider commitment to negotiations between the main domestic political actors, as well as national and international investment to rebuild the main institutions of governance.



Like many other revolutions in history, the Libyan revolution of 2011 turned into a civil war that has yet to run its course four years later. In February 2011 popular protests against the arrest of a human rights activist in Benghazi became violent when security forces fired live ammunition at the demonstrators. Faced with yet another example of state repression, and inspired by similar popular demonstrations against the government in nearby Tunisia and Egypt, the people of Libya rose up in defiance of the 42-year rule of Muammar Gaddafi.


As the uprising spread to other cities, Gaddafi ordered his troops to use increasingly violent measures to restore peace to the country. The United States, United Kingdom and France soon called for the violence to cease and seized the opportunity to demand that Gaddafi relinquish power. When it became evident that the Libyan dictator was succeeding in crushing the uprising, NATO decided to intervene in support of the opposition and to violently remove Gaddafi, under colour of the ‘responsibility to protect’ (R2P) and UN Resolution 1973.


While France and the US unilaterally led the first airstrikes, the operation was soon handed over to NATO. Under the aegis of Operation Unified Protector in command of all coalition military operations supporting the rebels and dealing with Gaddafi, NATO was empowered to enforce an arms embargo. The international intervention was key to the survival of the uprising, although the conflict between the Libyan government and the rebels still continued for several months. Efforts to reach a negotiated settlement failed repeatedly, and Gaddafi, his son and members of the regime faced arrest warrants issued by the International Criminal Court. A ‘roadmap’ proposed by the African Union and embraced by Gaddafi was rejected by NATO and the rebels. In August 2011 the tide turned as the rebels launched an offensive on Tripoli and surrounding towns, winning a number of battles with the support of NATO airpower. In October Gaddafi was captured and killed by rebel forces, effectively ending his regime.


Institutional Failure

In the immediate aftermath of the revolution, Libya appeared unexpectedly calm. The National Transitional Council (NTC) led by former Minister of Justice Mustafa Abdul Jalil was recognised by the UN as the legal representative of Libya. There was very little post-conflict reconstruction and limited foreign involvement in the country, despite the evident threat early on that “anti-Gaddafi militias [might evolve] into armed wings of political factions” (Chivvis 2014:28)


The transfer of power from Gaddafi to the NTC was nothing short of a revolution for Libya, entailing a complete upheaval of political institutions. As with many revolutions, this created an opportunity for other actors to exploit the inexperience of the interim government and grab power for themselves with the help of the panoply of weapons available throughout the country. To make matters worse, the damage to infrastructure resulting from the conflict required significant investment from both the state and the international community, a difficult task in the unsettled security environment.


The three core institutions of the state – the legislative, executive and judicial branches – were severely affected by the revolution. The government of Libya was entrusted to the NTC, itself was made up of defectors from the regime. The legitimacy of the NTC was guaranteed not by the Libyan people, but by the international community. In fact, the NTC’s inexperience and lack of popular support led to its dissolution just 10 months after taking power.


Part of the failure of the NTC lay in its inability to bring security to the country. A former colonel himself, Gaddafi’s perpetual fear of a military coup had left the armed forces in shambles. He had purposefully weakened the army, preferring to employ paramilitary groups to impose his rule. Before the civil war its numbers barely totalled 20,000 men (Gaub 2013),  and its defeat in the civil war had completely demoralised the institution. Much of its equipment was also badly damaged: the navy had been heavily targeted by NATO airstrikes, and the air force fared little better, with some equipment still functional but the operatives poorly trained. The police force was in a similar state of disarray, further disabling the NTC to restoring security to the country in a reasonable time frame. As a result, well-armed militias not firmly under central command were entrusted with upholding the ‘rule of law’ locally.


The judicial sector was as badly damaged by the former regime and in the subsequent revolution. A litany of human rights abuses and a culture of impunity had left the institution discredited and in dire need of reform. As no courts were operational during and immediately after the civil war, communities resorted to traditional justice mechanisms such as tribal courts and religious leaders. Attempts by the government to restore the judicial system in Libya stalled due to a pervasive fear among judges, lawyers and prosecutors, so that “criminal and transitional justice case progression [continues to be] severely curtailed by the current security environment and breaks in the penal chain from weak policing” (Mangan 2014).


The overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi left Libya politically fragmented, as conflicting stakeholders made claims for power and territory. The so-called ‘rebel army’ was largely based in Benghazi and remained in the east for most of the war. The actual defeat of Gaddafi was achieved by spontaneously organised rebel groups in the west from Misrata and the Nafusah Mountains. At the end of the war there were several hundred armed groups in Libya: in Misrata alone, 236 revolutionary brigades were registered with the Misratan Union of Revolutionaries, which included at least 40,000 members (McQuinn 2012). One estimate puts the number of paramilitary and small fringe groups at over 1,700 (Pike 2015). Insubordinate militias continue to challenge the authority of the Libyan government.


The military fragmentation of the country led to a breakdown in governance in August 2014, following the June parliamentary elections. More than 1,600 candidates ran for 200 seats, evidencing the fierce political competition within the country. Although the Islamist candidates were largely rejected by the electorate (which made up just 25% of the population), a coalition calling itself Libya Dawn attacked Tripoli; expelled the newly elected government; and reinstated the previous administration, known as the General National Congress (GNC) headed by Prime Minister Omar al Hassi. The ousted Cabinet, called the House of Representatives (HOR) and led by Prime Minister Abdullah al Thinni, fled to Tobruk, where they continue to enjoy the support of the West as the ‘legitimately elected’ government. Libya now has two rival governments, neither of which controls the whole of the vast territory of the country.


To add to the difficult task of restoring security, in the four years since the end of the civil war, Libya has been inundated with weapons. Ever distrustful of his army, Gaddafi had accumulated and hidden an enormous cache of weapons during his time. These included rifles, mines, shells and surface to air missiles. These stockpiles of weapons have since been looted and put at the disposition of ambitious tribal militias, terrorist groups and insurgents well beyond Libya’s borders. Private tribal militias now control 75% to 85% of the weapons in the country.


The problem of arms proliferation is made worse by the huge expanse of land belonging to Libya and the porous nature of its borders. With an area of 1.8 million square kilometres, Libya is the 17th largest country in the world. It shares over 4,400 kilometres of borderlands, each with its own security problems, with six countries: Tunisia, Algeria, Chad, Niger, Egypt and Sudan. As a result, Libya has become “the arms depot of the Middle East” (Avni 2014).


Libya is floundering under lawlessness and the ongoing stalemate between the two putative governments. Unable or unwilling to restore security, both the HOR and the GNC have left Libya exposed to opportunistic non-state actors, who have spread across Libya’s borders to destabilise neighbouring states.


Regional security environment

The vacuum of power in Libya has opened up inroads for criminals in a strategically important part of the world. At the crossroads between Europe, Africa and the Middle East, with a coastline 1,770 kilometres long, Libya is difficult to patrol in the best of times. Under Muammar Gaddafi Libya was effectively a police state. Challenges to the regime were put down with ruthless tactics, including indefinite detention, torture and enforced disappearances. This, however, at least served as an efficient deterrence to the many destabilising tendencies. Gaddafi was an eccentric and unpredictable leader, but he was also the product of local and regional dynamics, and brought a certain amount of authoritative power and discipline to the complex environment of North Africa. His death left a power vacuum in the midst of a very volatile region. Since 2011 the region has experienced one of its most challenging periods in modern history, with a constant ebb and flow of uprisings, terrorist groups and smuggling networks. This has all been worsened by the weak regimes and political upheaval that has been taking place in neighbouring countries.




The Libyan civil war prompted a security crisis in Tunisia. Both countries underwent weak governments in the aftermath of their revolutions, leading to a loss of control over the territory outside the capital and other large cities. Tunisia’s security forces have been debilitated since the fall of the Ben Ali regime, limiting their capacity to exert force and deter violence by non-state actors. Indeed, a leading concern in Tunisia is the rise of extremist groups and terrorist activities, which have been feeding off the smuggling routes between the two countries.


Tunisia is the number one supplier of foreign fighters who have easy access to Syria through Libya and Egypt, and militant groups in neighbouring Algeria and Libya linked to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and more recently to ISIS/the Islamic State have driven the demand for weapons smuggled through the country. The two attacks against the Bardo Museum and in Sousse in 2015 have effectively crippled the tourist industry and signal a turn for the worse in the country’s security situation. In addition, militias in the south of Tunisia have linked up with criminals and traffickers along the border to create cartels competing with Libyan groups for a piece of the trafficking market. This leads to sporadic violence and illegal roadblocks, complicating overland travel and trade between two countries which historically have had strong economic ties. Consequently, Tunisia has become “the corridor for the trafficking of Libyan weapons” (Bakrania 2014) to northern Mali and Algeria, raising the stakes and expanding the opportunities for criminal organisations. In January 2013 two large arms depots discovered in Medenine on the route from Libya testified to the capacity of smuggling operations in Tunisia.


The Tunisian government has resorted to the desperate expedient of building a wall along the 495-kilometer border, after it transpired that the Bardo and Sousse attackers had been trained in terrorist camps in Western Libya. The threat of Libya’s derailment to Tunisia’s security situation is evident. It is doubtful that the wall will be effective, given the many smuggling routes that reach Tunisia from the Algerian side, albeit with relatively less ease than through the eastern border with Libya. Further complicating the picture, a principally domestic Tunisian problem has been the recruitment of idle young men by terrorists and the rise in Salafi preachers. While Libya may offer them a convenient and safe access to training and weapons, Tunisia’s future depends more on how it addresses issues such as youth unemployment and growing radicalism than on its relations with its neighbours.




The end of the civil war led to an exodus from Libya of Malian Tuaregs, who had been recruited by Gaddafi to serve as mercenaries. They returned to their country with a lot of military knowhow and equipment, and ambitions for forming their own autonomous region. From early 2012 the Tuaregs engineered the ‘liberation’ of the north of Mali under the banner of the MNLA (Mouvement National pour la Liberation de l’Azawad). The Tuaregs’ superior armament enabled them to push the national security forces out of the area, eventually triggering a coup d’état by junior officers in protest of the lack of government support. This in turn precipitated the downfall of the democratically elected President, Amadou Touré.


The Tuareg rebellion went horribly wrong, however, owing to the blowback from its alliance with two Islamist groups: Harakat Ansar al-Dine (meaning ‘movement of defenders of the faith’), and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), a splinter group of AQIM. The Islamists, insisting on implementing Sharia law under their rule, effectively hijacked the separatist movement to fulfil their own politico-religious agenda. This eventuated in a split with the MNLA, who in January 2013 declared that it did not support ‘extremism or terrorism’ and welcomed France’s intervention as a better opportunity to voice its legitimate political grievances.


Between April 2012 and January 2013 Islamist groups were for all intents and purposes in political and military control of a territory the size of France in northern Mali. This empowered the Islamists to accumulate capital during the brief period of their rule: they developed their criminal networks, including drug and human trafficking, smuggling of arms and cigarettes, and kidnap for ransom. These enterprises provided them with an independent source of revenue to finance training camps in Mali and to invite like-minded organisations to meet in the town of Gao. In Timbuktu AQIM ran a sophisticated training camp for multinational terrorists.


The Islamist utopia collapsed in January 2013 under a French-led military intervention. The founding of an official terrorist state – the first of its kind in the Westphalian system – galvanised an international response that appears to have been as efficient as it was swift. France deployed 4,000 soldiers to the succour of the Malian army, and a further 6,000 ECOWAS troops, led by Nigeria, supported the Franco-Malian effort. French air power bombarded the Islamists’ positions and demolished their training camps. Nevertheless, the Islamic State of Azawad in northern Mali opened a window of opportunity for Islamist groups, inspiring them to create their own fiefdoms, as evidenced in the shared ambitions of the Islamic State now establishing its presence in Libya and Tunisia.


Although Mali has returned to tenuous civilian control, the country remains fragile and arguably ungovernable. Various extremist groups continue to operate in the northern parts of the country and cross freely into neighbouring Niger and Algeria, making use of the Sahel to replenish their largely Libyan arsenal over well-established smuggling routes. They regularly mount attacks against the Malian army and UN-MINUSMA peacekeepers stationed in the area, and have kidnapped a handful of NGO workers. In March 2015 assailants launched a complex attack on a UN base and a popular restaurant in Bamako, illustrating the continued ambitions and capabilities of terrorists in the region.






Egypt is arguably the country most vulnerable to Libya’s change in fortunes. According to certain reports, there are up to 12 ‘Afghan-style’ camps in Libya currently training would-be Egyptian terrorists (Christiani 2014). In these camps Islamists from the Sinai have been meeting international jihadis, exchanging knowhow and gaining access to sophisticated matériel that can be deployed against the Egyptian government. Seen against the backdrop of the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013 and the rise of Islamist militancy in the country, the mere existence of (let alone easy access to) these training camps is of particular concern to the Egyptian government.


Arms from Gaddafi’s cache have been smuggled in abundance into Egypt’s Sinai, with a shipment route having been discovered along the north coast of Egypt. This has empowered local and ISIS militants to operate in the Sinai, as evidenced by the increasing number of attacks launched against Egyptian security forces. The smuggling networks between Libya and Egypt are all the more developed thanks to the two countries’ historical ties. Before the civil war more than two million Egyptian migrants were working in Libya (Migration Policy Center 2013). Many have fled back to Egypt, exacerbating their country’s unemployment problem and creating recruitment opportunities for terrorist groups.


Egyptians who remained in Libya are vulnerable to the country’s chronic instability. A video released by ISIS militants in February 2015 showed the decapitation of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christian migrants who had been kidnapped in the city of Sirte where they had been working. They fell victim to the lawlessness characteristic of present-day Libya. Egypt retaliated by launching air strikes against an ISIS facility in Libya and calling for further international interventions (which so far have conspicuously failed to materialise).


Fearing that Libya is becoming a safe haven for Egyptian militants, and faced with the undeniable expansion of ISIS across the region, Egypt has turned to the thankless task of developing its largely ungoverned, 1,115 kilometre-long border with Libya in a bid to shore up security. Egypt has reportedly been buying communications equipment, mobile surveillance sensor towers, mobile command-and-control systems, a regional command-and-control system, and a personnel training package from the US Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA). It has also vowed to deepen cooperation with Libya, although which of the two governments, the HOR or the GNC, is best positioned to perform is arguable. This dual power problem is likely to prove a lasting obstacle to building security along the borders.




Similarly to other bordering countries, the security situation in Algeria has been deeply affected by the conflict in Libya. The 989-kilometer border between the two countries has been largely unmanned since the fall of Gaddafi, leaving Algeria open to weapons trafficking and the penetration of Islamist extremist groups like ISIS.


The state of affairs is aggravated by Algeria’s prior experience with domestic terrorists. Between 2000 and 2010 there were 938 terrorist attacks inside Algeria’s borders, testifying to enduring socio-political tensions (Uppsala Conflict Data Program  2015). The country has suffered a long history of violent terrorist groups who have availed themselves of the vast desert in the south – (Algeria is the largest country in Africa) – to harbour smuggling operations, terrorist training camps, and radicalisation programmes aimed at overthrowing the Algerian state.


Algeria has been the incubator of Islamist terrorist groups like the Groupe Islamique Armé (GIA), the Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat (GSPC), Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Mouvement pour l’Unicité et le Jihad en Afrique de l’Ouest (MUJAO). These groups are able to move about relatively freely in North and West Africa, having built up networks with like-minded organisations and installed Algerian nationals as leaders in other Islamist groups – in Mali for example.


Libya’s impact on terrorism in Algeria was crystallised in the attack on the gas facility at In Amenas in January 2013 by a splinter group of AQIM led by Algerian terrorist Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who was able to procure weapons and vehicles from Libya. The attackers infiltrated the gas facility in Algeria undetected and unimpeded through the Libyan Desert, crossing the border just 80 kilometres from In Amenas. Thirty-nine foreigners taken hostages out of the 800 people working at the facility died, in addition to all of the militants, who were killed in the counterstrike of the Algerian Special Intervention Group.


While Algeria has stuck to its policy of non-intervention in the region (a remnant of its colonial experience), it has expressed grave concerns over the instability emanating from neighbouring Libya. Algeria’s response must also be understood in the context of its relations with Morocco, which remains one of its priorities, particularly with regard to the status of Western Sahara. Between diplomatic tensions to the west and the constant flow of violent actors from the south, Libya is merely the latest annoyance.


Algeria did become active enough to unite with Niger and Chad to encourage Libya to resolve its domestic problems politically. The summer victories of ISIS-inspired militants in West Libya, however, can only alarm the neighbourhood, although there seems to be very little political will on the part of Algeria or indeed other regional actors to go beyond increasing border security and intervene directly in Libya. Finally, the competition between the HOR and the GNC governments has aggravated an already complex security problem. Any concerted security operation, whether internal or along the borders, will require the cooperation of both players in order to have any chance of success.


The Way Forward


Libya’s neighbours are unwilling to take any decisive military or political action to stabilise the Mediterranean region. Intervention is viewed with suspicion by North African countries as risking the setting of an undesired precedent. The principle of non-intervention and the sanctity of sovereignty continue to inform the international politics of the region, and discourage states from addressing security problems by military means. This is a double-edged sword, however; while it decreases the likelihood of inter-state war in North Africa, it also fails to resolve disputes that sometimes need an external arbitrator backed up by the threat (or use) of force. Realistically, it is unlikely that Algeria, Tunisia or Egypt will make a move to stabilise Libya to any significant degree, regardless of the security threat to themselves. It falls therefore to the Gulf Cooperation Council and to European countries, either directly or through concerted efforts led by NATO and other organisations of the international community, to commit politically to the stabilisation of Libya.


At the time of writing, NATO has pulled out of Libya and does not appear to be engaging significantly in the post-Gaddafi situation. This is disappointing, as this international organisation has the proven ability to contribute to the rebuilding, security sector reform, and overall stabilisation of Libya. The use of force against a sovereign state, regardless of the legal platform on which it is done, is otiose without a sound reconstruction plan that must include the intervening powers if the legitimacy of their intervention is to be vindicated. Omission to follow through will leave a country like Libya hopelessly floundering in the effort to rebuild its critical institutions alone. The net result, as we have seen, is a security vacuum and an opportunity for non-state actors to wreak further havoc.


The peace talks led by the United Nations are commendable, but will remain limited in impact, notwithstanding that a unity government has just been formed. The parliaments of both the HOR and the GNC have yet to approve the new deal, while influential political leaders have already expressed their opposition. In any case, the fractured militias are unlikely to obey a new government that is unable to speak with one strong voice. Delays in unifying the country either under a unity government or under the most powerful faction plays directly into the hands of the Islamic State, which has made Misrata its next stop on the way to Tripoli. A failure to stop them on their path to statehood will lead to another Mali, with a military intervention the only option left to push the terrorists out of Libya.












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