A Quick Guide to Libya’s Main Players
Mary Fitzgerald and Mattia Toaldo have recently updated their guide to Libya’s main players for the European Council on Foreign Relations. Outlining the key political groups, armed groups, and jihadists the guide also features detail maps of armed groups, centers of power and key infrastructure. In the guide the authors explore the state of some of the Zintani armed groups:
A number of Zintani forces have distanced themselves from Haftar – particularly those close to former defence minister Osama Jweili – while others remain supportive. As commander of the GNA’s western region military zone, Jweili led an offensive in the Wershefana territory on Tripoli’s hinterland in November 2017 with a coalition that included forces from Zintan, Tripoli – among them Haithem Tajouri’s TRB – and Tarhouna. While ostensibly “anti-crime”, the operation also served to undermine LNA-affiliated groups in the area.
Al-Qaida’s Strategy in Libya: Keep it Local, Stupid
Rhiannon Smith, the Managing Director of Libya-Analysis and Eye on ISIS in Libya (EOIL), and Jason Pack, the founder of Libya-Analysis and EOIL, have written an article for Perspectives on Terrorism that looks at how al-Qaida-linked groups focus on the local struggle in Libya, how they have shaped their strategies and activities in the country, and what impact this has had on the communities where they are active.
Smith and Pack argue that in Libya, al-Qaida-linked groups have done a better job than their ISIS-linked counterparts at staying rooted to local concerns, local actors, and evolving country dynamics, and that this has allowed them to mimic and replicate local and traditional power structures. The authors state:
Globally, al-Qaida has survived so long despite its defeats and setbacks because it has learnt from past failures and adapted. Where ISIS has invited direct confrontation and military annihilation through its high-profile brutality, al-Qaida has adopted a cautious bottom-up approach to building support. This keeps it below the radar, but makes it no less dangerous. ASL [Ansar al-Sharia Libya, an al-Qaida linked group] has already applied this technique in Benghazi, and it is likely that its official disbandment is a continuation of this strategy. By publicly claiming it has disbanded, ASL may be able to protect itself against complete annihilation at the hands of Haftar’s forces, distance itself from the last three years of fighting in Benghazi, and allow its members to reintegrate into the city at a social level rather than a military one. As such, they may live to fight another day and rejoin other al-Qaida linked groups. The threat that ASL directly poses may be significantly reduced in the short term, but while chaos and insecurity still reign throughout Libya, it may not take the group, or others similar to it, long to rebuild a support base. In Derna, the DMSC [Derna Mujahadeen Shura Council] has cemented its legitimacy, not by watering down its ideological beliefs, but by framing its objectives so that they specifically appeal to the historic and socio-political context of Derna itself. By defeating ISIS and fighting against Haftar, the DMSC and its constituent parts have appealed to ingrained fears of central authority, thereby portraying themselves as patriotic Libyans first, Salafi-jihadis second. Indeed, al-Qaida-linked groups have done a better job mimicking such local and traditional structures than their ISIS-linked equivalents.
Islamic State’s Re-organization in Libya and Potential Connections With Illegal Trafficking
Arturo Varvelli has written a report for The George Washington University Program on Extremism titled “Islamic State’s Re-organization in Libya and Potential Connections With Illegal Trafficking.” The report outlines how ISIS penetrated Libya and explores the possibility of illegal trafficking in Libya converging with jihadist groups. Varvelli argues:
The risk exists that terrorist organizations might leverage Libya’s destabilization to finance themselves through smuggling, specifically through human trafficking. However, this risk currently seems unlikely for two reasons. First, jihadist groups in Libya seem to be in a phase of weakness and dispersion. The defeat of the IS forces in Sirte decreased their visibility and increased the fluidity of the remaining troops, who probably number around several hundred. Many of this number are foreign fighters who seek to return home or travel elsewhere. In the short term these organizations seem destined for a profound regrouping and decentralization into more remote areas. The largest and most dangerous groups remain those tied to al-Qaeda, and to AQIM in particular. They could take advantage of the availability of the former fighters of IS and Ansar al-Sharia who have recently left their organizations. Given the political situation, Libya remains attractive for jihadist groups. Secondly, the trafficking market appears to be fairly closed because it is run by international operators with the help of Libyan militia networks, a convergence of alliances based on shared financial interests. At present, it is hard to compete with these actors, who have basically begun a process of specializing in and “industrializing” the trafficking business.
A Strategy for Success in Libya
Emily Estelle has produced a thorough and expansive report for the American Enterprise Institute arguing America needs a new policy in Libya . The reports outlines a strategy for US policymakers to secure their critical interests in Libya and provides an assessment of the Libyan theatre. Estelle suggests current US foreign policy on Libya:
Prioritises short-term defense over long-term success. It has failed to stabilize Libya and defeat ISIS, and it has perpetuated the conditions that fuel recruitment for Salafi-jihadi groups. The focus on ISIS also ignores the full extent of the Salafi-jihadi threat in Libya, which includes a significant al Qaeda presence that US strategy does not meaningfully address.
The flaws of this strategy stem from a misunderstanding of the terrorist threat. The terrorist groups in Libya that threaten the US—al Qaeda, ISIS, and their affiliates—are manifestations of the global Salaf-jihadi movement. Their ultimate goal is violently transforming Muslim societies to establish a polity under a fundamentalist interpretation of shari’a. They use terrorist attacks when they believe those are most effective, but they also use conventional war, insurgency, and nonmilitary activities that we would normally call stabilization, reconstruction, and dispute resolution if they were not being carried out by our enemies. The US must finally recognize in Libya as elsewhere that defining our adversaries as terrorists and pursuing a purely counterterrorism strategy will lead to failure.
Libya’s Terrorism Challenge: Assessing Libya’s Salafi-Jihadi Threat
In this useful and well researched report for the Middle East Institute, Lydia Sizer looks at Libya’s Salafi-jihadi threat. She concludes that:
Salafi-jihadis have maintained an active presence in Libya due to a mix of push and pull factors. Historic participation in such groups, declining standards of living, the historical marginalization of minorities, and a pervasive sense of victimhood have all made Libya a ripe jihadi recruiting ground. Many Salafi-jihadis offer the status, salary, and services that the fractured state cannot provide. These movements can be diminished through investments like educational programs, aid to war-torn regions, demilitarization programs, and improved intelligence sharing by border officials in Libya’s neighboring states. However, until the political crisis that has plagued Libya for over three years ends, there is little Libya’s international partners can do to help confront these movements. And as long as the crisis continues, civil unrest will persist and institutions will remain weak. Such a scenario would provide the requisite chaos for the present Salahi-jihadi movements to flourish.
In Libya Strike, Military Shows New Lethal Powers Under Trump
An interesting article by Paul Shinkman for US News looks at the legality of this latest round of US airstrikes against ISIS targets in Libya. He highlights that:
The latest operation is unique in that it did not take place in an “area of active hostilities,” a term the Obama administration used to clarify where the U.S. is and is not at war and, perhaps more importantly, where military commanders – not the president or his immediate team – would determine whether a drone strike or other deadly operation was appropriate….Until earlier this year, a still-classified portion of Libya was determined to be an area of active hostilities, as is still the case in a part of Somalia outside the capital, Mogadishu. Multiple sources who spoke to U.S. News confirm that designation for Libya has expired….That the military can now carry out such operations raises new questions about the general limits of its power in Africa and elsewhere: What now stops the Defense Department from carrying out drone strikes wherever it wants?
US Resumes Strikes Against ISIS in Libya
In an useful article for FDD’s Long War Journal, Thomas Joscelyn and Bill Roggio look at the bigger picture of US involvement against ISIS and other jihadist groups in Libya, looking at the impact of Operation Odyssey Lightening against ISIS in Sirte and speculating how many fighters may have fled south based on figures given by AFRICOM and the US State Department.
Between Aug. 1 and Dec. 19, 2016, AFRICOM conducted “495 precision airstrikes” as part of Operation Odyssey Lightning. The bombings took a heavy toll on Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s loyalists in Sirte, according to AFRICOM. “While we are unable to provide specific numbers, we estimate that between 800-900 ISIS fighters were killed during Operation Odyssey Lightning in Sirte,” AFRICOM recently told FDD’s Long War Journal. The State Department previously estimated that 1,700 Islamic State fighters perished in Sirte. AFRICOM’s estimate covers only those killed in airstrikes, meaning that approximately half of the the jihadists’ casualties came in bombings.
These Libyans were once linked to al-Qaeda. Now they are politicians and businessmen
Who Pays for ISIS in Libya?
24 August 2016
James Roslington and Jason Pack discuss the financing of ISIS in Libya is this report for Hate Speech International.
Post-revolutionary Discontent and F(r)actionalisation in the Maghreb: Managing the Tunisa-Libya Border Dynamics
Grégory Chauzal Sofia Zavagli argue for bottom-up solutions to conflict in Tunisia and Libya in this Clingendael Report from the Netherlands Institute of International Relations.
Defeating the Islamic State: Remaining Challenges
8 July 2016
Andrew Engel of The Washington Institute has published a report on IS in Libya. The battle to uproot the Islamic State in Libya (ISL) from Sirte, the group’s de facto North African capital, may soon result in victory for the Western-backed Operation Binyan Marsous (Solid Structure). Although defeating ISL in the heart of Libya’s “oil crescent” is cause for celebration, the group will continue to conduct irregular warfare and could find safe haven in the southern desert, while some of its foreign fighters might return to their home countries to wage terrorist attacks.
Libya Since 2011: Political Transformation and Violence
24 May 2016
The Middle East Policy Council released an essay by Hanspeter Mattes entitled Libya Since 2011: Political Transformation and Violence. Mr. Mattes forecasts continuing violence and stalemate in Libya.
In Libya, Politics Precedes Victory
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace published In Libya, Politics Precedes Victory by Terek Megerisi in its Sada Journal in which he is sharply critical of foreign efforts to stabilize Libya.
Interview with Karim Mezran
16 May 2016
Atlantic Council Resident Senior Fellow Karim Mezran was interviewed by Ashish Kumar Sen about potential western military aid for Libya’s Government of National Accord.
Intervening Better: Europe’s Second Chance in Libya and A Quick Guide to Libya’s Main Players
The European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) released a report Intervening Better: Europe’s Second Chance in Libya by Mattia Toaldo strongly advocating for support of the unity government. ECFR also released a Quick Guide to Libya’s Main Players.
Libya: Transition and U.S. Policy
The Congressional Research Service released a report by long time Middle East analyst Christopher Blanchard entitled Libya: Transition and U.S. Policy. The report suggestions growing U.S. counterterrorism concerns and potential for expanding U.S. military involvement in Libya even as political consensus in the country remains elusive.
Struggling to Fight Islamic State in a Fractured Libya
12 May 2016
Frederic Wehrey of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace published an Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal entitled Struggling to Fight Islamic State in a Fractured Libya cautioning that Western focus on ISIS in Libya may further divide rather than unite the country.
What Will Interventions Look Like After Libya?
3 May 2016
PBS interviewed a number of leading Libya watchers about the NATO intervention in Libya. Karim Mezran characterized the conflict in Libya prior to NATO intervention as a civil war rather than a revolution and emphasized the importance of reconciliation and inclusion of Libyans who supported Qadhafi instead of a rush to elections in the aftermath of the war. A video about Benghazi is also included.
ISIS’s Courses of Action out of Sirte
29 April 2016
In her article for AEI’s Critical Threats site, Emily Estelle argues that the offensive against Sirte could successfully force IS to abandon the city and push the group south into the Fezzan. Estelle’s analysis may be premature, however, given that no Misratan militia commanders have yet backed the unity government plan and the composition of the task force itself remains to be determined. In fact, we believe that even if a full frontal assault materialized–a development which may not occur for months–IS may weather the attack. However, Ms Estelle is quite right in pointing out that the group could survive the conquest of Sirte and could easily establish itself in the Fezzan or in dispersed cells across the country.
Libyan Agreement on Life Support
26 April 2016
Writing for the Atlantic Council, Ronald Bruce St. John argues that the way forward for the political process in Libya is to “incorporate the traditional political model based on tribes and tribalism that has long bestowed legitimacy on Libyan governments.” Failure to do so risks exacerbating divisions rather than healing them.
Building a New Foundation for Stability in Libya
9 March 2016
Letter From Tripoli
4 March 2016
The Next Front Against ISIS
7 February 2016
The Prize: Fighting for Libya’s Energy Wealth
In a report entitled The Prize: Fighting for Libya’s Energy Wealth, International Crisis Group draws attention to Libya’s most difficult challenge: creating a functioning unity government when all parties to the conflict are incentivised by the goal of controlling the country’s hydrocarbons and financial resources. Efforts must be made to de-link the conflict from these objectives, argues the report, including setting up parallel tracks to unity government negotiations on security and economic governance, and persuading the warring parties that the longer they fight, the less there is to fight over.
Between ISIS and a Failed State: The Saga of Libyan Islamists