Briefing Note: Crisis in Libya

At a Glance

Briefing Note: Crisis in Libya

03 Sep 2014

In this Briefing Note, we take a look at Libya and the recent escalations in a conflict which has continued since the uprising against Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. We explore the domestic security challenges, the political deadlock and look at the international aspects of the conflict.

  • Libya's conflict should not be seen in sectarian terms, but more as part of a regional power struggle between patrons of political Islam and their opponents.
  • There are estimates of up to 1,700 armed groups and 250,000 armed men active in the conflict, of a population of 6,040,612.
  • Three times as many people were killed in the conflict in July and August than in the whole of the first half of 2014.
  • A broad coalition of forces under the banner of "Operation Dignity" has declared it will rid the country of Islamist "terrorists", while their opponents see them as counter-revolutionaries.
Domestic Conflict

Armed Groups

While there have been efforts to incorporate them into the armed forces, the proliferation of armed groups during Libya's uprising against Ghaddafi has proved a severe security challenge. The BBC estimates up to 1,700 different armed groups currently active in the country, divided on ideological and regional lines. Indeed, a recent report estimates that the country's militias comprise roughly 250,000 armed men, over eight times the 30,000 that fought in the 2011 revolution. This amounts to nearly 4% of Libya's total population, which is 96.6% Muslim.

Political deadlock in the country has steadily worsened since the revolution, with the former Prime Minister Ali Zeidan being kidnapped (and later released) by an opposition militia in October 2013. The 2014 Fragile States Index listed Libya as the third most worsened country for stability and since the launch of an anti-Islamist offensive in Benghazi in May, the violence has worsened. The Libyan Body Count estimates more than three times as many were killed in violence in July and August than were killed in the previous six months combined.

General Hiftar

Following an apparent and abortive coup attempt in February, General Khalifa Hiftar, a former Gadhafi loyalist turned dissident, launched "Operation Dignity" in the eastern city of Benghazi in May, seeking to drive Islamist militias out of the city. Allied militias in Tripoli also seized control of the Parliament building.

Hiftar's "Operation Dignity" is supported in Benghazi by various units of the army and air force, including the army's special forces, and elsewhere by a loose coalition of revolutionary militias including the western Zintan militias. Hiftar's forces are believed to be supported by regional powers such as the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, both of which are thought to have been behind airstrikes on opposing militias in the past weeks.

June 2014 Elections

Islamist forces came off worst in the June elections and have sought to secure their positions, particularly in response to "Operation Dignity", launching "Operation Dawn" in Tripoli against forces allied to General Hiftar. This came to a head in a fight over key Tripoli government assets, including the airport, finally taken from the Zintan militias in late August.

Operation Dawn consists of militias aligned with the former General National Council (dominated by Islamists and formally superseded following June's election, but reconvened in Tripoli in August in opposition to the Tobruk based parliament), including Misratan militias and Ansar al-Sharia, the group thought to be responsible for the killing of US Ambassador Christopher Stevens among other US officials in 2012.

Nature of the Conflict

Analysts such as Barak Barfi warn against over-emphasising the Islamist-Nationalist nature of the conflict, arguing that it has much more to do with who received patronage under the GNC government. This is reinforced by much of the conflict between the Zintan and Mistratan militias having been over control of smuggling hubs such as Tripoli's airport. With General Hiftar's status as a former Gadhafi army officer and the support of tribes such as the Warfallah that have suffered since the revolution, many opposing him regard "Operation Dignity" as a counter-revolution.

However, there is a risk that the presentation of the conflict in Islamist vs. Nationalist terms will draw jihadi fighters from Syria and Iraq, becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Indeed, according to Frederic Wehrey, this is already happening, in a conflict which he says is a local affair, with the contesting militias deeply interwoven into Libyan society and state. In recent months however, the conflict has become more overtly international.

International Aspects

Foreign Involvement

It is currently difficult to gauge the extent of international involvement in Libya. In August, US officials claimed that a  number of airstrikes on Libyan Islamist militias were carried out in a joint operation between the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, to prevent militants from capturing the capital city of Tripoli. Media sources have also reported that Emirati special forces operating out of Egypt had successfully destroyed an Islamist camp near the eastern Libyan city of Derna.

Western powers have condemned external military intervention, believing it to exacerbate the country's divisions and undermine the democratic transition. Many see the operation as tied to the Egyptian military's internal crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood activities and parallel tactics pursued in the UAE. This incident would represent both countries expanding the campaign beyond their borders, looking to curb the rise of Brotherhood-affiliated Islamist militias in Libya.

Regional Issues

Libya has moved to centre stage in a regional power struggle between the patrons of political Islam and their opponents, with the region's monarchies and secular dictatorships increasingly alarmed about Islamist gains from Libya to Syria and Iraq, according to Mary Fitzgerald. The Washington Post quotes US officials as having long been worried about the possibility of a proxy war occuring in Libya, with Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE backing groups opposed to Islamist militias supposedly armed and funded by Qatar.

However, it is an oversimplification to see this as two blocs engaged in a new cold war: the situation is tumultuous and there are fluid shifts in allegiance, with most actors still learning how to throw their weight around in the region, Rami Khouri suggests. These new players are filling the vacuum left by the withdrawal of big powers from the region, a process that began with the end of the Cold War.

Any broader regional conflict, however, should not be framed in sectarian terms says Bobby Ghosh, pointing out that the airstrikes were the first time two Sunni Muslim nations struck radical Sunni groups in a third Sunni country. He claims that these strikes may indeed open the way to strikes on Sunni jihadi groups in Iraq and Syria.

For more information and in-depth analysis of religion and conflict in various parts of the world, see our  commentaries 


Sign up to receive the Roundup

Sign up to the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics' Roundup to receive weekly updates with the latest commentary, analysis and news on the role of religion in conflict zones. Sign up here.