Q&A on the Strife in Libya
Charlotte Florance /
Libya is enduring almost daily attacks at the hands of nongovernment militias and Islamist militants. These undermining activities include stolen oil shipments, terrorist attacks, unlawful security checkpoints, and human rights abuses, and the list of violent and disruptive behavior at the hands of unrecognized armed militias and Islamist militants continues. We sat down with Heritage expert Charlotte Florance to better understand what is going on in Libya and who is behind these violent activities.
1. What happened in Libya after Muammar Qadhafi was killed?
Qadhafi provided a “strong arm” in Libya and with his death many of the groups that were either banned or under his control competed to fill the power vacuum. Popular revolts often unite disparate opposition groups against an unpopular regime, but once that regime is gone, so too is the unifying force behind the loosely linked rebel fighters. The Libyan uprising resulted in an unprecedented level of weapons proliferation, particularly through the unsecured borders in southern Libya. Much of the conflict in neighboring Mali was a result of arms proliferation and the large number of fighters left over from the Libyan uprising. Because security is returning to Mali, many of the arms and fighters are returning to Libya.
2. What are the main armed militias and Islamist militants active in Libya?
Numerous armed groups operate within Libya’s borders, and many are even under government control for political purposes, but the main groups unaffiliated with the government of Libya are:
- The Zintan Revolutionaries’ Military Council is comprised of 23 militias from Zintan and the Nafusa Mountains in western Libya. They are considered to be the second-largest militia force in the country. Their area of control includes key gas and oil pipelines carrying oil from western Libya to the coast. The Zintan have periodically cut pipelines and occupied oilfields. They are strong supporters of former Prime Minister Ali Zeidan.
- The Misrata Brigades is comprised of more than 200 militia groups and control a large number of tanks, heavy artillery pieces, and vehicles with anti-aircraft weapons. They are based in Misrata, control areas near Tripoli, and frequently clash with the Zintan militia. The group is becoming increasingly frustrated with the government and held protests that helped secure parliamentary support for sacking Zeidan.
- The Cyrenaica Federalists want to create an autonomous region in eastern Libya around Benghazi. Ibrahim Jathran, former head of an oil protection security unit, leads the group. He now controls more than 1,000 men who have seized oil facilities in eastern Libya, cutting Libya’s oil exports in half since July 2013. He is responsible for the recent oil tanker hijacking.
- Various Fezzan groups, based in southern Libya, are not connected—many are even in conflict with one another—but they are all situated within relative geographic proximity. Fezzan-based groups include various Arab ethnic tribes (including Qadhafi’s tribe, the Qadhadhfa) and Libya’s largest tribe, the Warfalla. Other non-Arab groups include the Tebu, a group rooted in the Tibesti Mountains of Chad; the Tuareg, a traditionally nomadic people from Niger, Mali, and Algeria; and the Fezzan, a group of Arab descendants.
- The Libyan Islamic Movement for Change is an outgrowth of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), an al-Qaeda affiliate designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. Its aim is to establish an Islamic state in Libya, and it played a role in toppling Qadhafi. LIFG led an insurgency in Libya in the 1990s, and many of the fighters participated in the war in Afghanistan against the Soviets. LIFG has strongholds in Derna and Benghazi.
- Ansar al-Sharia (Benghazi and Derna) is an Islamist coalition based in eastern Libya that was formed during the armed rebellion in 2011. It seeks to impose Sharia law on the Libyan state and boycotted the country’s elections, declaring them to be un-Islamic. The group is a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization and is responsible for the attacks on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi.
3. Could the lack of ungoverned space contribute to global terrorism?
Yes. Due to virtually non-existent government-sponsored security forces and extremely porous borders, the movement terrorist groups can easily go undetected. Libya is headed down the path of a failed state—if it is not already there. So long as Libya lacks an effective government, Libyans will likely seek local militia or Islamist support to provide local security, social services, and administrative needs. The “Somalization” of Libya has already begun.
Heritage intern Kyle Bevers assisted with the research for this post.