The Libya Complex: From International Interference to Impotence

By: Laura Hawkes

Source: The New York Times (February 19, 2016)

When attempting to formulate an effective international response to conflicts the crucial question looms: what comes first, diplomacy or eliminating an insurgency? In the context of Libya, this inevitable question has haunted the international community, causing stalled reactions rendering their positions weak. In the aftermath of the 2011 Libyan revolution which saw the removal of a forty-two year long authoritarian regime under Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, the U.S. and other powers have been reluctant to intervene in Libyan political or security affairs.

However, on February 19th 2016, in a delayed attempt to combat the Islamic State (IS) insurgency in Libya, U.S. warplanes targeted an IS compound near the western coastal city of Sabrata. The airstrike killed at least forty-one suspected IS fighters. This included the intended target, Noureddine Chouchane, a Tunisian national, believed to be responsible for the two fatal attacks against foreigners in Tunisia last year. The Pentagon’s Press Secretary Peter Cook announced with optimism:

‘Destruction of the camp and Chouchane’s removal will eliminate an experienced facilitator and is expected to have an immediate impact on ISIL’s ability to facilitate its activities in Libya, including recruiting new ISIL members, establishing bases in Libya, and potentially planning external attacks on U.S. interest in the region.’[1]

However, the effect on relations with local ground actors in Libya, as well as the potential impact this strike would have on the protracted Libyan diplomatic process were not accounted for.  The February 19th strike restored relative global faith in the U.S.’s military power, yet it also added fuel to the already bipolar sentiment amongst Libyans with respect to foreign involvement. Libya’s internationally recognised government, the House of Representatives (HoR) condemned the U.S. for failing to coordinate with Libyan authorities in advance of the strike, labelling it ‘a clear and flagrant violation of [the] sovereignty of the Libyan state.[2] This is also not the first example of U.S. military action against IS in Libya as they targeted the extremist group’s alleged leader, Wissam Najm Abd Zayd Al-Zubaydi, also known by his nom de guerre, Abu Nabil, in the south-eastern city of Derna on November 13th 2015. In June 2014, a US airstrike against a compound in close proximity to Ajdabiya killed at least seven Al-Qaeda affiliated militants, including Mokhtar Belmokhtar who is of Algerian citizenship. Belmokhtar has a history of membership in several prominent jihadi groups and was also reportedly a former senior figure in al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).[3] It is now, more than ever, abundantly clear that if the US or any other country or international entity attempts aerial or ground campaigns in Libya, it will serve to further antagonize the country’s already vulnerable political and security situation.

The IS Threat

The American and European powers, however, cannot simply turn a blind eye to IS expansion in North Africa and hope it will disappear on its own. In order to establish an effective counterinsurgency strategy, it is imperative that the threat IS presence in North Africa poses to the international community be understood through a pragmatic lens. Firstly, to group IS in Libya with their counterparts in the Levant is an understandable, yet costly mistake. The geopolitical threat posed by IS affiliated militants in Libya is unique due to the strategic location of the country as the gateway to Europe and Africa. IS’s stronghold in Sirte lies just 348 miles southeast of Malta, and over the past year a massive influx of migrants fleeing Libya have arrived on European shores raising fears amongst regional governments, Intel agencies and the general public that IS members may be amongst those escaping persecution.[4] This concern is largely fuelled by the chaos and lack of security in Libya, which has resulted in a void with respect to coastal and border security. IS’s foothold in Libya also allows the easy transition of arms and foreign fighters to and from affiliate groups, such as Boko Haram in Nigeria.[5] Additionally, unlike in Syria and Iraq, there are no obstacles preventing reinforcements and new recruits from reaching IS in Libya.

Furthermore, the rapid expansion of IS in Libya is less a result of their strong military capabilities, and rather due to the organizations ability to exploit the security vacuum in civil war conflict zones. The modus operandi of the organization is division of its enemies. This potent tool has solidified the group’s position against opposing and fractured militias on both sides of the political spectrum in Libya. A unified response from Libyan actors should be essential begin to mitigate the threat, as a key difference between the situation in Syria and Iraq, compared to Libya is that the former have one political leader. Unfortunately, at the moment Libya has no central regime to work with or against, and UN initiatives to create a single unity government have thus far been unsuccessful due to split support from rival factions.[6]

Source: USA Today

International Approaches in Libya

Considering the alarming rate of IS expansion in the Libya, and given its geostrategic significance, it is puzzling that no unified domestic or foreign initiatives have been formed to combat the insurgency. Given the international community’s relative inaction towards IS in Syria and Iraq, their hesitance towards Libya comes as no real surprise. The hope and optimism of the Arab spring that swept across the Middle East in 2011 has been replaced by fear and frustration. A relatively cohesive push to oust Colonel Gaddafi, which unified Libyans during the revolution, has since produced a fractured Libyan society. A dire power struggle has ensued as historic tribal tensions, militia fighting and political differences have been resurrected and amplified. The international community must tread carefully not to upset the fragile peace process whilst also eradicating IS presence in Libya and other areas of the Middle East. Adding to this challenge for the international community is the fact that at present, many Libyans on the ground as well as in both rival governments seem to regard western intervention as a bigger enemy than IS and would rather leave them to expand than unify to combat them. In this regard, the ‘War on Terror’ and its subsequent encroachment by Bush have engrained in Arab psyche an anti-western military stance.

In the absence of widespread ground support, international responses can be split into two fields: either clandestine social initiatives or overt military force. The former approach suggests foreign powers could seek to exploit IS’s social weaknesses. First, unlike most conventional insurgencies, IS shows little concern for ‘winning the hearts and minds of the people’ and instead opts for strict punishments in accordance with their hard-line interpretation of Islamic law (Sharia). Moreover, a more nuanced and covert approach could be the best means for fracturing IS from within. Since the U.S. airstrike last week various reports have emerged claiming the surge in numbers of new IS members, which US intelligence sources state is approximately 5,000, has created divisions within the group.[7] According to the Washington Post, “Three Libyans who said they had joined the Islamic State group told AP that they see most of the new recruits as lacking skills and as opportunists, looking to gain property and money confiscated from IS opponents in Sirte.”[8] This could mark a positive step in the internal erosion of IS, as until now the group’s cohesion has given them a stark advantage over its splintered opponents. Exemplified by militia groups affiliated with the Tripoli based General National Congress and the eastern internationally recognised government, the HoR have routinely experienced internal divisions causing disruptions and resulting in staggered responses to political and security developments.

The second approach advocates for a stronger emphasis on combating IS presence immediately, and turning to political dialogue at a later date. The reverse approach has thus far produced neither a unity government nor a stronger security apparatus. It seems western powers are still struggling to devise a suitable strategy in light of a series of failed efforts during the past fifteen years. Intervention is regarded as interfering, yet inaction allows insurgency to blossom. An attempted top-down diplomatic resolution cannot be representative of Libyan society as a whole or even stabilize a temporary unity government incorporating the most powerful militias and politicians. To deal with the expansion of IS in North Africa, the international community’s response needs to be ‘enemy-centric’ and target the foremost and imminent threat of IS. Only then can the political process resume.



Laura Hawkes is a Libyan political and security analyst, who is currently pursuing her MA in Terrorism, Security and Society from King’s College London. Hawkes is also a research intern at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence based in London, where she focuses on foreign fighters.





[1] ‘Statement from Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook on Libya Airstrike’, U.S. Department of Defense, (February 19, 2016)

[2] ‘Recognised Libya govt condemns US strike on jihadists’, Yahoo News, (February 20, 2016)

[3] ‘Mokhtar Belmokhtar: Top Islamist ‘killed’ in US strike’, BBC News, (June 14, 2015)

[4] Dearden, L. ‘Isis plans to use immigrant boats from Libya to cause terror in Europe and close shipping routes’, The Independent, (February 18, 2015)

[5] Charbonneau, ‘Arms from Libya could reach Boko Haram, al Qaeda: U.N.’, Reuters, (January 26, 2012)

[6] Murray, R. ‘Libya: A tale of two governments’, Al Jazeera, (April 04, 2015)

[7] El Amrani, I. ‘How Much of Libya Does the Islamic State Control?’, Foreign Policy, (February 18, 2016)

[8] Musa, R. & Keath, L. ‘Libya becoming new front in fight against Islamic State’, Washington Post, (February 20, 2016)




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