Filling the Vacuum in Libya

The Need for a Political, Not Military Solution

A member of the Libyan army's special forces holds a RPG during clashes with Islamist militants in their last stronghold in Benghazi, Libya, July 6, 2017. Esam Omran Al-Fetori / Reuters

Since the fall of Colonel Muammar Qaddafi in 2011, Libya has suffered from years of ineffective and dysfunctional rule. A series of weak governments passed through Tripoli in the aftermath of the revolution as powerful militias vied for control on the ground. The country further splintered in 2014, when a contested election saw Islamist-backed politicians and allied militias seize power in the western capital of Tripoli and force the newly elected House of Representatives to flee to the east, where it allied with eastern anti-Islamist forces. Despite a UN-led agreement that installed a Government of National Accord (GNA) in 2016, rival factions across the country continue to fight one another. Unsurprisingly, the Islamic State (or ISIS) and other resurgent jihadist groups have taken advantage of the country’s political instability, effectively turning Libya into a safe haven and breeding ground for extremists. 

There are of course areas in which the country has recently seen some progress: there has been a boost in oil production, a decline in the gains of some hardline groups, and a growing consensus around the need to revise the UN-sponsored Libyan Political Agreement. But the United States and its European allies must do more to leverage both sticks and carrots to bring the warring Libyan parties and their regional supporters to the UN-led negotiating table in order to reach a lasting political accord. Counterterrorism may be the primary Western objective in Libya, but its success will ultimately depend on the country’s stability.


By capitalizing on traditionally pro-Qaddafi areas that were marginalized after the revolution, ISIS was able to gain a foothold in Sirte in early 2015. Although US-backed local militia forces, loyal to the GNA, succeeded in clearing ISIS from Sirte in December 2016, the recent terrorist attack in Manchester by a suicide bomber with Libyan links has made it clear that Libya’s ongoing political and military conflict, coupled with persistently weak governance, have rendered the country vulnerable to ISIS’ expansion. In the short term, militants will continue to clandestinely

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