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 build support inside Libya while launching attacks in the West. 

As AFRICOM commander Thomas Waldhauser has warned, “Instability in Libya and North Africa may be the most significant near-term threat to US and allies’ interests on the continent.” In the face of this threat, it would be unwise to view instability in Libya solely through the lens of counterterrorism. Such a view obscures the true root of Libya’s problems: its governance vacuum, which has worsened in recent years.

The country’s political fragmentation has exacerbated lawlessness on the ground. In western Libya, various militias maintain security for different municipalities and turf wars are thus commonplace, as they vie for dominance over lucrative human and fuel smuggling networks. The GNA barely controls the capital, Tripoli, through militias that are only nominally under its authority. Although the GNA recently succeeded in pushing a rump government—containing remnants of the Islamist-dominated parliament that was elected in 2012—out of the capital, it was long in coming, and these rival factions continue to prove a threat to Tripoli. Meanwhile, in the eastern part of the country, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, a former military officer under Qaddafi, and his Libyan National Army (LNA)—a coalition largely made up of eastern, anti-Islamist militias—are aligned with the House of Representatives, which refuses to recognize the GNA. The LNA has waged a fight against Islamist groups in Benghazi, besieged other such groups in Derna, and more recently captured significant territory in the center of the country near Libya’s oil fields. The situation is further complicated by proxy support of the various militias. Although major regional players such as Egypt and the United Arab Emirates back the GNA rhetorically, they have provided significant logistical and military support to Haftar and his forces, strengthening his position as a spoiler of peace. The disorder is compounded by Libya’s economic crisis: a massive disparity between the official and black market exchange rates and the lack of liquidity of the Libyan dinar have led to a highly unstable economy that is just barely propped up by erratic oil production. 

Despite the doom and gloom, Libya has witnessed several potentially positive developments in recent months. In early May 2017, Haftar’s backers in Cairo and Abu Dhabi brought the eastern strongman and GNA Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj together for the first time in over a year. Although no official agreement was reached, the meeting—during which Haftar reportedly expressed willingness to participate in national elections tentatively scheduled for 2018—reflected a growing consensus that Libya’s conflict requires a political, rather than a military, solution. Some pro-GNA forces in Misrata that once rigidly opposed any engagement with Haftar have also begrudgingly conceded that he will inevitably play some, albeit undefined, role in a future Libyan government. In addition, the Benghazi Defense Brigade, a hardline group that worked with GNA-backed forces to fight Haftar, agreed in June to demobilize, dissolve, and join a legitimate national armed force. Meanwhile, forces loyal to the GNA have strengthened their authority in Tripoli by pushing out anti-GNA forces.

In addition to these security and political improvements, the country’s oil production has seen an uptick of late. The National Oil Corporation, led by technocrat Mustafa Sanallah, has managed to avoid becoming enmeshed in the country’s political discord, negotiating settlements with both local and international actors to reopen oil fields and settle international business disputes. Despite continued technical challenges, Libyan oil production recently reached one million barrels per day, a major coup for the National Oil Corporation and a sign that the country’s oil production could return to pre-revolution levels. 


The window of opportunity for the West to take advantage of these positive developments is closing fast. Foreign disputes, such as the ongoing diplomatic spat in the Persian Gulf between Qatar and a Saudi-led bloc, could curtail progress toward negotiation. Qatar and the Saudi-led bloc support opposing proxies in Libya. Following the bloc’s decision to cut ties with Qatar, the eastern-based House of Representatives, which accuses Doha of financing extremist Islamists in Libya, immediately followed suit. Supporters of Haftar and the eastern government, namely the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, may be emboldened to counter perceived Qatari interests in Libya by increasing support for Haftar. The LNA has indicated that it may be emboldened to pull away from reconciliation given its patrons’ confrontational stance with Qatar, which has been accused by the Saudi bloc of aiding terrorists in Libya. In this regard, Haftar’s forces might be tempted to attack western Libya in an effort to weaken the GNA, and a military response from both anti-Haftar hardline groups and GNA-aligned militias could reignite a full-scale civil war.

As for oil, increases in revenues from rising production could either prove a great boon for the country or lead to more competition and instability. Even if Libya manages to continue with its current level of output—an uncertain prospect at best—the country will still face serious economic challenges, including a depletion of foreign reserves, a lack of basic economic and financial infrastructure, and a large black market. Major power outages this month demonstrated the serious consequences of Libya’s weak infrastructure.

It is time for the West to act by assuming a leadership role in pushing UN-led negotiations on Libya forward, rather than dealing piecemeal with security threats, such as terrorism, extremism, smuggling, and migration. The current “stable instability” in Libya cannot be maintained, particularly in light of heightened regional tensions. The United States and its European allies should take advantage of the recent appointment of UN Special Envoy Ghassan Salameh to inject a sense of urgency into the stalled negotiations. There must be a political solution to bring stability to the country, which if left in its current state will lead to the continued growth of ISIS and, inevitably, more terrorist attacks in the West. The Trump administration’s proposed 2018 budget for the US Department of State reflects a prioritization of security over diplomacy. This is the wrong approach; Trump’s narrow focus on defeating ISIS will be ineffective at addressing the underlying instability fueling terrorist groups in Libya and elsewhere. The Trump administration must understand that stability in the Middle East cannot be achieved through counterterrorism operations and military force alone. Absent a solution in Libya, the country will remain a hotbed for anti-Western extremists, a regional exporter of instability, and a failed state.

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  • ELISSA MILLER is an Assistant Director at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.
  • KEVIN TRUITTE is an independent analyst focusing on the Middle East and North Africa.
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