August 29, 2023

IntelBrief: Libya’s Instability Worsens, Adding Threats to the Broader Region

AP Photo/Yousef Murad

Bottom Line up Front

  • Libya’s fractured political structure boiled over into significant fighting among militias in the capital, Tripoli, in mid-August, potentially adding to instability in neighboring African countries.
  • The deadly clashes in Tripoli illustrate the difficulty U.N. mediators face in unifying Libya’s governing structure and organizing long-delayed national elections.
  • Libya’s instability both worsens, and is worsened by, turmoil in neighboring states such as Sudan and Niger, the presence of armed groups that cross borders, and the near-constant meddling of external actors.
  • The instability in Libya creates an additional opportunity for the Wagner Group to extend its influence in the region and rebuild after its failed mutiny in Russia and the killing of its leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin.

In mid-August, tensions in post-Qadhafi Libya – already heightened by the competition for power between a U.N.-backed administration in the capital, Tripoli, and political and military leaders based in the eastern city of Benghazi – produced significant combat between rival militias in Tripoli. The fighting, which reportedly killed 55 persons and wounded nearly 150 others (including some civilians), erupted as part of a power struggle between two militias: the “444 Brigade” and the “Special Deterrence Force.” In contrast to previous clashes in and around the city over the past two years - all of which were brief and relatively small in scale - the contending militias are both aligned with the U.N.-backed Tripoli-based administration of nominal Prime Minister Abdel Hamid Dbeibah. The two forces, however, report to different organs within that administration; the 444 Brigade is under defense ministry command, whereas the Special Deterrence Force reports to the Presidential Council that supervises Dbeibah and his cabinet. Earlier clashes in or near Tripoli during 2022-2023 generally represented efforts by Benghazi-based Khalifah Haftar, head of the factionalized “Libyan National Army” (LNA), and his allies to extend their authority into western Libya by undermining Dbeibah’s government. Earlier, in 2019, Haftar - backed by Russia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) - launched a major military effort to seize Tripoli and the rest of western Libya. After many months of combat, his forces were repelled by militias loyal to the Tripoli administration who were assisted by military equipment and advice from Türkiye.

U.N. mediators, particularly the U.N. Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Libya and Head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) Abdoulaye Bathily, immediately assessed the Tripoli combat as a setback to the U.N.-led effort to unify Libya’s divided political structure by holding national elections. Presidential and parliamentary elections were initially scheduled for December 2021, but were postponed over disagreements between the eastern and western Libyan elites who fear that an election loss would erode their prestige, influence, and control over the sources of revenue. On August 22, Bathily told the U.N. Security Council that political divisions in Libya “are fraught with risks of violence and disintegration for countries,” and he urged the country’s rival factions to resolve all election-related issues so that long-delayed voting can take place. He added that: “Of course, we have envisioned the election to take place in 2023, but what is important is that this agreement can become a reality.” Libya has been unable to avoid further instability. Just yesterday, fighting erupted in several Libyan cities after it was revealed that Foreign Minister Najla el-Mangoush met with her Israeli counterpart in Rome last week. As a precaution, el-Mangoush apparently fled to Turkey, but protests continued in Tripoli and elsewhere throughout the country.

The combat in Tripoli raised questions about the degree to which instability is affecting – and is affected by – broader conflict, instability, and poor governance in the countries bordering Libya. In his Security Council briefing, Bathily added that Libya’s stability is being placed at even greater risk by the fighting between rival armed forces chiefs in Sudan and the military coup in Niger that overthrew elected President Mohamed Bazoum. Contrary to U.N. expectations, Chad, as well as Sudan and Niger, have not withdrawn their fighters and mercenaries from southern Libya. And Niger, Bathily argued, like other countries in Africa’s Sahel region, has been impacted by the crisis in Libya. Some Nigeriens have joined with mercenaries in Libya, and armed elements in Niger are also active along the border. He added that, were the Niger army to fracture, “the destabilization of Niger will undoubtedly have consequences on Libya, and vice versa.” He also assessed that there are escalating risks to regional stability associated with recent fighting between “armed elements” in southern Libya and government troops in Chad’s neighboring Tibesti region. The movement of armed groups across regional boundaries also threatens to leave “ungoverned spaces” that global terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda and Islamic State (ISIS) typically use to train and expand their capabilities.

With respect to the interrelationships between conflict in Libya and Sudan, experts have noted linkages between Haftar and the Rapid Security Forces (RSF) – the paramilitary organization that, since April, has fought the Sudanese regular army for control of the country. Haftar, as well as his outside backers in Russia and the UAE, depend on RSF commander General Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo (Hemedti) to protect their lucrative trade, smuggling routes, and investments in Sudan’s mines and other industries. Special Representative Bathily did not mention Haftar specifically in his August 22 Security Council briefing, but he stated that Libya’s border with Sudan (which runs along Libyan territory controlled by Haftar’s forces) has been open to “armed groups,” mercenaries and gang leaders dealing in illegal migration, illegal mining, drug trafficking, and other criminal activities. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, U.S. Representative to the United Nations, echoed those comments by asserting that instability in Sudan and Niger could spiral into wider violence and insisting that the Libyan people are ready for compromise and stability. Although the continuing instability in Libya might help shape the context for the eruption of the civil conflict in Sudan and the Niger coup, it can be argued that the violence and conflict in both Sudan and Niger have their own historical, political, economic, and international dimensions - separate and distinct from the causes of instability in Libya. In Niger, in particular, the presence of Sunni jihadist group affiliates and branches - and the involvement of U.S., French, and other global coalition partners to combat those fighters – appears to have fueled public support for the military coup.

Another major question that flows from the combat in Tripoli, as well as from the other regional conflicts, is whether Russia, or more precisely its mercenary organization the Wagner Group, will benefit strategically and economically from the instability. In his Council briefing, Bathily confirmed that Wagner is in Libya, but that the U.N. “has no information on the size of its presence or equipment.” Yet, it has been widely reported that both Russia and Wagner supported Haftar’s attempts to conquer western Libya in 2019 and continue to support his LNA forces. Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield stated at the Council meeting that the United States will continue to “shine a spotlight on the Wagner Group’s pernicious impact in Libya and across Africa,” adding that Wagner operates in Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Sudan, and its leadership “has made no secret of its ambition to gain a further foothold in Africa, [including] its disregard for Libya’s territorial integrity.” The U.N. meeting was held one day before a plane crash, which U.S. officials believe was likely caused by deliberate sabotage, killed Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin - two months after his units led an abortive mutiny against Russia’s defense leadership. Some U.S. and international officials believe that Wagner’s operations in Africa will survive the death of its founder - based on the attraction of many regional elites to Moscow’s denunciations of perceived Western hegemony. A wide range of experts assesses that Moscow’s popularity in Francophone Africa has come at the expense of France, whose counterterrorism and other military operations in Africa, often in partnership with the U.S., have resulted in civilian casualties and property damage and angered much of the population of several African countries, including Niger. Russia has also fashioned itself as an anti-colonial power across the continent, positioning itself in Francophone countries as a liberating anecdote to their former French colonizers. Russia’s popularity in the region comes despite the fact that Moscow, particularly while it is under extensive Western sanctions because of its invasion of Ukraine, has little to offer Africa in trade or investment.