December 16, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: Controlling Chaos in Libya

• UN-brokered talks in Rome have yielded a tentative plan for a Libyan Government of National Unity

• Barring any setbacks, members of the rival Libyan governments will sign the deal today in Morocco

• Despite widespread international support for the deal, there are claims that the agreement was rushed

• If formed, the Government of National Unity will have a difficult task ahead, as it will have to control rival militias while combating the threat posed by the Islamic State and al-Qaeda.


After a UN-brokered meeting in Rome on December 13, 2015, representatives from the rival governments in Libya have tentatively agreed to form a Government of National Unity. The official agreement is scheduled to be signed sometime today in the Moroccan city of Skhirat. The meeting in Rome was co-chaired by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni, and attended by diplomats and officials from 16 countries.

Those involved with the talks heralded the agreement as a 'historic accord,' and applauded the willingness of the rival Libyan factions to work to find a solution to the chaos that has engulfed Libya since 2011. Despite international optimism, however, any Libyan Government of National Unity faces a monumental task.

Libya is currently dominated by fractious and fluid networks of militias representing tribal, ethnic, and political interests. The largest of these networks are the internationally recognized government in Tobruk and the rival government in Tripoli. While representatives from both governments attended the talks in Rome, rival officials within both camps declared that they do not support the final agreement. Thus, if a Government of National Unity is formed, there are likely to be factions from both governments that refuse to accept its legitimacy.

The biggest obstacles are those actors that profit the most from instability in Libya: criminal networks and extremist groups such as the so-called Islamic State and al-Qaeda. While Libya has always been an integral part of the smuggling networks traversing North Africa, the collapse of law and order saw these networks expand. Smugglers in Libya traffic everything from cigarettes to weapons to humans, with annual profits topping $300 million for human trafficking alone. The expansion of the criminal network is destabilizing to every nation in which well-armed and well-financed smugglers operate, as they seek to maintain control over their valuable routes.

The volatility in Libya has also benefited extremist groups, which have capitalized on the power vacuum to expand their own networks. In the summer of 2014, Libyan fighters returning from Syria established the first Islamic State Wilayat in the country. Today, the group controls the central coastal city of Sirte and its surrounding areas, and maintains a presence in the eastern cities of Benghazi and Derna. It has also been aggressively expanding toward key oil installations in the western desert, and recently seized the ancient Phoenician trading port of Sabratah—which happens to be a mere 10 miles east of a major refinery complex at Mellitah.

The rise of the Islamic State in Libya was a deliberate strategy by the group’s leadership in Syria, which recognized the opportunity presented by the severe instability in the country. Libya represents an additional profit center for the Islamic State, and a new destination for foreign fighters—particularly those from neighboring Tunisia and Algeria. The group has sent several high-ranking officials to Libya, including Abu Nabil al-Anbari—who was killed in a U.S. airstrike last month outside Derna—and there were even rumors that Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had fled to Libya due to pressure from the anti-Islamic State coalition in Syria. While these rumors proved to be unsubstantiated, they showed how pivotal the Islamic State presence in Libya had become.

Though the expansion of the Islamic State in Libya has captured the attention of the international community, al-Qaeda has been capitalizing on the security situation in the country since the fall of the regime. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has been operating in North Africa since 2007, and built particularly strong ties with the Tuareg tribes spread across northern Mali, Algeria, Niger, and Libya. After the fall of Col. Muammar Qadhafi, AQIM utilized its tribal ties to establish a foothold in southwestern Libya, which has allowed the group to smuggle weapons to its strongholds in Mali, and smuggle drugs and other contraband into Libya for profit. The lawless areas of Libya have also provided safe haven for AQIM fighters fleeing from intense pressure by French, Algerian, and African Union forces in both Algeria and Mali.

Al-Qaeda has also exploited the established jihadi tradition in Libya to its advantage, leveraging relationships with local affiliates in order to exert control over key locations and infrastructure. The al-Qaeda affiliated Derna Mujahideen Shura Council controls the eastern city of Derna, and another al-Qaeda affiliated Shura council controls large parts of Benghazi. The Islamist Ansar al-Shariah in Libya—which has strong ties to al-Qaeda—is closely linked to elements of the government in Tripoli, and is currently allowed to operate—and collect profits from—the Mellitah oil and gas refinery.

The profits and power being consolidated by these groups is likely to disincentivize any cooperation with a Government of National Unity. Given this, the fledgling government will have a fight on its hands before the ink is dry.


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