June 2, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: The Graveyard Off the Coast of Libya

• According to the International Organization for Migration, more than 1,000 migrants perished off the coast of Libya in the last week of May

• Compared to the same period last year, migrant drownings in the Mediterranean have increased by more than 30 percent—with the majority of those deaths occurring off the coast of Libya

• The massive number of migrants passing through Libya provides steady revenue to criminal and extremist groups—including the Islamic State and al-Qaeda

• Even if the UN-backed government in Tripoli is able to uproot the Islamic State from its stronghold in Sirte, it will still face the daunting task of dismantling the powerful and entrenched human smuggling networks that threaten to undermine the government.


As spring transitions into summer, an increasing number of migrants will make the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean to Europe. Invariably, many of those migrants—primarily from sub-Saharan Africa, but increasingly from the Middle East and Central Asia—will end up transiting through Libya, paying human smugglers thousands of dollars for the chance to travel to a new life in the EU. However, in the last week of May alone, that treacherous journey proved fatal for more than 1,000 migrants, as their overcrowded and poorly maintained ships capsized in the Mediterranean. According to UNHCR, migrant drownings have increased by a third compared to this period last year, topping 2,000 deaths along the Central Mediterranean Route between January and May. The odds of a migrant drowning on that route—which is almost exclusively used by those embarking from Libya—are now 1 in 23, compared to 1 in 81 for all Mediterranean routes combined. 

Beyond the acute human tragedy, the expansive human smuggling networks running through Libya present a serious threat to the long-term stability of the country. Within the power vacuum created by the fall of the Qadhafi government in 2011, both criminal and violent extremist groups have found space to flourish. For both sets of non-state actors, the smuggling of migrants presents a lucrative source of revenue, ballooning to a $3.8 million enterprise in the country. Further complicating matters, the human smuggling networks expand south into the remote desert regions of Mali, Algeria, Niger, Chad, Sudan, and Egypt, effectively establishing business relationships between criminal and militant groups across the Sahara and Sahel regions of Africa. These networks even stretch as far as Syria and Iraq, where some smugglers are known to encourage refugees to travel through Libya rather than through Turkey. 

Both al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State draw revenue from human smuggling, primarily by taxing criminal networks for the ability to transit through their territory, and launch ships from their ports. Migrants are often sold from one group to another, as well as extorted for additional ransom from their families, or in the form of forced labor. Al-Qaeda has long been involved in the smuggling trade in North Africa, moving migrants, weapons, fuel, and drugs across the remote desert with aid from local ethnic groups. These local groups include the Tuareg, whose traditional homeland spans Niger, Chad, Algeria, and southwestern Libya—the area of the country where al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has its strongest presence. The Islamic State, while less experienced in the regional smuggling trade, has seized control of a swath of land on the central Libyan coast, and uses its control of territory to profit from the smuggling of migrants. In addition, the group has drawn recruits from Nigeria, Niger, Chad, and Sudan, allowing it to draw on regional networks to integrate itself into the smuggling trade. 

The proliferation of lucrative human smuggling networks also threatens to undermine the ability of the newly formed government in Tripoli to consolidate power and reinstate the rule of law. The criminal and militant networks that move migrants through North Africa are necessarily aided by the weakness of the states in which they operate. Weak states tend to have poor centralized control, under-equipped and under-trained militaries, and high levels of corruption. In Libya, the fractured nature of centralized control has left various militias scuffling for power and influence, and utilizing whatever sources of revenue they can find—including human smuggling—to gain the upper hand against opponents. As the new government attempts to reunite the country, these disparate parties may prove unwilling to abandon their source of revenue, even as thousands of migrants continue to die off of Libya’s coast. Bolstered by criminal and violent extremist groups for whom stability is unacceptable, these actors could prove to be serious roadblocks to Libya’s path to stability and recovery.


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