February 18, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: The Terror in Libya

• The violence and chaos in Libya is nearing Iraq and Syria levels, with immensely negative consequences for regional and global security

• Reports of 35 more Egyptians kidnapped in Libya after the recent airstrikes and the mass beheading of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians show that this issue is not a one-time event but rather a gathering storm

• In response to the crisis, Egyptian President al-Sisi has asked for the same level of international military effort against extremists in Libya as is occurring in Syria and Iraq, though regional power dynamics also factor into al-Sisi’s request

• Egypt, which has not been militarily involved in Iraq or Syria, is deeply involved in neighboring Libya, partnering with the UAE to support the Bayda/Tobruk governing faction, and conducting airstrikes against its rivals.


The prospect that has haunted the international community since the fall of Muammar Qadhafi is becoming reality: Libya is going the way of Iraq and Syria. A poisonous mixture of local violent rivalries and regional power moves has produced a situation that is out of control. Libya’s dire state of affairs has the potential to produce another exporter of violence and violent ideology—much as what is still happening in Syria and Iraq. And as in those two countries, rival neighboring countries are playing a dangerous game with disastrous results.

Nothing in Libya is even close to straight forward. After the barbaric beheading of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians, Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi has called for a UN mandate to arm and support the Bayda/Tobruk government, one of Libya’s two competing governments. The Bayda government is internationally recognized, though the Libyan Supreme Court still recognizes the General National Congress (GNC), leaving the country with no true central authority. Al-Sisi’s call to arm the Bayda government fighters, led by General Khalifa Haftar, is not just in response to the murders of fellow Egyptians at the hands of a group claiming allegiance with the Islamic State; it is also consistent with Egypt’s strong support for Bayda and its even stronger antipathy for the GNC and its ‘Libya Dawn’ movement fighters—some of whom belong to violent extremist groups such as Ansar al-Sharia.

The internal chaos of Libya is matched by the regional maneuverings, with the supporters of Bayda (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and UAE) fighting a proxy war with the supporters of the Islamist/Muslim Brotherhood-influenced GNC (Turkey, Qatar, and Sudan). Last summer, UAE fighter jets used Egyptian airfields to launch attacks against GNC/Libya Dawn fighting elements. This is remarkable given that Egypt has played no military role in Iraq or Syria, while the UAE has conducted some bombing runs against the Islamic State in Syria. The determination of the pro-Bayda bloc to crush any remnant of the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya (much as they did in Egypt with the fall of former President Morsi) should not be underestimated.

Libya isn’t organized enough to call its fighting a civil war along the lines of Syria, in that there really is no central government against which all others fight. But the potential for Libya to serve as another Syrian-style exporter of violence to nearby Europe concerns governments across the globe. Current events in Libya are beginning to resemble the early days of the Syrian war, where internal and external actors shifted and morphed, and there was little international assessment of where the fighting would lead. There is no sectarian fissure to mine in Libya, so the battle lines are even more complicated than in Syria. The presence of so many armed groups with deep-seated tribal and geographical rivalries—and so many regional actors backing their favorite faction—bodes poorly for the near and long-term health of the country.

International action in Libya may well be needed, though international action in the country in 2011, however well-intentioned, precipitated the current upheaval. When it comes to the international community and Libya, it is a horrible choice between action and inaction—both of which lead to more chaos. Still, absent some overarching international guidance and policy, Libya will join Syria and Iraq as truly global concerns.


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