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What to do about Libya? – Professor Hussein Solomon

June 2, 2015


What to do about Libya?

By Hussein Solomon

RIMA Policy Papers, Volume 3 (2015), Number 3 (June 2015)

20th October 2011 marked the capture and killing of Libyan strongman Colonel Muammar Gaddafi[1]. What followed was a short-lived period of hope as Libyans contemplated democratic reforms following almost 42-years of the iron-fisted authoritarian rule of the colonel and his coterie. Hopes were quickly dashed as the political vacuum brought to the fore the various fault lines within Libyan society – between clans, between the eastern and western parts of the country, the fight for control over Libya’s lucrative oil resources and tensions between Islamists and secularists.

In 2012, for instance, dozens were killed in the conflict between the Arab Zawi and the African Tebu groups in Al-Kufra. The government in Tripoli, meanwhile, battled local militias in Zintan in the west as well as attempting to respond to demands for autonomy from the oil-rich eastern parts of the country centered on Benghazi[2]. Since then Libya has descended into further disintegration and chaos with no functioning central government whose authority is respected throughout the territory of the country. Libya is increasingly resembling a failed state with negative security implications for both Europe and the rest of Africa. Europe has increasingly expressed concern with the flow of illegal immigranst using the Libyan coast as their launch pad across the Mediterranean whilst Islamist militants and narco-traffickers having increasingly transformed the ungoverned spaces of southern Libya into their operational base.

More worrisome still is the gains, the Islamic State (IS) and Islamist-affiliated IS groups have been making in recent months in the country. In July and October 2014 Benghazi and Derna respectively fell under IS control[3]. In recent weeks, IS has expanded the territory under their control in Libya making major advances to the east, south and west of Sirte, including the capture of the Gadabya air base[4]. IS fighters are also making headway towards Misrata on the coastal road to Tripoli. Interestingly enough Islamic State fighters are being quite innovative in tactics using a combination of asymmetric tactics and conventional warfare. Conventional IS forces only advance after individual suicide bombers as well as those in cars detonate their explosives thereby sowing maximum confusion. We have seen these tactics being used more recently in IS advances in Palmyra in Syria and Ramadi in Iraq[5].

The increased sophistication of attacks seems to be related to the influence of Gaddafi’s former officers, who alienated from the current status quo in which they are marginalized, made common cause with IS. The sophistication of IS military strategy in Libya is also seen in the fact that their targets were specifically chosen such as the Great Man Made River water project – the largest irrigation scheme in the word – which supplies fresh water to Libya’s parched cities[6]. Power stations were also targeted.

An IS-controlled Libya will hold grave strategic implications for both African and European security and cannot be countenanced. Under the circumstances, what can be done?

In the first instance, Libya is in desperate need for a functioning central authority. To this end the international community needs to focus their attention on getting the two rival “governments” in Tripoli and Tobruk to forge a government of national unity. Second, the international arms-embargo which was imposed in 2011 must end and weapons must get to the proposed government of national unity urgently. We have already seen that elements of Libya’s armed forces can fight if properly resourced. In December 2014, for instance they captured most of Benghazi and the approaches to Derna from IS. Third, the proposed government of national unity must revoke the law which forbids former Gaddafi officials from holding office in a bid to woo former officers of the Gaddafi regime away from IS and towards the new inclusive government. Fourth, the new Libyan government needs to work with other regional player to take the fight to IS. In February 2015, for instance, Egyptian jets bombed IS targets in Derna, following the beheading of 21 Coptic Christians by IS. Such air strikes on the part of the Egyptians could be coordinated with a ground offensive of a newly revitalized Libyan army. Fifth, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) which played such a decisive role in the ouster of Gaddafi has a moral duty and a vested interest to support the Libyans and regional players to put an end to the brutality of IS.



[1] Libya profile – Timeline, BBC. 27 May 2015. Internet: Date accessed: 2 June 2015.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Suliman Ali Zway and David D. Kirkpatrick, Western officials alarmed as ISIS expands territory in Libya, New York Times, 31 May 2015. Internet: Date accessed: 2 June 2015.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Islamic state militants in Libya seize Sirte airport, BBC. 29 May 2015. Internet: Date accessed: 2 June 2015.

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