Hot Issue: Libya in Anarchy Two Years After Western Intervention

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Executive Summary

Two years ago, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s assassination by Western-backed rebels (October 20, 2011) marked the end of all-out civil war and the collapse of the state in Libya. The United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) based their case for military intervention on humanitarian considerations. But they also based it on wholesale political miscalculations about Libya itself, and about the “Arab Spring” more broadly. The external intervention, and the local insurgency it fed, paved the way directly to violent chaos. In the rush to intervene at that time, there was no serious planning to safeguard Western interests in Libya regarding oil and gas supplies, migration control, and counter-terrorism.


In 2011, the administration of US President Barack Obama and the North Atlantic Alliance undertook the international military intervention into Libya reluctantly (the decision’s speed and its rhetoric masked its actual half-heartedness). The Alliance lent its flag to the operation; but almost all combat was undertaken by the French and British air forces with indispensable US intelligence and logistical support, token participation by a few NATO countries (while most Allies abstained), and Libyan paramilitary units armed by US and Arab Gulf states’ intelligence agencies. Once they did intervene, however, Washington and NATO confidently anticipated the democratization of the war-torn North African country and a reliable security order on a new basis (see Eurasia Daily Monitor, May 18, 2011).

On October 20, 2011, Gaddafi, who had dictatorially ruled Libya for over 40 years, was gunned down by anti-government forces; and that same day, NATO called a victorious end to a six-month regime-change campaign in Libya. In a political and mass-media climate suffused with hopes about an Arab Spring, the Libyan rebels were transfigured as potential democrats, despite their tribal base and strong jihadist elements in their ranks. Yet, the West never reckoned with the results that could and did ensue inadvertently from this military intervention. Instead of government change, the unanticipated outcome turned out to be the dismantling of governance as such.

From Regime Change to Security Vacuum

State collapse has caused a security vacuum and destruction of any form of order in Libya. Hundreds of informal armed groups, many of them originating in the 2011 Western-supported insurgency, have de facto partitioned the country into spheres of influence (see Terrorism Monitor, August 19, 2013). They are variously based on clan, territorial and organized crime interests. Jihadist elements are prominent among some of these groups. Most of them claim “revolutionary” credentials from 2011 to legitimize their continuing existence as armed organizations. They control government ministries and institutions, town and district administrations, portions of highways, as well as oil installations. Intermittently, they seize government buildings or “arrest” government officials to extort compliance with their demands (al-Jazeera, October 10). In Libya’s East, where most of the oil production originates, armed groups enforce de facto autonomy from Tripoli.

The US and several Arab Gulf states (Qatar, particularly) jointly armed the Libyan insurgents in 2011 (The Financial Times, The Times [London], October 11, 2013). The insurgents then seized the Gaddafi regime’s abundant arsenals. This has destroyed the basis for post-intervention, post–civil war stabilization of the country. Libya’s official army and police are outnumbered and outgunned. Some of those arms are now in the hands of jihadist groups, destabilizing a vast area from Mali to Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.

Many of the unofficial armed groups draw “salaries” variously from the Libyan government, army and police. Such payments (largely drawn from Western subsidies to the government) do not indicate that the informal armed units are in any sense “integrated” with government forces. The recipients obey or disobey the government according to their own interests at any given moment. Informal armed groups are variously active in smuggling, arms and drugs trafficking, and “protection” of oil installations, some of which have been seized by such protectors in recent weeks. Unable itself to enforce order, the government is often reduced to asking some armed groups to intervene against other groups in multiple incidents across the country.

On October 10, Libya’s Prime Minister Ali Zeidan was abducted from a governmental compound in downtown Tripoli by a large armed group that had fought against Gaddafi and is now affiliated with the interior ministry. The prime minister was then freed by another informal, government-paid armed group (al-Jazeera, October 10). Zeidan characterized his abduction as an attempted coup d’état orchestrated by some members of the provisional parliament. Zeidan’s abductors were protesting against the capture of suspected al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb commander, Abu Anas al-Libi, by a US Delta Force raid. Al-Libi had been living in Tripoli despite multiple US criminal indictments against him. The Libyan government was unable or unwilling to deliver al-Libi, necessitating the US raid to capture him. An obviously intimidated Zeidan distanced himself publicly from the US operation, and a spokesman for Libya’s divided parliament condemned it (Libya Herald, October 11; Reuters, October 11, 15).

Foreign embassies in the country also remain unsafe. On September 11, 2012, an assault on the US consulate in Benghazi (“cradle of the 2011 revolution”) killed four Americans, including the US ambassador. The British, French and Italian embassies had to evacuate some or most of their personnel from Libya, due to threats of incidents of violence during 2013. In early October this year, a car bomb was detonated outside the joint Swedish-Finnish consulate in Benghazi; and the Russian embassy evacuated all of its personnel from Tripoli to Tunisia following an attack that damaged the embassy’s perimeter (Interfax, October 11).

Crucial Omissions in Planning for Post-Gaddafi Libya

Although presenting it as a humanitarian intervention, Western leaders also unveiled the goal of regime change from the start of the NATO-led operation over Libya and during most of its course. US President Barack Obama did so even before the first shots had been fired, and the French and British leaders followed suit implicitly or explicitly. There was no inconsistency and no hypocrisy there, even if Russia and others complained on both of those counts. Once humanitarian intervention was launched to protect “the Libyan people” from “mass murder” by Colonel Gaddafi’s forces, then the intervention logically had to culminate in regime change. And once NATO had lent its flag, it could not take it back home without total victory, regime change being its only possible manifestation in those circumstances (see Eurasia Daily Monitor, May 18, 2011; August 5, 8, 9, 2011).

While that logic took on its inexorable dynamic, two crucial dimensions were missing, with long-term effects that are haunting Libya to date, and have contributed to public skepticism about humanitarian intervention by military force.

One missing dimension was that of a viable alternative government for Libya. The Western allies embarked on a regime-changing war without preparing a political solution or a formula for post-war governance. In Libya’s case (unlike others), regime change resulted in dismantling an already under-institutionalized state, and brought the end of any form of governance in the country. Libya has experienced violent anarchy for the last two years, and the situation has deteriorated even further in recent months.

Pre-2011 Libya was a rudimentary state under an apparently deranged leader, who combined repression with incentives to maintain social stability and a balance among tribes. This was in no sense a failed state; it was far more prosperous, relative to its neighbors. Gaddafi’s Libya had been all too capable of mischief and violence on international and regional levels in decades past. But it turned a corner after 2001, made a series of strategic deals with European countries and the United States, and delivered effectively on those deals right up to the 2011 war’s outbreak (see below).

The allied intervention in 2011 omitted to ensure that post-Gaddafi Libya would continue to honor those deals and safeguard Western interests in the country. This was the other major dimension missing from Western policy planning of the regime-changing intervention. Indeed, from 2001 onward, Gaddafi’s Libya had abandoned support for terrorism, cooperating instead with US-led counter-terrorism efforts and suppressing jihadism. By 2003, Tripoli renounced its uranium-enrichment ambitions; and it embarked on a Western-assisted program to eliminate its chemical weapons—a program well-advanced by 2011. From 2004 onward, Libya stepped up cooperation with European oil and gas companies; and it policed African migration to Europe effectively.

Western leaders rewarded Gaddafi’s volte-face. International economic sanctions on Libya were lifted by the United Nations, the European Union and the US (in that order). The European Union (with energy and migration-policing interests at stake) hosted Gaddafi in Brussels in 2004. From 2004 onward, British Prime Minister Tony Blair held multiple meetings with Gaddafi. French President Nicolas Sarkozy visited with Gaddafi in 2007 in Libya, welcomed him at the Elysee Palace on the return visit and allowed Gaddafi to pitch his tent in downtown Paris. In 2008, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice paid a visit to Gaddafi; and in 2009, the Libyan ruler enjoyed his photo opportunity with US President Barack Obama during the G-8 summit in Italy. Also in 2009, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton received Mutassim Gaddafi, Libya’s national security adviser and Muammar Gaddafi son, in Washington.

None of that could remedy Gaddafi’s peculiar personal behavior and indelibly negative image. Nevertheless, “I think the fact they [the Libyan government] gave up their chemical and nuclear program, the fact they stopped sponsoring terrorism and cooperate in the fight against it was great,” Tony Blair stated in retrospect (BBC, April 13, 2011).

Libya’s current government performs less effectively than the post-2001 Gaddafi regime in meeting Western interests regarding oil, counter-terrorism and illegal migration. This year, the government’s failure to curb anarchy in the country has crippled Libyan oil supplies to Europe. Jihadi armed groups, formerly suppressed by Gaddafi, now operate with impunity in Benghazi, other parts of eastern Libya and beyond (see above).

Furthermore, Libya’s coast has become a staging ground and way station for illegal migration from sub-Saharan Africa and Syria to Europe. In September and early October this year, a series of incidents at sea highlighted the problem. Boats, sailing from Libya, variously made it to EU territory, or were intercepted en route, or capsized on the high sea—detected and probably also undetected—with massive losses of lives. Libyan human-trafficking networks handle migration flows along great distances. Gaddafi’s regime had itself curbed illegal migration to Europe. The EU must now incur the costs and risks of deploying a civilian border-assistance mission to unstable Libya (The Guardian, October 13, 17).
Libya’s Oil Industry amid Political Chaos and Security Collapse

The Western-backed “revolution” of 2011 has massively disrupted Libya’s oil supplies to the West in two stages. In the first stage, oil production plummeted amid the NATO-flagged intervention and the civil war it fed. An interlude in 2012 saw a promising recovery in oil production and export. A second stage of disruption began in June 2013 and continues amid political and military anarchy to date, on the second anniversary of the war’s end (Platts, August 23, October 15).

Libya holds proven reserves of 48 billion barrels of oil, at the latest rating (US Energy Information Administration [EIA] citing Oil and Gas Journal, January 2013). Actual reserves are believed to be considerably higher than this rating, as most of the country’s territory remains unexplored for oil and gas. Libyan oil production generally consists of light and sweet grades, in high demand by European refineries.

Oil production (measured in average number of barrels per day [bpd] in the given year) amounted to 1.65 million bpd in 2009, and the same amount in 2010 (higher than the voluntary production quota of 1.47 million bpd set by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries [OPEC] for Libya, but lower than Libya’s production capacity of 1.815 million bpd at that time). Production plummeted to 500,000 bpd during 2011 (including eight months, February to October, of civil war and external military intervention). Oil production recovered fast but incompletely at 1.37 million bpd in 2012 (from a post-war production capacity reduced to 1.6 million bpd).

Exports of crude oil amounted to slightly over 1.5 million bpd in 2010, sank to 400,000 bpd in the war year 2011, and recovered incompletely to 1.25 million bpd in 2012. Libyan oil is delivered to Italy (28 percent of total Libyan oil exports), France (15 percent), Germany and Spain (10 percent each). The picture is somewhat different in terms of European reliance on Libyan oil. Italy relied on it for 23 percent of national consumption, Austria for 22 percent, Switzerland for 18 percent, France for 16 percent, Spain for 12 percent, and Germany for 7 percent during 2010, the last pre-war year—Italian and French refineries being the leading destinations for Libyan crude (The Economist, February 25, 2011;,, accessed October 16, 2013).

Country-wide anarchy has engulfed Libya’s oil industry since June of the current year, crippling production and export. The daily average production plummeted to an estimated 1 million bpd in July, 600,000 bpd in August, and 350,000 bpd in September. Oil exports correspondingly sank to 830,000 bpd in July, 445,000 bpd in August, and 300,000 bpd in September 2013. These shortfalls became a contributory factor to the rebound of oil prices toward $110 per barrel (EIA, last updated October 10; Platts, October 15).

Oil export terminals, field production sites, and pipelines have become the targets of financial extortion and protection rackets by local tribes, informal armed groups “guarding” oil installations, and strikes by parts of the workforce. They variously demand higher pay, artificial job creation for unemployed Libyans, changes to management, and oil revenue sharing with local clan-based authorities. According to one Western oil industry executive, some protesting groups demand jobs, then simply salaries without jobs, and the hiring of three men instead of “merely” two for every salaried job (Platts, August 23).

Striking workers, armed tribesmen, and guards originally hired to “protect” oil installations have forced temporary shutdowns of oil extraction operations and pipelines in western Libya, as well as at maritime ports in eastern Libya (Cyrenaica). The bulk of Libya’s oil export originates in that eastern province. There, the forcible closure of ports and oil terminals on the coast has compelled a halt to oil extraction at the fields in the country’s interior. With violent turmoil in Benghazi and other Cyrenaican ports, insurance premiums have risen dramatically for oil tankers. Effective from August, Libya’s National Oil Company has declared force majeure to avoid penalties for defaulting on supply contracts.

In September, Libya’s provisional parliament authorized a numerical increase of the Petroleum Facility Guards (PFG) to as many as 18,000 (or 21,000 according to updated reports) and an increase in these Guards’ salaries. The parliament’s decision responded to the PFG’s strikes and threats. The PFG are nominally subordinated to the Libyan defense ministry, but have demonstrated their capacity for insubordination. Moreover, Cyrenaica-based PFG support provincial autonomy and tend to disobey the Tripoli-headquartered PFG. The latter have occasionally engaged in firefights against Cyrenaican armed groups in the east and against Fezzan armed groups from that southern province. In one firefight, Fezzan tribesmen from the south attacked a PFG base in Tripoli. Nominally state-run, the PFG was supposed to counteract the non-state armed groups that offered to “protect” oil installations as a form of racketeering. But the government’s plan has not worked out as supposed (Forbes, September 23; Bloomberg, October 1; Libya Herald, October 4).

An ad-hoc committee of Libya’s provisional parliament is negotiating with the disruptive groups. In the second half of September, this committee succeeded in mediating a still-incomplete resumption of oil production and export from Libya’s western provinces. Meanwhile, the stoppage persists in the eastern province of Cyrenaica, which in more normal times accounted for at least three quarters of Libya’s proven reserves, production and export of oil.

Supporters of Cyrenaican self-rule are using the shutdown of four export terminals to pressure Tripoli into political concessions. These groups do not seek outright secession, but neither do they allow Tripoli to exercise its authority there. Cyrenaican representatives call for the headquarters of Libya’s National Oil Company to be transferred from Tripoli to Benghazi. That city, however, became an epicenter of jihadist-inspired violence from the start of the 2011 rebellion and remains so to date (see above; Panapress, September 30, October 3–8).

Any revival of oil production in Cyrenaica depends, physically and technically, on reopening the coastal ports as a first step. However, the political agenda of provincial self-rule adds to the political complications of tribalism. Meanwhile, Libya lacks both a constitution and a petroleum legislation. Both would depend significantly on Cyrenaica’s eventual status.

Libya’s government hopes to increase oil production from mature fields through enhanced-recovery projects, and to open new fields for exploration and production by international oil companies. Amid state collapse, however, the government has been unable to hold tenders or otherwise attract investment. It hopes to hold the first tenders in 2014.

Italian ENI and French Total have long been heavily invested in Libya. Last month, however, ExxonMobil announced cutbacks on its staff and operations in Libya, citing concerns over safety; and Marathon Oil is disinvesting (Reuters, September 17). Royal Dutch Shell withdrew from Libya in 2012. Some European companies are more likely to persevere in the North African country for the sake of maintaining the levels of their booked reserves (for example, German Wintershall, Austrian OMV, Spanish Repsol). However, disinvestment might, in due course, become a more likely prospect than investment in Libya, if the current anarchy is not curbed.


At present, no attempt is seen in Washington or at NATO headquarters to draw the lessons of Libya and avert the recurrence of ill-conceived interventions with counter-productive outcomes. The 2011 military intervention was time-limited, but the anarchy in the country continues unabated since then. The situation is now deteriorating even further, in all parts of Libya, impacting across its borders into neighboring countries. Oil and gas supplies to Europe, the policing of migration to Europe, and anti-terrorism and anti-proliferation efforts have all been set back.

European interests have and continue to be affected by the spread of instability out of Libya, a collapse of migration control, and oil export shortfalls. The European Union’s border security agencies are considering possible ways of containing the situation in the country, but according to these agencies in Brussels: “The current trend of serious criminal incidents and increased inter-factional clashes will continue, and indications are that it will become more pronounced” (EUObserver, October 14).