The Ongoing Unrest in Libya and the Hyped Threat Posed by Islamic State

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 13 Issue: 6

UN Special Envoy to Libya Bernardino Leon and General National Congress member Muhammad Mageb at UN peace talks (Source: AFP)

Making sense of the political turmoil and the potential threat of the Islamic State in Libya is becoming increasingly difficult. At the beginning of March 2015, delegations from various Libyan factions met in the Moroccan coastal town of Skhirat, to negotiate under the auspices of the United Nations. At the same time, leaders of Libyan political parties and activists met in Algeria in a further attempt to ease dialogue between warring Libyan groups. The main declared aim of the negotiations in Morocco, which are ongoing, is to achieve a unity government and a lasting ceasefire. However, on March 13, the delegation representing the Tobruk-based government, the only one recognized by the international community, did not show up, after requesting that the talks be postponed for one week after the Tripoli-based government, which is backed by the forces of the Libyan Dawn, asked the UN clarify its official position on the role of General Khalifa Haftar, the head of the Tripoli-based government’s armed forces (Reuters, March 13; Jeune Afrique, March 9; Libya Herald, March 11; Libya Akhbar, March 13; Terrorism Monitor, December 19, 2014). These developments, as well as the lack of any ceasefires or notable agreements between the warring parties to date, illustrate the challenges involved in bringing peace to Libya, not least because key individuals, such as Haftar are also potentially stumbling blocks to any deal, especially now that he has been appointed commander of the Libyan Army (al-Jazeera, March 9; al-Sharq al-Awsat, December 18, 2014). The aim of this article is to provide some background to the ongoing conflict and to contextualize the roles, aims and make up of the various parties.

Local Obsessions: A Geographical and Psychological Explanation for the Current Fragmentation

The current conflict is largely shaped by a constant element in Libyan history: local communities have a strong sense of identity, which influences their perceptions, interests and choices. This is presently true for Misrata, Zintan and many other locations. Historically, this was due to geographical constraints that made communication and contacts complex, as well as diverse cultural influences (Levantine culture in the east, Berber and Maghrebi influences in the west and Saharian and Sahelian links in the south) that produced social units, such as a town or tribe, with their own specific interests, agendas and preferences. The different parts of this rather complex mosaic have traditionally united only when they all faced a common threat, such as against the Ottomans, the Italians and, most recently, against Muammar Qaddafi, the Libyan leader from 1969 to 2011. However, as there is no common existential threat now facing these groups, they have reverted back to pursuing their own narrow local agendas by force, and at the expense of other Libyan groups.

As a result, while there is presently a macro division of the country between the Tripoli- and Tobruk-based governments, in reality both broad camps are nothing more than very loose coalitions of disparate interests, which are mostly local. The primacy of local interests over other elements (such as ethnic and tribal allegiances or ideological affinities) is shown by the existence of strange alliances within both camps. For instance, Haftar, who portrays himself abroad as the ultimate defense against radical Islamism in Libya, has Salafist allies such as Ashraf al-Mayar, a hardline preacher who was formerly involved with the February 17 Martyrs Brigade, an Islamic militia. Similarly, the Misratan militias, who are generally opposed to Qaddafi’s former allies, have allied themselves with the Tuaregs in the south, who were key to Qaddafi’s regime (Libya Herald, June 11, 2014, Daily Star [Beirut], January 8).

However, while this “hyper-localism” is partly the result of geography and history, it is also the result of the extremely powerful fear of exclusion from power, which developed under Qaddafi’s 42 years of ruling. All the different fragments of the current Libyan political landscape perceive the current violence (likely correctly) as the constitutive phase of a new order, and they do not want to be excluded from it for fear that this would potentially condemn them to decades of being excluded from power. Therefore, while many of these groups’ interests are local, at the same time, they do not want to be excluded at the national level; hence the coalition of disparate groups into unlikely national-level coalitions. This is even more important at the present time because the Libyan oil sector, virtually the country’s only source of wealth, is under pressure owing to two dynamics: the new strategy of economic warfare against oil installations by regionally-linked terrorist groups and a potentially long-term trend of lower oil prices (Terrorism Monitor, April 4, 2014).

The Emergence of Islamic State in Libya

In this fragmented political landscape, in which two competing power centers are incapable of controlling the entire country, it is not surprising that the Islamic State has become an actor inside Libya. The Islamic State first emerged in Libya in mid-2014, when Libyan fighters returned from Syria and Iraq to fight, jointly with foreign fighters that the Islamic State had sent to organize its Libyan branch, and to collect pledges of allegiance to the Islamic State leader in Iraq and Syria, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (al-Sharq al-Awsat, July 16, 2014; al-Hayat, November 3, 2014). By October 2014, the Islamic State had declared eastern Libya a province of its caliphate (ANSA, October 31, 2014). Subsequently, in the first months of 2015, the group significantly raised its profile through a number of armed actions that were amplified immensely because of the tremendous media capacity of the central branch of Islamic State. This quickly made the Islamic State appear to be an important element in the Libyan conflict. Most notably, the group claimed responsibility for an attack against a police station in Tripoli while it also reportedly attacked an oil plant in al-Ghani, kidnapping 9 foreigners on March 9 (Libya Herald, March 12). Other actions by the group included the videotaped beheading of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christian workers in February 2015, and the attack against Tripoli’s Corinthia Hotel at the end of January 2015 (Jeune Afrique, March 9; Dabiq, February 12; al-Ahram, February 15). However, apart from focusing attention on the group and encouraging many foreign companies to scale back their operations in Libya, these sporadic and highly-focused attacks, often carried out against relatively weak targets, have had relatively little impact on the dynamics of the broader conflict in the country.

Although the Islamic State’s current influence on Libya’s broader strategic picture is, therefore, relatively minimal, the rise of the group, amplified by its high-profile attacks, has become a key focus of both domestic and foreign actors. For instance, the Tobruk government’s foreign affairs minister, Mohamed Dayri, warned that Libya may turn into a new Syria should political solutions fail, stressing the point that—more than an external intervention—what they need is military equipment to enable them to fight the jihadists (La Tribune [Algiers], February 26). Haftar meanwhile, in an interview with the Italian news agency ANSA, called on Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi to ask the international community to lift the current embargo on weapons. Haftar argued that he and his militias were effectively fighting for the benefit of foreign countries, warning that “if we were to fail, the next target of terrorists would be Italy” (ANSA, March 10).

Despite such rhetoric, however, the Islamic State’s presence in Libya is not a game changer in and of itself. The group’s capabilities are not significantly greater than those of other militias, nor does its presence change the scale of the current military confrontations within the country. Indeed, there is a strange convergence of interests in exaggerating the group’s capacities. For Haftar, exaggerating the Islamic State threat represents a valuable rhetoric opportunity to build his profile as the “Libyan al-Sisi,” strengthening his demand that foreign countries support him in order to prevent the Islamic State establishing a presence on the shores of the Mediterranean. Meanwhile, Libyan Dawn, the main Tripoli-based militia alliance, has used the rise of the Islamic State to imply the presence of murky external plots and “false flag” operations in the country, or to claim that—as happened in Iraq with former Baathist members—Qaddafi’s former loyalists actually represent the bulk of the Islamic State presence (The Independent, March 16). While neither of these claims is entirely groundless, they are inaccurate and exaggerated versions of reality. In the meantime, the Islamic State gains advantages from this by boosting its appeal and expanding its recruiting abilities. In this context, for the Islamic State, success nurtures success; by being perceived as successful, it attracts more recruits, which in turns allows it to be perceived as successful.

Obstacles to Islamic State Expansion in Libya

The Islamic State’s membership in Libya is complex. So far, it has been able to attract young militants from Derna and other areas in the east (al-Jazeera, March 7). It has also been able to capitalize on the problems that Ansar al-Shari’a has faced recently, which has led to Ansar al-Shari’a in Derna (which is different from the bigger Ansar al-Shari’a in Benghazi) merging with the Islamic State. The group also contains a mixture of foreign fighters, mainly Tunisians and Yemenis, some of whom are apparently operating there as points of contacts with the central branch in Iraq and Syria. It also contains Libyan fighters returning home (part of the al-Battar Brigade) after a decade or more of militancy between Iraq and Syria. In addition, there are young Libyans from a number of different places, attracted by the Islamic State brand and its apparent success. There are also potentially former Qaddafi loyalists who see the organization as a chance to regain a role and elements of power (Al-Monitor, March 15; al-Arabiya, March 18; International Business Times, February 20; al-Jazeera, March 7).

However, a key element that allowed the Islamic State to emerge successfully in Syria and Iraq is missing in Libya, namely a large and disenfranchised Sunni community, which in Syria and Iraq had been excluded from the current balances of power and who wished to regain the power and influence that they felt was rightfully theirs. This dynamic is missing in Libya, where Sunnis form the vast majority of the population and where divisions are on political, local or tribal lines rather than religious ones. As such, the Islamic State may need to try harder to maintain and justify its presence in Libya, and the final result will likely be different from Iraq and Syria, where they have established a proto-state. In addition, while winning the support of the Sunni communities in Syria and Iraq has allowed the Islamic State there to access established oil and other smuggling networks from Iraq to the wider region, in Libya, the trade in people and drug smuggling is dominated by Sahelians, Saharian and other Maghrebis.


Despite the existence of two main recognizable and distinct political blocs, based in Tripoli and Tobruk, the Libyan landscape remains significantly fragmented beyond this. Every group has its own political agenda based largely on seizing and preserving local and narrow interests, while also acting nationally in order to avoid being excluded from an eventual new order in Libya. While the current talks in Morocco and Algeria represent a positive step, it is unlikely that they will produce any greater stability in the short-term because the two blocs continue to have a rather intransigent approach, and, most importantly, those few people within each of them pushing for an agreement cannot guarantee that their loose coalitions will accept the outcomes of these negotiations. The presence of the Islamic State is also unlikely to be a strategic game changer for the dynamics of the Libya conflict, due to local circumstances that are unfavorable to its expansion at the moment. However, the fluidity of the strategic environment leaves the door open for some tactical alliances between local groups and the Islamic State, especially if the latter should consolidate its presence in some strongholds in Eastern Libya and being perceived as an actor that can help other groups to achieve their aims.

Dario Cristiani is an adjunct professor in international affairs at Vesalius College in Brussels and a senior analyst at the Global Governance Institute.