Libyan Crisis Fails to take Center Stage

by Wayne White

Armed Islamist militants have gained ground rapidly in ongoing clashes in Libya, making an already serious situation a lot more ominous. A military attempt to crush the militants early this year has clearly backfired. Islamists are in the minority of Libya’s new parliament, but they have ironically revived the former parliament as a rival government. Sadly, with world priorities taken up by ISIS, Ukraine, and Gaza, little attention is left to focus on Libya’s most serious post-Qadhafi mess. Having tracked the Libyan mess closely for more than a year now, even I found it hard to believe that the crisis could morph so ominously and quickly.

Grim Situation

One of the two dominant government-paid militias, the “Central Shield” force (renamed “Libyan Dawn” or LD) drawn from Libya’s 3rd largest city, Misrata, has soundly defeated its secular-nationalist rival, the militia from the southern mountain area of Zintan. The Misrata force backed the Islamists in parliament, the General National Council (GNC), while the Zintani forces supported the GNC’s secularists, nationalists, and even some moderate Islamists. For the better part of two years, this resulted in a sort of uneasy balance of power in Tripoli.

After prolonged heavy fighting this summer, however, LD drove the Zintanis from their longstanding strongholds including the Tripoli International Airport and surrounding areas. Worse still, it swept on to secure control over the bulk of Tripoli. In what seemed to be an affront to the US, some LD militiamen occupied a portion of the US Embassy in Tripoli on Aug. 31, and a video clip purporting to show men swimming in the embassy’s pool was broadcast on international news channels the next day. Later, however, LD officially claimed it had merely “secured” the embassy.

Misrata militia dominance might have been inevitable, simply because of demographics. Almost 300,000 people live in Misrata from which the militia could draw recruits while the Zintan area is more thinly populated.

Meanwhile, in and around Benghazi far to the east, renegade General Khalifa Haftar’s (or Hiftar’s) campaign to rid the country of Muslim extremists and terrorists has badly stumbled. The small Libyan Air Force, Special Forces, and some regulars and militia allied with him are clearly unable to cope with their fanatical enemies. Recently, Haftar and his allies have suffered a series of major defeats from which his main eastern enemy, the extremist Ansar al-Sharia in Libya (ASL) and the militant “Benghazi Revolutionary Shura Council” it heads, has seized bases, airfields, and arms caches in and around Benghazi (over the weekend it threatened to take the city’s principal airport).

ASL’s gains in eastern Libya’s urban hub of Benghazi and those of Islamists in Tripoli alarmed Egypt next door as well as President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s backers on the Arabian Peninsula, such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Over two dozen Libyans were detained in the UAE on Aug. 30 as part of a series of arrests of suspected Libyan militants.

On Aug. 24, jets heavily bombed Islamist positions in Tripoli. Haftar claimed credit, but having lost several of his few jets since beginning his anti-extremist campaign last spring, his claim was questionable. Witnesses in Tripoli and sources elsewhere maintain the jets were Egyptian or Emirati, and the bomb fragments were US-made. The Pentagon on Aug. 26 said it believed UAE combat aircraft staging from Egypt carried out the bombing, which was denounced as threatening efforts to calm the situation through peaceful political means.

Political Chaos

Libyan Dawn exploited its gains throughout Tripoli to reconvene as much as possible of the Libyan parliament that was replaced in the June elections. Now comprised largely of sympathetic Islamists, this rump GNC declared itself the Libyan Government late last month, and on Aug. 25 named Omar Hassi prime minister.

Noteworthy, however, has been LD’s rejection of a call from the more extreme and terroristic ASL to unite under a “common banner” against the “forces of evil.” LD declared “its rejection of terrorism and extremism,” stressing that it “does not belong to a terrorist organization” (a reference to ASL’s designation as an al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorist group).

Libya’s legitimately elected new parliament, the House of Representatives (HOR), contains a secular/nationalist majority (the reason so many Islamists are shunning it). The worsening situation in Tripoli and Benghazi forced it to convene in Tobruk early last month, between Benghazi and the Egyptian border.

On Aug. 28, Abdullah al-Thinni, presiding ineffectively as interim prime minister since early this year, resigned to allow the HOR to name a permanent government. Yesterday, the HOR tapped al-Thinni, who tried to resign several months ago after gunmen attacked his Tripoli home, as the HOR’s 1st post-election prime minister.

Unheeded Appeals

Libyan authorities have for some time requested foreign assistance in stabilizing Libya’s increasingly violent and chaotic situation. On Aug. 27 Libyan UN Ambassador Ibrahim Dabbashi appealed to the UN Security Council (UNSC) for help in avoiding a “full blown civil war,” the last in a series of Libyan entreaties for UN assistance. The UNSC passed a resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire and sanctions against Libyan individuals contributing to the violence.

The UN secretary general’s special envoy to Libya, Tarek Mitri, has also asked the UN to assume a more active role. I previously recommended that UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, with the help of NATO and the Arab League, invite all key, responsible Libyan players—including Haftar and leading militia chiefs—to a neutral venue outside Libya to hash out as many differences as possible face-to-face.

However, with Islamist militants now far more powerful (including the loathsome ASL), such an approach seems less viable. And with the international community focused on multiple crises regarded by major capitals as a lot more pressing, no one is making a real effort to address the Libyan mess, nor is any ready path to stability evident.

Twisting in the Wind

Despite Washington’s criticism that the UAE air raid endangered efforts to restore the situation via peaceful political efforts, almost nothing like that has taken place recently other than forlorn Libyan appeals and toothless UN resolutions. Preoccupied elsewhere, the international community has left Libya to fester.

Indeed, the bottom line appears to be that robust international engagement would occur only in reaction to a huge spike in the threat posed by Libyan-based extremists such as ASL against not only Libyan neighbors, but also potentially Europe, the US and beyond. Until then, Libya’s course seems likely to be charted almost exclusively by Libyans—and by the force of arms.

Photo: A fighter from the Zintan brigade watches as smoke rises after rockets fired by one of Libya’s militias struck and ignited a fuel tank in Tripoli on Aug. 2, 2014. Credit: Reuters/Hani Amara

Wayne White

Wayne White is a former Deputy Director of the State Department's Middle East/South Asia Intelligence Office (INR/NESA). Earlier in the Foreign Service and later in the INR he served in Niger, Israel, Egypt, the Sinai and Iraq as an intelligence briefer to senior officials of many Middle East countries and as the State Department's representative to NATO Middle East Working Groups in Brussels. Now a Scholar with the Middle East Institute, Mr. White has written numerous articles, been cited in scores of publications, and made numerous TV and radio appearances.



  1. Libya under Qadaafi had the highest standard of living in Africa, South Africa possibly excepted. It had a social safety net that would have left many Americans in awe had they ever known about it- housing, medical care, family subsidies, old age benefits superior to our Social Security- and the largest water project in the world- one that would have made the Sahara bloom and reverse the impact of droughts on his neighbors just about to be completed before it was bombed by NATO. He was an authoritarian ruler, and was responsible for some terrorist incidents, certainly, but he was also demonized and blamed for much more than was due.

    The short of it was, the success of his form of socialism, and his organizing efforts with the African nations with his recommendation to move to a gold based non-dollar payment system, and his reported intention that they collectively sue the European nations for their decades of exploitation, was a threat that no amount of bribes to Sarkozy or the British could outweigh. Instead, his regime was targeted and the country turned into a CIA and jihadist base to funnel arms and mercenaries to overthrow Assad in Syria. This is one for which NATO and our own Administration- especially Obama, Clinton and Rice- should be held fully responsible.

    As for what portends for the future, and the potential candidates out there, let’s be frank, despite the media spin, Hillary Clinton’s record is strewn with foreign policy failures all over the Middle East and her belligerency with Russia vis à vis Ukraine and NATO expansion would spell disaster if she were elected. It’s not that she didn’t tell the truth about Benghazi that’s important, it’s what she didn’t tell of the policies she sponsored and implemented that is.

  2. I wonder, at what point with the American public rise up as the jihad’s have, and start fighting the neocons in the U.S.A.?

  3. Well Wayne that all sounds pretty cool to me. It means your CIA asset General Khalifa Haftar is failing to hold on to the oil, for Total S.A. and BP. Oh my?

    It also means that Operation Dawn, the Jihadhis (who probably do really represent the Libyan people) might in their dreams actually form a government one day that will probably be a variant of the Muslim Brotherhood and then they will want the maximum amount of that oil wealth to say with the Libyan people.

    What could be worse for your former former boss? Call in the marines. Well at least call in the coalition of hate and fear of populist Arab sentiment.

    The Muslim Brotherhood strikes fear and loathing into the hearts of all of the “royals” of the Gulf States (minus Qatar) and of course your murderer and chief in the region Egypt’s new dictator Sisi.

    So hold on to your angst. No one is going to let a group of rag tag Jihadhis get anywhere with all that oil.

    Empire has bigger fish to fry right now so they can allow Operation Dawn to run wild for awhile. When the time comes Washington will take care of them as fast as you can say Qaddafi.

    Empire never sleeps.

  4. It tells you something when Libya falls and no one notices. Just goes to prove how incredibly messed up the world is right now and how every country from the US, Russia, China on down to France, Germany and even Nigeria and Somalia are all doing their part to add to the chaos and confusion. Is it too late to colonize Mars?

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