Libya

A horrific suicide bombing in Manchester has put a spotlight on Libya—the North African nation where the chaos that has prevailed for the better part of the past six years has become a fertile breeding ground for a mélange of terrorist groups, including the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).

“What Manchester shows is that it is possible for a radicalized kid to go to Libya and potentially receive the kind of training that would allow him to return to his home country and commit an act of terrorism,” said Karim Mezran, a resident senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

On May 22, a bomber identified by British authorities as Salman Abedi, the twenty-two-year-old British-born son of Libyan immigrants, detonated explosives at the end of an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester Arena, killing himself and twenty-two other people. Fifty-nine people were wounded. Abedi had earlier traveled to Libya to see his parents who have moved back; he also visited Syria. The British government on May 23 put the entire country on the highest level of alert—a sign that another attack “may be imminent.”

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The situation in Libya seems to be simultaneously stalemated and wavering on the brink of collapse. The Presidential Council and Government of National Accord (PC/GNA), which emerged from the UN-led Libyan Political Agreement at the end of 2015, has made little progress in solidifying its authority in the country. The United Nations is increasingly weak in Libya, with no clear replacement for Special Representative Martin Kobler, whose mandate expires soon. Meanwhile, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, who is allied with the House of Representatives in the east and leads the Libyan National Army, continues to refuse to come to a deal with the PC/GNA, perhaps based on the false assumption that he can take control of the country militarily. The recent clashes in the south of the country near Sebha between Haftar’s forces and militias loyal to the PC/GNA are an indicator of the dangers of escalation in the country’s conflict. There is an ever-growing risk of civil war in Libya. Indeed, PC/GNA head Fayez al-Serraj called this week on the international community to intervene in Libya to prevent further destabilization in the south and a possible outbreak of war.

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Libyan foreign minister seeks US engagement in effort to root out terrorists

Amid concern that the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) is regrouping in Libya, Mohamed Taher Syala, the foreign minister in Libya’s internationally recognized, Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), said the United States must remain committed to defeating the terrorists in his country.

More than five years after its longtime ruler, Moammar Gadhafi, was ousted and killed in an Arab Spring-inspired uprising, Libya remains mired in chaos. It has two rival governments and is awash in weapons and independent militias. ISIS has sought to exploit this chaos in the North African nation.

In the summer of 2016, the United States conducted drone strikes against ISIS targets in the coastal city of Sirte. Troops loyal to the GNA—mostly militias from the western city of Misrata—also helped shatter ISIS’ control over its stronghold in Sirte.

Syala praised the US military intervention. “Without those attacks, it would be very difficult for our forces to conquer Daesh in that area,” he said in an interview with the New Atlanticist on March 23. ISIS is also known as Daesh.

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In order to end the civil war in Libya, those competing for power must meet, negotiate, and establish a path to free and fair elections early in 2018, Jonathan Winer, a former US State Department special envoy for Libya, said at the Atlantic Council on March 9.

The three factions claiming sole legitimacy and authority in Libya should “negotiate a deal… come together for the good of the country, create an interim government, and have elections in 2018,” said Winer. Of international allies and partners invested in the region, he said, “everybody pretty much sees it the same way. That’s what needs to happen.”

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Last month, European Union leaders met in Malta, in the words of European Council President Donald Tusk, to “agree [to] concrete operational measures to stem irregular migration from Libya to Europe.” The statement was an unusually frank expression of EU intentions in the Mediterranean: to regulate, limit, or halt mixed migration flows on the Central Mediterranean that include tens of thousands of refugees and asylum seekers each year.

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On January 27, President Donald Trump issued an Executive Order on immigration, titled “Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States.” The order places a ban on the entry of foreign nationals from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen for 90 days; suspends all refugee admissions for 120 days; and blocks the entry of Syrian nationals indefinitely.  

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As it enters its sixth year, the crisis in Libya shows no signs of abating. The UN-backed unity government seems to be teetering on the edge of collapse, and clashes threaten to escalate between eastern and western forces. Withdrawal from Libya could have negative consequences for western interests, and the United States—under the Trump administration—could take the lead in engaging with Libya to achieve stability. This engagement is key, not only for Libya’s stability, but for the stability of neighboring Egypt and Tunisia as well as US and European interests in the region.

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As the situation on the ground in Libya continues to deteriorate, many fear a complete descent into chaos. The successful operation against the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) in Sirte—formally conducted under the authority of the UN-sponsored and Tripoli-based Government of National Agreement (GNA)—but largely dominated by the Misrata militias, put the latter in close geographical proximity with the forces of their rival General Khalifa Haftar. Clashes between Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) and the Misrata militias are already occurring in southern central Libya, and the worst case scenario of all-out war between these forces, which is becoming more and more probable, should be prevented at any cost.

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As the situation in Libya increasingly declines, and in the aftermath of the election of Donald Trump at President of the United States, Libya experts are considering new ideas for US policy in Libya. One idea is for the international community to abandon its effort to create a Libyan unity government in line with the December 2015 Skhirat agreement and instead lend support to a stronger party that could better ensure the rapid stabilization of the country. In other words, it would mean shifting support from the Presidential Council (PC) and Government of National Accord (GNA) of Fayez Serraj to the Libyan National Army (LNA) of Khalifa Haftar. Is this feasible? Is it desirable?

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With the Libyan city of Sirte almost completely liberated from the Islamic State, the group appears to be adapting rather than collapsing. Despite a significant decline in interactions with outsiders, recent statements by ISIS leaders and the tactics used in its fight in Sirte point to how it might deal with the aftermath. In its fight for survival, the Islamic State is adopting a low profile and building a network of itinerant, covert cells.

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