The internal security crisis in Libya is becoming increasingly dire. The period between August 1st and 28th saw an incredible escalation of violence, particularly car bombings and assassination attempts. The breakdown in security, which included the destruction of several mosques and shrines, prompted the US Department of State to issue a severe travel warning for its citizens.

Until now, violence in Libya has been characterized by clashes between different militias, tribal feuds, and generic criminal activity. Reasons for violence ranged from personal animosity to inter-militia rivalries and tribal clashes. But now, according to the top echelons of the security forces, Libya is facing a different kind of violence: terrorism that is waged by Qaddafi sympathizers to sow dissent and weaken the legitimacy of the new state. Even the latest disorders caused by Salafi extremists have been tied to some supporters of the former regime connected with Saadi Qaddafi, the son of the late dictator. How should the General National Congress (GNC) deal with this problem?

National reconciliation is the only viable solution to halt these acts of terror, but the concept must be understood clearly and implemented effectively. A national reconciliation process would reincorporate former enemies into the nation-building process and would be pursued with members of the defeated regime who never committed any crime of relevance or ordered others to do so. Such a process is particularly relevant for thousands of Libyans who gave political, cultural, and economic support to the former regime at a substantial level, but never got involved into the darkest aspects of its corruption and violence. These types of supporters form the vast majority of Qaddafi loyalists now in exile abroad, estimated at 500,000 to 1 million people. The militants who have carried out the terrorist attacks largely rely on the support of this group, without whom they would have little foundation to stand upon. 

A famous European counter terrorism officer once said that the only way to defeat such problems is to “take the water away from the pond where the terrorists swim.” In other words, terrorism prospers where it enjoys even marginal consensus. A national reconciliation program would take away the root cause for the terrorist campaign, which seeks to induce fear in the populace and uncertainty in the legitimacy and capability of the new government. It would capture the sympathy and consensus from those who thought that they could reinstate the old regime through violence, leaving the terrorists with few proponents and champions of their cause. 

It is true that governments cannot and should not deal or negotiate with terrorists, and the Libyan state should make no exception. However, negotiating with armed groups is one thing and depriving them of their ideological legitimacy is another. An example in which the latter prevailed is that of the successful fight against Red Brigades terrorist organization in Europe in the 1970s and 1980s. The operation was conducted at two levels, one that hit the armed militants through police investigations, infiltrations, and military action, and another through which the state co-opted all of the political forces into a unified discussion to find a peaceful solution and an avenue of participation for all ideological factions. This multifaceted approach proved successful and is the route the GNC should consider taking to undercut support for violent activity.

Although the terrorist attacks most directly affect the Libyan populace, the rise in ideologically-rooted violence is an issue that reaches far beyond the country’s borders. Recent attacks on the US, UK, and Tunisian foreign diplomatic missions, as well as the International Committee of the Red Cross, demonstrate that the foreign community is not immune to Libya’s deteriorating security. With their own interests at stake, the United States and the international community should support the new Libyan assembly and the new government, once elected, in enacting a national reconciliation program that would help defeat nascent terrorism in the country.  

Karim Mezran is a senior fellow with the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council. Katie Mulberger is an intern with the Center.

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