Conflict analysis of the Libyan civil war

The Levels of Analysis: Libya prior and during the revolution in 2011

The International Level:

By analysing the actors involved in the Libyan conflict in 2011 on the international level, evidence indicates a proliferation of state, and non-state, actors. While the former can be clearly identified as the interference of the international community in the conflict, there have been reports of the deployment of non-state actors, referred to as mercenaries, on behalf of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. The first section in this report will highlight the actors and the operations undertaken by the international community. In particular, the role of the NATO coalition in the Libyan conflict will be the subject of analysis. This analysis will address the legal framework that justified the NATO intervention, with a focus on the no-fly zone over Libya, and its impact on the dynamics Libyan rebels’ military operations. The second section briefly outlines the dyadic state relations between the belligerent groups in the Libyan civil war and other actors in the international system, during the Libyan revolution. The third section will analyse the role of non-state actors involved in the Libyan civil war. Within this non-state actor analysis, the role of mercenaries and foreign militia groups, in conjunction with the role of international Jihadist organisations, will be highlighted.

The military intervention of NATO in the Libyan civil war:

The military intervention of NATO in the Libyan civil war: On the 19 March 2011, a coalition led by NATO member states began to impose a “no-fly zone” over the skies of Libya. In doing so, NATO effectively enforced U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973, intending to bring about an immediate cease-fire between belligerent factions in Libya, and to stop the on-going attacks on the civilian population. After effectively imposing a “no-fly zone”, NATO, in conjunction with coalition forces, also imposed a naval blockade in Libya. While the initial coalition included; Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Italy, Norway, Qatar, Spain, U.K. and the U.S.; the coalition rapidly expanded to the total of 19 states. On the 24 March 2011, NATO officially took over the arms embargo against Libya, and seven days later NATO also coordinated the “nofly zone” over Libya (Evans, 2012).

‘Operation Unified Protector’ overarched previously launched military operations by member states of the initial coalition. These included; ‘Opèration Harmattan’ by France, ‘Operation Ellamy’ by the United Kingdom, ‘Operation Mobile’ by Canada and ‘Operation Odyssey Dawn’ by the United States. NATO effectively ran the operation until 31 October 2011, when the fall of the Libyan regime was witnessed. In total, foreign military intervention in the conflict lasted 7 months, 1 week, and 5 days. On October 27, the United Nations Security Council voted to end NATO’s mandate in Libya by the end of the month, regardless of the request brought forward by the new transitional government of Libya, which asked for the extension for a “no-fly zone” for at least another year (Evans, 2012).

The Libyan crisis was yet another example for the gaping transatlantic capability rift. The European, (mainly France and the United Kingdom) were at the forefront of NATO’s Libya intervention. However, they soon ran short of smart munitions. Other capability gaps included air-to-air refuelling, satellite observation, the requirement for aircraft carriers, and surveillance and reconnaissance resources. Approximately 90 % of the military actions against the Libyan regime would not have been possible without the support of the U.S. (Koenig, 2012).

Relevant dyadic state relations in 2011:

The European Union:

In April 2011, the European Union launched the EUFOR Libya mission. Its aim was to support of humanitarian assistance operations in response to the crisis situation in Libya, on request of the United Nations. The outbreak of violence in Libya in February 2011 came as a surprise and called for a quick and decisive European response. However, representatives from the EU Member States bemoaned the lengthy and cumbersome planning process leading up to EUFOR Libya, an operation that did not make it off the ground. One of the obstacles to rapid planning is that the EU cannot undertake advance planning for future contingencies. Unlike NATO, the EU does not have permanent planning structures. In the Libyan case, the practical implications of that could be seen: NATO had prepared four potential operational plans within two weeks after the outbreak of the crisis. Meanwhile, it took the EU over two months to reach the same planning stage (Koenig, 2012).

The role of mercenaries and foreign militias in the conflict:

Libya’s Ambassador to India, Ali al-Essawi, confirmed the deployment of mercenaries by Gaddafi on 22 February 2011. The mercenaries were deployed to support the security and intelligence apparatus of the Libyan regime, due the defection of military units during the revolution. The exact number of foreign mercenaries deployed in the conflict remains unknown, but it is widely believed that the majority of these forces came from Sub-Saharan African states. In regards to mercenary deployment in Libya, one can outline two main regions of origin, English and French-speaking Sub-Saharan Africa. Within the latter region, militias of neighbouring Chad played a dominant role (The Jamestown Foundation, 2011).

A large number of the mercenaries were believed to be Chadian guerrilla. Due to the peace treaty between N’djamena and Khartoum, many of these fighters were expelled from bases in Darfur. Diplomatic relations between Chad and Libya eased after the International Court of Justice awarded the disputed Aouzou Strip to Chad in 1994. Since then, Chad’s President Idriss Déby had cooperated with the Libyan leader on a number of initiatives and agreements. The second region from where mercenaries originated was French-speaking SubSaharan Africa. Fighters who had been intercepted carried legal documentation for Tunisia, Nigeria, and Guinea. The fact that a large number of irregulars were speaking English indicates their routes of origin in English speaking Sub-Saharan Africa. Reports from Ghana indicate Ghanaians were being offered as much as $2500 per day to defend the Qaddafi regime, and advertisements for mercenaries also began to appear in Nigerian newspapers (The Jamestown Foundation, 2011).

Unconfirmed reports suggest the mercenaries arrived on a number of separate flights to both the Tripoli and Benghazi military airports, perhaps indicating a number of different recruitment sites. The recruitment appears to have been undertaken quickly, either without the knowledge of the intelligence agencies and security services of their countries of origin, or with the complicity of these originating states. Through a combination of aggressive diplomacy and military support (in the form of training, presidential protection units and stockpiles of old Soviet armaments), Qaddafi remained an influential figure in many parts of West Africa (The Jamestown Foundation, 2011). Motives for the deployment of mercenaries in the Libyan conflict can be found by analysing the nation’s domestic power structures, particularly the loyalty concerns of Gaddafi in respect to the stratification of tribes throughout a plethora of revolutionary factions. The role of tribes in Libyan domestic politics will be the subject of further investigation in the conflict analysis at the subsequent ‘Domestic Level’.


The analysis of the international level of the civil war in Libya in 2011 suggests the following issues;

  • The Libyan civil war witnessed an extensive proliferation of state, and non-state, actors
  • NATO involvement in the civil war in 2011 made it possible for the Libyan people to successfully overthrow the Gaddafi regime and mitigated a potential protracted conflict scenario
  • The operation clearly revealed a capability gap between U.S. and European NATO member states
  • Efforts by the European Union, such as EUFOR Libya under the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) clearly demonstrated a lack of capability in crisis response among European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) member states.


Domestic Level:

Like the majority of civil wars, root causes for inter-group violence are often found within domestic power structures. It is therefore imperative to analyse the political and socio-economic situation prior to the outbreak of the civil war in Libya in February 2011. With regard to role of tribal politics, the political affiliations of families and clans with the regime and their socio-economic standing in Libyan society appear to be crucial in order to analyse the trajectory of the conflict. Given the problems posed by tribal politics, the state of the Libyan Army will be analysed in order to highlight Gaddafi’s inability to successfully suppress the uprising in 2011. Finally, this section will emphasise the role of the economy in the conflict. Hereby, the importance of the control of the oil fields in the eastern part of Libya is of particular note.

The role of tribalism politics in the conflict:

According to Libyan historian, Faraj Abd al-Aziz Najm, Libya contains 140 different tribes. Some of the family and tribal ties transcend the Libyan state borders, reaching into Tunisia, Egypt and Chad. Approximately thirty families in Libya possessed substantial political influence in Libya prior to the revolution. The majority of Libyans rely on their tribal affiliation for finding jobs, ensuring protection, and even the ability to exercise their legal rights. Only around 15% of the Libyan population does not have any tribal affiliations. Within the tribal miasma of Libya, the reign of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi rested on a culture of patronage, in which loyal generals attained higher social standing based on tribal affiliation (Alexander, 1981).

When the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) under Colonel Muammar Al-Gaddafi effectively wrestled control over Libya via a coup‘d’état in 1969, the tribal communities of Libya were already an established aspect of Libya’s political arena. Under Muhammad Idris al-Mahdi al-Sanusi, Libya’s king before the Revolution in 1969, family ties and wealth were highly important in order to obtain political legitimacy in Libyan tribal society. In fact, the local tribes were limiting the King’s authority in their respective areas, and were largely immune to political change. Authority was exercised through tribal sheiks that served as a link between government and land-owning tribal clans. In 1971, the military court of the RCC tried tribal leaders based on allegations of counterrevolutionary activity. This was an overt attempt to alter the traditional political infrastructure that had existed in Libya for centuries, by limiting the influence of tribes in terms of policy making, and by marginalising certain clans, and enforcing compliance. Former trial areas were divided into administrative zones.

These zones were designed to break up traditional tribal areas and degrade old tribal boundaries, and often amalgamated various tribes into single zones. Tribal sheiks were given new titles as zone administrators, replacing former tribal leaders, not based on traditional values but predicated upon education and knowledge. The fatal weakness was that the new established zone administrators lacked the socio-economic background to become efficient modernizers, and were unable to generate mobilization and participation (Alexander, 1981).

Further, Gaddafi strengthened political ties through tribal inter-marriages, as well as controlling political access to economic participation and political power. Tribes, which proved unreliable or sceptical toward the government in Tripoli, were systematically marginalized and politically excluded. In 1991, the Libyan parliament passed a bill, called the “Honour Code”, which allowed the government to punish entire tribes for the misconduct of individuals, predominantly those who engaged in counter-revolutionary activity. This bill often justified the exclusion of tribes from governmental services such as education and social well fare, as well as access to local political decision-making platforms (Alexander, 1981).

Gaddafi’s policy of tribal tension, gave rise to competition among the tribes of Libya over power, wealth and prestige, while at the same time it secured Gaddafi’s hegemony over Libya. It is well documented that certain tribes enjoyed more influence in the governmental institutions than others. Particularly the Qadhadhfah and the Maqariha tribes were closely affiliated with the tribe of Colonel Gaddafi himself. Gaddafi’s clan itself was an originally small and insignificant before the coup d’état. According to Amal Obaidi, a professor at the University of Benghazi, the most prominent and largest tribes are the Banu Salim (Cyrenaica), the Banu Hilal (Western Libya), and the Warfalla (Lacher W. , 2011). The region around Cyrenaica in particular, is home to several tribes such as the Kargala, Tawajeer, and Ramla. The most marginalized tribes in Libya were those located in the east of the country, where the majority of Libya’s oil resources are allocated. During the uprising in Libya, these tribes were the first to renounce their allegiances to the regime in Tripoli. The control over the oil riches of Libya was one of the crucial pillars of power that Gaddafi’s oligarchy rested upon. Evidence suggests that the conflict between the government in Tripoli and tribal leaders in the east dates back before the outbreak of the Revolution in 2011 (Lacher W. , 2011). A year before the revolution, on the 20 February 2010, Sheikh Faraj al-Zawi, a spokesperson oft the Zawiya tribe, threatened to interrupt oil production centres in the East, if abuse and oppression of Libyan citizens continued (Mokhefi, 2011).

The second pillar of power was the control of the military and security apparatus. Traditionally, members of the Maqariha and the Warfalla tribe predominantly manned these institutions. The latter, represents more than a million Libyan citizens, and withdrew its support for the government during the uprising. The former Maqariha tribe, traditionally closely linked to Gaddafi’s clan, held positions in the most sensitive governmental institutions, and faced an internal fracturing during the revolution in 2011 (Lacher W. , 2011). There are reported instances in which members of the Maqariha actively participated in revolutionary activity, predominantly in eastern and southern parts of Libya. The erosion of these two pillars of power clearly undermined Gaddafi’s legitimacy to govern effectively and to successfully suppress the revolution in its infancy. Most notably, the lack of control in the military and security apparatus, serves as a robust explanation for Gaddafi’s extensive reliance on mercenaries during the civil war.

The Libyan Army:

Despite its ethnic composition, the Libyan Army as an institution presented a considerable peacetime threat to Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s reign. Coming into power by coup d’état Gaddafi understood the importance of keeping the Army in check. Hence, the Army was notoriously under armed and short of ammunition, while the Army’s Officer Corps was subjected to periodic purges with the exception of 32nd Brigade,, also known as the “Khamis Brigade” after its leader, Khamis Abu Minyar al-Gaddafi, one of Mu’ammar Gaddafi’s seven sons. Khamis is a graduate of the Libyan Military Academy in Tripoli and received further training in Moscow at the Frunze Military Academy and the General Staff Academy of the Russian Armed Forces. The Brigade under his command typically received better arms, equipment, and salaries than the rest of the army and served as a de facto Praetorian Guard to the regime. Brigade members played proactive roles in repressing demonstrations. (The Jamestown Foundation, 2011).

The Khamis Brigade was supplied with the British-made Bowman tactical communications and data system in a $165 million deal with General Dynamics UK, though the equipment had been modified with the removal of U.S. technology (Chutter, 2008). The Khamis Brigade had also taken part in joint exercises with the Algerian military. Aside from the Khamis Brigade, most of the rest of the military only had access to obsolete Soviet-era equipment after enduring years of sanctions. This situation was not necessarily regarded as unfavourable by the regime, as it diminished the ability of rebel officers to mount their own coup similar to Colonel Qaddafi’s 1969 military takeover. Officers are subject to frequent transfers to prevent them from developing personal ties of loyalty with any one command. Senior ranks of the military consisted of members of the Qadhadhfah and the Maqariha tribes, while lower ranks were mostly made up out of the Warfalla tribesmen. Rivalries within the officer corps tended to be encouraged rather than discouraged in order to prevent an atmosphere of cooperation that could possibly lead to the creation of a junta (The Jamestown Foundation, 2011).

Since Libya reconciled with the UK in 2008, the latter became a major supplier of military equipment and training, although London has now revoked arms export licenses to Libya. In 2009 the British government issued licences for the sale of £21.7 million worth of military equipment to Libya including small arms, ammunition, ordinance, aviation components, armoured and protective equipment and military electronics (Chutter, 2008). The government did stop a British company from “shipping 130,000 Kalashnikov assault rifles to Libya in 2008″ but only because they feared the arms would be passed to warlords in Sudan. Units of the Special Air Service (SAS) have been involved in training Libyan Special Forces, likely an unpopular mission for SAS veterans who were involved in a deadly decades-long struggle with the Libyan-armed Irish Republican Army (Hughes, 2011). The military purchases of the Libyan Army had been generally chaotic, made without regard to providing adequate manpower and support forces, and did not reflect a clear concept of force development or combined arms. As relatively poor as Libya’s military forces were, no neighbour could ignore the build-up of a vast pool of military equipment, although ties with its neighbours were warmer than in the past (Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), 2010).

Libya’s economy prior and during the civil war:

The Gaddafi government abolished the oil ministry in 2006 and left the management of the industry to the National Oil Corporation (NOC). Libya’s economy, previously known for impressive levels of growth driven by its oil and gas industry, was seriously disrupted by the 2011 civil war. In addition to the impact that the freezing of the country’s assets had on liquidity, the economy was disrupted by the shutdown in oil production and exports, as well as the decline of productivity resulting from the loss of human capital and the destruction of infrastructure. Oil production and exports account for the majority of Libya’s GDP at approximately 70%. During the crisis, as foreign oil companies evacuated staff and the warring parties attacked facilities, production and exports came to a complete standstill between April and August 2011. As a result, Libya’s economy contracted 41.8% in 2011 compared to growth of 2.9% in 2010 (United Nations, 2012).

The oil industry correspondingly accounts for over 90% of the government’s budget. As a result, in previous years Libya had benefited from a healthy budget surplus that accompanied high oil revenues, in conjunction with the previous government’s tendency to not fulfil its spending commitments. Due to the impact of the 2011 crisis on the economy, Libya’s budget turned to deficit, at 17.1% of GDP due to the loss of oil production and exports. Government spending will continue to increase as it covers various infrastructure projects as well as the hike in public sector wages that was implemented in the last days of the Gaddafi government. Although these factors will result in a decrease in the fiscal surplus compared to previous years, it is likely that the majority of these expenditures will be financed through debt secured against state assets and by the use of those assets that have been unfrozen. Up until 2010, Libya’s tax base was very narrow, with most taxes being collected from external trade. While the government made efforts to simplify the tax code, by introducing a flat rate of 10% for individuals and 20% for corporations, it was never able to implement this policy fully. Overall, like much of Libya’s government prior to the revolution, the tax administration was subject to discretionary measures (United Nations, 2012).

Libya’s crisis drove inflation sharply higher, to 11.4% in 2011 from 2.5% in 2010. Given that the country imports the majority of its food (perhaps as much as 75% according to some estimates) the upturn in prices can be attributed in part to the rise in food costs. Food shortages during the conflict combined with price increases in the international market in 2011 greatly contributed to this increase in inflation. Inflation was expected to ease but on-going pressures kept it at 6% in 2012 and 5.1% in 2013. It is likely that government subsidies will be maintained or even increased, thus ensuring that prices for many staple goods remain stable. In 2010, Libya had external debt of some USD 4 billion, negligible when compared to the billions held by the state in foreign assets. Although Libya is poised to raise loans to fund reconstruction, the unfreezing of its assets abroad and the resumption of oil production means it is unlikely the country will need to incur any large- scale debt. The conflict also hit Libya’s debt ratings. Standard and Poor’s downgraded Libya’s debt rating in March 2011 to BB/B, ‘junk’ status, from BBB+/A-2. Ratings were later suspended because of the lack of timely and reliable information available given the heightened political risk, the sharp reduction in economic output and uncertainties stemming from regime change (United Nations, 2012).


The factors on the domestic level of analysis suggest the following:

  • Gaddafi’s rule in Libya involved the systematic subversion of the Libyan tribal society. The Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) effectively tried to exclude tribes from political power.
  • Legislation like the “Honour Code” was passed to effectively control the ethno-nationalist aspirations of tribes, and to limit their ability to mobilise support in their respective tribal communities.
  • The failure to maintain the support of relevant tribes, such as the Qadhadhfah and the Maqariha tribe, predominantly associated with the security infrastructure, led to Gaddafi’s reliance on mercenary forces during the conflict.
  • The loss of control over the security apparatus as well as over the oil riches in the east of the country undermined the legitimacy of Gaddafi’s regime, and its ability to bargain.
  • The vast majority of the Libyan army was understaffed, and underequipped, due to the fear of a coup d’état against the RRC. Only exclusive brigades such as the 32nd Brigade under direct control of loyalists were sufficiently equipped, and served as a Praetorian Guard.
  • Libya purchased military equipment and expertise from EU member states, especially from Britain. However, military spending was irrational and did not lead to an effective military build up of the Libyan Army.
  • Libya’s economy is based on the export of crude oil and gas and accounts for 70% of the GDP. During the conflict, the Libyan economy suffered from a 17.1% deficit that affected its international debt rating. This clearly indicates that Libya’s export economy is highly vulnerable in conflict scenarios. Factions, which are able to gain control over the oil reserves, have the ability to fund their war efforts and disrupt the cash flow of the government in Tripoli.

Individual Level:

This level of analysis will focus upon the role of individuals in the conflict in Libya, in relation to the international and domestic context from which they evolved. A clear emphasis will be placed on the role of Gaddafi himself, as well as on key individuals in the military and security apparatus of Libya, during the civil war in 2011.

Gaddafi’s refusal to step down from power:

After the outbreak of mass protest and the violent crackdown of such by Gaddafi’s security apparatus, it became apparent that there would not be a peaceful political transition in Libya. Especially after the fighting broke out, and reports of the atrocities carried out by the regime and supporting elements in the Libyan Army surfaced, governments and human rights organisations lobbied for the support of the revolutionaries in Libya, and demanded that Gaddafi and his junta was brought to justice. From a legal perspective, Gaddafi and senior officials faced the risk of charges at the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. The polarisation in media discourse limited the availability of options that could have led to a more peaceful removal of Gaddafi. Libya’s dictator was publicly known for his bizarre appearances in the press. Stories of kidnapped nurses, violent outbreaks of his sons in Swiss hotels, as well as being protected by a squad of female bodyguards, were happily picked up by media outlets, and helped to create the image of an irrational, dangerous and confused individual (The BBC, 2011).

While there are probably good reasons to question Gaddafi’s mental health condition, one has to be careful to consider every decision made by Gaddafi as irrational and unpredictable. On the contrary, his decision of attempting to win the civil war after its onset and not step down from power can be seen as a realistic and pragmatic choice. The fact that Gaddafi would not have been granted asylum by any state during the civil war, and the likelihood that he may be prosecuted in front of the ICC, presented him with a very limited array of potential courses of action (The BBC, 2011).

Internal power struggle within the Gaddafi’s leadership:

Another son and prominent military figure is Colonel Mutassim al-Gaddafi. Mutassim received his training at the Cairo Military Academy before being given command of an elite unit in the Libyan army, where he gained a reputation for indiscipline and erratic behaviour. At one point he was forced to take refuge in Egypt after reportedly marching on his father’s residence at the Bab al-Azizya barracks in Tripoli with detachments of his artillery. In 2002 he returned to Libya, where he was forgiven and promoted to Colonel. Mutassim was made head of the National Security. Yet another son, Colonel Sa’adi Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi, took to local radio to announce he had arrived in Benghazi to direct operations there (apparently after the resignation of Benghazibased Colonel Abd al-Fatah Yunis), but little has been heard of him since. First Lieutenant Hannibal Mu’ammar al-Qaddafi was a member of the military who appears to have played a minor role in comparison to his brothers. Military chief-of-staff and minister of defence, Major-General Abu Bakr Yunis Jaber, was one of the most powerful men in Libya. However, he appears to have been detained by Qaddafi after refusing to carry out orders for the brutal repression of protesters in Libyan cities. Qaddafi relied heavily on two generals from his own tribe, Sayed Gaddaf Eddam and Ahmed Gaddaf Eddam. Sayed is the military head of Cyrenaica, which had become largely under the control of protesters, while Ahmed was the point man on Egyptian issues. Aside from Qaddafi and General Abu Bakr, Generals Mustapha Kharoubi and Khouildi Hamidi were the last active members of the 12-man 1969 Revolutionary Council, though both had been reduced to performing ceremonial roles (The Jamestown Foundation, 2011).


After closer examination of the key individuals, several points can be identified:

  • Gaddafi’s decision to violently engage in the civil war in 2011 can be understood on rational terms, due to the fact that he saw no alternative for survival.
  • Gaddafi’s sons and military leadership was constantly testing Gaddafi’s ability to rule and control the political spectrum of Libya. This eroded Gaddafi’s long-term ability to project power domestically.
  • Family ties and respective control of kin over vital institutions of state power was favoured over expertise. Gaddafi’s sons were appointed into leadership positions without the credentials needed.


Executive Summary I:

After the tracing of relevant aspects on the international, domestic and individual levels of analysis, it is apparent that the onset of Libyan civil war was the result of inherent domestic instability. One of the main problems in Libyan political culture is the important role of tribes in conjunction with the oppression exercised by Colonel Gaddafi and its junta. The power struggle between the polity in Tripoli and tribal leaders in the periphery, combined with favouritism, fuelled ethno-nationalist sentiments among Libyan tribes. Gaddafi’s legitimacy rested on balancing ethno-nationalist tendencies through favouritism of loyalists, and political exclusion of opponents, which required the total control of economy and the security apparatus. The former relied nearly completely on the export of crude oil and natural gas, while the latter was poorly trained, armed and controlled, in fear of an armed rebellion. Elite forces, loyal to the regime, were recruited among tribes loyal to Gaddafi himself, and are an expression of the internal power struggles in the Libyan polity.

The inability of Gaddafi to successfully establish a credible bargaining process with other political stakeholders slowly eroded his control over the economy and the security apparatus, which ultimately undermined his legitimacy in the eyes of tribal leaders. The trajectory of the Libyan revolution in 2011 can be explained by the direct international response to the violence committed early in the conflict by loyalists to the regime. Early charges brought forward by the ICC against Gaddafi and his senior leadership probably altered diplomatic approaches for a more peaceful transition in Libya.

However with respect to international involvement, the NATO led intervention ultimately secured the regime change in Libya. Despite a clear demonstration of the capability gap between U.S. and European NATO partners, NATO successfully achieved its mission objectives. Policies enacted by the EU under CSDP proved to be insufficient in scope and impact. Despite the achievements of the international community, the failure to identify the involvement of non-state actors in the early stages of the civil war marks a severe intelligence failure on behalf of African and Western intelligence community.

With an outlook on the future of developments in Libya after the removal of Gaddafi, it remains unclear, whether or not it is possible to establish a consensus among the rivalling Libyan tribes over the political future of Libya. With the Libyan army in disarray and an uncounted number of tribal militias still under arms, the challenge for the new political leadership is to obtain enough legitimacy in order to initiate an effective demilitarization process and rebuilt state institutions. It is important to emphasise that the resistance against Gaddafi does not necessarily imply a tendency towards democracy, liberalism, or cultural pluralism. Due to the cultivated ethno-nationalistic competition among them, the propensity for violent struggle over political power in Libya remains high.

The Level of Analysis: Libya’s post-revolutionary period 2012-2014:

The International Level:

After the fall of Dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, Libya is in a state of political transition. Prior to the renewed outbreak of violence among Islamist factions and forces aligned to the Libyan parliament, international actors were operating in Libya. Among them there are supranational organisations such as the United Nations and the European Union, state actors such as the US, and international non-state actors, such as Al Qaeda (AQ). This section outlines the scope of outside interference in Libyan domestic affairs, as well as the motivations behind them. It seems apparent that the support of international state actors and from institutions like the EU and the UN can be interpreted as supportive of secular political movements, aligned to the Libyan parliament. On the contrary, the involvement of AQ in Libya seems to have the intended effect of strengthening political movements aligned to Islamist ideology. However, in the wake of the current developments in Syria and Iraq, there seems to be an internal conflict within the ever-changing spectrum of Jihadi militants over legitimacy and leadership. The appearance of Islamic State (IS) and its growing number of supporters in established jihadist organisations challenges AQ leadership. This internal conflict can have direct implications for Islamist groups in Libya.

AQ influence in Libya:

Evidence suggests a link between the ‘Ansa’ movements in several states to AQ’s senior leadership in Pakistan. Ansar al-Sharia is a name used by a radical Islamist groups in Yemen, Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco and Syria. The translations of the Arabic word “Ansar” means supporter and often groups call themselves Ansar al-Sharia, supporters of Islamic law. All of these groups lack a clear unified command structure, differ in terms of modus operandi, and are only unified by a common shared objective, namely the creation of a pan-Islamic caliphate. The naming trend originated in Yemen in 2011, when al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) established a new front group Ansar al-Sharia. There has been debate as to what extent Ansar al Sharia can be seen as an attempt to rebrand al Qaeda, but there is so far no public evidence present that points clearly in this direction. However, prominent jihadi ideologue Sheikh Abu al-Mundhir alShinqiti publicly approved of the new wave of Ansar al-Sharia groups. His article “We Are Ansar al-Sharia” calls all Muslims to create their own “dawa” (missionary) Ansar al-Sharia groups, with the ultimate goal of uniting themselves transnationally. This trend could be the end of AQ’s unipolar lead in the global jihad and represent the being of a multipolar “Jihado-sphere”, similarly to the 1990s, in which jihadist groups operated more locally. Even today one can observe that the majority of jihadist organizations portray themselves as having global aspirations, but in fact operate largely in a more localised capacity (Zelin, 2012).

AQ in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) will likely collaborate with al-Qaeda’s clandestine network in Libya to secure a supply of arms for its areas of operation in northern Mali and Algeria. So called “katibas” (battalions/brigades) affiliated with Ansar al-Sharia in Libya are believed to constitute the bulk of the AQ network in Libya. A meeting of groups, which support Sharia in Libya, held on 7-8 June 2012, on the Liberation Square in Benghazi, included at least fifteen groups: for a detailed list see Appendix 1 (U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, 2013).

The international stratification of Jihadist groups and its impact on Libya:

The rebel offensive against the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) in northern Syria, which broke out on 3 January 2014, has dramatically heightened tensions between Jihadi-Salafi thinkers. With the formal disavowal of IS by AQ last February, the two groups have vied with each other for leadership of the global jihad. Combining military victories with an effective use of social media, IS has been able to gain traction amongst both grassroots sympathizers and militant outfits. This has led to the emergence of a number of splinter factions that have split from their original groups to align with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s forces. These defections have been witnessed not only among AQ’s affiliates but also by AQ in Waziristan. In light of this relative but noteworthy reshaping, questions have arisen surrounding Ayman al-Zawahiri’s ability to maintain the loyalty of his subsidiaries, and the possibility of a future union between his group and al-Baghdadi’s has been recognised. While it is too early to determine who will eventually call the shots, a telling audio message recently released by Abu Dujana al-Basha, a high-ranking AQ leader hints at where the organization currently stands on a rapprochement with the IS. On September 26, 2014, al-Basha released “This Is our Message”, focusing yet again on the militant Syrian arena (JIHADICA: Documenting the Global Jihad, 2014).

In the message, al-Basha’s raises concerns regarding the threat of what he terms as “people of excess”. The AQ leader charges them with having “declared the worshipers as disbelievers”, which has “undermined the jihad and distorted the message of the mujahidin”. Although the Islamic State is never mentioned, it is clear that the “extremists” al-Basha refers to pertain to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s loyalists. Among the most explicit references is al-Basha’s denouncement of “the caliphate on the path of deviation and lies and violations of treaties and breaking of pledges”. Similarly, al-Basha admonishes this “deviant” caliphate “built on oppression, takfir, killing the people of Tawhid and splitting the rows of the mujahidin”. Finally, al-Basha highlights the continuity in al-Qaida’s philosophy by declaring that “… your mujahidin brothers in Khurasan… have not changed nor turned” despite “the injustice of slander, fabrications, distortions and lies”. This line reads as a response to the allegations spread by the IS camp that the current leadership of AQ no longer acts upon Bin Laden’s program (JIHADICA: Documenting the Global Jihad, 2014).

In July 2014, Libya’s Islamist militant group Ansar al-Sharia claimed to have seized complete control of Benghazi, declaring the city an “Islamic emirate”. Ansar al-Sharia’s declaration comes a month after jihadist militant group IS announced an “Islamic caliphate” within their territory. These claims have been contradictory to claims made by General Haftar, who qualifies the claims by suggesting that his troops withdrew only from certain position within Benghazi. Most Ansar al-Sharia branches, both in Tunisia and Libya, lean toward strong relations with IS, even though they have not explicitly pledged allegiance to the group. However, it is well known that leaders from Ansar al Sharia, specifically in Tunisia, have travelled to Syria and pledged allegiance to Baghdadi. This stresses a caution against underestimating the ability of IS to expand into more countries, albeit through small groups or sleeper cells. The example of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is pertinent: when he first came to Iraq in 2003, he only had 13 followers and yet he still succeeded in building what is now the strongest organization in the region (Ali, 2014).

Dyadic state relations between Libya and international actors:

European Union:

Since the fall of the Gaddafi regime in Libya, the EU has been engaged with the Libyan authorities bilaterally. The EU efforts aim to stabilize the country by providing logistical support via EUBAM Libya. This CSDP Mission was established in May 2013 to support the Libyan authorities in improving and developing their capacity to enhance the security of their land, sea and air borders in the short term, and to develop a broader Integrated Border Management (IBM) strategy in the long term. In the absence of an Association Agreement with the EU, Libya remains outside most of the structures of the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP). However, it is eligible for funding under the new European Neighbourhood Instrument (ENI) and the ENI’s regional programmes, in addition to thematic assistance programmes – for example, on human rights or migration. The EU’s total programme in Libya now stands at €108 million. It focuses on public administration, security, democratic transition, civil society, health, vocational training and education. This is in addition to the €80.5million disbursed for humanitarian assistance during the 2011 revolution. However the deterioration in the security situation in Tripoli since July 2014 has led to the temporary relocation of staff from EUDEL and EUBAM to Tunis and Brussels, until security conditions allow their return (European Union: External Action Service, 2014).

United States:

According to the US State Department, the US government provides targeted assistance to the Libyan administration in order to strengthen Libya’s security and stability. This includes the provision of non-lethal equipment such as personnel protective gear, uniforms, and halal food rations to government security forces. Further, the US funds and supports international NGO’s to clear mines and unexploded ordinances, as well as to help to secure the large supply of conventional weapons in Libya. In addition, the US provides upgrades to Libya’s chemical weapons storage sites in order to facilitate the return of Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) inspectors, while at the same time providing support in the destruction of Libya’s chemical weapons. The US has also supported the assessment of Libyan prisons. Based on that assessment, the Libyan Ministry of Justice has closed several sub-standard prisons and established a new prison facility. Moreover, the US provides technical support for the Ministry of Interior (MOI); providing advice on strategic planning, running a two-week workshop on police leadership, and providing 11 rule of law workshops that brought together government, civil society and legal actors. Despite engaging in the transfer of knowledge to the Libyan government, the US is providing training for 5000-8000 Libyan general-purpose forces (GPF) over the next 5-7 years (U.S. State Department, 2014).

The purpose of these forces is to fill the security vacuum, which threatens Libya’s democratic transition. The commitment of the US will include working together with international partners, and the Libyan government in structuring and sustaining the GPF. Further, the US has launched a training program for Libya’s border security forces, to plan, and execute security activities along Libya’s borders. This program is concomitant to the EU Border Security Assistance Mission, intended to boost Libya’s capability to secure its land, air, and sea borders. Finally, the US is addressing emergent justice and security sector issues in the local government via the ‘Justice and Civilian Security Locally’ project. This project promotes active engagement with stakeholders in civilian security and justice, in order to facilitate structured dialogue to identify challenges, opportunities and solutions. The project then helps communities, and security and justice actors, to implement the practical or policy actions agreed upon in dialogue sessions (U.S. State Department, 2014).

United Nations – UNSMIL:

United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) is a United Nations advanced mission in Libya, in the aftermath of the Libyan Civil War. UNSMIL is not a military mission, but a political one led by the Department of Political Affairs. It aims to help the National Transitional Council rebuild the State of Law and other institutions. The aim is to establish a United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), under the leadership of a Special Representative of the Secretary-General for an initial period of three months, and with the mandate to assist and support Libyan national efforts to restore public security and order, promote the rule of law, and to undertake inclusive political dialogue, promote national reconciliation, and embark upon the constitutionmaking and electoral processes. In addition UNSMIL aims to; extend state authority, including through strengthening emerging accountable institutions and the restoration of public services; promote and protect human rights, particularly for those belonging to vulnerable groups, and support transitional justice; take immediate steps required to initiate economic recovery; and coordinate support that may be requested from other multilateral and bilateral actors as appropriate (United Nations Support Mission in Libya, 2014).


After examining the role of international actors more carefully in the protracted civil war in Libya, the following trends can be identified on the international level:

  • Since the begin of the Libyan revolution against Colonel Gaddafi, the involvement of supranational bodies such the EU, as well as state-actors like the US did not withdraw their support after NATO combat operations ceased. A new development of notable interest is the shift from combat operations support and humanitarian aid to capability building in Libya. In the same spirit, the presence of the UNSIL mission has to be assessed, which operates together with Libyan institutions and officials. In comparison, the US involvement in Libya exceeds the support of the EU and the UN, and includes approaches to overcome the security vacuum in Libya.
  • Despite the involvement of state actors, non-state actors have taken on a more aggressive role in Libya since the revolution. The current conflict in Libya is highly affected by the presence of international Jihadist organisations such as AQ. Evidence suggests that AQ infiltrated the Libyan revolutionary movement, by successfully establishing a clandestine movement of supporting militias, predominantly in the East of Libya. The main aim of AQ’s presence in Libya is to take advantage of the lack of leadership and Libya’s diminished counter-terrorism capability in order to establish a base of operations in North Africa. Further, the current divide in the international Jihadist scene, between IS and AQ is evinced by the affiliations of Libyan jihadist groups like Ansar al-Sharia.


Domestic Level:

The (new) political instability in Libya since 2011:

Despite the protracted conflict along the fault lines of the Libyan civil war in 2011, there is tension between political ideologies within the GNC. Nouri Abusahmain, elected president of the GNC in June 2013, abused his powers in order to suppress debates and inquiries. The GNC voted to enforce Sharia law in December 2013 and failed to stand down at the end of its electoral mandate in January 2014, unilaterally extending its power. In February 2014, General Khalifa Haftar ordered the GNC to dissolve and called for the formation of a caretaker government committee to oversee new elections. The GNC ignored his demands (Lacher W. , 2011).

The conflict began two months later, on 16 May 2014, when forces loyal to General Haftar launched a large scale air and ground offensive codenamed Operation Dignity against Islamist armed groups in Benghazi. Two days later, Haftar’s forces tried to dissolve the GNC in Tripoli. The conflict prevented the GNC from blocking new elections on 25 June 2014. These elections appointed the Council of Deputies to replace the GNC. In these elections, Islamists suffered an overwhelming electoral defeat. The conflict escalated on 13 July when Islamists, reacting to the landslide electoral defeat of Islamist politicians, launched Operation Libya Dawn to seize Tripoli International Airport, finally capturing it on 23 August after forty-one days of fighting. A unifying theme of the Libya Dawn coalition is opposition by most of its constituent elements to what has been perceived as a heavy prevalence of Zintani-led militias, especially the QaaQaa, in certain portions of the country (Lacher and Fehrey, 2014).

The GNC was believed by its opponents to be allowing Islamist groups to conduct assassinations, especially in Benghazi, and kidnappings. Prominent Islamist incidents in 2013-14 included the kidnapping of Prime Minister Ali Zeidan in October 2013, and the kidnapping of Egyptian diplomats in January 2014. The Libya Revolutionaries Operations Room carried out both incidents. Prime Minister Abusahmain had used his presidency to change the agenda of the GNC in order to prevent a debate over the disestablishment of the Libya Revolutionaries Operations Room (LROR). At the same time, he cancelled a request to establish a committee to investigate the allocation, by Abusahmain himself, of the provision of 900 million Libyan Dinars (U.S. $720 million) to the LROR and various other Islamist armed groups. Instead, the LROR had its responsibilities reduced by the GNC but was allowed to continue to operate, and no one was prosecuted for the incident (Lacher W. 2011).

Tribalism in Libya revised – ethno-nationalist tendencies:

After the revolution ended with Gaddafi’s death and the erection of an interim government, tribal tension between those loyal to Gaddafi and those affiliated with the revolutionaries remained. Between 2012 and 2014, there have been 12 incidences (Zuwarah clashes, Ghat skirmishes, Zintan clashes, skirmishes in Tripoli, the raid on by Katibat Al-Awfiyah, Death of Omran Shaban, the siege of Bani Walid, and the Brak ambush) (The BBC, 2012), in which Gadhafi loyalists have clashed with Libyan revolutionary forces. Further evidence for a protracted tribalism conflict is Decree 5/2014, passed by the Libyan General National Congress, headed ‘Concerning the Cessation and Ban on the Broadcasting of Certain Satellite Channels’. This policy intends to censor pro-Gaddafi satellite television stations such as al-Khadra. The motivation behind this legislation is to limit the mobilisation ability of Gaddafi loyalists and to introduce further censorship to the Libyan media landscape (Frykberg, 2012). Even though loyalism to Gaddafi’s reign is dismissed in Libyan public discourse, tribal affiliations to the former Gaddafi regime still exist and are a motivation for political violence. This is a clear indicator that old tribal ethno-nationalist rivalries prior to the Libyan revolution in 2011 still exist, and remain a source for political instability in Libya.

Jihadist activity in Libya:

Within Libya, there exists a plethora of armed militias, some of them fuelled by the ethno-nationalist ambitions of their respective tribes, others adopting a fundamentalist Islamist ideology. According to a report of the Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress in 2012, the Al Qaida Senior Leadership (AQSL) based in Pakistan has established a clandestine network in Libya, which refrains from using the Al Qaida label. AQ’s strategy is to reinforce its presence in the MENA region by taking advantage of the ”Arab Spring”, which has disrupted existing counter-terrorism capabilities significantly. In the case of Libya it appears that the Libyan Revolution created an environment conducive to jihad, and empowered a large and active community of Libyan jihadists. AQSL has issued strategic guidance to followers in Libya to exploit the Libyan revolution by gathering weapons, establishing training camps, build a secret network, established an Islamic state and impose Sharia. Al-Qaeda adherents in Libya used the 2011 Revolution to establish well-armed, well-trained, and combatexperienced militias. Militia groups, led by Wisam Ben Hamid and Hayaka Alla, have adopted similar behaviour with fewer voiced grudges against the West. The only open-source material that has linked these groups, aside from their jihadist credentials and their defence of Sharia, is their attachment to the flag that has come to symbolize AQ. Al-Qaeda affiliates such as AQIM are also benefiting from the situation in Libya (U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, 2013).

In respect to Libya, there are a number of groups, which use variations of the name Ansar al-Sharia. The two most prominent groups are Ansar al-Sharia in Benghazi (ASB) and Ansar al-Sharia in Darnah (ASD). The group located in Darnah is led by former Guantanamo inmate Abu Sufyan bin Qumu, while Ahmed Abu Khattala is the head of the Benghazi branch. Ansar al-Sharia in Libya gained notoriety after the assault on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi, in 2013. Even though the group have released an official statement, claiming that the attacks on the U.S. embassy were not ordered by its’ leadership, it does not deny the involvement of members of the group in the attack. Further, the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report covering the attack on the U.S. embassy in Libya indicates the involvement of the Benghazi branch of Ansar al-Sharia in Libya (U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, 2013).

Despite ongoing terror attacks, the Libyan civil war is fought between Islamist militias and a network of moderate forces including the parts of the Libyan military allied to General Haftar, and supporters of the movement of former Prime Minister Ali Zeidan. Military forces under General Haftar were able to occupy a significant portion of the country’s oil infrastructure. The show of support for the general appears to have triggered a heavy backlash, as Libya’s Naval Chief, Brig. Gen. Hassan Abu-Shanaq, who also announced his support for Haftar’s revolt, was wounded in an assassination attempt in the capital Tripoli along with his driver and a guard. On 20 May 2014, the air forces headquarters in Tripoli came under a rocket attack but no casualties were reported (The BBC, 2014).

Clearly the level of violence is escalating in Libya. Islamist groups, with support of Jihadist non-state actors like AQ, have organised themselves under the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries. The Shura Council consist of Ansar al-Sharia, February 17th Martyr Brigade, Rafallah al-Sahati Brigade, and Libya Shield 1. The Libyan Shield Force supports the Islamists. Its forces are divided geographically into the Western Shield, Central Shield and Eastern Shield. The term “Libya Shield 1” is used to refer to the Islamist part of the Libya Shield Force in the east of Libya. In western Libya, the prominent Islamist forces are the Central Shield of the Libya Shield Force, which consists primarily of Misrata units, and the Libya Revolutionaries Operations Room. Two smaller organizations operating in western Libya are Ignewa Al-Kikly and the “Lions of Monotheism”. AQ leader Abd al-Muhsin Al-Libi, also known as Ibrahim Ali Abu Bakr or Ibrahim Tantoush has been active in western Libya, capturing the Special Forces base called Camp 27 in April 2014 and losing it to anti-Islamist forces in August 2014.

The Islamist forces around Camp 27 have been described as both AQ and as part of the Libya Shield Force (Security Council Committee, 2014). The relationship between AQ and AQIM is unclear, and their relationship with other Libyan Islamist groups is unclear. AQIM are also active in Fezzan, especially in border areas. The Islamist opposition consists of a combination of GNC loyalists and the Shura Council. These include militias loyal to the GNC like the LROR, parts of the Libyan Shield, and Amazigh and Tuareg militias (The Daily Beast, 2014).


The conflict on the domestic level reveals a clear escalation of the civil war in the last months. Major tendencies can be summarised as followed:

  • The failure of the formation of a legitimate polity in Libya can be analysed as the main reason for the outbreak of the conflict between conservative and moderate factions in Libya in 2014. The GNC’s affiliation with Islamist groups, as well as corruption and scandals, the abuse of political power and on-going political exclusion of tribes, fuelled by ethno-nationalist sentiments has reached a peak in this protracted conflict. Libya clearly faces a legitimacy problem and the current crisis is unlikely to be resolved in the near future. Further deterioration of the security infrastructure in Libya allows AQ and its affiliated organisations to expand their base of operations, and to further militarize Islamist forces in Libyan politics.
  • The on-going military confrontations are low intensity and fail to indicate clear frontlines. What becomes evident is that military clashes occur throughout the country, from the East to the West, due to the fact that each belligerent faction has followers and support in both sides of the country. Currently, the alliance around General Haftar controls large areas of in the Eastern oil fields, an asset which proved to be crucial during the Libyan revolution in 2011. Unclear, however, is to what extent military operation in such a conflict scenario can achieve political unity in Libya. The asymmetric nature of the conflict is likely to cause higher casualties among the Libyan population, which in turn may exacerbate ethno-nationalist rivalries along tribal fault lines.
  • A third variable in the conflict is the resurrection of tribes, formerly aligned with the Gaddafi regime of 2011. The perceived need of these tribes to overcome their political exclusion from the Libyan polity adds a new dimension in the protracted conflict in Libya.

Individual Level:

Due to the steadily changing situation on the ground as well as on-going propaganda campaigns of all belligerent factions, it is nearly impossible to clearly identify the importance of single individuals on the conflict with an appropriate degree of accuracy. Therefore this section will conclude by emphasising the importance of following personal changes within all groups, organisations and institutions, associated with belligerent factions, and by highlighting the fact that at the current time no individual can be clearly isolated as possessing the ability to unify the Libyan people effectively, beyond the existing political and tribal fault lines. Hence, this section will not include a sub-conclusion section and mark the transition to the executive summary.

Executive Summery II:

Since NATO combat operations ceased, and the shift towards supporting capability building in Libya, the political stability in Libya has deteriorated continuously. The structural characteristics of Libyan political culture, the impact of conflict upon the economy, and ethno-nationalist competition between tribes, make the country especially prone to civil war. The inability to establish legitimate political representation for all movements in Libyan society, as well as the failure to disarmament local militias after the revolution in 2011 greatly increases the risk of a prolonged civil war. Furthermore, foreign influences in Libya have made the outbreak of structural political violence nearly inevitable. The involvement of international jihadist organisations risks the militarization of conservative Islamist factions, mobilising them to join the conflict. AQ seems so far successful in accomplishing its grand strategy set by AQSL. Terrorist tactics have so far succeeded in expelling Western and international companies, and diplomatic delegations, and so far there are no indications of a second military intervention in Libya.

The on-going campaign by parts of the military, under General Hafter, does not seem to be a long-term solution to bridge the divisions within Libyan society. It might help to re-establish the balance between conservative and moderate forces in the Libyan polity, but seems to be unable to eradicate the ethnonationalist competition between tribes over state power. The emergence of pro Gaddafi militias in the East is an indicator for a new emerging dimension in the current conflict. Due to the fact that tribal communities in Libya transcend the state’s borders, the conflict bears the risk of spilling over to Tunisia, Algeria, Niger, Chad and Egypt. Efforts made by the US in respect to providing support to fill the security vacuum in Libya, in conjunctions with EUBAM’s aims to enhance border security, are important contributions to alter a spill over effect, and to support the peace process in Libya.

Finally, Libya’s economy is unlikely to recover due to the political instability. The oil riches of the country are likely to be exploited to bankroll the current conflict. The potential for the international community to sanction Libyan oil will play an important role in the future trajectory of the conflict.

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