Samantha Andrews is an intern in the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations.
On Sunday, the United States carried out an airstrike in Libya that reportedly killed Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a commander of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and mastermind behind the 2013 seizure of an Algerian gas plant that killed thirty-eight hostages. Since the collapse of the Muammar al-Qadaffi regime in 2011, Libya has experienced an unprecedented level of instability and violence, fostering a safe haven for international terrorists like Belmokhtar.
In a new Center for Preventative Action (CPA) Contingency Planning Memorandum Update, “Libya’s Escalating Civil War,” Daniel P. Serwer, professor at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, discusses the implications of Libyan instability for U.S. interests and provides policy recommendations. Serwer says that the threat of chaos that existed after the 2011 intervention has “come to fruition,” and now the United States must address the growing presence of jihadists in Libya, some of whom have joined the self-declared Islamic State. With two opposing military coalitions—Libya Dawn and Operation Dignity divided roughly along geographical lines, with each declaring their own parliament, government, and military chiefs—the loyalties of fighters are difficult to characterize. Though foreign media often associates Dawn with Islamists and Dignity with non-Islamists, both groups have overlapping support. These divisions are just as unclear to the government, whose Finance Ministry in Tripoli continues paying combatants from both coalitions. This indistinctness has undermined UN efforts to negotiate a comprehensive political settlement.
In addition to the Dawn and Dignity coalitions, a growing presence of jihadists affiliated with Ansar al-Sharia and the Islamic State are also gaining a foothold in Libya. Taking advantage of the widespread political instability, jihadists are using the country as a hub to coordinate broader regional violence and launch attacks. Since these terrorist groups regard Dawn and Dignity as enemies, their growth only threatens to further escalate the violence and fracture warring parties.
Libya is critical to U.S. allies in Europe that rely on the country as a gas and oil supplier and face a steady influx of Libyan refugees. Currently, Libya receives less attention than countries where the United States is directly engaged militarily, such as Iraq and Syria. However, the devolution of stability in Libya threatens a collapse of the state and territorial fragmentation. Additionally, at odds with the United States’ efforts to counter violent extremism, the inflow of international terrorists is expected to drive radicalization in the region.
What policy options could help steer Libya toward a more stable outcome? Skewer emphasizes that, since European interests in Libya overshadow those of the United States, the European Union (EU) should take the lead. Washington should encourage and provide support to EU-led efforts, rather than undertaking a new initiative. Other specific recommendations that Serwer details are:
• Supporting an inclusive national political solution that devolves as much authority as possible to Libya’s three regions and twenty-two districts.
• Encouraging Italy and France to form a coalition of the willing to provide peacekeeping forces with a UN mandate in support of a national political settlement, including substantial Arab contributions of police and military personnel.
• Providing logistical, intelligence, and air support for this mission, but without boots on the ground.
• Coordinating with and funding the Libyan government develop counterterrorism and internal security capabilities.
For more of Serwer’s analysis of and recommendations for addressing the conflict, read CPA’s report, “Libya’s Escalating Civil War.”