Change Direction; or (Why) We really need to talk about Libya

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On Thursday 21 April, I appeared as the opening guest on the BBC political discussion show This Week.

I was there a an ‘expert’ to talk about Libya, and discuss the North African state and its current situation with the show’s host, Andrew Neil, and co-hosts Michael Portillo and Ken Livingstone (if you haven’t seen it, you can watch it here).

It was a privilege to be asked (I hope never to become so jaded that these invitations become routine) but it was also a timely and important opportunity. Because we in the UK – and other Western states – need to talk about Libya: about the mistakes we have made, and how we avoid making more.


Having spent much of the last nine months travelling the UK to talk about my book: The Toss of a Coin: voices from a modern crisis, a question which almost invariably comes up is ‘were we right to intervene in Libya’s Civil War?’

Understandably – particularly on a political discussion show in the UK, where the current Prime Minister was the man who ordered his state’s air force into action against Muammar Ghaddafi and his supporters (including a number of civilians) – the question was raised by the This Week participants I appeared alongside.

My answer may have frustrated them.

Because those of you who have read the book already know my opinion on the intervention’s legality, justifications and effects (the latter two being far less easy to judge than the former, as the legal basis for intervening was at best extremely tenuous), but although there must be a serious consideration of our activity in Libya in 2011, and indeed our role in the international community, at this moment, Libya is in the grips of a vast crisis.

It is that, rather than self-examination, which should be our priority at present*.

*We will touch on why that is the case later on.

On March 19 2011, NATO air forces – specifically those of France, the US and the UK, embarked upon a bombing campaign in support of rebels fighting to depose the Libyan dictator Muammar Ghaddafi.

On 20 October that year, Ghaddafi was captured and shot just outside his hometown, Sirte, an act which ended the first Libyan Civil War. The US, France and UK ceased bombing Libya, and immediately disengaged from the state.

Almost five years on, Libya is in chaos. It has three governments, none of which have the legitimacy or mandate of having been recently elected by the Libyan public.

Two of them are backed by opposing illegal militias who are active combatants in the state’s four-sided second Civil War and the third – currently holed up in a heavily-guarded Tripoli naval base – has been imposed from outside by the international community in the hopes it will invite new airstrikes on Libyan towns and cities.

This does not look like a formula for success.

The remaining major ‘players’ in the second Libyan civil war (which is now fast approaching its third year) are the Al Qaeda-affiliated Ansar Al Sharia, and IS.

There is, of course, an argument to be made that perhaps none of this would have happened had Ghaddafi remained in power. Indeed, that is quite likely to be true. But it is undeniably the case that having intervened to remove him, the three states’ decision to leave Libya – a state battered by war, and with no experienced and credible politicians or organisations – without help was not only unjustifiable, but also the major factor in its descent into mayhem.

Libya’s present

There are arguments, at present, about whether Libya is a ‘failed state’. Not everybody believes it is, despite its three governments, four-sided civil war (with some smaller combatants adding to the mayhem), lack of an armed force or police service, and non-existent budgetary analysis or economic activity. For them, modern Libya is not a failed state; it has simply never been a state.

Within Libya itself, where there is a smaller proportion of political analysts to people simply attempting to live a life, the outlook regarding the state is slightly less pessimistic.

With the exception of a small (but because of the nature of representative politics, more powerful than their vote share suggests because they effectively prop up the so-called ‘Liberals’ in the Eastern Libyan ‘government’, the House of Representatives, meaning their support is necessary for much of what the larger group desires, to happen) group of Eastern separatists, literally everyone in Libya – including tribal groups such as Tuaregs, Amazighs and Tebu – remain supporters of the state in its current form*.

*As detailed in The Toss of a Coin: voices from a modern crisis, Ibrahim Jadhran, leader of the Petroleum Facilities Guard, a militia charged with protecting Libya’s oilfields from attack, in fact led the group in an attempt to create a breakaway Eastern state of Cyrenaica, with Benghazi as its capital. This attempt, which shared aims – though not means – with the politicians in the HoR who advocate Eastern separatism, was crushed in 2013-14, and Jadhran’s PFG has returned to its original task.

And despite some unrest in Libya’s South, where a small number of Ghaddafists fled in 2011, the so-called ‘Green Resistance’ – people aiming to restore Libya to its pre-2011 state system – is the only, (and tiny) group which currently airs any regret at Ghaddafi’s deposition* (this is not to pass any judgement on whether Ghaddafi’s removal was legal, or just, simply to note that virtually nobody now believes Libya should return to a situation like that under him).

*It is tempting to conclude that laws passed by both the GNC and HoR to outlaw pro-Ghaddafi statements or activity are indicative of a strong undercurrent of support for Libya’s former leader. In fact, these laws were simple re-wordings of Ghaddafi’s own laws outlawing opposition to his rule: indicators, certainly, that maybe not much had changed in Libya, and of a perception of vulnerability by the state’s new ‘government(s)’, but not laws made ‘in response’ to any large-scale support for a return to Ghaddafism.      

In short, though it is certainly not a ‘state’ in any meaningful sense of the term – its three governments between them exercise almost no power, the two illegal militias which claim to support two of those ‘governments’ were in fact in existence and fighting one another before those governments even existed and the other two major combatants in its second civil war are local franchises of international terrorist organisations (Al Qaeda and IS) – there is a genuine belief in the territorial integrity of Libya (by all but IS and the small Cyrenaica separatist movement), and commitment to its existence as a democracy (by all but Al Qadea and IS).

The three ‘governments’ – and their associates

Late in May 2014, retired Libyan army ‘General’ Khalifa Haftar – described by one historian as ‘the worst military leader in Libya’s history’ – ordered an attack by the Zintan khetiba on the nation’s parliament.

The attack – which it should, in the interests of balance, be noted, was carried out on a Parliament which had outlived its mandate by three months, and in an effort to sidestep this fact had voted without any public consultation to extend that mandate by a full year, to December 2014 until public outrage forced it instead to announce a General Election to take place in June 2014 – was carried out by an illegal and heavily-armed militia organisation against a group of unarmed politicians.

It was also almost entirely without reason: even if it were Haftar’s highest priority to remove the politicians who sat in Libya’s government at that point, pre-election polls indicated that its opponents were likely to win roughly 70 per cent of seats in the election scheduled for 25 June, just four weeks after the illegal and unjustifiable attack.

In the event, the attack – combined with Haftar’s own militia ‘Operation Dignity’ (a collection of former army staffers and khetiba members which today claims to be ‘the Libyan army’ but is nothing of the sort: in fact, no such thing exists) opening fire on the Al-Qaeda-affilated Ansar al-Sharia militia in the latter’s Benghazi stronghold – led to all-out war across Libya, and in turn, a turn-out of just 18 per cent in the June General Election.

By this stage, Libya’s Second Civil War saw Haaftar and his allies in the Zintan khetiba battling Ansar in the East, and fighting Libya Fajr – ‘Dawn’ – in Tripoli. The latter had formed supposedly in ‘defence’ of the sitting Parliament against the Zintan khetiba, but was in fact largely made up of the khetiba from Misrata, at that point the strongest militia in Libya and one which had long been vying for control against the Zintan khetiba for Tripoli.

The result of the chaotic election of June 2014 saw the ‘liberal’ political groups win out – though in some regions members of the new parliament were returned with just hundreds of votes. The parliament which resulted – the House of Representatives (HoR) – was supposed to convene in Tripoli, but fighting there and in Benghazi forced it to set up instead in Tobruk.

The former government, declaring this to be against the ‘constitution’ developed to create the new legislature (which, technically, it was) responded to the decision by refusing to accept HoR’s right to govern, and reconvening in Tripoli as the General National Congress (GNC).

Fajr declared its support for the GNC, and Dignity for HoR, while the majority of the international community, including the UN declared the HoR ‘legitimate’, and the GNC a pretender to governance.

In practice, the declarations had little material effect on Libya: neither ‘government’ actually exercised any power, Fajr was unable to advance far West of Misrata, and Haftar was unable to unseat Ansar in Benghazi.

In November 2014, however, two major developments took place. IS entered the Libyan Civil War (recruiting mainly, as it had in Syria and Iraq beforehand, and would soon after do in Yemen, from disillusioned extremist members of Al Qaeda already in-country and from surrounding states) and the Libyan High Court declared that the HoR was not a legitimate government.

The former was a complication in the wider war, but in Derna and Sirte (the two Libyan cities which IS has so far managed to take over – it has since been expelled from Derna but remains in control of Sirte) it was a far greater event, resulting in widespread arrest, torture and killings.

The latter left Libya with two governments which were not only entirely powerless, but also entirely without legitimacy even on their own terms and within their own state.

It could – and indeed should – have caused the international community embarrassment, as it left it having declared support for one ‘government’ ahead of another despite neither being legitimate, and supporting in Haftar a self-proclaimed ‘General’ of an army which was in fact an illegal militia, who continually announced he was ‘prepared’ to ‘temporarily’ take over as leader of Libya. But the international community responded by simply ignoring the Libyan High Court’s ruling.

Things remained in a largely static state for 12 months – Fajr, Dignity, Ansar and IS blasting one another and large numbers of civilians to pieces, and two governments unable to exercise any real power issuing statements denouncing the other – while Libya slowly collapsed.

Its civilians, who did not benefit at all from the international community’s support of the HoR or opposition to GNC, were left to struggle with day-to-day life in a war zone.

IS, and renewed international interest

But continued IS activity in Syria, Iraq, Turkey, Kuwait, Lebanon and perhaps decisively the group’s attacks in Paris in November 2015, led several NATO states to decide – 18 months into a bitter, bloody, four-sided war their refusal to engage with Libya had helped to cause – to pay attention to Libya.

Since September 2014, the US Air Force has been bombing IS in Syria. It has been attacking IS positions in Iraq for a little longer. The results so far have been disappointing at best: the terror organisation’s activity in both states remains vicious and wide-reaching, while its operations elsewhere have if anything increased.

In Libya, incubated in the ‘ideal’ conditions for its growth (IS requires conflict to give its recruitment narrative credibility, and to take advantage of shattered infrastructure to obtain weapons and cash, without which it cannot survive: this is, of course, why airstrikes – which simply add to the conditions which IS requires – have so far had so little impact on the terror group even though they have seen the full might of the world’s most advanced weapons systems ranged against it), IS has bedded in.

But it is worth noting here that despite US attempts to argue that IS members are running from airstrikes in Syria and Iraq to the ‘safety’ of Libyan operations, there is in fact very little evidence for this having taken place.

There have so far been just six leading IS members who have left Syria and Iraq to take up roles in Libya – not an unusually high number when considering the ‘cross-franchise’ nature of ‘promotion’ within IS’ ranks – while IS numbers in Syria and Iraq have not significantly decreased.

It is certainly the case that IS’ numbers have grown in Libya. It is now estimated that there are around 5,000 fighters and trainees in the state. But these have come not from Syria and Iraq, but from Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt and Libya itself, as well as from its wider international recruitment base.

This is not to pretend that IS can or should be ignored. It is an horrific organisation which should be removed from Libya, as it should from every other state in which it has a presence. But we must treat with healthy scepticism the continued, evidence-light refrain that airstrikes in Syria and Iraq are forcing IS into Libya*.

*Of course, if they were doing so, this would itself raise serious doubts about the idea of ‘defeating’ IS with air strikes. If IS simply moves to a new state whenever airstrikes weaken it, we may be forced to bomb almost every single state on Earth and still never come close to defeating it.

We should also note that with 5,000 fighters – many not yet even trained – it is the smallest of the four forces fighting in the second Libyan Civil War, and it was a latecomer to that conflict: the war will not be brought to an end by the defeat of IS.

In any case, in December 2015, in Rome, an international symposium was called to discuss the future of Libya. Not one Libyan was invited to attend. At this meeting, France pushed strongly to be allowed to ‘intervene’ in Libya against IS, while Senator John Kerry, the US Secretary of State angrily shouted that the UN must ‘give us a government we can deal with!’

At almost the same moment, Aguila Saleh, President of the HoR, and Khalifa al-Ghwell, Prime Minister of the GNC, announced from Tunis that they had met and agreed the first steps towards an end to fighting between the two ‘governments’. The proposal was – it is true – unlikely to have spelled an end to the civil war, as neither ‘government’ controls the militia which claims to support it, but it was an unprecedented moment in recent Libyan history.

The reaction of the international community was to ignore the initiative. Instead, it has moved to impose upon Libya a third ‘government’, the ‘Government of National Accord’ (GNA). Meanwhile, the EU and US enacted sanctions against Saleh, al-Ghwell, and GNC President Nouri Abusahmain.

The GNA is an unelected body. It was pieced together by the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) which has since struggled (and so far failed) to gain unified national support for it.

It entered Libya at the start of April, in an Italian naval frigate, and is currently based in a heavily-guarded navy base on the outskirts of Tripoli.

It is no more legitimate than the HoR or GNC, and arguably less popular within Libya than either. It is also – through no fault of its own – the outcome and symbol of the international community’s killing of the Libyan peace process.

(On Wednesday 27 April, a ship carrying an Indian flag loaded oil from ports currently controlled by the HoR, and set sail. Within hours, the activity had been declared ‘illegal’ by the UN Security Council, which also blacklisted the ship. The embarrassment of declaring ‘illegal’ oil deals done by an illegitimate government which until four months ago was fully-backed by the international community, despite it having been no more legitimate then, appears not to have affected the international community at all)

It is hard to imagine why anyone would prefer to impose a third illegitimate government on a state when a legitimate one was being planned and agreed by the citizens and politicians of that state, except for one thing: the GNA is considered very likely to do what the HoR and GNC have so far rejected outright – to invite NATO to bomb IS in Libya.

The mistake

Libya is an important state. This is not only because its own people deserve – and are currently denied – a decent, safe life and place to live, with food, health care and education, and free from missiles, terror, torture and bullets, though they do deserve that, and they are denied it.

Nor is it solely that NATO states played a part in its destruction in 2011, and then turned their backs on it, abandoning it with indecent haste to collapse and crumble. Though we did do that, and we should take responsibility for our part in Libya’s destruction, and work to put it right.

But Libya also occupies a vital geo-political position. It is just over 300km south of the EU, and throughout its history has been a bridge between Europe and sub-Saharan Africa.

Refugees from all over Africa – and many Middle Eastern states – have traditionally travelled to Libya, and many have from there travelled on to Europe.

With war raging in the state, and the EU’s deal with Turkey closing the fastest and safest route for refugees from Syria, Iraq and further East to reach the EU, the numbers of those desperate people setting off from Libya are likely to increase this year.

And IS is a problem with which we should attempt to deal swiftly and decisively.

But we are, for the second time in five years, on the brink of a mistake regarding Libya.

Because we have forced on Libya a third powerless government, which few people wanted, and which is unlikely to run the nation.

And we have done so not to end the war in Libya, but so we can bomb parts of the country in the hope of hitting IS.

But IS thrives in conditions of war: bombing it has failed in Syria and Iraq, and is no more likely to succeed in Libya.

Ironically, the ‘solution’ to IS in Libya is the same as the solution to the nightmare of modern Libya and the horror its people face every day: peace, and a strong state.

In a well-run, inclusively-governed Libya, IS will struggle to recruit: there will be no ‘war’ for it to cite to excuse and justify its despicable acts, or indeed to justify its existence.

In a well-run, inclusively-governed Libya, the people will be able to back their government, secure in the knowledge that it will protect and represent them: in the face of that, IS will be far less capable of recruiting, or meeting and acting under cover of ignorance or secrecy.

And in a well-run, inclusively governed Libya, the state will have a police force and military (neither of which it now has) under its control. Its infrastructure will be in place: not only will IS not be able to gain the cash and weapons it requires to exist, it will also, in its weakened state, face an organised and legitimate opponent. It will not be able to withstand such pressure.

Under those circumstances, Libya may choose to invite other states to help it rid itself of IS. Perhaps, under those circumstances, we should accept.

But the fact is that what is good for Libya and its people – a legitimate, inclusive and representative government and peace – is also good for the international community and the ‘fight’ against IS.

Forcing a third government on Libya does not deliver that. Nor will airstrikes.

It is not too late to undo the mistakes we have already made. It is certainly not too late to avoid making more. But we have to be committed to doing so, informed about what those mistakes are, and how and why we should avoid them.

It is not too late for Libya. But the GNA is a blind alley, leading nowhere we want to go. We can change direction, but we must commit to doing so, and commit to doing so now.

Postscript: death on the ‘ocean’

On Saturday 30 April, 84 people were registered as missing –presumed dead – after an inflatable boat sank off the Libyan coast.

The boat – completely unsuitable for long-distance sea travel – had been carrying 110 West Africans. Only 26 people were saved.

This is not an unusual event – more than 5,000 people have died attempting to cross the Mediterranean since January 2015, the vast majority of whom left from Libya – and is if anything, thanks to the EU’s deal with Turkey which aims to close the shortest sea crossing to Europe, set to increase in coming months.

Bitter experience teaches us that it is too much to expect their deaths to ‘make a difference’ – to convince the EU to alter its attitude to refugees desperate enough to risk everything including their lives to attempt to reach a safe place – but as noted above, what is bad for IS s also what is good for Libya, and by extension for thousands of people who might otherwise drown in Europe’s holiday sea.

The time is right for a change of approach to Libya. And literally everyone stands to benefit from it.

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