Libya: April Fools


April 8, 2016: The new UN sponsored unity government known as the GNA (Government of National Accord) arrived in Tripoli last week and found they had a lot of popular support but the existing Tripoli and Tobruk governments are divided on whether to cede power to GNA. This sort of thing is common in Libya. The General National Congress (or GNC) was formed after the 2011 revolution to create a new constitution for the voters to decide on. The GNC was to rule until the constitution was approved and government elections held. Progress was slow and in late 2013 the GNC extended its power for another year. Elections were held in 2014 but the GNC did not like the composition of the new House of Representatives (HoR). The UN recognized the HoR but most of the GNC members (who tended to be more tribal and religiously conservative) refused to give up power. The HoR and the government it had formed fled east to Tobruk and rallied most of eastern Libya behind them. The UN recognized the H0R and condemned the GNC.

Many members of these two rival legislatures agreed that a unity government was essential but neither can get a majority vote to approve disbanding and transferring all power to the new GNA. This is all about greed, tribal loyalty and corruption. Many members of the GNC and HoR do not want to lose power and income (largely because of the opportunities for corruption). Now someone (mainly the UN) must broker deals that change enough votes in the GNC and HoR to disband these two governments and unify most of the nations behind the GNA. This nasty business is underway, as quietly and discreetly as possible. Failure to bribe (convince) enough holdouts to switch could lead to another civil war because most Libyans have made it pretty clear that they support the GNA.

The GNA prime minister (Fayez al Sarraj) has seven of his nine cabinet members with him in Tripoli but for the moment is stuck in the port of Tripoli because too many armed factions in the city still refuse to take orders from GNA. That is expected to change soon because Sarraj knows that many of the militias supporting the GNC have not been paid for a while and GNC has been scraping by this year. Sarraj let it be known that he has access to more cash than the GNC and would be able to meet the payroll needs of militias. Some militia leaders immediately fell in line but others either wanted more money or (less frequently) had ideological or religious objections to the GNA. Meanwhile Sarraj has convinced most government agencies in Tripoli to declare their support for the GNA. Sarraj implied that failure to do so would result in great financial loss and UN sanctions. Bullets can be convincing but in Libya hunger and privation are proving even more persuasive.

Sarraj was a member of the Tripoli parliament but known to be a moderate. He is a businessman who waited in Tunisia with his presidential council/cabinet until it was judged safe to move (via a Tunisian gunboat) to Tripoli (the traditional capital). The problem with Sarraj is that he is a compromise candidate selected because it was believed he would have the fewest factions violently opposed to him. Yet those factions (mainly in Tripoli but also some that support the Tobruk government) contain some violence prone individuals and groups. One thing the anti-Sarraj factions have in common is the belief that the Sarraj government is being imposed by outsiders (the UN, neighboring Arab states and/or “the West”, take your pick). At this point a majority of Libyans support, or will tolerate, a unity government that, initially at least, is imposed by outsiders.

UN and Libyan officials (from both the Tripoli and Tobruk governments) tried to line up enough factions from both governments to back the use of force (by Libyan and foreign forces) to get the new Sarraj government into Tripoli and established. This was all very risky and uncertain but it worked insofar as many local governments, militias and tribes declared support for the GNA rather than risk more fighting. But many members of the existing GNC and HoR need more persuading (more cash or other favors). The penalties for failure here are severe. Without a unified government Libya risks becoming another Somalia. That means several decades of chaos before the factions decide to cooperate. In the meantime Libya will soon run out of cash and be dependent on foreign charity for food and other essentials. As the UN discovered in Somalia and several similar places, it is becoming impossible to get nations to donate the cash needed for chaotic countries where much of the aid is blocked or stolen. This would mean more Libyans fleeing the country to avoid starvation. They will flee to neighboring states initially, mainly Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria. For that reason these three nations back (with reservations) using force to try and get the Sarraj government installed and functioning. Western nations, especially the Europeans, want to avoid collapse because that would make Libya a terrorist sanctuary that would threaten everyone, starting with the nations closest to what remains of Libya.

Total government collapse is a process not unique to Libya and Somalia. Most of the rest of the world has passed through this phase of social development long ago. What makes Libya a special case is that it has the largest oil reserves in Africa. That’s $5 trillion worth of oil and natural gas still in the ground. Analysts at the National Oil Company calculate that Libya has lost over $70 billion in oil income since 2011. Currently production is at an all-time low of only about 360,000 barrels a day. That is barely a quarter of what production was before the 2011 revolution. Without increasing oil production Libyans face widespread starvation within a year or two as cash reserves are exhausted. While some factions (especially the Islamic terrorist ones) don’t care (because they are on a Mission From God) the majority of faction leaders can do the math and have noted the adverse impact of the economic and social collapse over the last few years. The UN is hoping that will be sufficient to get enough factions to back Sarraj, or at least remain neutral, and, as the old refrain goes, “give peace a chance.”

The Wild Ones

ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) claims to control the coastal city of Derna (which is only partially true) and to have a presence in Sirte, Benghazi and Tobruk. That is true in Sirte and Benghazi but questionable in Tobruk. ISIL releases a growing number of pictures and videos of operations in Libya. Most of this Islamic “terrorist porn” is great for recruiting and mainly shows civilians being whipped or beheaded in Sirte and Derna. ISIL only controls parts of these two cities and is still fighting to conquer entire cities. The terror porn is expected to help by scaring away armed opposition and inducing civilians to submit to ISIL rule. In fact the armed locals fight back harder when they learn about the terror porn and most civilians will flee rather that live under ISIL rule.

ISIL boasts of success in its battles with other Islamic radical groups, calling them heretics and worthy only death. This is how ISIL operates everywhere and a major reason why ISIL is now on the defensive everywhere, even in Libya. The ISIL setbacks are many. In the last year they have lost over 20 percent of the Iraqi and Syrian territory they held at the height of their success in late 2014. Another disappointment is what happened among other Islamic terror groups that, in 2015, pledged loyalty to ISIL and considered themselves part of the ISIL caliphate. That has clearly not worked out. Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, Yemen, Nigeria and Philippines all had major Islamic terror groups that declared themselves part of ISIL in 2015 and only in Libya is the local ISIL franchise making any progress and that’s because Libya is in chaos and a major motivation for many other Libyan factions to unite is the shared belief in the need to destroy ISIL. That is a common reaction and in Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, Yemen, Nigeria, the Philippines and several other countries that motivation was well enough organized to do major damage to the most fanatic local Islamic radicals, the sort of men who seek to join and sustain ISIL. Many of the failed ISIL branches were desperate after discovering that an earlier affiliation with al Qaeda did not help much either. ISIL was supposed to be a solution but turned out to be another problem. In Libya the local ISIL branch is attracting a lot of new recruits in part because militias are abandoning Islamic radicalism for more moderate causes. Libya is increasingly broke and that means many militias that have been on the government payroll since 2011 are not getting paid regularly, if at all. Islamic terrorism was a popular cause after 2011, especially if the government subsidized it and there wasn’t much in the way of law and order. Five years later the older, hungrier and wiser militiamen are looking for some peace and prosperity. But the true believers see ISIL as their last chance to live the Islamic terrorist thug life, for a while at least. There may be as many as 6,000 armed men pledged to ISIL in Libya but few of them are skilled fighters and despite the arrival of additional experienced leaders and technical experts (bomb builders) from Syria the Libyan ISIL is poorly led and somewhat disorganized.

April 7, 2016: Britain, France and Russia declare their approval of and support for the new GNA government. Italy has offered to send 3,000 military trainers to Libya to operate camps to train members of a new army and national police. Other nations have promised economic aid to a new national government. Other Western nations (especially the U.S. and France) offer more commandos and air support for a united military in a united Libya.

April 6, 2016: The UN began a conference in Turkey with major faction leaders in an effort to work out a unity deal.

April 5, 2016: The Tripoli city government and several major militias declared their support for the GNA but within 24 hours the GNC leaders announced that they could not get a majority of GNC legislators to approve merging into the GNA.

April 4, 2016: The National Oil Company declared its allegiance to the GNA. The oil company needs the cooperation of the UN to export oil and the UN suggested that it would be a good idea if the GNA controlled the National Oil Company. That control will only last as long as the GNA leaders stay in Tripoli and have the support of enough militias to prevent armed takeover of oil company facilities in Tripoli.

April 2, 2016: In the east, 240 kilometers south of the port of Es Sider (and its facilities for loading oil tanker ships) ISIL attacked an oil field. Two guards were killed but the attack was repulsed. ISIL attacks against oil facilities near Es Sider have killed at over twenty of the defenders so far this year and apparently even more ISIL men. Es Sider has been closed since December 2014. In normal times Es Sider and Ras Lanuf (21 kilometers further east) can ship 600,000 barrels a day but will remain shut down until the attacks cease. ISIL attacks in 2016 have hit some of the oil storage tanks at Es Sider and Ras Lanuf destroying over 800,000 barrels of oil (worth about $25 million). Another oil shipping port at Brega (115 kilometers further east) is still operational and nearby are still functioning oil fields producing most (60 percent) of the 300,00-400,000 barrels a day Libya is still able to export. ISIL has been going after oil facilities south of Sirte as part of a strategy to conquer functioning oil fields and ports to ship oil from.

April 1, 2016: The United States issued travel warnings to its citizens to avoid travelling to southeastern Tunisia. The U.S. believes Islamic terrorist activity in that area, along the Libyan border, makes it too risky for Americans (who are seen as prime kidnapping targets).

March 31, 2016: The GNA (prime minister Sarraj and seven of his cabinet ministers) arrived by boat from Tunisia. The original plan was to fly in the day before but militias opposed to the GNA made it clear that the airport would not be safe for GNA members. Despite the threats many armed groups and government agencies in the city openly welcomed GNA control. All the cities and major towns between Tripoli and the Tunisian border declared support for the GNA. So have all the neighboring countries.

March 27, 2016: The U.S. has agreed to supply and install $25 million worth of sensors on the Tunisian side of the new 200 kilometer long security fence along the Libyan border. The U.S. will supply more sensors if the first batch are installed and become operational. The Tunisian fence covers about half their border with Libya and has reduced the ability of smugglers and Islamic terrorists from crossing illegally. Tunisia has been very successful in dealing with the Islamic terrorist threat from Libya. The Tunisians have paid extra attention to ISIL attempts to get into the country and recently uncovered and dismantled an ISIL group that was recruiting Tunisian men to join ISIL in Libya. That operation included at least a dozen arrests and much new intel on other ISIL operations in (or plans for) Tunisia.


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