By William Danvers 

If Libya is to successfully rebuild and become a more stable presence in an unstable and volatile region, the Libyan people must support one government. Just as importantly, the issue of security must be addressed.



Introduction and summary

A recent report from the Center for American Progress, “Leveraging U.S. Power in the Middle East,” puts in context the foreign policy and national security problems that the United States and all nations face:

The geopolitical landscape that emerged after the end of the Cold War is facing recent strains from an unprecedented wave of global migration, climate change, and a more assertive Russia and competitive China—and the Middle East has emerged as a focal point for many of these challenges.1

Libya, as part of the larger Middle East North Africa, or MENA, region, is also a focal point for global challenges and opportunities.

Five years after the fall of Moammar Gadhafi—Libya’s longtime despotic leader—the struggle to establish a unified state continues. Today in Libya there is one internationally recognized government—the Government of National Accord, or GNA—and two other competing factions. One is the House of Representatives, or HoR, which is the internationally recognized parliament of Libya and is located in the eastern city of Tobruk. The second faction is the General National Congress, or GNC, which is also headquartered in western Libya in Tripoli.2 

However, if Libya is to successfully rebuild and become a more stable presence in an unstable and volatile region, the Libyan people must support one government. Just as importantly, the issue of security must be addressed.

Security in Libya falls into three separate but interrelated categories. The most pressing challenge is the battle against the Islamic State, or IS—sometimes called ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh. Another is handling the enormous number of independent militias found throughout Libya. The third is cracking down on Libya’s criminal underground, which dates back to the time of the Gadhafi government.3 

These three elements of Libya’s security dilemma are not independent of each other but rather are intertwined. Defeating IS is crucial but will not be enough to make Libyans more secure. Militias must be brought under the control of a central government. At the same time, the criminal underground poses a threat to any effort to bring political stability to Libya, both because it involves the militias and because criminal elements help support some of the work of IS.4

The most immediate security concern is defeating IS. For Libya, this is an internal issue, but it is also an issue for the United States, Europe, and Libya’s neighbors. IS became involved in Libya in October 2014 in the Libyan western coastal town of Derna. IS was pushed out of Derna by local militias that viewed it as a rival and did not like its extreme tactics.5 

IS later moved to Sirte, a town in the Libyan oil crescent. For a time, it controlled as much as 180 miles along the Libyan coast and had as many as 6,000 to 6,500 fighters in Libya.6 

The success of IS began to turn around when Libyan militias loyal to the GNA started to push IS out of Sirte. The GNA asked for and received U.S. military support, and although there is progress, IS continues to have a small footprint in Sirte.7

The question is: What will IS do in Libya after it is forced to leave Sirte? It has begun to disperse to the northwest and southwest regions of the country and remains in the northeast in Benghazi.8 

Contingency planning is needed to prevent IS from reconstituting and regaining its previous capabilities elsewhere in Libya beyond Sirte.9

Libya’s militia problem—which is a primary source of political and economic instability—is more complicated than defeating IS because it is more widespread. Dealing with it is a fundamental part of any effort to build a unified Libyan state. There are said to be as many as 2,000 militias across Libya, and while most are independent, they do fall into three general categories.10 

There are those militias aligned with the GNC, many of which are Islamist but not necessarily jihadi. There are those that are generally anti-Islamist, loyal to the HoR and its military strongman supporter General Khalifa Haftar. Then there are those that are radical jihadis, such as IS and Ansar al-Shariah, which have ties to Al Qaeda.11

These militias form coalitions when it suits their purpose and at other times are at odds with each other. Regardless, they have helped create a failed Libyan state with no central authority or security structure.12

The criminal underground in Libya has been functioning since the time of Gadhafi. There are a number of groups, but there is no real central power structure similar to the mafia. Instead, these criminal groups operate independently, and they traffic in a variety of things, including guns, drugs, and people. They work with whoever serves their purpose, including IS. The role of the criminal underground has increased as the Libyan economy continues to crumble. In a very real sense, these criminal groups are the connective tissue between the jihadis and the militias, with all three impeding efforts to rebuild Libya.13

If Libya devolves into further instability—in effect becoming a failed state—it creates a threat to the region; a threat to Europe because of the increased flow of refugees and migrants from Libya; and a threat to both the United States and European Union because of the presence of IS and Al Qaeda affiliates.

While addressing Libya’s security crises is an essential piece of the effort to build a functioning state, it will certainly be a difficult and complicated process. Nonetheless, there are things that can be done that will help make Libya more secure.

Defeating IS

  • Defeating IS must be the priority for making Libya more secure. The GNA must continue to work with the United States in order to defeat IS.

  • The United States must take the lead in support of the GNA’s fight against IS, but it must also work with regional partners—including Egypt, Tunisia, and the United Arab Emirates—as well as with European Union nations, particularly Italy, France, and also with Great Britain.

  • Defeating IS means not only eliminating it from Sirte but preventing it from relocating elsewhere in Libya or neighboring states.

Addressing the militia problem

  • Libya must develop a more coherent and functional national security structure, but that structure has to accommodate local security concerns and militias without undermining central authority.

  • The international community—the United States, the European Union, and MENA nations—must offer law enforcement and military training for Libyan security forces, national and regional, as part of a security restructuring.

  • The number of militias must be reduced by eliminating and consolidating existing militias.

  • Jobs and education programs must be established that will offer alternatives for people in militias.

Fighting crime and crime networks

  • Libya must develop national and regional law enforcement entities that will take on criminal elements throughout the country.

  • International organizations such as Interpol, and national law enforcement agencies from the United States and Europe in particular, must help Libyan law enforcement with its effort to fight criminal gangs through training and the sharing of information.

  • Libya must build a strong border presence using human and technical means to enforce its borders.

The job of making Libya more secure and stable is ultimately up to the people of Libya. It can only be successful if Libyans realize that they cannot have a functioning state without the central government having more control over the country’s security. A more secure Libya is also in the interest of the international community, including the United States, Europe, and Libya’s neighbors. This means that all stakeholders must offer the technical and financial support needed to bring security and stability to Libya.

Taking action now to address Libya’s immediate threats, while at the same time building its governance and security apparatus, could help avoid the kind of crisis that the international community currently faces in Syria.

Defeating IS

The Islamic State began its involvement in Libya in the city of Derna in 2014.14 

The attempted takeover of Derna was organized by returnees who had been fighting for IS in Syria and Iraq. However, the effort by IS to use Derna as its Libyan base of operation failed. Its draconian ruling style—with its own justice and policing system—alienated the local population, which rose up and forced IS out in June 2015.15 

The lessons of Derna forced IS to change its tactics.

At the same time IS was being pushed out of Derna, it was in the midst of setting up a new base of operation in Sirte.16 

Its inroads into Sirte, which was Gadhafi’s hometown, were more successful.17 

In Sirte, IS made an effort to reach out to groups alienated by the civil war against Gadhafi.18 

It also reached out to other jihadi groups in Sirte who saw IS as a viable alternative to the present state of chaos in Libya. At its peak, IS controlled not only Sirte but, by some estimates, as much as 180 miles of Libyan coastline near Sirte.19 

Because of these developments, Libya was on the verge of becoming what terrorism experts have characterized as the third front against IS, the other two fronts being Iraq and Syria.20

IS sees Libya as a province of its Syrian and Iraqi caliphate. Foreign fighters in Libya, which at one point were estimated to be as many as 6,000 to 6,500 fighters, generally consist of Libyans who have returned from the fighting in Syria and Iraq; radicals from other Libyan terrorist organizations; and foreign fighters from Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria, Sudan, and elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa.21 

IS has tried to position itself as the most important and viable of all the Libyan jihadi groups, gaining defectors from groups such as the Libyan Al Qaeda affiliate Ansar al-Sharia. At the same time, Libya was becoming both a place of refuge for IS leaders escaping the war in Syria and Iraq and a base of deployment for Libyan and African operations. Until the recent push against IS in Sirte and due to the relative calm in Libya compared with Syria and Iraq, Libya was seen as a useful alternative place of operation for IS leaders.22

IS has a history of aggressive attacks in Libya, particularly against oil facilities. In January of this year, it set fire to an oil tank in Ra’s Lanuf.23 

It also set fire to four more oil tanks and targeted an oil pipeline from the Amal oil field to the port of Sidra. At the time, an IS fighter indicated that these attacks were only the beginning, stating, “Today Es Sider (Sidra) port and Rasa Lanuf and tomorrow the port of Brega and after the ports of Tobruk, Es Serir, Jallo, and al-Kufra.”24 

IS violence is not limited to oil facilities. This past January, it was responsible for a suicide bombing at a Libyan Coast Guard training camp in Zlitan, killing at least 65 cadets.25

The Zlitan attack was a clear indication of a broader IS strategy in Libya.26 

The Libyan Coast Guard plays a role in helping curb the mass exodus of refugees from Libya to Europe. Most of these refugees are not from Libya but elsewhere, particularly sub-Saharan Africa. Most of the refugees are victims of Libya’s criminal underground, which smuggles them to Libyan ports and from there to Europe.

In the case of the Zlitan bombing, there was a common purpose between the criminal gangs and IS. The coast guard interferes with criminal gangs’ efforts to use Libya as a port of departure for the refugees they are smuggling.

The IS attack on the coast guard served two purposes. It further established IS as a threat in the Libyan oil crescent, and it helped refugee smugglers—part of Libya’s criminal element—by crippling the coast guard. This made IS and Libyan organized crime allies of convenience, at least temporarily.

The battle for Sirte

Things changed for IS in May of this year when the Government of National Accord began a campaign referred to as “al-Bunyan al-Marsus,” or The Solid Structure, against the jihadi group. It was supported by militias, mostly from Misrata, that have backed the GNA—at least for now—in order to evict IS from Sirte.27 

This past August, the GNA asked for and received support from the U.S. military. This included airstrikes against IS, as well as some special operations troops to provide intelligence and guidance for the airstrikes.28 

The U.S.-GNA cooperation has proven to be largely successful in eliminating IS from Sirte, though the job is not yet complete.

A related concern is what happens to IS once it is pushed out of Sirte. Would it mark the end of large scale IS involvement in Libya, or would IS shift its operations to another part of Libya where it may have better luck establishing itself? There is speculation that IS would move to southwestern Libya in the Fezzan region, which would give it an operating base for attacks into Tunisia and Algeria.29 

It is unlikely that IS will abandon plans entirely to maintain its presence in Libya. Libya, after all, provides a base of operation for IS in North Africa and the Sahel—a 3,400-mile swath of land that divides the Sahara from the grasslands to the south stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea. In addition, Libya would remain a potential base for IS operations in Europe.30

The GNA and its militia allies, as well as the United States and its allies, must look beyond Sirte as part of its strategy to defeat IS in Libya. The ability of IS to disrupt the region, as well as to undermine the struggle to form a unified Libyan state, should not be underestimated. While the United States cannot undertake the effort to eliminate IS alone, it needs to lead the international effort to coordinate efforts in the fight against IS.

The United States is best equipped both militarily and with respect to the capacity of its intelligence community to take on the responsibility of leading this effort.


William Danvers is a Senior Fellow at American Progress, where he works on a range of national security issues. Danvers has worked on national security issues for 34 years in the executive branch, Congress, various international organizations, and the private sector.


  1. CAP Middle East team, “Leveraging U.S. Power in the Middle East” (Washington: Center for American Progress, 2016), available at

  2. Christopher M. Blanchard, “Libya: Transition and U.S. Policy” (Washington: Congressional Research Service, 2016), available at

  3. United Nations Security Council, “Letter dated 4 March 2016 from the Panel of Experts on Libya established pursuant to resolution 1973 (2011) addressed to the President of the Security Council” (2016), available at

  4. Karim Mezran, “ISIS Expansion in Libya and the Government of National Accord,” Atlantic Council, January 8, 2016, available at

  5. Frederic Wehrey and Ala’ Alrababa’h, “Splitting the Islamists: The Islamic State’s Creeping Advance in Libya,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, June 19, 2015, available at

  6. The Economist, “The third front,” February 6, 2016, available at; Eric Schmitt, “U.S. Scrambles to Contain Growing ISIS Threat in Libya,” The New York Times, February 21, 2016, available at

  7. Missy Ryan and Sudarsan Raghavan, “U.S. strikes Islamic State stronghold in Libya, expanding campaign against militant group,” The Washington Post, August 1, 2016, available at

  8. Emily Estelle, ISIS’s Courses of Action – Out of Sirte,” Critical Threats, April 29, 2016, available at

  9. Ibid. 

  10. BBC News, “Guide to key Libyan militias,” January 11, 2016, available at

  11. Ibid. 

  12. Ibid. 

  13. Mark Shaw and Fiona Mangan, “Illicit Trafficking and Libya’s Transition: Profits and Losses” (Washington: United States Institute of Peace, 2014), available at

  14. Wehrey and Alrababa’h, “Splitting the Islamists.” 

  15. Ibid. 

  16. Tarek Kahlaoui, “What Is Behind the Rise of ISIS in Libya?,” Newsweek, March 21, 2016, available at

  17. Ibid. 

  18. Ibid. 

  19. The Economist, “The third front.” 

  20. The Economist, “The next front against Islamic State,” February 4, 2016, available at

  21. Schmitt, “U.S. Scrambles to Contain Growing ISIS Threat in Libya”; Andrew Engel, “Libya’s Civil War: Rebuilding the Country from the Ground Up” (Washington: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2015), available at

  22. The Economist, “The next front against Islamic State.” 

  23. Ayman al-Warfalli and Ahmed Elumami, “Islamic State attack sets storage tanks ablaze at Libyan oil terminal,” Reuters, January 21, 2016, available at

  24. Ibid. 

  25. Suliman Ali Zway and Kareem Fahim, “Truck Bomb Kills at Least 65 at Libya Training Camp,” The New York Times, January 7, 2016, available at

  26. Ibid. 

  27. Frederic Wehrey, “The Grinding Fight to Root Out ISIS in a Battered Libya,” The New Yorker, August 10, 2016, available at

  28. Missy Ryan and Sudarsan Raghavan, “U.S. Special Operations troops aiding Libyan forces in major battle against Islamic State,” The Washington Post, August 9, 2016, available at

  29. Estelle, ISIS’s Courses of Action – Out of Sirte.” 

  30. Ibid. 


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