By Frederic Wehrey

Libya’s worsening political conflict has pushed the country to the brink of civil war and could complicate ongoing efforts to combat extremist groups.



Last fall, Libyan forces loosely affiliated to a UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli, backed by American airpower and Western special operations, scored a hard-won victory against the ISIS stronghold in the central city of Sirte. Elsewhere across the country, Libyans ejected ISIS cells and fighters from Derna and Benghazi in the east, from Tripoli, and from the town of Sabratha near the Tunisian border.

Today, ISIS is no longer a territorial force in Libya in any meaningful sense. That said, its demise presents a number of dangers.

First, remnants of ISIS could still reconstitute themselves and sow trouble. Already, fighters have fled to the desert valleys south of Sirte, where they’ve tried to regroup in small encampments like the one the United States bombed on January 18 of this year. The group is said to have a residual presence around the western town of Sabratha, a longtime hub for Tunisian jihadists, and its clandestine cells are still capable of attacking in and around the Tripoli, already wracked by intra-militia fighting. This poses a potential danger for the return of foreign embassies and businesses to the capital.

Beyond these specific threats, Libya remains an attractive host to jihadism, whether from ISIS, al Qaeda, or some new variant. The conditions are ripe: a long legacy of jihad, economic despair, a governance vacuum, and worsening polarization that could leave some communities feeling as if they have no recourse but violence. Some tribes in Sirte, such as the Qadhadhafa and Warfalla, see the Misratan-led victory against ISIS as less of a liberation and more of a conquest—and it was their grievances against Misratan domination that gave ISIS its opening in the first place.

Most importantly, though, the struggle against the Islamic State has given way to a renewed national-level conflict. Western diplomats had hoped that fighting ISIS could serve as a springboard for political unity among these warring camps.

In fact, the opposite has happened.

Local campaigns against ISIS across the country were pell-mell and carried out by disparate and hostile armed groups without any unifying government authority. For example, rival jihadists in Derna ejected the Islamic State, and in the western coastal town of Sabratha, local militias involved in migrant trafficking helped lead the campaign. In Sirte, the militias from the powerful city of Misrata that defeated ISIS were only loosely tethered to the GNA in Tripoli—and many in fact fiercely opposed it. Now that ISIS is gone, some have turned their guns on the GNA.

In Benghazi, Hifter’s LNA has largely defeated ISIS and other jihadist groups but, in the process, it severely ruptured the city’s social fabric, displacing thousands of families and unleashing exclusionary forces such as tribalism and ultraconservative Salafism. Across the east, Hifter has replaced elected municipal councils with military governments and cracked down on civil society and freedom of the press. Disturbing evidence has surfaced of war crimes committed by soldiers under his command, such as the exhumation and abuse of enemy corpses and summary executions of both combatant prisoners and civilians. None of this is a recipe for enduring stability or success against radicalism. And indeed, Islamists evicted by his campaign have already waged attacks against his forces outside of Benghazi and in the oil crescent.

Most ominously, though, the campaign against ISIS has helped embolden Hifter and his supporters to make a renewed push for national domination with the capture of major oil facilities in Sirte (though not uncontested) and repeated threats to invade Tripoli.

This looming danger, Mr. Chairman, demands immediate engagement from the United States. Having expended considerable military effort in helping Libyan forces wrest territory from the Islamic State last year, the United States should now turn its attention to ensuring the country does not slip into civil war and building a cohesive government, while at the same time dealing with residual and emerging jihadist pockets.


Sticking to the mantra of supporting the GNA in Tripoli, as Washington and Western governments have done over the past year, is no longer a viable option. But neither is the seemingly easy solution of backing a military strongman such as Hifter.

Hifter has no realistic prospect of stabilizing Libya through military rule. His Libyan National Army is neither national nor an army. Even in the east, the bulk of the LNA’s forces are drawn from civilian fighters—militias of varying backgrounds that are increasingly disguised as formal army units. In the west and south, the LNA units have a distinctly tribal composition, provoking suspicion among neighboring communities that view them as little more than tribal militias. Because of their geographic concentration in the east, they are not useful partners in tackling the flow of migrant smuggling, which is mostly based along a western strip of coast stretching from Misrata to the Tunisian border.

The idea that Hifter’s forces could take over Tripoli and rebuild the Libyan state is thus highly implausible. Indeed, encouraging Hifter to expand his reach toward Tripoli risks triggering a war over the capital that could drag on for years. With a third of the country’s population living in the greater Tripoli area, such a conflict could cause displacement and humanitarian suffering on a scale not seen to date in Libya. It would also offer opportunities for jihadist mobilization. Non-Islamist armed groups in Tripoli would join forces with Islamist-leaning fighters to confront Hifter. As in the case of Benghazi, the most extreme and irreconcilable jihadist elements would invariably rise to the fore.

Even if Hifter were able to establish control over Tripoli, his rule would cause more, not less, radicalization. Like Egypt’s al-Sisi, Hifter makes no distinction between ISIS, al Qaeda, and the Muslim Brotherhood (whose Libyan branch has supported the GNA’s formation). His stated goal of killing, jailing, or exiling Islamists of all types risks provoking moderate, pro-state Islamists into going underground and allying themselves with radical jihadists. Meanwhile, doctrinaire Salafis promoted and encouraged by Hifter—who preach absolute loyalty to a sitting ruler—would further extend their influence, and enforce their harsh interpretation of Sharia law more widely.

In sum, unification through military action is not realistic in Libya. Instead, the United States, in conjunction with regional states, should support a renewed push for a political settlement. This requires a number of things.

First, it necessitates the deterrence of any moves toward military escalation by exerting credible pressure on the warring parties, to include the threat of sanctions and exclusion from any future security assistance.

Second, it requires rebuilding the negotiating architecture, with regional states taking the lead. The challenge will be brokering a common platform for dialogue among states with vested interests in Libya. How to deal with an increasingly assertive Russia will pose a particular difficulty. Recent initiatives by regional states like Tunisia and Algeria should be encouraged, but they need to be transferred into a more coherent framework. A small group of states, closely coordinating with each other, could act as mediators and, eventually, witnesses and guarantors to an agreement.

The U.S. role in such a process could be to provide strong and explicit support for the mediating consortium. Most importantly, it would require putting pressure on the regional states still backing Hifter like the Emirates and Egypt and, more recently, Russia. Every effort should be made to broker a deal that includes the general within the framework of a civilian-controlled military. But if Hifter proves recalcitrant, the United States must be willing to push his regional and international backers to end their support.

Beyond the Herculean task of forging a political compact, the United States faces the enormous task of helping whatever new Libyan government emerges to succeed by delivering on basic services, security, and, especially, economic growth.

An immediate priority is securing the capital of Tripoli, which means reaching an agreement among militias to remove their forces and heavy weaponry outside civilian areas, and to make way for a protection force that can be built up over time with training and support from the outside. Another imperative is safeguarding key strategic assets like oil facilities, airports, and ports from factional conflict. Here, a number of options could be explored such as an agreement for de-militarization or protection by a neutral, third party force.

The new Libyan government will need enormous help on the economic front, in setting up an equitable and rational system for the dispersal of oil revenues to employees and to municipalities, while working to diversify to other sectors. The development of alternative livelihood sources is especially important in countering migrant smuggling, especially in the south, where young men are drawn into smuggling networks because of the absence of alternatives.

The judicial sector is another key area of assistance, along with prisons, particularly with regard to captured Islamic State fighters and jihadists returning from abroad. Many are currently incarcerated in militia-run prisons with little or no judicial oversight, where they are reportedly tortured or subjected to religious rehabilitation programs that, by them-selves do not prevent recidivism. Local communities and, especially, meaningful opportunities for employment or education provide the best hopes for post-prison reintegration.

The challenge of rebuilding Libya’s police and army will likely be a multi-year and even decades-long investment, given the decrepit state of the regular army under Qadhafi’s long reign and the plethora of armed groups today. A training effort in 2013–14 by the United States, Britain, Turkey, and Italy to build a national army—the so-called general purpose force—failed in part because the Libyan government was divided among itself, with some factions favoring militias and because there was no unified military structure or institutions for recruits to join. Those recruits that did complete the training returned to Libya and were either put on leave or melted back into militias.

Future training programs risk repeating these mistakes, unless the new government agrees on a roadmap for building a unified and professional military, delineating its geographic divisions and functions, while at the same time formulating strategy for demobilizing and re-integrating militias. This requires a degree of political consensus, which Libya has hitherto lacked. Once that is reached, the United States can assist in helping Libyan defense institutions in such areas as planning, payroll, and logistics through an intense advisory effort, possibly under the auspices of an expanded Defense Institution Reform Initiative (DIRI).

Mr. Chairman, the United States also has an enormous opportunity to re-engage with Libyan society through assistance on municipal level governance, civil society, media, and education. These sorts of programs are an important corollary to the development of formal political, security, and economic institutions which, given their decrepit condition under Qadhafi, is likely to be a generational endeavor. And Libya possesses enormous human capital that could benefit from such engagement, itself a cause for guarded optimism: a literate and educated population, small in size, geographically concentrated, and largely lacking in the stark and sometimes existential ethnic, sectarian, and linguistic divides that afflict other Middle Eastern states. But proposed cuts to American foreign aid programs on this front would deprive us of this opportunity, with likely damaging results for future stability.

On a similar note, I would like to add that the ban on the travel of Libyan citizens to the United States is not only morally reprehensible, but self-defeating with regard to goals in the country. It deprives the United States to opportunities for important engagements and exchanges with visiting scholars, students, officials and citizens—engagements that are all the more important since Libya is closed off to American diplomats. But more importantly, it represents a profound betrayal of American values and of the hopes ordinary Libyans attached to America ever since the 2011 intervention.

Mr. Chairman, in my repeated travels to Libya I’ve enjoyed the hospitality and protection of countless Libyans. In Sirte, Sabratha, Tripoli, and Benghazi, I’ve seen firsthand the sacrifices Libyan young men made in battling the Islamic State. Despite popular depictions, the vast majority of Libyans have rejected extremism in all of its forms. I therefore urge the immediate repeal of this law, for Libya and the other affected countries.

Mr. Chairman, Committee members, I thank you for the opportunity to testify today, and I look forward to your questions.

Frederic Wehrey – Senior Fellow, Middle East Program. Wehrey specializes in post-conflict transitions, armed groups, and identity politics, with a focus on Libya, North Africa, and the Gulf.


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