By Jason Pack, Rhiannon Smith, and Karim Mezran

For the past three decades, Libya has been a rich recruiting ground for the global jihad.

Investigating the precursors and then subsequent evolution of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and other extremist actors throughout this period presents actionable insights into how jihadist actors coalesce; how they interfere in post-conflict state building; the threats they pose to civilians, nascent economies, and external states; and finally, what complexities remain when their hold on territory has been eradicated, but their adherents have not been killed nor their ideology debunked.


Decentralized governance in Libya may not look how foreigners expect it to look. No country can provide an existing model for Libya. Neighboring countries with similar tribal or resource wealth dynamics present few compelling examples of long-term good governance; other models fail to address Libya’s unique circumstances. Rather than try to fit Libya into an existing model, Libya’s international allies would do better to encourage Libya to develop its own solutions building on the strength of its robust local community structures.

These structures have, after all, largely prevented the country’s total collapse in the midst of anarchy. For many Libyan municipalities, local leadership consists of some combination of elected officials, militia commanders, religious leaders, tribal elders, business leaders, and local notables. 

Foreign governments frequently blanch at working with such groups, fearing it undermines their efforts to build up official institutions. However, these groups are often considered legitimate by their communities.

No one expects an aged tribal elder to run for office or an important business leader to abandon business for politics. They still expect those individuals to be consulted on local affairs and be actively included in the political leadership of the community.

Foreign governments will need to take Libya’s lead as to what constitutes legitimate leadership and be flexible in working with whomever locals put forward as their interlocutors. These interlocutors will likely vary significantly among the many cities, towns, and desert areas around the country. Some cities will present all elected officials while others will put forward religious leaders and tribal elders along with their elected officials.

If the municipalities can peacefully agree on their local leadership, foreigners should accept their choices and confine their role to helping construct a framework in which local leaders can work together to share power at the national level. It is necessary that this process of strengthening municipalities and local governance is accompanied by a plan to establish strong national institutions such as a national parliament and national ministries. This bottom-up model is likely the best approach to enable the creation of efficacious central institutions capable of devolving appropriate amounts of power to the local level.

Although not based on kinship or regional ties, jihadists insert themselves into the ongoing conflicts that are inherent to local/tribal realities. They have also established a pattern of spoiling the emergence of any coherent governance at both the local and national levels. Until Libyans can negotiate an agreement amongst themselves that changes the winner-takes-all dynamic of the conflict, it is almost certain that they will continue to face a terrorist threat from rebranded ISIS fighters as well as other jihadist actors.