By Emily Estelle

America needs a new policy in Libya. The current approach is failing and will likely leave a permanent safe haven for ISIS and al Qaeda on Europe’s southern border.

This future will strengthen the global Salafi-jihadi movement, facilitate future attacks against the US homeland and Europe, and require a perpetual American counterterrorism campaign in Libya. The cost of continuing targeted strikes in Libya indefinitely is significant. Drones, manned aircraft, surveillance and reconnaissance, analysts and operators, and smart munitions are expensive.

Allocating them to Libya deprives other theaters of their support. Relying on such a strategy, even if it were succeeding, is cheaper than a more active intervention only in the short term. Decades of such a strategy have shown how unlikely it is to succeed and that the likely costs of pursuing it are even greater. 

The Libyan crisis is not confined to Libya. The breakdown of the Libyan state since 2011 has destabilized US allies and partners throughout Northern Africa, fueled geopolitical competitions, and exacerbated the European migrant crisis.

Yet the US faces an opportunity in Libya today as well as a challenge. Libya is a large territory but has a small population of around six million people, mostly concentrated along a narrow coastal strip. Security is poor, and Salafi-jihadi groups are strong—but the situation is not nearly as bad as in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, or even Somalia.

Committing a relatively small amount of resources in support of a holistic strategy could permanently end a threat to American and European security, stop the destabilization of key North African states, and deal a significant blow to the Salafi-jihadi movement globally.

Why the US Must Act in Libya Now

There is no Libyan state today. The country has been trapped in a cycle of instability since revolution and NATO intervention ended Muammar al Qaddafi’s four-decade rule in 2011. Qaddafi’s fall unleashed destabilizing currents that his manipulation of Libyan society had fostered and repressed.

Peace agreements and transitional governments failed repeatedly, and the country descended into civil war. Libya now has three rival governments and an ever-growing web of militias that compete for control of its cities and oil. An oft-revived UN peace process is unlikely to resolve the conflict.

Libya’s collapse was a prime opportunity for Salafi-jihadi groups such as al Qaeda and ISIS. Weapons from Qaddafi’s arsenal flowed to militants across Africa and the Middle East.[1]

Al Qaeda and later ISIS established branches in Libya, where they recruit and train fighters, profit from trafficking, base leadership, and prepare attacks on neighboring states and Europe. Libyan governance gaps and security vacuums also allow Salafi-jihadi groups to control and govern populations in support of their long-term goal of transforming Muslim societies. Libya is one of a very few places worldwide where the global Salafi-jihadi movement can perform these core functions on a meaningful scale.

American interests in Libya transcend the Salafi-jihadi threat. Russia is seeking influence in Libya to pressure Europe, challenge America’s relationship with Egypt, and project military force into the southern Mediterranean. Libya is also a theater for power competitions among North African and Middle Eastern states, with American allies and partners on both sides. Libya is a key transit node for the migrant flows destabilizing Europe.

Today’s Libya is bad; tomorrow’s will be much worse.

Salafi-jihadi groups are consolidating safe havens in the Libyan desert. The country is becoming a priority destination[2] for militants fleeing losses in other theaters and preparing to infiltrate Europe.

Libya has already helped destabilize Tunisia and weakened Egypt and Algeria. The US can ill afford crises in those populous neighbors that are vital allies. Libya is also a looming humanitarian tragedy, and the international community is scarcely equipped to handle more crises or migration.

The US has underestimated Libya’s importance before [3] and cannot afford to do so again. Now is the time to act—before the worst-case scenarios become reality.

Wrong Problem, Wrong Strategy

Recent US policy in Libya has focused on helping local actors expel ISIS from ground it had captured, disrupting ISIS plotting of external attacks, and containing instability in Libya to a limited extent. The US, which has no diplomatic presence in Libya after the 2012 Benghazi debacle and 2014 closure of the US embassy in Tripoli, has provided limited diplomatic support for a UN-backed unity government. American forces have conducted intermittent military operations to target external threat nodes and deny ISIS control of terrain.

The current policy prioritizes short-term defense over long-term success. It has failed to stabilize Libya and defeat ISIS, and it has perpetuated the conditions that fuel recruitment for Salafi-jihadi groups. The focus on ISIS also ignores the full extent of the Salafi-jihadi threat in Libya, which includes a significant al Qaeda presence that US strategy does not meaningfully address.

The flaws of this strategy stem from a misunderstanding of the terrorist threat. The terrorist groups in Libya that threaten the US—al Qaeda, ISIS, and their affiliates—are manifestations of the global Salafi-jihadi movement.

Their ultimate goal is violently transforming Muslim societies to establish a polity under a fundamentalist interpretation of shari’a.[4] They use terrorist attacks when they believe those are  most effective, but they also use conventional war, insurgency, and nonmilitary activities that we would normally call stabilization, reconstruction, and dispute resolution if they were not being carried out by our enemies. The US must finally recognize in Libya as elsewhere that defining our adversaries as terrorists and pursuing a purely counterterrorism strategy will lead to failure.

The US simply cannot win this fight with bombs alone.

Any successful strategy must focus on securing the Libyan population against the Salafi-jihadi movement. That movement becomes strong when it forges connections with populations. These connections are possible when weak or vulnerable communities face existential threats that render them unable to resist Salafi-jihadi groups or force them to turn to such groups for governance or defense.

In Libya, the source of these threats is civil conflict. The breakdown of Libyan state and society after 2011 allowed Salafi-jihadi groups to infiltrate and seize Libyan communities. The Libyan Salafi-jihadi haven is growing more permanent as these groups build more enduring ties amid persistent instability.

Securing the Libyan population against the Salafi-jihadi movement requires resolving the active conflict and closing governance and security gaps at the local level. The US must shift the paradigm shaping its counterterrorism policy to forestall a worsening threat from Libya and set the larger fight—against the Salafi-jihadi movement—on the path to victory.

What to Do

The US must implement a strategy to resolve the Libyan political crisis and close governance and security  gaps at the substate level. This strategy aims to remove the underlying conditions that drive both regional instability and the growth of the Salafi-jihadi movement.[5] It requires accomplishing five key tasks:

  • Support a negotiated political settlement to produce an acceptable governance and security structure;
  • Identify, train, advise, and assist Libyan partner forces in destroying Salafi-jihadi threats and securing Libyan territory and communities;
  • Enable communities to isolate Salafi-jihadi groups and individuals;
  • Eliminate incentives for actors to continue the conflict; and
  • Pressure regional states to cease military engagement and support an inclusive political settlement.

American leadership is required to achieve a durable solution in Libya. The US should take a leading role, with allies and partners, in resolving the Libyan civil war and establishing governance and security at the local level.

This holistic approach must be paired with an effort by the US, allies, and partners to defeat Salafi-jihadi groups in Libya and eliminate their safe havens. The concept of operations aims to create pockets of stability that ultimately support establishment of acceptable governance and security across all of Libya. It comprises four synchronous lines of effort:

  • Political. The US with allies and partners conducts simultaneous top-down and bottom-up diplomatic engagement to resolve the Libyan political crisis.
  • Substate. The US, allies, and partners deliver critical services through Libyan structures to close governance gaps and prevent a humanitarian crisis.
  • Security. US and allied forces train, advise, and assist Libyan security forces to secure the population and defeat Salafi-jihadi groups.
  • Environment. The US and allies apply diplomatic, military, and economic levers to eliminate incentives for various actors to prolong the conflict in Libya.

Other approaches will fail.

Outsourcing the Libya problem to allies and partners will continue to fail because of the role that geopolitical competition plays in perpetuating the Libyan conflict.

Backing a strongman in Libya will also fail because it would reinforce the grievances that strengthen the Salafi-jihadi movement and benefit US adversaries for the sake of short-term stability. Such short-term strategies will prove costly in the long term because they will require a continuous cycle of US intervention to counter perennial threats.

This report seeks to provide a strategic framework for US policymakers and practitioners to secure minimum vital interests in Libya. It therefore focuses solely on US interests and priorities. This focus must not obscure the will or interests of the Libyan people, who are crucial to the success of a strategy that rests on conflict resolution and governance.

This report presents an assessment of the Libyan theater and the major players involved for the purpose of recommending a strategic approach rather than developing an executable plan. Any such plan will require additional nuance that accounts for variations among communities and individuals, as well as the development of concrete force-sizing and force-composition requirements that are beyond the scope of this planning effort.

Finally, this assessment is based on the major characteristics of the Libya conflict. The situation in Libya may evolve by time of publication, but the core assessments that underpin the recommended strategy are unlikely to change significantly.


Emily Estelle is a senior analyst for the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute. She studies the al Qaeda network, associated movements, and the environments in which they operate. Her research focuses on northern and western Africa and the Gulf of Aden region. She specializes in the Libya conflict.


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