By Emily Estelle
Libya is falling back into active conflict that will likely lead to a surge in Salafi-jihadi activity.
The fighting demonstrates that settlements between elites who do not control the forces on the ground will fail to resolve the Libya crisis. The international community is pursuing summits and elections as the keys to peace in Libya, but must recognize that any durable solution requires the resolution of conflicts between armed actors at the substate level.
A coalition of tribal fighters and militias with ties to Salafi-jihadi groups seized two of Libya’s primary oil ports, al Sidra and Ras Lanuf, on June 14.
Libyan National Army (LNA), the Egypt- and UAE-backed militia coalition that controls most of eastern Libya, has begun a counter-offensive to recapture the sites. The fighting in the “oil crescent” region, home to about 80 percent of Libya’s oil production, has damaged critical infrastructure and halted exports.
The attacking coalition is diverse and reflects a range of grievances against the LNA as well as al Qaeda-linked groups. Ibrahim Jadhran, the commander of the attacking force, blockaded the oil ports from 2013-2016 until the LNA captured the sites.
Jadhran and his tribal supporters have framed their operation as an effort to return to their home city of Ajdabiya and have promised to continue legal oil exports.
The attacking forces also include the Benghazi Defense Brigades (BDB), a group linked to the network in Libya that seeks to counter the LNA’s takeover of Benghazi.
The participation of fighters from the Tebu, a non-Arab tribe in southern Libya, reflects their growing concern with the rival Arab tribes that the LNA uses to project power to the south.
The most recent attacks exposed the LNA’s inability to defend core terrain and fight on two fronts. The LNA’s primary effort since April 2018 has been seizing Derna city, the last bastion of anti-LNA forces in the northeast.
The LNA’s prioritization of Derna reflects the influence of Egypt and an effort to distract from the LNA’s weakness elsewhere, including persistent questions about the health of LNA commander Khalifa Haftar. The LNA has already shifted units from Derna and Benghazi to counterattack in the oil crescent.
The LNA will likely recapture al Sidra and Ras Lanuf rapidly, relying on its air power, larger support base, and likely Egyptian support if needed. The LNA has rebuffed a similar attempt in the past. Jadhran has failed to gain recognition from western Libyan political leaders.
A rapid recapture of the ports will not restore Libya’s uneasy equilibrium, however. The LNA will likely push farther westward and southward to protect itself from repeat attacks.
This advance will open new fronts for armed conflict, most likely in Sebha to the southwest, where the LNA’s intervention has already inflamed tribal conflict, and in the northwest, where an attempted LNA intervention could upset a delicate power balance with Misrata.
It is possible but less likely that the LNA’s counter-offensive will stall. Emirati air support was key to the LNA’s defense of the oil crescent in March 2017 but is very likely unavailable as Emirati forces direct a large-scale operation in Yemen.
Rumors of planned attacks by Misratan militias in support of Jadhran’s coalition may force the LNA to fight on additional fronts in central and southern Libya.
The mobilization of Misratan forces, which remains unconfirmed, would undermine Misratan factions that support the already weak UN-backed government and lead to a broader conflict between the LNA and western Libyan forces that are more powerful than Jadhran’s coalition.
The implications are serious in any case.
- Salafi-jihadi groups—including ORGANIZATIONISIS in LibyaISIS in Libya is the network of Salafi-jihadi individuals an…ISIS and al Qaeda—will benefit from the reopening of fronts. The LNA’s drawing of forces away from Benghazi and Derna will lift pressure from the Salafi-jihadi networks that are latent in both cities.
- ISIS, which has sought repeatedly to breach LNA checkpoints in the oil crescent region, will seize the opportunity to conduct its own attacks on oil sites or penetrate Libya’s northern coast for attacks on population centers.
- Al Qaeda affiliates in Libya, which have weakened under military pressure, will use the BDB as vector to re-enter the conflict and rebuild military capabilities by partnering with anti-LNA forces.
- Russia leveraged a similar threat to the LNA to increase its military footprint in Egypt in 2017 and may do so again.
The seizure of Ras Lanuf and al Sidra reveals a key flaw in the international effort to resolve the Libya crisis. None of the actors who agreed to the May 2018 Paris declaration control the militias that seized the oil ports—and none of them have proved capable of defending the country’s critical resources.
A strategy reliant on elite agreements and elections will not succeed in an environment in which armed groups can seize power at will. The U.S. and its allies should instead pursue a strategy to close governance and security gaps at the substate level in order to achieve an enduring resolution to Libya’s political crisis and permanently change the conditions exploited by Salafi-jihadi groups.
Wiam Aimade and Caitlin McMahon contributed research to this report.
Emily Estelle is a senior analyst for the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute and the Africa Team Lead. She studies the Salafi-jihadi movement in Africa, including al Qaeda, ISIS, and associated groups. She specializes in the Libya conflict. Emily also coordinates CTP’s training and tradecraft and manages the integration of technology into the research process. Emily graduated Summa Cum Laude from Dartmouth College with a B.A. in Anthropology modified with Arabic Language.