The Internationalization of Libya’s Post-2011 Conflicts From Proxies to Boots on the Ground
By Frederic Wehrey
For almost a decade, Libya has been riven by increasingly internationalized conflicts, stemming from local and regional fissures during the 2011 anti-Qadhafi revolution and the NATO-led intervention.
In the wake of that conflict, foreign missteps and the failures of Libyan elites to produce political unity and workable institutions opened the field for an escalating proxy war.
The Backdrop: Proxy Rivalries Within a Revolution and Political Contestation, 2011-2014
The foreign military rivalries unfolding in Libya today stem back nearly a decade, to the 2011 revolution and the NATO-led intervention. That military conflict was hardly the binary rebels versus regime struggle that media portrayals suggested—in many senses, it was a civil war with some towns and communities arrayed in support of the regime and multiple local conflicts existing under the superficial rubric of a popular uprising.
Similarly, the NATO-led coalition patrolling the skies was also riven with competing agendas. Tensions were especially visible among countries that put boots on the ground, i.e. intelligence and special operations personnel who managed the flow of weapons shipments, provided training in some instances, and coordinated airstrikes on behalf of local Libya armed groups.
The armed groups became, in effect, local proxies for foreign powers, most notably the Emirates (joined by France) and Qatar, who carried out their rivalry in the form of competing “operations rooms” through which information, requests for weapons, and intelligence coordination flowed.
Sudanese forces also played a role on both sides of the conflict: Libyan Islamists leveraged historic connections with Sudan to solicit help from Khartoum in the form of arms shipments and drones. At the same time, fighters from a Sudanese opposition group, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), fought for the Qadhafi regime.
Among these players, Qatar proved the most assertive, sending senior officers and special operations forces across Libya. French and Emirati personnel were also involved, and British special operations forces were especially present in the city of Misrata.
Here, they were establishing operational linkages that would be reactivated during the battle against the Islamic State five years later, most significantly with the Misratan businessman and current GNA Minister of Interior Fathi Bashagha.
For their part, Libyan revolutionary leaders buttressed their authority and attracted fighters by demonstrating their access to outside arms streams. “Because there was no formal chain of command, the Libyan commanders had to establish power… and if you had access to Western (or foreign) arms or attention, you got power,” noted one U.S. military officer liaising with the Libyan revolutionary groups at the time.
The competition started within weeks of the revolution’s uprising in Benghazi and eastern Libya and quickly spread to other theaters. Yet it was not predetermined, nor was it constructed along secular and Islamist lines; among the revolutionary armed groups, divisions between Islamists and anti-Islamists gradually sharpened and crystallized partly due to Emirati and Qatari intervention.
They also overlapped with a complex set of town- and region-based networks and elites inside Libya, as well as Libyan intermediaries residing in Abu Dhabi or Doha who often exerted a significant influence on where the arms went and shaped the preferences of outside patrons. The outlines of this conflict and, in some cases, its personalities continue into Libya’s contemporary civil war.
The U.S. Policy of “No Ownership”
The United States, with intelligence personnel and special operations forces across the country during 2011, was cognizant of these burgeoning divisions. It was not in a position, however, to temper or mitigate them during the revolution especially after the fall of Qadhafi, when its diplomatic footprint was reduced and the Obama administration adopted a policy of having no military personnel on the ground.
Crucially, this approach arose from the administration’s preference to avoid an Iraq-like quagmire but also in response to firm opposition from Libya’s transitional authorities to having any foreign armed personnel on the country’s soil. More specifically, with the experience of Iraq on their minds, Libyan officials forbade any armed private military contractors from entering Libya—an ironic prohibition, given the massive influx of mercenaries into Libya in the coming years.
Washington’s ceding of the post-conflict transition to Libyans, backed by the United Nations and the Europeans—what one White House official called a policy of “no ownership”—had profound implications for U.S. leverage on what followed. “If we had had more assets and advisors on the ground, perhaps we could’ve shaped the outcome after the revolution,” lamented another White House official.
This was especially evident as the fissures that permeated the 2011 revolution sharpened and widened after Qadhafi’s fall. Much of the U.S. military and intelligence community’s initial outreach went through a constellation of defected army officers centered around Colonel Abd al-Salam al-Hasi, a close confidant of the defected Libyan special forces commander Abd al-Fatah Younis. Initially, these defected officers worked closely, if uneasily, with other revolutionary armed groups. But the distrust between the groups widened, partially due to Qatari arms shipments that were routed to Islamist-leaning groups.
The rivalries burst into open violence with the shadowy assassination of Abd al-Fatah Younis, allegedly by Islamists as payback for the general’s role in carrying out Qadhafi-era repression. The splits would continue to haunt Libya’s post-2011 transition and partly explain the eruption of civil war in 2014.
Contrary to common assumptions, Doha did not back these groups solely because of their Islamist credentials, but because it assessed them to be among the more cohesive and militarily-competent factions (they included veterans of foreign battlefields).
Moreover, they were more hardline in their intention to remake the post-Qadhafi political order, which Qatar saw as playing to its advantage. Throughout the revolution, Qatar’s rise as the most effective foreign sponsor was occasioned by the outsized influence of Libyan power brokers, especially Doha-based cleric Ali Sallabi.
Sallabi proved instrumental in steering Qatari aid away from the Younis network, aligned politically with the Libyan technocrat Mahmud Jibril and a Libyan theologian-turned-businessman named Aref al-Nayed, and routing it to Islamist-leaning revolutionary armed groups in eastern and western Libya.
From their perspective, the Qataris tilted toward Sallabi’s network partly because of concerns about the leadership effectiveness and stalwartness of Abd al-Fatah al-Younis and his allies. In response, the Younis-Jibril camp leaned more heavily on Emirati and French support, using the Emirates-based al-Nayed as a broker.
The fissures gradually afflicted nearly every corner of the conflict. The UAE established an operations room and channeled support to the town of Zintan, a tribal stronghold in the western Nafusa mountains. At the same time, Qatar favored another Nafusa town, Nalut, because of the presence of fighters from the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), led by Abd al-Hakim Bilhaj.
French military aid also shaped local power relations; the French were initially drawn to Qatar (and actually sympathetic to the Islamists) but tilted to the Emirates’ side during the summer of 2011, solidifying links to Zintani armed groups through training and air dropped weapons.
The tensions culminated in competing designs for the liberation and stabilization of Tripoli, with the Emirati- and Qatari-backed Libyan factions each presenting their plans. The August 2011 uprising and attack on the capital proceeded pellmell, with locally-based Libyan armed groups enjoying various levels of loosely-coordinated external support.
This marked another major turning point: During the fall of Tripoli, armed groups attached to towns and neighborhoods and commanded by ambitious personalities seized strategic assets like airports, armories, ports, and ministries, which they tried to convert into political leverage.
In the ensuing years, from late 2011 to 2014, these networks continued to operate as channels for political influence within the fractured National Transitional Council and its successors. The lack of a strong arbiter among these various foreign interests was arguably a pivotal driver for Libya’s subsequent descent into chaos. This was especially true in the absence of an institutionalized, formal security sector.
Mandated, organized, and staffed as a political mission, the UN Support Mission in Libya or UNSMIL, by its own admission, initially neglected dealing with the burgeoning militia problem or trying to build security institutions, focusing in instead on shepherding the country toward its first elections in more than 40 years.
Multiple foreign countries that had backed Libyan armed groups during the revolution capitalized on those ties to build political clout. Meanwhile, successive heads of the UNSMIL complained about foreign states quietly working at cross-purposes with the UN’s mandate of institutional development, especially on the security sector—a frustration that would only grow as the proxy war intensified.
Foreign rivalries played out first as a modest contest to shape the 2012 elections for Libya’s legislature, General National Congress (GNC). Turkey’s Islamist government adopted friendly but largely passive relations with the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated party, the Justice and Construction Party (JCP), though these ties with the Brotherhood and other Islamists would later coalesce into more robust financial support and safe-haven networks.
Mahmud Jibril’s National Forces Alliance (NFA) claimed attention from the Emirates, the United States, and Western media outlets, on the basis of its purported secularist credentials—though the NFA included many religiously conservative Libyans and Jibril himself had stated that Libya’s legal codes should be based on sharia (Islamic law).
Qatar proved especially assertive during the elections, funding a prominent political party Al-Watan (The Nation), which ultimately failed to gain a single seat —partly because of perceptions about its links with Doha. The aftermath of the elections saw increased public animosity against Qatar for its alleged links with Libyan Islamists, especially during the GNC’s passage of the controversial Political Isolation Law, which called for broad lustration, barring future government employment to Libyans who participated even minimally in the Qadhafi regime.
Protests in Tripoli against the law and militias that backed it carried derisive depictions of the Qatari flag. The rivalry between Qatar and the Emirates and, concurrently, the contest between Libyan Islamists and their opponents, escalated in the summer of 2013 with the Egyptian military’s ejection of Mohamed Morsi from Egypt’s presidency, orchestrated by the Emirates and Saudi Arabia and large swathes of Egyptian society.
The seismic regional event reverberated across the Libyan political spectrum and heightened tensions between Libyan Islamists and anti-Islamists in an already tense environment. More radical wings within Libya’s Islamist milieu were strengthened, arguing against disarming on the basis that they needed to prevent violent repression by their Libyan opponents, along the lines of the Egyptian military’s massacre of Morsi supporters at Rabaa al Adawiyaa Square in 2013.
For their part, anti-Islamists in Libya and abroad felt emboldened by the change of power in Cairo; Qadhafists in particular found a welcoming haven in the Egyptian capital and set up their own media platforms.
During this period, some anti-Islamist Libyans in the east went so far as to say, “We need a Sisi here.” Throughout all of this, the U.S. embassy played a supportive role, backing municipal and national elections, encouraging the growth of civil society, and bolstering the media and education sector.
On the security front, the United States began its own effort to create a local surrogate force by training a Libya special operations unit, at a disused military camp west of Tripoli, known as Camp 27 or Camp Younis. The program, which began in May 2012, was plagued with problems from the beginning: the majority of Libyan recruits to the 800-strong Libyan unit hailed from western towns and especially Zintan.
As a result, according to its U.S. trainer, the program was essentially training a Zintani militia, whose definition of “terrorists” included Libyan political Islamists. The effort collapsed altogether in the summer of 2013 when a rival Libyan militia, tipped off by insiders, stormed the camp and absconded with high-tech, American-provided equipment.
The raid and the ensuing collapse partly stemmed from the camp’s location on the fault-line between two tribes, which the Americans’ Libyan interlocutor, Colonel Abd al-Salam al-Hasi, failed to disclose. The entire episode demonstrates the hazards of relying on indigenous intermediaries in a fractured landscape and, especially, of identifying local proxies, even for discrete counter-terrorism missions.
Such errors were repeated in 2013 when the United States, Britain, Turkey, and Italy agreed to train a much larger Libya conventional force—the so-called “general purpose force,” under then-Prime Minister Ali Zeidan—which fell apart from the lack of Libyan political consensus about its goals and scope, opposition from Islamists, poor vetting, and the absence of an institutional structure for the Libyan trainees to join.
Taken in sum, these converging trend lines—polarization between Islamists and their opponents, worsening rivalries across the Middle East in the aftermath of the Sisi coup in Egypt, the growing power and politicization of Libyan militias, grievances over the distribution of Libya’s wealth and elite corruption, and mounting insecurity in Benghazi—would conspire to produce the Libyan civil war of 2014.
Yet it is important to note that while foreign powers contributed to Libya’s tensions through media and political narratives and, in the case of the United States and its allies, through aborted security sector initiatives, foreign military interference did not occur at significant levels during most of 2012 to late 2013.
If anything, during this period, oil-rich Libya was itself a military intervener in foreign proxy wars, sending money, weapons and Libyan fighters to Syria, Mali and other conflicts, according to the United Nations. This outward direction of arms flow would be quickly reversed with the eruption of civil war on Libyan soil in the summer of 2014.
Frederic Wehrey is a senior fellow in the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace focused on politics and security issues in North Africa and the Gulf.