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.
Militarizing the Proxy Struggle: Foreign Actors in the Civil War of 2014 to 2019
External military support was not a significant factor in sparking the Libyan civil war that erupted with the launch of Haftar’s Operation Dignity in Benghazi in the summer of 2014.
Haftar’s attack on Benghazi militia bases on May 16th was executed by locally-recruited Libyan forces drawn from Qadhafi-era military units, a meager air wing of aging MiG fighter-bombers, and, later that summer and fall, more defecting army units and neighborhood paramilitaries known as “support forces”—all loosely constituted as the Libyan National Army (later designated the Libyan Arab Armed Forces or LAAF).
By that summer, his operation had attracted more substantial foreign military support from Egypt and the United Arab Emirates with airstrikes and special operations raids in Benghazi and Derna, and the funneling of materiel, weapons and advisors to the LAAF.
The influx of Emirati arms—or rather alarm over this influx—proved critical to the spread of the civil war to the Tripoli region. In July 2014, anti-Haftar Libyan armed groups from Tripoli and its environs attacked the Tripoli International Airport.
According to its commanders and Western diplomats, the militia-led attack, later dubbed “Libya Dawn,” was partly spurred by the perception among Tripolitanian factions that Haftar’s militia allies from the western town of Zintan, who controlled the airport, were receiving weapons shipments from the Emirates in preparation to assist Haftar’s move on the capital.
Partly as a result of the July attack, Libya split into two loosely-constituted camps: one was the Libya Dawn coalition in the west, represented by the National Salvation Government in Tripoli.
The other was Haftar’s Operation Dignity in the east, linked politically to an “interim government” in the eastern town of al-Bayda and the House of Representatives (HOR) in Tobruk (anti-Haftar members of the HOR boycotted this move to the east and remained in the west).
As the political gulf widened, foreign intervention escalated. In late August, the Emirati Mirage aircraft, flying from Egypt, conducted a long-range strike on Dawn-aligned militia positions in Tripoli using American-made laser-guided munitions. American officials had tried to warn them off, but to no avail.
The result was a public leak from the Pentagon and private opprobrium from Obama administration officials. The Emirati strike was a significant escalation in foreign military intervention in Libya since 2011, but it also illustrated the unintended consequences, in Libya and beyond, of America’s policy of empowering and deferring to its Gulf ally.
Washington had long supplied the Emirates with military training and technology, especially in the aerial realm, as part of a building partner capacity initiative to advance American interests in the broader Middle East.
But Abu Dhabi’s adventurism in Libya showed that Washington could not control how and where that capacity was employed.
Moreover, America’s dependence on the Emirates for other files in the Middle East like Israel/Palestine and Iran would limit Washington’s willingness to penalize its Gulf partner.
On top of the strikes, this period of the civil war was also defined by an intensification of the war of narratives waged by outside powers.
Satellite television outlets, funded and directed by foreign states, played a key role. So too did Libyan power brokers based abroad. Among them, the aforementioned Islamic scholar-businessman Aref al-Nayed, now serving as Libyan ambassador to the UAE, and the tycoon Hasan Tatanaki, who leveraged longstanding ties in Egypt and the Emirates, but who later turned on Haftar, were the most important in backing the Dignity side with their own media platforms, financial aid, and personal diplomacy.
Backing the Dawn faction was Ali Sallabi, another pivotal broker in the 2011 revolution, who assumed control of a satellite television station in Doha from a former information minister in the 2011 transitional government; he went to Cairo to set up a pro-Haftar website.
The outsized role of these Libyan brokers, and their jostling and defections, underscores how intermediaries simultaneously bolster and complicate foreign state intervention in Libya.
In the social media realm, armies of Twitter trolls and “bots,” often from the Gulf, deployed a witches’ brew of fake news, slander, and hate speech—a trend that would intensify with the next phase of fighting in 2019.
This output was in turn amplified by partisan Libyan media platforms that were themselves influenced by or directed from foreign states, including the Emirates, Qatar, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Russia. The battle for public opinion increasingly relied on disinformation, such as recycled old photos or fake Western news pieces, which, combined with restrictions on foreign and Libyan journalists by both camps, resulted in a severely polarized environment.
Common themes in the Egyptian and Emirati media portrayed Operation Dignity as a war on terrorism. The war of narratives echoed the broader split in the region between the Emirates-led bloc and Qatar/Turkey, with the media offensive increasingly highlighting the themes of Cyrenaican distinctiveness and Arab authenticity.
In Libya, this manifested itself as a nativist demonization of Haftar’s Libyan opponents, who were painted as ghuraba or outsiders—hailing from western Libya—or of Turkish rather than Arab origin. Both these labels were, of course, spurious and often loosely based on family ancestry dating back centuries.
Meanwhile, eastern tribes and federalists deployed an anti-Italian and anti-Turkish narrative that evoked these countries’ former colonial presence in what is now Libya.
There were also more concrete expressions of these narratives. In June 2014, for example, Haftar announced the expulsion of Turkish citizens from Libya, accusing them of being agents of Islamists. The ensuing tit-for-tat cycle of expulsions and arrests reverberated far beyond Libya’s borders.
The Emirati security services detained and tortured at least ten Libyan nationals residing in the UAE on the pretense of support to radicals inside Libya, i.e. alleged financial links to Benghazi-based anti-Haftar militias.
This period also saw the increasing use of African mercenaries by both sides in various Libyan theaters. This was fueled partly by the pull of payment from Libya’s oil wealth or foreign patrons, but also the push factor of failing conflict-wracked African states to the south and southeast of Libya, which produced a pool of itinerant pay-for-hire gunmen.
Chiefly, Haftar’s LAAF started recruiting Chadian and Darfurian fighters for combat in Benghazi, the oil crescent, Kufra, and especially in the Fezzan, where pro-Dignity factions from the Tabu battled Tuareg (aligned with Misrata and Libya Dawn) in the town of Ubari, strategically situated next to the Sharara oil field.
Misratan forces also hosted Chadian groups in Sabha and the anti-Haftar Benghazi Defense Brigades militia deployed Chadians in 2017. The Emirati-Qatari rivalry also played out on this Saharan battlefield: The Emirates flew in weapons to Tabu fighters and reportedly started paying Chadian opposition groups. For its part, Qatari mediation and cash proved instrumental in brokering an end to the fighting in Ubari in early 2016.
Continued Emirati and Qatari involvement in Libya had prompted a mild scolding by President Obama at a meeting of Gulf leaders at Camp David in late 2015 which, according to one former diplomat, did in fact induce the Emiratis to stand down on airstrikes, at least in western Libya.
In Benghazi, however, the presence of designated terrorist entities among Haftar’s opponents, including individuals suspected of participating in the attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi in September 2012, resulted in a more tolerant stance toward Haftar’s operation by some elements in Washington and even some tacit acceptance of Emirati and Egyptian support.
The Benghazi-based terrorist groups, namely Ansar al-Sharia and later the Islamic State, fought alongside a broader constellation of local and Islamist militias fighting Haftar, some grouped into the Benghazi Revolutionaries’ Shura Council (BRSC), which enjoyed separate foreign backing.
Those streams of materiel and weapons came principally from Qatar, Turkey, and Sudan were overseen by some of the very same Libyan intermediaries that had funneled weapons during the 2011 revolution. Sudanese support was especially vital.
As noted, Libyan Islamists had a longstanding connection to the east African country dating back to the Qadhafi years which they used in 2011 and, in the wake of the 2014 civil war, they reactivated these networks to ship weapons overland into Benghazi or to the western coastal city of Misrata.
Misrata in particular emerged as an important way station for military and medical support to Benghazi-based fighters, principally through maritime convoys of small fishing boats.
Yet this provision of aid became increasingly contentious within Misratan circles, especially as the presence of Islamic State fighters sharing the Benghazi frontlines with the BRSC and other anti-Haftar forces increased. Misratans who supported the arms shipments to Benghazi were adamant that the aid was only going to revolutionaries, i.e. non-jihadist, anti-Haftar groups, excluding Ansar al-Sharia and the Islamic State.
Of course, once the weapons arrived in Benghazi, there was little way to control their distribution across the front. Meanwhile, some Misratan figures decried the growing role of Qatar and Turkey in empowering rival political factions in Misrata and the capital.
For Haftar’s ground forces, blocking the Misratan-channeled aid meant seizing the strategic port of Mraysa in southern Benghazi, which the BRSC had refurbished with a stone jetty to receive heavier loads.
But successive attempts to do this were thwarted by the entrenchment of the BRSC and other anti-Haftar forces’ and the Dignity forces’ capacity shortfalls, especially in mobility, artillery, and armor. However, in early and mid-2016, this changed with an injection of military aid from the UAE and France.
Their intervention came on the heels of UN-brokered negotiations among Libya’s two camps which produced a unity government in Tripoli in late 2015, the GNA.
Almost immediately, this new government confronted an array of obstacles, especially opposition from eastern factions affiliated with Haftar and criticism for its reliance on powerful Tripoli militias for security.
It also faced suspicions from some Libyans that it was essentially a handmaiden for Western powers who needed political cover and official authorization to channel assistance to Tripolitanian proxy militias involved in countering irregular migrant flows across the Mediterranean (in the case of Italy and the EU) and the Islamic State (in the case of the United States and Britain).
The EU’s and especially Italy’s form of proxy warfare against migrants has been widely criticized for paying and empowering unscrupulous Libyan militias and human traffickers disguised as police and coast guard, especially along the seaboard west of Tripoli.
On the counterterrorism front, several pro-GNA Tripoli armed groups used their efforts against the Islamic State as a means to curry favor with foreign powers. Among the most powerful of these was the Special Deterrence Force, which broke up Islamic State cells in the capital and housed Islamic State militants in its sprawling prison at Tripoli’s Matiga airport.
The GNA’s arrival in Tripoli coincided with a gradual but significant diminution in the level of Qatari and Turkish support to anti-Haftar forces. But in Haftar’s eastern camp, Emirati, French, and Egyptian support continued, enabling the LAAF’s military gains in Benghazi, which Haftar then converted into political clout to oppose the GNA.
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.