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 Emirates’ assistance in particular was pivotal.

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.

Emirati-provided armored personnel carriers afforded Haftar’s forces mobility and protection as they pushed into Benghazi’s dense urban areas.

By 2017, Emirati close-air support in the form of air-tractor attack aircraft —converted U.S.-manufactured AT-802 crop-dusters—as well as Chinese-made Wing Loong drones, helped Haftar’s forces to defeat remaining militant pockets in seaside Benghazi neighborhoods—an offensive that was marked by widespread human rights abuses.

Aside from its effect on the battlefield, foreign and, particularly, Emirati aid was critical to Haftar’s consolidation of political power, especially through his familial support base. His sons solicited much of the foreign assistance, stirring resentment among senior LAAF officers about Haftar’s nepotism.

This trend continued with the Emirati provision of weapons to an elite LAAF unit, the 106th, informally headed by one of Haftar’s sons. French aid was similarly vital and decisive in Haftar’s battlefield victory.

It principally came in the form of personnel from the paramilitary arm of the French Directorate-General for External Security (DGSE) whose presence in eastern Libya was not officially acknowledged by Paris until three DGSE officers were killed in the downing of an LAAF helicopter by an anti-Haftar militia in 2016.

According to UN security sources, dozens of French DGSE officers accompanied LAAF forces on frontline missions and acted as forward spotters for mortars and artillery. Most importantly, they conducted clandestine reconnaissance for counter-sniper missions.

What is remarkable about this policy, run from the presidency and through the DGSE, is its occurrence alongside professed French diplomatic support for the GNA, which Haftar opposed, and with the French knowing full well that Haftar had national ambitions for power that extended well beyond the battle in Benghazi.

Around this time, Western diplomatic sources and local contacts were reporting an array of foreign military and intelligence cadres at the LAAF-controlled Banina Air Base in Benghazi, involved in varying levels of observation, liaison, and active support. Among them were Russian personnel.

Russian intervention in Libya since the 2011 revolution until this point had been largely opportunistic, driven by the promise of energy control and arms and infrastructure deals—and enabled by the American leadership vacuum and European disarray.

In the informational realm, Russian propaganda highlighted the worsening post-Qadhafi chaos as a product of NATO’s fecklessness during the 2011 intervention.

In tandem, Russian officials and businessmen began engaging Libyan political figures and armed group leaders. One of the latter reportedly included Ibrahim al-Jathran, a former anti-Qadhafi rebel who controlled Libya’s central petroleum facilities, whom Russian officials had offered to arm in 2014 in exchange for Russia’s marketing of the oil.

Though the deal fell through, the episode underscores how individual Libyans have tried to leverage their access to the country’s resources to amass military and political power via outside patrons—but also their fickleness as reliable allies.

With the rise of Haftar in eastern Libya in early- and mid-2014, Russia found a new ally, even though it kept channels open to other actors.

By late 2014 and early 2015, Russia was working with the United Arab Emirates and Egypt to send weapons, spare parts and medical care to Haftar, as well as technicians, logisticians, advisors, and intelligence personnel.

Moscow also printed dinars for the Haftar-aligned, unrecognized Central Bank in eastern Libya, bolstering this parallel administration’s solvency. One of most public expressions of Russia’s support to Haftar occurred in early 2017 when the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetzov entered Libyan waters and hosted the Libyan commander for a tour and a video conference meeting with senior Russian military officials.

Building on this, in the coming months and years, Russia state media and other propaganda outlets would support Haftar’s rise with a sophisticated information campaign.

In late 2015, U.S. special operations forces and intelligence personnel arrived in Haftar-controlled Benghazi to monitor and meet with Haftar’s LAAF. U.S. law enforcement personnel were also working through his forces to apprehend and prosecute Libyan militants wanted in the 2012 terrorist attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi.

But, as noted, the Obama administration prohibited U.S. military forces on the ground in eastern Libya from actively aiding Haftar, unless he subordinated himself to a centrally-controlled and civilian-led government.

This imperative for Haftar to join the national government grew all the more important as U.S. officials sought to encourage the LAAF to participate in a combined, east-west Libyan assault on the Islamic State’s stronghold in the city of Sirte, located in Libya’s central coastal region.

When it became clear that Haftar wouldn’t participate—mostly for political reasons, but also because his lines of supply would be stretched, U.S. forces curtailed their engagement with Haftar.

The Islamic State had slowly embedded itself in Sirte in 2013 and 2014 by exploiting pre-existing jihadist networks, political fissures, and social tensions.

Foreign fighters also played a significant role in bolstering its rank-and-file and filling out its leadership cadres. But more importantly, the terrorist group instrumentalized the fact that Sirte sat on the fault-line between the Haftar’s Dignity camp in the east and the opposing, Tripoli-based Dawn faction in the west.

In the latter camp, the city of Misrata and its militias were particularly well-positioned to attack the Islamic State and forestall its expansion. Yet Misratan notables and armed group leaders feared that any commitment of resources against the terrorist group would distract from Misrata’s more existential battle with Haftar.

By mid- and late-2015, however, U.S. intelligence and special operations forces were meeting with Misrata-based political leaders and militia leaders for this assault, even as they simultaneously engaged Haftar’s LAAF.

By early 2016, the Misrata leaders were reportedly lobbying for greater counterterrorism support from the United States and, to a lesser extent, Britain.

In May 2016, they finally launched an attack on the terrorist group in Sirte after it had encroached on a crucial checkpoint outside Misrata that threatened to cut off Misrata’s supply lines with southern Libya.

As it became clear that the fight against ISIS in Sirte would be a Misratan-led battle, U.S. special operations forces liaising with Haftar in Benghazi decreased their presence and the United States threw its intelligence and airpower resources behind the Misrata-led operation, dubbed, “Bunyan al-Marsus” or “The Solid Foundation.”

During the months-long war against the Islamic State in Sirte in 2016, American and British special operations forces channeled assistance to Misratan proxy militias while being mindful of the implications of this military support for the broader political conflict.

The aid, mostly intelligence, was task-specific, limited in duration, and did not include lethal capabilities that could be deployed later against Haftar’s forces.

For example, a Misratan militia leader accompanying British special operations forces to the site of a recently-bombed Islamic State camp south of Sirte was given night-vision goggles—which were then promptly taken back once the mission had concluded.

At its successful conclusion in December 2016, the anti-Islamic State campaign in Sirte was lauded in Washington as a counterterrorism template to be applied elsewhere—special operations forces working with indigenous proxies loosely tethered to a recognized political authority, backed by precision airstrikes.

As a national diplomatic strategy, however, the U.S.-backed operation failed: U.S. diplomats and military officials had hoped to use the Sirte campaign to unite the disparate Dawn and Dignity factions against a common enemy. But the two camps continued to regard the other as the more pressing threat.

These unresolved fissures and continued foreign backing to each side for a variety of counterterrorism goals (defined more broadly and ideologically in the case of the Emirates and the French), contributed to the outbreak of another round of civil war in April 2019.


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.





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