Inga Kristina Trauthig

The complexities of Libya’s revolution in 2011 and subsequent civil wars have been challenging policy makers and scholars alike, as they get to grips with a decade of transformations and unrest.

Often, concepts such as political Islam and the connotations of terrorism it engenders are overly relied upon, redefined and adapted to localized developments, in order to make sense of the violence.

But are these helpful lenses through which to view such complex conflicts?

My research contributes to providing a critical assessment of whether the concept of ‘terrorism’ is still a useful analytical category for understanding violent acts committed by designated terrorist groups in times of unrest.

It looks at whether the concept has lost its relevance and if these violent actions should simply be classified as war crimes committed by military groups.

Terrorist groups in Libya have captured and shocked the world since the overthrow of Gaddafi in 2011. Notable examples of their atrocities include the killing of US ambassador Christopher Stevens in 2012 and the public execution of 21 Coptic Christians in 2015.

After 2011 and within the plethora of Libyan armed groups, terrorist groups found their place most prominently in Islamic State in Libya (ISIL), which rose to infamous prominence in 2015 as it managed to take over the central coastal town of Sirte, establishing the third most powerful province outside their key territories in Iraq and Syria.

The dominance of ISIL as a ruling force in Sirte developed in parallel to the Libyan national civil war.

As the country split in two due to deepening political factionalism, violence and a military division between the east and west of the country, ISIL took advantage, portraying itself as a jihadist force with a clear agenda and support from the IS core.

Ultimately, they outmaneuvered other jihadist groups, ruling Sirte in a brutal manner, replicating their governance models from Syria and Iraq.

However, by December 2016, its fortunes had turned and ISIL lost Sirte against an armed coalition of Libyan forces supported by Western military assistance.

While my research shows that ISIL has not vanished after the loss of Sirte, it does suggest the group is struggling to maintain any relevance in Libya.

Over the last three years, ISIL has manifested itself via very few noteworthy attacks on institutions connected to the state, instead undertaking less prominent but more frequent activities in desert regions.

With designated terrorist groups still present in Libya but increasingly side-lined by other armed groups and corresponding atrocities, does using terrorism as an analytical category still makes sense in current Libya?

Terrorist groups in civil wars

Terrorism continues to prevail as a dominant characteristic of modern conflict studies and a recurring element is the analogous use of terrorist acts to describe war crimes.

Contrary to what many believe, a generally accepted definition of terrorism as an international crime in times of peace does exist.

However, there is still disagreement over whether the definition may also be applied in times of armed conflict. For example, should acts performed by ‘freedom fighters’ in wars of national liberation be an exception to the definition?

Why is terrorism still useful as an analytical category?

Academic debates firstly emphasize that acts of terrorism are perpetrated in the hope of influencing political processes. For example in Libya, the suicide bombing of the High National Election Commission (HNEC) in Tripoli in 2018 directly created a permeating disquiet about the political process of holding elections and hence enabled terrorists to manipulate the political process.

Secondly, the principal victims of terrorist atrocities are commonly civilians or other defenceless people, as opposed to armed forces, who carry no direct relation or responsibility for the issues that gave rise to acts of terrorism.

Finally, the root word of terrorism is terror — foregrounding that terrorist acts instill distress, anguish, panic or worry amongst the community related to and identifying with their direct victims.

Overall, as with other definitions, these concepts often do not neatly align in non-Western contexts.

In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, particularly in contemporary Libya, the lines are often blurred between state and non-state actors, civilians and combatants, peace and war times, political and non-political actions.

This highlights the need to take a more thoughtful approach when it comes to using the terrorism label in Libya and other modern conflict environments.

The need for nuance

Ultimately, my research concludes that terrorism as an analytical category is mainly applicable in civil wars where the political aims of a group like ISIL exhibit a supranational ideology that goes beyond local conflict, and where civilian casualties are key to upholding and maintaining political power.

Beyond that, it can potentially oversimplify complex conflicts such as in contemporary Libya where there are multiple actors and many blurred lines.

Policymakers need to understand the nuances and limitations of concepts like terrorism or political Islam when assessing actions by terrorist groups.

A more in-depth understanding of how these actions operate in localized, non-Western contexts is important both for analysing the nature of modern terrorism in conflict environments, and for devising effective counterterrorism measures.


Inga Kristina Trauthig is a PhD candidate at the War Studies Department and Research Fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) at King’s College London.


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