Libyan flag above the communications tower in Al Bayda – Libya. (Photo is public domain)
Before Qaddafi: A Brief History
In a disunited country such as Libya, a key to evaluating the possibility of a successful intervention is understanding its historical development. U.S. military involvement abroad is often criticized for targeting a specific problem as a flashpoint in time without considering the underlying and longer-term issues at hand. This criticism would apply to the targeting of the Islamic State in Libya without understanding the political, social, and security environment as consequences of Libya’s development.
Before Libya was a nation-state, it was a loosely held collection of three distinct and separate provinces separated by mountains, desert, and culture: Tripolitania to the northwest, Cyrenaica to the east, and Fezzan in the southwest. The first attempt to truly unite these regions was under harsh Italian colonial rule, which was heavily repressive and created a general disinterest in nation-building or unity. Italian colonization excluded the Muslim population, and separate tribes and religious orders that remained intact were only united by a common religion of Islam. The monarchy that replaced Italian rule was a weak one that failed at national institution building. National unity was a western imposition.
The Impacts of Qaddafi Rule
Libya, unlike other colonies in the Maghreb, never experienced a full-fledged nationalist movement. In the late 1960s, a military coup finally overthrew the frail Libyan monarchy. Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi appeared to be the leader that could bring unity and power to the country by creating a regional and international identity. Qaddafi became the state; the government ministries that did briefly exist were abolished. Internally, the discovery of oil in Libya made it possible to bypass the need for state-building, as Qaddafi used oil revenue to buy peace while evading the trappings of a modern state (such as institution-building or sharing power).
The oil revenue also bought security, and Qaddafi used security forces to deter tribes or regions from rebelling. The army was Qaddafi’s personal security; an independent professional national army did not exist for fear that it could one day threaten his power. Where Qaddafi maintained strong security, but looser governance, such as in Libya’s eastern region of Cyrenaica, tribal structures offered citizens a connection to an older form of identity that persisted even throughout Italian colonial rule. After Qaddafi fell, these strong tribal and regional ties created the support base for the political and armed groups that exist today.
The Security Vacuum and the Islamic State
Even when Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi was overthrown in the revolution, his version of the Libyan state, separated by tribalism and regionalism, remained in the minds of Libyan citizens. Although NATO’s intervention was later hailed as a success by Western states, miscommunication over the ends and ways of conducting the airstrike operations exacerbated the already existing mistrust between Libyan revolutionaries and western countries. Once the NATO strikes ended, the United Nations (and mainly European actors) were largely held responsible to keep the peace and support the Libyan National Transitional Council (NTC).
The NTC, and the outside governments backing them, underestimated their ability to unite many separate movements under a single Libyan state. Qaddafi had purposefully established a stateless society, with no political cohesion among the regions or tribes within them. The United Nations could not create a security sector or robust political and judicial institutions from what Qaddafi left behind. Lacking strong leadership, Libya dissolved into civil war when the NTC finally disbanded.
Since the fall of Qaddafi in 2011, a rising security dilemma between internal groups has thrown the state into chaos, with Islamist factions competing for recruits based on the security and the services they offer. This is not about religion, however, but rather about competition for power within a failing state. It is also difficult to simply dismiss the division of the state as an issue of rivaling factions or tribes, the simple solution being the creation of a federalist state.
Over time, the younger population of Libyans began to view regionalism and disunity as anachronistic, and during the NTC’s time, federalism could not gain enough support to truly change their agenda for a unitary government. War-weary and with hope for a brighter future, many younger Libyans do not support the continuation of a divided or federalist Libya; on the other hand, they are also wary of overarching and powerful national institutions. Dividing among regional or tribal lines would not only be culturally difficult but also logistically so. Without a unitary government in place, allowing regions to govern their own resource management, such as the distribution of water and oil revenues, only increases the opportunity for future conflict. Following the Libyan revolution, support for tribally-infused federalism was on the rise, but never reached enough consensus among the larger population. Lastly, although existing tribes may be able to maintain their governance in local issues, they do not have the power to take on larger national issues such as economic development or democratization.
The Islamic State entered Libya and took advantage of this situation seemingly while no one was looking; at first, it was just another Islamist group seeking power. With no united army to use, support, or train, the United States faces a similar failure to the “backing the moderates” plan in Syria. With no history of national institutions and no strong unitary government, the Islamic State can more easily impose its own institutions and gain control in Libya – a strong non-state actor in a stateless society.
So far, U.S. military strikes in Libya have been sporadic, but are likely to increase in number as the Islamic State declines in Syria and Iraq and spreads to Libya and Tunisia, where it already has strong footholds. With the exceptions of Italian colonization and the authoritarian rule of Muammar al-Qaddafi, Libya has no history of strong and uniting national institutions. The United States and its allies must strongly consider the humanitarian and civil ramifications of increasing drone strikes in Libya, a historically stateless society. Now and in the near future, the international community will be facing a new challenge, not the rebuilding of a nation-state, but the creation of one.
The UN-brokered “unity government” is moving forward in its efforts to bring the state together, but factions competing for power (including the Islamic State) continue to interrupt this process at every step. In order to make increased efforts against the Islamic State in Libya both legally possible and publicly palatable, there needs to be a legal and consensus-based government in the seat of power in Libya. The former internationally-backed group, the NTC, was an eclectic group of professionals, former diplomats and ministers, government reformers, and exile returnees. They did not have a single visible strong leader and lacked legitimacy in the eyes of the Libyan people. Furthermore, the NTC did not have a clear vision for what a united Libya would look like. It was temporarily effective in moving the country forward because it was supported by the international community and it was the only overarching governance system that remained after the fall of Qaddafi.
The creation of consensus among the Libyan public has been one of the most difficult aspects of uniting the country, especially taking into account the climate of distrust– both the wary skepticism of western-backed institutions and leaders, and the mistrust among varying groups due to resource competition and the lingering effects of Qaddafi’s oil patronage system. Until recently, there has been no “Islamist leader” in Libya like Osama bin Laden of Al-Qaeda or Al-Baghdadi of the Islamic State – just different groups, militias, and political parties of varying degrees of extremism.
Despite the prevalence of these rivaling groups, there may be a chance that the increasing threat of the Islamic State will provide an opportunity for Libyan people to finally unite against a common enemy. In order to move forward with a united Libya against the Islamic State, the United States and its allies must remember two lessons from previous interventions: 1) The existence of “moderate” groups does not necessarily mean that they lack a strong ideology or will be more compromising than other groups. In order to be strong, the “moderate” group must have internal consensus and support. 2) Before reigniting a military intervention, the international community should take a holistic view of a number of possible future scenarios for Libya. Included among these scenarios must be the possibility of a consensus-based unitary religious national government. This could mean more than a simple balance between secular and religious law; one must not forget that Islam and peace can coincide. In countries where religion can be a uniting force, an internationally-backed military campaign alongside the acceptance of a peaceful Islamic government may be the best way to fight extremist factions such as the Islamic State.
Olga Novitsky is completing her MA in the Georgetown Security Studies Program with a concentration in Intelligence. In 2014, she received her BA in International Studies with a concentration in Political Science from Boston College. She is currently a graduate fellow at Peace and Security Funders Group, a network of foundations and philanthropists who make grants that contribute to global security. She is regionally focused on Europe and North Africa, and her research interests include intelligence, legal and illicit weapons trade, and non-conventional weapons proliferation.