Libyans attend a protest against General Khalifa Haftar from Libyan National Army, in Tripoli, Libya March 8, 2019. REUTERS/Ismail Zitouny - RC186AE203E0

April 10, 2019

Al Qaeda and the Islamic State Will Be the Winners of the Libyan Civil War

The latest bout of Libya’s multi-year civil war is creating conditions that will allow Islamic State and al Qaeda-linked militants to regain strength in the country.

Civil war in Libya is a key driver of the Salafi-jihadi presence there. Conflict in Benghazi after 2011 allowed the al Qaeda-linked Ansar al Sharia to infiltrate fighting and forge partnerships against common enemies. Strife in 2013 and 2014 allowed the Islamic State to exploit seams between warring factions and seize the coastal city of Sirte. Libya’s civil war largely froze—with some notable exceptions—between 2015 and 2017. This pause in hostilities paired with internationally-backed counterterrorism efforts weakened, but did not defeat, Salafi-jihadi groups like the Islamic State and Ansar al Sharia.

Salafi-jihadi groups are seizing the opportunity to recoup their losses. The Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council (BRSC), a coalition that included Ansar al Sharia, may be reactivating after a period of dormancy since late 2017. A BRSC supporter posted that the BRSC will fight against Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) in Tripoli. A member of the Ajdabiya Revolutionaries Shura Council, which is connected to both Ansar al Sharia and the BRSC, is already fighting in Tripoli. The Ansar al Sharia networks could reconstitute in Benghazi, Ajdabiya, and elsewhere in eastern Libya, particularly if LNA forces are overstretched by a protracted Tripoli campaign.

The Islamic State in Libya has already increased its activity throughout 2018 and is positioned to grow even stronger in civil war conditions. Islamic State militants attacked Fuqaha in central Libya on April 8. The Islamic State likely exploited LNA forces’ preoccupation with the Tripoli front to conduct the attack. Renewed civil war in Libya will give the Islamic State more freedom to operate in Libya and may allow the group’s Libya branch to establish a haven for Islamic State leadership and fighters relocating from Syria.

U.S. counterterrorism policy in Libya relies on the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) to resolve the civil war and political crisis. On the current trajectory, the GNA will weaken further and fighting will continue. [See the timeline below.]

  • The current escalation is a direct challenge to the GNA. The current fighting began with an LNA offensive on Tripoli that was intended to establish LNA commander Khalifa Haftar as Libya’s only viable leader by creating facts on the ground, pre-empting a UN conference planned for mid-April. Foreign backing for Haftar has legitimized and emboldened him. Even if GNA-aligned forces turn back the LNA offensive, the GNA will remain crippled. Such a victory would only strengthen the cartel of militias that run Tripoli under the GNA’s name. It could also lead to a follow-on conflict between rival forces in northwestern Libya, which are fighting together against the common LNA threat but have competing interests.
  • The fighting will likely continue. The LNA likely expected a quick victory, following the playbook of military threat paired with negotiations that it has deployed successfully in the oil crescent and the southwest. It has faced fierce resistance instead and now must maintain long supply lines with insufficient forces or accept a humiliating retreat. A negotiated settlement is not yet impossible, but the fault lines are hardening. The LNA formed an operations room to “liberate” longtime rival Misrata, an escalatory step that will encourage Misratan forces to stay in the fight. Misrata-aligned forces in Sirte have also gone on alert, signaling a potential expansion of conflict into central Libya.

Libya’s combustion threatens U.S. interests and allies while providing opportunities to enemies and adversaries. The Salafi-jihadi movement will be first to benefit. Russia, also, has spotted the opportunity of UN weakness and European division in Libya and is attempting to broker a favorable peace deal that will advance Moscow’s interests. The U.S. and its allies must pursue an effective strategy to resolve Libya’s political crisis, else the waves of violence—and all their accompanying dangers—will continue.

Mohamad el Kari contributed research and analysis.

Timeline updated through April 9, 2019.

View the data.


April 4: Khalifa Haftar announces Operation Flood of Dignity to “liberate” Tripoli. LNA forces advanced from the south and west of the capital. The offensive was timed to derail a planned UN conference in Libya in April. It occurred during the UN Secretary-General’s visit to Tripoli. LNA forces advanced west of Tripoli and claimed to capture Sorman, Sabratha, and Gharyan.

April 5: Tripoli militias reversed the LNA’s momentum. The Tripoli Protection Force, a loose coalition of militias aligned with the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), began Operation Wadi Dom 2 against the LNA. The Tripoli militias seized Souq al Khamis and Wadi al Rabi’a road south of Tripoli. The LNA also suffered a setback in Zawiya, west of Tripoli, where a militia imprisoned 145 LNA troops and confiscated 60 LNA vehicles.

April 7: The GNA, relying on Misratan military power, began an operation against the LNA. The GNA announced Operation Volcano of Rage. GNA-aligned forces conducted four strikes on LNA targets, including al Wattiya airbase, and regained control of Tripoli International Airport and other areas. The LNA conducted a strike on the Naqiliya militia camp south of Tripoli. Clashes reached residential areas.

April 7: U.S. Department of State calls on Haftar to cease military operations. The U.S., France, Italy, UAE, and the UK had released a joint statement urging parties to cease fighting in Gharyan on April 4 but did not name Haftar’s forces. The G7 foreign ministers released a similarly nonspecific statement on April 6. Russia had blocked the UN Security Council’s effort to denounce Haftar by name. The U.S. State Department took a harder line on April 7.

April 8: The LNA responded to GNA strikes with an airstrike on Maitiqa airport, which doubles as a military base and Tripoli’s only civilian airport. The strike targeted a GNA-aligned militia that was reportedly mobilizing to support Misratan forces against the LNA.

April 8: The Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council may join the fight against LNA. A supporter of the BRSC posted that the group will fight against Haftar in Tripoli. The BRSC, which included the al Qaeda-linked Ansar al Sharia, has been largely inactive since late 2017, when the LNA seized its final strongholds in Benghazi.

April 8: Russia intensifies diplomatic efforts. The spokesman of Russian President Vladimir Putin promised that Russia would use “all means” to broker peace in Libya. Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, who has previously engaged on Libya diplomatic issues, met with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed.

April 9: UNSMIL postpones national conference on Libya. UN Special Envoy to Libya Ghassan Salame confirmed that the UN Support Mission in Libya postponed the conference due to ongoing clashes.

April 9: The Islamic State in Libya attacked a town in central Libya. The Islamic State Wilayat Libya – Barqah (eastern Libya) attacked Fuqaha in central Libya. LNA forces have operated in this area previously and claimed to retaliate following the Islamic State attack. The Islamic State claimed the attack as part of a multi-country campaign to avenge the loss of its territories in Syria.