Four years later. Where is Libya going?

Four years on from the outbreak of civil war, Libya is a country split in two. Two parliaments and two governments oppose each other, yet neither actually possesses any real capability to govern, controlling only partial areas of Libyan territory. The government, which took office the day after the last elections in June 2014, has a mandate from the House of Representatives and is based in Tobruk, in the east of the country. The other executive appointed by the reinstituted General National Congress is based in Tripoli and now is active again after the abandonment of the capital by the House of Representatives.

The government of Tobruk is composed of secular and separatist forces under the political direction of Abdullah al-Thani and military leadership of General Khalifa Haftar. The executive of Tripoli is instead linked to the militias of Zintan and led by Omar al-Hasi that places under its control a variety of Islamist forces close to the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood.

Public security is in a precarious situation and there are two extensive fronts of conflict. One of these is in Kikla (Tripolitania), 82 km from Tripoli, where the forces of Zintan line up against those of Misrata who are wary of radical Islamism. The other front is in Benghazi in Cyrenaica where the men of General Haftar face up to other Islamic militias, including the most extremist of Ansar al-Sharia. Similarly, large swathes of the country, in particular in the south, are falling into the hands of jihadist forces like Ansar al-Sharia or cells derived from the Islamic State (ISIS). This is taking place above all in the Mediterranean coastal city of Derna, which has become the stronghold of radicalism.

In terms of the security situation in Libya, the penetration of ISIS is the most recent development. However, the situation is more complex. Other than Ansar al-Sharia, there are many different jihadist Salafist groups which dominate different areas of the country: the Mohammed Jamal Network, originating in Egypt, is installed in Benghazi and Derna; al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is rooted in some areas of the southwest and northeast of Libya; al-Mourabitoun, led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, in the south. However, the strongest and most ambitious group remains Ansar al-Sharia, which is also prepared to use force to implement a Caliphate in the country. Not only: Ansar al-Sharia seems to be the only group capable of pursuing Jihad on an international level, as demonstrated by the targets of its terrorist attacks, such as the U.S. ambassador Christopher Stevens, murdered in September 2012, and the attacks against international offices such as the Red Cross, which was subject to a terrorist attack last June.

The leader of the Derna branch of the group is Abu Sufian bin Qumu, held for six years at Guantanamo after having worked directly with Osama bin Laden. Precisely, this international call seems to have motivated the youngest members of the organization seduced by the ISIS network. The significant presence of Libyan fighters in Syria makes it not hard to foretell a rapid strengthening of radical pro ISIS elements within Libya. The recruitment is led by two lieutenants who are believed to have been sent to the country by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Abu Ali al-Anbari, an Iraqi veteran of ISIS, and Abu al-Baraa el-Azdi, a Saudi preacher who has become the chief religious judge of Derna.

In the light of this state of affairs, the countries directly affected by this situation have had to make important decisions. Qatar and Turkey support the government of Tripoli, whilst the executive of Tobruk is sustained by the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, which seems to have an ever increasingly important role. The government of Cairo is in a position where it has to tackle the threat of radicalism on two fronts in the Sinai and Cyrenaica. This is causing the Egyptian government of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to ask for a more decisive intervention by the international community and the Occident in particular.

Egypt believes it is essential to eradicate any presence whatsoever of the Muslim Brotherhood and, more generally, of Muslim extremists, in the neighboring countries. This is seen in the help given to General Haftar in the aerial bombardment of the militias of Misrata in Cyrenaica carried out directly by the Egyptian armed forces. The United Arab Emirates agree with Egypt’s stance whereas Turkey, and less so Qatar, views the victory of the Islamists as an opportunity to make an important ally. The victory achieved last summer by the forces of Misrata in the re-conquest of most of Tripoli, including the airport, was possible thanks to the direct intervention of Turkey, Qatar and Sudan which now consider Libya as a battlefield between strategic interests of conflicting regional alliances.

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