Mohamed Chtatou
Last updated: 26 January, 2016

“ISIS badly needs Libya for its operations in North Africa”

Is there life in Libya after death? asks Professor Mohamed Chtatou.

In 2011 when Gaddafi was killed by a mob of militiamen, everybody believed that it was a new beginning for the country: a free and democratic Libya. In the aftermath, however, Libya did not become free and was not democratic. Instead, it became fractured, violent, tribal, patriarchal, and divided. Rather than starting a new chapter and a new life, Libya, alas, was sliding slowly but surely into a tenebrous abyss resembling some sort of hell or purgatory chamber.

Over the years, as violence became a daily casual occurrence, Libya almost became synonymous with disorder in the news and there were even thoughts that it is on its way to become a sister country of God-forsaken Somalia. However, hope emerged anew with the United Nations attempt to negotiate a national agreement through UNMSIL (United Nations support Mission in Libya).


On December 17, 2015, the different protagonists of the Libyan crisis reached a historic agreement in the Moroccan city of Skhirate south of the capital Rabat, under the active leadership of UNMSIL. But the agreement did not mean the end of turmoil in Libya as there are a lot of splinter groups that were not part and parcel of this accord and who have the means and the will to stand on the way of peace. Besides, there is the lethal ISIS, present through proxy organizations all over the country, ready to step into deadly action, and for which such an agreement means nothing.

Martin Kobler, The Special Representative of the Secretary General of the UN and Head of UNMSIL Mission, made it quite clear in his statement after the signature of the accord:

“We must not forget that this is the beginning of a difficult journey. There is a critical need for national reconciliation and an inclusive national security dialogue. Urgent solutions must be found to bolster the Libyan-led fight against terrorism and in particular the threat of Daesh. The dire humanitarian situation in Benghazi and other areas needs to be addressed as a matter of highest priority, including through the establishment of a dedicated reconstruction fund for Benghazi. The concerns of the Eastern and Southern constituencies should be brought to the forefront. This work must start immediately. The signing of the Libyan Political Agreement is the first step on the path of building a democratic Libyan state based on the principles of human rights and the rule of law.”

It did not take long before we saw a reaction. On January 7, 2016 a truck bomb was detonated outside a police training center in the western city of Zliten, leaving 65 people dead, the worst bomb attack in years. No group claimed responsibility, but the message was crystal clear: peace is not for tomorrow.


Since the time of the Ottoman Empire until the demise of Gaddafi, Libya was ruled by a heavily-centralized government that delegated minimal power to the regions. This setup would insure peace and stability to both the people and to the state. Tribes existed, but had only an honorific role and a cultural existence, no more than that. They were used, at times, as auxiliaries to strengthen the power of the state and, in return, were given rentier privileges as gratification.

When Colonel Gaddafi toppled King Idris Senusi in 1979, in the name of the revolution, he consolidated further the state and made it all-prominent. In return, he subdued the population through direct generous cash handouts and a wide array of rentier privileges. The population did not have to work, and if they did, they held senior positions that did not require much effort. This way Gaddafi guaranteed himself total control of the state and the revolutionary legitimacy to get rid of the recalcitrant individuals or groups, which he did at will.


In the aftermath of the Arab Spring in 2011 and the ensuing uprising of the Cyrenaica region against the rule of the dictator Gaddafi, NATO decided to side with the revolutionaries of Benghazi to topple him. However, NATO directed the war operations from the skies and never fielded any foot soldiers to mop up the floor. In a March 2015 article in Foreign Policy, Ethan Chorin wrote:

“The current situation in Libya is the product of a series of significant mistakes, erroneous assumptions, and myths that date back to NATO intervention in 2011. The United States and its NATO allies made a fundamental mistake in not imposing a robust reconstruction plan on Libya and stabilizing the country before radicalism was able to flourish. Even U.S. President Barack Obama understands that this was a mistake: In an interview last year with the New York Times, he cited lack of a plan for “the day after Qaddafi is gone” as potentially one of his biggest foreign-policy regrets. (The Libyans, of course, share much of the blame too.)”

As Gaddafi’s forces started withdrawing from various regions, religious and tribal groups moved in and helped themselves to the huge arsenal left behind. And with that came the temptation to rule and gain access to a share of the oil cake. At the fall of the dictator in October 2011, there were over 300 armed groups, all dreaming of leadership and control.

In May 2014, Libyan General Khalifa Haftar, with support from the U.S., Egypt, UAE, and Saudi Arabia, led an army from the east to rid the country of the powerful Islamist groups. His secular-oriented movement, dubbed “Operation Dignity,” in spite of a few limited successes, soon faltered miserably.

In reaction to the establishment of Haftar’s movement, the Islamists, supported by Turkey and Qatar, put together their own front, Fajr Libya (“Libya Dawn”), on July 13, 2014. The declared aim of Fajr Libya was to correct the direction of the revolution and set up a stable government; the undeclared objective was to turn Libya into an Islamist country. Fajr Libya was made up of several Islamist militias, all dreaming of power, wealth, and religious consecration:

  • The Muslim Brotherhood
  • Libyan Shield Militia of Misrata with links with the Ikhwane (brotherhood)
  • The Tripoli Brigade, of the famous Islamist leader Belhaj, who had opposed Gaddafi openly
  • The Libya Revolutionaries Operation Room

The Fajr Libya front was, in addition, allied to a large group of heavily armed brigades, each controlling one tribe or region and reflecting the disintegration of Libya into small emirates reminiscent of the taifas in Arab Spain.


During the Barbary Coast era, that lasted from the 16th to the 19th century, North Africa developed a taste for piracy, under the religious justification of jihad al-bahr (sea jihad) that protected dar al-slam (the land of Islam) from the onslaught of dar al-kufr (the land of the infidels), especially after the fall of Grenada in 1492 and the ensuing Reconquista. It was very much an easy gain of goods and slaves.

Today, the tribal piracy instinct seems strong, and yet again, for various reasons: affirmation of tribal undemocratic and patriarchal power under the cover of Islam; the ability to dispose of the riches of the country directly by selling oil and benefitting from its revenues without having to pay any taxes to a central government; undertaking contraband commerce; and, most importantly, organizing immigration traffic to Europe, unhindered.


For the above-mentioned reasons, many of these groups and the warlords of Libya would see a Libyan national reconciliation as a threat to their unlimited power and lucrative business and are certainly behind the terrorist attack, one way or the other, that took place in Zliten on January 7, 2016.

Similarly, ISIS badly needs Libya for its operations in North Africa: to spread its paramilitary brigades and organize its terrorist networks and, most importantly, prepare its political pawns to take over power after the chaos. Taking control of North Africa, which is the soft underbelly of Europe, would amount to getting ready to recuperate, by terror and force, al-Andalus from the Catholic Christians of Spain.

In his Foreign Policy article, Chorin notes that,

“Over the last four years, Libya has become a key node in the expansion of Islamic radicalism across North Africa, West Africa, across the Sahel, and into Europe. Arms and fighters have crossed Libya’s porous borders, feeding radical organizations from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb to Boko Haram and reinforcing radical trends in the heart of the Middle East. If events in Libya continue on their current path, they will likely haunt the United States and its Western allies for a decade or more.”


If Libya is not pacified in the near future, the whole world will regret it, as it is regretting today that NATO did not disembark from its airplanes to cleanse the country from extremists, once and for all.

Pacifying Libya will undoubtedly help fight religious radicalism in West Africa and cut the lifeline of the lethal Boko Haram, active in the whole of West Africa, as well as al-Qaeda in the Muslim West that is threatening stability of the Sahel countries like Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso.

Now, the following actions must be implemented, at once, to insure peace for Libya and stability for the rest of the world:

1. Transform UNMSIL into a stronger peacekeeping force:
This peacekeeping force must be of, at least, 10,000 elite soldiers with heavy equipment and NATO air support to undertake the pacification of the country, with the help of government forces sympathetic to the Skhirate accord. This much wanted peacekeeping effort could include soldiers from Spain, Italy, Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Pakistan, and Senegal. 

2. Disarm militias:
Disarm all paramilitary groups by persuasion, incentive or sheer force and make, by law, bearing arms strictly illegal. 

3. Train a national army and a police force:
Offer the militias the possibility to integrate in the army and police force and be under the rule of law.

4. Undertake a cultural study:
There is an urgent necessity to understand the social and cultural make-up of the Libyan society. The Amazigh and Tuareg people must be granted unconditionally their cultural rights.

5. Adopt a federal system of government:
Probably the best government system that could befit the numerous needs and the varied wishes and hopes of the Libyan population in political, cultural, and religious terms is undeniably the federal system, with which tribal groupings, cultural minorities, and religious lodges can, eventually, all identify. 

6. Help the country set up an open and competitive economy:
International economic institutions will need to help Libya restructure its economy especially now that the oil price has dwindled and, bearing in mind, that Libya is and has always been a rentier country.


Libya is on the verge of implosion, due to both internal and external challenges. The Skhirate accord is a good move forward to resolve the Libyan internal conflict, but it is not enough, given that many national groupings have different agendas for the country and have the necessary firepower to see them through.

Now if the armed groups are kept on the loose and unchecked, Libya will turn into a new Somalia, which could ultimately be hijacked by terrorist groups like ISIS or al-Qaeda, who have grand designs of their own for the region and the world.

In the present set up the future is very grim and Libya is a lethal danger to Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, so action from the international community is needed urgently, before it is too late.