Why is Libya so lawless?

  • 14 September 2016
  • From the section Africa
Fighters loyal to Libya's Tobruk-based government celebrate as they come close to seizing the centre of Benghazi - 23 February 2016 Image copyright AFP

Libya has been beset by chaos since Nato-backed forces overthrew long-serving ruler Col Muammar Gaddafi in October 2011.

Western powers are now becoming increasingly concerned that so-called Islamic State (IS) has built a presence in the North African state and the US has responded by launching air strikes on the militant group.

How bad is the situation in Libya?

Only Libya's myriad armed militias really wield power - and it is felt they often hold the politicians they supposedly back to ransom.

During the uprising, anyone with a gun could command respect, and lots of armed groups emerged - up to 1,700, according to some estimates.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Rival politicians have formed a unity administration but it has little real power over the whole country

There are two rival parliaments and three governments - the latest government was formed in UN-brokered talks in December with the aim of replacing the other two. But this initiative is still on the rocks, partly because of concerns that the new government is being imposed by Western powers.

The oil-rich country once had one of the highest standards of living in Africa with free healthcare and free education, but five years on from the uprising it is facing a financial crisis.

This turmoil has allowed IS to gain a foothold in the country.

Top IS leaders 'take refuge' in Libya

How much of a threat is Islamic State?

IS had taken control of an "enclave" in and around the city of Sirte, the birthplace of Gaddafi, which it was feared could provide a safe haven for jihadists to train, fund and plan attacks in North Africa and across the Mediterranean.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Libyan arms have ended up in the hands of armed groups across the region

However, pro-government forces backed by the West have now pushed back the Islamists and retaken most of the city.

Some security analysts describe Libya as an arms bazaar. It is awash with weapons looted from Gaddafi's arsenal - making an ideal playground for jihadists fleeing air strikes in Syria and Iraq.

It has been attacking Libyan oil facilities, has kidnapped several foreign oil workers and last year was behind two high-profile attacks on Tunisia's tourism industry - carried out by gunmen trained in Libya.

Tunisia has built a partial security barrier and trench along its border with Libya aimed at preventing further atrocities.

Beheadings and racial tension: Life under Islamic State

How IS's Libya foothold threatens UK

The Libyans gaining ground on IS

What is the West doing?

The US has said it has carried out three air strikes in Libya since 2015 - the latest one was on 1 August, in Sirte. It is the beginning of what will be a sustained air campaign that officials say will be limited to the city, to help local anti-IS forces uproot the group.

The UK and France also have special forces operating in the North African state - the nature and extent of these operations have largely been secretive.

Three French soldiers died in July 2016 when their helicopter was shot down by militiamen who identified themselves as belonging to a new militant group called Benghazi Defence Brigades (BDB).

Image copyright AFP
Image caption The unity government's call for foreign intervention has not been welcomed by some

Earlier this year, plans were also afoot to send 6,000 troops from a number of Nato countries, including the UK and France, to Libya to train local troops in stopping IS-linked groups from gaining more territory and to provide security to diplomatic missions who are looking to move back to the capital.

However, the new unity government now appears reluctant to openly allow or request such a presence and it is not clear if this will happen.

All this comes amid an admission by US President Barack Obama, in an interview published in April, that the "worst mistake" of his presidency was the failure to prepare for the aftermath of Col Gaddafi's overthrow.

Mr Obama partly blamed then-UK Prime Minister David Cameron for "the mess", saying he had not done enough to support the North African nation whose instability was threatening its neighbours and was a factor in Europe's migrant crisis.

How did Libya end up with rival governments?

Parliamentary elections held in 2014 were disputed. Those who held power refused to give it up and remained in the capital, Tripoli.

The newly elected parliament then moved to the port of Tobruk, 1,000km (620 miles) away and it set up a rival government.

This parliament still has the official backing of the UN as Libya's official legislative body - despite the fact that it is opposed to the new unity administration as it wants Gen Khalifa Haftar, who is leading the battle against Islamist militias, to keep a senior role in a future army, something the UN agreement does not guarantee.

The UN-mediated deal for a unity government has seen the formation of a nine-member Presidency Council, led by Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj. He arrived in Tripoli in March to set up his administration and has been trying to win the support of the various militias and politicians, but it has little real power over the whole country.

An engineer by profession, Mr Sarraj approved the 1 August US air strike on suspected IS positions in Sirte, in the first co-ordinated military action between his government and the US.

Has Libya pulled back from the brink?

Weren't they all once allies?

Image copyright AP
Image caption Col Gaddafi was in power for 42 years

They were united in their hatred for Gaddafi - but nothing more. There was no single group in charge of the rebellion. Militias were based in different cities, fighting their own battles.

They are also ideologically divided - some of them are militant or moderate Islamists, others are secessionists or monarchists and yet others are liberals. Furthermore, the militias are split along regional, ethnic and local lines, making it a combustible mix.

And after more than four decades of authoritarian rule, they had little understanding of democracy.

So, they were unable to forge compromises and build a new state based on the rule of law.

My search for Gaddafi's golden gun

Which are the main militias?

East and central:

  • Gen Khalifa Haftar, an important and divisive player in Libyan politics, leads the so-called Libyan National Army (LNA), which is made up of former army units and militias loyal to them. He has cast himself as the main opponent of the Islamist militias and has the backing of the Tobruk-based government and is said to have co-ordinated military activities with Egypt and France.
  • The Benghazi Revolutionary Shura Council (BRSC) is an Islamist umbrella group that includes a complex make-up of radical fighters, including those who pledged allegiance to IS. It has members of Ansar al-Sharia, the group that was blamed for the 2012 killing of US Ambassador Christopher Stevens in Benghazi. It may also be linked to the Benghazi Defence Brigades (BDB), a new group formed of Islamist fighters mainly pushed out of Benghazi. They all have found common ground in fighting against Gen Haftar.
  • Islamic State's main base is the city of Sirte and is made up of defectors from local jihadi groups, and foreign fighters. Its most prominent affiliate in Libya was the Islamic Youth Shura Council (IYSC). In October 2014, the IYSC declared that Derna, a small town on the north-eastern coast and some 720km (450 miles) from Tripoli, had become the first Libyan town to join the global caliphate that IS has vowed to create. However, it has since been pushed out of the town bythe al-Qaeda-linked Mujahideen Shura Council of Derna.


  • An umbrella group known as Libya Dawn, which controlled much of the west, including Misrata and Tripoli, has split up into various brigades with differing loyalties. Some of them support the UN-backed unity government, others remain undecided. The group seized Tripoli in August 2014 with the backing of a senior Islamic cleric and was led by fighters from Misrata, the city which took pride in putting up the most fierce resistance against Col Gaddafi's forces. Some of the militias from Misrata make up a large portion of the anti-IS operation in Sirte.
Image copyright AFP
Image caption Libya Dawn was a grouping of pro-Islamist militias

Guide to Libya's militias

Profile: Khalifa Haftar

Rogue general divides Libyans

What is everyday life like?

Oil production has nearly ground to a halt amid a battle for control of the terminals, banks are strapped for cash and hospitals are running out of medicine.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption IS has attacked oil facilities this year

An estimated 400,000 Libyans are also internally displaced.

In IS areas, strict Islamic law is implemented and the group has carried out crucifixions and beheadings.

In April 2015, its fighters killed more than 30 migrant workers, most of them Ethiopian Christians.

Control and crucifixions: Life in Libya under IS

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