Libyan geography is a vast, almost unending desert. In stark contrast to its Maghrebi neighbors, northern Libya does not benefit from a humid coastal plain framed by the Atlas Mountains, nor are there strong geographic features that help to define much of its interior. Unlike its eastern neighbor, Egypt, Libya does not enjoy a feature similar to the Nile River to break up its broad Saharan expanses or offer water that could organize its various tribal constituencies into a more unified agricultural society. Historically, this has been Libya's challenge: Unifying the various local populations and settlements of a vast and rugged geography. These divisions have helped to ensure that Libyan society's inherently tribal nature remains, even as Libya's neighbors have developed strong national identities.This breakdown in central authority has had serious implications for Libya's own domestic stability. The political transition process has largely ground to a halt, as competing factions both within the transitional political authority — the General National Congress — and outside the political process have been unable to emerge as a singular authority. Oil production and exports, the lifeline of the Libyan economy, have fluctuated wildly and are expected to operate significantly under capacity for the foreseeable future. Well-armed militias operate with a wide degree of impunity because Libya lacks the military and security capabilities to effectively rein in these challenges to its authority. Whatever its domestic challenges, however, the deterioration of centralized authority poses significant risks to Libya's neighbors. Given Libya's proximity to significant energy producing regions, Europe and former Western colonial holdings, Libya's loose control over its borders will continue to be a pressing issue for regional stakeholders and Western powers with economic and political links to North Africa and the Sahel.
Libya as a Militant Refuge
After the collapse of the Gadhafi regime in October 2011, Mali became one of the first casualties of Tripoli's weakened security capabilities. Nomadic Tuareg tribesmen, once on the Gadhafi government's payroll, moved out of southern Libya and joined their tribal brethren in northern Mali. The Tuaregs leaving Libya helped instigate a revolt in northern Mali that roughly coincided with a military coup in Bamako. Foreshadowing some of the challenges that would be seen in Libya, Mali's broken and distracted central government in Bamako was unable to combat rising Tuareg separatism in the north. Regional Islamist militants, including al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, quickly co-opted the Tuareg nationalist uprising. Northern Mali's power vacuum turned the area into a refuge for regional militants and jihadists, giving them room to rest, recruit and train new members and to avoid regional militaries and security forces. As the militants attempted to push further south and gain more territory, France — the former colonial power in Mali — responded with a military intervention that reinforced the capabilities of the nominal central government in Bamako and pushed out the bulk of the militants operating in northern Mali.
Unlike Mali, Libya's power vacuum has been replaced with well-armed, well-organized local militias and tribal stakeholders, thus far preventing regional jihadists from seizing and controlling territory on the same scale as in Mali. Indeed, local militias and ethnic and tribal groups, not domestic or regional jihadists, pose the biggest challenge to Tripoli's authority in Libya. However, Libya's geography provides ample opportunities for militants to hide and wait for chances to strike, if not against Tripoli then against several strategic political and economic targets in the region. In January 2013, Algeria's Ain Amenas natural gas processing plant — near the Libyan border — was attacked. Niger faced a similar attack in May 2013 near Arlit, a significant uranium-producing region near the Libyan border and a critical economic operation for French nuclear energy provider Areva. Moreover, Libya's location, combined with the proliferation of weapons following the 2011 uprising, provides arms smugglers both the goods and lax operating environment to move weapons throughout North Africa and beyond.Libyan territories have also provided sanctuary for regional militant leaders, such as Tunisian Ansar al Sharia head Abu Ayadh al-Tunisi, as well as larger militant networks such as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the Mohammad Jamal network and Mokhtar Belmokhtar's militant group. Algeria has had to increase security activities along its southeastern borders, and Niger and Chad have both had to increase security patrols and monitoring of their northern borders, occasionally opening fire and engaging with the proliferation of smuggling groups moving guns and drugs across Libya's borders. Egypt, fighting its own domestic insurgency problems, now has to contend with the possibility of its domestic militants seeking refuge in Libya's northeast and returning with arms and ammunition to use against civilian and military targets at home.
Challenges to Stabilizing Libya
Though the risks that Libyan instability poses to its neighbors are clear, the solutions to the problem are not. Mali provided the French with a relatively short and easy campaign to rout jihadists from its former colonial holdings; in Libya, the primary destabilizing actors are Libyan revolutionaries and not foreign militants, which means it is a less pressing security concern for the international community. Limited special operations and covert activities can help mitigate specific threats and provide intelligence on particular jihadist movements but do little to solve the underlying problem of a weak Libyan government unable to secure its own borders and desert territory, leaving a large area permeable to the region's ample security threats. One solution that Western observers are currently pursuing is to strengthen Libya's fledgling national military through international training and cooperation. The move is an attempt to restore some of the stability and strong centralized authority of the Gadhafi era, though the plan faces significant challenges.On its own, training soldiers will not provide an immediate or even medium-term solution to Libya's significant security and stability problems. Indeed, a central government attempting to prioritize the development of a strong central military without support from Libya's various armed groups might exacerbate the very security challenges it seeks to repair. However, Western states are not simply relying on a strategy of beefing up Libya's military. Powers such as France, the United States and NATO have sent small groups of technical experts to help with military and intelligence organization and structuring, including some military training, within Libya.
Western intelligence agencies are actively monitoring Libyan territory and collecting data on militant movements, including surveillance with unarmed, unmanned aerial vehicles. But there are limits to how aggressively Western covert operations can move ahead without igniting tensions in Libya. U.S. special operations forces captured suspected al Qaeda member Anas al-Libi in Tripoli in October 2013. Al-Libi is unlikely to have had robust ties with the current militant networks operating in and around Libya — he lived openly in Tripoli and did not appear to hold regular meetings with members of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. However, Prime Minister Ali Zeidan's political opponents used the opportunity as a pretext to temporarily kidnap the official. The move highlighted possible reactions to raids and drone strikes — tools used by U.S. forces in places like Yemen, Pakistan and Afghanistan, but notably absent from Libya.
Perhaps the most important work is being done outside Libya; the security problems present in Libya are not exclusive to Tripoli, but are systemic throughout the broader Saharan and Sahel regions. Western efforts, led by the United States and France, also aim to bolster security capabilities and cooperation between Libya and other states in the region, including Algeria, Tunisia, Niger, Chad and Egypt. As seen in the aftermath of the 2013 French intervention in Mali, it is not enough to simply target the region's militant problem in one area lest it move across the poorly demarcated desert borders into another country. A much more coordinated, comprehensive security plan for the region needs to be in place to constrain regional militants, such as local al Qaeda affiliates. Italy hosted a Friends of Libya meeting on March 6, which NATO and EU member states, the Arab League and African nations such as Niger and Chad attended to address growing concerns and strategies for containing the militant flows in and out of Libya. Though Western capitals promised support for Tripoli, they all emphasized that future aid and coordination would require a reliable and dependable Libyan partner — a role that Tripoli has hitherto struggled to fill. Rather than set the stage for an intervention, foreign capitals are much more likely to continue their slow but deliberate work to repair Libya's capabilities and improve regional cooperation.
There remains no quick or easy solution to managing the Libyan threats to regional security, a situation born out of Libya's fundamental geographic challenge. As the country's problems have spread beyond its borders, managing the region's post-Gadhafi security challenges will necessitate regional cooperation. But with governments in Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt currently inward focused and given the insufficient capabilities of governments from Mali through Sudan to secure their borders, containing Libyan instability will remain unlikely for the foreseeable future.
- Part 1: North Africa: A Cultural Crossroads Faces the Future
- Part 2: Uncertainty Looms Over Algerian Elections
- Part 3: Libya's Instability Threatens Regional Borderlands