Tripoli's Attempts to Control Eastern Libya

5 MINS READSep 26, 2012 | 10:30 GMT
Members of a Libyan rapid unit brigade secure an area of Tripoli on Sept. 23

In a meeting with Libyan President Mohamed Magariaf on Sept. 24, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reaffirmed Washington's commitment to the Libyan government's efforts to tighten security in eastern Libya. On the same day, Tripoli announced that the Libyan National Army would assume control over three of Benghazi's largest militias. Both events reflect positively on the fledgling central government's attempts to guide Libya's fragile political transition.

To bolster its influence in eastern Libya, Tripoli is attempting to cultivate working relationships with local leaders in Benghazi, subdue the region's other armed militias and leverage anti-jihadist sentiment among the city's populace. The Libyan military had some early success in the region, and the central government has apparently found common ground with leaders over security needs. However, immediate and long-term challenges remain — especially looming political tensions stemming from ideological and administrative differences throughout Libya.

Libya's 2011 rebellion awakened a historical conflict between the country's two ancient centers of power. Some 600 miles of desert and the Gulf of Sidra separate Tripoli and Benghazi, but the distance between the two cities is not just geographical. Libya's east-west divide is marked by distinct identities and histories. The uprising began in Benghazi, and though many prominent positions of power in the new government are now held by eastern Libyans, the regional splits remain. Thus, an immediate imperative for the central government is to bridge the two regions over the long term by extending the government's authority to the east. Tackling the region's security challenges is one of the first steps in that process. 

Sept. 11 Attack on U.S. Consulate in Benghazi

Sept. 11 Attack on U.S. Consulate in Benghazi

For decades, Benghazi and the neighboring city of Derna have served as bases for Islamist militants. Since the fall of former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, the militants have exploited the resultant vacuum of central authority to launch new attacks, including an apparent assassination campaign against former Gadhafi officials and sporadic assaults against symbols of the West.

Magariaf and Prime Minister-elect Mustafa Abu Shagour have both emphasized the high priority being placed on securing Benghazi, and the Libyan military has already intensified its efforts in the city. The objective, according to Abu Shagour, is to bring all the region's armed groups under full control of government — to have them operate inside the law or else disband. To this end, the central government appears to have several factors working in its favor.

Positive Signs

Tripoli seems to have gained the backing of several local leaders in Benghazi. Most notable is the agreement struck to absorb three key militias — February 17, Rafallah al-Sahati and the Libya Shield — into the Libyan National Army under the command of the military's personnel. Military troops and police units have already moved into several militia bases in Benghazi, and only the Libya Shield leadership has yet to be replaced. Loyalties form along community and tribal lines in Libya, making support from local leaders critical to the success of any central government endeavor.

In contrast, jihadist activity has not gained widespread support in Benghazi. This dynamic was demonstrated Sept. 21, when an estimated 30,000 people protested against the Ansar al-Sharia militant Islamist group, which is suspected of participating in the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate. The demonstrators raided several of the group's bases, eventually allowing the military to assume control of certain areas, such as those around the city's Jalaa hospital and Nasr Square. In this environment, it may become increasingly difficult for militant Islamist groups to maneuver or recruit new members.

In its efforts to secure Benghazi — as well as to deter the spread of heavy weapons throughout Libya — the government will also benefit from increased cooperation with the United States. Immediately after the Sept. 11 attack, Washington dispatched a U.S. Marine Fleet Antiterrorism Security Team to reinforce U.S. facilities, and an FBI investigative team soon followed. Under pressure to explain the incident and prevent it from recurring, the United States can be expected to provide consistent support to the Libyan army, whether through financial assistance or training. Indeed, recent statements by U.S. President Barack Obama, as well as Clinton's commitment of support on Sept. 24, indicate that security in Libya has become a high priority for the White House.

Persistent Challenges

Still, several factors could undermine Libya's long-term security. While Benghazi's recent shows of support for the army were promising, other militias active in the region that have not agreed to lay down their arms could pose challenges for the central government. Also, weapons are easily accessible in Libya, so any disgruntled group in the region with the necessary resources can become a substantial threat. Indeed, a number of man-portable air-defense systems capable of hitting airplanes were reportedly stolen from one of the bases looted on Sept. 21. Moreover, some of the region's jihadists are well-trained remnants of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. During a government crackdown, the wide support network available to them would make it possible to continue organizing operations while in hiding.

Some leaders in Benghazi could be leveraging Tripoli's security campaign primarily to improve their positions in local rivalries, meaning ties with the government could fray if local leaders find their roles overly challenged by a central government. While a number of leaders in the government, including Magariaf, are originally from Benghazi, it is not clear how integrated they are with local leaders. Magariaf, for example, has spent most of the past 30 years organizing opposition from the United States.

The greatest challenges for Libya's government over the long-term, however, will likely come from differing administrative and ideological visions for the country. While the prime minister has been appointed and the parliamentary body has been elected, the constitution has yet to be written. The government will have to learn quickly how to move the political process forward while maintaining working relationships with local leaders. Islamist militancy incubates along the margins of society, and it can be contained through coordinated efforts — especially when a city like Benghazi turns against it. So while security threats in eastern Libya are physical and immediate, the challenges in the coming months that will do the most to shape Libya involve deep-rooted political questions of identity and power.

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