In the early hours of Monday morning, a bomb exploded at the gate of the Moroccan embassy in Tripoli, the capital of Libya. A few hours before that, gunmen attacked the South Korean embassy in the city. Responsibility for the attacks was claimed by Islamic State militants. This follows other high-profile incidents involving foreign targets in Libya this year, including an assault on Tripoli’s Corinthia Hotel and the beheading of 21 Egyptian Christians.
In addition to these incidents, militants professing loyalty to Islamic State have claimed responsibility for attacks on numerous other embassies in Tripoli, including those of Egypt and Algeria. Many of these were assaults on empty buildings, as most countries have recalled their diplomatic staff because of the deteriorating security situation.
While Islamic State’s violent activities in Libya have grabbed international headlines this year, the group is simply one part of a complicated picture of violence in Libya: a symptom, rather than a cause, of the chaos in the country. It has now been four years since Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown in a popular uprising backed by Nato airstrikes in 2011. Since then, the country has been dominated by conflict, with powerful militias fighting for control of Libya’s key cities and its vast oil riches. Since August, Libya’s internationally recognised government has been based in the eastern city of Tobruk, after a rival faction known as Libya Dawn (which is broadly Islamist) seized Tripoli in August and established their own administration. It is this chaotic backdrop of civil war and arms proliferation that gives extremist groups such as Islamic State the space to grow and flourish.
Political consensus still seems to be a distant goal. For weeks, delegates from Libya’s two rival parliaments have been holding UN-mediated talks in different countries in the region. The aim of these talks is to end the present instability by forming a unity government. So far, they have been unsuccessful. Talks are set to resume today in Algiers, focusing on the formation of a government of national unity as well as security issues. Under discussion will be a six-point proposal delivered at meetings in Tripoli and Tobruk last month. It outlines plans for establishing a transitional government that will rule until a new constitution is adopted and elections are held. For this to be successful a major breakthrough in relations would be necessary – and this does not look likely. A joint US and European call for an “unconditional” ceasefire have gone unheeded by Libya’s main political actors.
One of the biggest stumbling blocks for any negotiated settlement is the fact that both sides are splintered, consisting not just of moderates and pragmatists (who recognise that a unified government is necessary to fight extremism), but also of hardliners who face personal losses if there is a ceasefire and a transitional government. These divisions within the two broad factions reflect the broader conflict that followed the 2011 uprising, where a multitude of different militia groups vied for influence. Another factor contributing to the continuation of the conflict is the role of international powers. Broadly, the UAE and Egypt back the Tobruk government, while Qatar and (to an extent) Turkey back the Tripoli faction. Without naming names, last month, the UN called on the countries providing arms and financial support to the rival groups in Libya to pressure the warring factions to attend peace talks and to stem the flow of guns into the country.
The continuing political deadlock matters. The longer it goes on for, the worse conditions for normal Libyan citizens are, and the more powerful militant groups such as Islamic State become. For many Libyans, the situation is dire; around 10,000 per month are fleeing the country. Fuel and electricity are petering out, ungoverned and ungovernable spaces are growing all the time, and violent crime is on the rise as the state fails to maintain law and order. Weapons proliferate. According to UN estimates, the number of people with weapons and ready to fight is somewhere between 100,000 and 300,000 – ten times the 30,000 or so Libyans who took part in the 2011 revolution.
While it is thought that there could be up to 5,000 fighters in Libya for groups affiliated to Islamic State, most analysts agree that the group is unlikely to seize overall control of the country, because Libya is not plagued by the same sectarian divisions as Iraq or Syria. Here, the tension is more regional and tribal. But undoubtedly, the growing threat of terrorism in Libya is a grave concern to both Libyans and to the international community; and it will undoubtedly only increase the bloodshed in an already bloody context. If Libya’s vying factions cannot manage to sit at the same table and negotiate a solution to the current political stasis, the country will collapse further, extremism will grow, and more lives will be lost. But at the moment, the political will does not seem to be there.
By Samira Shackle