TSG IntelBrief: Libya: Internal Turmoil and the Broader Terror Threat
September 5, 2014
Bottom Line Up Front:
• Recent developments and reports from Libya continue to illuminate the myriad threats the infighting between militias poses to the rest of the region and, potentially, the international community
• As the coalition of Islamist militias, under the operational rubric of “Libyan Dawn,” continue to steadily win battles against anti-Islamist forces led by General Haftar, their victories reap secondary benefits with long-lasting implications for the greater extremist Islamist cause
• In addition to destroying the country’s infrastructure, the fighting will continue to displace hundreds of thousands of people which, in turn, will threaten the internal security of neighboring countries
• Without a solid plan of action or effective coalition, the West will most likely be relegated to the sidelines as Libya’s neighbors battle it out to determine which side gains ultimate control of the country.
As the situation in Libya continues to degrade on a daily basis, reports emerging from the war-torn country have shed more light on two significant recent internal events that have deeper regional, and possibly even international, repercussions. From the acquisition of infrastructure and territory during a surge in Islamist militia victories against their more moderate opponents to ever-increasing numbers of refugees displaced by the fighting, the problems in Libya show that the country continues to descend into a chaos that Libya’s neighbors and Western nations seem unable to prevent.
Internal Problems, Exported
The capture of the Tripoli International Airport by Islamist militants fighting for the Libyan Dawn coalition was a significant gain that made headlines around the world last month. But it was only more recently that the deeper implications of that victory against the anti-Islamist forces of General Khalifa Haftar were described in public realm.
According to a United Nations report released this week, the last four months of fighting in and around the country’s two largest cities has displaced approximately 250,000 Libyans and foreign workers. Of that number, 100,000 have been internally displaced, with the remaining 150,000 fleeing the country over Libya’s infamously porous borders. While this exodus is a second-order effect of the ongoing war, the pressure the refugees will begin to place on the infrastructure of neighboring countries and other Libyan communities is sure to cause ripples felt around the region.
Already dealing with other issues from the three years of fighting in Libya, neighboring countries will now have to face a new surge of refugees who are sure to threaten the already-shaky infrastructure and limited resources intended for the locals. Additionally, neighboring governments will have to consider the threat of militants crossing their borders with those refugees in order to link up, or coordinate with, allied terrorist organizations to launch attacks.
While all of Libya’s neighbors will feel this refugee pressure to varying degrees, Egypt, which has its own simmering extremist problem, as well as a growing stake—and involvement—in Libyan internal affairs, will most likely bear the brunt of any Libyan militant-born attacks and refugee influx.
Though many countries have varying interests in the current events and future outcome of the fighting in Libya, it is the US, Europe, and Egypt who are the primary stakeholders in the Libyan situation.
The US and its European allies initially supported the Islamists in their overthrow of Muammar Qadhafi during the Arab Spring revolts in 2011, and since then have lost both political and local influence as the conditions in Libya have deteriorated, and the Islamists switched roles from rebels to aspiring conquerors. Since closing their diplomatic missions and removing most of their personnel from the country earlier this year, the US, Britain, and France have all but ceded any significant influence over the course of events in the country. The growing so-called Islamic State threat in Iraq and Syria is also serving to erode Western influence in Libya, as America and its allies have shifted their attention to “the larger threat.” The absence of any substantial Western input in the situation means that regional forces will fill the void.
The heir apparent to a leading role in the region will most likely be Egypt (and its allies, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia), which supports the anti-Muslim Brotherhood side in the Libyan fight. Not only has Egypt provided support to recent UAE-led airstrikes against Libyan Dawn forces, but early reports indicate the country is taking initial steps toward a military intervention in Libya in the near future. Should this come to pass, the West might be able to slip back into Libya on Egypt’s coattails, but it will also open Egypt up to increased militant threats from outside and may make the country’s current internal militant problem boil over.
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