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TSG IntelBrief: The Turbulent Path to Stability in Libya
April 5, 2016

The Turbulent Path to Stability in Libya

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Bottom Line Up Front: 

• On March 30, members of the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) arrived by boat to the Libyan capital of Tripoli

• The GNA, which up until now had been based in Tunisia, faces substantial opposition in both Tripoli and Tobruk

• Despite its fragile standing in Tripoli, the arrival of the GNA marks what could be an important step toward Libyan recovery

• As Libya inches along the path to long-term stability, the Islamic State and al-Qaeda will continue to disrupt any incremental progress. 

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On March 30, a group of Libyan lawmakers arrived at a naval port in the capital of Tripoli. The group, led by Fayez al-Sarraj, represented the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA)—the newest iteration of a unity government that the international community hopes will be able to bring stability back to war-torn Libya. The GNA had previously been based in Tunisia, as the security situation in Libya prevented it from operating within the country. While the arrival of the GNA lawmakers in Tripoli represents an important step toward reconciliation, there remain many questions about the level of popular support for the GNA within Libya—both in Tripoli, and in the rival eastern capital of Tobruk. 

The fact that the GNA lawmakers arrived by sea is in itself evidence of the staunch opposition the new government faces. In anticipation of the arrival of Sarraj and his deputies, the Tripoli-based General National Congress (GNC), led by Prime Minister Khalifa al-Ghawi, intermittently closed the airspace over Tripoli to prevent the GNA members from arriving by air. In a statement, al-Ghawi referred to the GNA lawmakers as ‘illegitimate infiltrators,’ and advised that they return to Tunisia. Similarly, the rival Tobruk-based House of Representatives has yet to officially approve of the GNA’s presence—largely due to the opposition of General Khalifa Haftar, whose Libyan National Army is arguably the most powerful fighting force in the country. 

The GNA is not without its supporters, however—both domestically and internationally. Shortly after the arrival of the GNA members, the Justice and Construction Party—affiliated with the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood, and a key bloc within the GNC—announced its support for the unity government. The new government has also received endorsement from the Petroleum Facilities Guard, an eastern militia led by Ibrahim al-Jadhran that controls the key oil exporting ports of Brega and Ras Lanuf. The UN, which was instrumental in the formation of the GNA, has thrown its full support behind the unity government, with the Security Council pledging to unfreeze Libya’s sovereign wealth fund—worth $67 billion—if the new government can reassert centralized control over the country. 

Ultimately, reestablishing effective governance over the totality of the Libyan state is vital to denying violent extremist groups a safe haven in a region with enormous geostrategic significance. Within the power vacuum left after the fall of the Qadhafi regime, both the so-called Islamic State and al-Qaeda have increased their operational presence in the country. Libya has proven a boon for both groups, as it provides access to lucrative smuggling routes, key energy infrastructurelarge stores of weapons, and a new destination for recruits. As such, any stabilization of the situation within Libya is unacceptable for either the Islamic State or al-Qaeda, and both groups will likely seek to derail the efforts of the GNA to stabilize the country. 

Both al-Qaeda and the Islamic State are fundamentally threatened by capable state mechanisms. Therefore, as the groups face mounting pressure in Libya, government buildings and officials will likely be increasingly targeted. The Libyan economy is largely driven by oil and gas exports, and shortly after the arrival of the GNA in Tripoli, the National Oil Corporation announced its support for the Sarraj government. In order to deny the government revenue—and to generate black market revenue—violent extremist groups will also likely target oil installations. The Islamic State in particular has already demonstrated its desire to strike at oil infrastructure, launching an offensive against the oil export terminals at Brega and Ras Lanuf. 

In attempting to stabilize the country, one of the first tasks for the GNA will be the disbanding of militias, and the creation of professional security services. A coherent and effective security force in Libya will be better able to target al-Qaeda and Islamic State positions, and interrupt the smuggling routes the groups use to fund their activity. As such, both groups will seek to prevent such a force from coalescing. Security forces, particularly those in the remote southern regions, will likely face increased insurgent and terror-style attacks by extremist militants. The Islamic State has already demonstrated its capacity to launch devastating attacks against the security services, killing 65 recruits in a car bombing at a police training center in the western city of Zliten. The ability of the GNA to rebuild Libya is already in doubt; and both the Islamic State and al-Qaeda will work hard to ensure continued insecurity.  

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