Combating Daesh in Libya

Blog | April 20, 2016

In a piece for EWI's Policy Innovation Blog, Saskia van Genugten, author of Combating Daesh in Libya, offers five recommendations to reduce the terrorist threat in the current political chaos enveloping Libya.

Libya's ongoing lawlessness, combined with its location along key African trafficking routes, has created an enabling environment for terrorist groups. On Libyan soil, a large number of regional extremist groups currently meet, recruit, train, propagandize and plot operations in relative tranquility. These not only include Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Ansar al Sharia, Boko Haram, and Al Mourabitoun, but most prominently Daesh (also known as ISIL or ISIS).

Daesh first emerged in Libya in 2014, when a group of foreign fighters returned from Iraq and Syria to their hometown of Derna in eastern Libya. The disorder, the uncontrolled borders and the inability of Libya's political class to prioritize political stability over infighting, helped Daesh establish itself in Libya over the following months. But several additional aspects factored into its rapid rise. These included the close relations with the core organization of Daesh in Syria and Iraq, a booming migrant smuggling business, the co-optation of former Qaddafi loyalists and the successful poaching of existing extremists.

To defeat Daesh in Libya and to reduce the terrorist threats stemming from the current chaos, more needs to be done and done quickly. Here are five broad recommendations in the following fields:

  • Diplomacy and Mediation
  • Disrupting Daesh's Financial Resources
  • Securing Libya's borders
  • Humanitarian and Economic Aid
  • Military and Security Support

Diplomacy and Mediation

Libya's political and security fragmentation remains the key obstacle to confronting Daesh. While acknowledging that any sustainable solution has to come from the Libyans themselves, the international community should continue its support for the UN-facilitated political dialogue in terms of resources and political commitment. The road ahead for the Government of National Accord (GNA), Libya's interim government, is likely to be full of obstacles and given the ambition of the Libyan Political Agreement, fighting Daesh will be just one of its many tasks and priorities. To increase the chances of a successful and sustainable GNA, the international community should help intensify mediation efforts at the level of civil society, security actors and economic elites, as well as encourage local ceasefires and help prevent a split in Libya's vital financial institutions.

Disrupt Financial Resources

Little concrete information exists on how Daesh in Libya finances itself. Libya certainly offers plenty of opportunities for a pillage economy, as it is rich in antiquities and money can be skimmed from trackers. Daesh also taxes civilians and is engaged in extortion and armed robbery. As such, greater analysis is required to better understand the source and channel of Daesh funding, allowing for an appropriate response. At a minimum, consideration should be given toward Daesh members and associated entities added to the Al Qaeda sanction list. Also, it is important to strengthen anti-money laundering regimes and to better monitor virtual currency exchange platforms and prepaid cards, all of which are used to channel funds to most terrorist organizations.

Border Management Assistance

The European decision to close the Balkan migrant route and the upcoming summer weather that makes crossing the Mediterranean easier, are likely to put more pressure on migration routes via Libya. While a difficult endeavor, securing Libya's land and sea borders -3in particular the Libya-Tunisia and Libya-Egypt borders--is of critical importance. The focus should be on trying to streamline the unclear and diverse reporting lines within the Libyan government that took root post-2011, after the overthrow of the Qaddafi regime, to counter smugglers' circumvention of checkpoints and to find alternative livelihoods for those working in the smuggling industry.

Economic and Humanitarian Aid

Libya's citizens have always been considered wealthy as they had, for decades, one of the highest GDPs per capita in the region. However, for 2016, Libya is projected to have the fastest shrinking economy in the world. Short-term economic and humanitarian assistance will not directly help in the fight against Daesh. Nonetheless, the reality of a severe economic crisis is likely to make the current situation worse. The international community has a role to play by helping ensure that the Libyan population will not be deprived of basic goods and services, assisting with tackling corruption and mismanagement, and supporting the design and implementation of diversification strategies. Over the long term, economic stability may significantly decrease the appeal of adopting extremism.

Military and Security Support

Regardless as to the military presence and engagement the international community settles on, several constraining factors should be kept in mind:

  • Libyans, as well as their neighbors, tend to be deeply suspicious of foreign meddling in their affairs and have opposed any explicit external intervention.
  • Military intervention at a moment that the appeal of Daesh has not yet been sufficiently weakened could prove counterproductive and further strengthen Daesh's recruitment narrative.
  • Military action may compromise any fragile, emerging unity in Libya. If support is channeled to a selection of groups fighting for narrow, local interests, the risk of exacerbating existing rivalries becomes that much greater.
  • Military intervention may further displace populations and fighters, shifting the problem to neighboring countries.
  • Libya is not lacking well-trained forces. It is lacking cooperation and integration between different militias and forces. Any potential training missions should focus on bringing militias together and integrating communication and command structures, with the aim of rebuilding a new structure absorbing the different militias into a united army.

It is important to note that a successful strategy to combat Daesh in Libya will, first and foremost, depend on the political will of the Libyan politicians and militias currently involved in the protracted civil war. However, considering the transnational nature of the threats stemming from the current situation in Libya, it is in the interest of various members of the international community to support the national authorities in their efforts to combat Daesh, together implementing the right mix of policy instruments and actions.

Dr. Saskia van Genugten is a Senior Research Fellow at the Emirates Diplomatic Academy and author of Combating Daesh in Libya. Follow her on Twitter at @svgen.