libya flag
People hold a Libyan flag as they demonstrate in support of Gen. Khalifa Hifter's "Operation Dignity," a campaign against Islamists, at Martyrs' Square in Tripoli, May 23, 2014. Reuters/Ahmed Jadallah

Exactly four years have passed since Libyans started the revolution that toppled Moammar Gadhafi’s 42-year reign of terror, but their uprising has not brought them a stable and free nation.

Libya is now split into two camps, each with its own government, clashes are constant and in the power vacuum Gadhafi left behind the borders are open to radical Islamist militants from around the region. Foreign intervention looks increasingly likely, which would further increase violence in a country where more than 300 people have been killed in seven weeks so far this year.

The situation that led Libya to its current chaos began in the streets of Tripoli and Benghazi in February 2011, after several human rights activists were killed for protesting the Gadhafi regime. The brutal repression of the ensuing clashes resulted in a full-blown insurgency that led, five months later, the international community to recognize the National Transitional Council, a coalition of anti-Gadhafi forces, as the only legitimate government in Libya. NATO airstrikes helped fighters on the ground take down Gadhafi, who was finally captured and killed in October 2011.

Two Governments

Nearly a year later, the NTC was dissolved and the General National Congress was elected, in the country's first free election, as the transitional governing body. After failing to draw up a new constitution, the GNC allowed holding a new election for a national parliament, the House of Representatives, which is currently recognized by the international community as Libya’s elected ruling body.

But the GNC did not go away, and it survives to this day as a rival government. It’s made up of representatives from parties defeated in that 2014 election, who continue deliberating as the General National Congress, with the backing of militias. The group seized the capital, Tripoli, last summer and has since declared its own government there, but without any international recognition.

As a result, political violence sparked by the rivalry continues to rock the country. Today, the GNC is aligned with Libya Dawn, an umbrella organization of Islamist militias, but it’s also backed by various militias from the city of Misrata, many of which are considered to be moderate to secular. Thought to be 40,000 strong, Misratan militias, from the northwest of Libya close to Tripoli, played a key part in the revolution and are to this day the biggest armed group in the country.

The House of Representatives, the legitimately elected government, decamped from Tripoli to Tobruk, far to the east close to the Egyptian border. It has the backing of Khalifa Hifter, a former general in Gadhafi’s army who formed his own militia aiming to eradicate what he calls the “Islamist threat” of GNC forces, even though many of Misrata’s fighters are not Islamists. The remnants of Libya’s army are aligned with the Tobruk government as well.

“The Tobruk side … sees itself as defending the secular, liberal, good part ... against the bad, Islamist terrorists in Tripoli,” said Karim Mezran, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank. “Whereas Tripoli presents the narrative that sees them defending the revolution … and the people in Tobruk represent the counter-revolution and the return of the former members of the [Gadhafi] regime.”

ISIS And Rival Militias

With Libya’s factions struggling for control of the country, few paid attention to the growing threat of militant infiltration. Libya has been both a breeding ground for jihadists and a haven for militants from across the region.

Libya’s main terrorist group is Ansar al-Sharia in Libya (ASL), born during the early months of the 2011 civil war and still in control of a solid network. It’s the group accused of carrying out the 2012 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi in which Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed. Though not an official branch of al Qaeda, it was known to be aligned with the terrorist organization.

Hifter’s forces launched last year “Operation Dignity,” a ground attack in Benghazi to uproot ASL, but in July the militant group reclaimed large portions of the city. ASL is also active in Derna, a port city in eastern Libya that has long been a haven for jihadist militants -- and now the local base for ISIS.

Experts estimate that there are roughly a thousand militants in Derna, mainly defectors from ASL and members of another Libyan jihadist group, the Islamist Shura Youth Council, which pledged allegiance last year to the ISIS "caliph" Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, thereby turning itself into the de facto local branch of the Islamic State group. But ASL is still considered a bigger threat to Western interests.

“I am more worried about Ansar al-Sharia, which killed the U.S. ambassador. ISIS competes with Ansar al-Sharia, but if Western troops intervene it would easy for them to become allies,” said Arturo Varvelli, a Libya expert and research fellow at the Italian Institute for Political Studies.


The growing presence of militants and spreading chaos threaten control of the country’s rich oil reserves, the ninth-biggest proven amount in the world -- more than Nigeria or the United States.

Libya is home to drilling operations by major European oil companies that could fall into ISIS hands if the group continues to expand in the country. Italian oil major ENI has several installations in Libya, as does France’s Total.

ENI was once Libya’s largest energy company, but the civil war has forced it to reduce production. On Tuesday, the company reduced the number of Italian nationals working in the country but is continuing to produce oil and gas there, according to Reuters.

Earlier this month, Islamist fighters were suspected of attacking the Mabruk oil field that is partially owned by the French, killing four guards at the entrance. The attackers' allegiance was not confirmed, but both ISIS and ASL have made a habit of seizing oil fields to turn a profit. The field used to produce between 30,000 and 40,000 barrels per day, but was shut down in December when political violence threatened French interests in the area, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Foreign Intervention

France led the 2011 bombing campaign by Western and Arab nations that helped oust Gadhafi; Italy, the former colonial power in Libya, also participated, and both may now find themselves at the front of any Libya campaign by an international coalition.

The release of a video on Sunday purporting to show the executions of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians by ISIS, which threatened to head to Rome next, has the Italian government on edge.

Egypt called on the international community to intervene in Libya and retaliated immediately by carrying airstrikes on Derna the very next day. Together with France, it also called an emergency United Nations Security Council meeting asking for an international mandate to intervene in Libya against ISIS militants. The council is set to vote on it Wednesday.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was seen as a supporter of the Tobruk government and of Hifter’s forces even before ISIS had a presence in the country -- in an attempt to quell any support from Libya for his enemies, Egypt’s banned Islamist organization, the Muslim Brotherhood.

Sisi and the international community face in Libya a dilemma: Do nothing and watch a radical threat grow on the Mediterranean, or do something and risk uniting Islamist militias in one jihadi bloc. The civil war complicates the calculus, as any intervention could be seen as support for one faction.

“If the UN will vote to intervene on behalf of one side against the other,” Mezran said, “it would be disastrous.”