A little more than four years ago, one of the world’s most extroverted, flamboyant and brutal dictators, Muammar Gaddafi, was dragged from a drainage pipe near the Libyan town of Sirte and lynched.
In turn demonized and schmoozed by Western governments, Gaddafi’s death involved a Predator drone, French Rafale fighter jets, a grenade thrown by his own bodyguard, an angry mob of rebel fighters and possibly a foreign agent.
Like Gaddafi’s end, Libya was a mess after 42 years of dictatorship and a full blown civil war. But unlike Gaddafi, who rests in an unmarked grave somewhere in the desert around Sirte, his country is not at peace today.
Currently, Libya has two rival governments and parliaments. The Council of Deputies, or COD, claims the title of being “internationally recognized” and has set up shop in the eastern town of Tobruk. The General National Congress, or GNC, meets in the historical capital Tripoli, from where it controls large swathes of Libya’s west.
In addition, a collection of independent militias hold onto small patches of territory and individual towns. The most notorious is Islamic State, which controls a section of Libya’s central coast around Sirte and several other cities.
The United Nations has tried to mediate peace treaty between the COD and the GNC — to give Libya at least a unified government — but the talks are currently going nowhere. While the COD receives tacit support from Western nations, the GNC, which identifies as Islamist, can count on the support of Qatar, Sudan and Turkey.
Part of the impasse, which has led to continued clashes and loss of life, is that neither the COD nor the GNC is strong enough to serve as the country’s legitimate ruler.
The GNC claims to represent the continuation of the Libya’s first democratic parliament, but actually only brings together a minority of the deputies elected in 2012. The Muslim Brotherhood dominates the GNC, which formed to protest a coup attempt and subsequent elections in 2014, which the Brotherhood lost.
The COD in turn claims to be the parliament legitimized by the 2014 elections, but only about 18 percent of Libyans went to the polls that year. The elections came after Gen. Khalifa Haftar, a shadowy officer who emerged from his exile in Virginia to become the most powerful military figure in post-Gaddafi Libya, staged a coup in protest of the original GNC’s attempts to institute Sharia law across Libya.
To a certain extent, the conflict between the COD and GNC and their unwillingness to find common ground is a logical consequence of Western support for Gaddafi prior to the Arab Spring.
Prior to the civil war, the United Kingdom, France and Italy courted Gaddafi because of Libya’s oil wealth and its location along a Mediterranean refugee route to Europe. For his part, Gaddafi had no problems suppressing dissent at home and limiting the influence of the opposition in exile.
When the Arab Spring led to civil war and Gaddafi’s subsequent death, no political structures existed which could steer the transition process in an orderly manner. Much more worrisome than the clashes between the rivaling parliaments, as deadly as they may be, is the strong presence of Islamic State in parts of Libya.
Jihadism isn’t a new phenomenon in Libya and neither is the involvement of Libyans with Islamic State, even though its local branch only formally swore allegiance to caliph Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi in 2014. Wolfram Lacher, a Libya expert with the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, noted three distinct waves of Libyan jihadi fighters, reaching back to 1980s.
Crucially, all three waves are inextricably connected to American foreign policy. The first generation of Libyan jihadis became radicalized in the context of the U.S.-sponsored guerrilla war with the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.
Of course, the United States was only responsible for the demand, in this case. Gaddafi guaranteed the supply. Young men willing to fight on foreign soil kept them from fighting at home — as Gaddafi mercilessly suppressed political dissent and left many with no choice but to look for new opportunities overseas.
Of this first generation of fighters, some later joined Al Qaeda in the pre-9/11 days, when Osama Bin Laden was still residing in Sudan. After 9/11, the United States and its allies extradited many of the Libyan veterans from Afghanistan back to Libya, after Gaddafi emerged as a potential ally in the global “War on Terror.”
This proved to be the second cataclysmic event for Libya’s Islamist community. “Networks developed that funneled Libyan recruits into Iraq, where they got into contact with the most radical movement inside jihadism at the time,” Lacher wrote in a 2015 study.
According to documents secured by U.S. forces in Iraq, Libyans were the second largest group that joined the Organization of Jihad’s Base in Mesopotamia — the precursor to Islamic State — during its formative years in 2006 and 2007. Libyans were by far the largest group of foreign fighters as a percentage of their originating country’s population.
Libya’s youngest Islamists gained their first combat experience in the 2011 revolution with NATO air support on their side. But the foundation for their eventual alienation from their Western allies was already there. From the beginning of the revolution, some of the most prominent members of the anti-Gaddafi forces were jihadists of the first and second waves.
Islamist fighters were common within the anti-Gaddafi ranks, but didn’t put religion on the agenda until Gaddafi fell in October 2011, according to Lacher. Afterwards, Islamist groups and militias gained prominence by engaging in service delivery.
In other words, Islamist groups thought globally, but acted locally — building support in small communities but gaining strength through connections with like-minded militias at the national level.
Internationally, links between Libyan Islamists and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria proved to be highly influential, contributing to further radicalizing some fighters to the point that they are now in open conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood and other “moderate” Islamists.
But other linkages exist, especially to Al Qaeda-connected groups in Algeria and Mali. The crisis in Libya predicated the breakdown of Mali and extended the influence of jihadist groups from the shores of the Mediterranean to the southern fringes of the Sahel.
There is no doubt that if Gaddafi was still in power, this wouldn’t have happened. But nobody should be sorry for his demise. His rule and brutal suppression of every from of dissent over decades is one of the main reasons that Libya became the nightmare it is today.
The other? The willingness of the United States and several European nations to disregard all principles and convictions when dealing with Gaddafi, both when he was an ally and the enemy.