Why is Libya so lawless?

  • 18 April 2016
  • From the section Africa
Fighters loyal to Libya's Tobruk-based government celebrate as they come close to seizing the centre of Benghazi - 23 February 2016 Image copyright AFP

Libya has been beset by chaos since Nato-backed forces overthrew long-serving ruler Col Muammar Gaddafi in October 2011.

US President Barack Obama has partly blamed David Cameron for "the mess", saying the UK leader has not done enough to support the North African nation whose instability is threatening its neighbours and been a factor in Europe's migrant crisis.

How bad is the situation in Libya?

Only Libya's myriad armed militias really wield power - and it is felt they often hold the politicians they supposedly back to ransom.

During the uprising, anyone with a gun could command respect, and lots of armed groups emerged - up to 1,700, according to some estimates.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Rival politicians are trying to form a unity administration

There have been two rival parliaments - some of these lawmakers signed up to a UN-brokered deal in December to form a unity government but it is not yet backed by all the brigades, making it unclear whether it will succeed.

The oil-rich country once had one of the highest standards of living in Africa with free healthcare and free education, but five years on from the uprising it is facing a financial crisis.

This turmoil has allowed the so-called Islamic State (IS) group to gain a foothold in the country.

How much of a threat is Islamic State?

It is feared an IS "enclave" around the city of Sirte, the birthplace of Gaddafi, is providing a safe haven for jihadists to train, fund and plan attacks across the Mediterranean.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Libyan arms have ended up in the hands of armed groups across the region

Some security analysts describe Libya as an arms bazaar. It is awash with weapons looted from Gaddafi's arsenal - making an ideal playground for jihadists fleeing air strikes in Syria and Iraq.

It has been attacking Libyan oil facilities, has kidnapped several foreign oil workers and last year was behind two high-profile attacks on Tunisia's tourism industry - carried out by gunmen trained in Libya.

Tunisia is now building a border security barrier along its border with Libya aimed at preventing further atrocities.

Top IS leaders 'take refuge' in Libya

How IS's Libya foothold threatens UK

What else is being done?

Last month, the US carried out air strikes on IS camps in western Libya and French special forces are operating in the eastern city of Benghazi.

Plans are also afoot to send 6,000 troops from a number of Nato countries, including the UK and France, to Libya to assist local troops in stopping IS-linked groups from gaining more territory.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Hardliners in Tripoli oppose a unity government

But this seems to be dependent on the formation of a unity government. And it is unclear how the UN-backed administration will operate given the opposition it still faces.

How did Libya end up with two governments?

Elections held in 2014 were disputed. Those who held power refused to give it up and remained in the capital, Tripoli.

Another faction then set up its own parliament in the port of Tobruk, 1,000km (620 miles) away. It had the backing of the UN and major world powers.

A deal brokered by the UN in December saw the formation of a nine-member Presidency Council, which included the unity Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj. He arrived in Tripoli in March.

Days later, the Tripoli-based administration said it was standing down to prevent further bloodshed.

Weren't they all once allies?

Image copyright AP
Image caption Col Gaddafi was in power for 42 years

They were united in their hatred for Gaddafi - but nothing more. There was no single group in charge of the rebellion. Militias were based in different cities, fighting their own battles.

They are also ideologically divided - some of them are militant or moderate Islamists, others are secessionists and yet others are liberals. Furthermore, the militias are split along regional, ethnic and local lines, making it a combustible mix.

And after more than four decades of authoritarian rule, they had little understanding of democracy.

So, they were unable to forge compromises and build a new state based on the rule of law.

My search for Gaddafi's golden gun

Which are the main militias?

  • Libya Dawn controls much of western Libya, including Misrata and Tripoli. It is led by fighters from Misrata, the city which took pride in putting up the most fierce resistance against Col Gaddafi's forces. Its seizure of Tripoli in August 2014 had the backing of Libya's most senior Islamic cleric, Sheikh Sadik al-Ghariani, who had broadcast messages of support from a location in the UK, urging Libya Dawn to take a "firm hand" in their newly acquired city. However, loyalties have since changed, and many of the larger Misrata militias have distanced themselves from the Islamist militias in western Libya
  • Ansar al-Sharia is in control of parts of the second city Benghazi, the cradle of the 2011 revolution. Until the emergence of IS, it was said to be the most dangerous Islamist armed group in Libya, along with its ally, the 17 February Martyrs Brigade. Ansar al-Sharia was blamed for the 2012 killing of US Ambassador Christopher Stevens in Benghazi, and is said to have forged links with other Islamist groups. Some analysts say it includes men who fought in Syria, though there has been no independent confirmation of this
  • Islamic State's main base is Sirte and is made up of defectors from local jihadi groups, and foreign fighters. Its most prominent affiliate in Libya is the Islamic Youth Shura Council (IYSC). In October 2014, the IYSC declared that Derna, a small town on the north-eastern coast and some 720km (450 miles) from Tripoli, had become the first Libyan town to join the global caliphate that IS has vowed to create. However, it has since been pushed out of the town by the al-Qaeda-linked Mujahideen Shura Council of Derna.
  • General Khalifa Haftar also has a powerful militia, the Libyan National Army (LNA). He has cast himself as the main opponent of the Islamist militias and has the backing of the Tobruk-based government and is said to have co-ordinated military activities with Egypt
Image copyright AFP
Image caption Libya Dawn is a grouping of pro-Islamist militias

Guide to Libya's militias

Profile: Khalifa Haftar

Rogue general divides Libyans

What is everyday life like?

Oil production has nearly ground to a halt, banks are strapped for cash and hospitals are running out of medicine.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption IS has attacked oil facilities this year

An estimated 400,000 Libyans are also internally displaced.

In IS areas, strict Islamic law is implemented and the group has carried out crucifixions and beheadings.

In April 2015, its fighters killed more than 30 migrant workers, most of them Ethiopian Christians.

Control and crucifixions: Life in Libya under IS

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