Why Libya Matters

Gaddafi Graffiti, cc Flickr Joel Kramer, modified, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Libya is quietly slipping into chaos while the more established debacles of Iraq and Syria dominate in Western headlines and corridors of power. The more grave and consequential the Libyan civil war becomes, the less attention is paid to it. It’s almost as if the country has already been relegated to an embarrassing footnote in the history books, another ‘oops’ on the growing list of flawed Western interventions.

But it can and will get worse if Europe and its international partners choose to stand idle, because there can be no long-lasting stability in North Africa unless Libya is brought under control.


A Security Crisis

It’s a worst-case scenario that has been unfolding with stunning regularity throughout the MENA region: Islamic State (ISIS) moves into a vacuum and quickly becomes entrenched, bolstering its revenue, recruits, and standing with jihadis worldwide. Many thought that Libya would not provide fertile ground for ISIS expansion due to the country’s tight-knit tribal structure and aversion to outsiders. ISIS appears to be proving them wrong by going the franchise route and aligning its ‘brand’ with pre-existing Libyan Islamist outfits. Now the black flag is flying over Sirte and Derna, providing ISIS with a base to make further gains amidst the fighting between Tubruq and Tripoli. There are also more established, al-Qaeda aligned jihadist groups operating in Libya such as Ansar al-Sharia, which is currently proving a tactical headache for General Haftar’s forces in Benghazi.

One needs just look at the map to see the risks involved should large tracts of Libya become a sanctuary for Islamist militants:

Algeria, with its high unemployment and young population, will soon be facing a period of political uncertainty as long-serving president Abdelaziz Bouteflika is of advanced age and failing health. The country is home to al-Mourabitoun, a newly-created merger of jihadist groups making it one of the largest in the Sahara/Sahel. Adnan al-Sahrawi, one of the group’s leading figures, claimed allegiance to ISIS in early May.

Niger is fighting extremism on two fronts: Boko Haram on its southern border and the jihadist nexus of northern Mali, southern Algeria, and Libya to the north.

Tunisia is desperately trying to maintain its status as the only Arab Spring country with a positive outcome. These efforts took a serious blow in March of 2015 when the Bardo National Museum was attacked by three terrorists, two of whom were reportedly armed and trained in Derna – a Libyan city currently under ISIS control. Tunisia’s tourism-dependent economy is particularly vulnerable to these kinds of attacks.

Egypt to the east is struggling with its own economic problems. It is also concerned about the safety of Egyptians within Libya after 21 Coptic Christians were kidnapped from Sirte (another ISIS-controlled city) and beheaded in early 2015. The Libya-Egypt border is long, porous, and mostly desert, making it very difficult to police. The worst-case scenario for Cairo would be an alliance between Libyan militants in the west and Sinai-based militants to the east, who are already engaging in a bloody campaign against government personnel.

Europe to the north is faced the prospect of a vast terrorist nexus opening up on its southern flank – an area that has already proven to have direct access to the continent given the scores of migrant-filled boats that make the journey every week. Where Libya might have been a source of stability in North Africa in previous decades, now it is the vacuum that threatens to topple the region’s fragile political order like a house of cards. Europe can continue to ignore this at its own peril.


An Economic Crisis

Libya is home to Africa’s largest proven oil reserves; 48.4 billion barrels, which is good for the 9th largest oil reserves in the world. Like that of Saudi Arabia, oil in Libya is cheap to extract, which translates into lucrative profit margins for the oil companies operating there. Libya’s extensive infrastructure managed to pump 1.7 million barrels of oil a day before the war that toppled the Gaddafi regime. Even in 2012, when Libya was still stable enough to keep the oil flowing, the country accounted for 10% of European oil imports.

Output levels remained over one million barrels a day through 2012 until mid-2013, when they collapsed. Currently the country’s exports stand at around 360,000, and much of this is said to come from pre-existing reserves. What changed in mid-2013 is that the Petroleum Facilities Guard – a militia that had previously been responsible for guarding key energy infrastructure – tried to sell 7.5 million barrels of oil on its own authority, leading to a prolonged stand-off with government-aligned forces. What followed was a slow erosion of the détente that had previously kept armed militias from attacking the infrastructure that enabled the country’s sole economic lifeblood. Fast-forward to 2015 and, after a year of outright civil war, the only infrastructure still operating is the Sarir cluster of fields in the east, the Hariga port at Tubruq (home of the internationally-recognized government), and a handful platforms off the coast of Tripoli (home of the Islamist government).

Major European oil companies like Total, Repsol S.A., and Eni have been active in Libya for decades and their operations have been severely impacted by the conflict. Following the civil war in Ukraine, the European Union is once more concerned with lessening its energy dependence on Russia. Imports of Russian oil exceeded 1 billion barrels for the EU in 2014 (27.5% of the EU’s overall imports), dwarfing Libya’s hobbled contribution of 10 million (2.9%). If EU member states are serious about lessening their energy (and thus strategic) dependence on Moscow, Libya could play a key role so long as its pipelines and tanker terminals aren’t being periodically blown up.


A Humanitarian Crisis

The anarchy of the Libyan civil war has created space for illegal trafficking and migration operations to thrive. In 2014 alone, the EU received approximately 626,000 applications for asylum. The year saw 218,000 migrants crossing the Mediterranean, 142,000 of whom departed from Libya (just 4,500 made the trip in 2010). The peril of such a crossing is reinforced with every tragic headline – in just one incident in April, 800 migrants died when their boat collided with a Portuguese freighter. The Libya-Italy crossing is merely the final leg of a very long journey for these migrants. Whether they originate in Sudan, Mali, Eritrea, Algeria, or Syria, site of the largest wave of human migration since World War II, war-torn Libya has become the preferred conduit for those seeking to escape violence and deprivation in Europe.

Libyan gangs and organized crime networks are the primary beneficiaries, raking in an estimated $225-323 million per year on migration alone according to a recent report from the Global Initiative. And the windfall doesn’t end there. Many of the same gangs are smuggling drugs, contraband, and arms through north Africa, the Sahel, the Middle East, and Europe. Should these operations fall under the purview of jihadist outfits like Islamic State or Ansar al-Sharia, it would represent a revenue stream rivaling illegal oil sales or kidnapping in other parts of the world.

There is also the threat of Islamic State militants being smuggled into Europe amidst legitimate refugees. This is allegedly already happening according to Abdul Basit Haroun, a former rebel commander and adviser to the Libyan government. Abdul alleges that criminal gangs are already cooperating with Islamic State, which is allowing them to operate in exchange for half of their revenues.

Migration is primarily a humanitarian issue, and it’s a pressing one – the people making these trips risk beatings, torture, starvation, rape, and incarceration every step of their odyssey. But there’s a security dimension as well. The criminal networks that are nurtured by the anarchy won’t always ‘play nice’ on their side of the Mediterranean. Their money and influence will flow northward in search of new rackets, corrupting public order in southern Europe and beyond.


A Political Crisis

Libya is a double-barreled existential crisis for the European Union. First there’s the humanitarian aspect of how to handle the torrent of migrants heading north. In this Brussels seems to have opted for a good cop/bad cop strategy of taking in a greater number of refugees and blowing up the smugglers’ boats respectively. Yet the bad cop doesn’t have a clue (it’s impossible to identify a smuggler’s boat since they’re often purchased from fisherman hours before a crossing) and the audience of EU member states has learned how to shut out the good cop’s lectures.

Brussels has proposed a quota system whereby member states would be asked to take in 40,000 refugees. In theory this would distribute refugees more evenly among the bloc, away from the countries at the frontlines of the influx and towards those with less of a problem. But the plan has already run into a wall of opposition from an immigration-wary membership. France, Spain, the United Kingdom, and various central and eastern European countries have come out against the proposal, setting the stage for another nationalist revolt against Brussels. In this we see how refugees can put added strain on a bloc that is bitterly divided on issues of immigration.

And then there’s the elephant in the room, or the biggest political crisis of all: How can this be happening in a country just 450 miles from Europe’s southern shores? If there was ever an opportunity for the European Union to demonstrate the will and means to assert itself on the world stage, it’s in Libya – a country that certain EU member states are directly culpable in bringing to its present state. Though he was a monster through and through, Gaddafi presided over a stable Libya that exported 1.6 million barrels of oil per day, much of it to Europe. That the union is incapable of even attempting a serious, coordinated strategy to redress the current situation is the most damning fact of all. It suggests that no matter how proximate or severe, there’s no crisis that can break the ‘sleeping beauty’ of the European Union out of its geopolitical slumber.

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