On this day six years ago, a popular uprising erupted in Libya against the 42-year-old regime of Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi. Nato famously stepped in, ostensibly to protect civilians, with the backing of France and the US. Eight months later, Gaddafi was dead and the Libyan regime was history.
So too, it appears, was the entire country.
Libya has descended into uncontrollable chaos. Power cuts are routine, topped with water shortages, hyperinflation, a liquidity crisis, and rule by militia. The capital itself is very unsafe, especially at night, manned by men with guns who are far more influential than the UN-backed National Accord Government that is struggling to assert full control of the country since assuming power last March.
Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar controls the entire east of Libya, where a quarter of the population lives, and enjoys the backing of Egypt and Russia.
Worse still, Libya is becoming a magnet for African jihadis, lured into its wilderness by the collapse of central authority and the rise of the Islamic State. The terror group swiftly ventured into Libya to set up Salafi rule and to use the war-torn country to reach not only the shores of Europe but to Libya’s neighbors: Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Chad, Niger and Sudan.
ISIS already enjoys an affiliate in sub-Saharan Africa, with the Nigerian Islamist group Boko Haram pledging allegiance to the ISIS caliphate in March 2015. ISIS smuggles Nato arms from the Libyan battlefield to another ISIS-affiliate in the Sinai Peninsula known as Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, which has also pledged loyalty to the self-proclaimed caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
In Libya itself, ISIS goes by the name Majlis Shura Shabab al-Islam (MSSI) — or the Shura Council of Muslim Youth. Established in western Libya back April 2014, it took the oath to al-Baghdadi in June, and one year later boasted of 800 fighters. Of that number 300 are Libyan militants who fought with ISIS, first in the Syrian city of Deir ez-Zour and then in Mosul, and returned home to pay service to the jihadi project in their own country.
Videos appeared online of machine-gun toting Libyan jihadis dressed in beige fatigues taking mannequins from shop windows and shutting hairdressers
In November 2014, MSSI took over the Libyan city of Darna, 240 kilometers east of Benghazi, officially annexing it to ISIS’s Islamic State and renaming it the Vilayet of Darna — Vilayet being an old term describing one of the Ottoman Caliphate’s major administrative regions.
Videos appeared online of machine-gun toting Libyan jihadis dressed in beige fatigues taking mannequins from shop windows and shutting hairdressers, forcing women to wear the niqab from head to toe. MSSI now controls schools, mosque pulpits and the city’s local radio. A police force was created and charged with monitoring public vice.
Al-Baghdadi refused to send any weapons or money to his Libyan proxies, advising them to make money from trafficking, kidnapping and other illegal means, just as they did in Syria. Instead he sent them two of his top aides to advise on how to run the state — the Iraqi, Abu Nabil al-Anbari, and Abu Baraa al-Azdi, a Saudi. Both were long-time ISIS members who had spent time with the caliph at a US jail in Camp Bucca in Iraq, near the Kuwaiti border.
Many of the jihadis operating in Libya today are Yemeni and Tunisian veterans of the wars in Iraq and Syria. Foreign fighters in Libya now number around 400 although ISIS claims that it is much higher. Some are former Gaddafi supporters who went underground after their leader’s death in October 2011, similar to the way ex-officers in Saddam’s army sided with the jihadis after their president’s fall in 2003.
As it does in Syria and Iraq, ISIS feeds off the chaos and rules by striking fear into the hearts of locals. In August 2014, they executed an Egyptian citizen at a Libyan football stadium beneath the black flag of ISIS. In January 2015, they attacked the luxury Corinthia Hotel in Tripoli, killing four foreigners — including an American contractor — and four Libyans. The following month, they killed nine Libyan guards in an attack on an oil field, and a month later laid claim to a car bomb that went off near the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tripoli. They also seized nine foreigners at the al-Ghani Oilfield, and by May 2015 had taken control of Sirte International Airport.
The epitome of ISIS atrocities in Libya was the abduction and execution of 21 Egyptian Copts, all working as laborers in Sirte, the birthplace of Gaddafi on the south coast of the Gulf of Sidra halfway between Tripoli and Benghazi. They were beheaded, kneeling in their orange jumpsuits along the Sirte shoreline. The backdrop was no accident — ISIS wanted the world to see that this wasn’t the deserts of Iraq and Syria but the shores of the Mediterranean facing Europe; ISIS was inching closer to new territory. The video of the mass execution was posted on the group’s media channels. In it, one terrorist pointed to the ocean — to nearby Italy — threatening the now famous: “We will conquer Rome!”
Although supportive of the Libyan intervention back in 2011, Donald Trump now says he considers it one of the worst foreign policy failures of Barack Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. General Haftar has welcomed Trump’s election, hoping to do business with the new US president. For his part, Trump has promised to strike at ISIS across the world and might find a natural ally in the 75-year-old Libyan strongman.
The Libyan Army retook Sirte from ISIS last December, and hopes to repeat the task elsewhere, with aid from the United States. Until that happens, the country will remain a failed state on every single level of governance, giving Libyans little reason to celebrate the sixth anniversary of what was supposed to be a glorious revolution against Muammar al-Gaddafi.