Libya has now experienced forms of civil conflict for more than six years. In early 2011 Muammar Gadhafi threatened to annihilate those protesting against his rule, as the Arab Spring flared across the North Africa and Middle East region. NATO forces intervened to protect civilians in Benghazi, paving the way for the regime change. Rebel movements emerged throughout the country, setting a precedent for urban or regional militias controlling small territories. Tripoli fell to National Transitional Council (NTC) forces in August 2011 and Gadhafi was killed in October.
Post-Gadhafi Libya has been highly politically unstable, while the security situation is correspondingly fragmented. An elected General National Congress (GNC) assumed political control from the NTC in August 2012. GNC fissures soon became apparent, and it was unable to create a new constitution. But when a new legislative body, the House of Representatives (HoR), was proposed to take over from the GNC after the June 2014 elections, the GNC declared a continuing mandate for itself, refusing to recognise the HoR. Armed supporters of the GNC occupied Tripoli and the new parliament fled to Tobruk.
Since mid-2014 Libya has been torn apart by conflicts between different armed groups, which can be broadly categorised into three groups:
- Jihadist factions, which are engaged in frequent violent incidents and include the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL (which took control of Derna and Sirte before being ejected by rival militias); and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), based in southern Libya, in particular along the porous southern borders.
- The so-called Libyan National Army (LNA), affiliated with the HoR and led by former Gadhafi ally General Khalifa Haftar, who in May 2014 launched Operation Dignity to fight against ‘Islamists’, mainly in and around Benghazi and Derna.
- Non-jihadist, ‘revolutionary’ Islamist militias. Previously affiliated with the GNC and mainly from the city of Misrata, in 2014 these groups were part of Operation Libya Dawn against Haftar, the LNA and its allies, and in 2016 they launched Operation Solid Structure (Bunyan Marsous) against ISIS in Sirte, ejecting the group from the city with support from US airstrikes.
International efforts to promote reconciliation between rival Libyan factions resulted in the signing of the UN-brokered Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) in December 2015. The LPA established a government of national unity (the Government of National Accord–GNA), a presidential body, and the High Council of State, which absorbed former members of the GNC. It also recognised the HoR as the legitimate Libyan parliament. However, the lack of a vote of confidence in the GNA by the HoR and strong opposition from relevant stakeholders (in particular Haftar and the president of the HoR, Agila Saleh), have raised doubts about the viability of the LPA, increasing political and regional divisions.
The conflict, which by 2017 had displaced around 313,000 people inside Libya, also disrupted oil production, the country’s main source of income. Despite total output recovering from 200,000 barrels per day (b/d) in August 2016 to 700,000 b/d in March 2017, this is well below the 1.6 million b/d produced before the 2011 uprising. Furthermore, insecurity and the lack of rule of law favour the activity of criminal organisations, making Libya a major gateway for migrant and refugee trafficking into Europe. According to the International Organization for Migration, 181,436 migrants arrived in Italy through the Central Mediterranean Route in 2016, and 4,581 migrants died attempting to reach Italy from Libya.