Why fighting the “war on terror” in Libya is a mistake

A critique of Libya's “war on terror” and its inevitable complications. 

Since the end of the Cold War, it has become common (and convenient) for Middle Eastern leaders to depict their opponents as “terrorists” as a way to gain support, military or otherwise, from powerful Western governments to act against them. American and European involvement in the fight against the Islamic State (IS) has only increased such practices.

Libya’s ruling elite is unfortunately no different. In his speech before the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) last week, acting Libyan head of state Ageela Saleh said that the international community had to provide arms and training to the Libyan army “in its war against terrorism”, noting that the Dawn coalition, which also happen to be the adversaries of the Tobruk government, included “Al-Qaeda ideologists”.

This “war on terror” narrative plays into the concern of most European governments that Libya’s large ungoverned spaces may soon become (or have already become) havens for jihadi and other militant groups. These are the same ungoverned spaces where most of the human trafficking into Europe by sea takes place. The fear (not unfounded) that these threats will only grow as Libya’s domestic crisis worsens has ensured the close and continuous involvement of many European countries in Libya in a variety of capacities. The United Kingdom, for example, has a high-level special envoy who has been particularly involved in negotiations between the different factions. Spain recently organised a very important regional conference on Libya that took place on 17 September; the UN has since asked it to organise a new conference in November. And, Italy, Malta, and Hungary are the only European Union countries that have kept their embassies open in Tripoli.

France has also been especially active: both Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and Foreign Secretary Laurent Fabius have made statements emphasising the need for joint action on Libya. Meanwhile, the French press has speculated that the government may move French troops into Libya from the Sahel in order to conduct what would likely be pinpoint operations against militant groups active in Libya’s southern region of Fezzan, like Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb or Ansar al-Sharia. Note, however, that France would only carry out such operations if invited by a representative Libyan authority, the kind that can only emerge through a successful national political dialogue.

Another key actor in Libya has been the UN mission there, UNSMIL, which has been at centre stage this week. On Monday, Special Representative and Head of UNSMIL Bernardino Leòn convened in Ghadames (near the borders with Algeria and Tunisia) a group of Libyan members of parliament, including both those who are attending the internationally recognised House of Representatives in Tobruk and those who are boycotting it.

The objectives of these talks, which are key in resolving the crisis, are to establish a neutral location for the House of Representatives so that all elected representatives can join its sessions (currently between 70 to 80 of 191 elected representatives regularly do not show up) and to agree on consensual rules of procedure. Achieving these two primary goals would allow for a parliament that would be both internationally legitimate and domestically inclusive, thus increasing the chances of having a government that can effectively control its ministries, its central bank, and the country’s borders; presently, the hold on such essential elements of state power by Abdullah al-Thinni’s cabinet in Tobruk is debatable.

Yet, Special Representative Leòn faces a number of obstacles. First and foremost has been the instrumental use by Libya’s domestic actors (and interventionist regional powers) of the war on terror narrative to muddy the waters between their political and ideological opponents and what would be legitimate terrorist targets in the eyes of Western governments. Unfortunately for Libya, European and American leaders indicated their acceptance of this narrative in a meeting at the UN last Thursday. Point 8 of the summary of the meeting reads: “The meeting recognised the lead role of the Government of Libya in addressing the growing threat of terrorist groups, and the readiness to support the government in this regard.” The problem with this is that the Tobruk government’s definition of who is a “terrorist” is limited to the Dawn coalition, precisely the actors with whom the elected government must negotiate in order to try to resolve conflict. Designating them a terrorist threat and getting the support of Western governments will no doubt destroy the prospects for such a resolution.

Comparatively speaking, Monday’s meeting in Ghadames ultimately shows the way forward: the building of neutral and inclusive institutions that can then effectively enforce law against those who threaten stability and the state-building process in Libya – and make no mistake, there are plenty of jihadi groups in Derna, Benghazi, and elsewhere. Thursday’s meeting at the UN, however, may mean Europe’s involvement in Libya’s next civil war on the side of the Tobruk government against the Dawn coalition, which now controls about half of the country, including Tripoli and the third largest city.

Declaratory policy should evolve to avoid this scenario. Until now, European governments have defended again and again the legitimacy of the House of Representatives in Tobruk, and for good reason given that the Libyan people elected its members on 25 June. But legitimacy is not absolute; it must be earned, and it depends on inclusivity and on the capacity of the government to actually rule the country, which is not the case in Libya today.

Rather than fall into the war on terror trap, Europeans (and particularly the new EU high representative who will take office in one month) should set for themselves two more realistic goals: rescue Libya from the regional polarisation that is being imposed on it domestically through the offering of military support by regional powers to different Libyan factions and work to reduce the number of ungoverned spaces where jihadism and human trafficking can prosper.
For more information on the situation in Libya, visit ECFR’s Conflict in Libya page.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Senior Policy Fellow

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will store your email address and gather analytics on how you interact with our mailings. You can unsubscribe or opt-out at any time. Find out more in our privacy notice.