Various locations in the Libyan capital of Tripoli were struck on May 2, 2019 with Chinese-manufactured Blue Arrow air-to-surface missiles fired from Wing Loong drones. Neither armament had been directly supplied by China to the forces ostensibly using them, those of the self-proclaimed Libyan National Army (LNA) led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and based in eastern Libya. These weapons had likely been supplied to the LNA by its main foreign backers, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Egypt. It was also likely that the drone pilots, and perhaps even the spotters on the ground in Tripoli helping guide the missiles to their targets, were foreign as well.[1]

A few days after these drone strikes in Tripoli, a French-made Mirage F1 fighter bomber was shot down by LNA forces just outside the capital. Video of the captured pilot showed a slightly wounded and delirious man speaking Portuguese. While he insisted that he was a civilian and not a mercenary, he nonetheless admitted that he had been hired by the internationally recognized Government of the National Accord (GNA) based in Tripoli to bomb roads and other infrastructure vital to the ongoing LNA siege.[2]

These episodes are only two examples of the many ways that the ongoing civil war in Libya, which has claimed at least 10,700 lives since 2011,[3] has been interwoven with emergent global geopolitical alliances, transnational military labor and global armament industries. Such extensive external assistance to Libya’s warring factions is in flagrant violation of the existing United Nations (UN) arms embargo. This embargo has been in place since 2011, when a popular uprising against the longstanding regime of Muammar al-Qaddafi quickly devolved into an eight-month civil war. Libya’s 2011 revolution was abetted by a US-backed “humanitarian intervention” that saw NATO and the Arab League—at the behest of a UN Security Council mandate—use significant airpower in the name of protecting Libyan civilians from Qaddafi’s forces.

Since the NATO-led intervention, various forms of overt and covert assistance—military, financial, ideological and otherwise—have enhanced growing divisions within Libya’s post-revolutionary polity. Those divisions ruptured in 2014, when the transitional authority cleaved into two rival governments, each supported by shaky domestic political and military coalitions and each backed by different foreign actors with vying geopolitical agendas. Libya’s unmaking was further complicated when a franchise of ISIS planted its flag in Sirte in 2015 and called on jihadists far and wide to join its ranks. As North Atlantic powers simultaneously sought to mend the rift between Libya’s rival governments and extirpate the cancer of the Islamic State, Haftar’s LNA, with its Emirati, Egyptian and Saudi backers, along with increasing French support, began to expand beyond its stronghold of Cyrenaica in eastern Libya. The LNA took over strategic oil infrastructure and eventually laid siege to the remaining government-held cities in and around Tripoli and Misrata.[4]

The ongoing Libyan civil war and its significant international dimensions are the latest iteration of an increasingly globalized process of state unmaking that has become familiar across the greater Middle East since 2001 in places like Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and most recently Yemen.

Though the internal history of modern Libya has been uniquely animated by various forms of external involvement, the current disorder is not merely the result of a failed humanitarian intervention, which allegedly collapsed the state. Global currents and processes have also combined with local forces to unmake the Libyan state. Like the other cases of globalized state unmaking in the region, a new phase in Libya’s history opened in 2011 and has yet to be closed. It is one in which the order of Libyan disorder has been constituted by global networks of interpenetrating relations within and beyond Libya’s borders. Today, Libya illustrates the fictions of modern sovereignty as an ideological crystallization of arrangements that operate in—yet cumulatively transcend—geographies of the local, national, regional and global. The chief irony is that the visibility of sovereignty’s fiction in Libya today has been made possible by the violent and internationalized “parcelization” of Libya’s sovereignty since the 2011 intervention.[5]


Internationalization of Internal Divisions

The LNA assault on Tripoli in early April 2019 constituted the third effort in eight years to seize control of the capital. The first was in August 2011 when Libya’s rebel forces, backed by NATO and Arab League airpower from above and covert special forces on the ground, finally dislodged the Qaddafi regime after over four decades in power. Libya’s revolutionary militias eventually tracked down and executed the sexagenarian dictator—again with extensive assistance from foreign military and intelligence assets—outside of Sirte. The second was in 2014 when Libya’s transitional national authorities collapsed during a contentious effort to create a new interim parliament through a widely boycotted election. This vote took place in the midst of fighting between the countless armed militias that had sprung up largely after the 2011 revolution ended.

The civil war that erupted in 2014 between rival governments in Libya was itself embedded in larger regional contests involving Sudan, Turkey and Qatar on one side and Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Russia on the other. The North Atlantic community, quick to intervene militarily in Libya’s 2011 revolt, proved just as quick to abandon Libya to its post-revolutionary fate.

The “winner” of the 2014 war for Tripoli was an amalgamation of militias calling themselves Libya Dawn, made up of forces from the western port city of Misrata along with prominent militias from Tripoli, from Libya’s Amazigh heartland of the Nafusa mountains and those battling Haftar’s forces in Benghazi and Derna in the east. Politically, Dawn backed the continued authority of the General National Congress, the interim governing body that was initially elected in July 2012 and was ostensibly replaced in the June 2014 elections by the House of Representatives.

The presence of salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood among the ranks of the Congress-Dawn alliance, reinforced by material and ideological support from Turkey and Qatar, has often led to the incorrect characterization of the 2014 civil war as pitting Islamists against secularists. It has become clear that both sides include the entire spectrum of Islamist tendencies among their ranks, but also that the more salient division since 2014 is between two political tendencies.

On the one hand, there is the post-2011 revolutionary tendency seeking to purge the new state of all vestiges of the Qaddafi regime, from individuals to institutions. On the other hand, there is a countervailing accommodationist tendency seeking to incorporate the experiences and organizations of the ancien régime into the new state. Veterans of Libya’s bureaucracy and military often found themselves increasingly marginalized, if not persecuted, during the initial transitional period of 2012 to 2014. Embracing the latter tendency, Haftar’s initial operation to allegedly liberate Cyrenaica from “terrorism” in 2014 was called Dignity—a rallying cry for the recently politically marginalized. Haftar’s ranks grew when the House of Representatives moved to the east, seeking protection under Haftar’s Dignity operation. Haftar’s opponents, however, view this accommodation as not only an evasion of justice for 42 years of authoritarian excesses but also as a trojan horse for Qaddafi regime loyalists.

With the consolidation of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s rule in Egypt, the House-Dignity alliance received increasing levels of military support from Egypt, the UAE and Jordan. Support included the construction of an expanded airbase at al-Khadim in the east, where satellite images revealed the presence of various new kinds of armaments, from US-made low flying AT-802 planes—crop-dusters redesigned for counterinsurgency use—to Wing Loong drones. Given that these weapons were likely delivered and are serviced by Egyptian and Emirati military, it is suspected that the actual pilots and other systems personnel were with the infamous UAE-based mercenary firm Academi, formerly known as Blackwater.[6] Haftar’s forces also appear to be enjoying covert support from France. In June 2016, it was revealed that several French special forces had been killed when their helicopter was shot down over Benghazi.

By contrast, Turkish and Qatari assistance to its Libyan clients was not nearly as conspicuous, though it was nonetheless easily facilitated through the port of Misrata and, to a lesser extent, the Tunisian border.


Libya as Counterterrorism Laboratory

Not to be outdone, the United States rendered clandestine and overt assistance to all sides in the Libyan civil war, albeit in the name of counterterrorism operations, especially against the Islamic State and al-Qaida’s Maghrebi-Saharan affiliates. In fact, one of the major factors driving the international push in 2015 to consolidate Libya’s rival authorities into the Government of National Accord was the need for a legitimate central authority to sign-off on foreign counterterrorism initiatives in Libya, from Special Operations Forces actions to drone strikes. It was a testament to both the security situation in Libya and the contentious nature of the UN-sponsored 2015 Libyan Political Agreement that the new head of Libya’s third transitional authority, Fayez al-Serraj, had to be smuggled into the capital by boat due to threats against his efforts to reach Tripoli by air.

Though increasingly held hostage to the interests of the militias controlling the wider coastal Tripolitania region, Serraj nonetheless served his primary international function by allowing Libya to become a counterterrorism laboratory. During the long siege in Sirte to “degrade and destroy” ISIS in 2016, US Marine aircraft and helicopters operating under the authority of US Africa Command (AFRICOM) worked hand-in-hand with the Misratan forces leading the grueling urban fight. Upon the completion of this “successful” operation, one that saw entire neighborhoods in Sirte totally demolished, the United States was quick to describe it as a model for the upcoming battle for Mosul in Iraq.


The Political Economy of State Unmaking

As the LNA grew in military sophistication (despite the ongoing UN arms embargo), it also grew more socio-politically precarious. Prior to the disclosure of a significant cash injection from Saudi Arabia, the funding of Haftar’s operations was utterly opaque. In the context of the 2014 oil price crash and the inflation that war premiums had generated in Libya, social dependence on state salaries and black market activities—both of which help fund militias—only deepened.

Haftar’s seizure of core oil facilities in late 2016 and early 2019, however, served to revive Libyan production and exports, and helped inject cash back into the economy via state salaries, welfare payments and subsidies on imports. Much was made of apparent Russian diplomatic and military backing of Haftar during this period, though perhaps the most significant material benefit the House and the LNA received from Moscow were deliveries to the east of the country of nearly 10 billion in Libyan dinar bank notes printed in Russia that had not been authorized by the internationally recognized Central Bank in Tripoli.[7]

Beyond financials, Haftar’s power was also increasing based on an expanding network of complicated social and ideological alliances with armed groups across the country, and even some from neighboring states. The latter included militias from Sudan’s Darfur region and Tebu and Tuareg militias from the tri-border Libya-Chad-Niger and Libya-Algeria-Niger regions respectively. Explicitly pro-Qaddafi militias have also been documented among the LNA’s ranks, waving the green flag of the defunct Jamahiriyyah. Receiving the most attention, however, were the LNA’s salafi militias, especially followers of the Saudi religious scholar Rabee Madkhali, whose orthodox teachings emphasize deference to what it considers legitimate political authority.[8] Libya was increasingly bombarded with salafi religious programing from unregulated radio and television broadcasts produced by unidentified sources in unknown locations.[9]

After advancing slowly and patiently from the far east to the southwest, effectively controlling most of the country apart from coastal Tripolitania and its mountainous backdrop, the Nafusa, Hafter’s LNA launched its assault on Tripoli on April 4, 2019 in response to two major developments. First, Haftar reportedly received promises from the Saudi monarchy to bankroll his campaign during a meeting in Riyadh on March 27. Saudi and Emirati agencies have also waged a sophisticated online propaganda operation in Haftar’s favor on Arab social media.[10] Secondly, the UN peace process, led by former Lebanese academic and politician Ghassan Salamé, was trending in a direction that would have been less favorable to Haftar, leading to an attempt to hold a UN-backed national conference on the country’s future in April, which Hafter opposed.

Haftar’s victories on the battlefield had earned him a seat at the table in various bilateral and multilateral peacemaking fora, including several direct and proximity talks with Serraj hosted by France and the UAE. But Haftar’s refusal to accept anything less than total and unrestricted control over all armed forces has been a nonstarter for many Libyans who fear a slippery slope to military rule. Having reached an impasse with Serraj and Haftar, Salamé attempted to marginalize and shame Libya’s myriad armed spoilers and implacable transitional leaders by organizing a large-scale national conference so as to solicit alternative opinions on the country’s future from Libyan civil society broadly defined. Haftar’s April offensive on Tripoli made it impossible for the United Nations to hold this meeting. By the end of May, Haftar’s siege on Tripoli, according to the World Health Organization, had caused 562 deaths, nearly 3,000 other casualties and tens of thousands of internally displaced persons.

The official reason for Haftar’s attack on Tripoli is to purge the capital of “terrorists.” By this, LNA discourse—squarely aimed at actual and potential patrons in Cairo, Riyadh, Amman, Dubai, Moscow and Washington—is referencing the allegedly Islamist militias that have increasingly ruled over Tripoli since the 2014 collapse of the transitional process. Yet, to describe Tripoli’s militias as Islamist is about as accurate as describing Haftar’s forces as secular since both coalitions represent an amalgam of political and social orientations.

The real threat posed by Tripoli’s militias is their direct and indirect influence over the economic and political levers of power that come with controlling the capital. At the end of 2011, Tripoli’s militias were highly fragmented and competed with occupying militias from cities like Misrata, Zintan and Tarhuna to dominate the capital’s infrastructural resources. Recent years, however, have seen Tripoli-based militias coalesce into larger armed formations, some of which have been deputized as official security, military and naval forces. Emerging out of a variety of backgrounds—from neighborhood protection gangs to Islamist networks dating back to the failed jihad against Qaddafi in the 1990s—these militias have become an important element of the now official security forces backing Serraj’s leadership. Critics, however, allege that Serraj is just as much their prisoner as their enabler.[11]

Some of these militias are also aiding the extension of Europe’s borders into Africa, further illustrating the multiple and contradictory nature of globalized interventions. Bilateral and multilateral EU efforts to stem the flow of seaborn migration from Libyan shores have engaged local militias to run detention centers and to act as a coast guard. In the case of the former, it is now clear that these overcrowded centers have not only become spaces of disease and inhumanity, but also another source of rent for militias at the center of the ongoing Libyan civil war.[12] In the case of the latter, elements of the nascent Libyan coast guard, largely funded by a xenophobic Italian government, are simply human traffickers who have parlayed their smuggling skills and knowledge into something even more valuable: international legitimacy.


Global Sacrifice Zone

Libyan society is often described as uniquely local in its habitus and thus historically opposed to centralized leadership. Observers of the ongoing conflict refer to this tendency to explain the ability of local militias to gain so much power. But, if one looks beyond the headlines, outside of Tripoli and below the level of the country’s top leaders, one finds a different reality—of intercommunal peacemaking, robust civic engagement and development initiatives.[13] These trends raise questions as to why control over the capital of an increasingly fragmented state is considered worth the price in either blood or prestige.

The answer lies in the incentives created by the international “peace process” since 2014. The North Atlantic powers, through their financial control over Libya’s ability to fund its basic governmental functions, have attempted to put constraints on who benefits from oil exports and its revenues. The primary mechanisms of this control are the Tripoli-based National Oil Corporation and the Central Bank of Libya. Indeed, the United States went so far as to dispatch a team of Navy SEALs in 2014 to seize a North Korean oil tanker that had been loaded with crude oil by a rogue Cyrenaican militia then controlling a major export terminal.[14]

But for there to be any oil export revenues, there first has to be oil exports, and this is how Haftar made himself indispensable to the peace process: by seizing control of the country’s major oil extraction, circulation and processing infrastructures. Haftar is thus in the enviable position of being able to strangle the country financially, but he does not have hegemonic control over revenues. That power continues to rest in Serraj’s executive body.

As everyday existence in Libya depends on the Central Bank to facilitate direct cash payments, basic imports and public employment, the real kingmakers in Libya are the North Atlantic powers who control the Central Bank’s ability to receive oil revenues and, once there is a comprehensive peace, the billions in cash reserves currently frozen in foreign banks since the 2011 uprising. These are, of course, the same North Atlantic powers that have legitimated both sides in the ongoing civil war through counterterrorism interventions and anti-migration assistance.

This “shit show” in Libya, as Barack Obama described it in one of his final interviews as president,[15] is in part a consequence of foreign policies pursued by his administration and those of his successor, Donald Trump. In the wake of the disastrous war in Iraq and the 2008 financial collapse, the Obama doctrine was, if anything, an insistence that the continual efforts to regenerate US hegemony in and through the Middle East since the end of the Cold War would now require more indirect and covert forms of intervention. The 2011 NATO-Arab League operation in Libya, the 2016 campaign against the Islamic State in Sirte, and hundreds of ongoing drone strikes by AFRICOM all across Libya represent “successful” tests of this policy only in so far as one could bracket off the general collapse of the Libyan state, which these interventions helped intensify.[16] Even more important was the extent to which this new vision of American empire ruled out the very policy that might have benefitted Libya after the fall of Qaddafi: a UN-led stabilization force.

Since 2015, international peacemaking in Libya has taken a back seat to US counterterrorism and EU anti-migration initiatives, resulting in US, French and Italian security assistance being given to militias on both sides in the ongoing civil war. In this way, UN efforts to resolve the conflict in Libya have not only been held hostage to geopolitical maneuvering at the regional and global level; peace in Libya has in fact been delayed by the domestic politics of advanced capitalist countries struggling to recover from the 2008 financial collapse and the new political forces it unleashed—from Brexit to Trump.

The result, as seen across the region, is that the unmaking of Libya today has been made possible by the violent and internationalized parcelization of Libya’s sovereignty since the 2011 intervention. This parcelization, of course, serves a larger global function. The permanent, though geographically shifting, state of war in the world’s primary oil producing zones is an outgrowth of the way US hegemony (power) and the petroleum-dominated energy systems (profit) of the North Atlantic world have become entirely dependent on conflict and instability in North Africa and the Middle East since the 1970s.[17] The Trump administration’s apparent endorsement of Haftar’s latest assault on Tripoli thus makes sense in a global context where US predominance and North Atlantic capitalism have effectively rendered the Middle East and North Africa as a specific kind of sacrifice zone over the course of the last 50 years. ■



[1] Michelle Nichols, “UN Report Finds Likely Use of Armed Drone in Libya by Haftar or ‘Third Party,’” Reuters, May 8, 2019; Arnaud Delalande, “Remains of Chinese Made Missiles Found in Tripoli Points to Wing Loongs Airstrikes,” AreoHisto, April 29, 2019.

[2] Agence France-Presse, “Libya’s Haftar Forces Say Warplane Downed Near Tripoli,” May 7, 2019.

[3] Uppsala Conflict Data Program, “Libya” (accessed May 22, 2019).

[4] For background see Jacob Mundy, Libya (Medford, MA: Polity, 2018).

[5] To borrow a term from Perry Anderson, Lineages of the Absolutist State (New York: Verso, 1974).

[6] Arnaude Delalande, “Erik Prince’s Mercenaries are Bombing Libya: For-Profit Combat Pilots Fly Emirati Air Tractors,” War is Boring, January 14, 2017.

[7] International Crisis Group, “Of Tanks and Banks: Stopping a Dangerous Escalation in Libya,” May 20, 2019.

[8] International Crisis Group, “Addressing the Rise of Libya’s Madkhali-Salafis,” April 25, 2019.

[9] Mustafa Fetouri, “Why are Libyans Not Celebrating the Anniversary of the Revolution?,” Middle East Monitor, February 21, 2019.

[10] Jared Malsin and Summer Said, “Saudi Arabia Promised Support to Libyan Warlord in Push to Seize Tripoli,” Wall Street Journal, April 12, 2019; Centro Studi Internazionali, “Information Warfare in Libya: The Online Advance of Khalifa Haftar,” May 2, 2019.

[11] Tim Eaton, Libya’s War Economy: Predation, Profiteering and State Weakness (London: Chatham House/The Royal Institute of International Affairs, 2018); Wolfram Lacher, Tripoli’s Militia Cartel: How Ill-Conceived Stabilisation Blocks Political Progress, and Risks Renewed War (Berlin: Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, 2018).

[12] Human Rights Watch, “No Escape From Hell: EU Policies Contribute to Abuse of Migrants in Libya,” January 21, 2019.

[13] Amal Obeidi, Local Reconciliation in Libya: An Exploratory Study on Traditional Reconciliation Processes and Mechanisms Since 2011 (New York, NY: UN Peacebuilding Fund, 2018); Tarek Megerisi, Order From Chaos: Stablizing Libya the Local Way (European Council on Foreign Relations, 2018).

[14] International Crisis Group, “The Prize: Fighting for Libya’s Energy Wealth,” December 3, 2015.

[15] Jeffrey Goldberg, “The Obama Doctrine,” The Atlantic, April 2016.

[16] Nick Turse, Henrik Moltke, Alice Speri, “Secret War: The US Has Conducted 550 Drone Strikes in Libya Since 2011—More Than in Somalia, Yemen, or Pakistan,” The Intercept, June 21, 2018.

[17] Shimshon Bichler and Jonathan Nitzan, “Arms and Oil in the Middle East: A Biography of Research,” Rethinking Marxism 30/3 (2018); Timothy Mitchell, Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil (New York, NY: Verso, 2011).


How to cite this article:

Jacob Mundy "The Globalized Unmaking of the Libyan State," Middle East Report 290 (Spring 2019).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


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