The Internet posting of a video showing the beheading of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians in Libya by the Islamic State brought new attention to the chaos that has enveloped that country in the three years since a NATO air campaign helped rebels overthrow the government of Moammar Gadhafi. These questions and answers help explain the turmoil taking place.
Q. Who controls Libya?
A. Since Gadhafi’s fall, hundreds of armed groups across Libya have coalesced under two rival governments and their military alliances, based in Tripoli in the west, and in Tobruk to the east.
The current chaos dates to elections last June, when Libyan voters rejected the Islamist candidates who had made up the previous government. A month later, a newly formed coalition called Libya Dawn, led by the militia from Misrata and their mostly Islamist allies, attacked the Tripoli international airport and ejected fighters there who were from the city of Zintan. With the Zintan fighters expelled from Tripoli, the Libya Dawn forces reinstalled the old government, now known as the General National Congress. It’s headed is Prime Minister Omar al Hassi.
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The winners of the elections, known as the House of Representatives (HOR) and considered the more liberal of the two groups, fled with Prime Minister Abdullah al Thinni and his cabinet to Tobruk. They are allied with Gen. Khalifa Hifter, a former Gadhafi-era general and onetime U.S. resident, and his “Operation Dignity” military campaign.
A ruling in November 2014 by Libya’s Supreme Court in Tripoli declared the Tobruk-based HOR illegal and unconstitutional, but has been ignored by the al Thinni government and its backers, which include the United States and the European Union.
Q. What are the rival governments fighting about?
A. In addition to control of the lucrative oil sector, the two sides have different ideologies, though dividing them strictly as Islamist versus secular ignores that both alliances harbor a diverse, incongruous mix of tribal groups fighting for their own local interests.
Libya Dawn includes conservative Misratan fighters who championed the 2011 revolution, the Muslim Brotherhood, Berber militiamen who celebrate their own language and culture, as well as Islamist extremists, including Ansar al Shariah, the group widely blamed for the burning of the U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.
The opposing Operation Dignity alliance is built upon Libya’s old national army, revolutionary militia from tribes like the Zintan, as well as some former regime tribal allies. The Libya Dawn government condemns all its adversaries as “pro-Gadhafi loyalists” while the Operation Dignity alliance refers to their adversaries as “Islamist extremists.”
Q. Which government does the international community support?
A. Libya Dawn’s international support has been largely limited to Turkey and Qatar. The U.S., EU, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have all recognized the Tobruk government, to varying degrees. France is loudly opposed to the Libyan Dawn government, has sent troops to Libya’s southern border and has just sold $5.9 billion dollars worth of fighter jets to Egypt, which bombed the Libyan city of Derna last week in retaliation for the beheading of the Coptic Christians.
The United Nations has sent an envoy, Bernardino Leon, to try to broker a peace agreement between the two factions.
Q.- What is the role of Gen. Hifter?
A. Khalifa Hifter was a military commander in Gadhafi’s government who defected in the 1980s and long lived in northern Virginia, where he claims to have worked for the CIA. He returned to Libya in 2011 and was reportedly expected to head the creation of a new army after Gadhafi’s fall. That, however, did not happen. He launched Operation Dignity in Benghazi in May last year, targeting Ansar al Shariah and the February 17 Martyr’s Brigade, another militia. He’s since expanded his campaign to western Libya and the oil rich Sirte basin. He’s suspected of harboring presidential ambitions and has ordered the bombing of controversial targets like airports in Misrata and Tripoli used for a mix of civilian and military flights.
Q. How has the violence affected Libyan lives?
The battle for power and assets in Libya stretches from the west of Tripoli to the oil-rich Sirte Basin, to the war-ravaged city of Benghazi, as well as in the southern Sahara, where a proxy battle is being waged in the oasis town of Ubari, near the large Sharara oil field.
Last year the U.N. estimated that 400,000 Libyans had fled their homes, while the unofficial website, Libya Body Count, recorded 2,825 people killed in the fighting. Local medics in Benghazi estimated 600 people were killed in the last three months, and parts of the city are reduced to ruins, with no electricity, running water and little food. Refugees struggle to pay soaring rents in nearby towns.
Since most of Libya’s oil fields, refineries and shipping terminals are now shut down, Libya is now producing an estimated 160,000 barrels per day, down from a 1.6 million peak just after Gadhafi’s fall. With alarmingly dwindling revenues and overseas money reserves tied up, government services are deteriorating, and Libyans clamor for overdue wages in cash-poor banks. There are mounting security threats and the country is cut off from its neighboring countries with closed borders and few international flights. Nearly all diplomatic missions are closed as are almost all of Tripoli’s luxury hotels. Late night explosions and gunfire are common in the capital.
Q. What is the regional security fallout?
Libya’s long and porous borders with Egypt, Sudan, Chad, Niger, Algeria, Tunisia and the Mediterranean Sea are barely policed. An estimated 170,000 refugees have landed or were rescued and brought to Italy over the past 14 months. France and the United States have warned that extremist fighters from other nations cross easily into the country to join extremist groups in Derna, Benghazi and Sirte.
Q. How did the Islamic State gain a foothold in Libya?
Fighters with the hardline Shura Council for the Youth of Islam in the eastern town of Derna, who first declared their allegiance to Islamic State Abu Bakr al Baghdadi last October, are the only ones officially recognized as part of the group that rules a third of Iraq and Syria. But Islamic State followers are said to be in Benghazi, and most recently, have taken over buildings in Sirte.
Libya analysts believe young local recruits are shifting to the Islamic State from al Qaida-linked groups such Ansar al Shariah and an older generation of fighters who belonged to Libyan Fighting Group, which fought in Afghanistan and were jailed in large numbers by Gadhafi. The Tripoli government, accused of sponsoring extremism by Operation Dignity, downplays the Islamic State tthreat.
The Islamic State has claimed a January attack on Tripoli’s downtown luxury hotel, the Corinthian, which left 11 dead, the brutal mass beheading of the 21 Egyptian Copts, and most recently, a multi-pronged suicide attack that killed at least 45 people in the town al Qubbah in Libya’s east.