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Fragmented Libya is a hot spot for many emerging threats

A United Nations car is parked outside the offices of eastern Libya's reconstruction fund in Benghazi. (AFP)
A United Nations car is parked outside the offices of eastern Libya's reconstruction fund in Benghazi. (AFP)
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10 Jun 2024 02:06:58 GMT9
10 Jun 2024 02:06:58 GMT9

The southern Mediterranean shores are fast becoming a permanent theater for worsening geopolitical tensions and their cumulative impacts on human suffering, especially with Libya’s dual crises of arms trafficking and migration.

This volatile mix, worsened by the country’s protracted political deadlock, has come to reflect the broader security risks facing North Africa, the Sahel, southern Europe, and, by extension, the US.

Historically, the post-2011 destabilization of Libya brought about an alarming proliferation of small arms and light weapons. The raiding of a massive state military arsenal, once among the biggest in the region, led to weapons ranging from pistols to man-portable air defense systems falling into the hands of non-state actors. This proliferation has been linked directly to the enhanced operational capacities of various armed groups, notably impacting conflict dynamics in the Sahel and Sinai. For instance, an influx of firearms and munitions allowed Mali’s insurgent factions to increase the intensity of their attacks on state forces, complicating peacekeeping efforts there and, ultimately, leading to an unceremonious French exit from the region.

Recent revelations of Russian military deliveries to Tobruk, defying a decade-old UN arms embargo, are a stark reminder of the surge in illicit activities that continue to thrive in a fractured state. The brazen act signified Moscow’s escalating involvement, as well as the impotence of international resolve. An embargo, long-declared “totally ineffective” by a UN panel, has consistently failed to stem the flow of arms, sparking new conflicts and inflaming existing ones, as well as empowering warlords such as Khalifa Haftar. His control over eastern Libya, bolstered by external support, has essentially “green-lit” wide-ranging transnational criminality and created new, complex risks that continue to fester as the world’s attention remains fixed elsewhere.

The influx of weaponry worsens an already tenuous security situation across the region. Libya, with its strategic location and porous borders, now functions as a near-permanent hub for trafficking in arms, which feeds conflicts in neighboring countries, such as Sudan, and significantly contributes to the Sahel’s endless turmoil. Following the end of large-scale skirmishes, Libya remains diced up among countless well-armed groups. Not only do they blur the lines between state and non-state actors, they also leverage their military capacities to engage in, and profit from, Libya’s trafficking economies. This fragmentation and militarization are now potent catalysts for derailing the country’s fragile political processes and resisting counter-trafficking initiatives.

Moreover, the proliferation of arms funds the operations of extremist groups and criminal networks that are deeply embedded in the lucrative smuggling routes crisscrossing North Africa. The ease with which these groups acquire military-grade weaponry is shocking, to say the least — given the impromptu markets for arms on social media, where transactions are openly facilitated. Early this year, for example, munitions ranging from hand grenades to anti-aircraft cannons were being advertised on forums by militants, with some sellers claiming that the origins of some of their lethal wares to be as far away as the Czech Republic, hinting at the transnational contours of Libya’s descent into an open market for the world’s small arms. It not only further jeopardizes Libya’s already troubled political landscape, but also heightens the risk of dangerous spillovers and cross-border violence, hampering local and international efforts even to gauge the scope of this crisis.

The influx of weaponry worsens an already tenuous security situation across the region.

Hafed Al-Ghwell

Another growing worry, especially in Brussels and, soon, Washington, is the intersection of small arms proliferation with sprawling human trafficking operations in Libya, which not only violates human rights but also indirectly contributes to the destabilization of both transit and destination countries. Moreover, the black market for arms also provides a significant revenue stream that facilitates the trafficking of contraband and illicit substances, including drugs such as Captagon, dubbed “the poor man’s cocaine.” This drug has fueled what remains an enduring crisis across the Arab world, disproportionately affecting its most prolific users — the region’s youth.

The situation in Libya, serving as a hub for such extensive networks, evidently engenders regional instability and compounds challenges facing local and international stakeholders in their quest to bolster the country’s security, governance, and development. The EU’s Operation Irini, launched in 2020 to enforce the arms embargo and stem the flow of weapons, can hardly be called a success. High-profile seizures, including the interception of almost 150 armored vehicles, for instance, hint at the scale of the challenge. However, the operation’s focus on larger shipments neglects the smaller, yet equally lethal, consignments of arms and ammunition that continue to slip through to cause havoc elsewhere or to fund it.

Europe’s fragmented and often contradictory approach to Libya has only compounded the problem. The lack of a coherent strategy, coupled with individual member states’ pursuit of narrow interests, has sustained a lawless environment that benefits malign actors. Take, for instance, the EU’s reliance on Libyan factions to curb migrant flows, often through dubious deals with local militias. These not only failed to address the root causes, but also legitimized and empowered groups that now benefit both from Brussels’ “generosity” and keeping those very same trafficking routes operational.

Benghazi has become a new source of worries for the US. The city, controlled by Haftar and his Libyan National Army, is witnessing a concerning increase in chartered flights to Nicaragua, intended to facilitate the illicit passage of migrants to the US, by crossing multiple countries, enabled by criminal networks and the tacit approval of involved states. This route has been operational since 2021, with more than 1,000 charter flights landing in Nicaragua, predominantly from regions linked to conflict or economic hardship.

The absence in Libya of a unified government and stable institutions creates a fertile ground for the proliferation of illicit economies and further external meddling. Without concerted efforts to forge an “acceptable” settlement, any attempt to curb trafficking in arms or manage migration will be akin to treating the symptoms rather than the disease. Key stakeholders must acknowledge that a durable solution lies in robust support for mediation efforts and credible roadmaps, which should prioritize strengthening what remains of Libya’s still-functioning institutions of governance.

  • Hafed Al-Ghwell is a senior fellow and executive director of the North Africa Initiative at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC. X: @HafedAlGhwell
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