14 countries have suffered terrorist attacks linked to Libyan Islamists since 2011. The legacy of the Nato overthrowal of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi has harrowed the lives of Europeans and Africans, yet making these leaders accountable for their decision to go to war is as distant as ever.
The 2011 conflict, in which Nato worked alongside Islamist forces on the ground to remove Gaddafi, produced an ungoverned vaccuum in Libya and left a country awash with weapons – ideal for terrorist groups to thrive.
Syria suffered the brunt of it right away. After civil war broke out there in early 2011, Libya became a facilitation and training hub for more than 3,000 fighters on their way to Syria, many of whom joined al-Qaeda splinter group Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State-affiliated Katibat al-Battar al-Libi (KBL) – both founded by militants from Libya.
In Libya itself, a rebranding of existing al-Qaeda-linked groups in the north-eastern area of Derna produced Islamic State’s first official branch in the country in mid-2014, incorporating members of the KBL. During 2015, IS Libya conducted car bombings and beheadings and established territorial control and governance over parts of Derna and Benghazi in the east and Sabratha in the west. It also became the sole governing body in the north-central city of Sirte, with over 5,000 fighters occupying the city. By late 2016, the group was finally defeated in the region and withdrew to the desert areas south of Sirte, continuing low-level attacks.
In the last two years, the group revived as a formidable insurgent force and is again waging high-profile attacks on state institutions and conducting regular hit-and-run operations in the southwestern desert. Last September, UN Special Representative to Libya Ghassan Salame told the UN Security Council that the IS ‘presence and operations in Libya are only spreading’. After the fall of Gaddafi, IS Libya training camps mushroomed, especially near Sabratha, all of which have been linked to a series of terrorist attacks and plots.
‘Most of the blood spilled in Europe in the more spectacular attacks, using guns and bombs, really all began at the time when Katibat al-Battar went back to Libya,’ Cameron Colquhoun, a former counterterrorism analyst for the UK government, told The New York Times. ‘That is where the threat trajectory to Europe began – when these men returned to Libya and had breathing space.’
Salman Abedi, who slaughtered 22 tween pop fans at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester in 2017, met with members of the Katibat al-Battar al-Libi, a faction of IS, several times in Sabratha, where he attended Jihadist boot camp. Other notable members of the KBL were Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the ringleader of the 2015 Paris Bataclan slaughter, which killed 130 people, and the militants involved in the Verviers plot to attack Belgium in 2015.
The perpetrator of the 2016 Berlin truck attack, which left 12 people dead, also had contacts with Libyans linked to IS. Likewise in Italy various terrorist activity has been linked to IS Libya, including the attack on the Bardo museum in Tunis in 2015, which killed 22 people.
Tunisia suffered its deadliest terrorist attack in 2015 when a 23-year-old Tunisian armed with a machine gun mowed down 38 tourists at a beach hotel in the resort of Port El Kantaoui. The perpetrator was reportedly an adherent of IS and, like Manchester bomber Salman Abedi, had been trained in the camp complex at Sabratha from where the attack was staged.
Egypt has also been greatly affected by terrorism taking root in post-Gaddafi Libya. IS have directed the activities of Wilayat Sinai, the terrorist group formerly known as Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, which has carried out several deadly attacks in Egypt. Descending into disorder after the war, the ungoverned Western Desert predictably became a corridor for the smuggling of weapons and operatives on their way to the Sinai. Egypt conducted air strikes against militant camps in Libya in 2017 retaliating the killing of 29 Coptic Christians near Cairo.
Libya has also become a hub for jihadist networks stretching southwards into the Sahel. The uprising opened a flow of weapons into northern Mali, pouring gasoline over an ethno-tribal conflict that has been on and off since the 1960s. By 2012, local allies of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) had seized the northern Mali towns of Gao, Kidal and the historic Timbuktu.
After France intervened in Mali, the ongoing lack of governance in Libya precipitated several groups to relocate there, including both AQIM and its offshoot, Al-Mourabitoun. With Libya as its rear base, Al-Mourabitoun was behind the attack on the Amenas hydrocarbon complex in eastern Algeria in January 2013, which left 40 foreign workers dead; the gun attack on the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako, Mali in November 2015, which killed 22 people; and for the attack on Hotel Splendid in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, which killed 20 people in January 2016.
Five years on, the fallout from Libya had spread even wider. By 2016, US officials reported signs that Boko Haram, responsible for numerous gruesome attacks and kidnappings across Nigeria, were sending fighters to join IS in Libya, and that there was increased cooperation between the two groups. The International Crisis Group notes that it was the arrival of weapons and expertise from Libya and the Sahel that enabled Boko Haram to fashion the insurgency that plagues the North of Nigeria today. There have even been claims that Boko Haram now effectively operate as an affiliate of IS Libya.
In addition to these 14 countries, fighters from several other states have joined IS militants in Libya in recent years. Indeed, it is estimated that almost 80% of IS membership in Libya is foreign, including from countries such as Kenya, Chad, Senegal and Sudan. It is feared that many of these now-skilled fighters will return to their own countries after receiving training, and if so it’s likely that we have not seen the last of this episode of violence. Instead, it has the potential to penetrate further into Africa and the Middle-East.
The true extent of the fallout from the Libya war is remarkable: it has spurred terrorism in Europe, Syria, North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa. Islamic State, although now nearly defeated in Syria and Iraq, is still going strong elsewhere. Indeed, while Western leaders ostensibly seek to defeat terrorism militarily, their disastrous foreign policy choices have undoubtedly fomented it in multiple countries.