Confronting failed government and the Islamic State in Libya

The Islamic State has taken advantage of the chaos of 20 months of war in Libya to build a series of bases in the country, expanding its territory and now threatening the country’s oil ports. The United States and its allies now face hard decisions about how to confront the militant group.

Five years after the beginning of the revolution that overthrew the regime of Muammar Gadhafi, Libya is divided by rival regimes in Tripoli and Tobruk, and engaged in a civil war that has wrecked the economy and displaced half a million of the country’s population of six million. Twenty months of war have left front lines largely static, however, and a November 2015 ceasefire substantially ended fighting in western Libya. Nevertheless, the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) has taken advantage of the chaos to build a series of bases in the country, expanding its territory and attracting growing numbers of recruits. In December the UN brokered the formation of a unity government, the Government of National Accord, hoping this would end the civil war and free state or militia forces to counter ISIS. However, both the Islamist-led Tripoli regime and the elected parliament in Tobruk have rejected the unity government, whose members are obliged to live in exile in Tunisia.

The United States and its allies are facing hard decisions about how to confront ISIS in Libya, which is growing rapidly and is now threatening the country’s oil ports. The US and others acknowledge that airstrikes alone will not defeat ISIS. With negotiations stalled, Washington could wait in the hope a unity government will be formed, or ramp up unilateral military action on ISIS. As of mid-February, the Obama administration appeared to be tilting cautiously towards the latter course of action.

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