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Three Reasons Why Libya Matters: Oil, Haftar, and Terrorism

Three Reasons Why Libya Matters: Oil, Haftar, and Terrorism

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1. Oil and Corruption:

Across Libya, militias like the Petroleum Defense Guard are currently occupying the country’s key ports and oil fields. The Petroleum Defense Guard alone is estimated to control 17,000 fighters, or almost half the number of soldiers that Libya’s national army possesses. The militias, with large numbers of heavily-armed troops, are preventing the government from retaking the port installations and oil fields. They refuse to allow the exportation of oil until the central government in Tripoli agrees to engage in power and revenue-sharing agreements with local groups.

Oil production is currently stalled at a meager 160,000 barrels, much lower than its former height under Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. In March, one militia even attempted to sell oil illegally to North Korean smugglers to finance itself as negotiations continue.

Map of Libya’s Oil Fields and Exporting Ports

These groups worry that the new government in Tripoli will continue the corrupt practices of the previous Gaddafi regime, using financial and administrative instruments to embezzle the vast majority of oil revenues and shift them out of the country. In a recent study, Global Financial Integrity, a financial transparency think-tank, estimates that over 200 billion dollars left Libya from 1980-2007. Among all African countries, Libya was second only to Nigeria in the amount of capital outflows.

The new Libyan government must not be allowed to perpetuate the inequities of the past, but the longer that both sides fail to reconcile, the greater the risk of the country sliding into chaos becomes. Libya needs oil revenues to rebuild its infrastructure, provide social services, and strengthen its institutions. Until oil exportation resumes, either through government force or the agreements that the militias demand, Libya will remain a haven for militaristic radicals and opportunists of all stripes.

2. General Haftar:

During the 1960s and 70s, General Khalifa Haftar fought alongside Muammar Gaddafi and, in the early 1980s, served as a key figure in the country’s war against its southern neighbor Chad. After a falling out with Gaddafi, Haftar left the country and spent the following decades in the United States. Later, during the 2011 NATO Action against Gaddafi’s Libya, Haftar returned, but failed to assume a prominent role in the post-revolutionary government. In recent months, Haftar has tapped into the indignation of Libya’s population at the inability of the central government to reconcile with the militias and its perceived tilt toward Islamism, titling his resistance movement “Operation Dignity (Karaama).”

"Operation Dignity" Banner

In February, Libyan officials charged Haftar with trying to launch a coup against the government, but he fled to his native Eastern Libya before he could be arrested. Since that time, Haftar has been building support among many of the same groups who have been occupying Libya’s oil fields and ports. This coalition consists of “army officers, tribal militiamen, and federalists seeking regional autonomy.”

More recently, on May 16, in what some have termed the 2014 Libyan Uprising, Haftar’s forces attacked bases occupied by Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist organizations in Benghazi by using land and air forces, leaving 70 people dead. Two days later, militias allied with Haftar’s coalition raided the parliament building of the General National Congress in Tripoli.While Haftar’s true motivations and intentions are still unclear, the U.S. must take note of his actions and consider how to resolve the conflict between Haftar’s faction and the government.

3. Islamism and Terrorist Activity:

The 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi is only one example of the terror, frustration, and lawlessness that Libyan citizens have to confront daily. Libya’s current instability provides a climate in which groups such as Ansar al-Sharia, the Islamist group believed to be responsible for the attack and the death of Ambassador Stevens, can operate with impunity and endanger both the stability of the region and the lives of American citizens.

What Is To Be Done:

The Port of Benghazi

                                                          The Port of Benghazi

The Libyan government has recently announced that elections, postponed since February, will finally be held in June, but the political unrest that has occurred during the past few months continues to escalate. Foreign governments are taking notice of this conflict. U.K. prime-minister David Cameron, who played a vital role in the 2011 NATO Action, has appointed a special envoy to Libya in order to tackle the current crisis. On May 18, in an anticipatory move, Tunisia sent 5,000 troops to its common border with Libya.

The United States has deployed 1,000 marines and the USS Bataan, which will arrive in a few days. The U.S. State Department has announced that any American citizens currently in Libya should leave the country immediately and Secretary of State John Kerry has asked David Satterfield, a senior diplomat, to travel to Libya as the U.S.’s envoy.

Going forward, the U.S. must work with its allies both outside and within Libya to end the factional infighting and culture of corruption that menace the country.


  1. […] The Sinai has also served as a conduit for weapons that militants have acquired from Gaddafi’s stockpiles during the Libyan Revolution into Gaza and beyond. Egypt’s border with Libya continues to be a source of anxiety for Egyptian authorities who fear further arms smuggling and spillover from fierce fighting between oil militias, islamists, and the rogue Libyan General Khalifa Haftar. […]

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