No End in Sight: Libya’s Consolidated Criminal Networks

Summary: the Libyan people have been abandoned to political and military elites that control the country with Mafia-style fiefdoms; their success in entrenching themselves in the state apparatus and in UN-sponsored peace talks means that unless bold initiatives are undertaken, the country’s future remains bleak.

We thank Roberta Maggi, North Africa project officer at the Middle East and North Africa Division, Geneva Centre for Security Sector Governance (DCAF), Andrea Cellino DCAF’s Head of the North Africa Desk and Karim Mezran director of the North Africa Initiative and resident senior fellow with the Rafik Hariri Center and Middle East Programs at the Atlantic Council for today’s newsletter.

Three years on from the end of its latest violent civil war, Libya’s political elites have once again led the country down a path of executive bifurcation, fuelling instability and violence. Last summer, young Libyans took to the streets cross-country in a show of raw popular frustration, in a country with two governments yet no one to govern it. As Libya stumbles into another year without the prospect of elections in sight, the need for people-centred solutions to the population’s suffering should be at the forefront of everyone’s concerns. Yet, Libya’s political and security elites (and their foreign backers) continue benefitting from the country’s ongoing deep divides – entrenching themselves, their money and their political aspirations into all internal and external processes aimed to put an end to the status quo and bring the country towards any semblance of transition. Reminiscent of global cases of mafia ethos and rule over communities, a prevalent sense that those who shall not be named and their criminal ways are now a political reality that must be dealt with silently underpins all discussions surrounding Libya’s future. This article aims to present an overview of the key trends and dynamics to watch and offer some recommendations towards restoring a social contract that benefits the Libyan population, as opposed to its wealthy and-or armed elites.

Since the revolution, what’s left of the Libyan state has been taken over by a panoply of armed groups benefitting from a traditionally Weberian sovereignty over their fiefdoms. Most key armed groups commanders have since taken up positions within the state apparatus, progressively deriving political legitimacy from their institutional affiliations and securing roles for their rank and file. With institutional affiliations and state salaries came an increase in their individual influence – making them difficult for weak state structures to oversee, control and hold accountable. It is now estimated that almost one in five Libyans are drawing a salary from the state, including in their capacity as members of an armed group. Yet, the state’s been often unable to pay salaries for months at a time, drawing people away from the golden standard of state employment towards the star-glazed life of the militiaman. This vicious cycle of rushing towards the gold is very emblematic of armed groups’ elite commanders, more focused on mobilising financial resources than fighting, and mobilising politically to ensure their continued relevance in the political sphere.

Libya militia
As armed groups are increasingly built into the political and military tracks of the UN-led peace process, Libya’s future looks increasingly like that of a mafia-run state

Yet, it’s perhaps their newfound political legitimacy that could be the armed groups’ downfall as organised crime networks. Their increased dependence on the deep state for the fulfilment of their political aspirations is likely to entail a progressive decline in social legitimacy – the Libyan population being fully disenchanted with its entire political class. As armed group representatives are increasingly built into both the political and military tracks of the UN-led peace process, the country’s future looks increasingly like that of a mafia-run state, a sanctuary for criminal interests to flourish unchecked. The international community would need to step in assertively to have any hope of preventing this scenario and realising the true democratic aspirations of the Libyan population. Yet, this would require a paradigm change, possibly the adoption of a policing-like behaviour rather than the current acceptance of armed groups’ inclusion in international political negotiations. Not least would be the active weaponization of many of these actors’ craving for both political and social legitimacy, as well as the power of communities and social structures as forms of informal oversight and de facto law enforcement.

Sadly, this paradigm shift is not one which can be expected in the short term. While the appointment of UN Envoy Abdoulaye Bathily came at a moment of opportunity for Libya, the roadmap presented at the UN Security Council in February 2023 centred around the creation of a support body for the holding of elections fails to embody the stronger hand that would have been needed for the situation to truly change in Libya. Rather, his mandate is likely to remain burdened by legacies of conflicts that were undealt with, paying little attention to justice, restitution, and the broader Libyan public, which is growing impoverished, fatigued, and apathetic, and has come to distrust the UN mission. Given the Libyan conflict’s spoilers’ track record with foreign (self-interested) sponsors, even-handedly considering all actors as potential spoilers and isolating them from the design of any UN-led process is the only way out of the current protracted vacuum. But, as this is unlikely under the new roadmap, it is important to focus efforts on understanding what parts of the new roadmap can be leveraged and insulated as much as possible from such spoilers.

Should political legitimacy fail to protect criminal networks’ coveted positions of power and territory, financial security is a key net upon which to fall – which is why they’ve made sure to leverage the shadow economy to their advantage. In a country where the social contract still fundamentally comes down to economic interest, we’re looking at a corruption-prone government capable of spending billions of Libyan dinars with no clear process, checks or balances according to which funds are disbursed. The country has the potential to be an economic hub for the whole of North Africa and a bridge to Europe, notably during a global energy crisis. Yet, the governance of the disbursement of state funds has been largely untouched, with over forty billion Libyan dinars in cash moving around the country unchecked. In the East, an Egyptian style of military involvement in the economy, notably through the Military Investment and Public Works Committee, creates dangerous precedents for the worsening of an already precarious economic governance system. What’s more, in the medium to long term, any prospects for infrastructure investments by the National Oil Corporation are now being eyed by criminal networks seeking access to those funds – and, perhaps, their generous share of the country’s oil wealth as a cherry on top of their existing revenue generation mechanisms. Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR), a key narrative trope of the UN and security assistance industry, has no prospects of success against the militias’ “core” management structure, who yield such unimaginable wealth and power that even key private sector positions wouldn’t be attractive enough to trigger a willing change in their path.

This bleak picture is but the tip of the iceberg of the ways in which organised crime of this scale affects prospects for development in Libya. The international community can no longer shy away from ignoring the reality of their modus operandi. Ethical questions should be the front and centre of this discussion: what does it mean to have normalised having a thirteen-year-old boy manning a checkpoint, so drawn to weapons and money? Is substance abuse truly surprising when considering the long-term psychological effects of war and death, forced recruitments into security forces from a young age, and no perspectives for one’s future in any other field? Yet, no end is in sight. Self-interest is still the driving force behind the maintenance of the status quo, with key spoilers blocking any political solution that would see them losing power, influence, wealth, privilege.

There are some avenues for hope, still. For starters, while militias’ management structure will be hard to dismantle with carrots (as opposed to sticks), many of their rank and file could be convinced to reconvert if provided the right avenues for professional development. Investments to develop Libya’s higher education and private sector could be a good way to start; noting once again Libya’s potential as a hub for innovation (especially in the energy sector). Second, a real UN-led focus on justice, reconciliation and accountability should be front and centre. Through the right processes and institutional structures, much could be achieved by way of oversight and checks and balances (not least when it comes to following the money, tracking government spending, and preventing corruption and financial mismanagement). Finally, bolstering the country’s justice sector will be a needed component of prosecution for human rights violations and abuses of the use of force committed by Libya’s armed groups (in their institutional or non- capacity) for their own or external powers’ benefit. Notably important for Europe is the question of Libya’s migrants, detained and tortured in the most inhumane of conditions. While recent events such as Italian PM Giorgia Meloni’s visit are a welcome show of renewed interest and investments, this must not come at the expense of the need to avoid the banalisation of migrants’ situation and prosecute those behind such violations. All in all, the Libyan public’s disenchantment with the UN process, political elites and self-interested militia commanders could be the opportunity the country needs for the public to draft a new social contract that reflects their values and quest for justice and accountability.

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