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Non-international armed conflicts in Libya

Conflict type: Non-international armed conflict

Since 2014, there have been multiple and overlapping non-international armed conflicts in Libya between armed groups supporting competing government institutions and Islamist armed groups.

There are multiple and overlapping non-international armed conflicts in Libya involving a myriad of armed groups.

  • By mid-2014, new non-international armed conflicts emerged in Libya, broadly along three lines: the self-declared Libyan National Army and affiliated groups loyal to General Haftar which supported the House of Representatives; Libya Dawn supporting the General National Congress; and Islamist groups, most notably Ansar al-Sharia.
  • In 2015, groups pledging allegiance to the Islamic State group appeared in Libya gaining control over Derna and Sirte.
  • Upon request of the United Nations backed government, the United States launched a sustained aircampaign against the Islamic State group in August 2016, which ended in January 2017. 

Two criteria need to be assessed in order to answer the question whether a situation of armed violence amounts to a non-international armed conflict.

  • First, the level of armed violence must reach a certain degree of intensity that goes beyond internal disturbances and tensions.
  • Second, in every non-international armed conflict, at least one side to the conflict must be a non-state armed group which must exhibit a certain level of organization in order to qualify as a party to the non-international armed conflict. Government forces are presumed to satisfy the criteria of organization. For further information, see 'non-international armed conflict' in our classification section.

Libya has been plagued by political unrest and armed violence with competing legislative bodies, divided State security forces and multiple armed rebel groups since the ouster of the Gadhafi regime in 2011. 

In August 2012, the National Transitional Council handed political control to the elected General National Congress (GNC). After contested elections, a new legislative body, the House of Representatives (HoR) replaced the General National Congress in August 2014. Yet, part of the General National Congress, supported by armed militia, reconstituted itself as a rival government in Tripoli.

Armed clashes between armed groups supporting the outgoing General National Congress and the House of Representatives escalated during 2014. In addition, Islamist groups, most notably Ansar al-Sharia and the Libyan Islamic State group, took advantage of the security situation and gained control over several cities, including Benghazi and Sirte. From mid-2014 onwards, multiple and overlapping non-international conflicts have been taking place in Libya.

Backed by the United Nations, the Libyan Political Agreement of December 2015 created the Presidency Council. Under the Agreement, the Presidency Council was to form a Government of National Accord, to be endorsed by the House of Representatives. In December 2015, the United Nations Security Council recognized the Government of National Accord 'as the sole legitimate government of Libya' and called upon Member States 'to cease support to and official contact with parallel institutions that claim to be the legitimate authority but are outside the Agreement'. See Security Council resolution 2259 (2015), UN doc S/RES/2259 (2015), 23 December 2015, § 3 and § 5; see also Security Council resolution 2376 (2017), UN doc S/RES/2376 (2017), 14 September 2017.

However, the House of Representatives did not endorse the Government of National Accord proposed by the Presidency Council. After the arrival of the Presidency Council in Tripoli in March 2016, Libya thus had three competing governments: the House of Representatives, the UN-backed Government of National Accord, and the National Salvation government of the General National Congress.  For an overview of these developments in 2016 and 2017, see Report of the Secretary-General of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya, UN doc S/2016/1011, 1 December 2016;  Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on the Situation of Human Rights in Libya, Including on the Effectiveness of Technical Assistance and Capacity-Building Measures Received by the Government of Libya, UN doc A/HRC/34/42, 13 January 2017. H. al-Khoei, E. Geranmayeh and M. Toaldo, After Isis. How to Win the Peace in Iraq and Libya, Policy Brief, European Council on Foreign Relations; S. Arraf, Libya: A Short Guide to the Conflict. The War Report 2017, Geneva Academy.   In September 2017, the United Nations proposed a new action plan with amendments to the 2015 Political Agreement. J. Irish, 'Unveiling New Libya Plan, U.N. Sees Opportunity for Peace', Reuters, 20 September 2017. The House of Representatives approved the amendments in November 2017. 'Members of Libyan Parliament Signal Backing for U.N. Transition Proposal', Reuters, 21 November 2017. Each rival government is allied with different armed groups:

Intensity of the violence

Various indicative factors are used to assess whether a given situation has met the required intensity threshold, such as the number, duration, and intensity of individual confrontations; the types of weapons and military equipment used; the number of persons and types of forces participating in the fighting; the number of casualties; the extent of material destruction; the number of civilians fleeing; and the involvement of the United Nations Security Council. For further information, see 'non-international armed conflict - intensity of violence' in our classification section.

In mid May 2014, the heaviest fighting since the end of the 2011 war broke out in Benghazi. General Khalifa Haftar, a commander during the Libyan uprising, launched an operation against an alliance of Islamist armed groups, including Ansar al-Sharia, using helicopters, fighter jets and ground forces. Militias aligned with the General National Congress deployed in Tripoli. C. Stephen, ‘Heavy Fighting Breaks Out in Libya as Troops Storm Militias in Benghazi’, The Guardian, 16 May 2014; ‘Rogue General’s Forces Attack Libya Parliament’, Associated Press, 18 May 2014; S. A. Kouddous, ‘In Libya, Fear of All-Out War as Islamist Militias Allied With Parliament Deploy in Capital’, The Washington Post, 22 May 2014. Clashes between the self-declared Libyan National Army and Ansar al-Sharia continued in an around Benghazi throughout June. At the end of July, Ansar al-Sharia declared Benghazi an ‘Islamic Emirate’. A. McGregor, ‘Libya's Ansar al-Shari'a Declares the Islamic Emirate of Benghazi’, Jamestown Foundation, 12 Terrorism Monitor 16 (2014). From mid-July onwards, heavy fighting erupted in Tripoli between Libya Dawn, an alliance of militias supporting the General National Congress, and anti-Islamist militias. Libya Dawn assumed control over Tripoli, including its airport by the end of August. Due to the heavy fighting in Tripoli and Benghazi, the newly elected House of Representatives decided to convene in Tobruk. In October, the House of Representatives formally aligned with General Haftar and his self-declared Libyan National Army. D. A. Kirkpatrick, ‘In Libya, Parliament Convenes Amid Battles’, The New York Times, 4 August 2014. In November 2014, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimated that more than 400,000 had been forced to flee since the outbreak of the violence in May, with over 100,000 fleeing during the past month. A. Rummer, ‘More than 100,000 Libyans Flee Fighting Over Past Month’, UNHCR, 14 November 2014.

In light of the intensity and frequency of the armed clashes, the types of weapons and military equipment used and the number of people forced to flee the violence, the intensity threshold was reached by July 2014.

Organization

A series of indicative factors are used to assess whether armed groups exhibit the required degree of organization, such as the existence of a command structure and disciplinary rules and mechanisms, the ability to procure, transport, and distribute arms, the ability to plan, coordinate and carry out military operations, the ability to negotiate and conclude agreements, e.g. cease fire or peace agreements. If the criterion of a minimum organization of the armed group is not fulfilled, there is no non-international armed conflict. For further information, see 'non-international armed conflict - organization' in our classification section.

A myriad of armed groups were active in Libya in 2014. Their fluidity and their shifting allegiance to broader collective alliances and umbrella groups hampers an assessment of the degree of organization of individual groups and the broader collective alliance to which they belong. In its 2015 report, the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights reported that ‘fighters have received little training and do not operate with the appropriate discipline, command and control systems. Those factors have contributed to the indiscriminate nature of the many attacks.’ Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on the Situation of Human Rights in Libya and on Related Technical Support and Capacity Building Needs, UN doc A/HRC/28/51, 12 January 2015. By August 2014, there were at least three different fronts in the armed conflict:  the self-declared Libyan National Army and affiliated groups loyal to General Haftar; Libya Dawn supporting the General National Congress; and Islamist groups, most notably Ansar al-Sharia. Despite the difficulty to assess their degree of organization, all these alliances and their affiliates were able to sustain hostilities over a period of time, had access to heavy weaponry used in fighting, and at different times controlled territory. All these factors are indications that they fulfilled the requisite degree of organization by July 2014.

Since August 2014, the fighting has continued unabated. In addition, new armed groups have emerged, most notably groups pledging allegiance to the Islamic State group in Derna and Sirte. ‘Islamic State militants “seize Sirte airport”’, BBC , 29 May 2015; R. Jawad, ‘How Strong Is Islamic State in Libya’, BBC, 5 February 2015.

The self-declared Libyan National Army and its affiliates remain aligned to the House of Representatives and oppose the new government. During 2017, it extended its territorial control in southern and eastern Libya, notably by seizing Benghazi in July 2017.  A. Al-Warfalli, 'Libya's Eastern Commander Declares Victory in Battle for Benghazi', Reuters, 5 July 2017. For an overview of the developments in 2017, see Report of the Secretary-General on the United Nations Support Mission in Libya, UN doc S/2017/726, 22 August 2017. In Tripoli, frequent clashes tacke place between rival groups supporting or opposing the Government of National Accord.  See for example 'Rival Factions Clash in Libya's Tripoli', Al Jazeera, 27 May 2017; 'Airport in Libya's Capital Shut for Third Day After Clashes', Reuters, 17 January 2018. Libya Dawn disintegrated and a multitude of armed groups operate on a local level. Many armed groups operate mainly on a local level. Broader alliances are plagued by internal rivalries and factionalism. For detailed overview of the key armed players in Syria, see A Quick Guide to Libya’s Main Players, European Council on Foreign Affairs, 2016; S. Arraf, 'Libya: A Short Guide to the Conflict. The War Report 2017', Geneva Academy. 

Foreign interventions

Upon invitation of the United Nations backed Government of National Accord, the United States launched a sustained air operation against the Islamic State group in Libya on 1 August 2016 to drive the group out of its stronghold Sirte and enable the seizure of Sirte by armed groups allied with the Government of National Accord. Previously, the United States had already conducted isolated airstrikes against Islamic State group targets in Libya. S. Ackerman, C. Stepehen, E. MacAskill, ‘Us Launches Airstrikes Against ISIS in Libya’, The Guardian, 1 August 2016. For the question who has the authority to invite a foreign state to use force in case of contested legitimacy, see the Classification section.

The intervention takes place with the consent of Libya and thus does not change the classification of the conflict as non-international. For further information on the relevane of consent, see 'contemporary challenges - relevance of consent' in our classification section. The validity of the consent can be questioned as there are three competing governments in Libya. However, the Government of National Accord is considered the legitimate government of Yemen and thus considered to be capable of providing valid consent. In particular, as described above, the United Nations Security Council recognized the Government of National Accord as the 'sole legitimate government of Libya' and called upon Member States to cease support to and official contact with parallel institutions that claim to be the legitimate authority but are outside the Agreement.' Security Council resolution 2259 (2015), UN doc S/RES/2259 (2015), 23 December 2015, § 3 and 5: see also Security Council resolution 2376 (2017), UN doc S/RES/2376 (2017), 14 September 2017. Although the United States announced an end to its air campaign after the evicition of the Islamic State group from Sirte in December 2016, further airstrikes were carried out in January 2017. United State Africa Command, AFRICOM Concludes Operation Odyssey Lightning, 20 December 2016; E. Schmitt and M. R. Gordon, ‘U.S. Bombs ISIS Camps in Libya’, The New York Times, 19 January 2017. For detailed information on United States’ airstrikes in Libya, see the information collected by Airwars, a non-profit organization that tracks international air strikes against the Islamic State group.

No more airstrikes were carried out until September and November 2017 when the United States carried out a series of precision airstrikes against the Islamic State group. According to the United States, the strikes were carried out in coordination with the Government of National Accord. E. Schmitt, '17 ISIS Fighters Reported Killed as U.S. Ends Lull in Libya Airstrikes', The New York Times, 24 September 2017; 'U.S. Carries Out Air Strikes Against Islamic State in Libya', Reuters, 22 November 2017. See also the press releases issued by the US Africa Command on September 24; September 28;  and November 21; and 'A. Plaw and A. Pilch, 'Can Airstrikes Alone Tackle Islamic State in Libya?', Terrorism Monitor, Volume 16-2, 26 January 2018.  Unlike the 2016 Sirte campaign, it does not seem that the airstrikes were undertaken with the objective of supporting armed groups allied with the Government of National Accord in their military operations. Hence, the United States is not a party to the armed conflict by virtue of these airstrikes. For further information on who is a party to an armed conflict, see 'contemporary challenges - who is a party?' in our classification section.

Egypt launched airstrikes against the Islamic State group and other Islamist groups in Libya in 2015 and 2017 in response to the killings of Coptic Christians. Egypt supports the self-declared Libyan National Army of General Haftar and it does not appear that the Government of National Accord consented to these airstrikes. See A. Aboulenein, 'Egypt Launches Air Raids on Libya After Christians Killed'Reuters, 25 May 2017; J. Malsin and C. Stephen, 'Egyptian Air Strikes in Libya Kill Dozens of Isis Militants', The Guardian, 17 February 2015. On the relevance of consent see 'contemporary challenges for classification - relevance of consent' in our classification section. On the threshold for an international armed conflict, see 'international armed conflict - a low threshold' in our classification section.  If undertaken without consent, these airstrikes amount to short-lived international armed conflicts.

Libya is a party to the four 1949 Geneva Conventions. All parties to the conflict are bound by Article 3 common to the 1949 Geneva Conventions that provides for the minimum standard to be respected and requires humane treatment without adverse distinction of all persons not or no longer taking active parts in hostilities. It prohibits murder, mutilation, torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, hostage taking and unfair trials. Libya is also a party to Additional Protocol II applicable to non-international armed conflicts. However, Protocol II does not apply between armed groups. All parties are bound by customary international humanitarian law applicable to non-international armed conflicts. Customary international law consists of unwritten rules that come from a general practice accepted as law. Based on an extensive study, the International Committee of the Red Cross maintains a database on customary international humanitarian law. In addition to international humanitarian law, international human rights law continues to apply during times of armed conflict. Under human rights law, the territorial state has an obligation to prevent and to investigate alleged violations, including by non-state actors. Non-state armed groups are increasingly considered to be bound by international human rights law if they exercise de facto control over some areas.

State parties

 

Non-state parties

A myriad of armed groups are active in Libya. While some of them are nominally under the authority of the government, they enjoy broad autonomy. A series of armed groups operate and control detention facilities. Many armed groups have local strongholds and are part of shifting and fluid broader collective alliances. Investigation by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on Libya, UN doc A/HRC/31/47, 15 February 2016, §§12-13. Below is a list of the major armed actors in Libya. For further information, including on other armed groups, see S. Arraf, Libya: A Short Guide on the Conflict. The War Report 2017, Geneva Academy.

  • Libyan National Army. The self-declared Libyan National Army of General Haftar and affiliated armed groups is aligned with the House of Representatives and remains opposed to the new unity government. While many regular forces defected to the Libyan National Army at the beginning of the conflict in 2014, its authority is not recognised across the country.
  • Ansar al-Sharia and other Shura councils. Based in Benghazi, Ansar al-Sharia is the Libyan al-Qaeda affiliated and was added to the Security Council 1267 sanctions list in November 2014. Reportedly, many of its members defected to the Islamic State group.
  • Islamic State group. Groups pledging allegiance to the Islamic State group appeared in Libya from 2015 onwards. While commonly refered to as Islamic State group, it seems that the Libyan affiliate may be operationally separate from the Islamic State group active in Syria and Iraq.
  • A series of militias with local strongholds, namely in Tripoli, Misrata, Benghazi and the Zintan armed militia. For further information on the Libyan armed groups, see A Quick Guide to Libya's Main Players, European Council on Foreign Affairs, 2016; 'Mapping Libya's Armed Groups', Al Jazeera, 2 June 2014; 'Guide to Key Libyan militias', BBC, 11 January 2016.
Last updated: Monday 20th May 2019