The Pursuit of National Interests by Defence Alliances: The Implications of NATO’s intervention in Libya for Africa


Following the collapse of the Gaddafi regime in Libya, the country has been plunged into chaos. Indeed, the country has been torn apart by competing political factions and powerful militias, now mostly unified around the internationally supported Government of National Accord (GNA) established in Tripoli, and the leadership of the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA), the House of Representatives (HoR) and the rival government based in Al-Bayda, in the east of the country. Furthermore, the jihadi organizations, took advantage of this chaos, especially Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Islamic State (IS), establishing themselves in Libya, which they are using as a rear base and from which they have been launching attacks in neighboring countries, including Algeria in 2013 and Tunisia in 2015 to 2016.

In August 2012, Al-Qaeda’s Senior Leadership (ASL) aims to create an underground network within the country and have also sought to take advantage of the Libyan Revolution to recruit militants and to reinforce their operational capabilities in an attempt to create a safe haven and possibly to extend their area of operations to Libya. The report concludes that a few hundred Al-Qaeda members are operating there and that ideologically aligned Salafi jihadists have come to control dozens of mosques and prayer halls in the country. Furthermore, Al-Qaeda appears to constitute a significant threat to the state-building process within the state. Currently, multiple jihadists are now flocking to Libya evidently gaining from its new unstable environment.

The strategic importance of Libya to these militia groups is clear from an interview with the Islamic State leader in Libya, Abu Nabil Al Anbari, in September 2015 in IS’s online magazine Dabiq, whereby he explained that Libya offers access to Africa as well as the south of Europe furthermore, it is also a gateway to the African desert stretching to a number of African countries, whereby the impact of all manner of activities by these militia groups can be felt greatly by more than just Libya within the international arena. Moreover, there is the presence of oil and natural gas resources in Libya and the European countries’ reliance on them offered some sort of control by the Islamic State. This offered leverage over the region whereby these controls could lead to economic breakdowns, especially for Italy and the rest of the European states.

Additionally, recruits for militia groups essentially came from Africa, that is, the Islamic Maghrib, Egypt, and the Arabian Peninsula, and this is because of the centrality of Libya and its strategic importance in the jihadi organization’s perspective. Therefore, this shows how important the stability of Libya was important to its neighboring African states. The lack of security within the state spilled over onto other African states. Once NATO exited Libya it left the vulnerable state at the hands of rebel forces and jihadi groups. This opened African states to a condition of constant conflict and rapid growth in terrorism within the region as well as the international community.

In addition to the jihadi threat, all kinds of criminal activities developed in and from Libya as well as affected its neighboring African states. This has included the smuggling of migrants as well the trafficking of weapons. The continued chaos in Libya in the context of the collapse of IS in the Middle East raises further concerns in the light of speculation that most of the North African foreign fighters who went to Syria or Iraq and fought with IS or Al-Qaeda’s affiliates in Syria, especially Al-Nusra Front, might decide to migrate to Libya and reinforce the jihadi affiliates of IS or Al-Qaeda back on Libyan soil. Indeed, in the Middle East, these fighters have acquired a high level of both military and radical ideological training, as well as first-hand fighting experience, in addition to establishing networks with fellow jihadists from around the world. This could therefore further destabilize the whole regional system in North Africa and in the Sahel.

Once NATO had managed a regime change, the major national interest of the member states had been met. These member states were looking into survival within the international community and Gaddafi’s regime was a threat to this. Therefore, it is evident that whatever happened to the state after the invasion and the death of Gaddafi was not a concern to this apparent humanitarian intervention. There has been no attempt to try and restore the state especially after there have been even further human rights violations of innocent civilians. According to the UN Resolutions passed by the UNSC, the responsibility of NATO to the Libyan state was beyond an intervention it was required to ensure that the state is able to recover. Unfortunately, the lack of NATO action led to current destabilization within NATO which has raised security issues within the neighboring African states.

Interpretations of the United Nations Mandate

The primary official mission statement by NATO was to prevent the flow of arms, related material as well as mercenaries to Libya. UNSCRs 1970 and 1973 authorized NATO to take “all necessary measures” to prevent the flow of arms into Libya. Ships that had any intention of transferring to the embargo area were expected to inform NATO of the cargo as well as the destination in a comprehensive message. NATO would then verify those claims either through surveillance or by capturing the vessel. NATO was to then review and make the decision whether it would or would not intercept. Additionally, if NATO for any reason was restricted access to the vessel, forceful measures could be taken. If arms, mercenaries, or any material related to military force were uncovered, or if there was a purpose to believe the vessel would be used to support attacks on innocent civilians whether directly or indirectly, the vessel and all accompanying it would not be allowed to proceed to their destination. By September 30, 2011, 2862 vessels were called to return to their origin, and 293 of those vessels boarded; eleven ships were denied transit to Libyan ports because they represented a risk to the civilian population.

NATO’s understanding of the UNSC Resolutions was to ensure the protection of innocent civilians by all means necessary. It stated that its main goal is to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas under threat of attack being caused by the Gaddafi regime. NATO emphasized that it will implement all aspects of the UN Resolution and would do nothing more or nothing less as per the statement by the then NATO Secretary-General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen during the earlier stages of the implementation of the UN Resolution 1973. In an official press release, the organization stated:

NATO will continue to coordinate its actions in close consultation with the United Nations, other regional actors, and international organizations…We deplore the continuing violence and atrocities in Libya perpetrated by the régime against its own people, which have resulted in a very serious humanitarian situation, particularly in cities under siege…NATO-led forces are taking robust action to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas under threat of attack in Libya and enforcing the No-Fly Zone and arms embargo authorized by UNSCR 1973…We will continue to adapt our military actions to achieve maximum effect in discharging our mandate to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas. To this end, we are committed to providing all necessary resources and maximum operational flexibility within our mandate. A high operational tempo against legitimate targets will be maintained and we will exert this pressure as long as necessary and until the following objectives are achieved: All attacks and threats of attack against civilians and civilian-populated areas have ended; The régime has verifiably withdrawn to bases all military forces, including snipers, mercenaries and other para-military forces, including from all populated areas they have forcibly entered, occupied or besieged throughout all of Libya; The régime must permit immediate, full, safe and unhindered humanitarian access to all the people in Libya in need of assistance. We remain committed to the full implementation of UNSC Resolutions 1970 and 1973. In carrying out our mission, we reaffirm our support to the sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity, and national unity of Libya. We reiterate our strong support for the development of a transparent political solution as the only way to bring an end to the crisis and build lasting peace in Libya and a better future for the Libyan people.

The vague nature of Resolution 1973 caused a number of powerful states such as Brazil, Russia, India, China, and Germany to refrain from the involvement of the resolution despite the fact the Arab League supported for the mandate. These powerful states were uncomfortable with the very broad nature of the mandate, which had overtly authorized ‘all necessary means to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas under attack or threat of attack in Libya. The unclear nature of 1973, especially in terms of the desired regime change did not necessarily sit well with these member states, this was regardless of the fact that multiple states had already called for Gaddafi to step down. The actions within Resolution 1973 implied that there would be limited use of military force during NATO’s invasion in Libya. However, the statement of “all necessary measures,” evidently showed that these supposed limited military instruments could end up changing into something else and most likely a regime change.

The challenge for NATO as a defense alliance was how to operationalize a mandate where a political situation was so imprecise that clarity was unattainable. The initial US-led coalition was met by a lot of difficulties when it started planning and executing the operations within Libya a few days after Resolution 1970 was passed. Evidently, NATO had hit some major hurdles organizing its air operations for the first two months of OUP. In recognition of this difficulty, NATO reorganized and increased manpower in order to be capable of running major airstrike operations.

Initially, the guidance to the air component was that the mission would end when the measures in place to protect civilians were no longer needed. There was a meeting of NATO Foreign Ministers on April 14, 2011, to discuss the end goal and refined it to include the end of attacks and threats of attack by the regime; the withdrawal of all forces that were threatening populated areas, and the immediate allowance of access for all legitimate humanitarian organizations. However, NATO’s mission tasking according to its mandate did not include a specific goal of political change. This, therefore, shows that the motivation behind NATO's actions was not for the protection of the people of Libya but rather for the western states’ own national interests which were being jeopardized by Gaddafi being in power.

Regional Impact of NATOs Intervention into Libya

The impact of NATO’s invasion into Libya can be felt throughout the region. Libya has a porous border with Egypt, which is of great concern to the government of Egypt. Due to Libya’s current unstable state, there is an increase in the availability of weapons within the region and this has empowered a variety of Violent Non-State Actors (VNSAs). A large number of the weapons that were moved into both Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip included man-portable air defense systems as well as anti-tank guided missiles. An incident vividly illustrating these concerns occurred in January 2014, when Sinai-based militants shot down an Egyptian military helicopter with a surface-to-air missile. Both the U.N.’s expert panel and press reporting suggested that the most likely place from which militants may have obtained such weaponry is Libya.

There are other signs of how Libya’s deterioration is influencing the security situation in Egypt. Egyptian security raided a workshop near Cairo in 2019 whereby there was a cell that was being used to make bombs as well as explosive belts. The authorities claimed that the militants were associated with Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, a claim verified five days later when the group issued an official statement. Five tons of explosives were seized, and Egyptian security sources told the media that Libya was the point of origin for this enormous quantity of explosives.

Tunisia is similarly concerned that the security situation in Libya is having an impact inside its borders, as the country clamps down on Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia (AST), which is a major jihadist group. Though the crackdown appears to be going well, AST hasn’t been defeated. If the group succeeds in coming back to pose a major challenge to Tunisia, it will likely rely heavily on securing advantages from outside Tunisia’s borders. Tunisian law enforcement and international police organizations have placed the blame for the proliferation of weapons in the country on Libya’s shoulders. AST has been involved in smuggling arms originating from Libya into Tunisia and has also been stockpiling weapons. As Tunisian Interior Minister Lotfi Ben Jeddou commented, “A large number of seized weapons inside the country could sustain a war.” Further, Tunisia’s director-general of national security said that AST members receive training in Libya and that the group is funded from Libyan sources.

Furthermore, Algeria has also expressed its concerns over how the state of Libya is impacting its own security. The In Amenas hostage crisis which led to the death of multiple foreigners served a grisly warning. Algerian officials had long been worried about the impact that NATO’s invasion into Libya would have within its boundaries. The connection between Libya and the In Amenas hostage crisis was proof of how the state of Libya had a huge security influence. Algeria remains very concerned about the activities of AQIM due to the fact that it is a product of the Algerian militant outfit Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), which considers Algeria one of its primary targets.

According to Chivvis and Liepman, there are numerous reports of AQIM commanders going to Libya to acquire weapons. Following up on these claims, in October 2013, Algerian troops discovered a massive hoard of weapons near the Libyan border which allegedly comprised of 100 anti-aircraft missiles, hundreds of anti-helicopter rockets, and landmines as well as rocket-propelled grenades.

Moreover, the intervention into Libya by NATO also had an effect on Mali boundaries. An assortment of al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadist groups that included AQIM and Tuareg separatist groups were able to take control over the north of Mali after the beginning of the Arab Uprisings. This eventually led to the French-led intervention in January 2013. The growth of the opportunity of a jihadist takeover started in January 2012 when there was further progress of VNSAs. Human Rights Watch notes that by April 2012, they had consolidated control of the northern regions of Kidal, Gao, and Timbuktu. Regardless of the fact that not all of these VNSAs were particularly jihadists, jihadists had seized a very dominant position and implemented a hard-line version of Shariah law.

Following Gaddafi getting overthrown by the rebel forces supported by NATO, there was a clear shift in dynamics within Mali. Gaddafi had always been in support of Tuareg separatism, and with the end of his regime, Jihadist groups were able to exploit the Tuaregs’ loss of a leader and therefore, formed an alliance rooted in convenience rather than ideology. Additionally, thousands of Tuareg rebels had gone to Libya to fight as mercenaries in support of Gaddafi against the rebel forces. Subsequent to his defeat, the New York Times reported that they helped themselves to a considerable quantity of sophisticated weaponry. By February 2012, the Times discerned that the former mercenaries’ return had reinvigorated a longstanding rebellion and blossomed into a major challenge. 

07 July 2022
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