The Consequences of NATO’s Good War in Libya

Operation Odyssey Dawn

Last week, it seemed we were seeing rare good news out of Libya. Oil exports were set to resume from the Zuetina port after rebels holding it reached an agreement with the government. On another optimistic note, the interim parliament convened to select a new prime minister. (The previous prime minister resigned after six days after rebels attacked his family, while the prime minister before him was actually kidnapped by rebels.)

But the prime minister vote didn’t go well. Gunmen stormed the parliament building, started shooting, and forced lawmakers to abandon their plans.

This is Libya today: Each step forward seems to be followed by another step or two back, usually driven by security problems. The central government can’t execute basic sovereign functions in its own capitol building. Underscoring this point, last year gunmen shut down the ministries of justice and foreign affairs for two weeks due to a political dispute, the equivalent of gunmen in the U.S. shuttering the departments of justice and state.

RAND’s Christopher S. Chivvis argues in his book (reviewed by WOTR’s Jack Mulcaire) that in March 2011, two major arguments existed within the administration for intervention in Libya. The first was humanitarian: the concern that Muammar Qaddafi would slaughter citizens. The second argument related to the Arab Spring uprisings, and the idea “that decisive support for the revolution would vividly demonstrate that the United States supported the uprisings across the region.”

Although Chivvis doesn’t mention it, one factor that seemingly helped drive the view that the uprisings were in the U.S. interest was the fight against al-Qaeda. Early in the Arab Spring, U.S. analysts overwhelmingly believed that the revolutionary events were devastating for jihadists. (Jihadist strategists thought that, rather than harming the movement, the revolutions would yield significant advantages.)

Rapid as Qaddafi’s fall was, the intervention is widely regarded as a success, as no allied lives were lost, and the price tag stood at just $1.1 billion. But though the mission was superb in its execution, it was more problematic than is commonly acknowledged. The intervention produced significant ripples, and in fact, one rationale for intervention advanced at the time was that doing so would have second-order consequences: As several commentators noted, there was a real feeling at the time that the changes sweeping the region might be reversed if Qaddafi’s advance on Benghazi weren’t stopped.

Though the desire to see the spread of democracy and the fall of dictators is noble, decisions of state should be judged by results rather than intent. NATO’s intervention came when there had already been wrenching changes in the region, and there were further revolutionary rumblings. The choice to intervene represented not just a decision to stop Qaddafi’s advance on Benghazi, but also to speed up the pace of change. This made it more difficult subsequently for the United States to secure its interests, and to influence events in the region in a way that could save further lives. The intervention in Libya left behind a country beset by instability, and has had a destabilizing effect on Libya’s neighbors. Taking these consequences into account, it is not clear that lives were saved on the whole by NATO’s intervention.

Revival of Jihadist Groups

Jihadist groups, including al-Qaeda, have experienced significant growth since Qaddafi was toppled. One report, Al-Qaeda in Libya: A Profile, was published in August 2012 by the Library of Congress’s Federal Research Division. It notes that al-Qaeda’s senior leadership was attempting to create a clandestine network in Libya, and explains the group’s efforts.

While it isn’t clear how many al-Qaeda aligned groups and individuals are active in 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.” The report concludes that “al-Qaeda appears to constitute a significant threat to the state-building process in Libya.” Since the report’s publication, nothing seems to have reversed the gains made by jihadist groups. Indeed, so many jihadists are now flocking to Libya that one contractor working on counterterrorism issues in Africa colorfully described the country to the media as “Scumbag Woodstock.” One way jihadists take advantage of the new environment in Libya is that a variety of groups have operated training camps.

A second way jihadist groups have been able to benefit from developments is the flow of arms into neighboring countries. Chivvis and Andrew Liepman note that most of the “vast stores of weapons” that flowed out of Libya have been “small arms of Eastern European origin.” However, observers suspect that more sophisticated weaponry, such as surface-to-air missiles, may also have escaped Qaddafi’s arsenal, and more recent evidence — including the downing of an Egyptian military helicopter in Egypt’s Sinai by militants, which will be discussed subsequently — tends to confirm these fears. Several U.N. Security Council reports prepared by a panel of select experts paint a picture of the broad diffusion of Libyan arms. One report observes that both “significant quantities of arms” and fighters have been moved from Libya into Egypt and the Sahel. As a result, illicit arms flows from Libya are “fuelling existing conflicts and enriching the arsenals of a range of non-State actors in the region and beyond.”

A third way jihadists have benefited from the situation is by using Libyan territory as a safe haven. As will be discussed subsequently, the Libya safe haven proved important to jihadists and their allies following the French-led intervention in Mali, allowing them to flee their advancing foes and attempt to regroup.

A fourth issue is the potential for these factors to cause Libya to be used as a staging ground for attacks. This was the case for the January 2013 hostage crisis at Algeria’s In Amenas gas plant, where the attackers reportedly trained in camps in southern Libya and used Libyan arms when attacking the facility. More than 800 people were taken hostage, and at least 39 hostages were killed.

Regional Impact

The impact can be felt throughout the region. Libya has a porous border with Egypt, much to the alarm of the Egyptian government. The panel of U.N. experts noted that “the increased availability of weapons” empowered a variety of VNSAs, and singled out Egypt as one place where this dynamic was particularly powerful. Briefings that the panel received indicated that some of the weapons that were moved into both Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip “included man-portable air defense systems and 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. On Mar. 19, Egyptian security forces raided a “workshop” in Arab Sharkas, near Cairo, where a cell was making bombs and explosive belts. 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), its 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, “The 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 (amongst others).

Algeria is similarly concerned about the impact Libya will have on its security. Though the In Amenas hostage crisis, and its connections to Libya, served a grisly warning, Algerian officials had long been concerned about the impact that NATO’s intervention would have. AQIM is of particular concern to Algeria, as it is an outgrowth of the Algerian militant outfit Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), and considers Algeria one of its highest priority targets. Chivvis and Liepman state that “there are numerous reports of AQIM commanders visiting Libya for weapons purchases.” Illustrating these concerns, Algerian troops discovered an enormous cache of weapons near the Libya border in October 2013, allegedly including “100 anti-aircraft missiles and hundreds of anti-helicopter rockets, landmines and rocket-propelled grenades.”

The intervention in Libya also had an impact on Mali. A collection of al-Qaeda-linked jihadist groups — including AQIM — and Tuareg separatist groups gained control over north Mali following the onset of the Arab Uprisings, thus prompting a French-led intervention in January 2013. The push for a jihadist takeover began in January 2012, when a collection of VNSAs made advances. Human Rights Watch notes that by April 2012, they “had consolidated control of the northern regions of Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu.” Although not all of these VNSAs were jihadist, jihadists ended up in a dominant position, and implemented a hardline version of Shariah law.

The Tuareg rebellion in Mali has a long history, but Qaddafi’s overthrow transformed the dynamics. Libya’s dictator had been a longtime supporter of Tuareg separatism, and with Qaddafi gone, the Tuaregs lost a major patron. Jihadist groups were able to exploit the Tuaregs’ loss of Qaddafi and forge an alliance rooted in convenience rather than ideology. Further, thousands of Tuareg rebels had gone to Libya to fight as mercenaries on Qaddafi’s side. Following the dictator’s 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.”

France’s military intervention pushed jihadists from the areas that they controlled. However, there are signs that, a year later, the jihadists may be back. The safe haven in southern Libya has played a role in these groups’ comeback. Fighters from both Ansar al-Dine and AQIM fled from advancing French and aligned forces into southwest Libya, where they blended with local militants.


NATO’s intervention was thus executed nearly flawlessly, yet appears to be a strategic mistake. In weighing the costs and benefits of the operation, one would naturally begin with the immediate danger that spurred NATO to act: the humanitarian concern that Qaddafi would have crushed the opposition to his regime in Benghazi. Some scholars, such as Alan Kuperman, argue that, although lives were saved in Benghazi, the fact that NATO prolonged the war cost more lives than it saved. It’s unclear if Kuperman’s conclusion is correct — counterfactual analysis is notoriously difficult — but his point that the intervention likely prolonged the conflict seems right. And the situation that NATO’s intervention left behind in Libya has cost further lives in Mali, Egypt, Algeria, and possibly Tunisia. Thus, it is not clear that the intervention has saved lives on the whole. As to the desire to get on the right side of the Arab Spring, speeding up tumultuous events in the region has made it more difficult for the United States to positively influence outcomes in a variety of countries. This has been harmful to U.S. interests; and it has been harmful, too, from a solely humanitarian perspective.

It may be difficult to hear that such a well-intentioned intervention seems to have produced more harm than good. However, it is necessary to evaluate the impact of any military action we take with the clearest of eyes.


Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and an adjunct assistant professor in Georgetown University’s security studies program. He is the author or volume editor of fourteen books and monographs, including Bin Laden’s Legacy (Wiley, 2011). This article is adapted from testimony he delivered before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on May 1, 2014.


Photo credit: Official U.S. Navy Imagery