When former Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi was dragged from a drainage pipe in his hometown of Sirte and summarily executed by rebel forces in October 2011, much of the world looked at the event optimistically as the end of a 42-year dictatorship and a chance for the country to move forward.
In reality, however, the power vacuum left by the fall of Gaddafi’s regime, along with vast stockpiles of unguarded weapons free for the taking, created a security nightmare that not only continues to threaten the region to this day but also has broader implications for the long-term global struggle against violent extremism. Life in Libya under Gaddafi was bad; life in Libya today may arguably be worse.
With two rival governments now competing for power – the internationally recognised House of Representatives in Tobruk, supported by the Libyan National Army; and the General National Congress in Tripoli, supported by the Libya Dawn militia – Libya appears locked in what has become a long and bloody civil war with no end in sight.
A United Nations-brokered agreement signed by both parties in mid-December 2015 gave a brief glimmer of hope that a unity government could be formed, only to have it unravel a month later.
The consequences of Libya’s collapse could not be starker. As we have seen in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and elsewhere, the fracturing of Libya and the absence of the rule of law has allowed violent Islamist extremist groups, particularly the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group (ISIL) and al-Qaeda, to thrive there.
Currently, both groups control territory in Libya, where they capitalise on the expansive illicit black market economy, recruit and train fighters, and stage attacks against neighbouring countries.
For ISIL, control of Libya is of significant strategic value.
Taking advantage of the chaos and large swaths of ungoverned territory caused by Libya’s civil war, ISIL has established three separate wilayat or provinces there since late 2014: Tarablus along the west coast; Fezzan in the southwest; and Barqah in the east, with the key coastal city of Sirte serving as its Libyan capital. Like its parent group in Syria and Iraq, ISIL in Libya has uploaded video proof of its atrocities to the Internet, including mass decapitations of Egyptian, Ethiopian and Eritrean Christians.
For ISIL, control of Libya is of significant strategic value. Apart from Syria and Iraq, Libya – with its access to ports, large stores of weapons and established trans-Saharan smuggling routes – remains ISIL’s only other territorial holding.
Libya also serves as a major recruiting ground for foreign fighters from elsewhere in the region, particularly Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt, who continue to flock there to fight. Some ISIL recruitment videos have even instructed aspiring foreign fighters in the region to travel to Libya instead of its besieged positions in Syria and Iraq.
Underscoring Libya’s strategic importance to ISIL is the fact that Abu Nabil al-Anbari, a top Iraqi lieutenant and former Baathist official, was sent there in 2014 to oversee ISIL’s Libyan expansion. Although Anbari was killed near Derna during a US air strike in late 2015, ISIL’s overall presence in Libya has not been diminished.
ISIL in Libya is now focusing its attacks on the country’s oil and gas industry in the west and along the coast east of Sirte, with an eye towards making a profit from the illicit sale of oil and gas, much as they do in Iraq and Syria.
Barring that, they will probably deny those resources to other rebel groups or either of the two competing governments by destroying the infrastructure.
For al-Qaeda, Libya has been a hotbed of recruiting dating back to the 1990s, and one of its former leaders, Abu Yahya al-Libi, was a Libyan citizen. The eastern Libyan cities of Derna and Benghazi have historically served as solid bases of support for al-Qaeda, and remain so today.
The Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade, which controls Derna, and Ansar al-Sharia in Libya (ASL), the group that carried out the 2012 attack against the US consulate in Benghazi, are both aligned to al-Qaeda. ASL is also a component of the Libya Dawn militia supporting the GNC government in Tripoli.
Since the fall of the Gaddafi regime in 2011, al-Qaeda’s North African branch, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), has expanded its base of operations into Libya’s southwestern desert, establishing close alliances with the nomadic Tuareg tribes there.
The Tuaregs serve not only as AQIM fighters, but also as guides and protection for the AQIM-allied criminal smuggling networks that provide a substantial source of revenue to fund AQIM operations in the region.
Libya has collapsed, and without a general reconciliation between the rival governments, ISIL and al-Qaeda will only further strengthen their hold there. The December 2015 UN-brokered agreement was a starting point that proved too contentious for both parties to agree on.
Now is the time for the international community to work with both parties to resolve their political differences. As we have seen elsewhere, the consequences for Libya, for the region and beyond are too great.
Martin Reardon is a senior vice president with the Soufan Group, a New York-based strategic security and intelligence consultancy, and senior director of Qatar International Academy for Security Studies. He is a 21-year veteran of the FBI and specialised in counterterrorism operations.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.