The daring, high-seas seizure of a rogue oil tanker by U.S. Navy SEALs off the coast of Cyprus this week has focused fresh attention on the power struggle that has turned Libya into a political time bomb more than two years after the ouster of strongman Moammar Gadhafi.
Heavily armed militias and rebel groups jockey for power while drug and weapons smugglers, as well as jihadist networks, set down deep roots in the absence of an effective central government in Tripoli.
The rebels’ tightening control over Libya’s vital lifeline — oil — and growing calls for federalism in the oil-rich east have set off alarm bells around the world that this North African nation is hurtling down the road to civil war, threatening the gains from one of the few major military operations authorized under President Obama.
“Civil war would actually be more organized,” said Brian Katulis, a senior fellow focused on U.S. national security in the Middle East at the Center for American Progress.
What he sees happening, he said, “is more like tribal warlordism.”
In 2011, when NATO forces began operations in support of rebels fighting to oust Gadhafi, some people worried that Libya would turn into “Somalia on the Mediterranean,” said Mr. Katulis, referring to the Horn of Africa nation from where al-Shabab, an al Qaeda-linked group, conducts its terrorist operations.
Rebels, who are demanding regional autonomy and a greater share of Libya’s oil wealth, have seized control of three ports and this month escalated the challenge to the government by trying to sell oil illegally on the global market.
On Sunday, a team of U.S. Navy SEALs, acting on Mr. Obama’s orders, thwarted that effort when they boarded the tanker Morning Glory off the coast of Cyprus that was loaded with an estimated $30 million in oil obtained from the rebel-controlled port of Es-Sider. U.S. sailors will escort the ship back to a port controlled by the Libyan government.
The incident validated U.S. unease with the fact that the Libyan government has not been able to rein in all the militias operating in the country, administration officials said.
It was armed militia groups — some with suspected ties to al Qaeda — that were blamed for organizing and carrying out the 2012 attack on U.S. compounds in Benghazi, Libya, that resulted in the deaths of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
The tanker shipment “is an example of the things that concern us,” said a State Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to freely discuss the Obama administration’s response to developments in Libya.
“It is related to the fact that those militias are out there and not under government control,” the official said, “but our larger concern is that there are people out there providing oil they don’t actually own to other entities.”
Although the rebels were unsuccessful in their effort to export the oil, the crisis involving the Morning Glory did claim a prominent casualty. Parliament ousted Prime Minister Ali Zeidan last week over his handling of the situation, even before the U.S. rescue operation was launched.
But the reshuffle is unlikely to resolve the power struggle, analysts warned.