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.
“Libya today is looking quite a lot like that,” Mr. Katulis said.
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.
“Zeidan’s ouster is significant because it could lead to further turbulence,” said Frederic Wehrey, a senior associate in the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Since Gadhafi was toppled, a hodgepodge of rebel groups — some of which participated in the revolution — has carved up Libya into personal fiefdoms or what William Lawrence, a senior fellow at the Project on Middle East Democracy, describes as “a confederacy of armed groups and a municipality-based set of militias.”
While the Libyan government has sought at times to assert itself, it is the rebels who have repeatedly reclaimed the upper hand.
Rebels on the government payroll briefly took Mr. Zeidan hostage in October. This month, armed men attacked the Libyan parliament and forced it to relocate to a hotel in Tripoli.
Sunday’s mission may have only worsened the U.S. position with the increasingly powerful rebel groups. A militia commander controlling Libya’s oil terminals denounced the U.S. and condemned the SEAL mission, saying Tuesday that Washington was siding with Tripoli against the aspirations in the eastern half of the country for greater autonomy.
The Associated Press reported that Ibrahim Jedran, the 33-year-old militia commander who organized the forces that took control of Es-Sider from the central government, said Washington was aligning with the wrong side in the dispute over Libya’s future. He said in an interview on a rebel-controlled television network that the central authorities in Tripoli and the country’s parliament are dominated by Islamists and ignore the aspirations of the country’s eastern regions.
“The free world should stand next to the side of truth,” Mr. Jedran said. “But today we find a superpower declaring piracy.”
The U.S. had acted at the request of the Libyan and Cypriot governments.
The threat posed by the militias is worrisome, but “the saving grace is that there has always been a balance of weakness on the ground and not one rebel group is able to fully dominate the others or control the government,” Mr. Wehrey said.
Al Qaeda affiliates take hold
Awash with weapons, many of them taken from Gadhafi’s stockpiles, Libya has turned into an arms black market that is fueling conflicts not just in Libya, but across the region.
A United Nations panel on Libya found widespread trafficking over the past year of shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles from Libya to Mali, Chad, Tunisia, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and the Gaza Strip.
The Libyan government’s lack of oversight of its weapons and its inability to control key ports and borders, coupled with the fact that non-state groups control most of the weapons, have increased the risk that these arms will fall into the wrong hands, said Mr. Katulis, who served on the U.N. panel that produced its report in February.
The report also found that “a complicated mix” of al Qaeda-affiliated and -inspired groups, including Ansar al-Sharia and elements linked to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, have flourished amid the lawlessness in many parts of Libya. Ansar al-Sharia was one of the groups linked to the September 2012 assault in Benghazi.
The U.N. panel’s report cited the capture of a prominent Islamist militant leader, Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, also known as Anas al-Libi, by U.S. special operations forces in Tripoli in October as evidence of “the attraction Libya holds for terrorist groups.”
While there are pockets in Libya that are conducive to al Qaeda, the militants are mostly local jihadists, not global terrorists, Mr. Wehrey said.
“I wouldn’t call the country a base of al Qaeda just as yet,” he said.
In Libya’s east, the rebel cause has gradually gained momentum fueled by long-running grievances against the government in Tripoli.
Benghazi was the birthplace of the unrest that eventually toppled Gadhafi. Security in the city has deteriorated to the point where assassinations and bomb explosions are routine.
Some analysts say the issue of federalism could have serious consequences for Libya.
“I don’t believe that terrorism, tribalism, ethnic conflict, criminality or even disputes over the black market networks pose any kind of existential threat to the Libyan state, but this whole debate over federalism, if it is mishandled, does,” Mr. Lawrence said.
U.S. pulls back
After the attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, the Obama administration reduced its footprint in Libya.
The U.S. currently has a diplomatic presence in Tripoli but none in Benghazi.
“The Benghazi conspiracies and investigations have been an unfortunate distraction,” said Mr. Katulis, “and have cast a negative shadow on the U.S. willingness to do more.
“But the biggest factor is that other priorities have come up for the U.S. — Iran, Syria and now the crisis in the Crimean Peninsula,” he added.
The diplomatic pullback has prompted complaints from European officials that the U.S. is not engaged enough in the developing crisis in Libya.
The State Department official said the scaled-back presence was dictated by security concerns in Libya.
U.S. Ambassador Deborah K. Jones is assisted by a small support staff at the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli.
“Are they going to every single area of the country? No,” said the State Department official. “But are they engaged with the Libyan government? Definitely.”