A glance at the main political players in Libya
As U.S. warplanes strike an Islamic State target in eastern Libya, attention again is focused on the North African country that has endured so much chaos since the 2011 overthrow and death of its leader, Moammar Gadhafi.
Since Gadhafi’s fall, two competing governments have emerged in Libya, backed by a loose array of militias, former rebels and tribes. The United Nations has been trying to broker a deal to establish a unity government that could bring peace in the oil-rich country, rein in militants like the Islamic State group, and restore order in what has become a major conduit for migrants heading to Europe.
A look at the major players:
The capital of Tripoli and most of Libya’s western coastal cities answer to the General National Congress, the former parliament whose mandate expired in 2014. Backed by Islamist-affiliated militias known as Libya Dawn, the parliament has expelled the Libyan government outside Tripoli, seized the international airport and fought rival militias in battles that forced foreign embassies to close and displaced thousands. The GNC is headed by Nouri Abu-Sahman, whose Salvation Government runs the western part of Libya. The Tripoli-based prime minister is Khalifa Ghwell.
A parliament made up mostly of non-Islamists was elected in 2014 and is based in the eastern city of Tobruk and supported by area tribes. Its internationally recognized government is based in Bayda. The parliament endorsed the U.N. peace deal but rejected a proposed unity government for Libya. Khalifa Hifter, who served in Gadhafi’s army before defecting to the opposition in the 1990s, is general commander of the armed forces in eastern Libya that support the parliament. These poorly equipped and organized troops depend on militias mostly made up of civilians who defended their neighborhoods in Benghazi. Hifter considers the Tripoli authorities as terrorists and declared a coup against them in 2014. The leaders in Tripoli consider him a holdover from the Gadhafi era.
THE ARMED GROUPS:
Libya Dawn — A coalition of militias from Tripoli and the western city of Misrata, Libya Dawn was until recently Libya’s most powerful militia, and it serves as the armed force for the GNC. But the U.N. peace effort and fears of the Islamic State group’s power have caused deep rifts. Many of the Tripoli-based militias, which are mainly Islamists, oppose efforts to set up a unity government, fearing a loss of patronage. Except for hard-liners, the Misrata militias, which have long been considered some of the toughest fighters in Libya, back the U.N. peace deal and have focused more on fighting IS since it seized the city of Sirte, a Gadhafi stronghold east of Misrata.
Islamic State group — Affiliates to the Islamic State group first arose in the eastern city of Darna in 2014 after many of its extremists pledged allegiance to the militant group. The number of IS fighters in Libya is believed to be about 5,000, mostly made up of jihadis from Tunisia, North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa. IS now controls only the central city of Sirte and nearby villages, but they have carried out some of worst attacks in the country, including in Tripoli, and have tried to capture or disrupt oil facilities east of Sirte. The group has joined with other militias in Benghazi against Hifter and fought rivals elsewhere in the country. They also are believed to have helped with attacks in neighboring Tunisia. IS was dealt a serious blow after militants believed to be linked to al-Qaida and supported by the local population drove the IS extremists out of Darna last summer. In November, a U.S. airstrike in Darna killed an Islamic State leader, Wissam al-Zubaydi, an Iraqi national who also was known by the pseudonyms Abu Nabil al-Ansbari and Abu Mghira al-Qahtani.
Ansar al-Shariah — Believed to be al-Qaida branch in Libya, Ansar al-Shariah has been blamed for the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi in 2012 when four Americans were killed, including Ambassador Chris Stevens. The group has weakened since the death of its most prominent leader, Mohammed al-Zahawi, in 2014. Many of its members have joined IS in Sirte; others fought alongside IS against Hifter in Benghazi.