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Libya Is Now In Utter Chaos And This Is Why

Three and a half years after Qaddafi's fall, Libya is both in the midst of a civil war and facing a new campaign against ISIS camps on its territory. Here's how it got here.

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Libya is back in the news again as Egypt began bombing the country after ISIS beheaded a group of Egyptian Coptic Christians in the Libyan city of Derna, just over the border the two countries share.

That — understandably — could leave you confused. ISIS has been operating in Iraq and Syria, where they've carved out a sizable chunk of territory and the U.S. and other countries are fighting them. But now Libya? Egypt?

So let's backtrack and see how we got here.

Back in 2011, at the apex of the "Arab Spring," Libyans rose up in protest again longtime ruler Muammar al-Qaddafi. The United States, France, the United Kingdom, and the rest of NATO got a United Nations mandate to launch a No-Fly Zone to prevent the mass murder of civilians in the eastern city of Benghazi. That mission soon expanded, however, and ended with Qaddafi being overthrown, captured, and murdered on camera by rebels.


NATO initially declared their Libya campaign a success. A transitional government was installed and the country declared itself a democracy, holding historic elections. It also tried to rebuild a civil society that had gone stagnant under Qaddafi.

Mohammed Ben Khalifa / AP

An election worker explains a ballot to a woman at a polling center during parliamentary elections last June

Those efforts were hampered by the fact that, though NATO provided air support, the civil war in Libya was won by a bunch of disparate militias, allied only to take out Qaddafi. Afterwards, the new government tried to rein them in but that went poorly.

Some militias opted to be placed under the nominal control of the Libyan Defense Ministry.

The February 17th Brigade in particular was considered friendly enough that the United States thought that they would help protect the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi. Others were less supportive but seen as being more moderate while still wanting Libya to be a state run under rules supported by the Quran. Others, like Ansar al-Sharia, are decidedly more devoted to a hardline interpretation of Islam to the point that several of them are either communicating with or outright aligned with al-Qaeda. Both of the latter groups have been lumped together as "Islamist" groups at certain times, depending on the context.

But the death of four Americans in Benghazi in 2012 was the biggest red flag that transitioning from Qaddafi would be nowhere near easy.

Mohammad Hannon / AP

Libyan military guards examine the aftermath of the 2012 attack


Also problematic: these militias have been fighting each other since days immediately after Qaddafi fell. Add in a vast surplus of weapons that are still up for grabs and Libya was looking awful rough even in early 2012.

About a year ago, one of Qaddafi's former general's launched "Operation Dignity" — a mission to take out the so-called Islamist groups that he believed had hijacked Libya's parliament. Which he then tried to overthrow.

Haftar's actions led to the effective split of the country: his forces control most of eastern Libya, but, notably, neither Derna nor Benghazi, where heavy fighting continues; and a coalition of Islamists controls the central cities of Tripoli, Misrata, and Sirte. A tribal militia allied with Haftar controls parts of western and southern Libya, but large swaths of the southern desert are effectively out of control, with armed bands claiming affiliation with ISIS and a group called Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb both operating there.

All of this fighting has left a lot of ungoverned space in Libya, which is where ISIS comes in. Last fall, jihadis in the Libyan city of Derna declared themselves the newest ISIS branch.


Libyan followers of Ansar al-Shariah Brigades and other Islamic militias protest in 2012

And now it seems that Libya Dawn has begun launching airstrikes of its own against the Libyan government and Operation Dignity. And a triple car bombing occurred in the eastern city of al-Qubbah on Friday, possibly in retaliation for Egypt's strikes.


An armed motorcade belonging to members of Derna's Islamic Youth Council, who swore allegiance to ISIS, in October 2014

The United States isn't condemning or condoning Egypt's strikes inside of Libya for now. But with reports that the ISIS-linked jihadis have taken over a university in central Libya, the struggle for the country's future seems far from over.

Mohamed Ben Khalifa / AP

A Libyan military soldier stands guard at the entrance of a town near Sirte, Libya

Hayes Brown is a world news editor and reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.

Contact Hayes Brown at

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