Libya Rivals Talk in Face of Common Enemy: Minister

Violent Islamism in Libya raises the possibility of rapprochement between its rival governments.

A military checkpoint near the city of Misrata, Libya, November 9, 2011
A military checkpoint near the city of Misrata, Libya, November 9, 2011 (Ben Sutherland)

Officials of Libya’s two rival governments have been in touch over the growing threat of violent Islamism, raising the possibility of rapprochement in the face of a common enemy.

“There are no doubts that we’ve had contacts with the western region and especially Misrata, about the big threat of Islamic State,” said Omar al-Zanki, the internationally-recognized government’s interior minister, on Sunday.

Several Islamist groups in Libya have sworn allegiance to the jihadists who declared a caliphate in Iraq and Syria last year. To what extent they coordinate is unclear.

Misrata is the base of Libya Dawn, a broad coalition that includes Islamist groups and has controlled the capital, Tripoli, since August.

Zanki, who was suspended by Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thani for criticizing General Khalifa Haftar’s campaign against Libya Dawn but said he still commanded troops, called the Islamic State a “big, big threat.”

On Sunday, the group took over Sirte, the hometown of former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, situated between Libya Dawn’s territory in the west and Thani’s government in the east.

Since NATO airstrikes helped Libyan rebels topple Gaddafi in late 2011, no government has been able to control the militia groups that refused to disband after the former strongman was defeated.

Thani’s government and the national parliament that was elected in June took refuge in the eastern city of Tobruk after being chased out of Tripoli. They are backed by militias from Zintan as well as Haftar’s private army — which, in turn, is supported by Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, countries that are both apprehensive about the spread of religious extremism.

The June parliament is more secular than the previous legislature which Libya Dawn revived in August.

Taking advantage of the chaos, jihadists have expanded from their base in the eastern city of Derna along the coast, declaring Islamic provinces in the territories they conquered.

The unrest has forced many of Libya’s oil facilities to shut down. With only the ports of Brega and Hariga and two offshore fields still online, output has dropped to under 250,000 barrels per day, far below the 1.4 million barrels Libya pumped in the summer of 2013.