Hours after its western allies pledged to help restore stability to Libya, the country was wracked by a new outbreak of violence on Monday. Clashes between security forces and jihadists in the flashpoint town of Benghazi killed nine, and injured dozens, including several civilians.
Such violence is common in Libya’s post-Gaddafi landscape, where armed militias have taken over swathes of the country, subverting the feeble central government. In June, militants killed 31 demonstrators at an anti-militia rally in Benghazi; last week a militia brigade in Tripoli killed at least 43 civilians at a similar rally. Foreign promises of support notwithstanding, Libya’s government has proven impotent in the face of deteriorating security, crippled by weak state institutions and assaults on its primary source of income – oil – which have cost Libya billions of dollars. Tripoli has also been riddled by a string of assassinations of senior government officials, not to mention the (brief) kidnapping of Prime Minister Ali Zeidan in October by militia gunmen.
The disintegration has Libya’s neighbors worried that the country’s woes will spill across its borders. Algeria, which borders Libya to the southeast and turbulent Mali and Niger to the south, is understandably skittish. Monday’s skirmish is sure to have it and other regional powers on their toes, thanks to the type of militia involved: Ansar al Sharia in Libya (ASL) is an ultraconservative Salafist sect seeking to implement a severe form of Islamic law, by force if necessary. Algerian authorities report discoveries of several Salafist training camps and arms caches along the Libyan-Algerian border. (The arsenals’ contents are sobering: hundreds of surface-to–air- missiles, anti-helicopter rockets, land mines and RPG missiles.) Algiers has taken major counter-terrorism measures — i.e., deploying over 20,000 soldiers to defend its borders — but its forces face a daunting and unregulated Libyan frontier manned by tribal militias.
Tunisia is also concerned about the regional spread of militant Salafism. Its domestic terrorists are reportedly receiving weapons and training from Libyan militias, and the nation’s nastiest jihadist group — Ansar al Sharia in Tunisia (AST), which is believed responsible for duel political assassinations this year and the 2012 U.S. Embassy bombing — has direct ties to its Libyan counterpart.
Here, there looks to be an unexpectedly positive outcome of Libya’s simmering conflict — a cross-border rapprochement between Tunisia and Algeria. The neighboring countries held multiple joint security maneuvers this summer to rout jihadists from their shared border. And in mid-November, Algeria’s President Abdelaziz Bouteflika held closed-door sessions with Tunisia’s ruling Islamist party, Ennahda, and the opposition in an effort to mediate the current political stalemate. A strengthened Tunisia would mean the creation of a united, duel-pronged front against Libyan jihadism (as well as a physical buffer zone for militants: Tunisia lies between Libya and Algeria). Hence Boutleflika’s recent interest in Tunisian domestic affairs.
But while Tunisia has avoided the levels of violence that have roiled much of the region, the interim government is struggling to combat increasingly bold militants on its home turf, even as it stumbles on the path to political reconciliation. Despite gentle nudging from Algiers, there is little sign that the deadlock between Ennahda and its secular opponents will end any time soon. Which means that if Libya’s unrest intensifies — with oil revenues frozen, the government is set to run out of money to pay off militias next month, setting the stage for renewed violence — there will be little more than the outline of a regional apparatus to contain it.