Who’s Fighting Who? Libya’s Violent Civil War Explained

Libya’s civil war continues to rage, destabilizing the region and spurring bloodshed across the country.

Since the end to the longtime rule of Muammar Gaddafi, Libya has been in a constant state of turmoil. Today, a handful of rivaling militias and decentralized governments battle for control of the war-torn country.

The spark

Libya has been a hotbed for skirmishes since the toppling of Gaddafi’s regime in 2011, and since then, things have only gotten worse.

Contested elections in 2014 have lead way to to even more fighting.

Though many were hopeful that such elections might help restore peace in Libya, they have instead spiraled the country into some of the most violent fighting it’s seen in years.

Stemming from Islamist leaders’ heavy defeat at the hands of Libyan nationalists in parliamentary elections, militias and governments have splintered and laid claim to different regions all across the country. In many respects the country is leaderless.

Key militias

Armed groups in Libya are a confusing network of factions and regimes, some of which are even more confusingly funded by the government–a result of the interim government’s decision to hire certain groups as sit-in armies in 2011.

Libyan National Army

Number of fighters: 35,000

Affiliation: nationalist  

In February of 2014, the Libyan National Army rose to prominence and is now lead by Khalifa Haftar, a defector from Gaddafi’s former regime.

The Libyan National Army is focused on fighting Islamist groups and are loosely partnered with the military faction Al-Saiqa.

The Libyan National Army is in fact also decentralized. One faction is lead by General Haftar and another Islamist-allied group is lead by General Abdulsalam al-Obaidi.

The Zintan Brigade

Number of fighters: 4,000

Affiliation: nationalist

Zintan fighters, who derive their name from the embattled town of Zintan, were major players in the toppling of Gaddafi and currently consider themselves an anti-Islamist faction.

They are considered to be some of the strongest factions, and were in control of the airport in Tripoli until the Summer of 2014 when a rivaling islamist militia usurped their power.

They also receive some support from the Libyan National Army.

Misrata Brigades

Number of fighters: 40,000

Affiliation: Islamist

These forces are Islamist in ideology and are currently engaged in heavy fighting with Zintan brigades.

They are thought to be one of the most powerful Islamist factions and may control as many as 800 tanks and 2,000 weapon-mounted vehicles.

Two parallel governments

In addition to rivaling factions, there are also two national governments operating in opposition to each other.

New parliament

The new parliament considers themselves nationalist and has laid claim to the eastern city of Tobruk.

Officials from this parliament have labelled the secessionist government terrorists and have taken a strong stance against Islamist militias.

Old parliament

Islamist in affiliation, the old parliament is based in the city of Tripoli located in Western Libya. They have appointed Omar Al-Hassi the head of their government.

The takeaway

Libya, now more violent than ever, has exploded into full blown civil war–a conflict which has displaced the lives of nearly 500,000 people.

To make a bad situation worse, the conflict has also contributed to a growing security threat for the U.S. and the Western world as a whole


Burgeoning terrorist group ISIS has now found a haven in Libya where they recently killed an American contractor in a suicide bombing on the Tripoli Hotel.

Though there has yet to be any real military intervention in Libya since NATO’s bombings in 2011, some world leaders are calling for Western support.

Updated. Cover photo by United Nations Photo via Flickr.

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