Libya: border security and regional cooperation

This rapid literature review examines security-related developments that determine Libya’s relationships with its neighbours – Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Niger, Sudan and Tunisia. The report also looks at the incentives for neighbouring countries to maintain or develop regional relationships or cross-border mechanisms with Libya and the main challenges in implementing them. It also gives an overview of international agencies’ contributions to border management and security in the Sahel and Maghreb.

Libya’s border control is weak and fragmented, allowing markets in arms, people, and the trafficking of illicit goods to flourish, with detrimental consequences for the Maghreb and Sahel (Cole, 2012). The following conflict drivers determine Libya’s relationships with its neighbours:

  • Cross-border ethnic and tribal relations: The cross-border movement of ethnic groups such as the Tabu and Tuareg, who retain close ties to kin in Chad, Niger and Mali, facilitates the trafficking of illicit goods. As such, these groups are seen as a source of insecurity for Libya and its neighbours (Cole, 2012).
  • Cross-border smuggling: Arms smuggling out of Libya to neighbouring countries is thriving as a result of instability and a growing demand from extremist groups. Groups such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) have benefited from the increased availability of arms, and use the financial rewards from smuggling to fund their activities (Lacher, 2012b).
  • Cross-border terrorism: Instability in Libya has allowed extremist groups to use the country as a launch pad for attacks on neighbouring countries. This has contributed to tense and sometimes problematic relations between Libya and its neighbours (Zoubir, 2012).

It is important to understand the historical context of competition and conflict with the Maghreb, and Muammar Qaddafi’s attempts to extend his influence over the Sahel and sub-Saharan Africa. These dynamics determined Libya’s relationships with its neighbours during Qaddafi’s reign and shed some light on the differing responses of neighbouring countries to the 2011 Libyan conflict. Specifically:

  • Egypt, Tunisia and Sudan supported the revolution to various extents for their own national, geopolitical and historical reasons (Lacher, 2012a).
  • Algeria, Chad and Niger’s supported Qaddafi to various extents and their relations with the National Transitional Council (NTC) were initially tense.

In part, the reactions of Libya’s neighbours to conflict in Libya has led to new alliances and tensions, and continuing instability in Libya has produced new obstacles to regional cooperation (Lacher, 2012b). There is a suggestion that Libya’s new government will turn towards the Arab world and Europe at the expense of the Sahel and sub-Saharan Africa. This is because it is preoccupied with internal issues, but also because Qaddafi’s African policies were deeply unpopular amongst the Libyan population (ICG, 2011; Lacher, 2012a).

Despite ongoing tensions, Libya and its neighbours have made attempts to engage in cross-border security cooperation. Several bilateral agreements on border security have been signed with neighbouring countries, and a number of regional initiatives to improve coordination on border security issues have been discussed. However, a number of challenges exist, that may hamper the ability of Libya to play an effective regional role:

  • Without a functioning security sector, the Libyan government will find it difficult to influence developments on its border areas, in lieu of any agreements with neighbouring countries (McGregor, 2013a).
  • Libya lacks the institutional structures to support the implementation of regional security cooperation agreements (EC, 2012).
  • Libya’s likely political realignment away from sub-Saharan Africa means that its ability to influence developments in its borders with Sahelian countries will diminish (Lacher, 2012a).

Regional and domestic challenges have compelled Libya and its neighbours to cooperate in the economic and security spheres in order to preserve their own national interests. However, the literature does not provide explicit evidence for the extent to which neighbouring countries, or powerful actors within those countries, have interests in a stable or unstable Libya.

Suggested citation

Bakrania, S. (2014). Libya: Border security and regional cooperation (GSDRC Rapid Literature Review). Birmingham, UK: GSDRC, University of Birmingham.