The United Nations confronts a daunting challenge in Libya. Not since it gained independence in 1956 has Libya ever experienced democratic governance or a unified national identity. Preparations are now underway to hold elections within six months of the cessation of violent conflict that overthrew a regime entrenched for four decades. In addition, the transitional government is faced with numerous urgent priorities that include restoring public order, disarming and demobilizing fighters and consolidating democratic governance. It is also incumbent on the National Transitional Council (NTC) to establish mechanisms to redress the grievances of Libyans which prompted the revolt against the regime of Mu`ammar Qadhafi.[1]

Members of the international community have also voiced concerns about the security of Libya and its impact on regional and international peace and stability. It is believed that the sizable arsenal Qadhafi accumulated since the 1970s includes up to 20,000 shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles or man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS), the type of weapon reportedly used in a 2002 attempt by al-Qa`ida to shoot down a commercial airplane over Mombasa.[2] It is the circulation of such weapons, and their potential acquisition by militant and terrorist groups, that underscores concerns about terrorism in Libya today.[3]

Acting to address these potential terrorist threats, the United Nations Security Council adopted resolution 2017 in October 2011. This articulates concerns “that the proliferation of all arms and related materiel of all types, in particular, man-portable surface-to-air missiles, in the region could fuel terrorist activities, including those of Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).” It calls upon the Libyan authorities to take all necessary steps to prevent the proliferation of such weapons, ensure their proper custody and uphold Libya’s obligations under international arms control protocols. The resolution is innovative for its preventive approach to terrorism, calling for an integrated threat analysis and response options in anticipation of, rather than response to, a crisis. Moreover, it links conflict prevention, state-building and terrorism prevention efforts—practices that are normally insulated from each other at the United Nations by high bureaucratic silos and political sensitivities. This comprehensive approach is further reflected in resolution 2022 (adopted in December 2011), which draws on resolutions 2009 and 2017, among others, to define the role of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL).

Drawing on interviews with diplomats, UN officials, experts and a review of existing literature, this article briefly examines the terrorist threat in Libya before detailing the UN’s response, articulated through the Security Council, highlighting the contribution of UN resolutions 2017 and 2022 to an integrated and strategic multilateral approach to the prevention of terrorism and conflict in Libya. The article suggests that where there is sufficient political will, the United Nations can be adaptive, proactive and responsive in addressing complex security challenges.

Examining the Challenge
Prospects for armed violence, criminality and terrorism have increased in Libya and among its North African neighbors with the potential for groups such as AQIM to acquire small arms and light weapons, as well as stocks of highly accurate, heat seeking MANPADS—particularly third-generation models more capable of deflecting countermeasures than older iterations. There are also concerns about the foothold that hardline Islamists could gain should the transitional government prove unable to consolidate its political authority. These have been underscored by the prominence of figures such as Abdel Hakim Belhaj, a former commander of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG)—still listed as a terrorist organization affiliated with al-Qa`ida by the United Nations—who is now the head of the Tripoli Military Council.[4]

Although the LIFG spent approximately 20 years trying to overthrow the Qadhafi regime and establish an Islamic state, Belhaj and Noman Benotman, a senior ex-commander in the LIFG and now a senior analyst at a British counterextremism think-tank, have been at pains to point out that the group always had nationalist goals and did not subscribe to al-Qa`ida ideology of global jihad.[5] Moreover, following a much-publicized deradicalization effort spearheaded by Saif al-Islam Qadhafi, the LIFG renounced violence and dismantled the organization. As Omar Ashour, an expert on Islamist groups in the region, noted, “the experiences of the LIFG leaders in armed conflicts in Afghanistan, Libya, and Algeria have forced them to mature politically, recalculate strategically, moderate behaviorally, modify their ideological beliefs, and change the title of the organization to the Islamic Movement for Change.”[6] Concerns remain, however, that younger fighters, fresh from their victory over the ancien regime and experienced in zones of conflict such as Iraq, will be less restrained and pose a challenge to Libya’s new government.[7] Should the NTC prove unable to consolidate political authority, the fragmented leadership and loyalties of diverse militias may lead to a resumption of armed violence.[8]

Beyond Libya, resolution 2017 underlines “the risk of destabilization posed by the dissemination in the Sahel of small arms and light weapons” and reflects widespread concerns about its impact on international peace and security. As a recent UN interagency mission to the Sahel reported, states in the region are already confronting vast developmental challenges that predate the Libyan conflict, compounded by an imminent food crisis in 2012.[9] They have expressed concern that the outpouring of returnees from Libya, including workers and fighters either from the regular Libyan armed forces or mercenaries previously employed by Qadhafi, could further strain national resources, reignite conflicts and upset carefully balanced sociopolitical dynamics, which could exacerbate the terrorist threat.[10] The deteriorating security situation may also impact the ability of international agencies to provide assistance and thereby create space for groups such as AQIM to fill the void by providing social services and increase its recruiting prospects.

Authorities in Mali, for example, have voiced fears that Tuareg fighters who served in Qadhafi’s army may return home to join separatists fighting for an autonomous state in the Azouad region.[11] Although some Tuareg leaders of the newly formed Mouvement National de Liberation de l’Azouad (MNLA) have expressed determination to fight AQIM, there remain concerns that returning fighters will reignite conflict and swell the ranks and capacities of terrorist and militant groups.[12] Some civil society leaders have also expressed concern that the influx of weapons has prompted greater assertiveness on the part of hardline Islamist groups seeking to impose harsh interpretations of Islamic law and, for example, shut down educational facilities or political gatherings where men and women are not segregated.[13]

Neighboring Niger has requested international assistance with intelligence gathering and aerial surveillance to secure its six million square kilometers of desert. Following clashes with suspected al-Qa`ida members and reports that Niger serves as a transit point for armed fighters and weapons en route to Mali, Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou told an audience in Geneva that, “There have been concerns for security because weapons have been circulating in the country and we’re concerned these will fall into the wrong hands.”[14]

There is some difference of opinion among officials regarding the extent of the threat posed by MANPADS to the region and the international community beyond. Despite the concerns reflected in resolution 2017, the United Nations has not yet found evidence of MANPADS having been moved into neighboring states.[15] That does not mean, however, that they have not been stored by armed groups or secretly acquired by legitimate or illicit armed forces in the region. Nonetheless, the dissolution of Qadhafi’s government has left the country awash with weapons that have contributed to increased levels of criminal violence.[16] The threat posed by older weapons is likely to be neutralized by poor storage conditions and maintenance requirements; the most likely threat is therefore from newer weapons, although they require some training and expertise to be utilized.[17]

Weak governmental authority over large swathes of land, porous borders and the presence of transnational organized criminal groups and drug traffickers are contributing to enabling conditions for such groups to gain a stronger foothold in the region. While some experts remain divided about the intensity of the terrorist threat in the Sahel,[18]  the potential interaction of AQIM with criminal outfits and radical Islamist groups such as Boko Haram or al-Shabab in neighboring Nigeria and Somalia is worrying. These challenges are compounded by the absence of a regional mechanism to address these security concerns. To that end, the United Nations, perhaps in partnership with the African Union and relevant sub-regional organizations, as well as the newly formed Global Counter-Terrorism Forum, might provide a platform for joint responses.

The Security Council’s Approach to Terrorism
To date, the Security Council has been largely reactive in addressing terrorism. Following the events of 9/11, it adopted resolution 1373 which imposed on all member states, under Chapter VII of the UN Charter (which implies the threat of armed force in the event of noncompliance), obligations to counter terrorist financing and criminalize the willful provision of funds for terrorist acts; to deny safe haven or support to terrorists and to bring perpetrators and supporters of terrorist acts to justice.[19] Moreover, the council adapted resolution 1267 to impose sanctions on al-Qa`ida as well as the Taliban and subsequently also adopted resolution 1540 to prevent terrorist use of weapons of mass destruction.[20] Together, these constitute the three primary mechanisms through which the council has addressed global terrorism.

The expert bodies that support the council in implementing these resolutions—the Counterterrorism Executive Directorate (CTED), the 1267/1989 Monitoring Team and the 1540 Committee’s Expert Group—are also members of the Counterterrorism Implementation Task Force (CTITF), an interagency body mandated to support implementation of the UN’s Global Counterterrorism Strategy. Adopted by consensus in the 193-member General Assembly, the strategy is notable for highlighting the importance of addressing “conditions conducive to the spread of terrorism” (including prolonged and unresolved conflicts) and promoting and protecting human rights alongside more traditional “hard security” law enforcement and legislative measures to address terrorism.[21]

The Prevention Perspective
The notion of terrorism prevention has gained currency among states in part due to a greater focus on conflict prevention in the multilateral community. Historically, UN member states have proved resistant to preventive interventions; however, a recognition of the immense human and material costs of conflict, the transnational nature of contemporary security threats and a softening of views on sovereignty in some regions have made such an approach more politically palatable.

Emerging norms like the “responsibility to protect” (R2P) have benefited from this trend.[22] In recent years, the UN’s resources for prevention have been reinforced, for example, by the creation of a Mediation Support Unit in the Department of Political Affairs that has also been allocated additional posts and resources to boost its analytical capacities, as well as the appointment of special advisers to the secretary general on the Prevention of Genocide and the Responsibility to Protect.[23] Another development supporting a preventive approach is the institution of “horizon scanning” sessions which give the council an opportunity to hear about imminent crises that may appear on its agenda.

Reflective of this trend favoring conflict prevention at the United Nations, and in particular “systemic prevention” which seeks to address threats that transcend political borders, is the increased interest in a more preventive approach to terrorism.[24] This has been reflected by the council’s willingness to expand the more traditionally narrow definition of “threats to international peace and security” and consider drug trafficking, transnational organized crime and terrorism as global security threats. Furthermore, the council has requested these be considered in multilateral conflict prevention strategies, conflict analysis, integrated missions’ assessment and planning and asked the secretary general to “consider including in his reports, as appropriate, analysis on the role played by these threats in situations on its agenda.”[25]

Building on this broader perspective, at a high level Security Council debate on counterterrorism, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton argued that addressing terrorism requires not only a multifaceted effort to counter the financing of terrorism, strengthened legal and judicial institutions, and improved intelligence capacities, but also a strong preventive approach that addresses sociopolitical conditions that make people vulnerable to exploitation by terrorists.[26]

Notwithstanding such rhetoric, there has been little institutional investment, comparable to conflict prevention efforts, in terrorism prevention at the United Nations. Few resources are devoted to the kind of threat assessment called for by the council, and as authors James Cockayne and Camino Kavanagh noted, there is little routine inclusion of transnational threats in current mandates. As a result, resourcing for these activities is “paltry.”[27] The cross-regional and multi-dimensional aspect of such security challenges makes it difficult for a highly compartmentalized bureaucracy to respond with agility, and consequently, as one senior UN official observed, “transnational threats are orphans in the UN system.”[28]

This is in part because despite the uptick of interest in prevention, there has been little progress in translating policy interest into practice. There is a lack of clarity among member states regarding what exactly “terrorism prevention” entails; whether its objectives center on preventing further attacks by known groups or the emergence of new terrorist actors. Additionally, states remain divided on whether the council should focus on structural or operational prevention and have voiced concerns that expanding UN missions’ mandates to include terrorism risks overextending their capacities, especially given the unlikelihood of additional resources in this troubled economic climate.[29]

Some states have suggested that among the tools available to the council to operationalize terrorism prevention is the mandate of special political missions overseen by the council, where such issues may be reflected. States, however, also remain divided on whether the council—or indeed the United Nations—is the most appropriate forum for this.[30]

Libya: Translating Policy to Practice?
There is a great deal of potential for overlap between efforts to prevent conflict and efforts to prevent terrorism. In both cases, practitioners speak of the need for development, conflict resolution mechanisms, the promotion and protection of human rights and strengthened institutions of governance to address conditions conducive to the outbreak of violence. In a globalized world, the confluence of local grievances, weak or fragile states and transnational threats create a combustible mix that might generate armed conflict, terrorism or both. Yet the two areas of practice are often insulated from each other by high bureaucratic silos and political sensitivities, and the two sets of practitioners have few opportunities to develop joint responses or strategies.

Given this background, resolution 2017, an initiative of the Russian Federation and adopted unanimously by the council, is particularly innovative for taking a preventive approach to terrorism and linking the need to prevent terrorism with conflict prevention and statebuilding efforts in Libya.[31] Resolution 2017 calls for a multidisciplinary assessment of the threats and challenges, in particular, “related to terrorism, posed by the proliferation of all arms and, related materiel of all types in particular, man-portable surface-to-air missiles, from Libya, in the region, and to submit a report to the council on proposals to counter this threat.” It nominates a “think-tank”[32] of relevant UN and multilateral entities, including the Panel of Experts of the Libya Sanctions Committee, the Security Council’s Counterterrorism Executive Directorate (CTED) and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), to pool their expertise to “assess the threats and challenges, in particular, related to terrorism,  posed by the proliferation of all arms, and in particular, man-portable surface-to-air missiles, from Libya, in the region,” and asks the Libya Sanctions Committee[33] to submit a report to the council with proposals to counter this threat.[34] Resolution 2022, adopted in December, firmly integrates these efforts into UNSMIL’s mandate.

While macro questions regarding prevention are being debated, resolution 2017 provides a pragmatic model for action and positions the UN to take a proactive, rather than reactive, approach to terrorism. Moreover, the resolution makes creative use of existing UN resources by bringing together entities that do not usually work together to develop a joint analysis and response strategy. It also draws CTED out of the narrower role of monitoring implementation of resolution 1373, and into a political advisory capacity for the council. As one diplomat described it, drafters considered the expertise required to study the threat and rather than develop a new mechanism to do so, or rely on standard bureaucratic templates, suggested this grouping of the most relevant entities.[35]

In Libya, the United Nations can build on lessons learned from the deployment of peace operations and special political missions in a variety of postconflict scenarios. For example, the UN Mission in Nepal (UNMIN) was also called upon to support nascent democratic processes, help a transitional government consolidate political authority and assist efforts to disarm, demobilize and reintegrate fighters, many from the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), still listed as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist under Executive Order 13224.[36] Ian Martin, who also led UNMIN from 2006-2009, will be able to draw on these experiences in his post as the head of UNSMIL.

By attempting to tailor the UN’s   response more closely to the threat on the ground and bringing together UN and other entities on the basis of relevance rather than traditional bureaucratic practice, resolutions 2017 and 2022 demonstrate that where political will exists, states can develop a multilateral response that is rapid, adaptable and creative. It provides an example that may be applied to future crises which call for a preventive approach to armed violence and terrorism. Although Libya is in many ways a unique case and such an international intervention is unlikely to be repeated in the near future, conflicts in the 21st century are likely to defy neat compartmentalization and require integrated approaches, and the international community needs to be ready to adapt and respond with all the tools it has at its disposal.

Naureen Chowdhury Fink is a Senior Analyst at the Center on Global Counterterrorism Cooperation. The views expressed in this paper represent those of the author and not necessarily CGCC. The author would like to thank those diplomats, experts, UN officials and colleagues who provided invaluable inputs and feedback for this article. All errors and omissions are the responsibility of the author alone.

[1] “Libya: UN and Government Sign Status of Mission Agreement,” UN News Centre, January 10, 2012. The urgency associated with these tasks contributed to the absence of a mention of terrorism or related violence in the original resolution outlining UNSMIL’s mandate (UN document S/Res/2009). Personal interview, representative of UN Security Council member state, New York, December 2011.

[2] “On the Trail of Libya’s Missing Missiles,” BBC, November 18, 2011.

[3] Karen Leigh, “North Africa’s Sahel: The Next Terrorism Hotspot?” Time Magazine, September 12, 2011.

[4] The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group continues to be listed by the UN’s Al-Qaeda Sanctions List.  The Security Council has reportedly received a request from the Libyan authorities to have the LIFG de-listed. Personal interview, representative of UN Security Council permanent member state, New York, January 2012.

[5] Mahan Abedin, “From Mujahid to Activist: An Interview with a Libyan Veteran of the Afghan Jihad,” Spotlight on Terror 3:2 (2005). While Belhaj has argued for the inclusion of Islamists in a pluralist democratic government representing the new Libya, he has also acknowledged that “the February 17th revolution is the Libyan people’s revolution and no one can claim it, neither secularists nor Islamists. The Libyan people have different views, and all those views have to be involved and respected.” See Abdel Hakim Belhaj, “The Revolution Belongs to All Libyans Secular or Not,” Guardian, September 27, 2011; “In Libya, Former Enemy is Recast in Role of Ally,” New York Times, September 1, 2011.

[6] Omar Ashour, “Ex-Jihadists in the New Libya,” Foreign Policy, August 29, 2011.

[7] A report by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point suggested that Libya provided the second highest number of fighters in Iraq. See Joseph Felter and Brian Fishman, Al-Qaida’s Foreign Fighters in Iraq: A First Look at the Sinjar Records (West Point, NY: Combating Terrorism Center, 2008) .

[8] This has already been seen, for example, in conflicts between the Zintan and Misrata militias. See  Christopher Stephen, “The Lesson of Bani Walid,” Foreign Policy, January 28, 2012.

[9] Personal interviews, senior UN counterterrorism officials, New York, January 2012. Also see “Report of the Assessment Mission on the Impact of the Libyan Crisis on the Sahel Region,” United Nations, January 17, 2012.

[10] Some estimates suggest that as many as 400,000 returnees have left Libya since the conflict, including as many as 10,000-40,000 fighters. Personal interview, UN counterterrorism official, January 2012.

[11] “Ex-Gaddafi Tuareg Fighters Boost Mali Rebels,” BBC, October 17, 2011; “Return of Tuareg Fighters from Libya Worries Mali Authorities,” France 24, November 11, 2011; “Touareg Unrest Looms in the Sahel,” Magharebia, November 9, 2011.

[12] See, for example, the statement by Hama Ag Sid Ahmid to Mauritania’s Sahara Media on December 19, 2011. Also see “Touaregs Back Fight Against al-Qaeda,” Magharebia, December 30, 2011. Reports also, however, indicate a resumption of fighting between the Malian government and Tuareg in the north in January 2012.  See, for example, “Tuareg Rebels Launch Fresh Attacks in the North,”, January 26, 2012.

[13] Personal interview, UN counterterrorism official, New York, January 2012.

[14] “Niger Asks Help Fighting Terrorism after Libya Conflict,” Reuters, September 19, 2011.

[15] Personal interview, senior UN counterterrorism official, New York, December 2011.

[16] Personal interview, UN counterterrorism official, New York, January 2012.

[17] Personal interview, senior UN counterterrorism official, New York, December 2011.

[18] Personal interview, UN counterterrorism officials, New York, December 2011 and January 2012. For critics of a heavy counterterrorism approach to the region, see Jacques Roussellier, “Terrorism in North Africa and the Sahel: Al-Qaida’s Franchise or Freelance,” Middle East Institute, August 201; “Islamist Terrorism in the Sahel: Fact or Fiction?” International Crisis Group, March 31, 2005.

[19] As one UN counterterrorism official noted, however, resolution 1373 does have a preventive aspect in seeking to avoid future attacks such as those perpetrated on September 11, 2001. Personal interview, UN counterterrorism official, January 2012.

[20] On June 17, 2011, the Security Council decided to split the al-Qa`ida and Taliban sanctions regime through resolutions 1989 and 1988 respectively. Resolution 1989 (2011) stipulates that the sanctions list maintained by the Security Council Committee established pursuant to resolution 1267 (1999) will henceforth be known as the “Al-Qaida Sanctions List” and include only names of those individuals, groups, undertakings and entities associated with Al-Qaida. For more details, see

[21] “The United Nations Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy,” United Nations, September 20, 2006.

[22] Christoph Mikulaschek and Paul Romita, “Conflict Prevention: Toward More Effective Multilateral Strategies,” International Peace Institute, December 2011. The “responsibility to protect” or “R2P” is an emerging norm which stipulates that “1) the State carries the primary responsibility for the protection of populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing; 2) the international community has a responsibility to assist States in fulfilling this responsibility; and 3) the international community should use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means to protect populations from these crimes. If a State fails to protect its populations or is in fact the perpetrator of crimes, the international community must be prepared to take stronger measures, including the collective use of force through the UN Security Council.”

[23] “Preventive Diplomacy: Delivering Results,” Report of the UN Secretary General, United Nations, August 26, 2011.

[24] Paul Romita, The UN Security Council and Conflict Prevention: A Primer (New York: International Peace Institute, 2011).

[25] “Statement by the President of the Security Council,” United Nations, February 24, 2010.

[26] “Statement by the President of the Security Council,” United Nations, September 27, 2010.

[27] James Cockayne and Camino Kavanagh, “Flying Blind? Political Mission Responses to Transnational Threats,” in Review of Political Missions (New York: Center on International Cooperation, 2011).

[28] These details are based on closed door roundtable discussions with representatives of Security Council member states, New York, October 2011.

[29] Structural prevention addresses the underlying causes of conflict, while operational prevention refers to the tools available to address more proximate causes of conflict, or the instruments available to the United Nations to take tactical preventive measures. For more on the various types of prevention, see Romita, The UN Security Council and Conflict Prevention: A Primer.

[30] These details are based on closed door roundtable discussions with representatives of Security Council member states, New York, October 2011.

[31] Paragraph 2 of UNSC resolution 2022 reads “…decides that the mandate of UNSMIL shall in addition include, in coordination and consultation with the transitional Government of Libya, assisting and supporting Libyan national efforts to address the threats of proliferation of all arms and related materiel of all types, in particular man-portable surface-to-air missiles, taking into account, among other things, the report referred to in paragraph 5 of resolution 2017 (2011).”

[32] Personal interview, representative of UN Security Council permanent member state, New York, January 2012.

[33] Formally known as the “committee established pursuant to resolution 1970 (2011) concerning Libya,” and informally as the “Libya Sanctions Committee.” It was established on February 26, 2011, to oversee relevant sanctions measures and oversee tasks set out by the Security Council. Its mandate was expanded by resolution 1973. In monitoring the implementation of relevant sanctions, the Committee is assisted by a Panel of Experts.

[34] “Resolution 2017 (2011),” United Nations, October 31, 2011.

[35] Personal interview, representative of UN Security Council permanent member state, New York, January 2012.

[36] The mandate of the UN Mission in Nepal was set out in Security Council resolution 1704, adopted in 2007 (UN Document S/Res/1704). For clarification on the status of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), see “The Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) Exclusion from Foreign Terrorist Organization List,” U.S. Department of State, August 30, 2011.

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