Who Controls Libya’s Airports Controls Libya
The battle for control over critical infrastructure shows who might win the civil war.
On April 4, the Libyan military strongman Khalifa Haftar and his self-styled Libyan National Army launched an assault on the country’s capital, Tripoli. The move was the culmination of several years in which they had gradually acquired Libyan territory. Several days later, when Haftar’s warplanes carried out airstrikes on Mitiga, the Libyan capital’s last functioning airport, United Nations envoy Ghassan Salame warned of “a serious violation of humanitarian law.”
Haftar’s militias also briefly took control of Tripoli International Airport, the capital’s main airport, located about 15 miles south of the city. Although the airport has been closed to civilian air travel since 2014, when it was damaged by fighting between rival militias, Haftar’s forces wanted to use it as a staging ground for further advances on Tripoli. But they never got the chance: Militias loyal to Libya’s internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) recaptured the facility just two days later.
This is not the first time that Libya’s airports have been the epicenter of the country’s civil war. Since the 2011 ouster of the dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi, airports—as well as other critical infrastructure, including oil terminals, weapons depots, military barracks, bridges, and major roads—have become vital strategic assets for the many militias vying for Libya’s vast natural resources and, ultimately, control of the country.
The history of Tripoli International Airport is tightly bound up with the civil war. On the eve of the 2011 uprising, Turkish contractors were hard at work building gleaming new terminals there—work that has never been completed. In August 2011, a group of militias, including brigades from the western mountain town of Zintan and the central coastal city of Misrata, liberated Tripoli from Qaddafi’s forces. The powerful Zintani militia took control of the airport and subsequently profited handsomely from the customs and smuggling revenues it provided. Anyone who flew through Tripoli in the early post-Qaddafi years would be welcomed by Toyota pickup trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns. The militiamen who ran the airport wore state insignias to create the illusion of legitimacy, but nobody doubted who was really in control.
In July 2014, fighting erupted in Tripoli between the Zintanis and militias from Misrata. The value of the airport quickly became apparent: The Zintanis set it ablaze rather than allow it to fall into the hands of rival militias. The Misrata militias nonetheless took control of the smoking remains of the airport by August 2014, forcing the Zintanis to withdraw.
In turn, a smaller airport, Mitiga International Airport, located five miles east of Tripoli, became the capital’s de facto international airport, though foreign carriers almost never used it. On the eve of the latest fighting, the facility served only three Libyan airlines, with around 10 flights daily, mostly to Tunisia or Turkey, along with a handful of other destinations in the Middle East and Africa.
Over Libya’s nearly century-long history, who controls Mitiga controls the country. In the early 1920s, Italy built an airfield there. During World War II, Mitiga became a German air base, only to be captured by the British in 1943 and then transferred to the U.S. military. The Americans renamed it Wheelus Air Base, and for about 25 years, U.S. personnel and their families lived and worked there. Over time, the U.S. military presence became a despised symbol of the West’s exploitation of Libya’s oil resources.
When a young Libyan army officer named Muammar al-Qaddafi carried out a coup against the ruling monarchy in 1969, one of his first acts was to expel the Americans from Wheelus. Qaddafi renamed the facility Okba Ben Nafi Air Base, and for some time Libyan and Soviet air forces operated from there. In 1995, the airport became Tripoli’s second civilian airport and was given its current name, Mitiga.
During the 2011 revolution, Mitiga fell under the control of a Salafi militia led by a young commander named Abd al-Rauf Kara. Kara and his fighters were given political cover and salaries by Libya’s fragile transitional authorities. The payments were part of a broader attempt to empower militias as security providers in post-Qaddafi Tripoli. Kara’s militia, the Nawasi Brigade, was tasked with fighting drug trafficking, smuggling, and terrorism.
Kara, using the airport as his base, took this mandate much further: His militias went on a revenge killing spree after 2011, hunting down Qaddafi security officials and others associated with the former regime. In 2018, the United Nations-recognized GNA, which nominally controls Tripoli and patches of western and southern Libya, subsumed Kara’s militia and others, rebranding them as the Special Deterrence Force—a key part of the national security apparatus. Despite nominally operating under the authority of the Interior Ministry, the force maintains its own command structures and operates with a significant level of autonomy as one of four powerful militias vying for control in Tripoli.
From his base at Mitiga, Kara has also become a low-level warlord. He’s dabbled in Islamist extremism, too, although under the guise of the so-called quietist branch of Salafism, which is ostensibly opposed to violent jihadism. The Special Deterrence Force has been implicated in trafficking and other crimes. Mitiga’s detention facility, which is administered by the militia as perhaps the largest such prison in western Libya, allegedly houses 2,600 men, women, and children, and is the site of arbitrary detentions, torture, denial of medical care, and deaths in custody.
Libya’s airports are tragic symbols of the U.N.-recognized central government’s failures. Each is in the hands of a militia that the GNA cannot control. For example, Benghazi’s Benina International Airport in the east provides a vital international logistics hub and contact point between Haftar’s war machine and its Emirati, French, Russian, and Saudi backers. In Libya’s south, the Libyan National Army’s control of airfields, such as the Tamanhent air base near Sabha, allow Haftar to project power over vast and strategically important parts of Libya and consolidate his control over oil fields in the region.
Although the airports give off the air of modern statehood, they show its opposite: small and brutal militias squabbling over patches of ruined land. They are also a reminder of the international community’s failure in Libya. In 2011, NATO intervened to protect civilians and help the rebels overthrow Qaddafi, but it did very little afterward to ensure that Libya’s critical infrastructure and weak institutions would be protected during a fragile transition period.
Nor was there any meaningful, unified push to disarm Libya’s militias. Instead, early in the transition, outside players such as Qatar and the United Arab Emirates picked their favorite militia proxies and supplied them through Libya’s airports—and now they are nearly unstoppable.
Things could get even worse if Haftar’s campaign in Tripoli succeeds and severs the GNA’s links to the outside world. Haftar would be able to use Mitiga to shore up his own supply lines in western Libya, prevent GNA representatives from accessing the international community, and undermine the U.N.’s four-year effort to bolster the GNA’s legitimacy.
The fight over Libya’s airports shows where the country is headed. As long as competing armed groups can use airports to secure arms and assistance from foreign benefactors, Libya’s militias will be able to destabilize weak state institutions. Libya’s airports—along with its other borders—will remain hubs for trafficking, extortion, extrajudicial detentions, and other practices that undermine state capacity and human rights.
Mieczyslaw P. Boduszynski is an assistant professor of politics and international relations at Pomona College and a former diplomat with the U.S. Department of State. Twitter: @MietekB